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Features, Kimberly Nichols

Participlay: Innovation in Interaction

Participlayers at UCLA Sculpture Garden,
courtesy of Franklin Londin

Recently on a typical evening at 6 p.m. on the busy Third Street Promenade in downtown Santa Monica, a band of mostly women and one gentleman, dressed elegantly casual, in bold, vibrant colors (some even in tiaras) gathered to strut, stroll, and dance seemingly out of nowhere. They also morphed and twisted into a series of improvisational frozen poses while smiling at onlookers who stopped to take photos or join in with the merry and mysterious group. No, this was not a traveling troupe of professional actors or an organized performance on display but a work orchestrated by Participlay founder Elizabeth Yochim. Yochim had constructed this experience of a random diva dance mob for a business coach client who wanted to give thirty of her own entrepreneurial clients a unique lesson on bringing creativity and play into their lives so that they could be more progressively equipped to deal with decisions and transitions in their own worlds.

On other occasions, Yochim will bring clients or groups to a public place where art is prevalent like an open air sculpture garden or park with a prominent public art piece and ask the participants to use their bodies to mimic the piece or to move in response to how the piece makes them feel, inwards and outwards around the entire circumference of the object.

Yochim has been organizing participatory movement inspired events like these for the Los Angeles community and abroad for 10 years. She designs uniquely social, interactive, and participatory programming for live events, public spaces and museum collections and their environments for audiences of all ages ready to experience life and art in a new way. What’s most exciting about this innovative approach to getting people out of their boxes to interact with the world around them is that it works in every forum of life from personal to business and is all about discovering the magic that happens people choose to engage beyond the realm of their personal space.

Photo courtesy of Michele Mattei

We sat down with her recently to discuss her dynamic approach.

What first inspired you to create Participlay and why?

I wanted to find a way to express in one word my combined passion for art and play as an approach to life. The inspiration comes from my childhood where my early home life was full of art, music, literature, and the interplay between those things, especially the making of art and the talking about art.  Our home, spearheaded by my mother, an artist who loved to play and create community experiences, was a place where writers, artists, poets, and professors gathered. And even though I couldn’t partake in the conversations, I was surrounded by passionate creative people and felt encouraged to develop the ability to be with art, make art, think about art, and later to certainly talk about it. My mother was a studio painter who had a studio behind our house and where she and other artists would gather to paint.  My three brothers and I were enlisted as life models for the studio and after the age of five or six I began to sit for them earning $2 a seating. My father was a corporate attorney, and an art history professor in hiding. Unfortunately my mother died prematurely at the age of 49 which plunged my family into a period of deep, emotional despair, but this has also influenced me greatly as I have experienced a great contrast, first of a life that was filled with the arts, and lots of movement and play, and then quite over night experienced the absence of it.  For the next couple of years my father and I were art-traveling companions and we visited many museum exhibitions together. My father was a Yale graduate and Vincent Scully devotee and we went into Chicago once a month and visited the Art Institute of Chicago, which was two hours from my hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Walking the streets of the city to explore Chicago architecture and visiting exhibitions was a pastime—that was our family version of an endurance sport and my father simply encouraged me to “pay attention” to what I was looking at.  This is probably the single most profound advice that I exercise daily. And I was also an unusual kid in the sense that at ten years old I enjoyed this experience of slowing down and taking the time to be in the museums or on the streets of Chicago just looking. So this set the stage for now, as an adult, having trained as an art historian and art appraiser and having produced over 20 large-scale multi-million dollar exhibitions of modern and contemporary art in the United States and Asia with Timothy Yarger Fine Art, I can say that the experience of art and finding new ways to look at art and play every day is essential to my life.

What is your personal background with movement?

I was originally trained in classical ballet and performance, training rigorously during the school year and through the summers as well. In my early 20s I stopped dancing and picked it up again when I moved to California, and in the past ten years have worked diligently to integrate that training with a more improvisational, whole body approach to movement.  I am deeply interested in the study of somatics and have taken extensive training in this area and in dance movement education in general. For me, if I am stressed or upset the best thing for me to do is dance and I would encourage that for everyone.  Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks assert that you can’t be angry if you are moving and I believe this to be true. Dance and art are my spiritual practices and essential to developing my passion in this area was my training and teaching with Alana Shaw of Turning the Wheel Productions, a phenomenal national youth outreach organization based in Boulder, Colorado, with whom I traveled and taught building community through dance for seven years.

Why do you think movement is so important in engaging a person within a viewing experience?

Nothing lights up the brain like movement based play. And play can help solve complex problems. There is significant evidence-based research linking movement and learning and how physical movement, that is increasing our movement vocabulary, enhances attention span, creativity, comprehension, and our ability to solve problems. Learning by doing, or Kinesthetic learning, rather than solely listening or watching, is a powerful way to learn.

Photo courtesy of Andre Andreev

How does this specifically relate to art viewing?

A meaty question! We tend to be frontally focused people, which means that we have reduced our sensorial experience not only with art, but in life as well, to what we can perceive with our eyes, head, and moving in a forward direction.  We are multi-sensorial creatures that are sensing, whether we are aware of it or not, with our whole body. We sense with the sides of our bodies, the back of our bodies and the bottoms of our feet, too! So when we begin to move around the sculpture we are not only engaging all sides of who we are, physically and metaphorically, but also we are activating our brain in an enhanced way

Some brain researchers go as far as to say that there is no other reason to have a brain than to produce adaptable and complex movements. That movement is a way of affecting the world around you and that it gives us feedback and information about ourselves and the world around us that is otherwise difficult to obtain. That is one of the reasons that I feel the Participlay’s approach to learning about sculpture and the build environment is so important.

