I’ve long admired Improv Everywhere, the NYC-based participatory public art group. They construct wild performances in everyday settings, invite regular people to participate, and document their work well.
I particularly like the MP3 experiments, events at which Improv Everywhere distribute an audio file to people for free as a podcast. Participants gather in a physical venue with their own digital audio players, and everyone hits “play” at the same time. For about half an hour, hundreds of people play together, silently, as directed by disembodied voices inside their headphones. The MP3 experiment is a model for how a typically isolating experience—listening to headphones in public—can become the basis for a powerful interpersonal experience with strangers. In this way, the MP3 experiment is an example of the ways that technological barriers can become benefits by mediating otherwise uncomfortable interactions.
The MP3 experiment is an exercise in following instructions. The voice tells you what to do –stand up, shake hands, play Twister, make silly shapes—and you do it. Over the years, the experiment has grown in popularity (recently, thanks to this NYT article), and the participants have a sense that they will be asked to do something a little unusual in the context of the event. But it’s still impressive how quickly the recording sets a supportive tone in the face of absurdity. And I think there are lessons in the details of the recording for anyone interested in encouraging visitors/users/participants to step outside their comfort zones and try something new.
Listen to the first 5 minutes 30 seconds of the audio file for mp3 experiment 4 (download via this page), held in Manhattan in 2006. Deconstructing just these few initial minutes of the program reveals a lot about what makes this project so successful.
The recording starts with two and a half minutes of music without talking. While this feels long if you are listening at home, in the context of the event it’s a way to get comfortable with the whole idea of the experiment without being asked to do something right away.
Two and a half minutes in, the “omnipotent voice” Steve introduces himself. He explains that you will have to follow his instructions to have “the most pleasant afternoon together.” Steve has a deep, fake “god” voice, which makes him sound both benevolent and like someone you want to please. He’s not your friend, but he likes you. He’s not quite human, but he understands your world. You feel like you are in safe hands.
The first thing Steve asks you to do is to look around the park to see who else is participating—or not. This is an incredibly easy introductory task that doesn’t make you look silly. It bolsters your confidence that others are participating and that they also look like regular folks, not stupid at all. Then he asks you to take a deep breath. Again: easy, non-conspicuous, non-threatening.
Finally, at 3:45, after those two non-physical activities, Steve asks you to stand up. Like a preschool teacher, he asks you three times if you are ready, and then says, “stand up now.” He asks you to wave to others who are standing up. Now you are starting to feel a little foolish and exposed, but also welcomed by the others who are waving to you. It’s a friendly kind of discomfort, and you’ve had enough build-up to feel okay doing what you are told.
At 4:30, Steve starts a “pointing game” in which he asks you to point to the tallest building you can see, then the Statue of Liberty, then Nicaragua. For each of these, he says to point even if you can’t see the place – just point to where you think it is. You don’t have to have the right answer: you just have to try. After giving you a few seconds, Steve always says, “good.” After the Nicaragua question, Steve says, “Most of you are pretty good at geography.” This is hugely generous of Steve. He could easily make fun of the (likely many) people who can’t identify the direction of Nicaragua. Instead, he declares that you are pretty good.
Finally, Steve asks you to point to the ugliest cloud. These silly requests establish complicity between you and him, an understanding that you are special people doing special things. You have moved from making a factual judgment to a subjective one, and again, Steve validates your choice, saying, “I agree. That cloud is pretty ugly.”
The experiment continues, and participants do stranger and stranger things—following people, playing freeze tag, taking pictures of each other, forming a giant dartboard. But it’s all founded on these first few minutes, which create an environment of safe progression, clear instruction, and emotional validation.
I think many of us could construct comparably successful participatory experiences of this type to develop exhibits or audio tours that explicitly support unusual social and interactive behavior. But it’s rare that museum exhibit designers or audio tour developers are willing to explicitly require certain kinds of actions by visitors. It feels too "guided"--even when it opens doors to new kinds of experiences. We want our cake (exciting social interactions) but aren't willing to overly prime visitors. Perhaps one of the obstacles is a lack of an introductory framework to help people feel comfortable engaging in an open and creative manner. How can you provide as friendly and comforting an introduction to strange cultural experiences as Steve does? How can you use specific yet evocative instructions to invite visitors into complicit acts of exploration and art?