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From Curator Journal this month, my conversation with Machine Project’s Mark Allen about museums, strangers interactions, and the art of interruptionPublished January 25, 2011 fiction 2 Comments
The life of the street, at its best, is lyrical, unexpected, and momentarily intimate. Cities by definition comprise strangers, and when strangers find cause to break their urban detachment, the episodes of street intimacy they make can be precious and thrilling. These moments fascinate me, both in my own experience and in the abstract, as what I believe to be a craved pleasure of city dwellers. I’m talking here about the pleasure of interruption, of fleeting connections. These moments are metonyms for why we choose to live in cities. They shimmer with the beauty of the ordinary and everyday. And they’re rich with meaning, as instances of what linguists call “phatic communication,” which is to say, an exchange that has little semantic value but high social and emotional value. When your neighbor says, “How’re you doing?” what they also say is: I know you, I recognize you, we’re in this thing of being humans together.
I am both a writer and a teacher, and my passion is opening windows for people to see and experience the things I see when I move through the world–a world driven and animated by the marvelous interruptions of street life in the city. The story of my first novel, Follow Me Down, emerges from a concatenation of these sorts of moments, drawing an existential mystery out of them. And at the Interactive Telecommunications Program of New York University I teach technologists, artists and inventors to explore these interactions in public and private experience, to understand the minutiae of how and why and where they happen. What I’ve learned from my students’ experiments and projects is that it’s far from easy to instigate city interactions that carry the same rich social and emotional experience as the ones produced by accidental convergences.
I was thinking about these contexts when I set out to revisit Mark Allen’s Machine Project, a Los Angeles non-profit performance and installation space that hosts events, workshops, and site-specific works on art, technology, natural history, science, music, literature, and food, focusing on hands-on engagement. Machine Project also operates as a loose confederacy of artists producing site-specific work. They’re currently serving as artists in residence at the Hammer Museum of Art, producing a year of programming addressing the visitor experience and public engagement. I find their work deeply charming, and exciting for the ways that their installations shift the dynamics of museum spaces. The Machine Project’s work changes the aura and authority in the room. It can call into question the social rules of how museum spaces are used, what is allowed, what is expected. They are skilled orchestrators of unexpected experiences in unexpected places.
Out on the street, in everyday conversations, at work, at school, or in the museum, we are governed by unwritten rules and unexpressed expectations that are visible, knowable, only when they are broken. It’s jarring and illuminating when it happens. It pulls you firmly into the present, into the moment and place where you are. This is not merely a metaphor: a moment like that wakes you up.
Mark and I met up in New York recently to talk about our shared passion for playful awakenings.
Mark Allen: Machine Project started out as a real interest in this notion of the city as the site of engagement with different kinds of ideas. Every week we engage with a different form of culture, so there’s cycling of different kinds of ideas and people. Because it’s a storefront, you can see what’s going on in there and cues of authority are not particularly strong. It’s a very casual space and people wander in.
When you move into the museum it’s a very authoritative space and so I got very interested in what that space is and how people occupy it. One way to think of it is as a civic space like a park. So, there are other people there. They’re there to use the space in the same way that you are. You do not know them, but there is a kind of commonness of purpose.
Kio Stark: And there’s a set of expectations about that–a working consensus is what it’s called in sociology–about behavior. There’s also a set of experiential expectations. In theory you go to the museum to have your mind opened and to have a contemplative experience, but you know what that experience is going to be in advance and you’re prepared to take pictures of it and you’re prepared to talk about it afterwards in certain ways. So the space includes those codes as well, and you may have a predetermined narrative of what happens in the museum space.
MA: Yes, so part of my project overall is how can you carve out a space in the museum that’s less authoritative and how you can make work that is smaller, more intimate in that same space. One thing I do is look at interstitial spaces. The museum really constructs viewership in galleries and not in elevators so you do something in an elevator, it feels like a different form of space and it also changes the viewer’s perception of where the site of the aesthetic experience is. It’s a way of producing a different form of attention.
KS: Which is really central to the way I think about interruption and pleasure–in this case, unexpected experience in public space and unexpected experience of a space where you’ve got an idea of what’s supposed to be happening and that gets disrupted. So let’s talk about a concrete example of how you do that.
