The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences
My brain is still buzzing from two days of presentations, conversation, and debate at the second annual Culturelab convening at the University of Chicago. Day One was an invitational affair with a small group of philanthropic and government funders from the US, UK, and Australia. On Day Two we were joined by Chicago-area arts leaders (and some terrific grad students who will become arts leaders) for an "emerging practice" seminar. The heart of the agenda was a debate about technological layering onto arts experiences: enrichment or distraction?
I had assumed the conceptual action would be on Day One, with its big-picture agenda built around the recent supply and demand fracas in the arts (I spoke on the demand side of the equation). The topics for Day Two — technology in the morning, pricing in the afternoon — promised a more tactical discussion.
But things got interesting well before the lunchtime debate between Alan Brown, the well-known arts researcher (and founder of the Culturelab consortium), and Martha Lavey, the much-admired artistic director of Steppenwolf Theater, about whether audiences should be able to use their mobile devices during performances. Ron Evans (at left) gave a witty and eye-opening talk [pdf] about mobile interactivity and augmented reality, including a card-game app from the Tate Modern in which visitors (you have to be at the museum to play) pick artworks that they think would win in a fight if the works came to life and started brawling with each other.
You could hear the uneasy chuckles in the room: Sounds clever, but is that how we want people engaging with Art?
Evans was followed by another bright young light in the world of social tech: Devon Smith, who talked about foursquare and its current and potential uses in the arts. Among her examples: an art-treasure hunt and exhibition held last year in New York called Mission: Edition, from an art gallery interested in what it calls “psychogeography.” Not surprisingly, the Brooklyn Museum is also on Smith’s foursquare A-list.
What I began to realize, listening to Evans, Smith and others talk about technologies as simple as supertitles and as sophisticated as this amazing dance interactive, is that what’s “augmented” about these arts experiences is the social connection. There’s someone talking to you. Or you’re talking to someone. You’re not alone. ...
I know, this is not a brilliant realization. They’re called “social media” for a reason. But somehow it struck me that all these technologies — including that primitive technology known as the printed program — are ways of re-socializing the arts experience.
For the last few centuries (since Kant, if we have to pick on somebody) the dominant tradition in aesthetics has focused on the encounter of one perceiving-and-judging subject (that’s you) with one work of art or performance (that’s Merce Cunningham’s chiseled dancers). And that’s still how most arts experiences are set up: they bring us together as an audience in order to isolate us as beholders, in the belief that connecting with the art(ist) is possible only to the extent that we’re not connecting with each other.
Nowadays, though, that sounds like a lonely business. We want others in the experience with us. We don’t want to have to cut ourselves off in order to have those encounters with art. That doesn’t make us boors, and it doesn’t mean we’re not paying attention. It just means that we are, as columnist David Brooks reminds us in his new book, social animals.
And back in the day, weren’t arts experiences plenty social? Another Culturelab member, the facilities planner Duncan Webb, gave a terrific presentation in the afternoon on the evolution of performing arts spaces [pdf]. Citing the invaluable work of Lynne Conner on the history of audience behavior, he showed woodcuts and paintings of theaters from past centuries in which there’s more going on in the audience than polite sitting and watching. (Think of the groundlings at Shakespeare’s Globe.)
Most advocates of technology in the arts talk about it as an engagement tool, a way of enriching and extending that traditional connection between audience and art. Maybe that’s missing the point. Maybe we should think of it as a humanization tool: a way of enriching and extending the experience by connecting audience members to one or more of their fellow humans — artist, curator, director, musician, critic, sure, but also (and just as legitimately) their fellow beholders, friends who may not be present, social networks…
Which brings us to the lunch debate about “tweet seats” and other uses of mobile devices in theaters and concert halls. I’ll recap it in my next post, if my notes are up to the job. Meanwhile, please help socialize this blog by commenting below. Whether you were at Culturelab or not, what do you think about technology’s place in the arts experience?
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