Sunday, August 22, 2010

How Do You Design Real Participation? A Catskills Tale

In much of my museum work, we're always talking about designing experiences that encourage real participation from our audiences and often museums are particularly interested in reaching young people.  Last weekend I went to an event, most definitely not a museum event, that I thought exemplified the qualities that could make museums into places people want to come to. 

I attended Cockstock 2, a music festival entirely generated by a small group of young people here in my beautiful part of the Catskills.   It's the brainchild of musician Alex Gohorel (center above) and his friends, held on a gently sloping field with the hills as backdrop.  This year as last, on a beautiful day.  (oh, and if you're interested, Cockstock 1 had a badminton theme;  Cockstock 2 was all about roosters).

So what did Alex, his family and friends do that museums might emulate as they consider designing participatory experiences?  A great deal.

Invite anyone to plan and participate
The event's Facebook page described it as a "celebration of art, information, and good company" and if you had something to share, you were invited to do so.  Some artists brought their work and did a small installation in the barn where anyone could come in, look at the work and talk (and many people did).  Another young woman working as a summer intern in a Farm to School program brought materials and set up a table-top display about her work.  Nothing was juried,  there weren't rules about where you could set up, and of course, there was no fee to participate--because it was a small new event the important flexibility was possible. 

Create many opportunities to pitch in and help
In this case, volunteering meant everything from performing to baking to silk-screening T-shirts and building a stage (and of course, that post-event clean-up).   There were more volunteers in the set-up than the year before.  

Make sure those opportunities are meaningful
Both of Alex's parents bring significant creative skills to the project.  Anne worked with a group to create silk-screened T-shirts for the event and John used his building skills to work with a group on building the stage.   Perhaps none of these young volunteers will ever become professional screen printers or builders but they learned about a process and about doing a job well.  And, I think, enjoyed doing it.  

Price it right
The festival was free if you just came for the music;  $5 if you wanted to eat, and $10 if you wanted to eat and get a T-shirt.  Payment was voluntary and I believe most people paid, even the musicians!   I contrast this with another local festival where the admission fee is $12 for adults including food.   It was great to have the choices about what level to pay at.  And of course if you wanted to extend the experience,  you could buy a CD.

Don't Regiment Everything
Want to play badminton--sure!   Want to bring your decorated hula hoops to share?  sure!  Want to paddle in the little pond?  sure!  Want to play music but didn't tell them in advance?  sure!   Want to dance--sure!  And you could do all of those whenever you wanted.   In the planning--not a single committee meeting.  Sometimes I'd pay money to not go to a meeting.

Make Room for Creators and Appreciators
There were loads of creators at the event--musicians and others.  There was space and time for all of them to share their work.  But there was also time and space for those of us who aren't artists to enjoy and appreciate the work.  The audience ranged in age from 4 to 70 plus--it really was for everyone.

Let Go!
Although Anne, John and Alex and many others committed significant time and energy to make the event a success,  they also understood that they couldn't control everything, that the event would make its own way,  And it did.  Imagine how lovely it was to have a band member from New York City look out at the view while playing and say, "We never thought we'd play by hillside.  It's beautiful here!"   I think there were some great unintended consequences and some new connections.

And the best part?  Never once did I hear someone say, "Well, we've always done it this way."

Thanks to Anne and Claire Gohorel and Drew Harty for some of the photos and to Nina Simon who I'm inspired by whenever I think about creating participatory experiences.


Heleen Heyning said...

I'm sorry I wasn't able to come, but this paints a great and wonderful picture of the whole affair!

Watershed said...


Any way that we can publish some of these photos on our site? This was a great post, and we'd like to link to it along with posting a photo.

Julia Reischel
Watershed Post

Linda Norris said...

Would love to have you...only a couple are mine, but am sure it would be okay with Anne, Claire or Drew....can you let me know which ones you want to use so I can give you the right credit to use?


Watershed said...


I'm sorry to take so long to respond. I'd love to print the first, second, and third photos, if possible. Thanks so much!


Linda Norris said...

Hi Julia--first one by Claire Gohorel, second one by Drew Harty, third one by Anne Gohorel (also the artwork itself by Anne).

Look forward to seeing it come thru my Twitter feed!


Watershed said...

Thanks again -- it'll go live this afternoon.