[iDC] The Social Machine of Events / Raccoon Style

Al Larsen alarsen at buffalo.edu
Fri Feb 10 09:51:57 EST 2006

My context is the film festival, media arts festival, underground music
festival... not the kind of academic conferences discussed here. At
these events paperism does not come up, powerpoint is not a problem.
Still there are parallels between my experiences and this discussion. 

There are many reasons to be drawn to these events, for me it is not
just the presented work but also the promise of social encounter. What
does the work say to us, what do we say to each other because we've
encountered the work together, and, discounting the presented work
entirely, what new situations come out of the fact that we are all drawn
to this space at the same time.
J Laukes has commented on this list that "much of the best dialogue at
conferences goes on in the hallways."  For sure this is true for me in
the contexts I am describing. But just because the action is in the
hallways do we want to institutionalize the hallways?

When we are in the position to create events we should think to leave
space for sociability, chance encounters... space for the moment to
bloom. Even under a performer/audience model  it can be built in by
leaving time between performances, by scheduling things so that movement
between venues or rooms is required.  

It's important to think about the kind of event spaces we can create
when we are in that organizational role, but even more important to be
aware of the kind of event spaces we can create without any
organizational authority. 

I think of the difference between a dog, given free reign of the fenced
backyard, and the raccoon who clambers over fences irrespective of
property lines. The raccoon avails herself of the resources of the yard:
she eats unattended dog food, sorts through garbage, interrogates the
compost pile.  The raccoon does not care to communicate a critique of
private property to the homeowner, she does not intend to disrupt or
restructure the paradigm of the yard - she is simply there to avail
herself of the resources the yard offers. 

The metaphor starts to fall apart here, because the raccoon is generally
regarded as a pest, and the practice I have in mind is far from that!

Without ever having developed it as a concept before now I can think of
several unofficial, unapproved shadow-events I have initiated within the
context of festivals – organizing a program of performances in public
spaces taking place between the offical festival events, hot-glue gun
project in the parking lot, informational tabling in front of the event,
musical performance in the mezzanine, organizing intentional and
deliberate discussions with new acquaintances.

Picking up the raccoon image again... what resources does the event
provide you? How do you turn those resources to your own ends? Like the
raccoon, your use of the festival's resources need not be disruptive. If
the raccoon spreads garbage around the yard, sure, it's a problem, but
does it hurt the homeowner that the raccoon is drinking rainwater from
the wheelbarrow? You'd be surprised how accommodating a volunteer can be
when you approach them with an extension cord. Soon you are hot-gluing
things together outside the entrance, meeting people and interfacing
with the event-space in another way.

Does discussing arts funding in the meeting room of the corporate
advertising agency sponsoring the festival leave you queasy? But this
same system of corporate sponsorship has created an event which has
drawn hundreds of people from around the world: artists, curators, arts
administrators. Many of them are just as frustrated with business as
usual as you are. Forget the organizers of this particular festival -
engage interested parties through the event but outside of its context.

Last summer I was able to have far-ranging and intense discussions in
the festival  parking lot with members of OpenSource and Dynamite –
restless, socially-engaged, critical people I had never met before. We
agreed to give up some entertainment for interchange. We were able to
get far beyond, “how was your flight?” “what did you think of that
performance last thing?” It happened in the most informal but deliberate
way - by tracking them down and engaging them. With a certain amount of
effort, interested parties can accrete around topics not foreseen by the
event planners.

With my proposal for Images I have attempted to insert this idea into
the program of a festival: a discussion group, framed as a performance,
limited to five participants/audience members. The exclusivity built
into the structure is meant to foreground its insubstantiality: how much
more does it take to organize real encounters between strangers and
acquaintances in the festival context besides a resonant topic, a quiet
corner (or patch of sidewalk), some refreshments, the will to put
yourself out in order to make it happen? I suggest to incorporate the
discussion group into the program of the festival in order to gesture
toward the ability of anyone to manifest these encounters outside the
supervision of the festival.

There are perhaps good reasons for the yard to have a fence around it.
In the same way, there are reasons – sometimes even good reasons - for
the festival to have some conservative, regressive aspects – a
reinforcement of the star system, fixed seating,  politically-dubious
sponsors, restricted access to the pastries. These things can contribute
to the economic and social viability of the event: the attraction of a
critical mass of audience is one precondition for successfully pulling
off a festival. The event organizers create the framework, finding a way
to navigate it is up to you. 

