It’s not easy to sell friendship: On participation and audience engagement

Some months ago LALA asked me to write down my impressions on the League Of Resonance – an ambitious live art project that occurred in Melbourne from December 2010 to April 2011. As I’m a slow writer and pedantic academic, it’s taken me a little time to settle on my response. Currently I’m writing a thesis on participation in art, so I thought it might be useful to discuss the project by relating it back to a concern I have with participatory, site-specific artworks.

Particularly I want to discuss a frustration with the lack of engagement that projects such as League of Resonance receive from audiences beyond the usual throngs of art-goers, a frustration that I know other live and participatory artists share. Despite good intentions to attract participants from the wider public, often the best efforts by artists fail.

It seems that the particular skill set of a participatory artist requires charming, cajoling, arm-twisting and coercing “ordinary” people to get involved in your project, but is this the best way to engage people in your art?

A commission

Live artists Sarah Rodigari, Jess Oliveri and Jason Maling were in residence at the intersection of Elizabeth and Flinders Streets, Melbourne from December 2010 to April 2011. Commissioned by Melbourne City Council, the artists were asked to creatively respond to the area as it was considered to have a “bad vibe”. Or to put it in City Council speak:

“The intention of the project is to appoint artists as an alternative method for Council to engage with the city night experience and explore diverse experiences and views. The artistic outcomes aim to provide a counterpoint to late night culture, and is designed to activate the space with positivity, romance and humour and to create a softer alternative to an area that is quickly gaining a reputation for the inverse.”

Sarah, Jason and Jess’s “softer alternative” manifested in the project the League of Resonance, a series of gentle and playful interventions that aimed to directly and meaningfully engage with the space and the people that move through it. As one League participant describes in her blog, “Jason and Jess explained how the project aimed to take seriously the idea of an area having a ‘bad vibe’ and their desire to investigate all the components of this area’s vibe.” With an upbeat and whimsical sensibility, the League’s website explains how they aimed to uncover “the intangible and barely perceptible” and tune into, collect and combine “the resonance of individuals: their stories, perceptions and rituals”.

One tactic they employed to encourage people to do this was to take them out on dates, a convivial strategy to collect the stories and experiences embedded in the space. Participants were sourced via word of mouth, their website and a one-page publication the League produced and distributed at the intersection, available in three editions, called This Is Townend. Up until March 18th, anyone who had even a passing connection with the intersection were welcome to get friendly with the League. In Edition 2 of This is Townend they wrote:

“If you live, work, or pass through this area please contact us. We would like to meet you, listen to your thoughts and opinions about this place. We’ll take you out for a coffee, lunch or dinner. We’ll go for a walk, and share stories about this area. The League of Resonance is just a good old-fashioned way of trying to make friends in this crazy city.”

My date

In late February, I went on a date with the League. Although I had only the most minor association with the site –  I have caught the number 19 tram home to Brunswick and eaten a hot dog at Walker’s Donuts on occasion – Sarah Rodigari had asked me to come along as her friend and a fellow artist interested in site-specific and participatory practices.

We met one evening outside Flinders Street Station, by two of the city’s last remaining black and white chemical processing photo booths. Smelling like piss and traffic, this site also conveniently faced right on to the intersection of Elizabeth and Flinders Streets. In addition to Sarah, my date companions were Sarah’s video camera-wielding assistant, Emma Williamson, and Melbourne-based video artist, Salote Tawale. Sarah explained that it was the usual habit of the League to have singular encounters, but as Salote, Sarah and myself were already pals, she had seized the opportunity to have a “double date”.

Our date began with a choice: where to eat? Dinner would be paid for by the League, but on the condition that Salote and I limited our eating options to the immediate area surrounding the intersection, leaving us with an unappealing list of fast food outlets. We chose Pepperoni’s because, as Sarah sagely suggested, it was one of the few places where you could also get a beer.

Pepperoni’s is a place where the city’s late night drinkers go to buy slices of greasy pizza before heading home. It’s not a place you usually eat at sober. As Salote and I tucked into our eating “experiences” among some depressive, unhealthy-looking diners – Salote described our meals as something out of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares – Sarah explained the rest of the night’s activities.

Pulling out an impressive display of League of Resonance-branded stationery, we were told that following our dinner we could go for a stroll around the block. During our walk we were asked to tell Sarah any associations or points of interest we may have with the space, and she would note them down on an A5 map of the area.

As mentioned, however, my experience of the area was limited and so my contributions to Sarah’s map were scant. Indeed, Salote too had little to offer beyond tales of late night pizza devouring and running for trams and trains at the intersection. So it was left up to Sarah and Jess (who joined us after our meal) to play the role of tour guides and regale us with tidbits of information they had gleaned from their research and encounters with people at the intersection.

