A Virtual Concept: Taking a New Look at Technology and Networking in Artist Residencies

By Ryan Crowder

November 1, 2009, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

CounterPULSE wanted to try something new with Performing Diaspora to better support work from artists, document the process of production and to interact with audiences. We created a virtual artist residency, like none other we have seen before, thus expanding the organization’s breadth and depth online so that the artistic work, performances and discussions can reach beyond a visit to our space. Audiences can now be more involved in the creation of the work, get to know the artists and watch their pieces develop over time. It’s our hope that this builds more investment in the program than had someone simply seen an event posting and come to a show.

In the beginning we set off as a staff to plan a new sort of artist residency, knowing that CounterPULSE operates on a tight budget with only two full time staff, four part-time staff and a legion of interns, whatever we created would need to be completed with elbow grease, ingenuity and creativity rather than consultants and cash. After an initial assessment, we upgraded our website to WordPress and set our sights on capturing and uploading artist interviews and work in progress showings as well as developing a library of blog posts.

All the effort to create deep and meaningful online content could be based in a desire to make as much money at the performances. Sure, trying to sell tickets provides great motivation, but our purpose runs much deeper: we seek to update how audiences view, interact, and build interest in art. As a non-profit organization focused on art and action, we strive to present artists’ work in a way to affect the most audience members possible.

Supposedly audiences who come to a performance with background information get more out of it than ones who don’t have that previous knowledge. Performing Diaspora adds an extra challenge to this as the 13 artists come from specific heritage-based arts and are innovating within those forms. When viewing the performances, very few audience members will know what part of each art form is being changed, questioned or experimented with; some changes are subtle and others are more obvious. By sharing this information ahead of time, we hope that audience members can pull more meaning from the work, in some cases understand the intention of the work, know the history of the art form or relate to the artist, all of which hopefully leads to more personal resonance.

The virtual residency concept has provided space for the artists in the program from across the state to build bonds with each other. Connecting with others online is not anything new, but the amount of content, paired with face to face meetings has resulted in much more than intermittent message board chatter. These artists have turned to each other in support of getting through a demanding program, for inspiration and feedback about the work, and to help guide each others blog entries as they show, write and interview on their process. These interactions have not been private, the public can see them. By allowing the blogs and videos to be visible to the public, the process and progression of making art becomes more open, which we hope will draw audiences in.

I believe Performing Diaspora is not only important because the social content of the work and the support of under-funded artists, but because artists are being pushed to create meaningful art and write about that work, talk about their process and relate to it with words. I have met many artists who are uneasy talking candidly about the work they produce. Few exude a comfortable confidence in exposing themselves and their work to the public at large and even fewer have a language to communicate besides what is used for grant applications or to talk to other artists and collaborators.

To add to the challenge, many artists have disdain for social media, as if using Facebook or Twitter to broadcast their work is somehow selling out. Folks feel pride for avoiding computers and online social media. They hold tight to the perspective that online involvement is pointless because meeting face-to-face is much more “real.” I have to admit there are times when I completely agree; I don’t know anyone who wants to sit in front of a computer all day (pssst…people are carrying them in their pockets these days), networking and updating profiles. But by failing to put oneself out there an artist is more likely restricted to making contact with individuals who run in their same circles. It can be a difficult jump to make, and might feel exposing, but it allows the truly creative and engaging artists to connect with audiences.

Not every artist wants their work explained to audiences, they may not want to share themselves or give insight to the meaning of their work purely for the sake of promotion. My view is that online integration can be a vehicle for a more open-ended process and product, not strictly promotion. Blogging about artistic work doesn’t have to be picking apart and exposing flaws, rather it can provide an avenue for audiences to become invested in the work. It is communicating in a different way, letting people know about what an artist is up to. In this particular moment people want to know who artists are and what they are creating. I say, give in to this and let’s make dance and performance more visible online while building relationships and simultaneously promoting and distributing art.

Performing Diaspora blogs have included a wide variety of approaches to providing interest and context for potential audiences, including in-depth personal stories from Prumsodun Ok’s trip to Cambodia, backgrounds on Kathak and the gugin, and personal confessions, frustrations, and joys. For instance, Oakland-based Adia Whitaker recounted her hesitancy at developing work, feeling trapped and worried about a final product. By writing about this, she didn’t need to give away secrets of her work, but instead can connect with a reader’s inner anxieties surrounding a performance. By sharing in a public forum, she opens up a window to her production in a way that lets people care about her and her process before they even enter a theater.

CounterPULSE has followed the traditional routes of marketing and PR for Performing Diaspora, but with evaporating arts coverage throughout the bay, our efforts have increasingly turned to social networking in the hopes of pulling people in through participatory elements; people can watch videos, read and comment on blog posts, plus have the ability to easily pick and chose how they engage. I question the difference between a self-generated blog post and an interview for a newspaper or documentary for television. Self-produced, inexpensive forms of online content and publicity for Performing Diaspora have created opportunities for folks to share their art with individuals who may not read art or dance publications. In today’s media climate, sending out an email about a show, posting an event listing on a website, and getting a critic to review your work will not guarantee it will be seen. How successful is a postcard in a sea of postcards at a theater? Do we want to attract the same audiences who always see art or should we also approach people who aren’t already part of our community? Artists need to acknowledge that to grab the attention of casual arts patrons, art needs to be more than a single performance. Let’s build buzz as a community, get excited, post it on YouTube and see what happens.

As of the date of writing this article, the resident artists of Performing Diaspora have cumulatively written over 40 blog posts on the CounterPULSE blog, participated in two work-in-progress showings and sat down to an interview, all available on YouTube. What has happened is because of the blood, sweat and tears of arts administrators and artists on a minimal budget. The website is now on a platform that any staff member can update without a background in web design. The interviews were recorded on iPhones and other personal cameras, the blogs were posted directly by the artists after a short training orientation, and the work-in-progress showings were quickly filmed and uploaded by a videographer. It has been an experiment in developing quick, content-rich and inexpensive online content.

This article appeared in the November 2009 issue of In Dance.

Ryan Crowder is the Outreach Coordinator at CounterPULSE and an independent graphic/web designer. He lives in San Francisco and likes to people watch.