> Event organizing. Over the past year many experiments with
> conferencing
> formats took place. They were aimed at escaping the same old
> predicaments. People are fed up with the orthodoxy of traditional,
> hierarchical proceedings of keynote speakers, panels, and
> unconcentrated
> topical orientation! There is the soporific style of delivering a
> 30-page paper to an audience that could have read this text online
> beforehand. Paperism! There is the work-shy re-inscription of yet
> the
> same players of the virtual intelligentsia over and over again!
> Peeps
> and masters! Why look at proposals of the ³young nothings² if we
> can
> have trophy names to pull people into the touristy event spectacle?
> The
> big names are all that matters, never mind if it is just another
> check
> off on someone¹s resume.
> Who cares if they have nothing to say. And let¹s just safely assume
> that
> people in the audience (stashed away in the deep dark of the
> auditorium)
> cannot possibly be experts at what the well-lid pundits on stage
> talk
> about. Who cares if that speaker is a good speaker as long as she
> comes
> from a long-established group of colleges? All that matters is
> splashy,
> energetic performativity of ideas. "Performances are judged in terms
> of
> their "felicity," that is, rather in terms of rules and styles than
> of
> meanings." (Ludwig Pfeiffer) Who cares about meaning? 
> Curators visualize their networks. Events become similar to an
> edited
> book or a mailing list. They are the spatialization of a social
> network.
> That is why it is important to have a small group of curators being
> in
> charge of an event rather than a single individual. After the event
> participants will mostly write glaring summaries not to mess up the
> chance of getting invited again. But to what extent does that help
> in
> the evolution of new media discourse and the development of
> event-based
> practice? Let¹s stop the sing-along choir! Have a walk on the dark
> side.
> (Who are the Darth Vaders of new media?) Let¹s call presentations
> spineless, lazy, and substandard if they were! 
> What we want is the right, fast-talking *style.* Just throw in the
> right
> new media speak du jour and you will be OK! We want to be wowed by
> charismatic, odd figures. ³Wow! Did you see that! That presenter
> amazed
> me. I could not tell you what she said but she was a-m-a-z-i-n-g.²
> It¹s
> the domination of affect over content! "Communication is envisaged
> less
> as an exchange of meanings, of ideas about..., and more as
> performance
> propelled into movement by variously materialized signifiers"
> (Pfeiffer).
> Peeps and masters. The renowned masters never have to worry again.
> They
> can say whatever they want and the event flock will bow. Who cares
> if
> they feel too snazzy to actually stay after their presentation and
> pay
> attention to their fellow presenters?  And, no sweat: Just a few
> PowerPoint slides will do. (Yes, the lecturer apologized for not
> using
> the politically correct open source program that is not stable enough
> to
> hold two hundred images). Or, maybe just pull up a website quickly-
> that
> will do! We don¹t need event divas!! We lack contributors who can
> improvise and are sensitive to the needs of an event...
> Diversity. Who gets invited? The male whiteness that the Guerilla
> Girls
> railed against in the art world of the 80s is boldly represented at
> today¹s new media events. Ok, it¹s tough. We don¹t care about
> skin co> lor
> or gender-- all we care about is expertise. I heard those argument
> endless times. Well, that¹s just flat out ignorant! Expertise takes
> all
> kind of forms. But also don¹t fall into the trap of tokenism. 
> If you put your ear to the ground of new media events (and like John,
> I
> have been at very many) you hear the same problems over and over
> again. 
> Organizers try to squeeze in as many insightful presenters as they
> can
> get. Attendees become deeply frustrated by such over-programming and
> surely miss something they came to see. This phenomenon can be
> called
> *audience tournament.* Even perceptive and sharp-witted
> presentations
> get few, if any ³patrons² because the event planners did not
> accentuate
> that ³slot.² You see a few people far away with their faces lid
> by the
> screens of their laptop spread all over the huge auditorium.
> And in the end the logic of funding demands that the event was a
> stunning and total success! No experiments please! Failure (even
> partial) is not an option! It does not really matter if the
> participants
> walked away energized. How would they recognize each other anyway at
> the
> event? How would you know that the person next to you just drops a
> tea
> bag into a double espresso next to you to overcome her jet lag. You
> would not know it is her! Forget about nametags. They usually
> disappear
> under coats or hang down on bags. As Marc affirmed, the best thing
> about
> conferences, or so we are told, are the coffee breaks. Because what
> most
> people actually try to get out of these occasions, cut out of their
> daily routine, is inspiration, continuing education and perhaps
> exchange, and dialogue. There is not much room for that if lecturers
> go
> on for 50 minutes.
> Crediting economies! Just like in the film industry the production of
> a
> project is enormously work intensive and always collaborative. Free
> Cooperation was a 24/7 nine-month job. And of course, nobody can
> pull
> that of alone (or in that case: 2 people can¹t pull that off on
> their
> own). Events are always group efforts. But all too often the
> invisible
> labor is just an addendum in the event notes. a comment at the last
> day
> of the conference. How do you differentiate contributions? Hollywood
> rattles down unending credits at the end of each film. They specify
> exactly what each person did. But the role models of the director
> and
> producer are not established yet in event organizing. A problematic
> example of that sort was the Utopia Station at the Venice Biennial.
> The
> names of the curators appeared in the height of a house while the
> artist
> names (printed on 8x11 handouts) disappeared in some corner. 
