How Necessary is the Performer in Participatory Art Performance?

To refresh your memory…

In assessing the two iterations of Complimentary Currency, 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? 
    • 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? 
  • Pay It Forward Tags: Will people share their compliments with another and will they connect to other complimenters through social media? 
  • 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?


Effect of Performer on Audience Interaction: 

Take a Compliment, Leave a Compliment

How necessary is the performer’s presence and connection to the installation an encouragement or a hindrance to participation?  

Reviewing the before and after pictures from the three FAC performances yielded some interesting implications about the necessity of a performer’s presence in the installation.     

Figures 8 & 9 are from the first Light Rail Play rehearsal installation.  A comparison between each shows that the installation received no interaction.  All original compliments are accounted for and no perceptible rearrangement of them can be discerned.  For this performance, I was present in the room but did not advocate for the piece or refer to it after I set it up.  I initially was surprised that no one interacted with it at this rehearsal because I have noticed that several of the people present at these rehearsals are quite curious.  However, several people came in late and would have only had time to interact with it on their break.  This table was relatively far from the table where most of the actors hang out on their break.  

So the proximity was likely an issue.  Secondly, I believe that the rehearsal space generally affected interaction because we rehearse at Tempe Transit Center and the room that we work in is meticulously kept.  It’s possible that without any explanation some people thought this might be “off-limits” without verbalized permission to interact.  

Figures 10-13 show various stages of the performance on February 11, 2020.  I left the installation up over several hours in the FAC lobby.  I was present at different points of this performance and it was arguably the most effective version of the installation.  A quick ganger at the images shows clear interaction at each stage of this performance.  This is particularly interesting because as a performer I enacted all three levels of engagement strategy to very similar results.  The biggest difference however between this performance and the others I had staged was the continual presence of other people around the installation.  Perhaps this leant some “credibility” or level of permission or positive peer pressure which encouraged participation?  This idea seems to be suggested by a similar finding in Something to Chalk About?  

This performance began with 26 compliments and ended with 36.  It appears that 7 original compliments were contributed by audience-participants.  The interaction seems to grow steadily over the course of six hours and seemed to be vigorous enough to knock down the invitation sign.  

Compliment Sandwich

In “Compliment Sandwich”, what reactions does the paid compliment exchange yield?  Will audience-participants feel obligated to reciprocate?  

In my journal after the performance I noted some specific reactions to the one-on-one paid compliments:

  • Only one person reciprocated my compliment with a compliment of their own to me.  All people to my recollection responded to my personal compliment to them with a “thank you.” 
  • It was interesting to feel the receptivity of each individual to the project.  I only sensed one person being somewhat uncomfortable with the “private” moment between us.  I got the feeling that she felt a need to reciprocate and gave me her piece of bread which held a specific, personal compliment that she wrote at the beginning of the performance.  The personalization was obvious because this compliment included her name.

Generally, the reactions fell into one of three categories: reciprocity, polite acknowledgment, warm gratitude.  While only one person reciprocated, this exchange felt very genuine and at as deep a level as the one, I gave to her.  This exchanged felt to me as if it promoted a deepening, just slightly of mutual admiration between the receiver and myself that we had not had an opportunity to share prior to this performance.  

The polite acknowledgment reactions ranged from a simple, straightforward, genuine “Thank you” to a slightly awkward, somewhat uncomfortable but not overly so “thanks”.  Receivers in this category generally included people in the class that I have known the least or had the fewest chances to interact with.  On both ends of the spectrum, the receiver appeared to intently listen and willingly bought into the experience.  However, the Thank You’s seemed to approach the encounter from a place of “hopeful” curiosity, whereas I felt that the Thanks-ers approached the interactions from an assumption that they were about to receive an inauthentic compliment, perhaps because of our less established relationship.  

The warm gratitude receivers generally consisted of the people I knew the most in class, although one in this group I had not met before this class.  In these instances, the receiver seemed to be more invested in hearing what I had to say.  There was an air of respect for me in the way that we interacted that made for a very connected, authentic exchange, in my opinion.  All of these interactions ended with a hug.

Authenticity of Interaction: 

Will people who engage provide “appropriate” responses”. Will they write genuine compliments or write something negative?  

All of the written compliments that I encountered in “Take a Compliment, Leave a Compliment” appeared “appropriate”.  Only one person wrote a quote instead of a compliment.  I happened to be present during this encounter and this audience member was so enthusiastic to participate and share this quote that even though the prompt was partially ignored I felt that the offering was given in good faith.  

While I was present at the installation I mostly received positive feedback from participants along the lines of “This is cool,” or “Sweet,” or “Thanks”.  However, a classmate passed by and I asked if she would like to take or leave a compliment.  Her initial response was, “No, because it wouldn’t be a genuine compliment.”  I thought this was an interesting observation because the offer centered on the participant being able to choose their own compliment.  However, I reframed her interaction so that I chose a compliment to give to her from the ones present.  She stayed to chat for a minute or two and then turned to walk away and promptly passed that compliment to the first person who walked by.  This interaction fascinated me.  Particularly because of some demographics that I noticed between her response and the others I had received in the FAC installation.  There seemed to be more willingness to engage from the Gen Z crowd and more hesitation from Elder Millenial/Gen Xers.  I did not witness enough of the older group to make any definitive conclusions, but this observation could be interesting to consider for future engagement design.

Compliments that were leftover at the end of this project have been pictured throughout this portfolio and show the range of styles, approaches, and subjects to compliment.

Pay It Forward Tags: 

Will people share their compliments with another and will they connect to other complimenters through social media?

