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THE ROLE OF PARTICIPATORY ART IN AUDIO-VISUAL ARTISTRY

Thesis and Introduction

The more a person is exposed and gets up close and personal with the process involving the creation and creation of any work of art, the higher will be his or her appreciation for the artistic output. It is important for an artist to make sure that the art work’s message is carried across clearly to the audience. This is a challenge that most artists face. Fortunately, in the field of audio-visual artistry, the artists have several methods by which they can utilize the various qualitative properties of vision and sound and blend them together  to get that message across easily.  This essay discusses in detail the role of participatory art in the presentation of audio visual art.

Three Examples of Art Work That Uses Participatory Art

Audience participation has quite a wide scope, depending on the context it is used in, especially with respect to the presentation of art work. The context of this research defines audience participation as the creation of an art work piece in a manner that allows an easy connection between the audience and the specific work of art. Audience participation is not necessarily solely about the role directly played by the audience in the creation of the art work since the work of art in question is not stage related,  or one in which the audience participates by viewing it live.

A Mighty Heart, 2007

It is to be noted that in the more common participatory art forms, audience participation is best encouraged by acquainting them with themes that they can relate to, that would stimulate their sense of logic and reasoning, and stir their levels of awakening. This  technique is best illustrated in Michael Winterbottom’s 2007 film, “A Mighty Heart”. Cultural alienation is the recurring theme in this movie, certainly a subject that many people can identify with. Calvert & Lewis (2004) stated that audience participation comes about through the viewer’s ethnographic appreciation for a movie, something that occurs in films more often than in stage plays. Therefore, a film should be able to speak directly to the viewers’ social perceptive dynamics. Incidentally, cultural alienation is a theme sensitive enough for most viewers’ audio-visual reception to be piqued. This stems from the nature of every human being to seek a judgmental attitude towards others’ culture, given that he or she, too, belong to a specific culture of his or her own. The cultural alienation them is threshed out in “A Mighty Heart” by way of the  continual terrorist acts perpetrated  a group of Pakistanis against the American journalist. The audience participation comes in when the viewer starts to react, either by condemning the acts of the terrorists or by trying to make excuses and justify what is being done.

As mentioned earlier, the combination of vision and sound – the visual and aural perceptions, respectively – is very useful in conveying an artist’s message, and encouraging audience participation. This combination certainly brings about a well promoted audio-visual artistry, and this section  will try to take a look at the place occupied by participatory art in modern audio-visual art, particularly with respect to the film industry. In the creation and development of audio-visual art, especially contemporary media, participatory art puts a lot of effort on engaging the audience in almost all aspects of the audio-visual work of art under scrutiny. In participatory art, the audience is supposed to actively take part in the performance instead of simply being passive recipients. In turn, this also enables the actors or major players in the art work to know their audience better and have a better understanding of the performance’s, impact on the viewers. Take, for example, a stage drama. The performers are closer to audience participation in this medium. Cheers and applause, as well as boos and collective groans, heard all over an auditorium are already good indicators to the actors and performers on whether they are doing something right. They will also know which part or aspect of their act gets the most response, both positive and negative. In essence, participatory art is incomplete if there is an elimination of a form of physical interaction with the audience (Barthes, 2007).

I love to love, 2013

Adel Abidin’s 2013 film, “I love to love”, shows another look at how sensitive social variables such as race and gender can be used to gain audience participation. Power relations, and how violence figures in the positions taken by both men and women in these relationships, take center stage. Social issues and variables are always effective in snagging audiences’ attention because it directly appeals to their ethnographic appreciations and expectations. These social variables also tend to have a heavy influence on their general outlook and view of life. Simply following the story, watching how it unfolds, is already their way of participating. This allows them to know and understand the position or stance of the art maker for  an existing societal phenomenon (Shams, Kamitani and Shimojo, 2004). In “I Love to Love”, for example, the audience is most likely to argue with filmmaker Adel Abidin, despite the fact that he’s not there with them in the flesh after the film credits have rolled. This is a common scenario that takes place after watching films such as these. The audience will be compelled to share and assert their own opinions and views on the film’s theme. They may even give their take on how the variables were presented in the story. “I Love To Love’s depiction of women as baits used by power-hungry men is definitely one of the most often used point of discussion or argument by anyone who has seen the film.


i_love_you_scene

Fig 3: A Scene from “I love to love”