A walk down a stretch of Elizabeth Street revealed to us an overlooked 1950s mural of clinking glasses towering above the 7-Eleven and the smallest shop in Australia – a watch repair stall where customers placed orders via a window that opened onto the street. Down alleyways off Flinders Lane we were offered the chance to go fossicking for kosher bakery treats in Glick’s dumpster bins and shown a line of chewing gum that one of the suited professionals had begun during his smoko breaks. Sarah invited us to add to the line with a piece of gum she had given us after dinner.

Walking back towards our starting point, Sarah shined a dolphin torch to help us spot rats that scurried in the open by Flinders Street Station and pointed out the glamorous Rendezvous Hotel that seemed out of place in a street with rodents and Dreams Gentleman’s Club. Opposite we were shown some underground public toilets that had been concreted over to deter a gay beat that allegedly once existed there.

After a pleasant walk around the block we found ourselves back at the photo booths. Despite contributing very little to Sarah and Jess’s research, Salote and I had still earned ourselves the chance to become members of the League of Resonance. Membership, it was explained, involved receiving our very own League membership card that detailed our personal connection to the intersection on the back. At a later date, we could attend a Swap Meet to meet other League members, collect the whole set of membership cards and exchange stories about the intersection.

Accepting the invitation, Salote and I were both asked to participate in a kind of initiation process. Firstly we listened to Jess sing a song from the Victorian Railway Institute – a men’s club with Masonic overtones who had gathered in halls above Flinders Street Station in the early 1900s – which, I supposed, was an example of a “resonance” they had found at the site. Next, we had our picture taken in the photo booth, to be printed on our membership card. Finally, we were asked to hum a tune into a voice recorder. It was explained that any tune was appropriate, so long as it was associated with what we felt was the resonance of the intersection.

This last request seemed baffling and nebulous, but taking inspiration from a nearby patch of graffiti that depicted a dinosaur with a speech bubble that said “So Lonely,” I obediently hummed the chorus of The Police’s song of the same name and had my photo taken.

It’s not easy to sell friendship

At an intersection that is characterised by a busy tram terminus and train station, a “Barnes Dance” pedestrian crossing, adult bookshops and fast food outlets, the League responded to their City of Melbourne brief by attempting to slow down the impersonal rush of human foot traffic and urging people to look, listen and engage more attentively with their surroundings. They highlighted the overlooked and made conscious our unexamined habits and routines in the area.

However, I couldn’t help feeling my date was an experience that was akin to window shopping. I wasn’t given any genuine or thought-provoking engagement with the “vibe” of the place or the people that move through it, beyond a superficial viewing of points of interest. I imagined Salote and I were like tourists who only had other tourists, Sarah and Jess, to show us around. We all lacked the insight of locals, a personal perspective outside of our experience from people who had a sustained knowledge of the space.

Please don’t get me wrong, I think the project was laudable. It opened up the space for non-object, process-based, site-specific practices to be supported as legitimate public art activities by city councils. I appreciate that it was a brave and exciting experiment that emerged and developed over time. Although there were tensions and uneasy compromises between council desires and artistic control (see Lucas Ihlein’s essay) the City of Melbourne Art and Participation program and the League of Resonance artistic team should be commended for attempting such a project.

As Lucas points out: “The working methods which underlie a project like this are not widely understood. This is hardly surprising – the artists of the League employ a set of processes which are still relatively novel additions to the toolbox of contemporary art.” As socially-engaged and participatory art of this type is arguably new and experimental, it is difficult to find an adequate criteria for measuring its success.

However, I want to begin a discussion about the League’s chosen strategy – making friends and going on dates – by observing a couple of crucial things. Firstly, the League of Resonance was a response to an agenda in the City of Melbourne’s commission, which as Lucas suggests, sought to instrumentalise art as a tool for social change at the intersection. The effect of this was, in part, to predetermine the tone of the project and prevent the League artists from enjoying complete creative autonomy. It’s likely the Council objectives that directed the project “to activate the space with positivity, romance and humour,” also obliged the League to employ a feel-good and ameliorative methodology.

Yet, is it possible that the League’s friendly and participatory model actually had the effect of excluding people? Observing the 70 members the League accrued over three months, it’s worth noting that a large proportion have been sourced from the League artists’ friends, family and interested members of the arts community. Which makes me wonder: what vibes were collected, whose resonance recorded? Is it only those who had the inclination to participate?

Connecting beyond that which we know

From my chats with Sarah, I got the impression that the League of Resonance did not have heaps of success in sourcing dates on the intersection. This might come as a surprise to LALA readers: I mean, who would turn down a free meal and the chance to chin wag with Sarah, Jess and Jason?

Talking to Sarah about the project, she described the experience of trying to involve people on the intersection as a harrowing cold-calling task that was as challenging as a Mormon’s attempt to peddle God to passers-by. In a revealing statement she claimed: “It’s not easy to sell friendship.”

