Ordering the Threads: “interpretive artistic mediation” and accessibility in art

Lately, I’ve had to take a break from this writing in order to catch up a bit on my day job and my more domestic duties.  It is interesting, in the absence of being able to write about my random threads of thought, to watch my brain rev and churn on certain ideas without truly having a chance to sort them out.  For me, writing this blog helps align the many different strings of thought about the arts (because I’m one of those guys who seems to be constantly thinking about art) into something closer to a nice tight grid.  It allows me to see what is useful, what connects, and what can go by the wayside, or at least be pocketed for later.

Does something similar need to happen when I go to a piece of art?  Or, more outwardly directed, when I present a piece of art to others? Like the many, many feeds that I pull in consciously and subconsciously as I curiously wander through the world, the artistic experience of the patron is often a distillation of incredible inputs, presented in faucet form, gushing out and then complete.  Is some interpretation in order?  And do we need to help?

The technical jargon-y term I have heard for what I’m zooming in on is “interpretive artistic mediation,” which can come in basically three temporal forms—pre-performance mediation, post-performance mediation and, most controversially, in-performance mediation.  The idea is to create obvious and circumspect activities that help the patron, essentially, make sense of their experience.  You, as the presenter, mediate the experience, make it easier to get more out of it, encourage the lingering that I do over the best ideas I pull in rather than the discarding that happens with the worst of them.  Essentially, you stack the deck for retention of the experience.

Which can all, of course, be interpreted as creating a bridge between someone incapable of assimilating an artistic experience without your help, and a piece of art too opaque or complex to be fully considered without your ordering lens.  Gulp.

I sit on the board for Z Space here in San Francisco, an arts incubator and presenter founded by David Dower and now run by Lisa Steindler, a good friend of mine.  I was telling Lisa about some of these mediation ideas and I saw her visibly wince.  Her reaction isn’t unusual, especially for artists and artistic directors.  Why, they ask, do we need to be mediating this artistic experience?  Why do we need to be building out bridges and then hand-holding people to help them cross?  Why the crumbs?  Isn’t, in a way, the journey to whatever artistic understanding a single patron ends up generating about an artistic piece part of the piece itself?  Doesn’t augmentation of that journey—whether by tagging along and whispering in  the person’s ear or by posting signs along the road—get in the way of the truth of that journey?

I am sympathetic to this impulse even as I’m not sure I agree.  Art has, after all, been relatively unmediated for a long, long time.  But I also think there’s something different now, in part because for most people we’re not talking about people who believe in a basic amount of artistic/cultural competence, who have been raised in an art-rich environment, who have a leisurely amount of time to linger over the implications of the work.  We instead are dealing with 3 or more decades of destructive anti-arts and culture sentiment, an entire generation or more who have no particular compassion or yen for art, and who, more than anything, are defined by an incessant need to be doing many things at once.  In the face of this, I think this fear of mediation can seem at once sort of snobby and lazy (though I know it’s not meant that way).  In my head, I see a bunch of people anxiously sitting in a library all staring at a door, some of them seasoned and jaded, some of them newly engaged in whatever’s about to come through the door.  The artist sits behind the door, art in hand, and when the clock strikes 8 he opens the door, flings the art inside, ducks back behind, and dives away—“Here is your art, 1, 2, 3, go!”—like it is a bomb about to explode all over the audience, messy and personal but not in need of further articulation; as though (and perhaps this is exactly how they see it) when someone has the art in hand the artist’s work is done, and the clean-up is on them.

I guess.  Maybe.  In Imagine, Jonah Lehrer’s new book, he tells a story about how frustrated Bob Dylan would get when people would ask him to interpret his lyrics.  I get that impulse.

