Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Essay: Jacob Niedzwiecki on the future of artists and arts organizations, Part I

“Build no more fortresses, build railways.” Part I
by Jacob Niedzwiecki
(reprinted with permission)
Performance photos by Vish Hansa, featuring the cast of Jacqueries, Part 1

I’m a choreographer, director, and coder. In the last seven years, my creative work has reached a live audience of maybe 15,000 people. In the same period, I’ve reached over 150,000 people through works for screen (directing the recent World Ballet Day livestream for the National Ballet of Canada, music videos, and other online videos, and film festivals). So if I want to reach the widest audience possible, I should focus on works for online audiences, right?

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 worth taking a moment here to realize that we don’t even have a word to describe an audience that experiences a work through technical mediation, as opposed to a live audience. Think of the Met livestreaming opera in cinemas: how do we refer to that audience? What about the audience that watches a recording of that stream in the same theatre, a week later? What about the audience that watches clips from the performance on YouTube whenever they want? Technology collapses distance and time, acting as medium and intermediary, amplifying our ability to engage an audience. More and more, those audiences are outside the walls of our venues — so I’m going to call them extramural audiences: extra outside + muros walls.

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.

So I turned it inside out, creating my first full-length performance work: Jacqueries, Part 1. Rather than lock my audience in a decorated building, I set them free in the city, roaming through real locations: back alleys, rooftops, fire escapes, and service corridors. We took all the technology that powers a theatre show — sound/PA, comms & headsets, cueing, video, lighting — and wrapped it up in a custom iPhone app that performers and audience could bring with them in their pockets. We used augmented reality to integrate video with live locations, to allow interactions between live and virtual characters, and to support ways for extramural audiences to experience the work. It took a year and a half for me to assemble financing, workshop the show, and build the app. The resulting show has been a real success: getting great reviews, winning the Risk and Innovation award at the 2014 SummerWorks Performance Festival, and garnering invitations to international festivals like Miami’s FilmGate Interactive. Along with every presentation of the show, we host technical meetups to share our experience and technology with other artists, which has led to several collaborations and joint projects.

We gave our presented artists a way to escape the confines of their venues to reach a larger audience with their work.

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

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