MA: Sure, one example is at the Hammer Museum, they have a coat room which is underneath the stairs of the museum and we’ve been staging two-minute concerts for two people at a time in there. It’s a very raw space. There is a coat rack with a security guard, a couple of chairs in the corner. It feels like backstage. So I conceptualize it as a spot that’s more connected to the security of the museum, but it also feels like a space outside the panopticon of security. The lobby that the coatroom is in feels like a bank lobby so the architecture and the security are constructed in such a way that it’s very intimidating.
In conceiving the piece, I thought about metaphors like: “You’re squatting in an abandoned house,” or “you’re at a party at somebody’s parents house when they’re out of town when you’re a teenager,” situations where you don’t own the space. In the coatroom concert, you’re occupying in a way that makes you both more aware of how the rest of the museum space constructs authority, but also feels like some kind of escape from that.
KS: In interpersonal relations, there’s the concept of the opening position, which is the position of openness or receptivity that an unengaged person presents, and then the opening move someone makes to engage that person. I was thinking about the space of the museum having or lacking opening positions, and that your work creates opening positions in spaces where they are not expected. This is a big thing with my students at ITP. They get very focused on the technology and we have to push them to consider the idea that you have to get people to pick up the object, or walk up to something that’s going to interact with them, or initiate an interaction with someone–whether it’s via technology or not. People have to feel invited into involvement. So, with the coatroom piece, I’m thinking: how did the piece invite people in?
MA: We have a giant sign that says, “Two-minute concerts, inquire.” We tried a bunch of different strategies. We tried asking people when they came in if they wanted to see a concert. We tried seating somebody right by the sign and in the end it seemed like those approaches were a little bit oppressive. People had just entered the museum and they didn’t really want to have to think about this crazy thing of whether they wanted to hear a two-minute concert in a closet. So we scaled back a little bit, and instead tried to give lots of indicators of what was happening and to have people you could ask. We would sometimes leave the door open so you would see the people performing, and the people watching people perform. They can imagine in their head what it will be like if they’ve seen someone else do it. In general that’s always a really good model for participatory things. If you can create it so that the non-participants can see other people participating, then it sort of becomes like the way you put a dollar in your tip jar at the beginning of your shift. It may be unfamiliar, but you can see how to use it.
KS: Did people stand around outside talking about it?
MA: In this case, not really. It does happen in some of our work. You can create a piece where it’s a container for people to do something in.
KS: The piece becomes a social object.
MA: It depends on how much you construct for that, and of course, it depends if it’s one of the values that the work is trying to advance.
KS: You can only choreograph with so much certainty, though, right? In terms of how people respond to the piece socially. There’s the Marina Abramovic piece at MoMA. It’s a performance for one person in a situation that’s being watched by everyone else. You’re very aware of being watched and photographed when you’re sitting there with her.
So it’s an intimate experience in public, and you would think it would become a social object in that way. But it doesn’t really. It’s a fascinating situation in the space she’s made. People are sitting and talking, and even though the piece is about this profound presentness and attention, everyone else is kind of chattering. You’re at enough distance from the intimate performance that you don’t feel like you’re interrupting it. I sat on the sidelines and had a conversation with my friend about her love life and then we’d watch for a while and then we would go back to talking. That’s what most people were doing, alternating between attention and inattention. What surprised me was I didn’t actually see a lot of people talking to strangers in that arena. Usually any point of triangulation is an excuse for people to talk to each other. It’s the equivalent of when something weird happens on the subway.
There’s also a way of constructing an experience that’s not just social but also collective. You guys have done really interesting things in that vein.
MA: We did a “dream-in” at the Hammer Museum, a program organized by Art Spa, where 180 people slept overnight in the museum. We did lucid dreaming workshops and then people volunteered to be woken up at 5:00 the next morning, and we videotaped what their dreams were and then we had actors doing a subtle reenactment of the dreams the next day, playing with the idea that there’s a trace of the dreams.
And actually what was interesting about it was much less that they were sleeping in a museum but just that as an adult (if you’re not trapped at the airport or in a refugee camp) very seldom do you sleep with 180 people. So that experience itself is really interesting.
MA: There’s such a dynamic there of public and private experience. Your dreams are private insights into yourself. But in this case you’re making those insights and raw images public to strangers, and having a collective experience of private matters.
