Projectraisetheroof's Blog

Research Focus: participation? (expect corporate-backed ritual burnings in 2010)

Narrowing the Focus: More on Participation

A little over a week has passed since the raisetheroof festival, and I’m sat in the station. I’m eavesdropping on a small group of middle-aged friends drinking coffee and discussing the size of their flatscreen TVs. I’m trying not to feel contempt. These are not bad people. They might not even be superficial people. But there’s something about the way that people rattle on about stuff, that makes me want to smash something. Completely hypocritical of course. I like old stuff. My 1950’s style dressing table purchased from the Retro Boutique is quite literally the light of my life. Having said this, the adoration I have for my dresser is confined to furtive and admiring looks across the bedroom – I try to refrain from banging on about it.

Forgetting the wide-screen flat-screen telly-visual conversation, I’m gradually piecing together the context and hypothesis for my research. Moments of eureka combined with moments of muddled fear – but I think some kind of synthesis is emerging.

As I reread my latest notes and ideas, it is clear that there are two themes that I keep coming back to. I have spent some time worrying myself about these two themes. Which one should I choose? They are both fascinating. They are both important. They are interconnected.

One of the themes, as can be guessed from my inaugural blog, is participation.  This preoccupation can also be described in lots of different ways. Another way I like to describe it is audience evolution.  Of course this is all highly influenced by the ‘unofficial fieldwork’ conducted at Burning Man – the event that calls all attendees ‘participants’ and invites them to perform their own experience in multitudinous ways. I cannot help but connect this clarion call to participate to the musings of ‘media futurist’ Gerd Leonhard who brings to light the participative revolution of the internet – through blogs, customer ratings, networks – we’re closing the gap between the traditional role of the consumer (as passive) and the producer (as active). This seems to parallel the way that the distinction between performers and non-performers dissolved at Burning man – though there were plenty of DJs and bands – none of it was listed. Though there were some headline-material acts, none of it was publicized as such. This removed the tendency to see musical performances as the principal entertainment, and removed the tendency to situate oneself as no more than a spectator to that performance.  I wonder what would happen to artists, whom increasingly rely more on fees from live events as record sales plummet, should this ethos be adopted elsewhere and the packaged identity of bands and DJs was no longer the number one motivating factor for attending an event.

Is there a relationship between the participative use of the internet and the forms of audience participation cropping up within the events industry? Richard Florida‘s bestselling work on ‘creative cities’ describes a dissolution of traditional barriers between work/leisure in Western culture and an increasing demand for a lifestyle “built around creative experiences” whilst Nicola MacLeod has noted the growing ‘spectacular’ nature of events that compete globally. Simple observation confirms this, and I see a more participative audience emerging – BM was an extreme case, granted – but the ethos seems to be cropping up elsewhere (not to mention practices directly inspired by BM ritualised burnings in particular – see articles about David Byrne outdone by the burning at Big Chill, recently taken over by >Festival Republic – expect corporate-backed ritual burnings in 2010!).

So what are these ‘participatory practices’? Of course, you could argue that all aspects of event experience are participatory – listening, watching, dancing, even drinking and eating. In fact, the famous sociologist Pierre Bourdieu observes that all aesthetic appreciation is a form of participation – so what we are talking about is different degrees of participation. Whether or not increasing degrees of participation is a ‘leveling force’ upon the traditional distance between the performer on stage and the audience on the ground, is becoming a crucial question.

Well, trivial as it sounds, costumery and flair is the clearest sign that people are indeed taking on more performative roles. This seems to be becoming more and more frequent as festivals increasingly choose dressing up themes and audiences rise to the challenge. The media, instead of focussing simply on the rock stars and backstage happenings, seem to be increasingly interested in the flamboyancy of the audience (if you are getting frustrated with all the ‘seems’ its because this is all hypothetical – I havent gone out and measured these things but I have a strong suspicions this is the case). A video that promotes the upcoming UK festival awards focussed principally on the premeditated and carefully executed festival-goer constumes. Other practices that demand more of the audience’s creativity include: interactive art installations – those giant montages you can paint on, silly games, workshops, discussions, interactive performance.

Working with the most-awesome Big Love Inflatable Church last summer made me realize the result of a performative context that allows people to reconnect themselves with their own entertainment.  The church is the perfect example. The Inflatable Church’s principal entertainment invited the audience to parody characters: the faux bride, the groom, the bridesmaids and the congregation all become the performance through an enactment which was all the more hilarious and memorable as a result.  (But it’s worth pointing out that, fascinatingly, comic weddings as well as comic sermons used to be a common feature of carnival entertainment centuries ago – see Peter Burke’s Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe).

Admittedly, higher degrees of participation hardly takes place on a mass level. Most events demand little more than very basic and passive forms of participation.  But the cases where high levels of participation is, if not encouraged, then made space for – and the influence that participatory events have over other others – is developing as a research focus.

Some questions about participation that keep recurring, often worded differently, but always connected to the same theme:

  • How is participation connected to the evolution of the audience?
  • Is participation an aspect of of audience evolution?
  • Can audiences evolve?
  • Why do audiences evolve?
  • Does the influence of the more participatory events over others demonstrate a wider human need for creative participation?

References for the books/articles I have cited in this blog are below:

Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class (Basic Books, 2002), p 13

Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: a Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Havard University Press, 1984)

Peter Burke, ‘The World of Carnival’ in Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), pp. 178-199

Nicola MacLeod, ‘The Placeless Festival: Identity and Place in the Postmodern Festival’ in Festivals, Tourism and Social Change: Remaking Worlds, ed. David Picard and Mike Robinson (Channel View Publications, 2006) pp. 222 – 237.


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