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The participant, the experience, and the event: Experience Economies

(The following review is written and edited by Zenovia Toloudi.)

When thinking of cities, environments, or places, one wonders what is the role of the user, audience, observer or citizen in the formation of a space. Who activates the space? Who is the orchestrator of the event one experiences? Who personalizes the experience? What is the ontology of the experience: who is the subject and what is the object?

According to Jonathan Cott the separation between subject and object is not that clear:

“There’s no perception without the perceived and no perceived without the perception. People always think they’re the in the world, but they never realize they are the world. They are identical with what they see and hear, whether they like it or not. The sounds that I hear are me. I become the sound otherwise I ‘d never hear it.”

If you are interested in speculating on the role of experience in art, space, and culture, you probably can join one of the Experience Economies that take place in the area of Cambridge/ Boston the last one-year and half. Although knowing their existence since their birth, I managed to join only the most recent event, the one with the provocative title: “Innovate or Die.”


Figure 01. Experience Economies 6: Innovative or Die (poster).

Experience Economies is a loan from The Experience Economy term first described by Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore. In brief the concept of Experience Economy describes the shift of our society from that an Economy based on commodities, to that of services, and later to that of events and experiences. According to Experience Economies (EE) founders and organizers, Gavin Kroeber and Rebecca Uchill:

“Experience Economies is an event-based art series presented at unique sites throughout Boston. Experience Economies supports work by an array of artists and cultural producers, working across the visual and performing arts, the sciences, and the humanities. Our events are structured as experiments that encompass entire evenings, emphasizing experimentation, site specificity, discussion, and conviviality. Not a lecture and not a party, Experience Economies welcomes audiences that want their spectacles to mess with them and presenters who need a space to make that mess.”

The latest, 6th episode of EE was collaboration between EE and The Laboratory at Harvard. The Laboratory at Harvard: Experiments in Art and Sciences, operating between and at the intersection of art and science, has been active the last, and in fact its first, 3 years, with events like: Neuroscience, Healing, and MusicAfrica in Motion: ReceptionCross[x]Species Adventure Club Dinner ,  and 3 states of Hors d’Oeuvres, among other experience-based art manifestations.

Being interested in innovation myself, and having spent 4 years in one of the most dense in terms of innovation areas of the world, I was curious to re-discover innovation’s reason d’etre through a site-and audience-specificity, emphasizing our geographical and anthropological experience during that night.

[ 5:00 pm: Event Start ] Following consumerism techniques, that invests in the element of surprise, theme, and scripted routes, the organizers kept the details of the one night-event as hot, top secret. What we knew was a minimum of 4-hour commitment in a very popular, limited-seats-only experience. What we found out was a one-way bus-ticket to innovation; a red or black ride to novelty. Attendance and purchase was not enough, the participants would sign a contract to their exotic journey to Boston’s clubs of innovation. Along with this signature, they allowed themselves to become significant participants by sharing their faces, bodies, discussions, and engagements. Actions were seriously surveilled and documented by the Lab’s paparazzi and EE enthusiastic volunteers!

The bus stops-destinations were not surprise spots, they were the usual aspects of the Bostonian art, technology, and science scene. Starting point: The Lab at Harvard. First stop the newly made I-Lab or “Hi” where red and black riders would experience a psychological experiment with cards to create a series of questions on identity, branding, products, and names. The experiment was orchestrated by Jeremy Blatter, a historian of science. It was followed by Blatter’s talk on the work of Dr. Hugo Münsterberg, the pioneering psychologist whose work at Harvard University in the early 20th Century established important reciprocities between science and business. When ended, the guests left the empty (according to the host researchers are partying on a Saturday night – a very opposite situation to the always alive MIT Media Lab) to arrive at Continuum, Newton. The best deal out of the EE experience was in fact the in-between events, the journey itself, the ride coming along with networking, drinks, potato-chips and other gifts to be distributed along with talks and tasks while traveling.

Figure 02, 03. Continuun and Keely Sherman’s work.

Continuum, along with other firms like IDEO (and others in the area) are design consulting companies, known as creative, team-based, cool environments to work if you are interested in developing ideas, research, working with brainstorming and collaboration, and perhaps with unique office routines. Although creative, these organizations do not necessarily have outcomes like artifacts. Their “products” are often studies, a brochure, a set of rules, policies, ideas, suggestions or improvisations, to be delivered to big corporations/ clients aiming to attract and please more and more users. In a way, to some extend they invest in understanding and creating memorable experiences. This somehow formless creativity has interesting links with the art-forms of the two artworks presented in Continuum. The piece by Kelly Sherman was “recognized” by colorful post-its, a medium used in the brainstorming sessions and also in office culture. According to the press release:

“Ms. Sherman will present a work developed by applying innovation methods to the creation of an artwork addressing social violence in Roxbury. A cross-disciplinary project positioned at the confluence of art and innovation, Ms. Sherman’s project traces the common “social turns” that both worlds have undertaken, emerging from studio and laboratory environments to address major social issues.”