Sarah explained that it was important for the League to involve people who would be meaningfully engaged and invested in the project. Although this makes sense when you require some time commitment to the artistic activities, perhaps this is a big ask in an area that has been singled out for its “bad vibe”? In a space like this there is no sense of pride in the surroundings, no desire for local connectedness. It’s a transitory point between more important destinations with little reason to linger, as is demonstrated by all the fast food that is available. As League Member no. 52, Rakesh, is quoted as saying on the back of his League card, “This is a place where people just get on with their jobs, you don’t really talk to each other here.”

I’d like to suggest then, that perhaps making friends and going on dates may not have been the best strategy to employ? To illuminate my point better I’d like to offer another example of a participatory project that struggled to attract a plurality and diversity of participants. Some years ago, I developed the project, Agents Of Proximity, for the 2008 Next Wave Festival with writer Victoria Stead. A localised, artist-run travel service based in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick, Agents Of Proximity, like League Of Resonance aimed to explore urban space via the stories and experiences of the people who shared it. It was an exploration of the ways in which the rituals and mindsets associated with travel could be applied to the streets we walk down daily and the places that we think we know.

In the months leading up to the 2008 Next Wave Festival, the Agents of Proximity took people from Brunswick on travels within their own neighbourhood. These tours usually involved two participants at a time, where one person took the other to their personal sites of significance in Brunswick. We documented the encounters through a series of postcards and the production of our Brunswick Travel Guide, which we launched during Next Wave.

Our starting point was our curiosity for the area – which we both called home – and a desire to explore it in ways that moved outside the normal social circles and circuits of bars and cafes where we spent our time. We specifically wanted to engage with people and places who were not normally part of our Brunswick experience, and give agency to others to do the same. We tried to attract participants to the project through a number of ways, including beginning with people we already knew and spreading out via word of mouth, posters and flyers. However, at the end of the project Victoria and I both felt we had only marginal success in attracting participants. Victoria reflected on this in an essay that accompanied our Travel Guide:

“It’s uncertain to what extent we succeeded in what we set out to do. In trying to traverse the myriad subjective experiences of this place where we live, the experiment we initiated was an ambitious one, perhaps more so than we realised when we began. After months of tramping through our suburb searching for participants, we have not succeeded in moving as far beyond our own worlds as we had hoped to do. Negotiating points of disconnect, though, is an unavoidable part of navigating the plurality of shared space. Tensions and disjunctures are always present within such spaces, essential even …

One night, many months ago we got talking to two men at the RSL on Sydney Rd. We were putting up fliers on the lamp post near the balcony where they were standing with their beers. They wanted to know what we were doing and we started trying to explain. They were bemused, mildly intrigued, but ultimately had no interest in participating in our “wanky art shit”. They did, however, talk to us at length about their experiences of Brunswick over the span of several decades …

We would have loved to have initiated a tour led by those men, through the Brunswick they knew. But ultimately they had better things to do than indulge us in our artistic meanderings, and we couldn’t really blame them. If nothing else, the fact they didn’t participate is testament to the limitations of our own experience; our own capacity to connect beyond that which we know.”

We wanted to open up possibilities for individual people to re-view and recreate the spaces in which they move. It was a nice idea, but only for people who were interested in doing so – those people who were like-minded and interested in “wanky art shit”. As Victoria observed, the barriers to human connection run deeper than the lack of opportunities to connect: “They are cultural, social, linguistic, emotional, aesthetic. Some of them are imposed; others are created and maintained through choice.”

Documenting disconnect

Perhaps, if the success of projects such as League Of Resonance and Agents of Proximity is to be judged on the participation of an extensive number and range of people, it could be argued that more time, or perhaps by more effective cajoling, would produce a ‘better’ work. Spending extra time in the site talking with the people who live, work and play there, may allow the trust and interest of a diverse range of participants to be gained. It could be argued too, that a project’s design and methodology should be more attuned and relevant to the targeted site.

However, I think the more interesting point here is that as live artists (as well as funding bodies and arts organisations) we shouldn’t assume that an open call-out for participation automatically results in inclusiveness, openness or an equal representation of a site or community. Often these methodologies attract a certain type of person – a like-minded coterie of people who have a common interest in art and social engagement. The selection and creation of a group of participants necessarily involves an inability to connect and inadvertent exclusion. This is as much a part of a participatory work as its moments of surprising engagement.

The concern is that many participatory projects only structure into the work the experience of connecting. They document just those people who were comfortable and eager to participate – and then attempt to claim that these contributions are a sufficient representation of a “vibe” or area. But what does not rate a mention are the points of disconnect – which are, arguably, as (if not more) thought-provoking and unpredictable as the moments of engagement the work attempts to facilitate. Surely it is these dead ends and failed moments of connection that tell you a more complex and interesting story about a place?

The task of involving people in our work is a worthy one. Perhaps we just need to engage people with greater sophistication and thematise these problems in the work – allowing for disconnection, fragmentation, friction and lack of interest to have an impact on the outcome.

Amy Spiers.

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