Systematic Scoring Method: Overview and Instructions

Alright! Last post!

Over the course of this residency, I have been playing with different ways of implementing the ideas I have found through my reading. Something that would allow for artists to engage in performative making, systematic composition, and experimental art. After a couple of false starts, I settled on the Systematic Scoring Method (SSM), a new way to score live performances of all kinds (as well as break down existing works into their systematic components).

A detailed description of this method, along with examples, can be found below. However, I feel that the best way to understand this work is to see it in action. On May 13th, Boston Hassle, FTAM, and Project Zero will be hosting the first ever SSM showcase at Deep Thoughts JP, featuring five artists (myself included) who have all created new works using the SSM. You can find all needed information here- https://www.facebook.com/events/215970298761295/

So without further ado, here’s the Systematic Scoring Method (see link below for a blank template.

SystematicScoringMethod-Template

PURPOSE

The systematic scoring method (SSM) was developed in direct response to the opaque nature of many performing arts productions, as well as many other types of media. More often than not, audiences experience the final product in an artistic process, leaving them to disaggregate the many elements contained within a work without the guiding hand of the artist’s intention to aid in this process. Deconstructing the work becomes further complicated when, as is the case with some theatre productions and musical performances, the artists recreating the work do not fully understand all of the elements that create the totality of the “final product.” A script may call for an actor to cross a stage at a certain point and piece of sheet music may instruct a musician to play a certain note at a certain volume, but why did the writer or composer make that choice? Does the act have a larger significance within the piece, or did the original creator include this as mere ornamentation?

To help reduce these problems, the SSM encourages artists to break down a full performance into those foundational and significant elements that serve the larger themes in a production. Artists should think of these performances as a system: a collection of interacting, artistic parts (text, action, lighting, music, character, etc) that form a larger, complete whole. Artists utilizing the SSM should only include those elements that are needed for the performance to exist and leave ample room for artistic interpretation. For example, if Shakespeare were to rewrite Hamlet using the SSM, he may have replaced the “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy with some general talking points and removed any indication that the play was set in Denmark. Removing either of these elements does not undermine the larger themes in the play. However, if Shakespeare did not include the scene where Hamlet stabbed Polonius, the entire nature of the play would change.

Essentially, the SSM acts as an outline for future performers or fans to follow. It ensures that the most essential elements of a piece remain intact while encouraging the voice of the performer in future productions. Moreover, it provides an artifact for those studying a given work to thoroughly deconstruct the components most valued by the artist.

COMPOSING WITH THE SSM

Composing with the SSM involves three tasks. If developed thoroughly and with intention, these components should fully and robustly define a work, along with that work’s themes, without restricting a performer’s voice. Please note that these steps do not need to be completed in a linear fashion (or in a literal fashion for that matter):

  1. Thematic Image- This step involves deciding on the main theme (or themes) to be explored in the piece and matching that theme to a specific image (or images). This theme can range anywhere from a specific, concrete moral to an abstract feeling the artist hopes to convey. The artist should then attach this theme to an image that represents this theme. Again, the definition of image remains purposefully vague. A specific visual, interactions between characters, a repeating gimmick, a musical phrase, or a task performed on stage could all serve as a thematic image. This image or collection of images should be written down in the first box on the score.

    As an illustration of what this could look like, both Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony hold clear examples of thematic images. Vladimir and Estragon waiting in vain for Godot pretty much sums up the entire play, along with its themes of absurdity and meaninglessness. The iconic “BUM BUM BUM BAAAAAAHM” from Beethoven also serves this same purpose, summing up the power relations and impending doom that builds throughout the entire composition.

  2. Parts- In the middle section of the score, composers should collect the elements of the work outside of this thematic image that build on or support this theme. This should include larger components that “fill out” the rest of the performance. Set design, sound design, lighting, characters, costuming, text, or dialogue could all be included in theatrical pieces. A collection of specific instruments could help define musical works. However, less traditional parts could define an artistic system as well. For example, an artist may want to focus on objects, interactions, and space. A single system could also be defined in multiple ways.
  3. Subsystems- The lowest section of the score allows artists to define what goes into each of the parts listed above. If an artist decided that “Objects” would serve as a part in the artistic system, they should define what objects would be used and any details that help describe these objects. Again, these details should only describe the most essential components of a work. It may be important that one of the objects in a performance is a vase and that object holds significance for the overall performance. But it may not matter what type of vase a performer uses

    To return to our previous examples, one of the “Parts” in Waiting for Godot may be the text itself and one element of the text’s subsystem would include Lucky’s speech filled with gibberish. This monologue definitely reinforces the larger themes of the play and removing this part of the script would dramatically alter the work as a whole. However, the actual specifics of the gibberish seem to be less consequential. Beethoven may have defined the string section as one of his parts and one part of the subsystem being the continual echo of the iconic phrase mentioned earlier. The repetition of the act helps define the notion of power within the work. What that echo sounds like, however, does not define the piece.

As an example, please see PCRV’s work “Big Sky” attached below (which will also be performed at the SMM Showcase. This work is a musical piece, an audio representation of Montana, the artist’s home state he will be leaving right before this show happens.

PCRVScore

Another example by Greg Kowalski, who will be using film and performance to explore the moment when Georges Rouault torched a treasure trove of existing paintings.

GregKowalskiScore

 

 

So there you have it. Hope the research presenter in this blog has been helpful in some way. Hope to see you on May 13th!

SSMFlier

The Maker Aesthetic in Noise Music

In the last blog post, I started to discuss the need for both audiences and artists to cultivate an appreciation of the maker aesthetic in performative making. If this new framework truly presents the radical shift in creation that I am implying, then a new language for understanding the value of this work needs to follow suit. Moreover, if existing art forms already draw from the same values and approaches as the maker movement, then a focus on this aesthetic should already exist within various pockets of the artistic landscape.