I like how much room there is in your work for the audience to maneuver. The container is generous. In the Tino Sehgal piece at the Guggenheim, that we talked about the other day, it’s a bit different. [This Progress, an installation by the British-German artist whose father fled Pakistan, was on view in February and March 2010.] The piece was also designed to make a small, intimate experience for each participant, in the context of a collective experience. All in this space that was supposed to be about something completely different, which is spectatorship of objects, basically.
The piece involved a series of guided conversations with a series of performers that had a very individual quality for each person. The visitor entered the [emptied-out] rotunda of the museum and was met by a child. The child asked the visitor a question and listened to the answer. As they continued walking up, the child told the answer to a teenager. The child introduced the teenager to the visitor, who continued the conversation as the child walked away. Farther up the ramp, an adult popped out and interjected a statement into the conversation. The teenager introduced the visitor to the adult, who continued walking up as the teenager walked away. At a certain point on the ramp, the adult disappeared. The visitor was greeted by an old person who introduced him or herself, gave the visitor the name of the piece, and told a story as they continued walking up the ramp to the top. The problem was that people immediately asked: “What is this? What is this about?” That wasn’t a question the performers were supposed to answer. So there’s the issue of what do you do when the audience is breaking character as audience, or, by asking those kinds of questions, they are refusing to stay in the container of the piece.
MA: Sehgal’s work is very theatrical, and theater works because of conventions–I sit here, and I behave this way, things happen in the performance space and I clap. Sehgal is creating these sorts of interactive theatrical experiences, which are also playing with the form of theater, so that you have people trying to have the experience, and at the same time being shown how to deconstruct it. and I think that becomes a difficult thing to choreograph.
But I have very different intentions, of course. I usually like to let people know as much as possible what the thing is. When something really is concerned about creating different kinds of experiences around our ideas but within the space of the social in a way that’s very gentle and comfortable. I like it to be clear that we’re now going to do X, Y, Z, P and Q, and hopefully that gets people into a place where they can then kind of just roll with the experience.
KS: As you said, it’s interstitial. It’s not instead of the art, rather, you’re sneaking unexpected experiences into the spaces and overall environment of the museum. I think that’s the most exciting thing that’s going on, whether it’s in museums or traditional public spaces, and whether you’re using technology or basic human interaction, whether it’s about the quotidian or the spectacular. You’re changing the experience of particular spaces and their authority, and at the same time you’re engaging the same feelings of pleasure and aliveness and awareness as you might get from talking to a stranger in the street. I love that.
As a savvy museumgoer, I know that the museum is where the art (or history, or science) is, and that being in the museum makes it art or history or science in a way that has all kinds of economic, social, and cultural ramifications. Now, the museum is always going to be about the art or the history or the science, fundamentally. But the building in which that material is situated is such fertile social space, and rarely used as such.
So, let me say this another way. As an investigator of the public realm, I also know that museums don’t often act like public space, and I’d call that a missed opportunity. To act like public space (like a park or an urban plaza, for example) is not simply to open one’s doors. To act like a public space is to allow and encourage a wider variety of activities than those that are programmed. To let the constituents of the space have some freedom and spontaneity in how they are using it–and since this may be a radical shift within a museum, I think you also have to entice them into thinking of it that way. Even the café, the most potentially sociable, least ruled-by-convention part of a museum manages not to be very sociable. And here’s the challenge: People don’t seem to think of their encounter with the art or history or science as something that’s happening to other people around them at the same time.
I like to see performances, installations, interventions in museum spaces that make that fact impossible to ignore. In Machine Project’s work, you find that there is something weird here in the spaces between the art, and we’re all seeing it, and maybe voluntarily participating in it. In Tino Sehgal’s piece, the experience was the whole of the art, visitors and performers intermingled, and the collective nature of the experience was integral to the piece. Other artists approach the problem in different ways. For me, the point is simply that in treating the museum as a social space you can provoke a very different form of awareness. One of the awakenings you can have in that space is to the space itself, and another is to the other humans in it, to the idea that you are actually sharing an experience with strangers.
Kio Stark writes about and teaches relational technology and human social dynamics at the Interactive Telecommunications Program, New York University, New York City. Her first novel, Follow Me Down, will be published by Red Lemonade in June. Mark Allen is the director of Machine Project, Los Angeles.
This is the pre-peer-reviewed version of the following article: “A Conversation about Machine Project” in Curator: The Museum Journal, 54:1 January 2011, which has been published in final form here.