But I also think that we overestimate how much parsing a lot of our patrons are doing once they leave the experience.  For a lot of artsgoers—especially jaded, older patrons who have been to lots of arts experiences in their lives and, on the other end, anyone who is leaving an arts experience in order to plunge back into a life of work and kids and nine zillion other demands—lingering on and dissecting an arts experience just isn’t in the cards.  For those people, if an experience is quite strong, then some memory might linger and pop up with the right alchemy later, and the brain may churn away at parts of it subconsciously, but it is scattershot.  Some might argue that’s how it’s supposed to be—random, unexpected, a sudden wash over you and then it recedes again.  I’d ask why, if we can attempt to make it more than that.

This isn’t about dumbing down work anymore than it is about the audience not being smart enough to get it without our help.  It’s about recognizing that art can be opaque just like Ulysses is opaque, that art can be challenging just like Guernica is challenging, that art can be unsettling and gigantic and detailed—and that for some people, they actually want to know what sits behind the veneer.

When supertitles were first proposed in opera, there was an uproar.  Supertitles, it was argued, distract from the experience, pull you away from the music and the visual, require your eyes to jump, overlay a level of processing that would inevitably engender less impact.  In hindsight, as supertitles (or now, more usually, subtitles run on a personal screen in the seatback in front of you, which is much less distracting if you don’t want them) have become more ubiquitous, the idea that for some people actually understanding the words might be a useful step along the way to a fully absorbing experience seems obvious.  What about understanding the intentionality of a dance piece?  What about being prompted to hear leitmotifs in a piece of orchestral music?  What about a director whispering in your ear about why certain choices were made as you watch a play unfold?

I’ve got to say, I’m biased.  I’m one of those guys who bought the entire Lord of the Rings DVD box set, watched all of the movies without commentary and then went back and watched all of them again with the commentary on.  And then I watched all of the extra documentaries on the costumes and the sets and the digital effects.  I’m one of those guys who reads synopses of Mad Men before I watch the episode and then goes back afterward and reads what the recappers are saying.  I seek out spoilers for my favorite shows and read supporting materials for the theatre, music and visual art I see.  I read (all of) Ovid’s Metamorphoses before seeing Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses.  I love interpretation.  I love knowing what the thoughts were that existed before the piece itself, what the considerations were that led to this moment, this night, at this point.  I think it makes things richer, and rather than proscribing anything I think interpretive mediation has the potential to still give people freedom to curate their own impact, just with more options.

How can the peripherals help dissect an experience?  What can we do to help connect people’s artistic experiences to their life experiences, thereby jumping the rails onto a mental track that is already well-worn and easily accessed later?

In a way, this plugs into a larger conversation that is going on about the accessibility of the fine arts to this new world of not-yet-patrons.  This same basic issue drives much of the conversation about new play development, curation, “participation” in all its forms, assessment, impact and relevance.  Accessibility comes in a lot of forms, but in this case I think that creative solutions to interpretive mediation may mean allowing us to maintain the core form of theatre (or any of the arts) while increasing its relevance.  We don’t need it to all be sing-along Sound of Music, we don’t need it to all be people sitting around reading a play to each other—we can still have people sitting in a room breathing together watching people who have honed their craft present concentrated life experiences on a stage.  By innovating to accessibility through creative interpretive mediation techniques (before, during and after a piece of art is consumed), I believe we might all get a little closer to being relevant to more people more often.

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  1. says


    Provocative post. It was when I was working at On the Boards that I first encountered artists like Anne Bogart’s SITI Company and the Wooster Group and Miranda July and many, many others that I had known about but never had the opportunity to see because of my geographical coordinates prior to moving to Seattle. Since I was the managing director I went to every performance. Inevitably over the 4-5 times I would see a piece it would become richer, and more meaningful, and my “understanding” of it would increase. By closing night I would, in a way, fall in love with every piece that Lane had programmed. It wasn’t about, necessarily, extra “information” but simply relaxing into the piece and being able to take in more and more of it. At the time, Lane and I discussed letting people come back for free to see the shows again if we had extra seats available (sort of a “free refills” program). That never got off the ground while I was there but now, of course, OtB TV exists. So now one can go back and revisit an OtB piece over and over again. This is one of the reasons I’m a fan of recording and distributing live performance. Since it is impractical for most people to go back to a performance multiple times it is another way to re-experience the work. Having said all this, sometimes even after watching a piece multiple times one still has questions.

