Friday, May 07, 2010

Kisaeng Becomes You: Taking Risks with Audience Participation

Imagine asking audience members to participate in your work. Imagine asking them to do something that isn't supplemental to your process but is instead absolutely necessary to the overall success of your work. Imagine asking perfect strangers to make something, with no prior training or relationship, that will become the most visible part of a project you've been working on for months or years.

Sound scary?

This week, I met New York choreographer Dean Moss and learned about his fascinating contemporary dance piece Kisaeng Becomes You (2009). The piece was developed in collaboration with Yoon Jin Kim, a Korean choreographer based in Seoul, and it uses the centuries-old idea of the kiseang, a geisha-like Korean woman who serves men, as the basis for a radical and provocative program. There are five female dancers, but there are also three audience members pulled up during the show to perform and to become metaphoric kisaeng.

The audience participation was essential, not incidental, to the piece. As New York Times critic Claudio La Rocco put it, "[they] decided to roll the dice every night and gamble the entire show on several dazzling, sophisticated bursts of audience participation... The gamble paid off." Women from the audience were dressed up in costumes. They practiced dances and performed them, slowly. They recited poetry. They were enthusiastically (and somewhat uncomfortably) hugged and praised and videotaped. They pounded down beers. They filmed each other. And at the very end, one stood, alone, facing the audience, waiting for the lights to go down. While it's a bit hard to follow, you can watch some video of the participation here and here, or read one audience member's exhaustive review here to understand more.

Watching video of a performance with Dean narrating, it was immediately apparent how powerful and unusual this audience participation was. The choreographers carefully orchestrated the participation to hover on the line of uncertainty--participants were supported and encouraged, but not always to safe or comfortable ends. Dean noted several elements of how the participation worked:
  • Audience participants were selected in the lobby before the show but were not told what would be asked of them.
  • The first participant, an older woman, was brought up to the stage in a very gentle, friendly way. She was given lots of instruction and support as she was costumed and asked to help present a slow dance. The later two participants, in contrast, were abruptly thrown onstage in a chaotic, party atmosphere and received much less gentle treatment (pressured to chug beers and join a riotous scene). This distinction in tone made the second participation element stand out rather than being lumped in with the first.
  • The dancers frequently touched the participants and cheered for them in various ways. They repeated their actions and instructions over and over. The affirmation was all positive but had a threatening overtone in its screechy energy. Dean noted that the touching was very important and I assume that it provided both comfort and coercion that kept the participants in line.
  • Participants were filmed by each other and by dancers as they performed. The film was shown via live feed during the performance, and photos the dancers took of themselves with the participants were later emailed home to them. These tools were clearly part of the conceptual nature of the piece being about entertainers, but they also introduced another level of risk--that participants would use them and respond to them correctly.
  • Participants were paid for their work onstage. The first participant was handed money (the price of a ticket), but the later two had money literally stuffed into their clothes by the dancers. Dean noted that in the US performances, the participants always tried to give the money back to the dancers, but in Korea that never happened.
In cultural and educational institutions, we always try to make participation as safe and comfortable as possible. What I saw in Kisaeng Becomes You was an exploration of the dangerous, uneasy side of participation. The artistic power of what I saw came from the palpable sense of risk--for the participants, for the dancers, and for the entire audience in the room. Performative risk elicits emotional response. We feel it every time we see someone onstage doing something difficult or painful. And seeing a fellow audience member in that position only enhances that feeling. The person onstage didn't come to the theater ready to put themselves out there in that way, and that creates a powerful, thrilling tension.

I don't have a prescriptive set of ideas on how to apply this in cultural institutions. But I do know that I was excited and moved by what I saw, and by the reminder that not all participation should be safe and explainable. Particularly in highly facilitated situations, there are wonderful opportunities to use "unsafe" participation as a way to push art and audience experience to a whole new level.

10 comments, add yours!:

Krystallia sakellariou said...

Yes, in museums people tend to be more scared to improvise, which really is a shame. When you take chances and leave something to its destiny, it becomes more exciting, and sometimes it gets better like that.