While we’re on the topic of using universal themes and themes on sensitive social variables, it would be wise to note that these are not the only tools that audio-visual artists can use to engage their audience. Some also make use of behavioural variables, including, but not limited to romance, grief, and humor. It can be said that it was a good tactical decision on Adel Abidin’s part to use a disco platform in “I Love to Love”. After all, a disco, despite being a place for light-hearted and flighty fun, is usually associated with acts of violence and brutalities. This makes it an effective tool to be used in the presentation of a sorrowful storyline. There are general behavioural variables that apply to groups of people, so catching their attention will be easier. Mentioned earlier were romance, grief, and humour – perfect examples of generalized and common behaviours that, when used, can easily engage audience participation. On the other hand, the fact that each member of the audience has his or her own unique behaviour or unique set of traits is an assurance that the audio-visual artist will have a response when behavioural variables are used in a specific art work he or she is viewing.  This means, therefore, that artists should have more than a little grasp or understanding of behavioural variables, and on how best they can use these variables to get the response they want in the works of art they create. With every piece of art work they create, they should always keep their audience in mind. Demographics should be factored in; know who your audience is and what will appeal to them. Films centered on the teenage market will work better if they use teenage behavioural variables such as humor and fun, instead of something like romance or grief (Oboussier, 1995).

DVD Films and DVD Players

Looking at the current state of the overall cinematic experience, it appears that it is now difficult to clearly tell the difference between watching a film inside a movie theatre and viewing it on a DVD player at home, a computer, or some other handheld device. As a result, even film outfits and studios are now taking steps in making a clear delineation of the two, and Dream Works decided to take a gambit, zeroing in on 3D technology. Jeffrey Katzenberg, Chief Executive Officer of Dream Works made the announcement in March 2009 that, immediately following the release of the Rob Letterman- and Conrad Vernon-directed animated feature Monsters vs. Aliens, all Dream Works film projects will be produced and released in 3D.  Ordinary film viewing will now become a more immersive experience. He also believes that this would be instrumental in increasing ticket prices as well as hinder, if not stop, piracy.

 

Clearly, this is an attempt to reinvigorate Hollywood’s role in the motion picture industry, something that has been gradually decreasing over the years, the wonders of 3D notwithstanding. There is no denying that cinema is no longer as relatively stable as it once was, and this could be blamed on technological advancements and the introduction of new concepts and ideas. While the last century was all about experiments in the film industry, the entrance of the digital age, bringing with it fresh concepts on the artful reshaping of space, time, and social interaction, has resulted to a multitude of image and sound practices that, to the uninitiated and the poorly informed, is utterly overwhelming. Indeed, this move by Dream Works is just one of the many examples of a long-range plan to reconfigure to cinema at the turn of the century. A number of positive outcomes are expected to result from this reconfiguration, and one of them is “live cinema”, where video art, in its various forms, and visual music blend with the fundamental features of cinema. Basically, live cinema is the live mixing of sound and images in real time and in a flowing and evolving manner. In short, the artist becomes a performer, and the audience turns into active participants. The concept of live cinema is very broad and the perfect representation would be the “Nervous System Projection”. This is a series of performances of New York-based avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs. It also applies to the work of a group of British artists who call themselves the Light Surgeons. Their spectacular audio-visual productions focus on the relationship between sound and image, with a story thrown in there once in a while. Another example would be performances by video jocks (VJs). Here, live video is mixed as accompaniment to music being performed. It also covers immersive and ambient media environments that are crafted on an impromptu basis. Thomas Beard, editor of a collection of essays for San Francisco Cinematheque entitled Cinematograph 7–Live Cinema: A Contemporary Reader (2008) gave more examples. According to him, these forms allow artists to perform with moving images, sometimes playing overtly with the structural conditions of traditional cinema, and at other times moving more toward illustrated musical performance”. Although they may not be what one would expect with respect to their objectives, practices, audiences, and even their histories, they still symbolize the form’s expressive potential, and they both call attention to an almost global interest in exploring diverse cinematic forms, suggesting that the unity of the definition is grounded in the desire for something “live”.

 

For the last five years, live cinema has certainly made a comeback, what with the onslaught of performances illuminating galleries and museums as well as festivals cropping up all over the world. This could be credited to recent developments and advancements in media processing software, which enabled the emergence of new live cinema genres that are computer-facilitated. It is true that this is not a sure sign of stability; however, live cinema certainly brings up new needs and agenda that must be tackled and threshed out against the backdrop of a mediated culture. There are three aspects that fully characterize this recent mass of live cinema work. The first one relates to the live interaction of the art work itself, the artist/performer, and the audience. The desire for the event and its specificity are also suggested. The second aspect proposes an interrogation of forms. Here, we are asked to put the event in a context within the combined histories of cinema, video, performance, art, and music. In the third aspect, the art works often revolve around the idea that   information is very liquid, and that we exist in a mobile and fluid world, rather than one bound by concrete spatial boundaries and fixed temporal coordinates You will find these three hovering at the edge of cinema’s specificity and its digital media reconfiguration. After all, as the light, the projector, filmic emulsion, and other cinema-specific materials become what Marius Walz refers to as “soft media objects,” digital artifacts are easily retooled for new functionalities.

