Wednesday, July 4, 2012

PRAGMATICS: A Few Notes on Transmedia

A while back, my company created a month-long transmedia performance called In Memoriam. (Entire archive available here). After a conversation with a colleague about our experience, I decided to record a few key lessons we learned.

1. TRANSMEDIA IS A MISLEADING WORD

I hate the word transmedia, although I am resigned to the fact that this is the word of the moment. The reason I dislike the word (like "multi-media" that came before it) is that the emphasis is on the media. Which media are you using, and how are they "trans"ing together.

If you start by focusing on transmedia, you are probably going to create something forgettable. Like any creative project -- theater, or dance, or software, or a legal case -- you have to start with the question you want to probe, or the thing you want to explore. You need to know why you're doing it.

The next step is to figure out what different media have to shed light on this example.

Example: In Memoriam started as part of our Eulogy season (explanation is in our season announcement, here). Taking our cue from This American Life, we decided that each of our seasons were going to speak to a theme, and we were going to start with Eulogies; why we tell stories about the things that we've lost, who tells those stories and how, etc.

For In Memoriam, the question (which we sharpened as we explored) was what does it mean for to lose someone in public. Transmedia has a tendency to treat social media as a medium for it's own sake, but the reason social media was important for In Memoriam is that it makes everything -- even dying -- a public event. That's what we wanted to know about -- what does it mean to die publicly.

From there, the other aspects of the project -- the "vote" to determine whether the character would live or die, the "rallies" that were held as live events, the video arguments characters put forward to make their case, all stemmed from that central question -- what does it mean to die publicly?

2. YOU NEED TO BE REALLY SPECIFIC ABOUT ENGAGEMENT

It's another lesson that applies equally to any medium of creating work, but you need to keep a focus on your audience. In the transmedia world, what this means are people who participate.

A lot of hay is made about theater as being a communal, community art form, but typically that's 90% horse shit -- theater today means people showing up and having a private experience (sitting in the dark, watching a stage) in a public forum. When you get into transmedia, or other participatory art forms, you're asking people to interact in ways that they're not used to.

In this fantastic CreatEquity Arts Policy Library post, my attention was drawn to this diagram used by Alan Brown to show the different modes of artistic participation (I have issues with how the diagram presents the information, but...):

You need to be extremely specific around how each of these types of people will interact -- if at all (more on that in a moment).

In In Memoriam, the different modes of participation had different ways of following the project:

  1. Ambient -- If you friended the characters on Facebook, they would crop up in your news feed unpredictably.
  2. Observational -- If you wanted to follow the whole project, the archive contained everything that had happened.
  3. Curatorial -- We didn't target curatorial folks, but the ability to share posts from the characters or tag them in photos was available.
  4. Interpretive -- Those interested in interpreting what was going on could directly engage the characters or share their interpretations -- most effectively in their comments on the vote.
  5. Inventive -- We created a space for the inventive (fan fiction), but it wound up being mostly ignored. Instead, some of our audience members started attending events in their own characters.
3. YOU NEED TO COMMUNICATE EXPECTATIONS CLEARLY

Relating to the previous point, once you know how you want your audiences to interact with you, you need to communicate this to them clearly and directly as possible. Otherwise people will be confused, and people don't like to feel lost in a work.

People are a lot more willing to try out new things, so long as they have the sense that you know what's going on. This isn't the same as dictating to them what they must do -- people don't like to feel bullied and may not react the way you think/expect they will (they may decide to, instead of paying attention to your characters, perform their own characters and ignore yours...) and if someone is really interested in pursuing an avenue of engagement, you'd be a fool to block that intention.

But it needs to be straightforward how to engage.

4. DON'T WASTE YOUR TIME ON THE WRONG AUDIENCE

Even some of your artist friends will frown when you tell them that you're doing something participatory or interactive. The observational will not want to be inventive; there are also people in the world (even artists) who do not like to engage with things that don't fit cleanly into definitions.

Do not waste your time attempting to repackage your thing into their thing. If you weaken the interactive element of the work so that the observational people enjoy it, you might wind up weakening it for both. If you can accomodate different ways of engaging, please do -- but don't let your most hostile audience dictate how things should be for your most passionate audience.

5. INSTEAD, SET YOUR OWN CONDITIONS FOR SUCCESS

When you first set out into this, you may not know exactly how many people to expect at events, or what the rate of engagement is. We came from a background of 99 seat theaters, and thus we had a bar in our brains for what a successful event is.

But without the need to fill a 99 seat theater, we didn't actually need 99 people to recoup our costs. And, if we were honest with ourselves, the events may have been worse with 99 people -- less intimate, more over-crowded.

So for these events or engagements, you need to have a plan to scale to the size of the people who attend. If an audience of 10 show up, they need to feel like that's the amount of people that were intended for the event. If an audience of 60 show up, they need to have that same feeling. Until the day where you've done this enough where you know exactly what will happen, you need to have that flexibility.

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