Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Participatory Art Is Revolutionary

In my last post (But Is It Art?) I wrote about how technology enables more people to make music. And I have done blog posts on fan involvement and audience participation. The reason I think all of this is relevant is that some are touting a wealth of opportunities for musicians today because the Internet allows them more direct access to fans than in the past. But I have been pointing out that this concept is still based on the idea that there are artists and there are fans.

But what about a world where there are only artists, and no fans? If we are going to anticipate the future of the music business, we need to think about this possible scenario. And based on what I have seen in terms of audience participation both at shows and online, artists who provide the most opportunities for engagement seem to do well. I've been taking it a step further to suggest that not only might you want to provide ways for fans to interact with the music and the artists, you may want to provide ways for the audiences to feel creative themselves.

Now I want to go into the subject even deeper because while these ideas have been an on-going discussion within some circles, they haven't filtered out to all who potentially might be affected. There are two different aspects to the topic. One is "everyone is an artist," which involves providing tools to enable creativity. The other is participatory art, which has traditionally involved a high level of social interaction. In this particular blog post, I'll focus more participatory art.

It's not a new concept. People have been talking about it for quite some time, particularly as a counter to the idea that art is to be created by a professional elite.

This paper by G.S. Evans explores the concept in depth and begins with the idea that an artistic elite has not been the norm over the course human evolution.
This alienation from art is a relatively recent phenomenon. As we shall see, the making of art was a central part of people's lives for most of human history--that is, until the relatively recent advent of a capitalist, commodity-based culture in Europe and North America in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. At that time the emphasis in art shifted from participants, who could satisfy their own artistic needs, to specialists, who demanded a paying, non-participating audience to buy their 'products'. Essentially, the art-commodity came to replace participatory-art in most people's lives, and art increasingly became a source of alienation. ...

We live in a society where art is primarily a commodity, something people buy instead of make. Consequently, very few people are actively involved in making art. Because of this general lack of participation, many find it difficult to believe that societies have existed in which literally everybody sang, danced and made their own crafts, all on a daily basis.
Evans extensively covers the history of the arts and how societal and economic conditions transformed them from something everyone did to something mostly done by professionals. There is far too much in the paper to quote, but this is particularly relevant in light of the direct-to-fan discussions dominating music right now.
A radical monopoly [as distinguished from a commercial monopoly] occurs when pre-recorded music as a product comes to replace the making of music in society; in other words, people stop making music themselves and start buying pre-recorded music instead. A further aspect of a radical monopoly is that it becomes an entrenched and structural part of society. People who only listen to music and do not make it for themselves, for example, will normally put on pre- recorded music, no matter what the situation, rather than make their own. This is partially because of conditioned habit, but also because they will no longer be capable of making music among themselves. In addition, the radical monopoly will set up modes of performance that are exclusive to it and will push more personal modes out of style, i.e., make people like or relate to them less and less. "ART ALIENATED: An Essay on the Decline of Participatory-Art."
The idea that "everyone is an artist" has been something of a radical approach during the 20th century. There are political and economic ramifications in giving more people control over their arts experiences. Rather than excluding people for lack of talent/experience/resources, they are included as part of a community. In a paper discussing arts participation among Bay Area immigrant communities, Pia Moriarty explains the dynamics of participatory arts using a church choir model. It has considerable relevance to music because (1) church is THE live music experience for many people and (2) she points out how participatory music strengthens those community bonds. Imagine if secular musicians incorporated some of the same techniques.
Most church choirs are composed of volunteers from the congregation. This is key: the singers are already members and have entry and identity in the larger life-world. Their singing is an expression and deepening of a shared cultural goal, to pray together. To that end they are given a lot of support: physical space, a defined role in the rituals, and perhaps even microphones, songbooks, and instruments. The cultural life of the worshipping community moves forward together, and it carries the singers with it as full members. The line between audience and artistic actors is blurred, overlapping, and permeable; this is typical in participatory arts. The choir practices; it rehearses, but more importantly it engages socially as practicing singers. People learn as they go, but they are already within a living social context....

With our church choir, “audience development” means that we all learn to sing better together. The community that invites us to develop artistically is the same community that provides entry, actively recruiting us as members in a diversified web of reciprocal relationships. ...

