The Arthropologist

Power to the people: Arts groups let audiences have their say

Power to the people: Arts groups let audiences have their say

News_Nancy_Voting_Filter
David Rafaël Botana, left, and James McGinn in Jonah Bokaer's "Filter." If you liked the lighting, you can thank the audience, they voted for it in a smartphone app called Mass Mobile. Photo by Anna Lee Campbell
News_Nancy_vote_Jane Comfort_Beauty
Choreographer Jane Comfort lets selected audience members judge a Barbie beauty contest smack in the middle of her new work, "Beauty," at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. Photo by © Christopher Duggan
News_Nancy_vote_Spiess_Impressions of home_2009
Jessie Spiess, Milwaukee, Wis., "Impressions of Home," 2009, inkjet print Courtesy of the artist
News_Nancy_vote_Herman_Jump_2007
Gabriela Herman, Brooklyn, N.Y., "Jump," 2007, archival pigment print from the series "Self-Portraits" Courtesy of the artist
News_Nancy_voting_Flip
Laura Gutierrez, from left, Emily Bischoff and Marielle Perrault in "Flip." The audience watched three versions and during intermission voted on which music worked best. Courtesy of FigmentTree.com
News_Nancy_Voting_Filter
News_Nancy_vote_Jane Comfort_Beauty
News_Nancy_vote_Spiess_Impressions of home_2009
News_Nancy_vote_Herman_Jump_2007
News_Nancy_voting_Flip

"The people have the power," screamed Patti Smith in her now iconic song from Dream of Life. It's official. Art lovers don't want to just plop in row "J" like a lump anymore. Selecting our seats, where to eat and whether or not to valet park just doesn't cut it these days. The era of the passive viewer is winding down. First, the audience wanted a party, now they want some authority.

To be specific, they want a vote.

Simon Cowell may have come and gone (to The X Factor), but the American Idol template is everywhere, from Houston Grand Opera's Concert of Arias to Opera Vista's Competition/Festival. Most ballet competitions have audience choice awards, which dancers cherish. It means something to have the audience speak up. The performing arts have gone contest happy. All good for the most part and way better than draining your brain on shame-based reality TV shows.  

 The performing arts have gone contest happy. All good for the most part and way better than draining your brain on shame-based reality TV shows.  

 Let's look at some innovations that go beyond the Idol format. Apparently, it's not just the vote that matters but contact with the people you are voting for, as in the artists. 

There are tons of fundraisers that get folks engaged through a voting process. Gift of Gift of (GOGO) is the love child of a contest and crowd funding. The idea is for new collectors to have a chance to support emerging photographers while sipping a martini. Yes, there's a party. Always a party. Write that part down. It's a crucial step in leaving lumpland. The ticket price of the party gives you three votes. 

GOGO held an open call for entries for photographers to submit work. The vote and party night goes down on August 20 at Spacetaker. The artists come to chat up their work and vie for your votes. The cash haul from the party tickets helps the group purchase the top-voted photographs, which are then gifted to a museum, in this case it's the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. GOGO plans to expand to other museums across the country. 

Earlier this spring, the team from Black Hole, Poison Girl and Antidote threw a $20-a-head SuperNova party where they listened to impassioned pitches from four Montrose non-profits: Tara Kelly from the Mandell Park Association on an idea for a video podcast tour of the park, Lindsay Burleson from BooTown Theater on a bloody puppet show on ice, Maureen McNamara from the Wilson Montessori PTO on a natural play space for Spark Park and Ryan Perry on a mobile astronomy lab.

Even the losers are winners in that they have potentially reached a few new folks. The Spark Park won the pool of $640 but runner-up Emily Hynds of Bootown reports, "It was a blast." Partygoers feasted on soup, beer and bread.

"Ideally, I'd like to see these happen at other places in other areas of the city. I'd love for it to be known as something we do in Houston, that neighborhoods get together and make these kinds of decisions together," says Scott Repass, an owner of Black Hole. "It could have a real impact on how we feel about our city and our neighborhoods."

I like the mix of arts, science and community projects. 

It's not always about getting money, sometimes it's an aesthetic choice. If you liked the lighting in Jonah Bokaer's newest work, Filter, you can thank the audience, they voted for it in a smartphone app called Mass Mobile. When Bokaer arrived at Ferst Center at Geogia Tech he knew he wanted to develop some form of audience interaction. When Stephen Garrett, a graduate student at Georgia Tech Music Technology Program came forward with his idea of creating a special app, Bokaer was thrilled.

Known for his meticulous dances, Bokaer was fully ready to let go of the lighting. Audiences chose between four options and the timing of each choice. Bokaer was amazed at how well it all worked out. Several trial runs and the fact that he worked closely with his lighting designer, Aaron Copp, helped with that outcome.  University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts has plans to help Bokaer develop his next big project this spring.

During Psophonia Dance Company's spring show, "Rip in the Atmosphere," co-founder Sonia Noriega had the audience watch three versions of the same solo, each set to different music. During intermission, the audience voted on which music worked best. During the second half of the show, dancers repeated the piece as a trio with the winning piece of music. "Voting gave me the opportunity to interact with the audience," says Noriega, who spent the intermission urging people to cast their vote. "People really got into it."

BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio, goes a step further in letting audiences curate the bill that opens the September season through a voting process in BalletMet onDemand. I voted for Dominic Walsh and Houston Ballet chief Stanton Welch, who has a long relationship with the innovative Ohio troupe. Mildred's Umbrella also lets the audience sit in the curator's seat this season with their Fresh Ink Reading Series, where the audience votes for which play to produce next season.

Choreographer Jane Comfort takes the voting concept to the deepest place, letting selected audience members judge a Barbie beauty contest smack in the middle of her new work, Beauty, performed by Jane Comfort and Company at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival this week. The judged get to play judge in Comfort's biting examination of the impossible standards of beauty set by mainstream media. I voted for Barbie #4 and she won. I felt, well, powerful. 

I can't wait to see what artists want me to vote on next. While the wisdom of the crowd is still being negotiated, I firmly believe that the future of art is in direct and lively communication. If it comes with some soup and beer, even better. Tired of just sitting there, we want to be a part of the action. 

Imagine a dance/theater concert turning into a beauty contest with members of the audience as judges. Watch a snippet of Jane Comfort and Company in Beauty: