We are the audience; we are the performers

Part 1: PUNCHDRUNK

On a dank autumnal evening in 2013 I found myself in an old Royal Mail sorting office next to Paddington Station in London. Along with a friend, I had come to see Punchdrunk Theatre’s latest production “The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable” – an immersive theatre production that transported Büchner’s ‘Woyzeck’ into a fictional 1960s film studio. Punchdrunk are pioneers of what’s commonly known as ‘immersive theatre’; site-specific productions characterised by multiple narratives, non-sequential action and audience participation. Split into groups of ten, we were given masks to wear throughout (our ‘fourth wall’) and bundled into a lift before being let loose into a sprawling and disorientating four-storey maze of surreal sets, haunting soundtracks, bizarre dialogues and voyeuristic glimpses into snatched moments and fictional lives. This was immersive theatre at its best, and despite thinking that I’d struggle to engage for more than an hour (I was suffering from inbox anguish at the time), three hours later there we were; reunited through the haze after an intense and rewarding experience in which we had all been part of the action due to the blurring of boundaries between performers and audience.

My friend and I had been separated almost instantly upon arriving in the space, and were eager to discuss our experiences, to share stand-out moments, to compare notes, to analyse and deconstruct what we had taken place. However, after a few exchanges along the lines of: a) “Did you see (insert scene)?” and b) *blank look* “No?!”, we soon realised that we weren’t able to share our stand-our moments. Despite attending the same ‘performance’ we had managed to be part of completely different scenes, with only two overlaps (shared experiences) in the whole three hours. That’s the thing about immersive theatre at this scale: everybody’s experience is unique.

I’ve been thinking a lot about immersive theatre this week, as there are many parallels between a production like “The Drowned Man” and Connected Courses:

“Several reviews have complimented the scale of the production and the ambitious use of multiple narratives, whilst also commenting that the scale can at times make the experience feel fragmented and difficult to follow.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Drowned_Man_(2013_play)

Ring any bells?

Part 2: CONNECTED COURSES

Fast forward to the second week of Unit One of Connected Courses: Why We Need a Why. It’s been a fantastic experience so far, beginning with Mike Wesch in conversation with Cathy Davidson and Randy Bass (video here) contemplating the purpose of higher education and the importance of the WHY. This Storify to captures the opening event as it played out on Twitter, highlighting the main themes as they resonated with the #ccourses participants who were tweeting during the session.

Immediately after Mike’s opener, we launched the #whyiteach video project (still a few days left to contribute to this – hint hint), and it has been a joy to see the thoughtful, inspiring and imaginative contributions rolling in (both text and visual media) from #ccourses participants – and beyond!

Mimi Ito then hosted two ‘blogside chats’, Friday with Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, the authors of Academically Adrift and Aspiring Adults Adrift (video here), then Monday with Vera Michalchik and William Penual, to discuss assessment in connected courses  (video here).

In case you’ve missed all of this, @paulsignorelli has written a couple of posts that offer excellent summaries of the unit so far: Connected Courses MOOC and #oclmooc: The “Why” of Connections, Collaboration, and Learning and Connected Courses MOOC (#ccourses) and #oclmooc: Connections (and Learning) Everywhere 

At this point I’ll quote Paul (both from the above posts):

Various learners often walk away from learning opportunities with tremendously different results and rewards”

Participation in the latest #ccourses session, earlier today, inspired interweavings so wonderfully complex (and tremendously rewarding) that it could be days or weeks or months before those interweavings are completely apparent.”

You see where I’m going with this, don’t you?

Part 3: CONNECTED COURSES AS IMMERSIVE THEATRE

I’m acutely aware that I’ll have no doubt missed other excellent summaries. One of the challenges of participating in such a vibrant community is that it can be a struggle to keep up with all the activity. It’s been brilliant reading and commenting on posts, meeting new people and pushing one another’s thinking – but alongside the ‘day job’ it can be difficult to keep up with everything when a community is so active.

We are all the audience; we are all performers.

