I started reading The World is Flat 3.0 by Thomas Friedman because I was looking for a popular non-fiction big ideas book. I’m a geek and I love that kind of stuff and I will read a book like that about any topic. (See also Zero: A Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife and One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw by Witold Rybczynski. Both great reads!) But… plot twist! What I quickly realized is that actually this is a book about participation. Friedman identifies a number of key innovations or revolutions that at the end of the 20th century served to make the world “flat,” that is, more non-hierarchical, and with increased access and connectivity for more and more people. In a nutshell, a more participatory world.
One way to look at the argument of the book in relation to participatory performance, which is flourishing concurrently with these political, economic, and technological changes, is that the trend of audiences as participatory co-creators operates in parallel, arising as part of the zeitgeist. So many aspects of life are increasingly participatory and so we are primed to want that in theatre too. Participatory performance is another manifestation of the same phenomenon in another genre. OK.
But,… is there more to this? I want to think this through by drilling down into one of Friedman’s case studies for inspiration.
“World-flattener #4” on Friedman’s list is the phenomenon of “uploading.” Uploading is characterized by bottom-up creation and sharing — creation of music, of blogs, of software code, of anything really and then posting the fruits of that creative labour to the internet where it can be consumed—listened to, read, or put to use— but also modified, mashed-up, improved and reworked by absolutely anyone. Personal computing combines with the Internet to give rise to this vast network of creativity and also of expertise in an endless feedback loop.
One of his examples is The Goldcorp Challenge from 2000. (Read more here.) Mining exploration is a slow and expensive process with unpredictable results. To shortcut this process, Rob McEwen the CEO of Goldcorp decided to release the raw geological data accumulated by the gold mining company pertaining to the company’s Red Lake mine site. The company believed that the site held untapped resources but didn’t know where to look. McEwen offered a prize of $575,000 to the best submission for finding the untapped gold deposits. They received more than 1000 submissions. The prize was won by a combined effort by two Australian companies, Fractal Graphics and Taylor Wall and Associates. Friedman reports that the prize money barely covered the expenses of their proposal but the publicity and boost to reputation was invaluable to the Australians. Goldcorp ultimately uncovered deposits worth more than $6 billion, investigating not only the site proposed by the winners but finding gold at 4 of the top 5 locations from other proposers.
I am intrigued by the qualities of this type of crowdsourcing and am wondering what this looks like in participatory theatre. What characteristics are familiar or transferrable? If this the characteristics of creative crowdsourcing do not apply to participatory or co-creative performance, why not? What parameters of theatre or art resist these practices?
Some preliminary thoughts: My first thought is that all theatre is crowdsourced. The audience contributes to every performance work through our attentive active engagement. We are always taking the ‘raw data’ of a performance work and processing it and returning it enriched by this feedback loop. But this is perhaps too glib and not very interesting.
OK. I’ll try again. Several years ago I heard about theatre-maker Adrienne Wong’s self-serve apology generator. (She did this in 2015 as artist-in-residence for the CBC radio show ‘q’.) This work operated in reverse from the GoldCorp model. Instead of releasing raw data and inviting it to be processed, analysed, and returned, Wong was soliciting raw material which passes through her ‘recipe’ or ‘mechanism’ and produces an aesthetic and emotional experience. Many participatory co-creative performance works operate a in a similar mode, although perhaps not so totally. I can think of a number of co-creative works where audiences provide material of some kind — personal stories, answers to questions, random objects or words, opinions — which are used in myriad ways as input to some limited aspect or specific moment in the process of creating the performance. I am hard pressed to think of models that work more like the GoldCorp model where audience-participants are generating new works with value-added. Like a mash-up or remix. Or fan-fiction. (Fan-theatre? Forbidden Broadway’s Spamilton?)
In thinking about the similarities or differences between theatre-making and blogging or tweaking open source code, the main sticking point seems to be that theatre is not as “permeable” as either of these genres. It is harder to participate and to stick your fingers in it, as it were. The ‘doors’ are not so wide open. (Why is this? Is it something innate to what theatre is?) Which is perhaps curious since theatre-making is not dependent on advanced digital technology or access to an Internet connection. Moreover, the ‘players’ area already co-present in a way that bloggers and coders in their online communities are not. Is theatre essentially hierarchical (division between artists and audience-participants) in a way that places a basic limit on how “flat” it can be? When theatre gets too flat does it cease to be theatre? What does it become?
Friedman, Thomas L. The World is Flat 3.0: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. Picador, 2007.
Williams, Matthew. “History of Challenges: The Goldcorp Challenge.” HeroX Launch Challenge. https://www.herox.com/crowdsourcing-news/408-history-of-challenges-the-goldcorp-challenge.