Cultural Revival Starts At Home

I just rediscovered a CityLab story I bookmarked last September discussing how a woman’s effort to revitalize culture and creativity in York, PA started in her apartment.

Bored with the city’s limited cultural offerings, Dwyer and her roommates decided to create their own homegrown events—a series of monthly arts shows in her living room…

The shows were modest affairs. “We would put art on the walls, move the furniture out of our living room. We made sure everyone’s bedroom was clean,” she says. “It was like a meltdown every month preparing for it.”

Soon, the shows started to draw hundreds of people through an evening. That attracted the attention of Dwyer’s landlord, Josh Hankey.

While some landlords might see large impromptu gatherings as something to stop, Hankey saw a business opportunity. “I knew that art could create an attraction,” he says. “I knew it could change the perception of a neighborhood, and I was going to help them whatever way I could.”

This was somewhat timely for me. I had attended a session hosted by my buddies, the Creative Cult where they asked everyone to write down what assets they might bring to revitalizing the creative environment in town. I wrote “my front lawn.”

I was partially inspired by the PorchRockr festival and Porchfests going on around the country. In many places people host music concerts on their front porches and attendees wander through the neighborhood taking it all in.

I am not sure my neighborhood is the best for a concert series, but I was intrigued by the idea of hosting a conversation or speakers series in the shade of my lawn.

The directors of my local art museum are already doing something along these lines. They live in a building across the street from the museum and invite everyone who attends an opening at the museum to walk across the street for an “after party.” This usually happens around 3 pm on a weekend so it is pretty accessible to all. Between passing through their studio spaces on the first floor and the ever growing and changing collection of art in the living space on the second floor, there is a lot for people to see and talk about.

Over the last few years that I have attended the “after party” events, the demographics of those at the party have really diversified in terms of an increase in first-timers and those who wouldn’t be considered museum insiders.

If you are finding people balk when you throw open the doors to your organization and invite them in, maybe the answer can be found in throwing open the doors to your home.

Politicians know the power of retail politics where they meet people one on one at small gatherings. Living room meetings are the hallmark of politicking in New Hampshire.

A similar approach may be useful to breaking down barriers for some people in a community.

Focus On Art, Extend Your Attention Span?

A common complaint in live performing arts is that no one has an attention span anymore. The sense is that cell phones, videos, bright flashing lights, etc have ruined our brains.

But according to Eric Barker on Barking Up The Wrong Tree, our brains have always been that way.

First off, stop blaming technology. It’s not your phone’s fault; it’s your brain’s fault. Tech just makes it worse. Our brains are designed to always be seeking new information.

In fact, the same system in your grey matter that keeps you on the lookout for food and water actually rewards you for discovering novel information.

From The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World:

The role of the dopamine system has actually been shown to relate directly to information-seeking behavior in primates. Macaque monkeys, for example, respond to receiving information similarly to the way they respond to primitive rewards such as food or water. Moreover, “single dopamine neurons process both primitive and cognitive rewards, and suggest that current theories of reward-seeking must be revised to include information-seeking.”

And this dopamine reward system is also what convinces people that they are good a multi-tasking. In reality, those who feel they are good at multi-tasking exhibit the worst ability in performing tasks requiring cognitive skills like simultaneously holding something in memory while trying to focus their attention on a task.

Says Barker,

Yes, you probably feel good when you multitask. But feeling good and efficiency are not the same thing. Multitasking meets your emotional need to do something new and exciting… while also slowing your brain down and increasing errors.

So if our brains have always been like this, why do we feel this is a new problem? We cite sitting quietly in a dark room watching a problem as a relic of past arts practice, but why were people content to participate in that way for so long? While there were fewer options in years past, there was still more to do than a human had capacity to engage in at one time.

In fact, with fewer options to record something, there was a much greater chance of missing out on an experience in the past than there is now. You can do a 48 hour binge watch of your favorite show and then catch up with everything you were ignoring during that period at a later time. We have much more control over how we consume an experience.

