Why Do We Refer to Compliments in Fiscal Terms?

Research Question

My first micro project, Something to Chalk About?, explored the relationship between audience/participant and performer through invitation and participation.  In reflecting on definitions of success within that project, I find myself drawn to the anticipation of the possibility of reciprocal interaction between audience and performer.  It’s that awkward-ish, tense-ish moment of “Do we/don’t we keep talking?”  In Something to Chalk About? I avoided leading any audience-participant into further personal engagement with me as the artist in order to allow them to focus more on the art.  That decision made me question how I envisioned my role within the piece.  My second micro project, Complimentary Currency,  explores more specifically different strategies of audience/performer interaction as well as my ontological perspective as both present “performer” and non-present “artist”.  

Initially, I had planned to complete a different micro-project that I had been journaling about for a couple of weeks.  In discussing that idea with classmates, I sought their opinions on how to approach a dialogue with an audience member that would be able to launch me into prepared performance material about the clothing I would be wearing.  Ri suggested that I begin by complimenting them assuming that that approach would likely yield reciprocity in kind.  That approach made me wonder about the nature of compliments as an approach to audience/performer connection.  While I am a person who has had to learn how to accept a compliment graciously (as opposed to negating or deflecting the compliment), I do sincerely enjoy receiving them.  I also have found that I feel a pleasant altruistic feeling when I give a compliment.  In my work as a teacher, I used to encourage students to write thank you notes to each other during rehearsals and shows.  The spirit of generosity and kindness that flows from these exchanges has made the communities that I’ve installed that practice in much pleasanter places and people to be around.  

After mulling around these ideas, I decided to use Complimentary Currency to explore the reactions to sharing, giving, taking or receiving compliments, and the connection that might evolve from a direct compliment interaction.

 “Sketchbook Notes – The Gift of Cake”

Project Design

In order to design Complimentary Currency I relied on concepts delineated in Lawson’s article “The Gift of Cake” and Richardson et al.’s “The Cabinet of Generosities,” notably the ideas of “the invisible made visible” and the symbolism and value present in an “asymmetrical gift” (Lawson 2018, p. 70).  Compliments, unless written down, are not delivered visually and yet there is a visible element to them – body language, gesture, facial expression, proximity of giver to the receiver, etc.  In my experience, the most meaningful compliments have usually been delivered privately or semi-privately by people who I greatly valued or respected.  In receiving such compliments I often felt a shift in our dynamic.  It’s difficult to put my finger exactly on what that shift is.  It would not be wholly accurate to name it as a power shift and yet in some cases, it does feel like “leveling up”.  Perhaps it would best be described as a shift in the intimacy of the relationship?  In receiving a particularly meaningful compliment, one gains insight into someone else’s opinion of herself and may read this as an invitation to enter an inch deeper into the relationship.  

Looking through the lens of the “asymmetrical gift” brought me to the idea of currency and value.  Particularly in the US American consumer-based society, there is an assumption that when exchanging gifts a gift-giver should spend roughly the equivalent amount as the gift receiver would on him.  Anyone who has participated in an office Secret Santa exchange knows this to be true because usually an approximate dollar range is imposed on the process.  While giving a compliment may cost zero dollars, it is not always an inherently free exchange.  Depending on the context – the relationship and status of giver to receiver, the nature of the compliment, and the place and time of the exchange – the compliment may demand that the giver “pay” in courage, pride, respect, humility, generosity, et cetera.  In designing this experience, I wanted to play with both the idea of a “free” compliment exchange and one that has “cost” (or rather risk) associated with it.  To accomplish this I designed to iterations of Complimentary Currency: “Take a Compliment, Leave a Compliment” and “Compliment Sandwich”.  

I will base “Take a Compliment, Leave a Compliment” on the model of the “Take a Penny, Leave a Penny” exchange one might find in a mom and pop shop.  The basic idea behind this construct is that people who do not wish to keep the pennies when they receive their change after a transaction can “leave a penny” for someone who might need a penny (or two) to make exact change in a future transaction.  This model allows for four possible choices that the audience would need to confront:

  • Choose to take a compliment already written
  • Choose to write a compliment to leave
  • Choose to both take and leave a compliment
  • Choose to not participate

 Originally I want to create a visual presentation that evoked the “Take a Penny, Leave a Penny” pots, but did not have the necessary materials to achieve that. Instead, I used the table or countertop to display the written compliments and placed empty compliment slips in a basket with stickers and pens. Embedded into the installation was a small direction display to help clearly explain how to interact with the installation (Figure 1).  