Participatory art’s membership approach shortens the distance between “who pays” and “who plays,” and so it can develop past the self-limitations of exclusively patronage or sponsorship models. ...

At a time when non-profit arts organizations are particularly vulnerable to the economy’s protracted woes, the participatory model of “informal,” “folk,” “amateur,” or “unincorporated” artistic production is vibrant and resilient. Participatory arts offer a working alternative for non-profits that will always struggle to survive when they are forced to compete on the terms of a commercial arts model. "Participatory Arts: The Stranger Brings a Gift."
What is bringing participatory art back so prominently now is the connectivity that the Internet facilitates.
The internet with all its manifestations is transforming participatory culture, shifting its orientation from the object to the subject and more recently from subject to data. Ideas are no longer collated in sections or categories but tags. The archive has transformed into a ‘cloud’. Participatory dependent internet art is expanding exponentially. Server-side programming enables a cross-cultural, cross-language, cross-border collaboration where the ‘location’ of the artwork is accessible on demand. The reproducible copy of internet based work is one and the same as the original, albeit perhaps, as only a fragment of the dynamic whole. "Thoughts on Participatory Art," by Yiannis Colakides & Helene Black, NeMe, 6/26/09.
Caterina Fake, co-founder of Flickr and Hunch, says:
Systems such as Wikipedia, Flickr, Delicious, Facebook, Twitter, Hunch and various parts of the open source movement are based around small contributory systems, bodies of work in which there are incremental improvements by multiple contributors, or exposing small actions that would be insignificant in isolation, but are meaningful in the aggregate. These types of software and platforms are specifically designed for conversation and contribution. That is the point. There is no final product such as a book, movie, song or album. "Participatory media and why I love it (and must defend it)," Caterina.net, 1/19/10.
A number of people make the distinction between interactivity and participation. This distinction is also very relevant as musicians hope to engage fans and audiences. Some websites deliver interactivity to fans, but don't include the more creative, more social aspects of participatory art.
At this stage, I also find it important to differentiate between participatory art practices and the much broader term "interaction," wherein the relations established between the members of the audience or between them and the art objects are much more passive and formal (usually directed by certain formal instructions, given by the artists, that are to be followed during the exhibitions).

... I want to reflect particularly on the most recent shift of the artists’ focus: from dealing with objects and installations towards dealing with subjects and enabling their participation in art activities." "Participatory Art," Springerin, 2/2006
The author, Suzana Milevska, goes on to cite the five levels of art participation suggested by Alan Brown.
  • Inventive Arts Participation engages the mind, body and spirit in an act of artistic creation that is unique and idiosyncratic, regardless of skill level.
  • Interpretive Arts Participation is a creative act of self-expression that brings alive and adds value to pre-existing works of art, either individually or collaboratively.
  • Curatorial Arts Participation is the creative act of purposefully selecting, organizing and collecting art to the satisfaction of one’s own artistic sensibility.
  • Observational Arts Participation encompasses arts experiences that you select or consent to, motivated by some expectation of value.
  • Ambient Arts Participation involves experiencing art, consciously or unconsciously, that you did not select. "The Five Modes of Arts Participation," The Artful Manager, 9/14/05.
  • Here's another essay on the subject: Interaction vs Participation.

    In a previous blog post, "Elements of Music Participation," I explored some ways to create music projects which facilitate participation by a wide variety of people with different skill sets. Henry Jenkins, one of the most important voices writing about the future of media and entertainment, gives his definition of participatory culture.
    For the moment, let's define participatory culture as one:
    1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement
    2. With strong support for creating and sharing one's creations with others
    3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices
    4. Where members believe that their contributions matter
    5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).

