[iDC] Conferencing Formats and Welome to Marc Tuters

mt at x-i.net mt at x-i.net
Mon Jan 30 23:56:29 EST 2006

Thank you Trebor for inviting me to disucss conferencing formats, and what
you and Geert have called 'panelism' on the iDC list. As you have done in
your introduction, I too will begin by relating some of my past
experiences with event coordination in the feild of media arts, through
which I'll hopefully be able to come up with some thoughts and questions
for readers of this list.

My first experiences in event cooridination came towards the thesis stage
of my academic degree in media studies. I was working part time at a desk
job and discovered the phenomenon of Calls For Papers (CFPs) while surfing
the Internet. I drew-up an an abstract for my nebulous thesis project and
submitted to one conference that seemed relevant, and then another, and
another, and another. Few, if any, of these conferences were necessarily
in my "field", but that didn't bother me, as I, having come from the fine
arts, I liked to think of myself as "interdisciplinary". My topic, which
had something to do with space, notions of mobility and some abstract
thoughts on technologically mediated agency, didn't seem to belong to any
one 'field', anyway. And so I promiscuously drifted across social
geography, architecture, and surveillance studies before I came to settle
in the media arts. Where I met some like minds with whom I went on to work
for a number of years coordinating events in an area we called locative

Under the auspices of media art organizations like RIXC in Latvia, for
example, I helped coordinate a number of workshops in this space that
brought together thinkers and practicioners from across this diverse
discursive space. At best, such as in the case of RAM5
<http://www.rixc.lv/ram/>, these catalyzed a collective zeitgeist that had
not been academicized creating a cross pollination between an unlikely
collection of architects, hackers and media artists. Quite suddenly
locative media seemed to become the "the next big thing" on the European
media art circuit. Yet, by focussing on trendy mobile technology, some of
these events started, in Trebor's own words, to devolve into a
"shopping-driven locative spectacle". This reached its nadir at
Futuresonic '03 when Andreas Brockman along with Karel Dudesek and Armin
Medosh ripped into Matt Adams of Blast Theory for giving a keynote panel
presentation which they claimed simply championed the technology while
lacking any critical rigor.

It came up in the subsequent discussion after the aforementioned fiasco,
that the problem had been that Matt had delivered the same keynote that he
might have given to a room of industry execs, which, was completely
intolerable to Austro-germanic gatekeepers of the new media cultural
avant-garde in attendance. At the same event, however, a workshop took
place, similar in structure to the above-mentioned RAM5 event, brining
together artists interested projects that were not dissimilar form the
work which Matt had discussed (if much smaller in scope). For this
workshop, I heard nothing but positive reviews. What was the difference?
Well for one thing we had our own room to do with as we pleased for the
entire afternoon which we organized into a super-productive workshop
space, while Matt had been placed on stage as the voice of wisdom.

When the academic panel presentation merges effectively with theatre,
amazing things can happen. My idol in this area has got to be Joe Davis,
the peg-legged MIT molecular biologist, who really has to be seen to be
believed. But while there may be are a great many wonderful lecturers in
the halls of the academy, more-often-than-not we're not so lucky. So what
to do?

Over the years I've basically tried anything an everything to break-up
open the standard 20 minute presentation mode. Indeed, as a random example
referring back to the discussion above, when Futuresonic's curator gave me
the same conference setup for some speakers I had invited we rearranged
the stage lighting and found some with Victorian chairs ("borrowed" from a
local hotel) in order to present my speakers engaged in a "fireside chat".
Other times, such as at DEAF last year where i was a moderator (or a
panelist, I can't even remember in fact), I've conspired with others to
intentionally disrupt a tedious panel with plants in the audience.

One technique that has worked at times is the speed formats in which you
allow presenters only 5 minutes each followed by an extended question
period. For this kind of format to work you need excellent moderation. In
the media design field I was always impressed by John Thackara's
moderation. For me, he always tread elegantly on the emprassario side of
what in the hands of less skilled moderators could simply become tyranny.
While, politically, I'm attracted to non-hierarchical model of discourse,
there is some kind of threshold (that may in fact be as few as 10) after
which it rarely seems to work.

Currently I'm involved with organizing an event for Annenberg Centre's
Network Public's research cohort in which I recently introduced issues of
conference format into the discussion
The group is a collection of engineers, social scientists, historians,
political theorists and myself. A concern I have from past experiences
with this group as well as form some of my experiences in locative media,
is that the panelist approach to event coordination might lead to
irreconcilable ontologies and while I don't necessarily anticipate as
fiasco like the one at Futuresonic, I've been interested in finding a
format that can help bring out the common visions amongst these thinkers.

As I discuss in my blog post, my experience has generally been that the
best part of the conference usually takes place over a meal or a drink in
a pub or a club, when people get a chance to dream for a moment of what it
might be like to work together. I know that, some years ago at DEAF, Sara
Diamond, who can also be an excellent moderator, took an idea of
collaboration at conferences to a whole other level, by locking a couple
attendees inside a surveillanced room together for an entire day.  I don't
anticipate that this event will change the world like Sara's conferences
were known to do, no will I likely get to orchestrate the discursive
circus that I had dreamed of in my blog post, but I have at least managed
address the idea of panelism with my colleagues ay Annenberg and opened
the discussion to some alternative formats. I'd be eager to hear of the
experiences of other list-members, both positive and negative, in
deviating form the norms of academic panelism. And thank you, once again,
for the invitation to post.


Marc Tuters

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