Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Stolen Chair: Be careful what you wish for?

I clearly remember standing in a muddy field with a farmer who shall remain nameless as he vented about the CSA members who abuse his “Suggestions” box. Grow more of this. Grow less of that. Why didn't you publish my recipe in the newsletter? “The feedback will drive you insane if you take it to heart,” he told me.

When I asked him why he didn't just ditch the box, he made it clear that, without the box, his members just seized him at each pick-up date. The box allowed him to manage his members' constructive impulses without putting the pressure to placate directly on him.

As performing artists, we are probably even more vulnerable to such pressure. We must please our audience (or please through selective displeasure, depending on aesthetic and mission), please our funders, please our critics, and more. From which of these sources do we actually want feedback? Do we care about the audience's feedback if they continue to fill our houses? The reviewer's feedback if she continues to drive our work to new audiences? The funder's feedback if those checks keep getting written? Is feedback itself an intrinsic good?

Throughout the process of this CST experiment, from our earliest research stages up until our most recent members' meetup, this question of feedback has pushed itself into our collective headspace time and time again. Though most people feel quite at ease in the critic's chair when out dining, far fewer feel comfortable extemporizing about the relative virtues and vices of produce in the raw. Our first year's experiment with the CST reveals that there may not yet exist such a distinction between the nature of feedback audiences might give to a finished work and that which they'd offer a work-in-progress. Before each invitation to discuss our very raw work-in-progress, our company has discussed what type of feedback was most helpful for us to hear from our CST members and how best to solicit it. Invariably, however, we'd botch our communication of conversational constraints. Without clear "rules of engagement," we'd find ourselves defending artistic choices...and, worse, acting defensively towards our most committed supporters! We could tighten the conversational reigns so much that no ambiguity remains, narrowing the slot on our metaphorical feedback box, but that seems unlikely to lead to the type of discourse we want.

How might we siphon the brilliance of our members' perspectives without placing ourselves in an adversarial critic-artist dialectic? The noun "feedback" has a very specific meaning in the worlds of electronics: "the process of returning part of the output of a circuit, system, or device to the input, either to oppose the input or to aid the input." Our concern with the CST isn't that our members' comments "oppose the input," but rather that we have not yet found a technique whereby they can return "part of the output."

When one encounters a work of art hanging in a museum, the impulse (for me at least) has always been to interpret the work's meaning and the artist's choices given what ever frame of reference the curator provides. I certainly don't evaluate the work's quality; whether I am familiar with the artist or not, I assume its worth is a given. (Yes, sometimes we look at the work and say "My three year-old can paint that!" But, generally, we are encouraged by the curation to interpret and respond instead of just sharing our likes and dislikes a la a Facebook post or Yelp review) If the artist herself could hear the excited interpretations her work summons from me, that would be feedback in the truest (electronic) sense of the word. I would take her input into my imagination and return it to her, offering a deeply personal perspective that might help her view her work differently. Feedback is not evaluative; it's not constructive criticism, and by linking the words as freely as we do, we risk the means of artist-audience engagement that so many of us covet.

We only have three member meetups left of our pilot season, but I am certain that in those remaining encounters, we'll be working to ensure our audience has opportunities to feed us back the imaginative reverberation that works of art can inspire.