This research project has taken me to New York City and Montreal, to empty warehouses and to Dufferin Street to a bust a move in the middle of the afternoon. I’ve been handcuffed to a wheelchair, graffitied a room to the tune of Bach, and sung Alanis Morissette into a woman’s uterine cavity. My body has done as much work in grappling with participatory dramaturgy as my brain.
Jenn and I embarked on this project in the beginning of 2019, cataloguing the growing canon of Canadian participatory experiences while attempting to capture how and why creators are inviting audiences into their work. We are interested in work that would not exist without the audience engaged in play. We are interested in ways that artists invite this participation, to what ends, and the sociopolitical zeitgeist that has blurred the line between the artists intention and the audience’s involvement in meaning-making. So far, we have attended more than 70 works that speak to this practice.
We also went to Banff.
Jenn was invited by Adrienne Wong to present on a panel at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity’s Digital Summit about Interactive Audiences with some regular offenders in this body of work - Milton Lim, Pratim Sengupta and Alex McLean. In this post I’m going to speak to other aspects of the conference but you can read more about Jenn’s presentation here.
The three days we spent in Banff was formative for our thinking. Although the conference was focused on the digital shift and the policies, anxieties, and innovations that artists are experimenting with in this era, we found the summit rife with new perspectives for our work on participatory art.
This summary post deals with two major realizations from the summit. First, we realized we were leaving out aesthetics in the scope of the project and second, the weekend provided us with rigorous fodder as we begin to answer the vital question “So what”?
You’ll notice this blog and this project is about the dramaturgies of participation, the techniques that creators employ to encourage, shape, and challenge an audience into participating in a work for a certain reason. We’ve begun to pair artists’ dramaturgical choices with theorists to name these techniques and clock their outcomes with audiences.
One of the techniques we are exploring is best articulated by Gareth White as “the invitation.” Because audiences are breaking out of a certain kind of traditional reception in fourth-wall bourgeois theatre, artists need to be clear about how, when, and why an audience should participate in a live performance. White talks about different ways to enact this invitation, overtly or covertly, inside or outside the narrative. Some works, like Milton Lim and Patrick Blenkarn’s asses.masses invite their audience to play along by flashing a pixelated PLAYER NEEDED prompt in a video game about donkeys staging a revolution. Some works, like Outside the March’s Tape Escape provides the players with an actual guide-person to nudge the progress along.
We are confidently compiling these dramaturgical techniques that invite participation but during the Interactive Audience panel, Adrienne posed a question that complicated our proposed title. In her introduction, she wondered about the aesthetics of participatory work. Is there one? Does messiness or the raw quality of audience participation carry into what we consider beautiful, meaningful, or powerful in this work? Once artists employ these dramaturgical techniques to invite their audience into the work, what does it look like? Feel like? Taste like? As an artist that makes participatory work, I can’t help but be fixated on the aesthetics, the results of participatory dramaturgy when thinking about the artist’s work in this medium. We ultimately decided that aesthetic concerns are embedded in dramaturgical choices.
Furthermore, how do both the aesthetics and the dramaturgy relate to the zeitgeist in which these artists are making work? In his fascinating talk titled “Sustainability in an Imaginary World,” David Maggs continued to unpack arts and interactivity in the wake of the climate crisis, positing work that invites his audience to “live faithfully in a world that is of our own making.” In this talk, Jenn and I were re-introduced to the concept of the Anthropocene, the geological epoch that scientists argue we have entered as of the early 2000s. Categorized by the geological moment where humans have affected the earth and its systems more than any other factor combined, Maggs categorized the Anthropocene as the “realization that the planet is an artifact a result of human action.” He believes the Anthropocene resists modernity, making it impossible to separate object from who created it.
Our bodies, our actions, our insights and our offers have an immense affect on both the world and each other. Paired with the turn of Web 2.0 and social media, we believe that the dawning of the Anthropocene has paved the way for the interactive turn in art. The awakening that we are all players in the future of the planet. For better or for worse. When the penny dropped about the relationship between our project and the Anthropocene, we found ourselves gazing at the remarkable mountain range that surrounded us at the Banff Centre.
Don’t get us wrong, we know that all theatre is about the feedback loop between art and audience, that even in non-participatory art, the audiences reception and interpretation is an active kind of work that certainly affects the live performance. However, in this participatory turn, in the context of the Anthropocene, many creators employ dramaturgical tools to actively invite the audience into both meaning-making and construction of aesthetics. In this kind of work, audience have an actual and meaningful effect on the stories told, the scenographic construction, and the experience for themselves and others. That interconnected relationship between participant and the work, the agency of a participant to affect change is also a characteristic of the Anthropocene. We have no one to blame for the state of the earth but ourselves and our choices. We are also the only ones who can fix it.