Surviving the Dip, or Are We in the Typewriter Business and Do We Need a Manhattan Project?

reportcoverI was in DC yesterday for a presentation/discussion of the NEA’s 2008 Survey on Public Participation in the Arts. The report is accessible and worth a quick read, but I can summarize its findings in one sentence: public participation in the arts is seriously in decline. This is true across essentially all audience demographics and all art forms studied. (Yes, there were some significant omissions from the report that might have mitigated things a bit, but that’s not what this blog post is about.)

It seems to me that the most noteworthy thing about the sweeping decline in arts audiences is that it’s happening in the context of an unprecedented democratization of media production and distribution. Whether through blogging, YouTube, Wikipedia, or even video games, Americans are actively participating in media - as consumers, producers, or both - like never before. And the barriers to entry on media distribution are a tiny fraction of what they were a generation ago.

Generally speaking, the arts are like drugs. The more you experience the more you want and one kind of experience easily leads into others. But something like the opposite is happening here. As Americans become increasingly engaged media audiences and participants through the wonders of the internet, they are walking away from the “live” art forms that have been part of our social bedrock for thousands of years.

By “live” art forms, I mean anything that can only truly be experienced through physical proximity. Theatre and dance, of course, but also music and painting. Sure, you can watch videos of ballet on YouTube, but that mediated experience will always be fundamentally different - aesthetically, emotionally, viscerally - from the real thing.

By contrast, some art forms - film, literature - were designed to be broadcast (or published) and consumed remotely. For the most part, this sort of fare has survived the internet revolution unscathed and in many cases is thriving thanks to potent new distribution models.

But the internet hasn’t figured out how to deliver the traditional live arts without a significantly diminished audience experience.

typewriterThis raises an essential question: are live art practitioners in the typewriter business? Is the very idea of providing a non-essential service that requires intimate physical proximity to appreciate properly preposterously anachronistic? If you answer “no”, would you say the same thing about a less cherished service that fit a similar profile?

Let me say here and now that I believe there will be a place in our culture for traditional live art forms for generations to come. However, the distribution mechanisms will have to fundamentally change.

This won’t happen overnight. The technology simply doesn’t exist yet. Sure, there’s Second Life and primitive virtual reality, but no one to date has figured out how to replicate a visit to the Museum of Modern Art over the internet. My guess is that we’re 15-20 years away from pulling that off.

I have no idea how we’ll experience live dance in 2029. But I’m confident that, if dance still exists, it’ll be because dance companies have a way of broadcasting their work - with no diminishing of the pure, live experience - to the entire world, all at once.

What a spectacular opportunity! Fractured Atlas members producing theatre on $5,000 shoestring budgets will have the same “seating capacity” as the biggest Broadway houses.

But there’s still that small matter of the intervening 15-20 years, during which we’re going to continue hemorrhaging audience members. This is a big problem, and we need to ask ourselves as a community if we’re adequately prepared to survive the “dip”:
The Dip
It’s going to get worse before it gets better. Cherished institutions will go under. Small independent producers will become experts, by necessity, at appealing to tiny, ultra-specific niche audiences. Film and writing will flourish. Some music will, too. But in general we’re going to become even more impoverished and attention starved than we are today.

I propose that we have two options, as a community, for addressing this once-in-a-millennium challenge:

  1. We can isolate ourselves in ever narrower, more incestuous sub-communities of specialized practice and violently defend our respective shrinking turfs, or
  2. We can invest in accelerating the arrival of those far-off technologies that will revolutionize the distribution of our work.

Can you guess which one excites me more?

manhattanprojectI hereby suggest that we consider a “Live Arts Distribution Manhattan Project”. This is going to take some serious R&D by some very smart people. To succeed, they’ll need to appreciate the essence of the aesthetic experience and also have a deep understanding of cutting-edge technologies. They’ll need to investigate virtual reality, motion capture video, and 3D / holographic projection, along with more mundane things like high-bandwidth streaming. They’ll need to forge partnerships with wildly different industries grappling with similar underlying challenges: aerospace engineering, battlefield communications, satellite broadcasting.

This is high-risk, high-reward stuff. To have a realistic chance of success within 10 years would require a massive investment of money and attention. The Manhattan Project is one analogy, but you could also think about the first moon landing. This isn’t something we can do in our spare time with a $20,000 grant.

We also need to think about “plugging the dam” while we wait for the big breakthrough. The good news is that some early efforts in this department are already underway. I’m thinking of things like the Audience Engagement Platform or Project Audience. These projects and others like them are serious efforts to use 21st century technologies to enrich and deepen relationships between artists and their audiences.

Just slowing the hemorrhaging won’t save the patient, however.

