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Friday, August 11, 2006

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Executive Director's Column

NASAA Executive Director Jonathan Katz

Public policy makers and arts managers the world over are challenged to sustain those artists and arts organizations whose mission is grounded in live performance and actual objects, but not pop culture. This task is particularly problematic in the United States, where the values and beliefs that make up our national identity are not popularly perceived to be linked to indigenous, classical and traditional cultural expression, as they are in other countries.

The digital age has increased the volume of what Nello McDaniel and George Thorne began referring to as athe quiet crisisa facing American cultural institutions more than fifteen years ago. The graying of the audiences who patronized the growth of theater, symphony, ballet and opera companies over the past forty years is a common theme at cultural conferences, and it heightens the stress with which those attending discuss succession strategies and the current proliferation of performing arts centers. Cultural leaders now speak aloud about the adeath of the audience as we know ita and the corollary suggestion that organizations ineffective in responding to that phenomenon are deserving of being aeuthanizeda themselves. (See entries by Minicucci, Lynch and Radich on Barryas Blog [www.westaf.org/blog], July 14, 2006.) The electrification of cultural experience has been documented since 1982 by the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. Several times as many people experience the institutionalized art forms through various mediaaradio, TV, recordingsathan in person. The recent Smithsonian study yields a typical finding: three times as many people interact with their artifacts online as in person. How should state arts agencies, whose general operating support to not-for-profit arts organizations has constituted 40-50% of their grant making for decades, react?

Technological advances in electronic media have transformed the way people experience the arts in several waves. In one wave, photography, recordings, radio, motion pictures, and television made existing visual and auditory images available everywhere, enabled the creation of new images in the traditional art forms, and spawned new art forms. In another wave, digital technology transformed experience by enabling artists to synthesize, alter, and juxtapose images in unprecedented detail and gradation; by bringing artists the capability to create sensory images that mimic and even expand human perception of natural phenomena; by allowing art to be influenced by previously impossible amounts of assembled, sorted, processed, and re-configured data; and by providing a new portability that made art available at all times, in new places, and in the midst of all kinds of activity.

As digital technology is applied more and more systematically to the creation of knowledge and the invention of experience, we are awash in new modes of online interaction. Networks of people living all over the world create artifacts. Extended performances and exhibits can be shared globally in real time. Virtual reality influences video, language learning, leadership development. Artificial intelligence increasingly enables online experience to adapt to the habits and preferences of individual participants. Artifacts, including games, more and more frequently offer the online player tools to shape the storyas events, influence the characters, determine the ending. The data that can be formatted digitally can be so complex that the artifact you experiment, play with, and re-design is a city, the health of a cultural community, a Middle-Eastern political and military conflict. The sixteen-year-old son of NASAA Managing Director Dennis Dewey produces videos using software that enables him to coordinate production with a score of collaborators all over the world, each of whom programs a screen character as directed. Which grantees of a state arts agency, I wonder, are going to offer experiences that will attract his participation?

As the technology has increased the power and complexity of online experience, it has decreased the size, weight and expense of the hardware. Itas old news that for under $200 you can purchase a hand-held Aiptek that functions as a camcorder to make videos with voiceover in addition to connecting to your TV/VCR/DVD player to record TV shows, movies, video clips, pictures and audio recordings, which you could play back on that same little portable device (while you travel or exercise) or on the biggest screen you have at home. For several years now, you could purchase an iPod that allows you to sync a slide show (as much time as you determine for each slide) with the playlist of music you edit. Webcams open up architecture by enabling you to watch buildings being built and renovated. At relatively modest cost, you can not only burn your own music anthology CDs, you can dub, sample and, basically, be your own DJ.

