Clicks Or Mortar? at the Pixel Palace

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by: David Polinchock

I have a degree in theater and, although I haven’t performed in a lot of years, I’m still very curious about how all of these emerging & interactive technologies will impact the role and position of performances. I was a children’s theater person, so a lot of the work I did was called participatory in theater language, but what it meant was that there were elements of the show where we expected the children to help move the story along. 

But as we’ve seen in movie theaters for quite some time, people don’t really know how to be an audience any more. First, you’re sitting there in the theater, minding your own business and someone sits down next to you. You kick off the "elbow waltz, that dance you do to stake out your spot on the arm rest. Then, as you’re trying to watch the movie and the person next to you is on their cell phone talking about their plans for after the movies. Everyone talks through out the movie (and I don’t mean yelling "Don’t open that door" to the people in the movie), they’re talking to one another. They’re watching a movie like they’re in their living room. This isn’t how I was taught be an audience member.

But what happens when the expected level of interactivity moves to other performing environments? Can everything be interactive? Don’t we sometimes just want to go to the theater and see a really great performance without being asked to twitter ideas to the cast? Should there be a vote as to whether or not Lady Macbeth kills herself? Should we vote with the jury of 12 Angry Men? Should we be expected to play musical instruments on our iPhone at the end of The Music Man? Wait, that one may actually be a cool idea! And how does a playwright create content where everything is interactive? Is there a playwright at all? (Wow, I’m pretty old school, looking at that list of shows, eh?)

Now, I’m not suggesting that we can’t create new mediums from the old, where we add interactivity & audience participation to the mix. That can work really well. But when even members of Congress can’t stop Twittering and pay attention to what the President is saying, what are we saying to our future audience goers?  

So, I was really interested in this conference happening this week in the UK and certainly wish I could’ve attended. I think it’s a really fascinating conversation and I love the exploration. Look at some of the questions they’re asking:

  • How important are buildings in the digital world? Do we really need to preserve, extend or build cultural spaces or should we let them fade away as we move online?
  • If we are to have cultural buildings and cultural spaces, who will decide how they are used and what they contain? Do we want to leave this to the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ or is there still a role for curators, programmers and other gatekeepers?
  • Should cultural buildings try to compete with the home cinema/gaming experience? And if so, how – are the pleasures to be gained online essentially individualist, or can we share them?

Those are pretty big questions if you’re job is to run a place like Lincoln Center. But it will also have a real impact on the content that’s created, as we try to figure out the right mix of audience involvement.

And from a brand POV, what’s the opportunity here? We talk a lot about branded content, but it’s almost all limited to the screen – movie or TV. Is there a place for live, branded entertainment in our physical places? Improv Everywhere has done some cool things in public, although I’m not sure they’ve done it as a sponsored event yet. But take a look at the 2 videos below and see what you think. Would you mind if that happened at a place by you, even if it was sponsored by a brand? Sure, we don’t want that every where you go, but it would certainly take the monotony out of a lot of things we do today.

But nothing they’re doing is interactive right now, in the true, interactive sense. Can you improve in a space with everyone there? What’s the process and interface for interacting? And is there a democracy for participating or are some kind of filters used?

I know that there aren’t any answers yet, but I’m sure happy to see that someone has started asking the questions.

Clicks Or Mortar? takes over the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle upon Tyne to explore the potential of digital media in a cultural building. Across three days the Tyneside will present a vast range of work by artists, gamers and filmmakers and on Friday 6 March will host a symposium for cultural creatives, thinkers and planners that will debate the role and challenge the relevance of cultural bricks and mortar buildings in tomorrow’s digitized and networked artistic practice.

Digital technology is already turning some cultural cinemas into spaces that can host an ever widening range of cultural product, from live opera to the National Theatre and an ever expanding diet of participative activity from interactive artists and computer gamers. This digital wave is also crashing over theatres, arts centres, galleries and all other cultural venues, proposing new forms of performance and, most significantly, engaging audiences who may well be turning from passive consumers of culture into active participants in its creation and distribution.

The Pixel Palace