In this installment, I will present a definition of the maker aesthetic and how it applies to experimental music

 

Defining The Maker Aesthetic

While the maker aesthetic is a relatively new concept in a relatively new field of study, a soon to be published article by Edward Clapp provides an incredibly useful framework for understanding the aesthetic dimensions of the maker movement and the artifacts created within these communities. If you have seen the stuff made in makerspaces, you know that these creations are not the sleekest inventions in the world. But that’s also the point- in general, makers do not come into these spaces hoping to make something that looks cool and polished. They want to make functional objects that do something new and exciting. A “rough around the edges” aesthetic also highlights the functionality of the object, showcasing the ingenuity that went into the engineering of the project, while a sleek or polished exterior hides this aspect from the view of the user.

For Clapp, you can break down this new aesthetic into five different symptomatic components. Not all of these elements need to be present and appreciated, but a few of these put together define the maker aesthetic in relation to a given work:

  1. Materials come together to make a whole- New artifacts showcase elements of a physical system that, when put together, create a cohesive new product and function
  2. Guts on the outside- People should be able to see how an object works, adding to the overall aesthetic appeal
  3. Hand of the maker is visible- The aesthetic is, in part, bolstered by evidence of the creators influence. This can either exist as an unpolished, rough around the edhes feel or the stamp of a master craftsman.
  4. Implicitness of whimsy and play- Makerspaces encourage a sense of play, messing around, and generally being a goofy kid excited about the world again. The products of makerspaces should reflect this.
  5. The functionality of a product is the aesthetic- The appreciation for a product does not derive from how it looks, but the function it performs.

All told, this symptomatic approach implies a number of things for the performer and the audience. It encourages the performer to think about the individual elements of a work and how they interrelate. It also promotes the social nature of a work and the actual function that work plays within a that context, as opposed to only caring about what a work sounds or looks like. For audiences, the aesthetic promotes an active participation within a piece by encouraging observers to interrogate a new work, pulling back any veil that may exist and figuring out how the gears of a performance or artifact fit together.

 

Clarifying Noise as Genre

After reading this article, I felt an immediate connection to my work as a noise musician. For those new to the genre, I will do my best to define this corner of the experimental music world. I’m still going to apologize in advance, since a definition of this genre remains even more elusive than that of a maker aesthetic.

Historically, the genre stretches back to the Art of Noises, a manifesto written by Italian futurist Luigi Russolo in the early part of the 20th century. In this work, the author argues that composers need to dramatically shift their approach to music due to the rise of industrialization. Before this technological explosion, humans were surrounded by naturally occurring sounds and composers were justified in mimicking this aural landscape. However, with the introduction of factories, cars, and other machinery that (for the first time in human history) introduced noise into our sonic worlds, musicians should compose new music from this novel collection of sounds. In his book Noise/Music, Paul Hegarty builds off of this definition, claiming that noise as a musical concept rests on the notion of disruption. What this actual disruption entails does not really matter, just that it disrupts something in musical terms. Russolo’s love of noise definitely falls within this definition, as his proclamations encouraged the sonic reversal of a number of previously held understandings about the nature of music.

However, these two authors present two definitions of noise as a sonic tool, not the genre that currently exists. For this blog post, I propose an inverse symptomatic definition (is that a thing? I think I just made a thing) that I am borrowing from my friend Mark Sarich, who I am paraphrasing and probably doing so relatively poorly (Mark- if you are reading this, please forgive and/or correct me). In order to classify a work as noise, at least two of the following musical elements needs to be missing from the composition: melody, rhythm, or traditional structure. So noise music can have a distinct rhythm, but if it does then it can’t have a melody or a traditional structure. Beyond that, a Russolian (another invented word? I’m on a ROLL!) appreciation for industrial and electronic sounds usually fills out the rest of the genre.

It’s also one of those “you know it when you hear it” things, so If you’re still confused, I suggest watching the videos below.

 

Appreciating Noise through the Maker Aesthetic

As my attempt at a definitions of the genre hopefully shows (and the samples below definitely illuminate), appreciating noise for the traditional aesthetic qualities people find in more conventional music doesn’t really work. Noise isn’t beautiful. It doesn’t make you want to dance. It’s usually annoying when taken out of context and wholly confusing for listeners. Because of this, it provides a perfect testing ground for appreciating the performing arts through the maker aesthetic. In the rest of this post, I will draw connections between a given artist and a specific category from the maker aesthetic. This is not to say that each artist doesn’t also provide examples of the other categories, but I find that they excel in each specific realm.

Materials Come Together to make a Whole

The debate that rages between fans and artists over the use of laptops vs. analog devices in noise provides more than enough evidence for the importance of this first value. Although often framed in terms of sonic quality, I still feel that a large part of the pro-analog argument comes from that fact that the audience cannot see the different parts (in this case, pieces of gear and the sounds they make) interlocking to make one unified sonic creation. The following video of Sickness, a cut up harsh noise artist from Connecticut, exemplifies this value through the highly complex nature of his instrumentation. While this complexity masks some of the making that went into the music’s creation, the massive collection of cables can still be traced from each modular component, pedal, and synthesizer. Part of his appeal for many people is his ability to handle this complex systems of synthesizers and filters, morphing these elements it into a unified whole.

