Friday, December 1, 2006

Feedback and beauty

Over at Raph Koster's Website, he's got a post up about "The algorithm or art." Using feedback to determine the "worthiness," whether economic or artistic, of songs, movies and games.

Back when I was at Cornell and actively involved in the student poetry writing scene there, we had weekly open-mic and other similar events, gang editing fests, various clubs, readings, etc. Many were quite participative. At one of these, we did an exercise once called the "Crowd Pleaser." Before the evening's main readings, we asked the members of the audience to propose and vote on a topics for new poems that would be written that night, for their immediate enjoyment.

Several topics were shouted out, and then voted upon. After that, we asked everyone to write on scraps of paper all the words that they associated with that topic. Those words were written on a chalkboard with numbers after them indicating how many people had chosen them. There were about thirty words, some of which had received as many as 7 or 8 mentions.

During the course of the night, four of us wrote poems on the topic at hand. If I remember correctly -- I don't have the piece anymore -- the subject was "daydreaming". We tried to incorporate as many of the words suggested by the crowd as possible. The poems were read at the conclusion of the evening.

The four pieces were all quite different, but the audience responded very well to each. We invited comment and sat around and talked about the experience with some of them afterward, and they said that it had felt quite interesting (one girl I knew said "tingly") to listen to poem that had been created expressly "for them," and had incorporated words provided by them. Some of the words hadn't been really easy, obvious ones, either. So it made it even more... tingly, I suppose... to hear them reflected back from the poet.

Is art better when it reflects something of what the audience already knows? Or knows it wants? We weren't making any money, so there was no "conflict of interest" between dirty commerce (that's sarcasm, children... I'm in marketing, remember) and pure art.

It was fun for me, as a poet, to write something that incorporated bits of the audience's brain. It was different. And I was certainly also using my own mind, my creative jelly, my poetic spirit in the process. There was no copping out. No crutch. No pablum. And the other three writers came up with very different results, even though the topic was the same and some of the ingredients.

This is not one of those posts where I have a nice, compact idea at the end or a suggestion. This is one of those posts where I just say some stuff and make an observation or two that kind of connects some weird points and then leaves you hanging to make your own conclusions.

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