Ideas the Percolate: Conclusions and reflection on Something to Chalk About

Something to Chalk About? provided some initial insights into the question, “If invited, to what extent will an audience engage with a participatory arts event?”  While I did not count the number of passersby who could have engaged in a variety of levels with the piece, there clearly was more willingness to view the performance than to participate or inquire about it.

Overall 354 people engaged as audience members – actively looking at the piece – in Something to Chalk About?  The first 75 minutes of the performance boasted 317 audience members, whereas the last third of performance only had 37 people engaged as audience.  I noticed a perceivable shift in attention span after the class change.  People seemed more introspective, focused on their destinations, their phones, and their internal thoughts rather than on their surroundings.  I cannot tell conclusively if the wane in engagement at this point in the performance was due to the new invitation strategy or a post-lunch energy lull.

The difference in responses between the two invitation strategies proved interesting.  During the first two-thirds of the performance, 26 people participated in contributing artistically to the performance, whereas only 10 people accepted the invitation to participate out of 45 invitations.  It is difficult to compare these two methods solely from this project as there are many variables at work.  However, from my perspective, I noted that while more people contributed when the chalk was placed around the performance space, I still had to give “permission” to some before they would participate.  The second strategy seemed to imply a relationship between me as the performer-host and the potential audience-participant.  There was more intimacy and risk, in my opinion, in the simple act of offering and accepting or rejecting the invitation.  Even those who acknowledged, but refused the invitation related to me in a way that was humanizing.  One apologized for not having enough time to participate, another simply said, “No, thank you,” while others shook their head, but smiled.  I always responded to any audience member, audience-participant, or audience-inquirer with a positive statement: “No worries!”, “Thank you!”, “Have a great day!”   

Figure 9. Analysis of different engagement roles between Part 1 (first 75 minutes) and (Part 2 (last 45 minutes) of performance.

In analyzing the data that I collected and comparing it with my observations throughout the performance I surmise the following:

  • Participation is only possible when the audience member exhibits genuine interest or intrigue in the art
  • Probability of participation increases in groups in which at least one member shows a willingness to participate
  • Participation (at least in the demographic of these participants +18 years of age) often is contingent on some level of permission from the performer-host
  • Most participants recognize the invitation implicit in a gesture (such as signaling to the chalk or approaching them and offering them a piece of chalk), however, sometimes additional explanation is necessary to create a sense of trust between performer and audience member to enable comfort in participation.

I also have discovered specific levels of engagement, at least within this performance design:

  1. Acknowledging the performance/performance space through physical behavior
  2. Viewing the performance
  3. Talking about or conversing with performers/participants
  4. Participating in the performance
  5. Recording the performance
  6. Sharing the recorded performance

and am interested in using these as a guide for devising audience engagement strategies in the future.

Considerations for Future Iterations

During the performance, I noticed several things about the project design that should be considered for future iterations of this project:

  1. Accessibility: Because the performance space was on the ground, it did not allow for all potential audience-participants to engage as a participant.  People with mobility issues were not able to reach the performance space to contribute if they wished.  There were at least three passers-by with visible limits in mobility, not to mention several older people who passed by and might not have participated due to physical limitations.  In order to increase accessibility, I think the performance space would need to have multi-dimensional surfaces – either a floor and a wall or a portable blackboard that could be reached by anyone.
  2. Location: While the chosen site provided a large number of potential audience members, the nature of the spaces was not always conducive to the needs of the performance.  The time of the class change particularly necessitated both a break in the performance and semi-destruction of the performance space (many of the sketches and writings faded with the foot traffic).  It would be interesting to find a site that does not correlate so concretely to a temporal need for transience.
  3. Clearer Social Media Invitation: While I created a hashtag, I was the only person who posted to social media about this using the #asuchalks hashtag.  Therefore more clarity needs to be expressed in the design to invite posting.  Perhaps appropriate social media icons pictured with the hashtag would be enough?  I wonder if the “Tag us at…” language needs to be explicit in the invitation to post as well?
  4. Other Measures of Engagement: I noticed that there were other aspects of engagement that I should have measured while the performance happened.  First off, while not every passerby actively looked at the event, many respected the boundary that was created through the borders and walked around.  Others realized after walking on it that they were on a piece of art and apologized to me.  This recognition of the performance space as something to be respected or as something extra-ordinary and not simply a pedestrian walk way shows acknowledgement of the performance and I believe can be considered the first level of engagement.  Secondly, time of engagement would have been very interesting to analyze.  Some people engaged for a minute and some for as much as 5-15 minutes.  Taking down this kind of data would reveal interesting insights into thes success of invitation strategies.  Thirdly, looking at the statistics around the second invitation strategy (offering the chalk to an individual) could prove useful information when developing an invitation strategy in a more traditional performance hall.  I noted the reactions to my invitation (acceptance or decline), but only if I could tell that the invitation was acknowledged.  If repeating this project, I would also add a tally of how many ignored the invitation as well. 
  5. Multiple Data-Collectors: Serving as both performer-host and researcher-data collector, proved very challenging.  Because I had to engage with participants, inquirers, and audience members, I was distracted at different points and could not continue the work of data collecting during those moments.  Also, with the additional ideas about what to measure (above), it would be very difficult to track all of these possibilities of engagement while also IN the experiment or as the sole-data collector.  I could video record the project for multiple angles, but time becomes a factor in analyzing each angle and cross-referencing individuals on the tape.  Come to think of it, that might be an issue too for multiple data collectors – unless they were each focused on recoding different engagement strategies.  Perhaps there will always be some level of “human error” with this sort of design?
  6. Anticipatory Ad leading up to the Event: After the performance ended, I wondered if adding chalked messages along the path leading up to the performance space/event would change the level of engagement overall with the piece?  These would act as both advertisements for the event and brain warm-up to get potential participants curious and think about what they might contribute.
  7. Follow-Up Survey:  While this performance was designed to be primarily ephemeral, with social media engagement the only lasting record of the work, I think it would be interesting to know what thoughts and feelings remained with the audience-participants or audience-inquirers after their engagement.  If I were to re-stage this piece I would design a brief Google Form survey that could be accessed through a QR code and include questions about their experience of the performance and willingness to engage further.

Reflection

Through Something to Chalk About? I developed some interesting thoughts around audience engagement that I intend to consider when moving on to my next micro project.  The four observations given at the end of the Assessment section guide me to design the next project with certain elements in mind if I want to successfully engage my audience.  Namely, 

  • 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

The final observation made, leads me to refine my initial research question: 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?

While I am not opposed to revising and revisiting this project, I think ultimately for this class I will likely move on to another methodology to explore this question and put my new research ideas into practice.  Something to Chalk About? was intentionally designed to minimize my presence as the performer-host of the piece and maximize the visibility of audience-participants as the primary performers.  I think that the next phase of my research may require either a more visible and clearly defined performer in performance or a clearer emphasis on the specific site and the audience’s relationship to that place.  At this moment I am unsure as to whether I am more interested in coaxing an audience into participation in a performative event from the context of “the real world” or from the context of a performance in process.  By that I mean, do I want to interrupt a person’s day to encourage participation in the performance, or do I want to create confederates out of an already willing audience?  I think both scenarios have value to my research into audience engagement, so it maybe a question of which to explore first.  

Because of my background as a teacher and my belief that students learn best through self-led discovery, I am more comfortable in the role of guide when visible as the performer-host. I happily became at times invisible within this performance.  Following my experiences with Something to Chalk About?  I have grown unsure with the efficacy of this stance as it relates to my desired outcome – sustained audience engagement.  The concept of trust and trust-building between audience and performer needs to be explored further and I imagine requires the performer to share vulnerability with the audience in order to encourage the audience-participant to put themselves into a potentially vulnerable position as well.

I am also still interested in exploring how social media can shape an iterative performance.  Following Something to Chalk About? I know that the invitation needs to be more explicit, but I wonder if the performer needs to actually solicit tags or if there is a less obtrusive way to do this.  Currently, I am brainstorming a project in which social media is the procedure that the audience uses to participate in performance – literally their gaze shapes the performance.  Within this seed of an idea, I am curious about how the various layers of performance/recorded gaze/and revisiting the posts, or recontextualizing them by collaging various audiences’ posts,  would inform the piece as a whole and everyone’s experience of it.