    Personally I find value in a bit of pre- or post performance contextualization being available when I go looking for it, particularly with highly conceptual work. Some patrons would prefer not to have such information thrust at them and so it’s important that they can choose for a “pure” experience of the piece. Likewise, some artists would perhaps prefer not to be contextualized. So be it. It is possible that such artists will find it increasingly difficult to get work over time, or develop a wider audience. But being appreciated by a few and working under the radar may be preferred to being interpreted for the masses. I think this is a valid position for an artist to take.

    As far as interpretation during the performance–well, it seems to me that such an element becomes part of the artistic experience and, thus, is entirely in the domain of the artist. In that sense, even pre-show fundraising appeals and announcements about candy wrappers can be inappropriate with many works (e.g. those that are clearly aiming to immerse or seduce the audience from the moment patrons walk in the door). If an artist is OK with optional commentary being added to a recorded experience, or comments being tweeted to audience members during a show, then great. But if it alters the artistic experience then I think it has to be done with the artist’s approval. There are bands that consciously choose to perform in “listening environments” rather than bars because their music doesn’t lend itself to conversation and the clatter of glasses, etc. Similarly, some artistic experiences may lend themselves to interaction and live interpretation and for some such a dynamic would detract from rather than enhance the artistic experience.

    What would be the point of doing that?

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

  2. says

    Diane, interesting. How do you come down for things like supertitles then, which often are imposed without artistic approval? I wonder, given your contextualizing around mediation as part of the artistic experience, whether this type of input isn’t something like a public extension of the usually private work of a dramaturg.

    To your point about artistic approval: I have been thinking a lot lately about the shifting boundary between where the art “ends” and the curation/presentation of that art begins. It is, after all, the role of the organization to curate a work–which in other artistic forms often means providing additional context that does, in a sense, interact directly with the art-in-prowess (think for example of traditional identification placards at museums or, more recently, Nina Simon’s post-it placards project). I think (without judgment, at least mostly) that theatre continues to give greater weight to an unmediated artistic experience as sort of a given of the artistic contract–which in a way is ironic given how much complaining (much of it justified) has been going on about the opacity of organizations as conduits for the artistic intent to audiences.

    Ultimately, often, artists don’t create first and foremost with audience impact in mind — sometimes they do, and I’m not knocking artists either way there. More, what I’m saying is that the artist should be free to work as they want to, and should be engaged more fully where they can be as a contributor to materials that make a work richer–program notes and questions, talkback formats, audience design, post-event reminders, and, I would argue, interpretation during performance.

    Alan Brown has been through around this concept of “interpretive assistance for the sighted” in our events–building off of the idea of an audio commentary for the blind. What is interesting about the concept framed that way is that the creatives generally have absolutely nothing to do with the scripts of the audio assistance for the blind–a whole set of other creative types who often have particular training in that type of interpretation work on that. The advent of the country’s first Connectivity Director position at Woolly Mammoth (a position that seems to be equally art and commerce, in a way) may yield a new type of “artist” to throw into the mix.

    The other point that I see in our comment and have heard from others is that the artist should be in control of mediation–or, as a variant from some other people who have engaged with me about this idea, that without artist permission, interpretation and mediation shouldn’t be allowed to happen. This idea that it is entirely the artist’s prerogative how much help to give someone along the way to understanding a work–especially when we have the competing goal as organizations of broadening and diversifying our audience base, often by trying to pull in people without familiarity with the work and form–seems oddly like handing the plane controls to the purser. One artist’s creation, like a single plane trip, is absolutely unique, absolutely crafted and built with specificity, and has the absolute potential to be a fantastic and memorable experience on its own. But the life of an organization, a season, an artistic directorial vision, is a curated long haul, and it seems to me that recognizing that the artist, even for the fact he or she creates the core creative bridge to the audience, is still working as part of a mission-based team aiming for social change and societal good.

