Participatory Music-Making Part 4: Managing Feedback

October 21, 2011

I recently came upon a review at the Village Voice on site-specific choreographer Noémie Lafrance’s latest performance project, The White Box Project. You can read the entire review here, but in short, this is more than a negative review. It is an excellent example of the friction often caused by creative approaches to participatory performance.

Lafrance’s experiment is a great example of  the challenge of managing feedback to gauge the effect of event outcomes.  I think most artists recognize that we cannot innovate without risking failure, but how do we navigate the disappointment that comes with negative feedback? It’s perhaps the most difficult part of being a professional artist; bad reviews often sting as a failure at the personal level, and feelings of intimidation can be overwhelming. It’s so easy to fall into self-doubting paranoia, e.g. “If a world-renowned artist receives push-back against innovation, then how can a student or emerging professional possibly succeed?”

Of course, this issue isn’t really about receiving negative feedback, it’s about what comes out of our processing of that feedback. Each artist is tasked with processing audience information and acting on it, but first we must be crystal-clear on a few things.

Who is our audience?

What were our artistic goals?

How are we measuring success?

Filmmakers like Michael Haneke (who knows if there is anyone out there like him, anyways) have resolutely different goals than many operating in the Hollywood scene. Whether through provocations like Happy Games (1997), reflections on society, power, and corruption in The White Ribbon (2009), or his examinations of contemporary media and voyeurism in Caché (2005), is ouvre of dark films have prompted a generation of filmmakers and film scholars to debate the purpose of cinema. He has been recognized by BAFTA, the Oscars, and at Cannes, yet most of his work remains commercially unviable, unknown even to many cinephiles. I often describe Funny Games, arguably his best work, as a film everyone should see and a one that nobody deserves to experience. But it remains a success, nonetheless, because of Haneke’s attention to his audience and the execution of his artistic ideals, regardless of the risk involved.

Positive Versus Negative Friction 
It’s also worth noting that friction is uncomfortable, but challenged expectations don’t always lead to negative friction. This is because negative feedback doesn’t equate to negative friction. I think about this a lot when I’m working on NEW MUSE‘s programming. Our events aim to tackle the challenge of making contemporary music accessible and fun while still pushing boundaries. As long as we those events generate enough momentum to move forward, I’d say that friction is of positive value.

NEW MUSE recently received a somewhat negative review on our “vaudeville-inspired” show at a Madison night club, Plan B. It was disheartening at first, but as we began to qualify the feedback, new values began to emerge. Why am I making that qualitative judgement? Let’s take a quick look at those three questions:

What were our artistic goals? 
The event was designed around the question, “What would happen if everyone stopped worrying about etiquette for an evening, and invited them to get on the floor and vote with their feet?” Was our event meant to be a vaudeville show? No. Guilty as charged. But then we weren’t intending it to be a strictly-defined variety show.

Who was our audience?
We wanted to embrace the modern dance scene while throwing back to the 20’s and 30’s, when live entertainment reigned and influenced much of contemporary classical music’s most important composers.  Ask just about anyone looking to hit a dance club on Friday or Saturday night in Madison, and Plan B is one of the first places that will be brought up. Our instinct that it might be the ideal location to make live music participatory was correct, because the people who go there were eager to get up and move. Yes, the Weather Duo pushed the limits of comfortability – but if the reaction was overwhelmingly repulsive, we wouldn’t have ended up with head counts at the end of the night upwards of 100. That’s just perfect to get people moving.

The point is, interacting with new music more directly, in a vaudeville-inspired setting or whatever conceptual framework, isn’t comfortable for audiences, at first anyways. And critics are a part of our audience. Their feedback tends to be more present because they often have stronger voices, so it’s important to equalize the feedback we receive and adjust accordingly. It is the artist’s responsibility to give audiences a chance to enjoy the consumption of art. It’s up to those practicing art to make it better.

How are we measuring success?
What does this mean? The proof is ultimately in the pudding. All feedback can be useful, and if it comes out of a sincere and productive effort, and we should all be thankful to receive perspectives that will surely lead to refinements in how we design and implement our artistic events. But we must be sure to weigh the information we get through various feedback instruments, take time equalize the strength of the voices, reflect on outcomes, and then make reasonable adjustments to improve our artistic outputs. If you’re about transforming the audience into agents of the art being created in a given moment, then you should question whether that happened, not just whether someone said it happened. If it didn’t, then it’s time to start adjusting your event for the next go-around.

I don’t think we all need to share one goal, but we should all be willing to experiment with how to make our art more interactive and participatory in a way that makes sense to each of our individual goals. This doesn’t have to mean getting the entire audience on stage for each performance. I’d suggest we all start by defining the questions we want to answer, and strive to make audience participation a flexible and creative tool towards those ends.

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