Johanna Blakley

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Archive for theater

Tracking “Culture”

culturetrack

I’ve been ODing on data about the arts and culture sector lately, participating in an event at the NEA and another at Disney Hall last week (you can watch the video here). I think that the arts are seriously undervalued in the U.S. and so I’m always looking for data that helps us better understand how and why humans are attracted to certain melodies, visuals and stories, and what they think they’re accomplishing when they settle into a cushy seat to soak up an opera, a ballet or a  concert.

At Disney Hall, a packed house heard top line results from Culture Track, a 13-year tracking survey of arts and culture audiences in the U.S. There’s a huge amount of data here: the 2014 survey (you can download a report) includes responses from over 4,000 people in all 50 states who are “culturally active” – they already attend some array of museums, theaters, music, dance or opera programs.

I’d say the big take-away for me is that arts audiences are not particularly loyal to arts institutions any more – they’re loyal to their own taste. Instead of subscribing to a museum or a theater, they prefer to pick and choose from the options available. Arthur Cohen, who presented the findings, described audience members as “culturally promiscuous:” they’ll have a good night at a theater and then never call for a second date.

I think that new media plays a big role in this sea change. People who use the Internet (and a vast majority of this group does) have become accustomed to seeking out what interests them rather than sitting back and being told what they might like. And so one thing you see in the Culture Track report is that attendance is down, people are going less frequently, but they are visiting a wider array of cultural offerings.

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Measuring the Impact of Art

audience

Last week I attended a high-caliber symposium co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the UK’s Cultural Value Project. They brought together a dizzying array of researchers (demographers, cognitive scientists, arts policy wonks, “recovering” academics, etc.) to discuss how we ought to measure participation in arts and culture on the local, regional, national and global scale.

“Participation” and “engagement” are key metrics for arts institutions and their funders. But the inquiry often ends right there. I think the vast majority of people in the arts – including artists and administrators – take it as a given that art has a beneficial effect on society. I happen to agree with them. Wholeheartedly. But many powerful people in this world – including those who hold the purse strings – are not necessarily convinced. Funding for the arts is paltry compared to expenditures on science, where, lo and behold, we have a lot of convincing evidence about the importance it holds for humanity. Read the rest of this entry »

Launching the Media Impact Project

MIPlogo270

Yesterday, I was very excited to launch the Media Impact Project, which aspires to be a global hub for the best research on measuring the impact of media. Supported by $3.25 million in initial funding from the Gates and Knight Foundations, I’m optimistic that the Norman Lear Center can help make media more accountable to audiences and contribute to a better understanding of the role that media plays in people’s lives.

The New York Times picked up the story and I was thrilled to see reporter Michael Cieply focus on this aspect of the program:

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Let Me Infotain You

Click on the image to see an animated version of this art by Sykotik Scarecrow.

In April of this year, I attended Fractal’11, a truly unique conference in Medellin, Colombia, that explored the convergence of fiction, art, science and technology. The event was the perfect forum for me to talk about my winding career path, which began in an English PhD program, meandered through a Web start-up and an international multimedia company and deposited me, quite happily at the Norman Lear Center

One of the many fascinating themes of the conference (I explored several others here) was the appeal of infotainment, material that serves two seemingly unrelated purposes: to occupy attention agreeably (as the Oxford English Dictionary defines “entertainment”) and to transmit practical information that may just contribute to your survival. 

My talk about Entertainment as Virtual Reality focused on the ways in which entertainment – catchy pop songs, video games, movies, opera, toys, etc. – could be understood as simulations, little virtual reality machines that allow us to test our ideas about the world in safe, artificial spaces. Regardless of how distracting a cultural object may be, it is also a powerful transmitter of information about our world, and it can have a surprisingly profound impact on our lives well outside the movie theater, concert hall or American Girls store. Read the rest of this entry »

Free Culture Forum

I was very excited to attend the Free Culture Forum in Barcelona last October: the event was quite unique in its effort to bring together a broad range of scholars and activists from all around the world to work together to develop guidelines for sustainable models for creativity in the digital age. There were some pretty noisy fights, let me tell you, but at long last, we’ve produced a great brief which, so far, has been endorsed by 69 organizations and key players in the field. Please take a look at the document and be sure to watch this fun video about the Forum and its annual entertainment showcase called the oXcars.

Halloween: A great time to let the slut out?

That's Mistress Hook to you, matey.

A few years ago, a girlfriend of mine dressed up like a pimp and her husband posed as her ho. Everyone loved it — except my friend. Hundreds of pictures and lots of laughs later, she said she’d never ever wear something that wasn’t slutty for Halloween again. “But everyone loved it!” I said. “Yeah, but Larry got all the attention!”

