A picnic before the fair…

Audiovisual projects are too often only shared with the audience when they are finished. During interviews, lectures and other presentational channels people get informed about the creation process, but usually only after this process is closed. As a day after the fair it comes with a waste of possibilities while uncovering the process can lead to valuable insights and involvement. Making the creation process public can and will also influence the project itself, generally in a positive way.

To open up the creation of my interactive roadmovie NIVA TO NENETS, I developed a so-called picnic-quiz as a medium for sharing ideas, concerns and other specifics. In this audiovisual project I will drive my beloved Lada Niva from Belgium to the Nenets in the northwest of the Russian Federation, driven by the wish to give this small off-road vehicle to an indigenous reindeer herding family who is struggling with accelerated climate change and their adaption to modernity. Such a gift comes with many side effects, which will be discussed on the road with a changing group of co-drivers. A couple of these paradoxical aspects of bringing help are discussed during three picnic-quizzes, held at Extrapool in Nijmegen, Danish Art Workshops in Copenhagen and the 12th Participatory Design Conference in Roskilde.  The format of a quiz was chosen to pose questions to the audience in a ludic way, combined with fancy snacks and colorful picnic blankets to create a dynamic atmosphere. After each quiz-question, the colors of the picnic blankets symbolized the possible answers the participants could choose from. Hence they were stimulated to move around. Every answer came with different snacks in matching colors. Where food in general has the ability to bond, it stimulates sharing and exchange even more when it comes in multiple bite-sized shapes.

NIVA TO NENETS picnic-quiz at Danish Art Workshops, Copenhagen 2012NIVA TO NENETS picnic-quiz at Danish Art Workshops, and at the Participatory Design Conference 2012

All three picnic-quizzes were pleasurable events. The format turned out to be astonishing strong in turning the audience into participants. Even before the first question was dropped, during an introductive talk about the project and its intentions, people were more open and at ease than at regular presentational talks. I am convinced that the sitting on the ground plays a major role in this, as it removes the imaginary fourth wall between speaker and listeners. I am also convinced that the huge amount of preparation work that precedes a picnic-quiz is a major factor in its success. People see, feel and appreciate the caring, making them care too. Especially when people are asked for their responses, opinions and ideas, they should at least get twice as much in return, I believe. This not only underlines the appreciation of their contribution, but also helps in opening up the otherwise so preserved creation process. Holding these picnic-quizzes on the eve of the fair instead of the day after strengthens not only the project but also its bond with the audience. A picnic-quiz can therefore do more than making a project public: it invites people to become part of the project by turning the audience into participants.

The social power of art

The social power of art lies in its possibility to create an expressive space in which the rules and regulations of social reality are reshaped, state both Bourriaud and Rancière (Trienekens & Postma, 2010). Art has the possibility to create a parallel existence, a world similar to the actual world we inhabit but with a slightly different set of parameters and components. Certain aspects of our world can be enlarged or ignored in this representational reality. Hence, experiences relevant to our present day existence are shaped and communicated. Also relation-ships can be made visible or practiced through art. In his widely referred ‘Relational Aesthetics’, Nicolas Bourriaud described the notion of relational arts as a linking element and a principle of dynamic agglutination, “…a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space” (Bourriaud, 2002). With human relations and social context as their point of departure, many contemporary artists handle a varied range of skills, methods and tools to create space or to moderate circumstances for shared activities. These kinds of practices are usually not held in the white cube settings of Art with a distant capital A, wherefore art has built a bridge towards society, away from aristocratic tendencies. Artistic participatory practices can establish connections between people and strengthen or even create communities.

The way participatory artists shape their expressive space can differ as greatly as the artists themselves. These spaces can merge with physical places or can exist in virtual environments only, or do both. In my own art practice I often create online story spaces. In the Braintec project, for example, people were invited to engage in a science fiction story by writing diaries about their virtual experiences as test subjects for a medical research company. (see www.braintec.info) Not only the company’s website, but also a second site with virtual diaries was created as the expressive space of this project. To infiltrate physical reality, this story space was expended with company ballpoints, leaflets, flags and other promotional material used during presentations and exhibitions held at different locations.