A whopping zero number of people tagged these encounters on social media.  This is not wholly surprising after my experience with Something to Chalk About?  While the invitation to tag I believe was clearer than in the previous project, I sense that this invitation needs more understanding behind it to elicit participation at this level.

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? 

As a performer, I felt pretty disconnected from the performance of “Take a Compliment, Leave a Compliment”.  Even when I was present, it took very little energy or interaction as a performer to provide the audience what they needed to participate.  There was also down time that allowed me to work on other things.  Conversely, Something to Chalk About? left me exhausted because I had to be “on” for 2+ hours during that performance.

I had more invested in the experience of “Compliment Sandwich”.  I felt only a mild sense of “risk” or fear in approaching the one-on-ones.  Having prepared the compliments beforehand I had enough time to really consider each person individually and measure what I thought would be appropriate to share in this circumstance and also meaningful enough to draw out some reaction from each person.  I definitely felt some anxiety prior to the performance and checked to make sure that I had all the materials about 10 times on the day of the performance.

During the performance:

  • I observed myself wanting to mirror or complement the body language and physicality of the people that I was speaking with.  For instance, when I approached Ri I was suddenly aware of how I am (shockingly) taller than her and widened my stance in response intuitively to get closer to her height.  I wonder if this physical mirror/complementing is some sort of innate response to trying to create balance in a relationship that by its very nature in that moment must be unbalanced?  
  • … In reading some people’s body language I sense that physical connection would be welcome and would ask if they would like to hug to close out our experience.

After the performance, I felt uplifted and pleased with the work.  As I rode my bike home I happened to be listening to a podcast interview on Buffering the Vampire Slayer and the interviewee, Marc Blucas, said something that really struck me in relation to this performance.  In response to the hosts of the podcast sharing some information that their listeners have shared that their encounters meeting Blucas have been overwhelmingly positive and genuine, he said:

“I truly got choked up by you saying that, because that’s really all that matters to me.  …I’ve had that happen when someone will grab me and say, ‘hey I just wanted you to know’ and shared a compliment with me.  Something I would have never known. …You just make a point of doing that for people and it will just be a better place” (2020).

Compliments truly cost the giver so little and can often mean so much to the receiver that I find our language surround compliment sharing truly problematic.  We use terms associated with commerce or the exchange of property (“pay”, “take”, “give”, “receive”) and I wonder how that has affected our relationship toward giving and reactions to receiving compliments.  

Considerations for Future Iteration

In learning from this project, there are a few hunches that I have intuited that will shape projects as I move forward.

  1. Location & Audience: Consider what audience may be most likely to participate in the performance and select a location in which these people frequent.  Once chosen, I should then consider the practicalities of the location and design the facilitation or installation of the performance accordingly.
  2. More Transparency in Social Media Integration: I’m going to be retiring this aim for the next project, at least temporarily.  But I believe I have been taking the wrong tack in approaching the integration of Social Media as an engagement strategy.  I think I need to articulate better how I plan on using the social media/audience gaze component and developing a project in which that is the focus as opposed to an additional iteration on the work after the fact.  If the audience knows how the social media aspect affects and contributes to the performance or project it might hopefully get some more traction.  But to truly test that out I think I need to design a project in which that is the focus or main action/engagement strategy.
  3. Invitation and Modeling Participation:  In an effort to be a better “host” as performer, further engagement strategies need to hone in on the clarity and transparency of the invitation and provide the audience-participant a clear understanding of what to do.  The most successful experience I’ve had with this is Sleep No More.  In my next micro project, I want to play with non-verbal, or limited verbal invitation from an obvious performer to a traditional audience member and see if I can find clear invitations for the audience to become a participant in the performance.


In my previous portfolio, I identified three goals that I wanted to guide me in the design of this project to better explore audience engagement:

  • I need to create an intriguing piece of art that captures an audience’s interest
  • I need to choose a site in which groups gather or there is a clear social purpose to the space
  • I need to incorporate clear permission into the invitation to participate

To some degree, I made progress on each of these goals.  Both iterations of Complementary Currency intrigued those who participated and held their attention for the length of time required.  These were purposefully brief encounters designed to focus primarily on the audience-participant and secondarily on the artist/performer.  “Take a Compliment, Leave a Compliment” was most successful when installed in a location that breeds familiarity and entitlement over the space within the audience. In the first performance at a coffee shop, there was almost active ignorance to the performance.  Perhaps customers thought I would try to sell them something or just wanted to enjoy their coffee in peace, but this location clearly did not breed the right sense of community or familiarity that I had imagined it would.  

Regarding the incorporation of clear permission in the invitation, I believe that the installations in the FAC allowed for this because so many of the audience members knew each other and were already in a social frame of mind.  Several of the people who sat with the installation for the first hour or two of the performance on February 11 know me and likely recruited or encouraged people to interact with it,  especially when I was not present.  I observed this happen when I was present but not engaged at least twice.  In observing several interactions it was clear that the written directions posted provided clarity in how to interact.  Overall I spoke very little with the audience, only answering a curious question every now and then.  The most repeated comment I gave laid out the four participation options and usually after that the conversation ended between the participant and me.  

At the end of my last portfolio, I asked, “how much conversation (verbal or non-verbal) between performer and audience is needed to build enough trust between the performer and the audience so as to lead the audience member to transform into audience-participant?”  Complimentary Currency seems to indicate that the amount of conversation needed relies on the clarity of any written or verbal directions as well as the efficacy of any physical invitation.  Furthermore, opportunities for the audience-participant to observe the participation procedure as a model seems to increase the likelihood of participation.