This has been a long introduction to the main idea I want to share, but itas necessary because the power of the technological forces faced by the cultural grantees of public agencies and private philanthropy in the United States must not be underestimated. John Naisbitt, who wrote Megatrends in 1982 (look for the update later this year), expected an equivalence between ahigh techa and ahigh touch.a High tech, however, got very good at offering high touches. What Iam about to suggest is that even the kind of communal interactionafamily, social and civic activitiesathat distinguishes some of the most successful arts producing and presenting organizations at this time will be insufficient in just a few years.

My premise is that people who grow up with digital media experience the world differently from others who do not. They live in what I call athe continuum.a In the continuum, one interacts alone with digital media, one interacts with others through digital media, one interacts with digital media and others at the same time, one interacts alone with non-digital media, one interacts socially with others in person, and sometimes these social interactions involve non-digital media (e.g., books, live music, paintings). In the continuum, these interactions happen seamlessly, whether they are sequential or simultaneous.

Marc Prensky, in his book entitled On the Horizon (NCB University Press, 2001), explains where this sense of seamlessness comes from:

Todayas studentsaK through collegearepresent the first generations to grow up with this new [digital] technology. They have spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, videocams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age. Todayas average college grads have spent less than 5,000 hours of their lives reading, but over 10,000 hours playing video games (not to mention 20,000 hours watching TV). Computer games, email, the Internet, cell phones and instant messaging are integral parts of their lives.

Prensky believes that this degree of digital experience leads one to athink and process information fundamentally differently,a that awe can say with certainty that their thinking patterns have changed,a and that ait is very likely our studentsa brains have physically changed.a He is the person who coined the terms adigital nativesa and adigital immigrants.a Primarily concerned with education, he describes what he considers alegacy contenta areading, writing, arithmetic, logical thinking, understanding the writing and ideas of the past, and afuture content,a which he suggests includes not only software, hardware, robotics, nanotechnology and genomics, but also ethics, politics, sociology and languages. One could take issue with these content distinctions, but one neednat; his point is not that legacy content is less valuable than future content in the world to come, but that what it is valuable to learn from both will have to be taught differently to digital natives. His own work emphasizes games as a teaching tool. I highly recommend a visit to www.marcprensky.com and some visits from there to www.socialimpactgames.com, www.dodgamescommunity, which features games created and/or used by the U.S. military, and www.gamesparentsteachers.com.

The for-profit arts world is already acting on the experiential and behavioral differences between digital immigrants and digital natives in very sophisticated ways. Check this out:

The smash success of Appleas iPod is paying huge dividends for a less-well-known music industry player, online retailer, eMusic. . . . Like Napster and Rhapsody, eMusic is a subscription service. Unlike those of its competitors, eMusic customers fully own the songs after downloading, with no restrictions. How does it do that? EMusicas songs are unprotected MP3s, which means they play on any device. Rivals sell copy-protected songs aimed at preventing unauthorized trading on file-sharing networks.

EMusicas supplying labels donat worry about such trading because eMusic users tend to be older, sophisticated music fans who are less likely to engage in online song-swapping.

USA Today, 7/31/06, 3B

Song-swapping and other digital socializing is natural to digital natives, but not to digital immigrants, however asophisticateda their musical knowledge and taste. EMusicas exploitation of this fact has led to a market share second only to iTunes, an average monthly download by its subscribers of 5 million songs, and a doubling of its subscription base in the past 7 months.

How can digital immigrant artists and arts organizations led by digital immigrants compete with the other choices digital nativesathe audiences of the futureacan make in the use of their leisure time? I offer a few initial ideas:

