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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.