I began with about thirty pre-made compliments.  These were crowd-sourced through a social media post on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (Figure 3). 

I want to play with the idea of “paying it forward” and create an opportunity for one compliment to be exchanged multiple times.  





Crowd sourced compliments from my Facebook post (Friedgen 2020).

This required the compliments I chose to use to be general enough to apply to a variety of people in different contexts.  This proved somewhat challenging. I found it very interesting that the overwhelming majority of compliments received from friends who work in theatre were very specifically about a performance experience.  The specificity of these made it almost impossible to use compliments like, “That was my life up there,” or “That was the first straight play I watched without falling asleep”. 

After collecting the compliments, I will handwrite each one on a slip of paper that could easily be folded up and fit in a pocket.  I will decorate the slips with decorative washi tape and on the reverse wrote, “Keep this compliment or pay it forward.  Consider tagging OA @kmfriedgen” (Figure 4).  

This written invitation would be an iteration on my experience from Something to Chalk About? to see if people would engage with the installation online.  

I hope that this might create a virtual connection between people who had received the same compliment.  

For the second iteration, “Compliment Sandwich,” I want to explore the concept of risk/cost by paying compliments to the people in my Performance as Research class.  Originally, I thought about how to design an active engagement in which participants would make an actual sandwich (savory or cookie-based) layering in compliments and then giving it to someone else.  However, I struggled to noodle out exactly how to seamlessly facilitate this in ten minutes, especially knowing the dietary restrictions in the room.  The last thing I want is for someone to receive a sandwich they couldn’t eat!  Therefore, I settled on crafting bread slices out of paper.  

This iteration will encompass a 10-minute “performance” in which audience-participants will write down a personally meaningful compliment and then engage with others in the room and possibly exchange their own compliments.  At some point in this “mill about” time, I will have an individual moment with each person to pay them a compliment and gift them the piece of bread I wrote for them.  At the end of the 10 minutes, each person will have two pieces of bread which would together make a compliment sandwich.  The final two minutes will consist of a final exchange and mill about to try and make their sandwich particularly meaningful to each participant (if possible).  Finally, I will ask each participant to “reflect” on the activity through a social media post or direct message to me.  By including this reflection I hope to feed my curiosity around social media as a continued connection and insight into audience gaze on a piece which has been left unsatisfied from Something to Chalk About? 

Assessment Design

In assessing this piece I wanted to focus on a few key aspects of the project:

  • Effect of Performer on Audience Interaction: How necessary is the performer’s presence and connection to the installation an encouragement or a hindrance to participation?  In “Compliment Sandwich”, what reactions does the paid compliment exchange yield?  Will audience-participants feel obligated to reciprocate?  I will record my impressions in my journal as I continue through each performance and interaction using these three variables.  Additionally, I will take before and after pictures of the installation to track audience interaction.
    • Artist absent: the installation will be set up and I will not in view of it or of the audience
    • Artist present, but not engaged: the installation will be set up and I will sit near it but will be “absorbed” in other work and not acknowledge the piece unless an audience member asks.
    • Artist present and receptive: the installation will be set up and I will sit with it inviting people to participate as they passed.
  • Authenticity of Interaction: Will people who engage provide “appropriate” responses”. Will they write genuine compliments or write something negative?  While I will not meet every person who interacts with the installation, I will take before and after pictures to track compliments taken and left. 
  • Pay It Forward Tags: Will people share their compliments with another and will they connect to other complimenters through social media?  I will assess this by calculating any tags on my social media account.
  • Effect on the Artist vs. Performer: How will connecting with an audience (or not) affect me as the performer/creator of this piece?  What feelings will it stir and what actions will those emotions drive? I want to take some time to process the “cost” of designing and performing both theTake a Compliment/Leave a Compliment” and “Compliment Sandwich” iterations.  To assess this I will complete written reflections after the final “performance” of each iteration.  

To continue reading about this project read on!