Expressive space for De Grote Treinreis, 2005

Another story space was created for the project ‘De Grote Treinreis’ (The Great Train Journey, see online here), where people could make self-portraits in front of a life sized picture of the Trans-Siberian Express in the museum, and write travel logs about their virtual journey online.  In both examples communities of participants originated during the process. Both story spaces were carefully shaped to bring people together and motivate them to keep contributing.

In the two projects I realize during this PhD, NIVA TO NENETS and FOOD RELATED, I again work with expressive spaces. I believe the possibility of self-expression is an important aspect of self-empowernment, in which art and artistry can be very powerful as a condition and a tool.

Cultural probes and the power of creativity

David Gauntlett wrote about the social meaning of creativity in ‘Making is Connecting’. He explained how the Victorian Ruskin and Morris defined creativity “as a part of everyday life, and as a binding force in ‘fellowship’, which today we would call community” (Gauntlett, 2011). This binding force of the creative act itself seems to be just as adhesive as the dynamic agglutination Bourriaud described towards relational art. Gauntlett also connects his enthusiasm for DIY to political philosophies for a future world where all crafts and crafting is shared (Gauntlett, 2011). Although it is absolutely not my intention to ridicule his good intentions I am too skeptical or perhaps too cynical to believe that creativity alone can actually save the world. I believe though, that the glue for stronger connections lies indeed in the act of making things together. Creativity can be just as expressive as language but acts less intellectual. In by-passing intellectuality lies a clue to fellowship, as is also proofed in sports and gaming.

Creativity can encourage subjective and imaginative engagement. In order to evoke emphatic instead of intellectual responses from participants, Bill Gaver, Tony Dunne and Elena Pacenti developed cultural probes, packages of creative tasks to collect fragmentary data just like astronomic or surgical probes do (Gaver, Dunne & Pacenti, 1999). These designers struggled with similar kinds of distance between them and the community they work with as described above, which they hoped to overcome with uncertainty, play, exploration and subjective interpretation. The probes were made to give them a feel for the people they designed for and to prevent them from believing that they could look into these people’s heads (Gaver, Boucher, Pennington & Walker, 2004). The creative tasks, deliberately requesting open-ended or even absurd responses, produced dialectics between the participants and the designers:

“On the one hand, the returns are inescapably the products of people different from us, constantly confronting us with other physical, conceptual, and emotional realities. On the other hand, the returns are layered with influence, ambiguity and indirection, demanding that we see the volunteers through ourselves to make any sense.” (Gaver, Boucher, Pennington & Walker, 2004)

The probes create a bond between the ‘us’ of the designers and the ‘them’ of the people they designed for. Making the probes gave “a deep sense of familiarity and engagement with the people,” explain the designers; “They create relationships with our volunteers that are a little like designing for friends” (Gaver, Boucher, Pennington & Walker, 2004).

During an artist in residence program in Kilpisjärvi in the north of Finland, I made several cultural probes packages for the FOOD RELATED project. Ten explorative tasks asked creatively about emotions, expressions and experiences of Arctic food and food culture. People in the Tromsø area in Norway have worked with them at home and during a workshop. Such creative packages are usually designed for individual use only, and need to be designed differently for collaborate use to stimulate the temporary feeling of togetherness. Yet, using and discussing the probes during a workshop gave me an important insight: attractive and conscientiously prepared elements can drastically enlarge the involvement and enthusiasm of the participants. The time and effort spent on the probes ensured them that I really cared about their experiences and their responses, while the artistry stimulated their own creativity. Whether it are probes, creative questionnaires, expressive tasks, performable actions, ludic happening or any other kind of shared activity to make or do creatively, the quality and care put into the design of these participative practices is directly linked to its appreciation.