Crowdsourcing: Is it healthy?

By Julie Potter

January 1, 2011, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

CROWDSOURCING DANCE EMPOWERS the audience to collectively perform the roles of, at times, curator, programmer, and even funder, potentially stoking tension between arts professionals and the public. Defined by business guru Jeff Howe as “the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people,” crowdsourcing started as a buzzword following his 2006 article in Wired Magazine. Despite its trendy business origin, this type of participation presents itself in the arts, and more recently in the dance industry with several live contests in the Bay Area this season. But is crowdsourcing healthy for dance?

During the fall, contests such as WestWave’s Bang for the Buck and sjDanceCo’s Dance Off! awarded cash prizes to artists selected by a voting audience. In January, the A.W.A.R.D. Show! arrives at the ODC Theater allowing a crowd to determine who will receive $10,000 to create new work. While each contest has a unique set of rules and one even suggests specific criteria for evaluation of the artists, all three feed a sticky conversation about the quantification and ranking of dance. Isn’t it the spirit of art that there are no winners? Do the contests make a sport of dance, or are they decent strategies for acknowledging and supporting artists? Maybe the programs are just another component of the dance ecosystem and the competitions shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

Two recent Mills College M.F.A. graduates voiced their concern that the contests encourage entertainment over art. “Are we artists or are we working to satisfy a mass population?” asks dancer and choreographer Daria Kaufman. Kristin Rooney, who has worked professionally in both commercial projects and concert dance, commented, “I think it’s unhealthy for the art world.” Both doubt that these platforms help raise the quality or innovation of dance works since the structures cater to instant gratification, with potentially more flash and gimmick. What if one of the things some audience members value in dance is a degree of resistance to mainstream taste, dismissing popularity to seek experiences and ideas that few have already had? If sales and popularity are not the ultimate measures of success in dance and the artists who make the most money are not necessarily the best artists, then why let the crowd select winners, anyway?

From an arts administrator’s point of view, voting involves the public, engaging them to influence the art experience in the role of citizen curator. In the visual arts, the photography display Click! A Crowd Curated Exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 2008 invited the public to participate in the exhibition process. Organizer Shelley Bernstein posed the question, “Is a diverse crowd just as wise at evaluating art as the trained experts?” After an open call for photography submissions, an online forum allowed for public evaluation of all submissions, culminating in an exhibition at the Museum, where the artworks were installed according to their relative ranking from the crowdsourced process. In classical music, the New York Philharmonic used audience voting to select the encore for a 2008 Central Park performance, inviting attendees to serve as concert programmers by voting via text message. About 2,000 votes were sent during the concert, selecting an orchestral arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze over Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee. Engaging audiences in the selection of art is still distinct from cultivating audiences to see new, experimental and diverse work. So what does crowdsourcing look like for dance?

THREE CONTESTS, THREE APPROACHES

For WestWave Dance’s Bang for the Buck contest and live performance at the Cowell Theater on October 10, 2010, any dancer working in the Bay Area (with a contract of less than 36 weeks) could present a one-minute variation for the chance to win $1000 cash. About 20 dancers participated, showcasing a variety of dance from contemporary and modern to jazz and theater. WestWave Dance’s Director

Joan Lazarus mentioned that the origin of the contest goes back to the Bay Area’s city-wide audition, during which dancers could be seen by many choreographers at once. Lazarus noted the solo presentations as a particularly exciting part, so the format of Bang for the Buck is extracted from the audition. With a lineup of dancers at one minute each, the event feels like speed dating for dance. “In one minute, the solos are distilling presentation. Who can reach out from the stage and grab you?” Lazarus said. All audience members got to cast a single vote at the conclusion of the performances, including a few invited dance professionals who carry extensive experience, but no attachment to the performers. In addition to the cash prize, won by dancer Adam Peterson, Bang for the Buck allowed all of the participants the opportunity for exposure and acknowledgement. “This kind of contest is not about how good the art is…it’s really a different animal,” said Lazarus. “It’s a way in for people. The more exposure [to dance] in whatever form, makes people feel more comfortable with the art.” She asserts that involving the community as much as possible in dance makes the gateway more open.

Another contest, sjDanceCo’s Dance Off!, concluded on October 9, 2010 with a live So You Think You Can Dance-style performance, complete with judges and a voting audience. The goal of the contest was to not only fundraise for the company’s autumn season, but also to let artists showcase their work in a professional setting and win prizes. The panel of guest judges, Lise Lacour, from Ballet San José, Ken Greer, a Ballroom expert, and Lazarus (WestWave), offered feedback on the eight dance works. The judges’ score for each artist was tallied equally with the audience and online voters, selecting Amy Chang as the winner of $500. Performers for the contest were selected from a preliminary round of video submissions available for public viewing on Vimeo.com, and absentee ballots for the show could also be purchased online.

