Wednesday, April 02, 2014

What I Learned from Beck (the rock star) about Participatory Arts


In December of 2012, the rock musician Beck released his latest album, Song Reader. Song Reader didn't come as a CD, or an LP, or a bunch of digital audio files. It is what it sounds like: a book of original sheet music, beautifully designed and complemented with artwork and text. There are twenty songs in Song Reader. But if you want to hear them, you have to play them yourself--or check out hundreds of interpretations shared by musicians on the Song Reader website.

There are many artistic projects that offer a template for participation, whether a printed play, an orchestral score, or a visual artwork that involves an instructional set (from community murals to Sol LeWitt). Beck's project is unusual because he deliberately resurrected a mostly-defunct participatory platform: sheet music for popular songs. In his thoughtful preface to this project, I reconnected with five lessons I've learned from participatory projects in museums and cultural sites.

1. Constrain the input, free the output.

In my experience, the best participatory experiences are as constrained and clear as possible in the invitation offered, and as open-ended as possible in the outcome generated. Sheet music is a beautiful analogy for this.

The fact that there is no original recording by Beck of the Song Reader songs, no model upon which "covers" would be based, frees the reader to imagine the songs in any number of ways. As Beck put it:
The opening up of the music, the possibility of letting people work with these songs in different ways, and of allowing them a different accessibility than what’s offered by all the many forms of music available today, is ultimately what this collection aims for. These arrangements are starting-off points; they don’t originate from any definitive recording or performance. 

2. Level the playing field for participants of diverse backgrounds.

One of the things I always focus on in participatory exhibit design is ensuring that everyone has the same tools to work with. When community contributions are presented as second-class content, that negatively affects both the quality of the contributions and the perception of the product. If there are museum objects and visitors' objects on display together, all should be afforded the same level of exhibit design, labels, etc. If there's a talkback area in an exhibition where people can make drawings, visitors should have access to the same kind of paper and colored pencils that was used to generate seed content.

These kinds of participatory projects can actually de-motivate because participants can't possibly measure up to the display model. If Beck is in a fancy studio and you're in your garage with your ukelele, why bother?

Beck talks about this in the context of learning to play music as a young artist. The music he listened to on the radio "got its power" from studio techniques. He described it this way:
When I started out on guitar, I gravitated toward folk and country blues; they seemed to work well with the limited means I had to make music of my own. The popular songs, by contrast, didn’t really translate to my Gibson flat-top acoustic. There was an unspoken division between the music you heard on the radio and the music you were able to play with your own hands. By then, recorded music was no longer just the document of a performance—it was a composite of style, hooks, and production techniques, an extension of a popular personality’s image within a current sound.
Of course, Beck notes the irony that sheet music is not exactly accessible to everyone, especially at a time when many people are making music digitally in all kinds of ways that don't start with standardized notation. But when it comes to building from a template, sheet music has simple power. As Beck puts it:
I think there’s something human in sheet music, something that doesn’t depend on technology to facilitate it—it’s a way of opening music up to what someone else is able to bring to it.

3. Everything old is new again.

Sheet music is not a new technology. Beck was inspired to launch this project by the popularity of sheet music and songbooks in the early 1900s. In the 1930s, a popular hit could sell tens of millions of copies of the sheet music, which translated to tens of millions of people playing and singing the songs in their own homes.

Thinking about this, I was struck by the resonance with conversations swirling in the arts field about "little a" art: art that happens in the home, in churches, in parks. There seems to be a hunger these days to document, research, and celebrate the diverse places and ways that people make and share art outside of formal, recognized institutions.

While any family theoretically can start a home singalong or a neighborhood play-reading group, it often takes a tradition, a formal structure, or a template to prompt this kind of activity. Song Reader looks back and encourages reengaging in a tradition that fosters participation. Similarly, when a theater adopts a talking circle practice, or a museum starts a knitting group, the institution is reconnecting with traditional templates for participatory engagement.

4. Participatory processes often (and sometimes unintentionally) restructure the product.

When you are developing a participatory project with non-professionals, it usually involves changing the process from the norm. That's expected. What's less expected is that the product itself is often restructured to meet the particular needs and assets of the participants involved. For example, a history museum might traditionally develop exhibitions internally, with one curator writing the labels in third person (even if drawing from primary sources). That same curator, when developing an exhibition in partnership with community members, may take the opportunity to produce labels in multiple first-person voices of the participants. Their involvement creates an opportunity to create a slightly different product.

Similarly, Beck found himself writing songs differently when writing for the songbook instead of the studio. He noted:
I started to think about what kind of songs have a quality that allows others to inhabit them and to make them their own. What is it about a song that lets you sing it around a campfire, or play it at a wedding? Is it the simplicity of the sentiment? A memorable melody? What makes certain songs able to persist through any era, and adapt themselves? ... 
The songs I would write for one of my own records began to seem less appropriate than songs written in a broader style. At times, I struggled against my own writing instincts—where was the line between the simplistic and the universal, the cliché and the enduring? Classic songs can transcend and transform a cliché, magnifying a well-trodden phrase or sentiment and making it into something elemental. But often that approach descends into banality and platitudes. My appreciation for the ability of songwriters to avoid those pitfalls drove a lot of the writing here; still, I have little idea whether any of these songs managed to find that line. In the right hands, maybe they’ll be able to come a little closer to it.
This gets a bit at the confounding question of how to measure "quality" in a participatory project. Is quality sheet music the same as a quality pop song? No. They are designed to do different things.

5. It's complicated.

Song Reader brings up several familiar questions about participatory arts:
  • What happens when an artist creates a participatory process instead of a traditional art product?
  • Who owns the products created by that process? Who owns them in a legal sense, but also who is perceived as the owner/originator/creator of the products?
  • Are the products created via such a process of worse, better, or equivalent quality as traditional art products?
These questions were particularly present as I scanned the Song Reader website, which feels partly commercial, partly community-based. The content and quality of the songs shared varies widely. But that's part of the point - that the same song can be played reggae or country, by a string quartet or a girl in her bedroom. It can be the basis for a contest, a giant concert, or an evening at home. It can be the spark a personal art practice or a community gathering. It can be a big mess, or a quiet surprise.

As Beck puts it: "That instability is what ultimately drew me to this project."
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