I recently published a narrative version of my ITP Strangers class on the Atlantic Magazine blog. Here’s an excerpt.
“This is a class on urban culture. My fundamental premise is that strangers and cities are inherently intertwined. The everyday nature of interacting with strangers is a byproduct of urbanization, which has created a culture of dense populations with sparse interconnections. That density and sparseness of connections itself is part of what defines ‘the urban.’ Living in cities has made strangers into a multitude: we brush past thousands of them every day. Even the simplest exchange among strangers can contain a tangled accumulation of meanings: what transpires may have physical, emotional, social, political, technological and historical dimensions. I show students how to unravel and understand these charged moments.”
I am thinking now of the summer years ago when I taught expository writing to a group of 13-14 year olds, about twenty of them. We met every morning for three hours, much too long an interval for them. I broke up the time halfway through by playing a game of ping pong with each of them. Because I’m such a lousy player, this took only 20 minutes.
That day I had given them something very hard and brutal and self-absorbed to read, Joan Didion, I think, and asked them to write their thoughts about it.
One boy, the Korean boy who had taught me to write my name in Kanji, wrote a remarkable thing. He wrote, with the eloquence that can only be produced by partial mastery of a language, that he couldn’t understand the author’s notion of her splintered, depressed self, because of his religion. His beliefs told him that he was the same stuff as the air and the flowers and the butterflies around him. He used those words, named those things. He said it was not that he was made of the same stuff, not organic chemistry, but that he and I and everything in the room around us were the same all pervading thing, made of one essence and one being, breathing the same breath. He used almost those words, in fact words far more elegant and eloquent, words that I regret having lost more than I regret having lost certain loves, more than I regret having lost precious trinkets. What he said was that he and I were one with everything. He used those words, not knowing them to have been rendered common by the overuse injuries that Americans inflict on language, not knowing them to have become the punchline of a joke.
I am thinking about this boy and his words because I’m in the middle of reading something about love. Nothing like those loves I once regretted losing, but love in the broadest sense. And by consequence I’m thinking about the poverty of English when it comes to words for love, of the specificity with which it can be named in Greek (philia, éros, agápe). Then too, I’m thinking of the beautiful blush on the Korean boy’s face when I tried, and in all certainty failed, to find words to tell him how transcendent was his description of his beliefs, and of his very existence. I envied him then and I envy him now for both his words and his way of being in the world. I feel this way knowing that envy is impossible for him, or was then, anyway, and wishing fervently that it were impossible for me
Below are rough unedited notes from the session I did at Foo today.
-I make things out of words (stories, explanations), and really the main thing I’m always trying to do is show you something that was invisible to you before. I do this as a fiction writer (just finished first novel), that’s what art is all about. And I do it as a teacher at ITP. I’m also an interactive copywriter.
-I teach about individual social dynamics and relational technology. one lens is intimacy, another is stranger behavior. So I’m sort of a people hacker.
-My classes are a mix of studying existing knowledge and doing field experiments—it’s like Human Nature Lab.
About the experiments:
The premise of all this, why you’d want to do these experiments in the first place is that human nature doesn’t really work how we tend to think of it as working. -human nature is not immutable. When we encounter something that we attribute to human nature, we’re actually engaging in what’s known as situated cognition.
-what we see as human nature is contingent and contextual. It happens in specific places, at specific times of day, under specific lighting conditions and in particular weather, just to name a few variables.
-it’s intersubjective and participatory. Human nature has to do with negotiations in a social field.
What that means is that you can read all you want about human nature—and there’s a lot of amazing, fascinating work that’s been done. Data, studies, ethnography, controlled experiments. But my proposition is you can’t really understand it unless you get down there and muck around in it.
So here are six ways to get started doing that. One important note is these all need to be iterated, can’t run just once.
1. Observing people and unwritten rules
This is the training level in the game. It’s like professional-grade peoplewatching. you go somewhere where there are a lot of people and turn off all your devices. You get a notebook and a pen. You take notes. You could do this with a camera too, but you’ll still need to take notes. You sit for at least an hour in the same spot. Ideally you do it again somewhere else, too. You write down everything you observe, and you look for things you wouldn’t ordinarily track.
You are learning about how people ‘read’ each other.
-what are people wearing, how do they look
-how do they use their bodies
-how do they negotiate the space they’re in, each other
Task A: See if you can find 3 ‘unwritten rules’ about the place from the way people are behaving? Hint: you’ll see these the most clearly when they’re violated. My fave is “civil inattention.”