I know that while highlighting selected posts I’ll be missing so many other, equally wonderful #ccourses contributions. I am certainly indebted to several people who have written posts which I’ll be using as teaching resources (thank you – you know who you are as I’ve commented and tweeted), such as this one from ‪@l4lp reflecting on learner perspective: http://outloudlearning.wordpress.com/2014/09/16/five-whys/. I loved @Googleguacamole’s post “Round Students, Square Colleges” (an analogy which will resonate for many of us). The #whyiteach contributions are pretty damn amazing. I loved @Marj_K’s “Every new semester… I re-work the boundaries between the known and the unknown” ‪http://wp.me/p50q4Y-D – and I can’t forget this one from @EatcherVeggies http://teachingbeyondtropes.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/the-meat-of-it-whyiteach.html – this made a real impact. There are so many demonstrating real passion and richness of thought (which reminds me, I need to update the #whyiteach GDoc…)

I’ve connected with many wonderful educators already through #ccourses and it’s been amazing how quickly we have bonded through a combination of blog-based discussion and tweeting, which has led into back-channel communication of the Skype/Google Hangout variety. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know @Bali_Maha in that ‘kindred spirit’ kind of way where you meet somebody online and feel connected through sharing such a similar (learning) world-view. At this point I want to mention other people but then am wary of excluding others through reifying a specific group, if that makes sense!

I’ve always been fascinated by individual perceptions and experiences of learning webs, knowing that ‘my (imagined) community’ is different from ‘your (imagined) community’. I imagine #ccourses as one of those bubble screensavers, we’re all popping in and out of view, constantly growing and shrinking and moving and overlapping and intersecting – and sometimes missing one another entirely…

“Despite attending the same ‘show’ we had managed to be part of completely different scenes, with only one overlap (shared experience). That’s the thing about immersive theatre at this scale: everybody’s experience is unique.” (Me, at the start of this post)

This could equally apply to Connected Courses. In the past, I have been reluctant to join MOOCs when I’ve missed the beginning, feeling like it will be impossible to ‘catch up’. This whole #ccourses experience is leading me to view things differently. The community/network is welcoming and encouraging, and I’d strongly urge those who may be interested but possibly overwhelmed by the amount of activity to-date just to dive in! Say hi, follow the blog feed, share your thoughts – dip in and out as you can. I’ll be bringing my postgrad students (Research Methods) along for the ride when we hit Unit Four as I think this will be relevant for their course. To quote a #ccourses participant:

“It’s never to late to dive into a cMOOC.” 

And finally, here’s the advice from Punchdrunk:

Your curiosity is key. The more you explore, the richer your experience will be. Delve in, be bold, and immerse yourself.

Now, where’s that blog feed….

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Futures of Entertainment 2012 – #FoE6

audiences : culture : curation : spread : content : creation : innovation : activism : slactivism : remix : production : storytelling : engagement : copyright : collaboration

These are the words that I highlighted on the programme for this year’s Futures of Entertainment conference at MIT, from which I’ve just returned. I actually did this on the outbound flight, using a pen, on a paper programme. Obviously these would have been hashtags had there been wifi on the flight (and no, I’m not complaining).

Looking back at these tags now, I can safely say it more than lived up to expectations. Launched 6 years ago through the Convergence Culture Consortium and Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, Futures of Entertainment brings together leading media scholars and industry practitioners for an intensive 2-day programme of panels and debates focused on media and audiences. The blend of academics and digital media types is invigorating – not interdisciplinary in the strictest sense, but the mix in background/focus certainly leads to a uniquely rich and inspirational event. Always a stellar line-up, Futures of Entertainment is a real melting pot of digital media/audience/fandom/participatory culture researchers and practitioners.

This was the first time I’ve attended, although as I’ve followed past proceedings online I knew it would be a great experience. The reason I had to attend this year is that I’m working with both undergrad and postgrad students on a series of projects based around ‘spreadable media’. ‘Spreadability’ was the buzz-concept of FoE5, and I think it’s a brilliant and welcome challenge to the tired and misleading ‘viral’ metaphor. From a pedagogical perspective it’s incredibly rich as not only is there potential for all kinds of creativity in terms of learners producing artefacts, but also there’s real scope for critical thinking and theoretical developments around content, audiences, agency and networks. Gold dust as far as digital media literacies are concerned, therefore this was pure personal learning/development rather than a speaking gig – a welcome respite as I was able to immerse myself in everybody else’s thoughts and words rather than worrying too much about my own. I do believe that it’s crucial to keep abreast of what’s happening ‘out there’ in order to keep developing relevant, transmedia pedagogies, and I often find that I get the most of out conferences that aren’t necessarily focused on learning as it encourages me to contemplate, and frame, things differently.