>  Events can be precious moments of collectivity! There we are- forty
> or
> so of us, all in one location at a time. What a potential! This
> latent
> opportunity gets lost at most discursive events. That, of course,
> only
> matters if something is at stake! Otherwise, we should just go home!
> Getting together means that we can highlight a topic that is
> overlooked
> or ignored or silenced! We can mobilize discourse outside of
> corporate
> structures. You can absolutely organize discourse without company or
> university funding. There are plenty of examples in which
> consequential
> debates took place in backrooms of apartments or community centers.
> Resource scarcity is met with self-organized cultural activities. At
> such events there is an enormous chance to get something rolling! We
> can
> put a topic on the map! We can put our intellect, experience and
> feelings together! In the worst-case scenario, a given symposium was
> just initiated to add a line to the organizers and participants¹
> curriculum vitae. It was instigated to artificially make them appear
> at
> the center of a debate. But a gathering of people can introduce a
> tremendous degree of expertise in a fairly focused debate, coming
> from
> different disciplines. There is an awe-inspiring potential that is
> hardly ever fully tapped into. How can events really become boiling
> pots
> of ideas that steam over with discourse and results in follow-up
> initiatives? Sure. Locking up two people in a barn can create a
> productive situation.  Conferencing formats matter! Surprising
> models
> for discussion can be invigorating. Food helps to get tongues
> untied.
> Parties are great. In his book "Discourse Networks" the German media
> theorist Friedrich Kittler looks at the influence of the materiality
> of
> the machines of communication (typewriter etc) on the formation of
> discourses. Equally, event formats: the *social machine* of an event
> shapes the way we talk. Event formats sculpt their content.
> The link to actual organizations dealing with a topic at hand is
> also
> useful. Example:
> Right2Fight focused on police violence. Human rights organizations
> came
> to the Sarah Lawrence campus as much as parents whose children were
> shut
> by the NYPD. Students who were moved by the topics, the net art, the
> poetry, the Afro-Beat band Antiballas were able to make contact with
> organizations like the October 27 coalition right there. And they
> did.
> And money was generated for these organizations!
> (http://www.molodiez.org/right2fight/SLC_press_release.html)
>  How could the knowledge that scholars, activists, engineers, and
> technologists bring to an event actually be brought out? How could it
> be
> mapped effectively? Online knowledge repositories (like wikis or
> blogs)
> are one response. Audio blogs and video blogs are another. For
> ³Share,
> Share Widely² (a conference on new media education,
> http://newmediaeducation.org) I used the latter participatory design
> formats to bring in presentations from people who were relevant to
> the
> topic but geographically too far away to fly them in on the
> available
> shoe string budget. That worked very well! The site is a useful
> resource
> now. Results of events matter a great deal. TATE Modern fully
> understands that. Their online resources are exceptional
> (http://www.tate.org.uk/onlineevents/archive/).
> Likewise, pre-event discussion is critical! While the complete
> virtualization of conferences (term by Andreas Broeckman) seems to
> rarely work-- the link-up of virtual and embodied components works
> very
> well. What is the point of sitting behind a table with a few people
> whom
> you barely know talking about a topic that has little or nothing to
> do
> with your research? Such get-together is merely a going through
> preconceived academic motions. If you are a good listener you
> perhaps
> pick up on what the speaker before you talked about. But you may
> also
> think already about what you will contribute. So, there will be
> little
> or no connection.  If you are lucky you remember the names of the
> co-presenters.
> For such discussions *mailing lists* still seem best suited. I say
> this
> with full awareness of the wide variety of social software out
> there.
> Mailing lists push messages onto the screens of your daily life. In
> the
> face of massive information overload such self-assertion is
> necessary.
> Short biographical introductions, followed by brief, provocative
> comments seem to stir up participation on lists. But over the many
> months prior to events these lists can also serve to inform
> participants
> about research interests. And indeed: Spare us from reciting your
> lengthy paper at our event! Post it to the list! We will read on the
> plane! We promise.  
> My experience with instant messaging is strange. You may have three
> or
> four windows open at once. All kinds of different discussion strings
> co-exist. That at least is what I notice about the way this
> communication format is utilized. I recently contributed to such
> forum
> as part of the Istanbul (Web) Biennial (Steve, maybe you can comment
> as
> well). There were five or six of us. The tone of incoming
> super-short
> messages set a rhythm for the fast paced conversation. There surely
> was
> no time to think. It was a very spontaneous, gut-level response. I
> decided to speak to one engaging point that was brought up. But the
> stream of messages mercilessly continued. Once I was done typing two
> sentences that made some sense to me, the question to which I
> responded
> was old news. I was at least ten messages behind. I can see that
> such
> uninvolved rapid response systems can be good for organizational
> exchanges or life sharing. I have my doubts about their
> effectiveness
> for thoughtful debate. 
> An event is an event is an event. Each one is different. This is not
> a
> call for a new orthodoxy. There are no foolproof recipes for
> success!
> But we should demand thoughtful, concentrated, dialogical, and
> well-organized events that have urgency!
> Trebor Scholz
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