I had an experience like that some years ago. Me and a colleage were in charge of an event at the Gothenburg Art Museum in Sweden. The event was a part of a cultural night in the city with the theme "Hair". So me and my friend had planned to be hairdressers for a night and give the visitors at the museum a new hair cut. This was very badly planned though, because when the day was coming up, we realized we had over estimated our skills of cutting hair...So, a couple of hours before we were supposed to start, we decided to change the plan to adding a mustasch to every visitor(and to ourselves) instead. (Why remove hair, when the event was about hair in teh first place, better to add some don´t you think?) The idea of adding a mustasch was also something which we thought related to our own ideas of how we wanted to change the art museum. When Marcel Duchamp painted a mustasch on Mona-Lisa, it was a way to take down fine art from its piedestal and make it a part of our daily lives. We wanted to do the same to our art museum...

At 7 p.m on the night of the event, the museum was full. By the entrence there was a big crowd waiting who had come to the museum because they had read that they would get a free hair cut...
There was also a journalist and a photographer from the local newspaper who wanted to write about our haircut event. As well as a woman who was getting married the day after and wanted an experimental hair cut...

As you can image, we were in a few minutes of crisis... Go back to our first plan?? Or tell everybody we had changed our mind in the last minute?

We decided to go for the second option. While the journalist was looking at us from a distance, a woman came up to us and asked about the hair-cut. We replied that we could only offer her a mustasch...At first she looked a little disappointed but then she said: "I will go for a mustasch then, actually I always wanted to have one, sometimes I also dress up as a man..."

And after that everything was a success! The visitors asked for mustasches that they felt represented their personality and from there we prepared and glues long beards, small tango style mustasches, curly ones, and even a couple of expressive eyebrows and some chest hair for a guy with none...
It was amazing to see them walk around the museum with their mustasches and it created many funny and interesting encounters.

I am so glad we changed our plan and follow our intuition!I can really recommend to go a little bit crazy sometimes, it gets more fun for both for you and the visitors...

Kelly Brisbois said...

Proof that we, (while I hesitate to generalize) have a yearning to create understanding with one another, with those different than ourselves . . . to create an opportunity to walk in another's shoes.

gih said...

And that's so fun, instead... friends really one of the best part of our lives.

Nina Simon said...

Your story reminded me of one my favorite art projects: Haircuts by Children. Check out their site for more information on how they allow extreme amateurs to deliver haircuts to the public... a great project.

And thanks for sharing the moustaches! I would love to see photos.

Krystallia Sakellariou said...

Hi Nina!
Thanks for the link to the haircuts by children, it looks really interesting! I never liked to go to the hairdresser myself, but maybe it would be more fun to let a child do it then:-)

I wanted to send you the link to the page where we uploaded the moustasches in the first message, but it seems there is no way to link to the page directly. The only way is to go to the museum´s website:

then click "Bildgalleri" to the left, and then click "Mustasch 2007".

MAPP International said...

Nina, Did Dean also tell you of his upcoming project Nameless forest? Again, he is exploring th role of the audience in the creation of the work and taking another huge risk in allowing the process and participation to evolve with their input. To me, one of the more interesting questions (and relevant to a museum community as well) is how do you indicate to an audience that experimentation and participation is allowed and encouraged without directly telling them so. Because, I'd actually disagree with the first comment that people in museums tend to be more scared. People in performance situations often expect to sit in their seats and consume the product as well-- Dean's gift is that he creates situations in which one can step out of that without outright "using" the audience member. More info on the new piece here: and some blog entries about open rehearsals with audience members here:
-Emily at MAPP International Productions (co-producers of Nameless forest)

Nina Simon said...

Wow, Emily! Thanks so much for sharing. I hadn't heard about this.

The question of how people deal with risky situations as visitors in museums vs. audiences in seats is an interesting one. When we were developing Operation Spy at the Spy Museum, one thing I spent a lot of time doing was studying how people can immerse themselves in fourth wall experiences--movies, plays, even theme park rides--and how hard it is to ask them to take an active role in those same stories without being confused, overwhelmed, or losing the magic. It was a really hard line to walk and I think we had mixed results in the end. It's easy to ask people to watch something exciting and risky. It's much harder to ask them to be part of it and keep it from losing its zip.

Wildside Africa Kenya said...

Thanks for the share.
For me,Its so hard to mingle and participate especially with my personality.

tokyo apartments said...

I like the girls in the picture.I'm just amazed.

Dean Moss said...

Hey Nina,
Sorry I came so late to the party!
I had no idea you wrote about my work... and so well. Thank you.
There's something so interesting to me about working intimately with audience members. Trying to create something that unexpectedly reflects and embraces them, for at least a few moments, with the articulated presence of their own lives. I have no idea how one could do that in most museum settings but i'm happy to see that people are interested in exploring it.