Friday, July 20, 2012

Won't You Paint My Picture?

A while ago, I mentioned the giant, paint-your-own-adventure-coloring-book that we were planning.  I was super excited.  Even before it was colored, the object was truly a piece of art.  Four 5ft tall panels beautifully illustrated by Ari Dallas and bound together by organic hemp strung through brass grommets.  Each panel even had four color-coded quirky questions that allowed participants to decide what was happening in the story.  There was a big arts festival happening in Williamsburg and I just knew people were going to love this.  
  But they didn't. 

Oh sure, a few people did.  Particularly small children who enjoyed making random marks with large crayons on giant paper.

But the vast majority of people just walked on past.  Now, with most interactive art, the majority of passersby won't participate, but in this case the participation rate was particularly terrible.  Many people would glance at the coloring book and smile and then walk on by; some wouldn't even notice the thing.  
So why didn't people get excited about a giant paint-your-own-adventure coloring book? Having worked on a fair number of interactive art projects, I've developed a rubric by which to evaluation them: NEFAR, an acronym that as the advantage of sounding the like beginning of "nefarious."  NEFAR stands for:


Noticeable: The coloring book was somewhat noticeable.  I was banking on its size to catch people's attention, but for a while we had it on the ground which diminished its visibility. Later, we tried holding it up, but it sort of looked like a sign or banner.  In the middle of a festival, it was not particularly unique.
Easy: I think this was one of the two main problems.  The system of answering questions was quite complex. Each question had a color, and you would show your answer to the question by which medium you used to make that color in the picture.  However, this was not immediately obvious to passersby, who could barely make out the difference between mediums anyway. So either the whole thing was really complex, or if you just ignored the questions, it led to a different problem...

Fun:  Just coloring a picture is not actually that exciting.  Especially when there are tasty food stalls nearby, warm sun, soft grass, and good friends to talk to. If people actually took the time to read the questions and understand the story, they usually were quite intrigued, but usually not enough to bend over and color something. They would rather just pick their answer and laugh than go through the work of identifying a medium and pouring on the elbow grease.

I won't even bother going into Affirming or Relational, since most people never got that far.

Instead, I'd like to contrast it with a community mural I participated in this past week.
This mural is "NurtureNature" on PS84 on the corner of S 1st and Berry in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. 

Noticeable: Yes.  There is no way that some can walk past a three story mural on a street corner with a swarm of people painting it and not notice.

Easy: Yes. The lead artist has drawn the outlines of everything.  Assistants tell participants what colors to paint where.  It's basically paint by numbers but you don't have to even know numbers or colors, just apply the brush where the person pointed. 

Fun:  Not really.  It's basically like painting your house.  A lot of repetitive motion without any artistic creativity.  But it's really easy to talk to the other folks while you are doing it!  

Affirming: I usually mean this in the sense that the project affirms your creative self-expression.  But in this case, the mural offers a different sort of affirmation.  After you've painted a portion, you can step back and see that your contribution will be visible to the whole community for years to come.  There's definitely a sense of pride that comes with that. 

Relational: You aren't really making relationships with the other artists, although I did strike up a few conversations while painting, but you are creating an incredible sense of relationship to the neighborhood.  Suddenly this street corner is important to you, because something you have created has made it beautiful.

Of course I'm not sure anyone off the street randomly participated in the mural, so ultimately the invitation to participate and sense of openness has to be present.  The coloring book definitely was very explicit about the invitation to participate, and those people brave enough to join in received a completely unexpected infusion of silly art in their lives and left with very large smiles. 


Unknown said...

I like your analysis of the visual art projects. But there's also the element of whether or not the experience builds a sense of belonging to a community. Weekly gatherings to make art together, with the chance to be both individually creative and part of a group, will stick with people more. A dance group has that same combination of individual expression and group bonding to look forward to during the week.

Ben McKelahan said...

I completely agree about the importance of a weekly gathering! If you are in NYC, check out our weekly gathering Sunday nights at 7:30. There's more information about it in the post below called "Parables." Also if you are a dancer, we are planning a weekly gathering to explore biblical stories through theatre, dance, and music starting after Labor Day.