In the first chapter of Fair Play, Jen Harvie presents compelling thoughts on labour in participatory art. Her discussion of the viewer (or audience) as prosumer is of particular interest to me. In this post I will consider her ideas on prosumerism in light of my ongoing participation in Blast Theory’s interactive smartphone app Karen.

Harvie puts forward the idea that viewers of participatory art may be thought of as performing labour. Rather than occupying the role of art consumer, Harvie notes that the performance of labour shifts viewers to the role of art prosumer. Rather than simply consuming the art as commodity, by offering their participation in the work viewers take on the role of producer as well. Viewers, or audiences, thus become hybrid producer-consumers: prosumers.

Prosumerism presents three main dangers for Harvie (55):

  1. it may erode the work of precarious labourers – Prosumers voluntarily take labour upon themselves for greater personal convenience, disposing with the need for paid labour.
  2. it may transform leisure time into work time – While it may offer greater convenience, prosumerism encourages work to encroach upon non-work time (e.g., a customer may do his or her banking online any time, or receive work e-mails while spending time with friends and family)
  3. it may offer an illusion of individualized experience rather than the real thing – Harvie provides the example of designing one’s own shoes via an online application. While there are choices to make, there are clear limits in available options, and others may recreate the exact same design.

Thinking about the audience as prosumer is a clear challenge to utopian claims of democratic participation in performance. The dangers Harvie identifies appear in varying degrees in Blast Theory’s recently-released digital performance Karen.

Karen is an interactive experience designed for iOS and Android smartphones. The performance comes in the form of a free app that facilitates simulated video calls between Karen, a personal assistant by trade, and the viewer – It should be noted that Karen’s performance is not live, but rather is pre-recorded. The experience unfolds over the course of numerous short video calls with Karen over approximately a week, guided by the viewer’s typed or selected responses to various questions Karen asks. The experience is a type of choose-your-own-adventure video with a twist – The app is apparently performing a psychological analysis on you.

We can view Karen as a performance for prosumers – It’s a performance that conveniently fits in your pocket, that tailors the experience according to your input. The more honest you are, the more the experience can be tailored. Below I’ll briefly detail how Karen measures up to Harvie’s thoughts on prosumerism.

Karen’s state as a pre-recorded performance does eliminate the performers’ work that would have been present in each separate performance had it been performed live. However, as the project relies on mass-dissemination through online app stores, live performance would prove virtually impossible. Given the nature of the project, I’m not sure the project could be realized without a huge amount of mass labour and resources – for example, many different actors to play Karen. The erosion of labour may not be of particular concern here.

However, Harvie’s concern about work time encroaching upon leisure time does resonate with my (ongoing) experience of the performance. The app prompts the viewer with a notification from Karen whenever a new video is available (e.g., “Call me”). After each video call, the app informs the viewer when the next call will be available. As the videos are made available at specific times on specific days, it is clear that time is regarded by the artists as an important factor in the experience. While the viewer ultimately decides when to view each video, in my experience I’ve felt a responsibility to do it ‘right’ – To uphold my end of the bargain by viewing the videos as close as possible to the times set by the artists.

I regularly experience the performance encroaching upon my time – For example, earlier this week I was watching a movie with my partner when I felt my phone vibrate – It was Karen. I kept watching the movie. I felt my phone vibrate again – It was Karen. By the end of the movie I had four different messages from her, urging me to call. I was mentally distracted throughout the movie, and even considered asking my partner if we could pause for a few minutes. I realized that my participation in the performance was not limited to the times I spent watching Karen’s videos, but was ongoing – a blend of the fictional world and of my real life. However interesting this is (I find it very interesting!), it is also a prime example of how the viewer’s time can be eroded when participating in a performance as a prosumer.

I’m unsure to what degree Karen offers the illusion of an individualized experience. We can definitely liken Karen to an “open work” as described by Umberto Eco – a work that is not only open to many different audience interpretations, but also significantly open in terms of how performance informs its composition (20) – My participation in Karen changes how the work is performed for me so clearly the work is tailored for me. However, it isn’t clear to me how the work might differ if I choose a different option when asked a question (typically there are 3 or 4 different options) – and the options presented to me seriously limit how I can respond to Karen in order to tailor my experience. I’m still unsure as to what degree the experience is specific to me as an individual.

Karen is an example of how audiences might become even more prosumerist, experiencing performance on their own time, using their own resources to make it happen – smartphones, headphones, leisure time, and honesty. Whether or not Karen can offer real choice, or meaningful choice, is unclear – but what Blast Theory does make clear with this project is that individualized experiences like this one come with a cost – one’s ‘data’. While Karen may or may not be able to individualize the audience experience completely, its tailoring may still come a little too close for comfort.


 

References

Eco, Umberto. “The Poetics of the Open Work.” Participation. Ed. Claire Bishop. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006. Print.

Harvie, Jen. Fair Play: Art, Performance and Neoliberalism. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Print.

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