 

Compared to other forms, live cinema is still in its baby stages, if its definition and the practices associated with it are anything to go by. It can certainly be compared to the experimentation done in the 1970s by artists such as Erkki Kurenniemi, Myron Krueger, and David Rokeby. At the time, these artists plated with video cameras and hardware extensions to come up with live video performances or interactive installations. This comparison was made by Juha Huuskonen, curator of the annual media festival in Finland called Pixelache According to Huuskonen, “there are many people out there who are starting from the same point as in the ’70s with early video, starting from scratch and experimenting with using video as a performance tool, without much knowledge of what has been done before.”(n11) He credits this partly to the accessibility of tools, and the reality that everyone, even the amateurs, can participate. Artists who are looking to work with live sound and images certainly found more than a little help in building up a tool base, thanks to graphics cards and their increased ability to process high quality video imagery in real time. It was also made possible by the reduction of the price tags of video projectors, as well as the widespread influx of relevant software tools in the market.

 

The availability and accessibility of these tools, coupled by their user-friendly features certainly increased the viability of cross-media experimentation and played an integral role in the development of current live cinema as we know it today. But what if we look at things from another angle? What if we look at these tools and see them as expressions of some cultural need or other? Another query worth making would be as to why this explosion of sound/image performance work chose to happen at this time.

 

When given the ability to “construct, manipulate and alter”, human nature dictates that we attempt to look for some semblance of stability and get that feeling of being grounded. This quest leads us to turn to the body and in events that is a fusion of something that is created but remain to be “real” while, the whole time, staying unique. These needs are addressed by live cinema.

Theoretical Analysis of the Examples

The practice of visual arts and aural arts has always been considered as independent aspects of a single phenomenon. For the longest time, artists did not combine vision with audio in the production of art works (Gonzales, Gordon and Higgs, 2005). Visual arts were more concentrated on art forms that can only be perceived by the eye, such as paintings and drawings. Aural artists, on the other hand, tend to lean more towards art works mostly perceived by the ear, such as the spoken word, music, and songs. The discovery of audio-visual arts was the precursor that effectively combined these two independent art forms. Its gradual rise in popularity and importance finally led those who are practicing even the most indigenous forms of independent aural and visual arts to find ways to develop and present their by combining the two phenomena (Ihde, 1976). The discussion of art is a social practice, something that is commonplace in a group of people that share similar or common goals and visions, and go about their lives abiding by a common principle (Feisner, 2000). Art will no doubt be perceived as a social practice if it is created such that it has the power of connecting people and letting them find a common ground in receiving and appreciating art. The combination of vision and audio certainly does that.

Human beings have five major senses, and the two most compatible senses are the aural and the visual. There are scientific underlying characteristics that connect these two senses together. Hay (2006) implied that it should come as no surprise, then, that these two senses should be the ones addressed by the combination of vision and sound in a work of art. In a study by Campenhausen and Schramme (1995) of the wave patterns produced by these two senses, they concluded that there is a wave-like phenomenon in both the aural and visual perceptions, making  it possible for a classical Fourier transformation to take place. During the time of Aristotle and Pythagoras, a possible relationship was proposed between musical scale and the rainbow spectrum of hues. This resulted to the creation of the monochord, which represented a divided string into two parts (Greated, 2009). Helmholtz also came up with the comprehensive theory of sound, which emphasised a complete spectral distribution of sound waves (Maconie, 2001). All these theories combined led to the birth of a new industry today:  the audio-visual industry, which, in turn has also significantly transformed the social perception of art.

This connection and perfect blend between visual perception and aural perception does not mean, however, that there aren’t any critical considerations when it comes to combining them. Greated (2009, 338) said that, “although both sound and light can be considered as wave phenomena, their wave frequencies occupy very different bandwidths.” Therefore, artists in the audio-visual industry must have a full understanding on the differences between the two perceptions. That way, their correlation will result to audio-visual works of art that will be meaningful to those who are receiving them. Greated (2009) was specific when he said that “Audible sound frequencies lie approximately in the range20Hz–20kHz, a bandwidth of almost 10 octaves, whereas visible light waves only cover arrange of about4–7 x 1014 Hz, a bandwidth of less than one octave” (338). Technically, using a vision and sound capturing device set at the same bandwidth range would result in a piece of art work that does not show a visual effect that took place at the exact same moment that the audio was produced. Light travels faster than sound; therefore, there will always be a delay in the production of sound (Green, 2006). This is something that audio-visual industry players, particularly those engaged in the manufacture of audio-visual tools, must understand.