What have been some a-ha moments for you while doing this work? Any discoveries?

I have discovered that people really want to connect and in a meaningful way, and that they want to play more!  And what is lacking or needed is just a little bit of permission and they are off! I have learned that, in creating experiences, that the top down dispensation of information is outmoded and that people want to be respected as individuals with their own intelligence, body of knowledge, and ability to generate new ideas in and around what they are experiencing.  And given the chance they will explore and express their own creative impulses, collaborate in new ways and innovate an experience that is larger than I alone can imagine and design. I have also discovered in short order, especially in working with Participlay and the students at UCLA in the Hammer Museum’s Murphy Sculpture Garden, how quickly the technology of Participlay can be duplicated. Over a three-part session I taught the students my approach in Participlay, and then asked them to create their own Participlay, and then together, the students and myself, facilitated a larger Participlay for invited members of the community.  Through this process I saw how ready people are to take responsibility for their own experience, and how willing they are to collaborate to create something bigger them they themselves alone could create. And I also learned, which is of great interest and excitement, that the college students, when given tangible parameters within which to create something new, take off and demonstrate a quick ability to innovate.  To me, that is one of the highest measures of success.

Give me some examples of work Participlay has done so far in various environments and how it affected the participants. 

I was recently invited to present Participlay for 1200 people to kick off the TEDxUSC organized by USC’s Steven’s School of Innovation.  TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, is a conference focused on innovation in these areas.  The organizers, who run the USC School of Innovation, sought me out, as they wanted to give the audience a participatory experience that was exciting and new.  And it was a unanimous success. People responded uproariously to it and I received tremendous feedback about how that experience expanded the experience of the entire conference. The organizers were thrilled with the outcome, and numerous presenters and participants shared similarly. At one point I looked out from the stage and everyone was participlaying full out!

Rodney Mullen, the grandfather of street skating, shared with me that the Participlay experience relaxed him for his presentation which to me was a great compliment because he is such a present and embodied person; educators came up to me to share how exciting and innovative the approach was and that they were going to use aspects and the spirit of what I shared in their classrooms.

Photo courtesy of Andre Andreev

Aside from art, what are some other formats that Participlay can be hired within?

Since Participlay activates people and public space in new ways that means that it is flexible and adaptable and can be applied to many different settings including the business environment as well.

So in addition to the live event experience at TEDx and within the university setting teaching at UCLA I am passionate about working one-on-one with individuals from the business, especially entrepreneurial, sector, where I work with clients as a Creativity and Communications Coach. It has been especially beneficial to people who want to bring more creativity and play into their lives, or on the verge of an important decision, or in transition from one job or industry to another.

For the dance mob, I worked with them for about and hour and a half to set up the plan.  The dance mobs that I create aren’t entirely choreographed.  I work with forms or exercises that people bring their own, either pedestrian or more stylized movements to in the moment. That was both seasoned and novice performers alike can create side by side.  The dance mob concept is a simple concept smuggling lots of complex relationships and experiences. For one it requires that one tries on the relationship of structure vs. improvisation which I believe is a rich way of looking at how one lives their life, approaches their business and relationships. So this is one of the core pieces of the curriculum that I use when working with groups of people.

Describe the process that happens when a client hires Participlay to come and interact in their environment?

The most important aspect of what happens is that we participlay the entire time, from the initial meeting to the final production.  When a client hires Participlay they embark on a journey towards creating experiences that transform their standard programming, be it a docent tour, university class, live event or conference, into an experience in which visitors or attendees take in the “content” in a more social, embodied, and playful way, ultimately having a meaningful, magical and unforgettable experience. Because I approach life and work as a participlayand encourage my clients to do the same we all have a good time.

Another aspect of working with a client is that I like to gather an understanding of what their desired outcome is for their audience.  In essence, how would they measure success of a Participlay experience, and I keep that as a core ingredient, or objective, in my approach and in the design.  Then I study the client’s mission and existing programming, be it a company, institution or non-profit organization, so that the Participlay experience supports what already exists while innovating a new approach.  I consider the number of participants that will participate and their demographic breakdown. I visit the site, walk it, and diagram it.  In the realm of an auditorium I spend time in the space, utilizing my interest in architecture, a felt sense of the space, spending time to experience the venue in a multi-sensorial way.  In the realm of a sculpture garden or museum space, I approach it similarly with the addition of taking in the landscaped or environmental factors as well. Once I have as much information from what is known then I engage my imagination and begin to design the direction and overall experience by intuition, a muscle exercised from years of creating large-scale exhibition projects and movement inspired events.

What do you hope to impart with this process? An overall mission statement perhaps?

In the end I am looking to impart a way, as a seasoned guide, towards stepping out of any “normal” ways of thinking about art and perhaps expanding our relationship to ourselves and each other.  I am perpetually asking the question based on being transformed myself by art, “How can art move us in different ways so that we see the world around us differently?” If people walk away thinking in new ways about the art, or that day, or even the relationships in their life, be that to their family or co-workers, then I feel that I have succeeded in creating a possibility for people to have a new perspective on life.


Newtopia managing editor KIMBERLY NICHOLS is author of the book of literary short fiction Mad Anatomy, a contributing editor to 3AM Magazine and has exhibited as a conceptual artist throughout California for the past decade. Her non-fiction articles have appeared in magazines and media internationally. She was a founding editor of Newtopia in its former incarnation where she was also a member of the NewPoetry Collective. She is currently at work on her novel Fish Tales: Looking for the Bird with the Golden Feather. She has recently embarked on a journey of study in shamanic and medicine lore and wisdom under a series of respected teachers. Follow her daily beat poetry on Twitter @LITGFOA or her arts and literature blog.


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