Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Artprize: An Extraordinary Social Experience around Art

Want to experience art in a populist, energized, industrial/urban setting? Want to see it in soup kitchens and record stores and bars? Want to talk about it? Want to be surrounded by thousands of people who are doing the same?

Then get yourself to Grand Rapids for Artprize.

Artprize, now in its second year, is a city-wide art festival with a $250,000 top prize to be awarded to the work that receives the most public votes. The artists come from all over (though many are based in the Midwest), and anyone can enter. Works are chosen and hung throughout the city using a unique venue matching system whereby local businesses, galleries, and organizations select the artworks they want to host.

Before I went, Artprize intrigued but did not fascinate me. Now, after attending with museum friends from around the country, I'm hooked. The extraordinary thing about Artprize isn't the voting, the money, or even the huge variety of works shown in a huge variety of venues. It's the social experience. Artprize invited me to talk about art with artists, families, security guards, friends, people old and young, sophisticated and novice, drunk and sober. It was the best experience I've ever had talking and learning about art. Period.

What makes the social experience at Artprize so special? Unlike many other social events in art venues that feature similar crowds and diversity, Artprize stood out in a simple way: people were entirely focused on and engrossed by the work. There was never the sense that the art was a backdrop for a party. Instead, people crowded around works, pointing things out, exclaiming about their preferences, sharing their discoveries. Not all the art was good, but it all spurred conversation.

What People Talked About

The conversations ranged in topic, but we most frequently heard people talk about:

  • Preferences. People readily exclaimed "I like this one!" or "ugh. This is terrible," though their volume was tempered depending on whether the artist was nearby. Unlike most museum experiences, where people quietly absorb the work in a room, people were very comfortable pulling each other to specific pieces and extolling their merits or less inspiring qualities.
  • Process. Some of the most popular pieces were those that featured familiar materials taken to the extreme. A mermaid made of thousands of toothpicks. A giant penny made out of pennies. One popular piece, a huge drawing of a calvary (see image above), spurred people to comically repeat the phrase, "this was done with a number 2 pencil!" again and again. It was as if people were remembering every standardized form they'd ever filled out with a #2 pencil elevated into a creative act. This focus on process also bore out in lots of the conversations I had and overheard with artists. It felt natural and easy for people ask "how did you make this?"
  • Narrative. Other very popular works came with a great story or had a puzzle that had to be "figured out" and could then be explained to others. One of the things I found most delightful and surprising about Artprize was the huge variety of artists' statements about their work. Very few wrote in typical museum or even gallery-speak. Many wrote personally about their reasons for making the work, sharing challenges along the way and evocative stories about their meaning. Some were downright wacky (see image). While the content was highly varied in tone and style, I felt that it taught me more about how artists think about their work than most interpretative materials do.
  • Confusion and tension. It was extremely strange to move from formal gallery settings featuring what appeared to be professional art to venues that showed amateur art in nontraditional settings. While some pieces were clearly bad even to my highly untrained eye, my overwhelming response was confusion about what to think. Do I like this piece because it reminds me of the kinds of things I'm used to seeing in fancy museums? How does my experience of a piece change based on its context? When you see a set of larger than life drawings of Arnold Schwarzenegger in a record store (image), or a mist and projection installation in a loading dock, how do you interpret the experience? For me, the most interesting internal and interpersonal dialogue at Artprize was about these questions, which pushed me to more deeply consider how I make aesthetic judgements and experience art.

Deconstructing the Social Experience

As a designer of participatory experiences, my biggest question about Artprize is what made all these conversations and experiences happen in the first place. Was it the gritty urban setting? The prizes? The extreme variety of works? The crowds of friendly Midwesterners? The free and accessible venues? I'm not exactly sure, but I have a theory. Have your own idea on this? Please add it in the comments.

Interestingly enough, it wasn't the voting that made the conversations happen. I saw very few people voting at the festival, and my friends who tried to vote with their (fancy) cellphones found it to be a frustrating experience at best. Strangely, I heard many people say, "this is in the top 25"--indicating their awareness of the voting and its significance--but I only saw a couple people actually vote. The common knowledge about the voting and the prize, as well as the constantly reinforced point that you COULD vote artworks up and down, may have been more important than the voting itself. I personally never felt the impulse to vote. I was too enamored of the social experience to care about expressing preferences in a technological, non-conversational way.

My idea about what makes the social experience of Artprize tick is based on Jyri Engestrom's theory of how objects are used in a social network. He argued that specific, discrete objects--not generalized topics or experiences--invite the most powerful shared experiences among people online (see chapter 4 of The Participatory Museum for a museum-focused version of this theory). This bore out at Artprize. Even in venues that featured many pieces of art, people tended to cluster and talk about specific ones. In some venues that offered maps of their hosted works, I saw visitors checking off works on their maps as they saw them--a kind of collecting behavior I never see in museums. There was a sense that there are X pieces in this venue or on this street, and I want to see them all or most or the ones that are important for some reason.

This means that people were NOT doing what usually happens in art museums for many folks: taking in whole galleries at a time, immersing themselves in art generally instead of in specific works. There was no "show" or overriding theme of each venue or gallery, no sameness of technique or content. Because the Artprize pieces were so varied and were not curated by the venues with any kind of consistent approach to aesthetic or art historical significance, there was a strong sense that it was ok to express preferences and make relative distinctions among the work. It was up to you to make your own meaning from the experience, piece by piece, venue by venue.

That led to people having specific conversations about specific artworks. This experience was greatly reinforced by the presence of artists, who naturally were there to talk about THEIR work, not the art hanging alongside it. Volunteers, venue staff, and security guards also cheerfully offered up their own preferences and interpretations. There was no guided tour of the whole thing. There were individual pieces. Some were extraordinary. Some were provocative. Some were laughable. Each was a social object that brought together specific subsets of people, drawn to it for specific reasons that they often shared. It was the best example I've seen of a physical environment operating like the kind of successful social platforms Engestrom described in 2005.

I strongly believe that other institutions could foster this kind of social engagement if they can find ways to help people focus on specific works or exhibits as discrete objects. It's not "my day at the museum," but my day to find the things that are most special to me. Highly subjective tours, single object presentations, and more presentation of work by artists (or scientists, or historians) in the galleries can help facilitate this kind of social experience. Of course, you also have to help people feel that they have permission to be social--that, as at Artprize, this is a time for expressing yourself, being loud, pointing at things, sharing what's important to you.

Finally, on a personal note, Artprize highlighted the way that expressing personal preference can help novices start to understand and enjoy art. I have an Australian friend who once said, "the problem with Americans is you all think you have the right to your own opinion." Artprize glorifies this right, and in the case of aesthetic preference, liberates it from the self-doubt that often makes us walk through art galleries with our mouths shut. Artprize focuses peoples' attention not on the authoritative view of art but on their own perspectives. And for someone like me, someone whose vocabulary and confidence related to art is woefully lacking, it was an incredible learning experience that personalized art, immersed me in its pleasures and frustrations, and made me want to learn more.

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