  3. says

    Very intriguing questions, all. I’ve followed the debate over tweet seats with great interest in the past couple of years — and been present for some heated debate among arts administrators and artists about the strategy. A most interesting use of tweet seats involves in-performance mediation at classical music performances.

    The Cincinnati Symphony — one of the first presenting organizations to get notice for use of tweet seats — has engaged an assistant conductor to provide what the orchestra calls “live, interactive dialogue” with 20 patrons in specially priced and placed (last row) seating.

    In the most recent use of this live, interactive program notes approach, the performance included a world premiere piece by composer Philip Glass. The conductor is backstage, and can be tweeting about what to expect, what to listen for, what the composer has said about the piece, what reviewers or historians have said, and can answer questions posed by those in tweet seats.

    In another example, the National Symphony created a twitter feed for a performance at Wolf Trap (for people on the lawn only, since no phones were allowed in seats) of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony.

    USA Today reported on the event:

    “After a typical first act (which includes Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with a solo by violinist Sarah Chang), tweets about Beethoven’s work and life (1770-1827) will begin flowing during intermission. And once the second half begins, notes will be timed to illuminate on Symphony No. 6 (first performed in December 1808).

    “It’s one of Beethoven’s most programmatic pieces. It’s very cinematic,” says conductor Emil de Cou. He has written a Twitter script “to help people know what is happening at that time and what the references are and what you imagine Beethoven meant in the music,” he says. “Some things are less obvious, (such as) Beethoven’s love of the country.”

    Some sample tweets include this one to be sent before the first movements begin, “Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country. The symphony begins in the middle of the journey.” Then during Measure 13, “Sound of the rattling carriage wheels, ” and Measure 37, “A grove of trees filled with singing birds.””

    So, yes — in-performance mediation….liking the idea, at least in the case of classical music.

    As with all things – it’s going to be important to be clear about goals. In this case, tweeting during the performance could enhance the experience for the audience, and perhaps it will be a new audience brought to the show by the strategy. It might prove intriguing to those who aren’t at the event, maybe even enough so to get them to attend in the future. Being clear about primary goals and audience for the mediation will be critical. And of course, learning more about the experience of the audience after the fact should provide necessary and helpful data.

  4. says

    Jumping in to the conversation finally. Thank you Clay for the feast for thought and to Diane and Margy for bringing extra desserts to it.

    My personal and rambly thoughts on a Monday morning:

    As Woolly’s first Connectivity Director and a primary player in the birthing of the initiative, I want to confirm Clay’s assessment of the position. Yes: it was/is meant to be a mixture of art and commerce and circling around the hypothesis of:
    community integration + audience engagement = community investment & growth
    community = staff, artists, audience, board, and “stakeholders” in the wider DC area who had an interest/investment in the topics a given play wrestled with.

    The body of work created around every show was not intended to begin (or fulfill) the dissection or interpretation process (help the audience to “understand the work”) but rather to begin conversations the work started. Or better yet: if we think about potential conversations as a small assortment loose threads poking out of a sweater, connectivity’s work was to suggest their presence and/or gesture to them. The body of work was developed with significant input from all those constituency groups (‘micro communities’). And we sought to design it with the intention of hooking/exciting/engaging in particular an identified new audience group(s).

    One might say this is a tomayto/tomahto situation, but I say the overall intention, and subsequent framing and goal setting, is what sets it apart. The core intention for me at Woolly was to grow our community and deepen the investment of its members. The latter was dependent on audience members experiencing authentic personal resonance with the work and/or at the theatre. Resonance does not require understanding. Resonance cannot be spoon fed. Resonance can be fostered with some the enabling constraints of “mediation.” Resonance can be stymied with too much “mediation.” (or too obviously “mediation.”)

    All of the theory behind Connectivity was highly specific to Woolly and Howard Shalwitz’s vision for the theatre. It cannot or should not be directly replicated; it’s not universally appropriate. Though one take away I would encourage everyone to adopt is actively including both artists and audience in the development processes of “interpretive artistic mediation.”