As part of the Design Ethnography course at Aalto University, I spent seven weeks studying street musicians around the busy streets of Helsinki and immersing myself in their activities. Having seen street musicians in passing from time to time on my way to university in the morning, my initial assumption when approaching the project and the topic was that street buskers in Helsinki have a hard time gathering a crowd and that people are too occupied by their busy daily lives to notice them. I was convinced the talented street musicians and that their presence in the urban landscape was completely overlooked or ignored.
Having seen street musicians in passing from time to time on my way to university in the morning, my initial assumption when approaching the project and the topic of street musicians was that street buskers in Helsinki have a hard time gathering a crowd and that people are too occupied by their busy daily lives to notice them. I was convinced the talented street musicians and that their presence in the urban landscape was completely overlooked or ignored.
My initial research question was therefore: Are Street Buskers in Helsinki able to gather a crowd, and if not, or are we just too busy to notice them? In relation to this question I was curious to know what parts of playing on the streets appeal to the musicians, why do they do what they do, what motivate them and keep them coming back, what do they require from the public space, and what are the ideal spots for playing?
Rather than to setting out to prove myself right or wrong, I wanted to know everything there is to know about the culture and fully understand the member’s point of view; not only limited to the street musicians but their audiences as well. This was one of the reasons for using ethnography in the first place - to learn how people react to, enjoy or behave around free public performances, and the musicians who create them.
As the project progressed I discovered several implications for design that lead me to reframe my research question to: What kind of interactions happen between the street musicians and their audiences and can design be used to support them?
In relation to these musician-audience interactions the research question explored two aspects and opportunities for design.
How can design be used to improve the tipping process for those audiences who are busy, but still want to show their appreciation? What are the behaviour of the immersed audience and how can design be used to build a stronger and more intimate connection between street musicians operating in Helsinki and their audiences?
A trip to the extraordinary world (a piece of thick description from my findings)
“The moment is almost missed. The two men catches wind of the music only at the very last second. One part of the duo enters the world of music as he starts singing, leaving his friend behind outside. In the best aristotelean storytelling structure, the music acts as the gatekeeper and bridge, allowing the singer and the musician to cross the threshold of the ordinary world into the extraordinary world, leaving behind the friend and the other pedestrians. The musician and the singer enter a different “state of mind”, fully immersed in the situation, all while the street around them fades away into nothingness. The music keeps them bubbled up in a firm grip. The friend, now left alone in the ordinary world, becomes the only connection the others have to the outside world. Out here in the natural world the voices of the city is buzzing like a living mass that never rests and never sleeps, but inside the music is the world view. Like any good story, obstacles can be found at every turn. The skillful use of technology and street-smarts keeps the two going on their journey across the mystical landscape of music. Outside the friend, completely excluded from the situation, is getting restless, but the others remain completely unaffected. No story can go on forever in our modern world, and it is time to return to what is real. With a strong grip and a firm voice, the friend pulls the two dreamers across the gateway and back into the reality of our world. Stepping back into modern society, the two travellers return with the “boon” - the reward; the deep experience and memory of the connection they shared. It is time to exchange names, say goodbye and move on.”
Based on my research findings I developed several ideas for design interventions. The main concept is an installation using projection mapping which could be designed to support the musician in creating awareness about their presence and to attract people, but also to build human and musical relations between the musicians and the audience. The concept is a strong immersive experience. The audience are able to step into the performance and become part of it.
Circles are projected on the floor around in an arch. The musician are playing in a circle in the centre of the arch. When a person from the audience enters one of the outer circles, electrical cables starts to grow from the musician’s circle towards the circle just entered. The electrical highway will accordingly attach and form a connection between the musician and the person in the circle. Once a connection is made, new cables will start to make their way towards the people in the other circles, eventually forming a network of connections. As soon as a connection between two circles are formed, waves and electrical and chemical signals will start pulsing from the circles along the cables. As a participant one becomes part of the big neuron network where the music travels from one person to the other. The intensity and frequency of the pulses depends on how many people are standing within the space; with more and more people’s neurons connected to the superbrain the more electric signals can be generated.