Since competition is not new to dance, Gary Masters, co-artistic director of sjDanceCo, acknowledges the audience vote as the big difference. “Awareness of dance, its physicality, its challenges, difficulties and its beauty are always good, and hopefully the dance on TV will also move some to see a live performance–even if they don’t have the opportunity to vote for their favorite. sjDanceCo’s Dance Off! was a fundraising venture for the company with the hope of getting some of the people who are glued to the TV during the dance programs interested in our local version, some of the dance talent in our community and perhaps to put our company on their radar,” Masters said. “I don’t think that these contests diminish the art or the spirit of the art form. The public certainly can tell the dancers with more ‘wow,’ whether it be the physicality of their performance or their personalities. And certainly audiences have been judging 32 fouette turns, tours en l’air and complex beats in ballet for centuries. It is harder for an audience to judge true artistry, but even so, a public who attends dance performances over time knows innately which dancer has that special gift which moves their very spirit.” According to Masters, the contests “add to the wealth of possibilities available within the field.”

The most complex of the Bay Area contests will be the A.W.A.R.D. Show! (Artists With Audiences Responding to Dance), lasting from January 12-15 at the ODC Theater with the goal of creating “a lab-like space in which working dance artists can engage in an open dialogue with the audience about the work presented.” A national panel selected the 12 participating Northern California dance artists and three preliminary evenings will feature about 15 minutes of work by each of four choreographers. After every dance, a moderated artist discussion takes place, followed by an audience vote selecting a finalist to perform on the fourth and final night of the series. The A.W.A.R.D. Show! asks that audience members to evaluate work based on the criteria of potential, originality, execution and merit. In addition to voting, the audience has the opportunity to offer feedback on the artists’ work using anonymous comment cards. On the final night, the audience is joined by panel members—Rob Bailis, ODC Theater Director; Martin Wechsler, Director of Programming, The Joyce Theater Foundation; Phil Reynolds, Executive Director, The Dance Center of Columbia College; George Lugg, Associate Director, REDCAT; F. Randolph (Randy) Swartz, Artistic Director, Dance Affiliates; and Lane Czaplinski, Artistic Director, On the Boards—to choose the winner of the award.

So does the opportunity to vote change the way viewers watch, and does it increase conversations about the work? Neta Pulvermacher thinks so. She started the A.W.A.R.D. Show! in 2005 with Scott Kasen and producer Marisa König Beatty. “The way that an audience views a work when it is empowered to vote is extremely different,” she remarked in a 2008 Time Out NY interview. Based on personal experience as an audience member when I attended a preliminary evening of the 2008 A.W.A.R.D. Show! at the Joyce Soho, I felt responsible for being as fair as possible to the artists since a large sum of money was at stake. I also found it difficult to vote objectively, unsure how to weight the artist’s discussion of intentions and the actual work performed. Also notable was the crowd of largely family and friends at the event indicated by the cheering. So many variables exist.

The crowdsourcing platform elicits examination not just by audience members, but from the performing artists as well. “The A.W.A.R.D. Show! brought forth issues about the artist’s relationship to the audience itself, particularly in the post-show discussions with an empowered audience actively judging our work: how one regards an audience while making work; whether one feels responsible to communicate with an audience; and in what ways does one need the audience’s approval?” commented choreographer Kate Weare, winner of Joyce Soho’s 2007 A.W.A.R.D. Show!, in the press release. “This experience helped me come to terms with the fundamental values around these questions as an artist.”

HEALTHY IN MODERATION

The attitudes of artists, audience members and organizers toward crowdsourced dance events clearly land all over the spectrum, but perhaps the contests aren’t really that different than the everyday business of making, producing and viewing dances. “We vote with our money all the time. We are already judging. Every time we buy a ticket we are voting…I want to see this artist and not that artist,” said Lazarus. The contest platforms make the choices and selections more in-your-face than everyday consumerism, but they also implement a degree of fodder that gets people talking about dance. Everyone gets to choose for themselves to participate or not to participate, to vote or not to vote, to take it seriously or just let it be, ultimately examining and clarifying one’s values about dance.


Julie Potter is a public practice specialist, performance curator and writer based in San Francisco. As the Director of ODC Theater, she provides artistic and administrative leadership including season programming, artist residencies and public engagement. Potter was previously the Creative Ecosystem Senior Program Manager at YBCA and completed her M.A. in 2016 at Wesleyan’s Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance.

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