May 09, 2011

Technology and the arts, part 2 — The Lavey-Brown debate

Last week I blogged about the CultureLab symposium held here recently, especially the contentious dialogue about technological “layering” onto live arts experiences. The appeal of those technologies, I wrote, is that they take a potentially isolating arts encounter and socialize it. But at what cost? Over lunch, actress Martha Lavey and researcher Alan Brown hashed it out.

Brown, the influential arts researcher (who founded the CultureLab consortium and informally chaired this gathering), and Lavey, a magnetic stage actress and for the last 16 years artistic director of Steppenwolf Theater, took opposing positions about whether audiences should be allowed to use their mobile devices during performances.

You can watch the debate yourself as soon as the video is posted on CultureLab's Emerging Practice Seminar page. But here’s what stuck for me.

Lavey was happy to endorse technology if it’s used before and after the performance to deepen the connection between artists and audiences, or to let audiences “engage creatively” around the theater-making. But technologies brought to the party by audiences, or layered onto the artistic experience by theater managers? All downside: distracting, distancing, and essentially destructive of the communal experience of live theater, which is at its heart “a space for reflection.” We’re in that space, Lavey argued, to experience something together, to “just react,” and then make sense of what we’ve experienced. So it’s essential to hold our impulses inside us, to feel them and think about them while that process plays out. Tweeting from our seats would short-circuit it.

Lavey was quick to point out that she wasn’t talking about all performing arts experiences, or even all theater. With her characteristic blend of modesty and forcefulness, she noted that the kind of theater Steppenwolf produces uses language to create self-contained worlds and coherent dramatic structures — which means it demands (and assumes) a certain kind of attention. A loud rock spectacle on Broadway requires a different kind of attention, and for Lavey tweeting from those seats might not be a problem.

It’s a fundamental point. There has always been a reciprocal influence between the behavioral norms of audiences and the kind of theater (or music or dance) created for them by artists. We’ve been listening politely long enough for playwrights to have developed a rich tradition of plays that require us to listen politely. Ditto for classical music, which no longer has to compete with dancers’ clomping or aristocratic flirting to make itself heard; pianissimo is now a possibility.

Which is why several people at CultureLab raised the question of whether these uses of technology represent not merely new layers of engagement and social communication over the existing arts, but new kinds of art. If we write plays (and compose music and choreograph dances) with an audience of tweeting, photographing, foursquaring, texting audiences in mind, the art we create will surely differ from the kind we used to create. Of course, some artists in each of those disciplines have already embraced that future. (Lavey, by the way, wasn’t criticizing the use of technologies by theater artists as part of their creative vision; that’s intrinsic to the work rather than distracting from it.) ...

But history may be on Brown’s side. His job in the debate was to remind us that the arts can’t afford to turn their backs on broad social trends; they’re already fighting for relevance. Mobile devices and Twitter are tools that help many people feel engaged and connected with their worlds, and if we don’t let them bring those tools to their arts experiences we may as well be saying, “This is something separate — it isn’t part of your world.”

Noting that much of the rhetoric from arts managers about audiences and technology has a condescending tone (complaints about attention deficit disorder, accusations that young people no longer know how to connect in the real world), Brown suggested that it’s both silly and self-defeating to “treat young people who use technology as if they’re developmentally impaired.”

The stakes are high, he warned. “If we don’t allow them to engage with the arts on their own terms, or partially on their own terms, I’m afraid we’re going to lose a generation for the arts.”

That “partially” left room for common ground with Lavey and many others present — including young people — who spoke passionately about the intentional differences between art and everyday life, differences so valuable that even technophiles are happy to turn off their phones in order to experience the world, themselves, and each other in some new and potent way.

To the pragmatists in the room, the problem was merely logistical: how to let some people tweet to their hearts’ content without distracting those who want to enjoy the performance without mediation or enhancement. The current solutions are pretty obvious: spatial separation (“tweet seats”) or temporal separation (“tweet nights”). And technology itself may offer further solutions.

For my part, being a middle child and big on reconciliation, I suggested that the reflection that Lavey values and the heightened, extended engagement that Brown hopes for may both still be widely desired; maybe it’s just that what reflection and engagement look like is changing. Maybe using mobile devices is how people reflect, how they engage.

The Q&A was coming to an end, and Lavey was forced to make her reply concise: “No,” she told me.

You, of course, can be a little wordier in your comments. Where do you stand — or rather, where would you sit?

Will — May 10, 2011

Count me as one more twenty-something arts-goer who appreciates the intentional difference between some art forms and everyday life. Having what some deride as a "sit down and face forward" relationship with an experience provides me not only a chance to "just react"; it is an aid to the sort of focus and contemplation that I miss when surrounded by multiple, constant streams of information.

This is not to say that I'm completely against the idea of additional interactive layers around my arts experiences. I would love it if every art form had the equivalent of DVD commentaries, and it would be great to discuss in real time with my friends, or even insightful strangers. But never on the first viewing, and never if it interferes with someone else's first viewing.

Scott Walters — May 12, 2011

I suggest that Martha Lavey go back and reread her theatre history. It isn't until very recently that we expected the audience to sit down and shut up in the dark like mushrooms (as Uke Jackson says). For the first 2300+ years, the audience interacted with the stage. And while Steppenwolf may rely on complex language, so did Shakespeare and he dealt with the groundlings every performance. I would also suggest that we can date the increasing lack of popularity of the sit-down-and-shut-up art forms (including classical music) to the elimination of direct, vibrant, and immediate communication between artist and stage. These are performing arts, not libraries.

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