The form of the Catherine McMahon piece, was made by a collection of text-based speeches, created and delivered by participants based on template to be filled in the bus and be presented at Continuum in a intimidating entrepreneurship stage. According to the Lab at Harvard announcement:

“Ms. McMahon will produce a multi-part art experience that asks participants to step into the comportment and speaking strategies of innovation and entrepreneurship: from TED talks to couture.”

Figure 04, 05. Talk preparation and talk delivery space (Catherine McMahon’s work).

Similarly to the Kelly Sherman artwork, the piece would demonstrate the audiences’ participation, the power of the mass, and the importance of the individual expression.

After having a long buffet dinner and interesting discussion on edible art with artist Caitlin Berrigan and architectural historian Olga Touloumi, and an art-climate conversation with journalist and Knight Fellow Eli Kintisch, the art-science-innovation experience continued in the bus. The target would be the Cloud Place, another experimental–educational space by David A.Edwards. And in order to be promptly prepared we would feed ourselves with caffeine aero-shots, and potassium doses (the last in the form of bananas). Energy consumption was followed by a tutoring session; both to create the best ground for the participants to take the ARE (Anhoek Required Examination), both an artwork and a standardized test on Beautiful Economy, organized by Mary Walling Blackburn. The test was accompanied by piano time-reminders and the scary voice of the test-referee to warn for “No talking (please).” This acoustic perception converted the test experience to an interesting one, both spatially and socially: the participants would create conspiracies in copying, drinking, and sharing laughers. The test experience also augmented the perceptual mechanism of learning: At the end, almost all participants filed their responds towards evaluation with the hope to receive the results sometime soon. And, as it was diagnosed by many of us, the test was the ultimate manifesto of the whole event.

Figure 06, 07. Cloud Place: Staircase and work-space.

Last experience on the bus experience, was a small talk by Joseph Pine II, to reinforce the link between experience and innovation. The final destination of the night was an introduction to the Industry Lab (IL). IL, “an artful, co-working space”, is  a collaborative office platform for emerging artists, designers, and technologists, possibly a form of professional, individual continuation of the MIT Media Lab environment and experience. The introduction to this innovative experience was celebrated with a pizza-beer happy party. [ 10:00 pm: (almost) Event End ]

Figure 08, 09. Magical Economies Session and ARE Test.

Figure 10, 11. ARE Test sample questions: Antonym and Analogy.

Figure 12, 13. ARE Test event: during and after the exam.

Figure 14, 15. Bus ride experience: Organizers and Joseph Pine II talks.

Figure 16, 17. Industry Lab party and Catherine McMahon’s “talk” project.

Experience Economies: Innovative or Die introduced us into a mode of perception, a way of seeing, living, through scripts, narrations, journeys, paths similarly to the concept of Scripted Spaces by Norman Klein. According to him, scripted spaces are spaces carefully designed like labyrinths in every single square foot, to keep the viewer’s journey not boring or to maximize profit. By decoding them, one can learn who has the power. In scripted spaces, there is a journey, a narrative story; we are focused on the path, not on the wall, in the in between. “The audience walks into the story.” He questions what does the narrative say to us when we are becoming active characters inside an “interactive” or scripted space?

Throughout this night, it became obvious that space and event became inseparable both at the stops and while on the bus. The destinations-stops, all of them generously designed, with spacious arrangements and flexible room configurations, would signify the importance of the event and experience towards innovation. Our experiences essentially constituted a set of experiments to prove the general theory: Play, fun, interactivity, rules, cheating, friendship, social interaction, food-based memories, all collaborate creatively to construct an innovative artifact delivered to the world throughout our personal engagement(s). Such situations can perhaps re-invent the principles with which we can redesign and rethink the city as Olafur Eliasson suggests.

Note: This specific review, is based a personal and subjective documentation; a diary of the specific event in order to reinforce the experience of the experience.

John Pine II, and James H. Gilmore: The Experience Economy.
Jonathan Cott: Stockhausen. Conversations with the composer.
Michael Corris: What Do Artists Know?
 Contemporary Responses to the Deskilling of Art
Norman Klein: From Vatican to Vegas. The history of Special Effects.
Olafur Eliasson: Your engagement has consequences.
Zenovia Toloudi: Mythopoeia.From metropolis to utopia to heterotopia to metapolis.

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    [...] following review is written and edited by Zenovia [...]


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