Colour – and how it is used – plays a primary role in the functioning of the audio-visual industry. Its introduction has certainly brought about various transitions, especially in the fields of filmmaking, television production, the manufacture of mobile phones, and even the manufacture of artificial aquariums. You will recall that the first motion pictures were black and white, or variations thereof. It wasn’t until colour was introduced that we started seeing colour motion pictures being produced. Fig. 1 is a comparison of a till scene from “Roundhay Garden Scene”, the oldest surviving motion film, and a scene from the more recent film, “War Horse”.

Horse

old

 

Fig 1: Above: a still from “War Horse” by Steven Spielberg (2011); below: a still from “Roudhay Garden Scene by Louis Le Prince (1888)

Clearly, color makes a lot of impact in the visual interpretation of art. It is notable how, in more modern audio-visual platforms that makes use of realistic colour that enables the audience to identify the actual colour of each item in the video, it is much easier to understand and interpret the art work. Try to look at the black-and-white scene in Fig. 1. The audience will find it difficult to appreciate the colour of the clothes worn by the characters, or the state of the foliage around them. The entire setting of the scene cannot be fully appreciated by the audience. The interpretation will be stunted, and that’s certainly not the end result that the artists are aiming for.

The ability to use different colours to encourage different understanding and interpretations and understanding to a specific art work is also vital. In Fig 2, below, a single draw is interpreted from three different perspectives because of the use of three different colours: magenta, green and cyan light. These different colours, when applied in the image below, give differentiations in the character represented. This means that artists must be mindful of the combination of colours they use in relation to the original ideas they seek to address or portray to the audience in order to promote audience participation in a visual art display (Kinsler, Frey, Coppens & Sanders, 2000).

 

Fig 2. Paintings illuminated with (a) magenta- (b) green- and (c) cyan-coloured light. (Source, Greater, 2009).

The illumination of the drawings highlights the differences in the character through contrasts created by the different colours.  Magenta shows the greatest contrast, so that the first picture stands out among the three. While it is true that the red colour is present in all three colour illuminations, the magenta and green hues emphasize the red colour especially in the forehead and under the eyes on the left picture, and above the temple on the right hand picture. In the last picture, however, the red color is shown as black (Greater, 2009).

 

 

Conclusion

Here are a couple of questions to ponder on, for further discussion: “How effective would a work of art be if it were presented from the perspective of the artist alone, without a thought for the audience and how they would interpret it? Wouldn’t the art work be deficient if audience participation is not taken into consideration in its creation or production?”

Answering these questions will give you a clearer picture of the importance of participatory art. Audio-visual art works, or most of them, are said to be the results of artists’ unique talents and the fruit of their unique visions. In some cases, their works are also claimed by many as extensions of their personality. There is a need, therefore, to present refined works of art, leaving very little to no room for critique or evaluation before they become public. The level of audience participation is definitely a definitive basis for the assessment and analysis of the opinions on the finished or completed works of art. Participatory art opens the artists up to public scrutiny, to enable them to receive public feedback and an assessment of their works of art. The feedback derived from audience participation will, in turn, enable and empower the artists to adapt and make the necessary adjustments and changes in their future works or productions. Many artists also personally claim that audience participation also makes a lot of difference to the level of passion that their work carries. There seems to be more depth and more meaning. Basically, participatory art is an avenue for making audio-visual art more enjoyable.

 

 

References

Barthes R. 2007. Image music text. London: Hill and Wang

Calvert GA, and Lewis JW. 2004. Hemodynamic studies of audiovisual interactions. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Campenhausen C and Schramme J. 1995. 100 years of Benham’s top in colour science. Perception 24(6), pp. 695–717.

Feisner EA. 2000. Colour. London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd

Gonzales J, Gordon K, and Higgs M. 2005. Christian marclay. Phaidon Press Limited.

Greater M. 2011. The nature of sound and vision in relation to colour. Optics & Laser Technology 43, pp. 337–347

Green O. 2006. More than ‘just a hammer’: critical techniques in electroacoustic practice. London: Department of Music.

Hay K. 2006. Sound: The neglected art in theatre, Edge Hill and Leeds University; Paper from conference: sound as Art, blurring of the boundaries, University of Aberdeen.

Ihde D. 1976. Listening and voice: a phenomenology of sound. Ohio: Ohio University Press

Kinsler LE, Frey RA, Coppens AB & Sanders JV. 2000. Fundamentals of acoustics. New York: Wiley

Maconie R. 2001. Stockhausen on music: lectures and interviews. London: Marion Boyars Publishers

Oboussier C. 1995. Synaesthesia in cixous and barthes, Nottingham: University of Nottingham.

Shams L, Kamitani Y and Shimojo S. 2004. Modulations of visual perception by sound. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

 


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