  1. Establish a acontinuum consciousnessa
    I donat expect many experiences online in the near future will have the sensory, emotional and communal power of a live arts activity in a venue designed for that purpose. I do think that the artist and arts organization that integrates and extends the transformative live experience in digital individual, group and interactive experiencesathat offers ways online to prepare for the live experience, discuss it with others before, stimulate reflection on it and communication about it after, is going to have a significant competitive advantage, especially in engaging digital native participants. I think it would be a profitable exercise for artists and for producing and presenting arts organizations to make it routine to conduct a acontinuum optionsa discussion in the planning of performances, exhibits, media offerings, publications, fund raising events and even capital improvements.
  2. Be informed by digital natives
    In making staff and volunteer leadership appointments, seek a useful mix of digital natives and digital immigrants. Engage young people who live in the continuum as advisors and task force members. Reach out to participants and audience through digital media including listservs, blogs, podcasts. Recently, I addressed a statewide conference of arts managers and educators numbering about a hundred people. I asked how many were MySpace members. Two hands went up. MySpace.com is the largest online social networking portal. According to various sources, it has in the neighborhood of 40 million visitors monthly and 50,000 groups including fashion, health, sports, music and film. In early 2006, the site claimed to be adding 160,000 new registrants daily. Participants create their own network community by designing the page that represents them with their written profile, images, music, comments and messages. They commonly send and receive instant messages for hours. They can afrienda and extend their community by browsing sites of people they donat know and leaving messages. It costs nothing to register and the only requirement is that one be 14 years of age. MySpace is only one of many social portals. Facebook was started two years ago by a 19-year-old interested in networking Harvard students. The company now claims profiles from 6.1 million college students representing more than 2,100 schoolsaincluding 65% of undergrads at four-year colleges and universities. It opened high school registration in September 2005 and by March 2006 claimed 900,000 new members. It seems to me that effectively marketing the arts to new generations of audience will be easier for someone who has direct familiarity with the ways in which tens of millions of digital natives communicate and socialize than for someone who is not informed by that experience. It also seems to me that messaging through entries in large and influential blogs to reach digital native markets is inevitable.
  3. Start a "continuum" archive and network
    Be on the lookout for programming that integrates live artistic experience with online and digital experiences that are individual or social, simultaneous, before or after. Network with others who are interested in innovation and willing to share what they find. I was just looking through my August 2006 issue of Wired and there's an article entitled "The Artful City; Interactive exhibits go wireless in downtown San Jose." Here's an excerpt:

    In August, the weeklong ZeroOne festival will transform Silicon Valley's San Jose into an interactive art project. A square mile of downtown will be blanketed with a high-speed wireless network that dozens of artists from all over the world will use to let festival-goers sing, skate, and play their way through the event. Oh, and good news for locals: The Wi-Fi stays behind when the installations leave town (page 054).

    This article goes in my archive because several activities (even though some seem minimally artistic to me) are extended and made interactive through digital media. One is called Saint Joe: "Cell phone users can dial into location-based, semi-fictitious historical narratives of San Jose while riding the light rail." Another is "PigeonBlog, where "sensor-equipped birds capture pollution data that's then posted to a blog."

    When I visited Prensky's www.socialimpactgames.com, I was amazed at the seriousness of the topics. Games featured included World Hunger--Food Force, which is designed to educate young people about the United Nations World Food program, Public Health--Outbreak at Water's Edge, which challenges you to discover the source of an outbreak in a small community and stop it before it spreads, and Media Blackout, an interactive, 3D video game, in which the user is confronted by "a constellation of militarists, plutocrats, right-wing media moguls and neo-fascist populists" who are attempting to "colonize subjectivity" and "dominate the psyche" through control of media. It occurred to me that this last game might be a fascinating programming option in connection with a Big Read discussion of Fahrenheit 451. So, a printout of the game catalog went in my continuum archive.

If living in the continuum is a defining characteristic of future generations and my suggestions to artists and arts organizations are on target, what are the implications for state arts agencies? That one responsibility they have in common is to incorporate into their grants processes, their staff work, and the work of their partners the kinds of encouragement, assistance and tools that will help artists, arts organizations, and other providers of cultural activities compete for participants whose experiential options from other sources will be increasingly creative, interactive and personalized.

As always, your comments, ideas and suggestions are welcome. I would be grateful to receive examples of cultural activities that seem especially competitive in the continuum as well as information about strategies you employ to empower your constituents to produce and present such activities.