 

Guts on the Outside

Again, the laptop vs. analog debate reinforces this aspect of the maker aesthetic, as laptops often hide the inner workings of the performance. Part of the joy of noise music is seeing how these new sounds are created and the creativity that goes into building and playing these new instruments. Bryan Day, a free-improv performer based out of California, puts his musical guts proudly on display. His process starts with musical inventions created from household objects and his compositions often highlights how these instruments are played (usually with other household objects). Notice his use of a screwdriver to play a measuring tape. In these performances, there is absolutely no hiding how Bryan made this music and that is exactly the point- remove this transparency and the piece would arguably lose its aesthetic appeal.

 

Hand of the Maker is Visible

For many fans of the genre, fidelity often has a lot to do with the aesthetic value of the performance. While most musicians aspire to create the clearest recordings possible, many within noise music embrace a lo-fi approach that shows off the creative process. Aaron Dilloway from Ohio often relies on the pops and hisses that come from analogue tape (his instrument of choice) in his compositions, clearly showing the hand of the artist in this process. Just by listening, we know how Aaron made these sounds: recording something to tape, possibly making it into a tape loop, and playing it through different processes (speeding the tape up, slowing it down, adding an intentional warble, etc.). The visibility of his influence through sound becomes integral to the aesthetic value of the piece.

 

The opposite approach, highlighting an aspect of “perfected craftsmanship,” applies just as well to the genre. Olivia Block, a sound artist from Chicago, takes a similar approach to Dilloway in that much of her work relies on pre-recorded sound that she collages together. However, her field recordings are reproduced so clearly and mixed so exactly that it sounds like the original sound source is in the room with you. Knowing that Olivia is often the sole person behind this process adds to the aesthetic appeal of the work as it showcases the level of craftsmanship from the creator.

 

Implicitness of Whimsy and Play

Present in many noise performances is the pure joy that comes from someone improvising with a random object that, in no respectable forum, should be considered an instrument. It’s the same fun that makers find from tinkering and hacking, the enjoyment of breaking something you’re not supposed to and making something awesome and ridiculous from the shattered parts. This play often serves as the driving aesthetic force behind noise compositions and extends beyond just instrument creating and into other aspects of performance. Massachusetts’s Crank Sturgeon has exemplified this approach for years, creating dadaist performances from invented language, weird objects, and a whole bunch of jokes that really don’t make any sense but I laugh every time I hear them. (Check the break at 4:15 for a clear example of this sense of play)

 

Functionality of the Product as Aesthetic

Often for noise musicians, the functional nature of the gear being used and the system being created defines the sound, compositional elements, and performance as a whole. The fact that they have come up with some intensely weird idea that actually works and have some level of control over the final product defines the value of the piece. The functionality of this creation is put on display and either defines or comprises a large aspect of the composition. Chicago’s Instinct Control exemplifies this approach in his performances. Ryan Dunn’s approach to sound relies on circuit bending reel-to-reel tape machines in real time by rubbing his hands on the electronic components inside the machine. HIs performances also include the addition of audience members, adding them to the part machine, part human system that turns electricity into sound. Many Instinct Control performances build this approach into a narrative structure that relies on the functionality of this system as an aesthetic element

 

The Next Few Weeks

So the semester is almost over, meaning this residency is quickly approaching its natural end. My next and final post will introduce the Systematic Scoring Method, a brand new compositional tool that highlights the systematic approach to performative making described in this blog.

There will also be a chance to see this scoring method and performative making in action on May 13th at the SSM Performance Showcase, going down at Deep Thoughts in Jamaica Plains. Check out all of details here- https://www.facebook.com/events/215970298761295/

The Role of the Audience in Performative Making

Throughout my research during this residency, I have been investigating experimental, performative, and systematically designed performance from the perspective of both the artist and the audience. The literature I have found so far has provided ample evidence of the benefits these approaches have for artists (especially student-artists or artist-students), but I have mostly come up empty handed when trying to find research that focuses on audience interactions. Brecht and Perkins have both provided some help in disseminating the value of experimental works for audiences. This question still perplexes me, however, when considering the role of and benefits for audience members engaging with maker-centered works, but I will provide some of my thoughts below.

 

Stop Being “The Audience”

I’ll start with the biggest problem facing this line of thought: being solely an audience member is inherently antithetical to the maker movement. Referring back to “The Maker Movement in Education” by Halverson and Sheridan, they state that “Maker describes the identities of participation that people take on within the maker movement” and also cite Dougherty when he “defines the maker movement more in terms of the people who associate with the ethos of making.” Comparing these notions with the role that audiences typically play in the performing arts, passive witnesses at best and mindless consumers at worst, this movement seems to have little use for a traditional audience.

However, this incompatibility actually provides one of the biggest strengths that maker-centered approaches hold for audience members. Specifically, maker-inspired artistic works and education encourage audience members to go out and make something instead of just passively observing what others create. More succinctly, the maker movement encourages people to stop being the audience and start being the artist. Agency by Design has embedded this fluidity of roles within their definition of maker empowerment: “a sensitivity to the designed dimension of objects and systems, along with the inclination and capacity to shape one’s world through building, tinkering, re/designing, or hacking.” The researchers go on to say that maker empowerment is “a way of being in the world that is characterized by understanding oneself as a person of resourcefulness who can muster the wherewithal to change things through making.” Therefore, if students and audiences do acquire a sense of maker empowerment through this work, then the inspiration to become a producer/creator/maker (or at least the understanding that one can do this) comes with it.

This concept, although helpful for my thinking, raises another big issue I have been wrestling with- Does the maker movement really have a place for “an audience” at all? Considering that the makerspaces tend to focus on technological creations and the development of tools for people to use, discussion about what role an audience member plays seems almost irrelevant. Did the person who invented the segway ever consider their “audience?” People can act as participants, trying out different creations, but the level of passivity associated with the term audience does seem appropriate here. Of course, makerspaces explicitly try to break down that barrier and encourage people to try things out by tinkering with various tools and ideas, so this should not come as a surprise.

