What Can You Do? is a celebration and reclamation of the public space. Through direct interaction among strangers What Can You Do? instigates a series of encounters ranging from direct engagement through electronically mediated experience. Our comfort in public often relies on our ability to keep to ourselves and surround ourselves with invisible bubbles as we navigate through an often fractured and hostile public space.
Many people don’t like to be approached by strangers on the street. Perhaps there is some residual fear from when we were children and warned not to talk to strangers for our own protection. Some of the discomfort may result from not wanting to be disturbed as we go about our business: thinking our thoughts, engaging in conversation with the people we are with (either in person or on the phone), listening to music, etc.
Whatever the reason, many of us experience some discomfort and aversion when someone we don’t know stops us in public and attempts to engage our attention for his or her own purposes. We instinctively assess what we think is happening and respond accordingly, based on our expectations of public behavior and prior experience.
Most of the common interactions and expectations of behavior among strangers in public are ones based on commerce, asking for assistance, and proselytizing. These are the first order, larger categories we tend to use to sort people. From there we decide if we are interested in closer inspection and interaction. Is the person selling something? Asking for money for themselves or donations for some cause? Need directions or the time? Gathering signatures? Trying to save our immortal souls?
Some of these requests are more acceptable than others depending on many personal factors like time, expendable income, feelings about charity, religion and politics, etc. We tend to make our assessment rather quickly, considering how much information we process based on our assumptions and observations, and it serves us well much of the time as we navigate the public space.
However, the categories that we use to sort people are also the ones that may end up defining and even limiting what we understand or think we understand about our observations. We may actually miss seeing things that fall outside of those categories because once sorted, we stop noticing. We stop wondering. We stop listening.
Through my work as an artist who loves sound and has worked with it for many years, I have experienced first hand the transformative power of paying attention to sound. What started as a passion for listening to and recording sounds and stories ultimately created its own challenges about how art, sound and listening in particular, could transform social interaction among strangers in public.
As the term “Social Practice” has gained greater currency with visual artists when referring to this type of publicly engaged work, it often primarily addresses the concerns of visual art i.e. object, seeing, artist and public. The dichotomy of artist and observer or even invited participant is preserved. This medium can reinforce the separateness of object and observer, automatically generating the notion of one who originates or creates.
What Can You Do? is an opportunity for interacting with the public and non-artists through personal, reciprocal engagement. Listening, sounding and performance are the basis for and the essence of the work itself. What Can You Do? offers a window to the different conceptual, aesthetic, and relational possibilities that arise from these time-based activities, and these differences highlight the quality of experience and insight.
Experiential practice with the general public through this kind of direct mutual engagement with sound and listening emphasizes parity among participants. Everyone is significantly responsible for the creation and performance of the work. This parity of relationship coupled with the insights gained from the experience are potentially empowering to all participants.
The inclusion of non-artists in the creation and production of the work is indispensable. It expands the scope and quality of this type of engagement and critical discussion. It is especially so with respect to ideas of growth and social change through the promotion of intimacy, personal connection and awareness of our relationship to each other and to the environment.
Try it out. Oddly enough, What Can You Do? is NOT about what YOU can do. It is the question to ask other people. Your role is to either learn to do what they share with you or to witness and document it. That’s it. Initial trepidation and fear aside, it is surprisingly fun and exciting.
For a portable Open Call and Invitation, see the embedded doc just beneath this video:
Brenda Hutchinson is a composer and sound artist whose work is based on the cultivation and encouragement of openness in her own life and in those she works with. Through her work with large-scale experiments in socially based improvisations and interactions, Hutchinson encourages participants to experiment with sound, share stories, and connect with each other.