Task B: explore how we read individuals—how we make inferences about them. Strangers are stories with holes in them. Pick 3 people. What stories are you inventing about these people. a story can be as simple as ‘she’s rich.’ Then figure out what details about the person/people gave you that impression. If she’s rich, it might be how well-cared for her skin looks, or her posture, or her clothing, or her attitude toward others. You also might be wrong. Extra points if you go up and ask people to confirm or deny your stories. I’ve never had a student do this, by the way. (it’s an unwritten rule)
Lastly, pay attention to how you feel doing this. You’re staring, and you’re not supposed to. Are people noticing? What happens when they do? Are you uncomfortable? Are you making people uncomfortable? Are you enjoying that? Learn about your own comfort with violating boundaries. Ok, so now, here’s the real game. It’s a series of designed interactions with strangers, and what’s special about all of them is they are interruptions in the expected social field. I believe strongly that kind of interruption is a specific and craved pleasure, type of connection. It’s also a perfect laboratory.
#2 Are you out of my league
This one is a doozy. You go up to someone on the street, or in a more sedentary public place, and you ask them this question: “Are you out of my league?”
This is really hard to do. Let me reassure you that most people are pretty polite about the whole thing. You can make some choices here. You can tell people it’s an experiment, an assignment (I’ve found that students choose not to do this). So I did this with my class, how many of you would feel comfortable with doing this? You’re going to do this a bunch of times. So choose some people of the same sex and some of the opposite. Choose some people who are alone and some who are with others. Choose some people who are your age and some who are older (younger is asking for trouble, but you are on your own recognizance). Ask some people who you think might answer yes, and some people who you are pretty sure will answer no. Pay attention to what happens after they answer the question. That’s a moment where something called leavetaking rights and exit strategies are really confusing. More awkwardness. Learn from it.
#3 Walk with me
More awkwardness: ask someone if you can walk with them. This is great—and sort of harrowing—when it’s a no-exit situation, like the walking path across a bridge. But you can just stop someone at an intersection and ask if you can walk with them for a few blocks—as long as you give an endpoint. The really butch thing is not to give a reason, but you can say it’s an experiment if you want to. The point is forced conversation for a set interval. You give someone a structure, they’re more likely to participate. Ask questions, or be quiet and let the other person fill in the space—that’s always an awkward and often successful strategy. You’re learning how people negotiate ‘street intimacy’ and how they have a different orientation toward it when they know it’s constrained.
#4 True confession
Your task is to ask at least 5 people to answer a question on video (you have to get at least 5, you may get turned down a few times). What happens on the street when you ask these kinds of questions can be incredibly honest—or awkward, someone who doesn’t want to be honest—in any case it creates a space for honesty. Very different than unsolicited confession. It’s something that isn’t already on a person’s mind, not part of their loop.
There’s a trick to formulating a question. Questions: Better to engage imagination than memory. So not, what was the last thing you thought of before you fell asleep (which is a super appealing question). Ppl get hung up on the remembering, the accuracy. And not too open ended. Can have some specificity—[eg]. What brought you here/what keeps you here [in nyc] What did you do today What’s your earliest memory What’s your most precious possession What was the last thing you thought about before sleep What’s the closest you’ve been to famous If you were to get famous, what would it be for What makes you get up in the morning What are you afraid of What would you tell your 10-yr old self What sense would you give up if you had to choose one
#5 Ask for Help
A little background. In 1964 a woman named Kitty Genovese was brutally murdered outside her apartment building in Queens. She screamed a lot, for a relatively long time. It was reported that 38 neighbors heard or saw this happening and nobody called the police (that turned out not to be completely true, but it was the public story). After that a lot of sociologists and psychologists started doing immense amounts of research on the ‘Bystander Effect,’ which is that your impulse to help is inversely proportional to how many people you think are also available to help.
I’m not going to make you pretend to be murdered. You’re just going to ask for directions. This is iterative. And you have to put your iphone out of view.
-Ask for directions.
-If you get directions, as the person to draw a map.
-If you get a map, ask for their phone number in case you get lost.
-If you get a phone number, call it. I’ve only ever had one student actually make the call.
Like before, do this 5-10 times, and use varied targets. You’re experiencing people’s willingness to help, and also you’re encountering people using their cheater detections systems. Also, you’re lying and inconveniencing people. How’s that feel?
