Grant McCracken: Making Culture, Provoking Culture

Social worlds tend to settle. And once they settle, a fine coating of inevitability forms around them.

Social worlds tend to settle. And once they settle, a fine coating of inevitability forms around them.

Who is what to whom under what circumstances as constrained by what rules, eventually this is completely “done.” We’re weighted down by stasis.

Case in point? A couple I saw years and years ago in a restaurant. They were in their 70s. I guessed they had been married a long time. Occasionally, he would raise his eyebrows and she would smile. They had shared this meal so many times it was terra completely cognito. Jokes didn’t need telling. They just need referencing. This tiny, social world had settled. They were now riding the inevitability through to dessert, and, no, there weren’t going to be any surprises there either.

What happens to couples happens to corporations, universities, cities, countries. Countries? Sure, Canada. Once dynamic, these social worlds have settled into stasis. They are now going through the motions, even when those represent a bad, lifeless idea.

What these static worlds need are provocations, events that “short out” the stasis, so to say. People are suddenly released from the confinement of their settled social world. They are not freed for long, and revolutionaries are inclined to believe that this moment of liberation will last for longer than it does. But there has been an “interrupt” as the psychologists call it. For a moment, the inevitability cracks, the rules become clear, the stasis is suspended.

There are a million possible provocations. Some years ago, Abby Hoffman showered the New York Stock Exchange with dollar bills. [Please share other examples in Comments.] There are species of art and/or politics that live for the provocation that will accomplish through imagination what cannot be accomplishment through more structural economic, political and social change. Some of these groups believe in an “open sesame” event, the one perfect provocation that will set all the dominos tumbling till real and lasting change is accomplished. This provocation may exist, but it will take a lot of very careful thinking and experiment to discover what it is.

This is where pie comes in. A couple of years ago, a group of people stood on a street corner in Belfast, Maine, and handed hand slices of pie, pecan, pumpkin and apple, to passers-by. “The idea was to spur community and conversation, one slice at a time.” (in Edge, below.)

Pie is an interrupt. It forces people out of that habitual frame of mind, the little script that reads, “Ok, that’s the shopping done, now I have to get to the library and pick up Betty at 4:00.” Oh, what’s this? Pie? And before you know it, you are sharing pie and a joke with the guy who coaches Becky, your daughter’s best friend.. You are broken out of your routines, out of stasis.

What happens next depends upon the skill of the pieman. In this case the pieman is Project M, something established as part of the “design for good” movement by John Bielenberg in 2003. Project M is works as what Edge calls an “idea incubator.” Younger designers meet to “generate social problems and enhance public life.” Pie provocations had taken place in Greensboro, North Carolina. Working with the design firm Winterhouse in Connecticut, Project M has also staged a Pizza Farm.

Designers are very good at thinking about provocations. After all, they are in the imagination business. They are trained to look at existing systems, spot where stasis lives, and think of ways to make things new. What designers are not so good at, in my humble opinion, is figuring out what happens next, what comes after the provocation. Handing out pie and pizza does have the potential for provocation. But something substantial happens if and only if new arrangements are made visible, thinkable and doable. Pie qua pie will not get this job done. Pie has to be the start of something more than a jolly conversation with a soccer coach. It must do something more than “spur conversation.”

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