Blog Post

Reflections on crowdsourcing and expertise

I recently just finished up a collaborative yearlong project called The Wonder Show and am now in the final stages of evaluating it for funders. In brief, my collaborator and I worked to reinterpret the Victorian popular art form of the magic lantern show (the magic lantern is a kind of early slide projector that was eventually eclipsed by cinema). We embarked on the project with an interest in reproducing antiquated visual experiences for contemporary audiences, working with the public library’s special collections to reproduce through 19th century photographic techniques an enigmatic collection of snapshots documenting life in Rhode Island at the turn of the century. We viewed this project as a practice of public history: exposing the public to historic images and technologies in a new and exciting way. Leading up to the magic lantern show, we held creative writing workshops in the library and at an assisted living facility and commissioned local storytellers to write original stories inspired by these photographs. What resulted were two performances featuring a series of readers – in ages ranging from ten to eighty – performing original stories as the photographs were projected behind them with the magic lantern.

As a humanities program, the event was certainly unorthodox. In a way, we “crowd sourced” the act of historical interpretation, leaving it not in the control of experts but in the hands of everyday residents. We sacrificed historical accuracy for creative liberty. Rather than simply deliver historical information, we wanted to help foster personal connections to historic materials through the creative act of writing and close looking. While we provided audiences with some contextual historical information in the program, the stories presented were far from the “straight facts,” and some took very inventive turns. Even the magic lantern performance itself differed wildly from the shows that 19th century viewers would have experienced. From our audience evaluation surveys, we found that a few audience members who went into the performance expecting a well-honed theatrical experience were disappointed, or let down by some of the “amateur” writers.

These people were missing the point.  

What such a community-driven event requires is a different set of criteria with which to judge success. Creating something through collaboration – particularly with the input of people of different ages, races, social, and educational backgrounds – requires recalibrating ideas surrounding authority, artistic excellence, and historical accuracy. Like those disappointed audience members, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal similarly laments the rise of crowd sourcing as an attack on quality and good taste. With a whiff of elitism (and, in some parts, xenophobia), the author writes “But promote and engage whom?” in reference to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s attempt to crowd source through YouTube the next artist to perform a concerto with the orchestra. He gainsays those who voted for former students and neighbors as an assault on standards of quality. And while I agree that a participatory culture has catalyzed a crisis in traditional kinds of aesthetic judgment, I think that voting for a neighbor – essentially, an act of kinship – should not automatically be discounted as a viable rationale.

True, in the perennial peanut gallery that is the Internet, everyone has a soapbox; the singular authorial narrative is on the decline and the future has become crowd-sourced. We are confronted with the phenomena that many more people than ever before can publicly voice their opinions, and yet as a society perhaps we have not yet quite made sense of this freedom, and what it means. In other words, now that people are participating, how we make it matter? Instead of pitting excellence against participation,we have to figure out what makes for excellent participation.

Part of this is identifying and defining multiple criteria for “success.” In my project, we were trying to achieve something different than theatrical excellence or accurate historical recreation. Amid the stress and frustrations of coordinating the logistics of the performance involving multiple stakeholders, I found that the “magic” of the magic lantern show for me occurred more often than not behind the scenes (literally and figuratively). It occurred during one evening workshop at the assisted living facility when we were all discussing our personal memories spurred by the photographs, and somehow discovered that a majority of this intergenerational group had all experienced the sensation of gathering fresh eggs. It occurred backstage when I saw performers from different walks of life having conversations in a space that might not have been possible had we not consciously created it. When the project was working at its best, I found there was magic in the conversation: getting a group of people together in one room to talk about images, about history, about their life experiences.

In a recent series on co-authorshipby the Pew Center for Art and Heritage, theater director Michael Rohd of Sojourn Theater says it best: “My belief in the value of those [collaborative] explorations is the bridge between excellence and participation. Co-authorship for the sake of inclusion—without a true passion for collision—can lead our conversations as makers into a misdirected debate about “professional” and “amateur.” Those who have spent a lifetime learning an artistic discipline bring a virtuosity unmatched by those whose energy has been spent elsewhere. But that virtuosity is not the only value that makes an art experience potent for the engaged audience/witness/participant.” [my emphasis]

I’m not saying that my project was a total success, even by our own measures. It began as more of an experiment in thinking about how to approach and discuss these issues. And as we think about the next performance, we are still finding the balance between art and history, education and entertainment, and single and collective authorship. So, I’m curious, for those of you who work to engage the public in any way: how do you define a successful program?

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