Below are some other experiments for advanced users & some cultural data.
This is pulled from: Levine, R. V. (2003). Measuring helping behavior across cultures.
Retrieving a dropped pen. The experimenter (a neatly dressed college age male), walking at a moderate pace, would reach into his pocket and “accidentally,” without appearing to notice, drop his pen behind him, and continue walking. In each city, we observed the number of occasions a passing pedestrian helped the experimenter retrieve the pen.
Hurt leg. Walking with a heavy limp and wearing a large and clearly visible leg brace (the ugliest ones we could find), the experimenter “accidentally” dropped, and then unsuccessfully struggling to reach down for, a pile of magazines. What proportion of approaching pedestrians offered assistance?
Blind person crossing the street. An experimenter wearing dark glasses and carrying a white cane acted the role of a blind person needing help getting across the street.1 We measured the percentage of instances in which help was offered.
Change for a Quarter. With a quarter in full view, the experimenter approached a pedestrian passing in the opposite direction and asked politely for change for a quarter. We observed how many pedestrians in each city stopped to check for change.
Lost Letter. A neat hand-written note, “I found this next to your car,” was placed on a stamped envelope addressed to the experimenter’s home. The envelope was then left on the windshield of a randomly selected car parked at a meter in a main shopping area. How many of these letters arrived at the address?
Examples of cross-cultural mis-translations.
Change: “In Kiev, RUSSIA, where pickpockets are rampant, visitors are warned to never open their purse or wallet on the street.” “Between monetary inflation and the use of pre-paid telephone cards, however, we learned that the need for particular coins has become virtually extinct in many countries. In Tel Aviv, for example, no one seemed to understand why a person would need small change. In Calcutta, our experimenter had difficulty finding anyone with small value bills and coins–a general shortage which occurs all over India during some festival seasons. In Buenos Aires, we wondered how to score the response of a person who replied, “I don’t even have for myself.’”
Lost letter: “The first problem we encountered was people literally running away from the letters in some cities. In Tel Aviv, in particular, where unclaimed packages have all too often turned out to contain bombs, our experimenter found people actively avoiding the suspicious looking envelopes. In El Salvador, our experimenter was informed about a scam going around in which people were intentionally dropping letters; when innocent samaritans picked one up, the con man told them they had lost the letter, that it contained money, and demanded the money back. Not surprisingly, very few letters were returned in El Salvador.”
I’ve told you a little bit about my experiments with strangers. I’m obsessed with this, this is just the tip of the iceberg, but I wanted to give you a taste of what’s going on in my stranger research. I’d love to hear your stories if you have them, come find me.
Syllabus for my ITP class “When Strangers Meet”
[Originally published June 15, 2010 at The Literary Platform]
We are living in generous times. I don’t mean that in a hippie, random acts of kindness sort of way. I mean that we are living at a time when sharing as a model of exchange is increasingly common.
Right now, our models of getting paid and paying for things are both up for grabs in fascinating – and potentially society-changing – ways. As newspapers fail, crucial experiments in how to pay for news – especially investigative reporting – are underway. Ebooks, creative commons licensing, and ever-more legitimate forms of self-publishing are challenging the book publishing industry’s way of doing business. As I writer, I’ve got a vested interest in what’s going to happen – and the open question applies to everyone who makes any form of culture, amateur or professional or anything in-between. One place to look for lessons is the open source movement, which began as a collaborative, distributed model of making software, and is fast becoming a pervasive set of values taken up by communities as diverse as open source sewing and amateur unmanned aerial vehicles development.
Notice that word, communities. Open source production and some of its consumption happen in communities. The model is most efficiently sustainable when most of the community respects the ethics of mutual sharing that open source is built on. That is to say they are freeloader-tolerant, and able to function when some of the participants are taking but not contributing. The point is, within a community, ethics are agreements, not abstractions. Within a community, generosity is a social contract.
