by Jacob Niedzwiecki
(reprinted with permission)
Performance photos by Vish Hansa, featuring the cast of Jacqueries, Part 1
No. Online audiences don’t generally like to pay for things, and there are no arts councils in cyberspace. (Corporate sponsorship sometimes fills in, but it usually follows success rather than enabling it).
I’ve reached ten times more people through online and film works, but earned less than a tenth of the compensation for that work.
These comments about earnings don’t come from a place of greed, but a place of accessibility. When I was twelve, I read Arnold Haskell’s midcentury primer on ballet, which advised that it was unwise to attempt a life as a ballet dancer without wealthy parents or a rich husband. Given my hippie parents and my penchant for bohemian/artist types, I was lucky that in the intervening half-century, dancers had organized and made ballet a viable profession. When it’s impossible to earn a living from creative endeavours, artistic creation becomes an elite pastime. Online creators have struggled with this sustainability question since the dawn of the Internet, and only recently have platforms like Kickstarter and Patreon begun to help.
Today we’re seeing a surge in accessibility and creation, driven by the nosediving costs of production for technologically mediated work (video, recorded music, etc). But every opportunity is also a crisis. Arts organizations large and small face the same dilemma that I do: chase the massive, growing, cheap-to-reach non-live audience that isn’t used to paying, or chase the shrinking, greying, live audience that, through ticket sales or redistributed taxes, will pay for a creative product. Live performance has persisted through human history. It’s not going anywhere, but it survives by finding niches in the wider culture and economy — expecting its manifestations and prominences to persist unchanging is like the puddle who thinks “Wow, this ground has shaped itself perfectly to fit me!”
It’s also worth taking a moment to dissociate ourselves from the hype and buzz that attend new technological means. Art is long, technology is brief. Large companies, small companies, independent artists: we’re all encouraged to “think like startups”, but as anyone familiar with the tech industry knows, the startup world is an artificial economy, a hothouse biome cultivated and ruthlessly culled by venture capitalists. As an artist, I want to reach hearts and minds, not eyeballs. My audience gives me their time and attention, and I give them an experience; the money that changes hands is just how our society converts between those currencies.
Rather than lock my audience in a decorated building, I set them free in the city, roaming through real locations
One of the most affecting experiences I’ve had as an audience member was Punchdrunk’s epic Sleep No More, an immersive, noir, dance version of Macbeth that’s played in New York for several years now. The show has audiences roaming freely within a surreal, extravagantly decorated hotel in which the scenes play out. I adored the free-range audience experience and wanted to explore it as a creator, but the show had a 6-million dollar budget. It was the Hollywood blockbuster of immersive theatre: I had to figure out what the sex, lies, and videotape indie version looked like.
This openness and collegiality is one of the strongest shared values between the theatrical and technological worlds. A major goal of mine is to bring those worlds into fruitful contact, and it’s why Val Calam, Luke Garwood, and I founded F/ (pronounced “eff slash”). One of our favourite F/ initiatives came in 2013, when we saw the range and vision of the dance projects scheduled for Nuit Blanche. We decided to reach out and offer free livestreaming services to every project. The result was our epic Nuit Blanche Moves mobile livestream, which presented Laurence Lemiuex’s Les cheminements de l’influence, Corpus’ Catwalkers, Dancemakers’ Night Shift, and Shannon Litzenberger’s seven-choreographer collaboration Everyday Marvels to over 10,000 online viewers. A highlight of that night was seeing people in the ever-present Nuit Blanche lineups watching our stream on their phones. We gave our presented artists a way to escape the confines of their venues to reach a larger audience with their work.
My career has brought me inside large and small organizations, digital agencies and non-profits, the rawest live performance and the most ambitious tech-mediated works. A side effect of working in multiple disciplines and across organizational boundaries is that I see incredible potential. In subsequent articles I will share notes towards a vision for the future of artists and arts organizations in Toronto.
Read Part II
Read Part III