Unfortunately, the performing arts do not have this same luxury. Unless an artist wants to perform for an empty theatre, a passive group of observers need to be present. Performers can take steps to break down this barrier by creating works that involve audience interaction, but the artist still predetermines the range of actions that audience members can take, removing the agency to which makers strive (which I will discuss further in the next section). However, DIY artistic communities also advocate for this dissolution of strict roles. Punk bands, specifically those from the second wave onward (think hardcore in the US and post-punk in the UK), have routinely built communities around the notion that anyone can be an artist or, at the very least, preached about the importance of this concept. Seminal punk bands such as Dead Kennedy’s and The Minutemen, amongst countless others without the same level of notoriety, have explicitly encouraged new musicians to pick up an instrument, start a band, and get on the road. While I do not know of any specific examples, my bet is that numerous other artistic traditions that exist outside of capitalistic modes of production and highly insulated professional communities provide the same encouragement.

Or, put in much simpler terms by Robert Inhuman of the band Realicide, “the audience sucks if that’s all they want to be.” A bit harsh, but when applied to a wider sense of personal inclination to shape the social landscape, the thought rings true.

 

The Audience in Systematically Designed Performances

But let’s assume that the role of the audience remains fixed and the people watching a given performance do not want to take the leap into a creative role (not a given for embodying maker empowerment, as the “capacity and inclination to shape one’s world” may exist in other forms). What can an audience gain from a systematic approach to performance?

Although I feel that the encouragement to shift one’s role from audience to performer still provides the greatest benefit for audiences in this work, approaching performances through a systematic lens still provides an increased level of sensitivity and agency for those observing a given work. First, audiences who approach performances by interpreting the work through a systematic lens build a sensitivity to design by exercising their ability to recognize the smaller parts of a complex whole and the role these parts play in the bigger picture. Without this lens, an audience member may spend an entire performance marveling at the spectacle that is the show.

This mirrors the impetus for Brecht’s approach to theatre: audiences who lose themselves in the “reality” of a performance and a sense of empathy for the characters on stage cannot gain any critical understanding of what the play is about. To combat this, Brecht routinely broke this illusion by forcing the audience to grapple with the elements of the show that get lost in this “reality.” This often involved projecting text, amplifying bits of dialogue, and generally revealing the inner workings of a show. In a sense, he wanted the audience to consider the parts of the performance that build to a larger whole. Perkins may view this same process as puzzle solving. If someone does approach a work through a systems lens, the audience member creates meaning by breaking down a performance into individual parts, discovering their purpose, and then reconnecting of these elements into a complex whole. If so, this implies that audience members are, in essence, “creating” meaning for themselves.

Secondly, and in line with these notions, audiences that approach works through a systematic lens should inherently understand that they are a part of the performance, regardless of the level of audience interaction that an artist encourages. If the goal of a performance is for audiences to create meaning for themselves while observing a work, then their presence and interaction inherently becomes a part of the system that defines the experience. Meaning cannot be created if an audience is not there to deconstruct and reconstruct a given piece. This observation can also move beyond just passive observation. As an example, think about a humongous concert at a space like Madison Square Garden. Imagine, in one instance, a band performs for a completely silent crowd. Now compare that same experience to one in which every member of the audience sings along to the band on stage. These two experiences, defined by the large system of parts that make up this complex whole, are completely different because audience members interacted with the performance in two different ways. Glaveanu goes even further, claiming that creativity exists in the interaction between the world and the individual, or, in this case, the audience and the artist. Therefore, whether they know it or not, the audience helps to create the works they experience.

However, this recasting of the audience as part of a system holds significant theoretical problems. First (and most importantly), this lens either creates or uncovers a huge power differential that puts a significant amount of control into the hands of the artist. As mentioned before, the artist controls exactly how and when audience members can contribute. The realization that the audience exists as part of the experience and not an outside observer provides some amount of agency (audience members can begin to think about how their reaction shapes the artistic work and the experience), but it remains limited and, at times, completely superficial. Moreover, audience members provide one small contribution to one small part of a larger system while artists control disproportionately large swaths of that system. Secondly, audience responses become further complicated when considering cultural expectations. At a punk show, I may feel inclined to jump into the middle of a crowd and start running into the people around me. I’m probably not going to do that at a classical music concert. While I do not think that one response should be valued over the other, it does go to show that the amount of agency that an audience has remains limited to the norms of that specific genre and social climate.

 

Implications for Audience and Artist: Valuing a Maker Aesthetic

Regardless, for any of this to hold any meaning, performers and audiences need to significantly alter their approach to both creating and observing the performing arts. Specifically, this means valuing what Agency by Design has called a “maker aesthetic.” For most people, the performing arts should be judged on how polished a performance is. We can see this trend explicitly in music production- the use of autotune, hyper-mastering, and incessant layering to create the “perfect” sound has gone beyond recorded works as musicians often employ recording technicians to beef up their live sound with pro-tools accompaniments. Even something like Ashlee Simpson using a prerecorded vocal track on SNL shows how important a seamless performance is for artists and audiences alike.

