Space and Activity in Fun-Based Environments

An audience is a public group usually centered around an exhibition or performance of some kind. It is understood that the audience is there to experience and respond in prescribed and generally traditional ways to the focus of their collective attention.

A party, on the other hand, is centered on the participants themselves and the understanding here is that the group has formed in order to experience each other.

Simply introducing art into the context of a party could yield a "gallery opening." Here guests observe the art, mingle, but have no context in which to participate. Make the event itself a work of art and each guest becomes a participant, a part of the art, whether they realize it or not.

Transforming an event into art requires several shifts in perspective. First, look at how different people have fun. Guests are typically a mix of extroverts, introverts and those in-between. The extroverts will always be "out there" and the introverts will watch them. So, the initial trick is winning the in-betweens.

Each of us has a comfort zone that largely defines how we will react and behave in public. The stronger the constraint that this comfort zone has on us, the stronger the unexpressed contrary current becomes to break from the status quo and step out into a new perspective.

How do we as artists and experience creators help people to break out? One thing you learn early on producing parties is that people feel safer and more experimental in groups. Within this increased zone of safety, individual boldness finds quick acceptance. The group takes on an identity all its own, hopefully becoming a cluster of collaborative players. For example, a group of friends decide to attend an event dressed in a similar theme. As the evening proceeds, the group begins to blur the distinction between guest and performer. They project themselves into the environment as a part of the party experience, becoming a guest/entertainer hybrid, a part of the art. Other guests who encounter them recognize people as "ordinary" as themselves transformed into, and by, artistic expression. They also see the possibilities of their own transformation into creative participants.

Some folks feeling particularly empowered by their newfound staus as innovators lead the charge as well as serve as catalysts to convert others to these more active forms of participation. Gradually, the group moves to raise the stakes - costumes and props, character, dance styles and routines are added. All these serve to reinforce the cluster's behavior. Ultimately, the effect on the group, and on sustaining the life of the party rests in the hand of those individuals who together build a subliminal construct of the event wherein they each grant themselves the freedom necessary to innovate and shape the nature of the experience that all will come to share.

I frequently hear praise such as "...my favorite part of the party was that group who came all dressed as ____ and went around all night doing ____." These experiences are so memorable because they involve unexpected transformations where customary patterns of behavior are overturned, and new possibilities are revealed. Such shared memories, this story of "remember that party where..." is a necessary step on the way to building a "party-cipatory" artistic community.

In transforming ordinary space, here are some suggestions to consider: tactile surfaces, suspended objects, mysterious or unfamiliar items, a maze, childlike or silly decor, thematic and theatrical sets - the more intention you invest in them the better. An environment says to the person entering it that someone took the time to create it - "this was done for me." This predisposes the person encountering the space to give in to it, explore it and interact with it. People then pull their friends into the environment so they can re-experience it by watching their reactions.

How do you set up activities that attract people? Set up a simple activity that is conducive to solo participation, such that a cluster isn't needed to start it off. As one person becomes engaged in the act, it attracts others - people want to join in. More people attract even more people. Often, the result is a spontaneous collaboration between 2 or more strangers. Sometimes this happens out of need ("Can you hold this still while I glue this part?" or "I'm looking for the letter 'X', if anyone sees one."), sometimes purely for the sake of interaction ("If I put this image on your collage, look what happens!") These "safe" interactions allow strangers to cross not only personal space boundaries, but class/societal and psychic boundaries as well. The result may be transitory, or it may lead to a conversation where similar interests are discovered, and the individuals digress from the prescribed activity into a more connected and social/verbal interaction. Truly successful activities/environments allow the person to easily segue from voyeur to participant. At that point, the goals of art, opportunity, pleasure and transformation are united, and the success of your party is assured.

Marcia Crosby is a decorator/designer and theatrical producer. She can be reached at <anon@sirius.com>


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