Working at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom (many years ago) gave me the wonderful opportunity to experience many Disney attractions all by myself. Whenever you would work the opening shift at a ride or show, someone would need to do a test run to ensure that all ride and show elements were working properly. Those were some of my favorite moments in the park.
Now while watching the Country Bear Jamboree show by yourself in an otherwise empty theater is nothing short of creepy, driving a raft alone across an empty Rivers of America to walk Tom Sawyer's Island before anyone else arrives is pure Zen bliss. No creative work exists outside social context, especially theme park attractions. An audience, even of one, changes the experience of a creative work. That creepy Country Bear show became an infectious joy with an enthusiastic crowd enjoying it with me.
But as an audience can help elevate a creative experience, it also can undermine or even destroy it. I'm not just talking about rude visitors or poorly supervised tour groups making life miserable for everyone around them, either. That blissful experience driving across the Rivers of America becomes a form of hell on a raft packed with 90 people that's taking on water, even if everyone on that raft acts like a perfect angel.
A creative work is an act of connection, after all — it connects an artist with an audience. But artists who fail to think well about their audiences are like an archer shooting aimlessly into the wind. Only by dumb luck might they hit the target.
Note that I wrote "audiences," using the plural. Each reading, viewing, installation, or a performance of a work brings a different audience... and a different target. A thoughtful design aimed at one audience experience can fail when presented in a different context. Last week at the annual TEA Summit in Anaheim, teamLab's Takaski Kudo illustrated this challenge in presenting his case study of their Thea Award-winning installation, Borderless.
In developing this projection-based installation, the team had created a system that allowed digitally-projected flowers to "bloom" around visitors in a display room. But the projections were designed to display only in the empty space around visitors and not upon the visitors themselves.
But an early production of the show played to a crowd so large that there was no room for the flowers to bloom. What was designed as an interactive experience where visitors could influence the display by moving about the room became a nondescript mosh pit for a show that wouldn't start. The creative team learned that they need to manage their operations as well as their technology and artistic design.
Kudo then provided another example of how a crowd can degrade an artistic experience, showing a photo of visitors crowding around the "Mona Lisa" in the Louvre. I suppressed a laugh at that moment, for it reminded me of all-time favorite moment of being an ass in public.
We visited the Louvre on Bastille Day in 2012, when admission was free. And, of course, like all visitors, we decided to see the "Mona Lisa." And we encountered the same cluster of visitors in Kudo's photograph — hundreds of people crowding the painting, cell phones (and tablets!) raised, taking pictures and selfies.
So we pushed our way into the crowd to see the da Vinci's work. We pressed forward and forward until, at last, we stood at the front, directly in front of the painting.
And we stood there. We did not take out our phones. We did not raise a camera to take a photo. We just stood there... and looked at it.
This... did not go over well in the crowd. Within seconds, people starting nudging us to get out of the way. I don't know how many languages the people surrounding us spoke, but their message become clear. Take your photo and get out.
By standing there to experience the "Mona Lisa" in person, we both made a statement about appreciating art... and violated the social convention within the room. But before anyone congratulates us for our literal stand on behalf of living in the moment, allow me to defend the crowd.
It's easy to criticize the Mona Lisa crowd for taking photos instead of spending time with this iconic painting, but that's actually the most efficient and courteous thing that the crowd could do in this situation. The "Mona Lisa" is tiny, and there simply are way too many people wanting to see it at any given moment in time for each of them to enjoy even 30 standing directly in front of it. Absent any organized system to admit people to see the "Mona Lisa," the most efficient way to accommodate the mass of people who come to see it is for everyone to do what they are doing — to take a photo, get out, and enjoy your time with the "Mona Lisa" by looking at your own, personal photo later.
By not doing that, we were claiming more than our "fair share" of time with the masterpiece, delaying or denying others their clear shot of the painting.
Of course, having to take a cell phone picture of the "Mona Lisa" in order to connect with it in person is absurd. But absurdity is what can happen when an audience and art fail to connect. I don't know what the operational solution would be that would allow people to spend more time with the "Mona Lisa" than they can now. A defined queue? Reservation times? A moving sidewalk slowing carrying people past the painting? Hiding the painting in a different location within the Louvre every day, forcing people to see more of the museum in order to find it?
(Okay, that last one is just pure operational evil, but the thought of it makes me laugh, so I'm writing it.)
None of those solutions makes the "Mona Lisa" any bigger or creates any more space in front of it. All they can do is to reassign time, making people wait longer in exchange for having more personal time with the work. Maybe everyone would be happier with the current arrangement, taking their photos and getting out quickly. But perhaps some of us would prefer waiting for the chance to consider the work for longer in person.
We are all part of different audiences. We each look to connect with creative works in different ways. Whether you are creating a theme park attraction, a theatrical production, or a museum exhibit, the success or failure of your work may depend upon how well you anticipate and accommodate the needs and preferences of your audience.
The "Mona Lisa" enjoys the centuries of acclaim that affords it an awkward presentation. Modern theme park attractions and museum installations do no enjoy that status. Their operational installation must facilitate a connection between art and audience that allows people the time and perspective they need to understand and appreciate it. Otherwise, creative works have little chance to last long enough to be well remembered... much less to become an iconic classic.Tweet
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