Women have a more than ample supply of trampy costumes to choose from these days, and I can’t help but think that demand is driving it. When I go to Halloween parties these days, I’m often amazed at the self-professed feminists, succesful businesswomen and hard-core intellectuals who turn up as French maids, horny school girls or (a perenial favorite) naughty little devils.

Don’t get me wrong. I, too, am guilty of giving in to the tramp in me. I think one reason I adore Halloween is because it gives women like me, who believe we should be taken seriously in this crazy world, a chance to do all the things that mama told us not to. Why dress up like a monster when you can be an expensive call girl instead? (When I dressed up like Anna Wintour last year, that’s what some guy thought I was.)

In a way, the most dangerous, and most monstrous thing, that a strong self-possessed woman could do in this world is to dress like a prostitute. And, of course, that’s why we like doing it.

Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian literary critic and philosopher, talked about the political importance of the carnivalesque in literary and cultural representations (hey — wasn’t I just talking about the carnivalesque the other day?). Carnavalesque describes a subversive cultural mode that overturns our assumptions about good taste and proper behavior. Modern day carnivals do this to some extent, as well as Mardi Gras and, I would argue, Halloween. In fact, I  can hardly think of any other holiday in the U.S. that so whole-heartedly commits itself to turning the world upside down, giving us a chance to become the things we fear or despise. Whether we dress up like ghouls or sluts, the act of impersonating another character is, in Bakhtin’s eyes, pretty damn subversive. It gives us an opportunity to experience our lives, briefly, from the perspective of another. Most women with strong self-esteem probably have no rational desire to be a sexual object for hire, but I think very few could argue with a straight face that they’ve never fantasized about it. Halloween gives us an excellent opportunity to confront our fears, to show surprising sides of ourselves, and to subvert our own status quo.

So what should I be this year? I’m thinking the girl with the dragon tattoo . . .

Opera Stoners?

I had the rare opportunity to go to the LA opera the other night and I’m so pleased I did. I’d heard that Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro was a crowd-pleaser, but I was still surprised by the generous portions of raunchy humor, physical comedy, catty remarks, and the anarchic glee that infused most scenes. (I was missing Project Runway that night, but I think I got a good dose of the same entertainment pleasures.) Perhaps most surprising to me were the carnivalesque coalitions of characters: unpredictable ad-hoc alliances among women, men, servants and aristocrats fuelled the comedy while suggesting that the social order is very easily subverted.

I’m not familiar with the opera world: my impression is that it’s being barely kept alive by the blue-hair demographic. But, when we went to a hipster club nearby for drinks before, we immediately bumped into some young opera patrons, and during intermission on the patio my friend noticed the unmistakable aroma of mariuana smoke. Well, well, well . . . perhaps this means that opera has found its 21st century audience? If so, maybe LA Opera fundraisers have a new target: supporters of Prop 19, California’s effort to legalize pot.

A Little Smiling Summer Night Music

I just saw the fantastic production of A Little Night Music on Broadway (with stellar perfromances by Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch) and it just so happened that I’d recently watched Smiles of a Summer Night, the Bergman film upon which it was based. It got me thinking about adaptation and how stories move across generic boundaries and media and literary forms. I was struck by a profound similarity in spirit between the film and the musical play, which I had assumed would be radically different from its 1950s predecessor. The recent New York Times review emphasized the differences between the film and play, but I disagreed: both works found a way to explore the idiocy of romance and the surprising ways in which such silliness shapes lives. Both Bergman and Sondheim are geniuses at revealing how canny and idotic humans really are.

I was curious to find out what Bergman himself thought about the play, which hit the stage in 1973. I didn’t find anything right away, but I did come across this quote, which helps to explain Sondheim’s attraction to the film and the powerful consonance that I felt between the two works:

I would say that there is no art form that has so much in common with film as music. Both affect our emotions directly, not via the intellect. And film is mainly rhythm; it is inhalation and exhalation in continuous sequence. Ever since childhood, music has been my great source of recreation and stimulation, and I often experience a film or play musically.

I would beg to differ about the intellectual component of movie watching, but I love the idea that Sondheim made the underlying music of Smiles of a Summer Night audible.

Henry Jenkins, a colleague of mine at USC, is at the forefront of transmedia studies and I couldn’t help but think of his work as I was trying to piece together the relationship between Night Music and Smiles. Jenkins argues that the most successful transmedia properties take advantage of the unique affordances of each new media platform. What’s surprising about the transformation of Bergman’s movie into Sondheim’s musical is not the fundamental differences but the weirdly synesthetic similarities.

P.S. As I mentioned above, I thought Elaine Stritch was marvelous: you could never tell whether she was forgetting her lines or just pretending like she was ready to drift off into an octogenarian haze. I guess I wasn’t sitting close enough to tell that the long pauses in her delivery (according to The Village Voice) were because she was, indeed forgetting her lines, and some production assistant was yelling them out to her from backstage. Don’t you love how brutal reality can enhance a work of art?

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