While I don’t want to devalue one’s drive to perfect their craft or people’s appreciation of talent, this level of manipulation plays into the problems the maker movement tries to combat: concealing the inner workings of a given system (be it technological or performative), which reinforces the myth that people can’t be producers because they lack the necessary technical know how or skill. The maker aesthetic, or an appreciation of the beauty that comes from the functionality of a creation and in the interlocking nature of the parts that build to a complex whole, acts as a means to combat this approach. However, this holds implications for both artists and audiences members. The creators behind the performing arts need to actively create works that promote this aesthetic, developing pieces that put the “guts on the outside” and showcase their individual parts. Audiences, on their end, need to actively look for these things, appreciating those moments when the inner workings of a performance become illuminated. The process of creation and not the end product should be the focal point for observers.

While this may seem completely abstract and overtly hypothetical, certain creative communities have already tapped into this mindset. In my next blog post, I will further break down AbD’s idea of maker aesthetic and apply this definition to the world of experimental music.

Toward a Definition of Performative Making

As part of this residency, I am working intensely with the thinkers and researchers in Project Zero’s Agency by Design project. Their work has already been referenced in my previous posts, specifically when talking about a systematic approach to creative works. However, the thrust of AbD’s work focuses on the learning that happens in maker education (which stems from the maker movement as a whole). With this in mind, I will be focusing on the intersection between performance and making over the next few blog posts. I will start by focusing on implications for the artist/creator in this process, then shift to audience members, and finally provide some examples in practice as a means of illustration.

Or, at least, I think that’s going to happen. Who knows. It’s a wild world and I’m on spring break. Anything could happen.

To start, a definition of the maker movement needs to be established. According to Erica Rosenfeld Halverson and Kimberly M. Sheridan in their article The Maker Movement in Education (2014), “the maker movement refers broadly to the growing number of people who are engaged in the creative production of artifacts in their daily lives and who find physical and digital forums to share their processes and products with others.” Immediately, this definition creates problems for thinking about the performing arts: how do you make an artifact in the performing arts? How can you hold a play or manipulate a song? Sure, we can look at a script or a score, but that fails to encapsulate the whole work. The performance is the thing being created, the artifact merely tells you how to do it.

However, once the authors go on to discuss the components of the maker movement, the connection becomes much clearer. For them, the important elements to consider in the maker movement include “making as a set of activities, makerspaces as communities of practice, and makers as identities of participation.” While the maker movement definitely values physical objects, the underlying components that define making and create value don’t necessitate physical artifacts at all. The question then transforms into “how can the production of performative works embody these key elements?” I would argue that these elements either do not exist, or exist in a restricted form, within traditional performing arts productions (especially at the school level). Creating new, systematically designed works, however, highlights the role all of these components could play in the performing arts.

 

Makers and Maker Identity

Starting with the most abstract of these components, Halverson and Sheridan state that “Makers describes the identities of participation that people take on within the maker movement.” By delving into the work, participants begin to develop their identities around this culture and find who they are as individuals. AbD sees this development encapsulated within a sense of “maker empowerment” that arises through tinkering, building, and re/designing. According to these researchers, maker empowerment involves three different components: 1) a sensitivity to the designed dimension of objects and systems, 2) an inclination to shape one’s world, and 3) a capacity to shape one’s world as well. When considering the differences between a traditional performing arts production and a systematically designed performance, any work that inevitably creates a final performance will build (or at least reinforce) the skills needed to put on a show. In terms of specific knowledge and skill sets gained, I would argue that a systematic approach builds a wider set of skills, while a traditional approach generates a mastery within a specific role. However, the latter approach holds a few key advantages in the sensitivity and inclination department because of the nature of roles within these works.

In traditional approaches, the final performance as a whole is broken into discrete and predetermined components, accomplished by specific individuals. Consider the roles of students in the average high school musical- actors perform as one specific character, set designers make a specific collection of set pieces and props, musicians play a specific set of notes on a specific instrument. This practice holds two potential effects for participants. First, it allows students to participate in a work without thinking about their contribution to the show as a whole. Actors can say lines without thinking about the themes of the play, musicians don’t have to think about why a certain song contains a specific atmosphere and how that propels a narrative, set designers don’t even need to read the script. These artists don’t need to think about their contribution to the larger whole that is the production, limiting their sensitivity to how the play was designed as a system of interconnected parts and the meaning these different components build from their interactions. Second, by limiting the amount of skills built by limiting students to specific roles, traditional approaches to performance undermine an artist’s inclination to create new works that could shape one’s world. While a set designer would build the skills needed to create a work of visual art, they won’t know how to create a new production (or at least organize one) on their own. By allowing for flexible and intertwined roles within systematic approaches, students have the chance to explore and deconstruct a number of aspects of production. They have the opportunity to see how these different types of artists approach problems and how an idea evolves into a full work, which should build this inclination.

 

Making

In Halverson and Sheridan’s eyes, the act of Making within this movement specifically refers to “a set of activities that can be designed with a variety of learning goals in mind.” If you think about what happens in a usual makerspace, this totally makes sense: activities like building robots require students to grapple with concepts from science, engineering, art, carpentry, circuitry, and a host of others, including a number of 21st century skills like critical thinking and collaboration. The traditional high school musical severely limits this cross-curricular approach. Tasks are specifically laid out for each individual and restricted to the jobs of that particular role. Actors act, set designers make the set, musicians play the score, and so on. Moreover, the agency within these roles are limited further by the oversight of directors (or conductors or choreographers or whatever the title happens to be) at each level. And even these directors find their agency limited by the scripts they are working with. They may have some choice in the script they use, but given the nature of school oversight, it’s probably not very expansive.

Now what happens when the approach to a production shifts to a systematic one? Themes for a given performance are developed as a group through an emergent process, relying on Keith Sawyer’s notion of distributed creativity. Students may break off into teams in order to develop a specific element of the piece (the text, the score, the set, etc), building a sense of individual agency. As these parts are not prewritten, students will have to develop them by improvising, trying new ideas, ditching the ideas that don’t work, and adjusting the ones that do (a practice that perfectly mirrors the essential maker concept known as tinkering). Yet these elements will still alter and build off of one another as the collection of parts coalesces into a unified whole, developing what Edward Clapp calls collective agency as this group of artists successfully creates a whole new show on their own.