Yet people feel powerless in the face of all possible options. Why didn’t they start feeling anxious about this lack of power 30-40 years ago?

I am kinda tossing this out there for debate and consideration because I don’t know the answer.

Barker’s article is focused on providing people ways to extend their attention span which include: Stop Multitasking; Exercise; Meditate; Call Your Mother Nature (experiencing nature or even looking at pictures of a natural setting); and Reduce Interference (deal with email/cell phone/texts/other distractions at specific intervals only).

Of those things, I think people exercised more, had more exposure to nature and had their lives filled with less interference in the past. I think people have often needed to engage in multi-tasking and few have engaged in meditation so I don’t see much difference from the past in those areas.

If these general areas are useful in extending attention spans, perhaps the sensory isolation of passively watching a performance in a dark room with an enforced moratorium on electronic devices isn’t something arts and cultural organizations should abandon.

Which is not to say that active, engaging experiences shouldn’t be provided. Many potential arts activities hit on a handful of Barker’s suggestions. How much art has been created by applying a singular focus after finding the perfect natural setting at the end of an invigorating walk which has taken you far from cell phone service?

Even in the middle of an urban setting, acting, dancing, painting, shaping clay, etc, etc, can involve these elements, including being a meditative experience.

Indeed, the concept of an experience transporting or transforming pops up on nearly every survey about arts and culture you can find.

Makes me wonder if there is something to be gained by positioning performances/classes/experiences as distraction free and spiritually renewing. Basically, leave both your cell phone and ego at the door.

You’re Not Art’s Type

National Geographic had a photo essay featuring pictures of ballet dancers in Nairobi’s largest slum.  As I looked at it, I was reminded of El Sistema, the effort that provided free music education to impoverished children which started in Venezuela. This is a similar effort to teach dance to girls in Nairobi. Some of them have been accepted into more formal training programs and have appeared in performance venues.

The pictures show these young women practicing in dim rooms with dirt floors that are only lit by windows. Some of the rooms are so small, only one person at a time can practice advanced techniques.

When I see the effort these dancers make in order to participate in ballet, it strikes me that a real disservice is being done when we decide that the ideal dancer possesses a certain body type.

Dance obviously isn’t the only arts discipline where appearance is tied to success. Classical music’s use of blind auditions has helped to mitigate some of the issues associated with judging people on appearance, but doesn’t necessarily solve everything. Music in general and other performing arts disciplines are having to do a fair bit of introspection about their practices of late.

As much as I have read about the debates, there was something in this particular set of pictures that underscored for me the sense that a disservice was being done.


Photograph by Fredrik Lerneryd

Not Just For The Kids

Though it was only a week ago, I can’t quite recall where I came across a link to Ozan Varol’s post, “Stop asking children these seven questions (and ask these instead)”

I was barely past the first one when I started thinking these ideas were applicable to adults as well. And sure enough, the last line of the piece was,

“It may have occurred to some of you that this post is a Trojan Horse. These questions are as much for you as they are for children.”

Most of the seven questions are pretty much cornerstones of arts and creativity dealing with failure, curiosity, experimentation and imagination. While he expounds upon what he means for each, I figured I would just list the questions themselves without comments.

Withholding the easy answer in favor of letting people engage in the process of exploring and synthesizing their own answers is a core element of his post. Sure you can easily click the link, but hopefully your brain will already be churning as you seek the answer.

I assure you, even the question about choosing a kindergarten has broader applications.

1. “What did you learn today?” vs. “What did you disagree with today?”

2. “What did you accomplish this week?” vs. “What did you fail at this week?”

3. “Here’s how you do that.” vs. “How would you solve this problem?”

4. “Here’s your new kindergarten” vs. “What kindergarten do you want to attend?”

5. “That’s just the way it is.” vs. “Great question. Why don’t you figure out the answer?”

6. “You can’t do that.” vs. “What would it take to do that?”

7. “Did you make a new friend today?” vs. “How did you help someone today?”

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