Because of this big week in Paris, the sadness involved, and the high feelings running all around, I have been thinking about engagement, and in particular how I feel about engagement on Twitter and Facebook.
Sometimes I use either of those forms simply to share something, to point out a link that I’ve found interesting, to say what I feel, what I’ve seen. I’m not always doing that because I want a response, because I want to have a conversation about it, because I want to provoke, I’m doing it just because I want to share something.
Other times I do want to engage (usually not with those who prefer to argue, I really don’t enjoy arguing), but I’m okay with the back and forth. Sometimes I might post something because I want to have the back and forth, but not always.
Which makes me think about how we think, particularly in the arts, about engagement.
(And yes, I do wish there was a better word than ‘engagement’, something less overused, but I don’t just mean talking, and I don’t just mean chatting, I mean a bit more than the back and forth, so I think I do mean engaging – if ‘engaging’ is getting into the guts of something, working out what we think, feel, understand, together. Getting deeply into something, doing or creating or making together. Engaging, joining in, participating, taking part – they all feel like part of a continuum to me, not the same, but linked.)
Anyway, thinking about how I enjoy engaging on Facebook and Twitter, sometimes, and how at other times, other people’s engagements on Facebook and Twitter, other people trying to get me to engage on Facebook or Twitter, irritates the hell out of me, made me think about how I feel when I go to a gallery, a play, a concert, and am asked to “engage”. And that I don’t hear very often, the possibility that perhaps I might be keen just to sit back. That perhaps I don’t always want to jump in, take part. That it might be okay to give me a choice, that it doesn’t make me a ‘bad audience’ if I don’t want to ‘engage’. I think I’m tired of feeling like a ‘bad audience’ when I don’t want always to wear a mask, promenade, join in, fill in a feedback form, singalong or even stay in my seat if I don’t feel like it. I don’t want to leave my own agency at the door.
This is, of course, why I’ve been pouring my heart into Fun Palaces for the past two years. Because it offers a range of options to those who want to take part – or not. A range of options from creating a Fun Palace, to sitting back and observing someone else’s activities, or ignoring them entirely, in the same location. Because it offers us a choice. And for a very long time, in our theatres, galleries, opera houses – insert art-form-venue here – we have not really offered choice (ie, none other than the choice to buy a ticket or not).
We, the arts makers, have offered what we thought people wanted, or what we thought they needed, or simply what we believed we needed, very often we have offered what we ourselves needed to make/share/sing/dance.
nb – my feeling at the moment is that this latter is a really useful point – if we think that artists need/want to offer what they need/want to offer, because it somehow unburdens or placates or integrates or inspires the artistic spirit, it may be that we also need to consider that non-artists need/want to offer stuff too. That the work we create could be less about who it is created by, and more about the likelihood that everyone has something to offer.

Of course we are not wrong to offer our work, the work that makes our hearts sing or our souls weep, but if we are only offering it on our own terms, only to be engaged with on our own terms (be those terms a silent, non-shuffling/non-rustling auditorium or the requirement to wear a mask as audience), then we are likely to continue to be disappointed when people don’t always want to come and play with us. We might have to consider truly offering a range of options. At the very least, it would save us agonisingly (and pointlessly) trying to second-guess what people want, trying to work out how to ‘engage’.

nb – when I looked up the word engagement what I found was ‘a promise to wed’ – I think the key here is PROMISE. 
What are we promising? And can we deliver?

And speaking of engagement, yay Tiffany! Anyone for breakfast?

edited to add : my friend and colleague Jen Toksvig and I started a new conversation out of this blog, her part of it is below as a comment, or you can check it out here.