    Not every member must contribute, but all must believe they are free to contribute when ready and that what they contribute will be appropriately valued. "Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (Part One)," Confessions of an Aca/Fan, 10/20/06.
    Jenkins also goes on to make a distinction between interactivity and participatory culture.
    Interactivity is a property of the technology, while participation is a property of culture. Participatory culture is emerging as the culture absorbs and responds to the explosion of new media technologies that make it possible for average consumers to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content in powerful new ways. A focus on expanding access to new technologies carries us only so far if we do not also foster the skills and cultural knowledge necessary to deploy those tools toward our own ends.
    Another resource on the topic of participatory art can be found here: "Participation & Participatory Platforms." This article mentions the origin of "happenings" which became popular in the 1960s. Flash mobs and Burning Man could be considered descendants of "happenings." Here's a more recent example of a participatory Burning Man-like event.
    A caravan of 19 such trucks were arranged inside a vast indoor garage on the waterfront of a desolate Brooklyn neighborhood. Nothing was for sale, and you needed to bring your own food & beverages.

    The key here is that the event was participatory, meaning you didn’t go simply to passively view art, you were invited to experience it.

    Yet, what made this particular event so fascinating was the many inventive ways each participant completely transformed their truck from something empty and uninspiring into great fun. All I could think was how the next time I see a box truck out on the street, it might be one used here. "Lost Horizon Night Market: Party in a Box Truck," reactions, 1/17/10.
    For all my discussions on participatory art and audience participation, I'm not saying that it is necessarily preferable to take down the walls between artists and fans. There are especially talented individuals who I would like to see have enough financial support in some fashion to be able to devote as much time to their creativity as possible.

    Rather, what I am trying to do is to prepare the music world for what I see happening anyway. The concept of a passive fan, who happily pays money to buy whatever the musician puts out, be that music, performance, art object, or personal interaction, seems to be changing. When fans start getting more attention for themselves by what they are personally doing rather than what they are buying or who they are associating with, they tend to find their own self-expression and creativity preferable to what they can purchase from someone else.

    There can still be a role for the artist in all of this, but it often involves having the artist give up some degree of ownership of the creativity. Here's one artist's take.
    Patricia Reed: I’m also interested in the ways in which such participatory modes of working subvert the branding strategies of institutions by way of clearly identifiable authors and names. ... In participatory practice, it is perhaps the artist who initiates something in the form of an object, idea, interaction, etc., but unleashes it to the influence of the many for further manipulation, engagement, etc. So the artist is the one who “proposes” or instigates certain processes but the authorship is ultimately obscured—it occupies this important space of the “co-,” where a work is partially made with and not by. ...

    Perhaps it’s useful to look at the distinctions in the notion of authorship involved in participatory practice that expands this “artist-as-proposer” we’re discussing. To propose or initiate something is vastly different than to author something. It’s the first step in a process—obviously an important step, but one in a potentially long road. It’s the launching of an idea—and a “hosting” of that idea throughout a process. Crucial, however, to this notion of “hosting” is equally the capacity to “un-host”—for a conventional host assumes situational authority. What I mean by “un-hosting” is not to relinquish authority completely within a group dynamic, but to view the process as a partiality—that is, both being and not being a “host” simultaneously. Throughout the process of un-hosting a certain degree of control (not all) is dispersed and it is precisely that dispersion of “control” that blurs conventional notions of authorship. "What Is a Participatory Practice?" Fillip 8, Fall 2008.
    Game developers and other designers of multimedia think like this because user engagement is their goal.
    For the artist, this means giving up traditional notions of authorial control. “I’m a writer, but I’ve discovered that sometimes writing has to take a backseat to gameplay to ensure people have the most fun,” comments David Varela, who helped create the successful alternate reality game Xi, designed to promote Sony’s PlayStation Home. ...

    “In my work, people spend 30% of the time playing and 70% socialising. We should be facilitating that social experience,” says Lance Weiler. "Participatory Storytelling: A Thousand Authors in Search of a Character," jawbone.tv, 11/11/09.
    Nina Simon makes a particularly good distinction between inviting the public to design a project and designing a project that invites their participation.
    Which of these descriptions exemplifies participatory museum practice?

    1. Museum invites community members to participate in the development and creation of an exhibit. The exhibit opens. It looks like a traditional exhibit.
    2. Museum staff create an exhibit by a traditional internal design process, but the exhibit, once open, invites visitors to contribute their own stories and participation. The exhibit is dynamic and changes somewhat in response to visitors' actions.

