Audiences & Technology Series: Experience interactivity at YBCA

A night out at YBCA

Through digital media and interactive events, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) is experimenting with new practices that contextualize the experience of performance for audiences.

We spoke with the leadership at YBCA about their project, YBCA: Connect, that seeks to enrich the audience experience of live art.

This is one of a series of conversations with leaders from eight organizations convening in December 2011 around the topic of Audience Engagement and Technology.

Piama Habibullah (ArtsFwd): What is YBCA?

Joël Tan (Director of Community Engagement): YBCA is a contemporary arts center in San Francisco that presents performance, film and video, and exhibitions with community engagement programs. At YBCA, art is not a spectator sport.

PH: What is YBCA:Connect?

JT: YBCA:Connect is an online and onsite engagement program centered around performance. We organize experiences that are both digital and live around pre, during and post performances. That includes providing access to videos we have that contextualize the performances to having other kinds of public program experiences in unusual spaces or offsite. It’s about comprehensive enriching of the performance experience and in that there is a very major component around digital strategy. The major piece is developing an online or digital docent.

PH: What are some of the new offerings of YBCA:Connect?

Smart Night Out at YBCA

JT: Smart Night Out is a pre, during, and post performance experience where you basically go to art boot camp. You come and check in an hour before a performance and you’re lead through a series of interactive workshop types of activities. You share dinner with a group of other performance enthusiasts. You hear from an expert and our own in-house educator that will prepare you for the experience of this performance as well as provide the contextual information. You then see the performance along with your cohort of other Smart Night Outers. Afterwards, you join everyone again for a cheese and wine course and a download. It’s really going well and we’re looking at increasing those experiences for our next season.

Ken Foster (Executive Director): There’s a component of repurposing the building that is actually activating the lobby space. We invested in some furniture and redesigned the lobby space, made it a much more engaging place than it has been. In general we’re doing really well at engaging with people.

JT: In our performing arts programs, we’ve had really amazing innovative offsite experimental new programs including a theater experience by Rotozaza in which the audience puts on a set of headphones, goes to a remote location and they’re instructed on dramatizing and embodying the program itself. They become the program.

PH: What are some of the challenges and surprises you’ve encountered?

JT: Initially we wanted to create a mobile docent experience. We started asking various design groups to consult. Each time they’ve given us great brilliant ideas, none of which we could afford or sustain over time.  We realized that the idea of creating a mobile app, for example, is actually not sustainable. Through the course of the project, we’re learning that docent-ing or the mediation and contextualization of artwork happens best on site with real people. What we need right now is really centered on repurposing the building, which is one of the components of this program.

KF: With technology it’s about trying to come to grips with what’s effective, for how long, what we can afford, what’s sustainable. We’re not quite settled in that completely. One of the underpinning lessons, or challenges, is really the need to prepare for technology at least 3 years ahead. Honestly, when we first started we were in love with the gadgets. We thought, “Oh, how cool that I can carry my phone around and I can have this conversation.” Our first surprise is that people said, “I’d rather react to a real person than talk to my screen.”

Rotozaza’s Etiquette, a half-hour participatory performance experience for 2 people

Following that, the mobile trend was clear to us when we began the project. We knew intuitively and because we’re geographically in the heart of the technology world. We are moving away from desktops, everything is moving towards mobility. What that specifically asks is do we design a mobile app? Do we buy iPads and give them to everybody? Do we invest in phones? Do we design things that can be done on the phone? The cloud appeared in the middle of this and now suddenly everything’s in the cloud. Trying to anticipate and invest wisely has made us a bit hazy on the whole technology side because we just keep getting battered by these things, but not in a bad way.

JT: We just did a design consultation and it occurred to me that the technology around this should be about what outcomes we want for the user: integrated onsite and digital experiences that are at whatever pace people feel comfortable using. How can we create the spaces in there and around there to drop in our media, to be able to project twitter feeds? It’s really about creating the right space or environment that can hold any number of games or interactivity. This is new. After having done several consultations and everyone’s coming up with the same solution, I feel like we’ve asked the wrong question.

PH: How does the staff respond to the rapidly changing needs of this project?

KF: The atmosphere around us has shifted so that the entire staff is a little bit more agreeable and amenable to trying different things. Since we are a large complicated organization, the specific projects do wind up landing in a particular place related to the job description of that individual. I would not say that we’ve achieved a thing where the person in the finance office is creating a mobile app. The idea gets generated and people are on board with it but the execution ends up in whichever department is appropriate. So from my perspective as the director, I feel like that’s exactly what we wanted to achieve. This atmosphere for innovation was not here before necessarily.

PH: What questions do you have for others in the field?  What are you looking to learn?

KF: I’m curious to know what the others are doing in dealing with rapid technological change. Let’s not talk about how much money it’s going to take to invest in this- we know we never have enough to do it. Let’s just talk about it conceptually. How are people changing engagement strategy? How are people’s desires and needs for engagement shifting because of the technological changes? How are we thinking about that and how do we imagine that we’re going to cope with that?

The last two years of financial nightmare have changed a lot of things as well. I’d be really curious to see if people are fundamentally rethinking and what they’re up to during this global economic crisis. It hasn’t just changed our economic situation. It’s changed the thinking of art and engagement.

Big Art Group’s The People: San Francisco, a site-specific outdoor extravaganza

JT: I’d love to hear about the basics around the science and art of user experience, which takes technology outside of gadgets and gizmos. We need to look at innovation as a way of speaking to designing space so it can be more interactive and about designing an experience.

It’s not about the story, it’s about the frame narrative. It almost feels like we have to create the right frame narrative for people to create the right characters. It’s the nature of activity. Art has its own life and it evolves. So is there a post-this? What does it mean that we’re focusing on interactivity? Is it so hegemonic right now that it’s just the lingo? What’s beyond that, what’s behind that? That’s a consciousness that we need to pay attention to. That’s the habitus we’re discussing now.

Piama Habibullah is the former Online Producer + Communications Manager at EmcArts.