This concept of tinkering I mentioned above deserves a second glance, as it holds so much educational power for students. Considering Hutchins’ notion that people develop cognition through their interaction with objects and Glaveneau’s similar theory that creativity in part stems from the same action, the opportunity to mess around with stuff becomes far more powerful than that phrase sounds. If a student has an exact set of directions to follow, than that cognition grows from that one singular application. Creativity stalls even more. If these students have the freedom to develop their own role within a given show and define their contributions, then these artists will inevitably spend far more time trying stuff out, learning, and creating new things (some of which will not be part of the show, but that doesn’t mean students don’t benefit from the practice).

Moreover, this practice builds the triad of skills highly valued by the AbD team: looking closely, exploring complexity, and finding opportunity. For example, consider a musician working on a systematically designed production. If they are given a level of freedom to develop the music to be played, they may start tinkering with their instrument, looking at the parts that make up the object. This may lead to the musician considering how they interact with the instrument and the complex relationship between the performer and the violin. From this, they may discover new ways to play the instrument (bowing the bridge, using the back of the bow, scraping the strings, using “incorrect” amounts of pressure, etc). All that being said, they may not approach their contribution in this manner without intentional encouragement to do so, but holding the musician to a score removes this possibility entirely.

 

Makerspaces

The last big component of the maker movement, makerspaces or “the communities of practice constructed in a physical place set aside for a group of people to use as a core part of their practice,” provides the smallest amount of overlap. With the maker movement being so heavily rooted in physical creations, the physical characteristics and collection of tools that define a space prove crucial for this community. Performing arts, on the other hand, don’t always need objects to enable creation. An entire theatre production can be done without props, costumes, or even a theatre if you do it outside. Still, some parallels exist: practice spaces for bands  filled with different kinds of gear and rehearsal spots for theatre companies and their collection of props and costumes both provide clear examples of what this could look like in a performing arts context.

What matters more than the actual space, however, is how people interact inside its doors. Do students walk in and immediately focus on their specific task? Or do they play around with objects, interact and build relationships with other people in the space, and develop new ideas they can share with others? In this sense, any space can reflect maker ideals, but for performing art programs to harness this opportunity the nature of the rehearsal process needs to change. A linear progression from beginning to end, a clearly defined outcome that artists envision before rehearsals even begin, and restrictive roles all need to vanish. Shows need to develop through emergent processes and distributed creativity as artists try out ideas, find things that work, and collectively build a show together.

Yet even in this context, it still does not quite match the nature of makerspaces. The notion of open membership that allows people to drop in whenever and tinker with some of the resources then leave (both crucial components of makerspaces) does not work if everyone involved is expected to contribute to some final performance. Even if organizers and artists did implement these ideas in a performing arts context, it would have a few consequence. First, it erases the goal of creating some sort of final show or performance. While not every single performing arts group has this end product in mind, most do (think theatre productions, recitals, concerts, etc). Culminating performances also match the maker ethos of making things to share with others. Still, this problem is easy enough to get around: just don’t do a final show and build skills anyways.

But assuming that a final show is the ultimate goal, holding an open membership policy (as well as opening up students ability to tinker with stuff in multiple roles) has the alternate consequence of potentially reducing the quality of the final performance. Traditional productions hold the advantage of streamlining the rehearsal process, creating a polished product in a much quicker amount of time than the systematic approach. Traditional products are also quite often reproductions of classic works by highly skilled writers and composers, which gives them a quality boost as well.

However, I propose that this issue is one for the audience and not the artist. While many people have come to expect the aesthetic of highly polished works from professional artists, this is not the only aesthetics that performances can take on. Audiences therefore play a crucial role in this shift towards systematically created works by developing an appreciation for this new style.
What that means, however, will have to wait for the next post. Until then,… spring breaaaaaaaaaak.

“Systematizing” the Performing Arts

So it probably makes sense that, before I go on rambling about systematically designed works of art, I should try to define what “systematically designed works of art” actually means. I’m not sure if I have fully encompassed this term and its application to creative works in my own thinking, but I have a few notions that could describe this process.

Through their research into the maker movement (both as a larger social phenomenon and also a recent educational trend), the researchers behind Agency by Design discovered that students who participated in maker-centered learning experiences developed a sense of “maker empowerment.” AbD defines this notion as “a sensitivity to the designed dimensions of objects and systems, along with the inclination and capacity to shape one’s world through building, tinkering, re/designing, or hacking.” Although the researchers in this project emphasize the importance behind all three components of this definition (sensitivity to design, inclination to shape one’s world, and the capacity to do so as well), the biggest bottleneck to individual development involved a lack of sensitivity to design. All of these concepts can be found in the “Maker-centered Learning and the Development of Self: Preliminary Findings of the Agency by Design project” white paper, along with a number of other ideas.

While AbD may have found this sense of maker empowerment specifically in the maker movement, this environment does not provide the only opportunities for students to build a sensitivity to design. As long as educators and students approach their work with a similar mindset, they can build these same sensibilities. With this in mind, students should begin observing and studying the world around through a “systems lens,” constantly working to uncover the interconnected parts that make up the whole of any object or system. What’s great about this process is that it applies to pretty much any area of study: our bodies are a system of smaller, interconnected anatomical systems; matter is a system of interconnected atoms which in turn are a system of particles; calculus is a system of algebraic operations which are another system of basic operations and their representations; the government is a system of larger and smaller legislative and judicial subsystems… the list goes on.