When it comes to selling and buying culture, there have been some promising recent experiments in a model of comers called pay-what-you-want. This goes well beyond the longstanding tradition of pay-what-you-want museum admission—which is basically subsidized by very rich people and institutions paying what they want. In contrast, these are experiments in which generosity is offered by the authors to each member of the audience as an individual. For example, Radiohead released an album on a voluntary payment basis in 2007, and other musicians including Jane Siberry and Girl Talk have tried it out too. In January, there was a pay-what-you-want benefit concert for Haiti. Eidos’s game Championship Manager is successfully pay-what-you-want, and World of Goo had a profitable pay-what-you-want birthday sale in 2009. These experiments have been profitable financially (though freeloading was higher than hoped for, according to the data from Radiohead and World of Goo), and great publicity – for both their pass-along value and to some small degree for their values.
I like this model a lot. With one caveat. To my mind, it’s pay what you can, not pay what you want. Change the verb and you change the game. I know the phrase sounds very Soviet, and, significantly, it turns out it’s much harder than you’d think to evaluate for yourself what you can pay. I came to an epiphany about the distinction while drinking coffee in a Berlin cafe this winter. It’s a nice place, Cafe Morgenrot, where there’s a delicious buffet out all day and you can eat as much as you want and stay as long as you want. And you are asked to pay what you can.
They have to explain this to you. The menu lays it out. It’s not pay what you want. They tell you that the price you pay doesn’t correspond to how much you eat or how long you stay or how much you like the food. They are asking you to pay according to how much is in your wallet (in general, or at that moment). They don’t police their patrons, and overall it seems to work—which is to say, they’re still in business.
I believe in this stuff, and it was still fantastically hard to get my head around, and this is the lightning bolt that hit me. Pay-what-you-can requires a change in how we calculate value. It establishes payment as a mutual and ethical obligation, rather than a way of voting with your wallet.
As a maker of culture (specifically, stories), I prefer the can to the want model. Pay what you can is a radically different form of generosity that can only flourish in a community. It’s not an economic relationship between the consumer and the author. It’s a relationship between one book lover and another. Some people might want to pay a lot but can’t, and vice versa, and they’re all getting the same ‘free’ book. What’s happening is they’re subsidizing each other’s participation in a community of readers. Here’s the crux of it: I want to define cultural generosity as sharing (in both directions) and as paying what you can.
What would that look like? Well, none of this is going to work spectacularly in bestseller culture, but in communities of book buyers and readers who feel bound by a common aesthetic, politics, genre, the pay-what-you-can model has a fighting chance. Let me be clear. It’s not a question of teaching people that books are important to culture, and it’s the polar opposite of preserving the price point of the book-as-object in the face of digital distribution. Pay-what-you-can uses the possibilities afforded by digital production to change book buyers’ way of valuing and their motivation for paying for what they read. The key is that in an organic community, you can create a sense of responsibility. Doing so could change the way books (or any cultural products) are made, paid for, consumed, and loved.
And here’s an exciting example of a community that could build pay-what-you-can ethics into its structure from the ground up. Richard Nash’s new publishing company Cursor, and its debut imprint Red Lemonade, represent a radically new model (caveat: he’s a friend). Cursor is turning the making, buying and selling of books into a community business, driven by readers and writers. Nash describes it as “imprints that are communities, each based on a cluster of established and emerging writers and fans, in a given aesthetic, genre, or subculture. So, the community becomes both a place to create and collaborate and share one’s writing, and also an organ for disseminating the most representative and powerful of that writing to the larger world.” Cursor’s business model includes digital and mechanical editions, as well as limited editions.
What thrills me about this is that Nash is making the perfect laboratory for experimenting with pay-what-you-can—and I lay down the gauntlet for him to try it. As a participant in the community, you’re not just buying a book, you’re paying a share in supporting the community, the press/distribution mechanism, and the writer all in the same click of the “pay” button. You’re saying, I want this to go on, and I want it to be available to everybody who loves it the way I do.
The rise of pay-what-you-can culture could have significant social effects:
1) The distinction between producers and consumers can become fuzzy in interesting, productive ways. This has been observed about the open source software community. In culture-making communities, it has the potential to break down a heretofore (relatively) closed, elitist structure of publication, distribution, and reputation.
2) Sociable network membership is rapidly increasing in the US. The ethic of pay-what-you-can culture has the potential to transform some of these networks into rich, participatory communities, and to strengthen the network effects of existing communities.
3) The financial model of pay what you can could provide crucial support for independent publishers and producers, keeping non-bestseller culture more viable and open.
So think about it next time you pay for a book, or a performance or a game or a record or a meal. If you think about how you assess their value – the way you spend your money on the things you love has a chance to change the world.