Are You Experienced?
Why art that actively engages audiences is quintessentially Austin
There was The Trash Project, with hundreds of Austinites crowding the edges of Austin Studios' rain-slicked tarmac and cheering on employees from the city's Solid Waste Services department as they performed choreographed dances with their carts, cranes, and trucks.
There was the Western carnival for the Rude Mechs' I've Never Been So Happy, with dozens of folks each night indulging their inner Ernest Tubbs at the country karaoke mic, getting their mops cropped by a bona fide Lone Star barber, having their "pitchers took" as Bonnie and Clyde, making crank calls to Yankees, and sipping margaritas, among other activities.
There was the race-against-time re-creation of ancient Rome at Arthouse, with scores of adults and kids working around the clock to carve cardboard and wood into the monuments and temples of the Eternal City (before stomping it back into oblivion).
There was the visual representation of eclipses for an upcoming Blanton Museum of Art exhibit, with a group of hundreds in the stands of Darrell K. Royal-Memorial Stadium holding up flashcards that formed images of these astronomical phenomena as they will appear in the skies above this city in the decades to come.
And there was, and still is, the musical at Zach Theatre, where at every performance four audience members are recruited to play contestants in a school spelling bee alongside the professional cast members.
Has there ever been a season that started with so many chances for audiences to engage directly with art? None of this passive sitting in a dark theatre or standing in a gallery, hands clasped behind your back. These works asked us to be active, to step out of the temples of art and see it out in our world or take part in its creation ourselves. And they followed a host of like works from last season, projects that let us walk through buildings and spy dramas staged in different rooms (Vestige Group's Muses III: Memories of a House, Secondhand Theatre's Rooms, Displaced Theatre's Red Light Winter), to troop to a street corner to watch a scene play out (Hyde Park Theatre's Bombs in Your Mouth) or through Downtown to discover dancers wedged into the cityscape (Bodies in Urban Spaces), to imbibe during a show's built-in drinking game (Yellow Tape Construction Company's Warpstar Sexysquad), to type a love note and have it hand-delivered to a special someone anywhere in the city (Jaclyn Pryor's pink), to attach New Year's wishes to a 34-foot wooden clock and then see it burn to the ground (Community Art Makers' Resolution Clock at First Night Austin), and, in the grandest extreme of this kind of work to date, to choose from a list of handcrafted experiences and have one created personally and individually for you (Rubber Rep's The Casket of Passing Fancy).
What we have here is an increasing number of local artists and arts organizations who are playing with the conventional means of culture consumption and its old divide of creators on one side and audiences on the other, one in the light and one out of it – and no touching the art! They want to free us of the notions that creativity is confined to the museum and concert hall and only the province of the art-school graduate. Creativity is all around us, as pervasive as air, and just as easy to draw into ourselves and let out. Their projects seek to move us beyond observing art to experiencing it.
Sometimes that's as simple as breaking the work out of those institutional spaces that customarily house art. Those of us who saw The Trash Project weren't dancing ourselves, but we were outdoors, under the sky, with the Downtown skyline for a backdrop, and that played into our perception of the piece. Just the idea of a dance taking place in such an environment will disengage it from the formality of a traditional dance performance and open it up in terms of accessibility. But in this instance, it also set a dance involving people who work for the city in that city. It added to our sense of where these men and women do what they do, amplifying our connection both to it and to this creative representation of it. Other site-specific work works similarly, whether it's Bodies in Urban Spaces or one of Blue Lapis Light's aerial dances on Downtown buildings or a performance in someone's home: It turns a familiar place, a space you know, into something unexpected and new, a place where you had an experience beyond the ordinary. And through that new experience, that artistic experience, your sense of that place is altered, amplified. And when your sense of it changes, you change.
Such a transformation is even more potent when you participate in the creative act. Because you aren't simply taking in a finished work of art that someone else brought into being; you're bringing something into the world yourself. The audience members who sign on as spellers in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee are helping tell that story to many people who have never heard it before. The 24 Hour Roman Reconstruction Project was all about creating a scale-model city from scratch and could not have succeeded here without people from the community taking box cutters and tape in hand and constructing all those replicas of ancient structures. Even though their contributions were relatively small and some of them crude and all of them were utterly trashed at the end of the day, they existed for a time and enriched the lives of the people who saw them. Making something changes the world, and when the world changes, you change. Experiential art opens up that possibility for its audiences.
Now, this kind of art is nothing new, not even in Austin. Sally Jacques and José Luis Bustamante have been doing site-specific work here since the Eighties. The aquatic ballet Water Works in Barton Springs Pool (see "Water Works,") got its start more than 30 years ago, as did Esther's Follies, which shook up the way we perceive what's in a show by sticking a window at the back of the stage and letting the people on the street be part of the action. And some of the same folks who launched Esther's created quite the art experience with the counterculture musical Now the Revolution at the University of Texas in the late Sixties. We've had a musical on the hillside in Zilker Park every summer for 51 years, and Beverly Sheffield was hosting entertainment there a full 20 years before it started. And what do you think that old pavilion in Wooldridge Square Park was originally intended for? Musical performances, among other things, out in the open air. Austin has a long, rich history of cultural engagement outside the conventional venues, of getting active with our art.
But then, activity seems to be embedded in the city's genetic code. We're nothing if not a hands-on community, a populace that doesn't merely thrive on experience but craves it. That's why the Trail at Lady Bird Lake is perennially packed and you can't swing a dead 'dillo without hitting a fun run. That's why we can't have a weekend without at least one festival (and preferably more). That's why we've made community holidays of Eeyore's birthday and Carnaval and Halloween. I daresay that's why our political process gets so convoluted and knotty. We relish activity, being in the thick of it, whatever it is: a 10K race, a Longhorns game, a public hearing, a mud pit at ACL, or even a play. We like to do. We live to do. So a work of art that offers us the opportunity to do is right up our alley.
Craig Hella Johnson likes to say that the audiences for his Conspirare concerts engage in "deep listening." They're hearing more than the melodic line and the overall beauty of the sound; they're attuned to the structure of the work, its musical architecture, the interplay of music and lyric, the voices weaving intricate harmonies, the emotion or spiritual idea binding it all together, even the quiet spaces between sounds. They're able to get inside the work, which means, of course, that they get so much more out of it. Experiential art might be called "deep living." Actively engaging with art is the difference between wading in the shallows of Barton Springs and plunging below the surface. It connects you to a whole other world, teeming with life you couldn't see otherwise.
Is it any surprise now that Austin responds so enthusiastically to this kind of work? We love making that dive.