The performing arts can similarly be defined as an interconnected series of parts that make up a complex whole. Using theatre as an example, a play does not begin and end with a script. Actors bring the script to life, set designers situate the action, lighting designers highlight important interactions, sound designers set the mood… again, the list goes on. However, when producing or studying works of theatre, the most common approach is to examine a play as a singular entity or just ignore the interconnected nature of the individual elements that collectively make a production. While students may study the importance of individual characters and their symbolic meanings, this often happens only when reading through a script, ignoring the laundry list of other elements that go into the final performance. Moreover, artists reproducing a given work can go through the entire process without even thinking about how their contribution builds towards a larger whole. A set designer can paint a perfectly fine background without ever reading the whole script or talking to an actor. While they are inevitably a part of a larger system and their lack of sensitivity to the design of said system keeps them from understanding their role in this process. Consequently, these artists miss the opportunity to build their inclination and capacity to shape the world around them.

Artists (and especially artist-educators working with students) can begin to build this sensitivity by studying works through a systems lens and then enhance the components of maker empowerment by encouraging students to systematically design new works from the ground up. In terms of approaching the works of others, AbD suggests the following practices for students in all areas: “looking closely (noticing the nuances and intricacies of system design), exploring complexity (considering the people, interactions and motivations associated with systems), and finding opportunity (noticing if and where there are opportunities for imaging how a system may be otherwise).” Slightly altering AbD’s “Parts, Purposes, and Complexities” thinking routine, students should consider the following (or similar questions) when unpacking a performance:

  • What are the parts (or artistic components) that made up this work?
  • What are the purposes of these parts? Why did the artist include those elements?
  • What parts would you change or add on? Would this change the themes of the work and, if so, how?

This process allows students to dissect the artist’s intent when creating a performance, picking apart the elements of a work that are essential to the overarching themes as well as those ornamental or entirely aesthetic aspects as well.

When creating new works, artists (and especially student-artists) can apply this same lense in the development of new works. While this lens could manifest itself in many different ways, one approach could involve deciding on thematic images first and then building the “artistic system” around this concept. First, the artist or (preferably) a collection of artists would decide on a “thematic image,” or a foundational aspect of the work that defines the larger themes within a given piece. In this instance, image is defined very loosely, as some performances may not involve a visual aspect. Vladimir and Estragon waiting for Godot or the “BUM BUM BUM BAAAHM” of Beethoven’s Fifth are both examples of thematic images. If developed through a collaborative process, artists could easily generate this image through an improvisational process that relies on the power of emergent creativity (see Sawyer’s study of improvisational theatre groups and Halverson’s investigation of the dramaturgical process for examples).

After that, the artists should begin adding additional parts to the system that reinforce or build on this theme. Questions artists may ask themselves in this process may include “Will the play have sound design?”; “Will there be a dance sequence?”; “Where will the play be set?”; and, most importantly, “What purposes do these parts serve?” This process should involve a significant amount of tinkering as students develop this work. Artists should try out ideas, abandon ones that don’t work, tweak ones that do, and constantly build off of the ideas set out before them. Once finalized, these creators should document this work, collecting the most important elements of this new work in a way that exposes the interconnected system of parts that make up the whole for future artists to study and reproduce.

This process not only takes a cue from AbD’s approach to systems, but also their findings in regard to the operations of the maker movement as a whole (especially in regards to the “guts on the outside” approach to documentation). This concept will be more thoroughly explored and defined in the next post.

New Terminology and the Audience Considered

As promised in my last blog, I will be tackling the question of what value this work holds for audience members as opposed to creators. Before I get to this, though, I want to try rearticulating the question I am posing for myself this semester. Reflecting on that blog post, I realized that “avant-garde” really does not capture the artistic process I am focusing on. The term comes with a lot of baggage and implies that the creative endeavours in this work have to meet a certain expectation of artistic innovation. While the possibility that students meet this standard does exist (as opposed to traditional approaches of mimicking previously created artistic works, which inherently remove any chance of that happening), it does not represent the goal of this process. Students should focus on the understandings and relationships developed through this process and not the outcomes. With these considerations in mind, I propose a new question for myself- What role can systematically designed works of experimental art play in education? I intend on exploring this new categorization more in depth during the next blog post I write.

 

Onto the question of the audience. From the readings I have done thus far, I propose that abstract and experimental works of art hold two distinct advantages over more traditional creations: the intellectual engagement that comes from aesthetically challenging works and the opportunity for creative interpretation through puzzle solving. Through his writings on theatre’s role as an educational institution, Brecht brings this idea of engaging the audience’s intellect to the forefront of his creative process. For the author, intellectual engagement only happens when artists achieve a sense of critical “de-familiarization” in their work. Audiences should not relate to the characters on stage or “lose themselves in the action” of any performance. This sense of empathy allows audience members to merely relate to the people on stage, sympathize with the “good” characters, and despise the “bad” ones without truly investigating why they feel this way. Works that achieve this end lose the opportunity to help people learn.

 

On the other hand, a work that actively “de-familiarizes” audience members by purposefully breaking this sense of empathy and constantly reminding those in attendance that they are watching a performance presents viewers with the opportunity to critically examine the actions happening on stage. Brecht often achieved this by employing non-theatrical tactics during his productions, displaying text and video, allowing characters to directly address the audience, and generally showing audiences the mechanics behind the performance. In this sense, abstract and experimental art hold an innate opportunity to achieve this “de-familiarization” because artists in this realm actively avoid the usual artistic structures that audiences rely on (linear narratives, melody, etc). Since audiences cannot empathize with or relate to these highly foreign works, they have to rely on intellectual engagement to understand the work in front of them.

