Public Art & Storytelling in the Social Media Age

Posted by Katherine Gressel, May 03, 2012 0 comments

Katherine Gressel

“How [can we] merge our ‘evaluation’ with life’s activities?”

This is an especially provocative question posed by Marc Maxson earlier in the Blog Salon

He suggests, “If you want quantitative data about people and social change, it’s probably more practical to transform our evaluation tools into a regular part of daily life—like Facebook or Google—so that we’re constantly looking at tens of thousands of bits of knowledge instead of just a few hundred.”

Maxson discusses Global Giving’s collection of tens of thousands of anecdotal stories throughout communities served by the organization.

This and many of the other entries suggest that when it comes to evaluation and the arts, surveys and statistics are out; stories and experiences are in. Also, social media platforms, like the ones cited above, have opened doors for the often unsolicited, ongoing collection of such stories and experiences.

In my first post, I wrote about the challenges of evaluating the impact of public art, especially on audiences and communities, by traditional quantitative data collection. Instead, what types of “stories” and “experiences” with public art could be recorded or collected, and how?

In her summary of Fairmount Park Association’s Museum Without Walls: AUDIO program, Penny Balkin Bach describes using storytelling to deepen each artwork’s engagement with a general public. Rachel Engh describes a feature allowing users to record their own stories about experiencing art in public spaces.

I do believe that new online and mobile technologies such as these are making it more and more feasible to collect and document a much greater archive of anecdotal evidence of people interacting with public art, “liking” public art, and discussing the issues behind it.

To give just a few examples:

A post on the Public Art Fund Facebook page from a few months back reads: “Passerby comment to one our staffers working on site today: 'Thank you for making the city more beautiful.’ We feel all warm inside now.”

A user responds to this with the comment: “My college is in the same location to where your profile pic was taken. Without the Public Art Fund to spruce up the place, the area would be nothing but trees and benches.”

A March 30 photo slideshow of a newly-completed mural on the Groundswell Community Mural Project Facebook page seems to have sparked the desire for more murals—one comment (presumably from a teen artist) reads: “awesome project—I wish we could do this at our school.”

More complex stories emerge when a public artwork’s physical signage prompts visitors to send photos, texts, or videos of their feedback about, or interactions with, the artwork—organizations like Public Art Fund in NYC, are incorporating things like QR codes at public art sites that direct visitors to submit their own impressions and interactions to an email address or user-friendly website like Flickr.

The Pallet City installation.

I first experimented with this concept myself as the co-artist of Pallet City, a complex interactive sculpture made from recycled shipping pallets for the 2010 FIGMENT Season-long Sculpture Garden on Governors Island. My collaborator and I put signs up all over our project telling people to email pictures of themselves interacting with the sculpture.

To our pleasant surprise, we received on average three submissions from random strangers each weekend the project was open. This was enough to convince us not only that people were noticing the project—but that we were achieving our goal of fostering a range of participatory experiences. Perhaps our invitation to share photos even encouraged people to be bolder and more creative in their participation, and in their storytelling.

One of my favorite submissions was from a woman who actually wrote a love story inspired by the sculpture:

"While others parked their bikes, we fell in love on the bench, resting, in the shelter, of Pallet City, on that day. However, as we traversed through the City, the lad refused to dance, on the pallet, and we went up and down the bumps of the pallets and then we came to the end, where we promptly fell out of love and left the City. Parting is such sweet sorrow, in Pallet City.

Actually, this is a true story. The gent in the photo on the right spent a lovely day with me and I took these pictures, at Pallet City, of our bliss. Later that night, he confessed to commitment issues (how New York) and while now the gent is gone, I still have the photos we were planning on submitting to your project.

Now you have the photos and a story of the fastest love in Pallet City."

Of course, FIGMENT on Governors Island is a place where people come specifically to interact with public art—a very different environment from, say, a transit station where people are less likely to stop for an artistic or playful experience (though for a long time my Facebook profile picture was a photo I’d snapped to create the illusion that I was “wearing” one of the mosaic hats on the walls of the 23rd St. R NYC subway station).

I believe in these everyday environments especially, it’s important to build mechanisms for collecting photos and stories.

Also, I have still only been able to find a relatively small number of such recorded anecdotes per public art organization—nowhere near the “40,000 stories and counting” described by Maxson in relation to Global Giving’s work.

How do we collect such stories from the people who are not already Facebook and Twitter followers of a public art agency?

And when we do get a lot of good feedback, how do we manage all this information to tell a larger story about public art?

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