    The answer (for me) is both. But the difference between the two examples teases out a problem in differentiating "participatory design" from "design for participation." In the first case, you are making the design process participatory. In the second, you make the product participatory. "Participatory Design Vs. Design for Participation: Exploring the Difference," Museum 2.0, 4/7/09.
    Simon's distinction gets at the heart of what is happening in music among those hoping to engage their fans. Some are letting the fans create the product, while others are letting them participate in something that has already been at least partially developed.

    The reason I have been exploring this to such a degree is that I feel if popular music doesn't at least participate in this conversation, it's going to be outside the wider artist community. Certainly many artists in other fields are talking about ways to generate income for themselves, so I'm not suggesting that music is unique in its discussion of developing careers that involve sales. But I'd like to see more conceptualization about the future of music beyond what is currently being discussed at music conferences and online. The 1,000 True Fans and Tribes models, where the artist is the core surrounded by adoring fans, may not remain the norm. As Evans points out:
    For the most successful of the art-specialists this hero worship has made it possible to sell millions of dollars worth of their art-commodities on name power alone, and gained them large and loyal followings that would do a head-of-state or television evangelist proud.

    ... the prevailing belief is that legitimate art is produced solely by art-specialists and anybody else's efforts are secondary at best. This belief becomes, then, an essentially self-perpetuating definition of art, namely that art is what art-specialists produce.

    The underlying assumption is that this vast number of artistic non-participants will have their artistic needs met, not by actually making art themselves, but rather by consuming the products of the art-specialists. ...

    All of this is the logical result of a commodity culture. If participatory art was a part of our everyday lives, large numbers of people would be actively involved in the making of art. This, however, would severely limit the potential sales of art-commodities and the celebrity status of the specialist. "ART ALIENATED: An Essay on the Decline of Participatory-Art."
    Suzanne Lainson
    @slainson on Twitter

    UPDATE, 3/19/10
    "SXSW: LaDiDa iPhone App Lets Anyone With a Voice Make Music in Seconds"

    Here's a video of Henry Jenkins talking about participatory culture and how most creators do it to share rather than as a way to make money.

    UPDATE 9/10/10

    Here you can find a long discussion about whether or not DJs and mash-up producers are artists.
    Some DJs rebel actively against legal and commercial institutions, while others simply avoid them as a matter of course; in both cases, these factors have helped to break down the artificial distinction between artists and audience. As UK-based musician Matt Wand told me: “I can’t draw the line, I definitely don’t draw the line – he’s artist, she’s audience – I can’t do that at all." "Aram Sinnreich: ‘Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture’ - Book Excerpt," Truthdig, 8/27/10.


    1. Suzanne,

      Another well researched and interesting blog post! Nice to hear your thoughts and those writing on the topic of Interactivity v. participation in music creation by Artists v. Fans.

      The lines between Artist and Fans with blurb even further with new musical instruments that let you express yourself musically through gesture, for example, without (traditional) music training.

      Artists that allow their fans to use their beats (stems) to remix music will find this interactive fan opportunity will take their music to the next level of creativity and increase the Artist artistic and financial success.

      The world of music we know today will be a world of difference tomorrow.

      For the ZOOZbeat Team,


    2. Very thought-provoking post, Suzanne. The view from my admittedly self-interested position is that one important way technology enables participation in the process is by encouraging and enabling creative and highly selective sharing, by which I mean artistic curation. Granted, this is not participation in the actual creation, but it is participation in the application of the creative work, which, in some cases, might be an art better understood than by the creator of the work. For example, a song created as one of many by an artist might really find its wings (either qualitatively or commercially) when paired with a perfectly suited scene in a film or, for that matter, even as part of the soundtrack to an evening spent with friends. It may be stretching things to equate this with your excellent example of the church choir as model of participatory art, but as an "expression and deepening of a shared cultural goal", application when passionately considered creates a harmony of its own.

    3. Yes, curation is a form of participation, too. The idea that there are a variety of ways to engage others was what I wanted to get at here.

      Involving Music Fans at Many Levels

      I don't think the quality of the result is as important as how people feel about being involved at some level.

    4. Greg, I wrote my last response to you on the run and didn't refer back to this. The blog mentions Alan Brown's five levels of arts participation, including this.