Tags: , ,

9 Responses to “Surviving the Dip, or Are We in the Typewriter Business and Do We Need a Manhattan Project?”

  1. Melissa Fendell Moschitto:

    Exciting and scary post!

    Does this mean that Fractured Atlas will start offering classes or training in how to use technology to distribute art to the masses? My company purchased a small video camera and have a wonderful volunteer working with us to edit and upload content but the technological barriers are HUGE! Sharing files has proven almost impossible, especially when we don’t have the benefit of an office to meet in and are working in our satellite offices (i.e. apartments). I have tons of content to give online audiences but sharing is proving elusive and time-consuming!

    Just a thought….

  2. Adam Huttler:

    Melissa - I’m sure we’ll be offering some classes in online distribution and engagement at Fractured U.

    However, that’s really not what I’m talking about. Distributed *recordings* of live performance simply don’t replicate the authentic experience. There’s substantial degradation that occurs.

    I can’t articulate exactly what I am envisioning because it doesn’t exist yet. But imagine you had the ability to “broadcast” your work to a global audience, all of whom would have the exact same experience as if they had attended in person at a 99-seat blackbox. Is it a hologram? Some kind of virtual reality? A nanotechnology implant that communicates directly with the brain using electrical pulses? I don’t know, but I do know that we need to develop it.

  3. August Schulenburg:

    Great post, Adam. Given the pace of technological innovation, I think you’re right that the mass distribution of the simulation of a live experience is possible, provided that those audiences will able to influence each other and the artists in real time. Without that mutual feedback loop, it’s not live performance. I have some thoughts on why Presence is important on the Flux blog:

  4. Adam Huttler:

    Excellent point, August. Once upon a time I was a theatre director and if I had a “directorial philosophy” it was that I wanted to provide an experience that was in some way dependent on co-occupation of the same physical space between audience and performers. But even with fourth-wall naturalism, that feedback loop between seats and stage is arguably the essence of live performance. This could be the single most elusive requirement of any “Manhattan Project” technology.

  5. Marc Kirschner:


    Great post. (From the dance perspective) I think there are three sets of problems that need to be addressed.. speaking generally, the problems are:

    Today: How to provide audiences with access to the art in a format and quality that is acceptable to artists and audiences
    Tomorrow: How best to leverage that access once it becomes available
    Next week: How to provide audiences with access to the art in a format and quality that is ideal for artists and audiences

    The good news is today’s problem has been solved. Details to follow.
    Tomorrow’s problem is being solved, but I think your assessment that “cherished institutions will go under” is accurate. These institutions are going to have to change the way they think and operate, or risk being passed by younger, hungrier and more flexible organizations. I’m less worried about the big and small organizations, than I am about the mid-size organizations.

    Solutions to next week’s problems, those that would fall into your Manhattan Project, are already being assessed and examined.

  6. Michael Kriegh:

    What a fabulous post. Several thoughts immediately pop into mind:

    Check out where three dimensional television is at. A big wig at IMAX tells me that it will become commercially available within 10 years or so. This may start to be the transmitting medium being looked for.

    Consider the idea that as presentation medium is evolving, so is the form of intelligence that receives it. We will have computers equaling processing power of human brain by 2025 or so. Human equivalent intelligence by mid century according to some. Full out merger with computational technology by end of century. What media is and does is set to radically change…even more so than what we have already lived.

    Is there a way to reintegrate performing arts with other communal activities and needs? I am thinking here of a project I am working on in regard to churches with lots of underutilized space and real need to reconnect to communities. Performing arts have always been a part of religious life…but is there an adjusted paradigm for locally delivered performance art that helps communities address their hopes, fears and aspirations? Put an other way, is the age of concert hall, and Broadway theater giving way to more tribal needs for artistic particiapation? We are no longer just audiences, but need participation too?

  7. Adam Huttler:

    @Michael - great observation! For 99% of human history, art-making was community-oriented and highly participatory. It has only been “professionalized” in the past couple of hundred years. Perhaps we’re witnessing the beginning of a return to our roots… Not sure what the implications would be from a technology standpoint, but it’s definitely thought-provoking.

  8. Arts, technology and engagement:

    [...] Surviving the Dip, or Are We in the Typewriter Business and Do We Need a Manhattan Project? – Adam Huttler, Fractured Atlas Blog Powered by Hackadelic Sliding Notes 1.6.3+ Comments [0]Digg it!Facebook [...]

  9. More On Presence – - Flux TheatreFlux Theatre:

    [...] audiences dwindle and move on? Are arts practitioners, as Fractured Atlas Adam Huettler puts it, in the typewriter business? Typewriters now have nostalgic value for what they are, but have little value for what they [...]