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Laura Allcorn is laughing with you. She’s the founder and lead researcher for the Institute For Comedic Inquiry (IFCI), where she creates interactive objects and performances that highlight absurdities through a technique she’s coined as Participatory Satire. It’s where humor meets behavioral science, and where the seriousness of current events is explored with a light touch.
People across the world—from Dublin to Singapore—have experienced her work, poking fun to break through what’s been accepted and to challenge assumptions via a fresh point of view.
Laura’s also designed award-winning interactive experiences and exhibitions for museums and brands, and her Design Week Portland event, 2022 Gait Augmentation Seminar: An Exercise In Things Taken Too Far, will analyze participants’ walks to initiate a conversation around privacy protection. Join Laura and the Institute For Comedic Inquiry on Sunday, April 7.
What inspired you to create the Institute For Comedic Inquiry?
I realized about a decade ago there was a common thread in the artistic work I was creating, and that was humor. I was the kid who memorized SNL sketches and performed them at the dinner table. My gut instincts have a humor bias. That’s just what comes naturally for me. I started taking every type of comedy class I could—improv, sketch, stand-up, and satire. I enjoy performing and making people laugh, but the experience designer in me loves inviting everyone else to perform or participate in some way, too.
I gravitate toward topics and issues that could exist in the near future, or are happening right under our noses. We’re often in uncharted territory, and the profit narrative tends to win out. Every so often, I think we need to hit pause and reinvestigate our assumptions. It’s a struggle to be deeply curious in this flash-in-the-pan, over-saturated information age. Aspects of the future may potentially be absurd, but why not make that exploration playful and laugh-inducing?
In my work, I apply humor, science, design, and art to create interactive objects and performances. My approach is to translate scientific research findings and near-future hypotheses into provocative installations people get to explore. What is happening? What could happen? How would that affect people? Then, I figure out how to take a familiar format and upend it so it’s still approachable, but is delivered with a humorous twist. I use set pieces, props, costumes, simple rules of play, new-fangled machines, and whatever it takes to bring it to life. Think fun and funny on the surface, but chock-full of big, thorny questions.
What have been some of your most successful projects with IFCI, and what made them successful?
Success means something different for each project and issue I’m exploring. I like to take on topics that haven’t reached broad public awareness, as I believe that’s where this approach makes the most impact. I’d really rather we talk about these things before they turn into full-blown problems that impact society. I think comedy can shine the spotlight, and then we the people have to do our part, and that takes a lot of sweat equity.
Last year, I made a machine called the syntHAsizer that remixes your fake laugh to a “real” one in order to question the dangers of humanizing our digital assistants. I collaborated with Greg Bryant (cognitive scientist and professor at UCLA) to apply his sonic laughter study findings on pitch and rate. Then, Thomas Wester (creative technology director at GlowBox) and I turned it into code and a playful interface. Thousands of people remixed their fake laughs with the syntHAsizer at Science Gallery Dublin and got to contemplate that question for themselves with gallery mediators. It just so happened that [Amazon’s] Alexa was having unprompted giggle fits when this was on view. So the piece was met with an eerie, real-life encounter that made it all the more timely for discussion.
This year, I made a humor-first dating program called hümr that mocks the appearance-first dating apps altering our relationships and mental health. This alternative is based on research that suggests sharing humor sensibilities with your partner is one of the essential elements of successful long-term relationships. Back at Science Gallery Dublin, I played matchmaker on Valentine’s Day. Love-seekers took my hümr typing quiz and then were matched to play activities like Slapstick Showdown and OutRAGEous Pitch. I made three romantic matches with the hümr program.
Which reactions or outcomes are most memorable from people who’ve experienced your performance experiments?
I’m most excited when people ask questions! When I first started making satirical objects and performances, I thought that participants’ questions were a bad sign—that they didn’t get it. But really it’s exactly what I want to happen: to get people curious enough to ask a question, or to take them by surprise. That way, they have to wrestle a bit with the inconsistent ideas floating in their head, and maybe they will arrive at a new conclusion or see the world a little differently.
How does participatory satire function in observing, processing, and understanding the world around us?
Applying humor to uncomfortable topics disarms us. It can get us past our knee-jerk reactions, so we can confront our deeply held views. Satire is known as the comedy of outrage. We can watch satire on TV, and we can read about issues, but I think it is transformative when we get to live in the absurdity for a bit.
So far, Participatory Satire is the best way I’ve found to describe this practice. I take research findings and translate them into tongue-in-cheek events that invite people to participate in the joke. That’s essential: the participants are always in on the joke, never the butt of it. It’s a risky tightrope walk to pull it off, but that’s what makes it fun to create, and for the participants to experience. It isn’t a dense report or a verbose lecture, but instead, it’s a humorous, collaborative speculation.
Participants play an active part in these near-future experiments, digging in as deeply as they want. They are invited to feel their way around and follow their curiosity. I’ve found this method encourages participants to observe each other’s reactions and questions, helping them grapple with their role in the future they want. It tends to surface diverse viewpoints because people get to bring their own personal experiences and instincts to their exploration.
What is the function of artistic activism versus other forms of social commentary?
There are many people practicing artistic activism, and it comes in a variety of forms. I think we need all forms of social commentary—journalism, documentaries, satirical TV shows and films, books, speculative design objects...the list goes on. Art, beauty, and story draw us in. I happen to think it works best when combined with humor.