Anyway, on to the conference… the standout sessions (for me) were:

Maria Popova and Joshua Green in a brilliant one-to-one conversation around The Ethics and Politics of Curation in a Spreadable Media World. This was an energetic and passionate discussion much of which focused on the definition of curation and the role of the curator i.e. semantics and power relations. Being a fan of brainpickings.org I knew this would be interesting, but both Maria and Joshua were so incredibly incisive in the way that they challenged one another and this was one of those sessions where one hour feels like ten minutes. Seriously good stuff.

Another standout session was Curing the Shiny New Object Syndrome: Strategy Vs. Hype When Using New Technologies. The panellists were Todd Cunningham, Jason Falls, Eden Medina, David Polinchock, Mansi Poddar, and it was brilliantly moderated by Ben Malbon from Google Creative Lab. The discussion was a great mix of laughs, scholarly musings and industry insights on innovation and I loved how @edenmedina brought a more academic slant to proceedings. While there was much talk of SNOS (Shiny New Object Syndrome), they also explored the fetishisation of failure and the problems of assuming that what works in one culture can be easily transported elsewhere – which led to the important point that for all our talk of the importance of being able to fail and not fearing failure, that failure is indeed a privilege.

I also loved the session From Participatory Culture to Political Participation. The panellists here were Sasha Costanza-Chock, Dorian Electra (new to me, and I was instantly blown away by her Economics music videos on YouTube), Lauren Bird from the Harry Potter Alliance (was already a fan of Lauren’s as I’ve known about her work for a while, and Bassam Tariq, the co-creator of 30 Mosques in 30 Days. Again the moderation was excellent thanks to Sangita Shresthova. This session was fascinating due to the conversation around activism and using fandom and fan practices to highlight issues, awareness and encourage action. However, what I found most interesting was the reluctance of the three (Dorian, Lauren and Bassam) to define themselves as political or as activist, leading the audience to question whether there was some kind of generational shift (very mixed views from the crowd as to whether their reluctance to define themselves as political or as activist was a help or a hindrance).

Finally, another session which remains deeply embedded in my mind (although not for the same reasons) was the panel on Rethinking Copyright, with T Bone Burnett, Henry Jenkins and Jonathan Taplin. Burnett and Taplin put forward the classic ‘music industry’ viewpoint, which wasn’t shared by the audience. This would be an interesting session to relive through both the first and second screen. Voices were raised and tensions were rising (although Henry stayed calm and reasonable throughout). The Twitter backchannel was going crazy, but kudos to Sasha Costanza-Chock for standing up on several occasions to offer well-informed perspectives on alternative revenue/licensing models – and also to the guy who stood up to admit that he was the one who closed down Napster. This was a pretty intense session, to say the least…

I’ve just chosen a few highlights here, but I urge you to watch the all the videos on www.convergenceculture.org when they become available. Rachel Clarke did a brilliant job of live blogging each session, while @huey pulled together tweets in Storify which also offer a neat perspective. My usual low-grade instagram pics are here, while there are much better pictures here.

While FoE brings together media scholars and industry practitioners who share the same passions around content, audience and participation, the diverse perspectives on topics such as copyright or activism (and the generational, political, or financial motivations) meant that this conference couldn’t be anything but thought-provoking and invigorating. At times, I found myself nodding vigorously at speakers who used particular terminologies/frame of reference, while I’d have an equally visceral (negative) reaction towards the few who spoke in marketing language and yet they were talking about the same phenomena. Terminology and meaning, ontologies and epistemologies… it was fascinating to reflect on what was being said from different perspectives, and what our choice of language says about us. The great thing about Futures of Entertainment is that it’s the kind of environment where you can say “oh, I’d say xxxxxxx to describe that” and there’s no jostling for position of battles of ownership, just insightful and positive dialogue. However, while we all might have been talking about the same things, jargon does matter. As @henryjenkins tweeted during a particularly lively debate: “it is NEVER just jargon!”.

Thank you, Futures of Entertainment 2012.