I loved the Complaints Choir concept from the first time I saw a video of the Helsinki Choir in 2006. In brief, they are what the name suggests: a group of people who come together to give voice to their complaints in song. After seven years, a documentary film, and choirs organized in over 70 cities circling the world from Singapore to St. Petersburg, Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen‘s “Complaints Choirs” have made the leap into self-replicating and self-sustaining participatory multi-platform project.
I’ve got a couple of hunches why the project has had such staying power, but it started humbly. It started with a fascination with a Finnish idiom. They explain the origin story like this:
In the Finnish vocabulary there is an expression “Valituskuoro”. It means “Complaints Choir” and it is used to describe situations where a lot of people are complaining simultaneously. Kalleinen and Kochta-Kalleinen thought: “Wouldn´t it be fantastic to take this expression literally and organise a real Complaints Choir!”
There are some great lessons to take away from Complaints Choirs when it comes to making participatory digital (or transmedia) projects:
- Make participating be as close as possible to something that people already do. The call to action for Complaint Choirs is simple: ‘Tell us what’s bugging you.’ Complaining comes naturally even to the best natured of people.
- Curate the responses. The format that Tellervo and Oliver devised requires a composer to sift through the collected complaints. This musically inclined curator looks for the contributions that will make sense together in the verses, what might work in repetition as the chorus, and so on until an entire song emerges. This creates a meaningful ‘whole’ from what was previously a loose collection of replies.
- Re-Present what you create in an unexpected way. People know what it sounds like to listen to someone complain. That isn’t going to surprise anyone. The performance of these complaints by a choir – and some occasionally gifted musical arrangement – transform these pedestrian expressions into something unexpected. Suddenly this is a unique performance worth listening to and even worth the trouble of sharing the link with your friend.
- Let your participants own it. Not only are all of the complaints sourced from locals in the cities where they’re performed, but the call to sing in the choir is open to anyone as well. For anyone so inspired by a passing link to a video on YouTube, they can make their own Complaints Choir thanks to the step-by-step instructions on the official website.
Circling the globe virtually, listening to Complaints Choirs of the world, it’s easy to recall Louis CK’s classic bit “Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy.” He composed a comedic piece where he complains about how much people complain. Of course, anyone who spends time on the internet knows that complaining in a forum where other people can join in and agree “yes, that is sooo terrible, I’ve experienced that too” – is an essential way to feel connected to other people. The strength of shared misery (or even mild discomfort) binds people together in ways the most uplifting sentiments rarely can. And the beauty of the Complaints Choirs – and why I imagine they’ve had such staying power – is that they elevate these pedestrian dissatisfactions to an elegant and artful format. They arrange them in such a way that we get to be both the person who chimes in and says “yeah, airport security took MY mouthwash too” and the person who, like Louis CK, looks at all of these complaints put together and says, wow, that’s pretty petty – but also pretty great.