      Curatorial Arts Participation is the creative act of purposefully selecting, organizing and collecting art to the satisfaction of one’s own artistic sensibility.

      So, yes, others include curation as a form of participation.

    5. I feel as if I have struck gold. My specific area is theatre, but my larger focus is on the creation of arts organization in small and rural communities. Over the past year, I have come to believe that the most effective way to make these organizations sustainable is to make them participatory. I wrote a blog post about this a while ago called (Netflix + YouTube) / (time = money), and I'd love to have your feedback: http://lessthan100K.wordpress.com/?s=netflix.

    6. I will check it out. I became interested in the psychology of events about 20 years ago when I got into sports marketing. I looked for research in all sorts of areas: sports, leisure, hedonic consumption, experiential marketing, etc. The best material often came from books about theater. They seemed to give the most thought to what engaged audiences.

      So whenever I write or think about music or sports, or any form of entertainment for that matter, I often find the most progressive thought to come from the theater communities.

    7. participatory art will make art mediocre.

      why will it be a good thing for everyone to chip in on the creation of something? and i'm not clear on the so-called barriers that are stopping people from making/doing anything.

      anyone can make a song
      -take a photo
      -make a film
      -make a magazine

      and post it up online for the world to see.

      i love music but have no interest in writing songs.

      i love films but have no desire to create one.

      those that DO have the desire to sing/direct/take pictures do so and the internet and technology makes that more than possible.

      yes, sharing what you make or getting feedback from a community while you make something is a good thing, but i'm missing the point of why anyone should feel guilty about not allowing random hands of the world to touch things work on.

      would Picasso's paintings be anything if he passed out brushes to random people? probably not.

      i'm ok with appreciating/buying/admiring things that i have no desire to make.

      - @dvdherron

    8. I agree that some people are more talented than others. There is still music and art that I find very compelling. And often I want to support those artists because I believe they have a special gift.

      However, musical tools are getting so sophisticated that before long the average person won't have to do much to create something he or she is happy with.

      Auto-tune, rightly or wrongly, opened up music to people who might have trouble carrying a tune.

      Looping allows people to create complex sounds by themselves, without needing other musicians or instruments.

      There will be programs that let average people create "Beatles-like songs."

      Keep in mind that a lot of what people consume in terms of music isn't all that great. It's not like we're only listening to the best music ever written.

      So I expect to see a lot more people making music that is at least equal to what they are listening to currently.

    9. but i'm missing the point of why anyone should feel guilty about not allowing random hands of the world to touch things work on.

      It's not about guilt. It's about engagement. If people have multiple entertainment options to choose from, what will draw them to one musician over another? It could be the opportunity to participate. People like music they can sing along to and to dance to.

      Go to local music shows and often fun wins out over quality.

      The idea that the artist will create and the audience will consume is not happening as much as it did in the past. Now the audience wants to create, too.

    10. when you say participate, do you mean helping create the songs? distribute? remix?

      i guess i'm thinking that you mean helping *create* the songs, etc.

      participating in the *end product* is cool.
      submitting feedback while the art is being created is cool.
      i just don't think fans should be -- or even want to -- help write songs.

      also, you mentioned auto-tune making it easier for people to make songs. true, but one would have to have a good grasp of melody and songwriting to make something even slightly compelling.

      anyone and their step-mother's pet dog can publish a blog, but how many can publish one like yours that people actually care about and flock to? not many.

      - @dvdherron

    11. participating in the *end product* is cool.
      submitting feedback while the art is being created is cool.
      i just don't think fans should be -- or even want to -- help write songs.

      Trying to do a group write of a song would be difficult. But there are experiments where people send in different lines as potential lyrics.

      People are especially trying these crowdsourcing experiments in transmedia storytelling.

      As I mentioned in my original blog, you can have participation in creating the product or participation once the product is completed. I think it is easier to have some level of quality control if you create the product (i.e., music) first and then let the masses participate in modifying it.

      But the point of participatory art isn't really to get the best art. It's to get the most people involved with the process.

      So if fans already can tap into the best music ever recorded, then what do you offer them next? Participatory music is likely to be the next step.

      Think of all the craft stuff that people do. It's not great art, but people like it because they made it themselves.


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