 

This inherent value leads directly into the second educational benefit for audiences: the role of creative puzzle solving as an expression of creativity and understanding. In their investigations into creativity, both David Perkins and Robert Weisberg focus heavily on the role that puzzle solving plays in this process. For them, creativity represents a highly complicated puzzle solving process that takes on multiple forms (from artistic expression to scientific discovery). While this interpretation of creativity is not without its critics (Thomas Leddy does an excellent job describing the limitations of this approach), this notion still holds value in the world of education. Puzzle solving may not be the end all be all of creativity, but it still represents a highly valuable skill set in the learning process. I would actually go so far as to say that problem solving represents the most valuable skill an educator can help students develop. Students need to be able to see problems they have never encountered and figure out a way to solve them and teachers should work with students to build this skills. Of course, this cannot happen if students never see new problems or only see problems alongside their solutions.

 

Abstract and experimental art can facilitate this process by providing the puzzles for audiences to solve. If these works truly divorce themselves from the artistic practices of those before them, audience members encounter the challenge of making meaning from a collage of new creative elements. For example, within standard narrative works of literature, a reader can often figure out what an author is trying to say by waiting to see what happens to a given character. The reader can connect consequences to actions and relationships and use this connection to determine the theme or moral of the work pretty easily. if we define the process of determining an author’s intent as a puzzle, attaching that intent to a narrative provides a shortcut to finding the answer. But what happens when authors avoid narrative? Suddenly the steps needed to solve the puzzle presented by narrative works disappear and audience members need to build a whole new schema for finding an answer. In both cases, the author may be saying the same thing, but the latter approach allows readers to exercise their creative problem solving skills.
Thanks for reading! More to follow.

An Introduction- Why Education Needs the Avant-Garde

Hello everyone, and welcome to my brand new blog- Agency for Artists and Theatre as Design. I’ll be using this space to map out the arc of my own thinking as I direct the Pearl Learning Lab’s Performance Workshop, a collaborative and distributed learning environment that aims to build student agency through the creative process. Some of the posts on this blog will focus on my practice as a teacher while others explore theoretical frameworks to better understand education and learning as a whole.

For this first entry, I want to begin grappling with a large question that will drive my thinking throughout the semester- What role could the avant-garde play in education? For many people, art education starts and ends with the technical and the historical. Students learn techniques to create artistic works and the history behind certain artists or movements. Here, I am hoping to explore why developing and interpreting abstract and  innovative creative expression holds unique value within the learning process for all content areas. I’m sure this question will grow and evolve over time, but I’m thinking this serves as a pretty decent starting point.

To approach this problem, I want to look at this concept from two different perspectives: the value for the artist and the value for the audience. My initial readings have focused mainly on the benefits creative works have for artists, so I will hold off on discussing the audience advantages for a later post. I will also be defining the “avant-garde” as creative works that exist outside of the common language of creative expression. These works should incorporate multiple types of artistic media in new or underutilized ways. Students can (and are encouraged to) draw on previous artistic forms when creating avant-garde works, but the focus should always remain on building new types of expression in the creative process. This definition purposefully eliminates some forms of abstract art from my emerging analysis. For example, creating abstract expressionist paintings would not apply, as the form of expression has already been developed by other artists. I hope to develop this definition (or maybe even find a new word altogether) throughout the semester as well.

So far, I have found two key reasons to utilize abstract art within educational contexts: the promotion of performative understanding and the inherently collaborative nature of this work that builds both individual and collective agency. In David Perkins’ (1998) article What Is Understanding?, the author redefines understanding as a “flexible performance capability,” or the active process of applying knowledge to new situations. People learn new abilities and knowledge all the time, building the ability to recall facts or use a skill whenever needed, but to truly understand something means to use these skills and knowledge to navigate uncharted territory and solve new puzzles. Under this definition, the avant-garde provides the perfect opportunity to test one’s understanding. Traditional forms of art can very easily turn into rote applications of specific skills when students combine specific techniques in a prescribed way to create new works. Avant-garde creations, however, encourage students to intentionally combine vastly different artistic approaches to create and communicate meaning through abstract forms of expression. This approach demands understanding from students, as they engage with new challenges that may have never existed. It also demands, as Brecht (1958) did in Theatre for Learning, that the artist know the content thoroughly before creating the work. Brecht went so far as to demand specific psychological or scientific knowledge from writers attempting to create new pieces.

The avant-garde also makes collaborative learning necessary through its creation due to the multi-media approach inherent to the genre. Innovative works more often than not come from the unique combination of previous ideas, or in this case the intersection of different artistic skill sets in a variety of different media. This approach to creating new works obviously encourages students identifying as different types of artists (painters, musicians, writers, dancers, etc) to work together and build new pieces that combine different talents. As Edward Clapp (In Press) discusses in his upcoming book Participatory Creativity: Introducing Access and Equity to the Creative Classroom, the benefits of creative collaboration extend beyond the ability to make something new, but also build a sense of collective and individual agency. By combining different artistic traditions in new ways, the process of creating avant-garde pieces encourages a dynamic sense of group work involving a range of different contributions. Students with specific skills can tackle smaller problems (for example, an actor may need to develop a character or a musician needs to develop a soundtrack), building the individual agency of those involved. Tackling the challenge of creating a new, innovative piece, however, speaks to the collective agency of the group. No one student can solve this problem, but as a group they can accomplish this task.

Hopefully this gives you a glimpse into my initial thoughts on the work. More to come, both theoretical and empirical (once the workshop begins).