Bridging Disciplines and Conventions: a Story

In this 2-post mini series on Bridging Disciplines and Conventions, we discuss some of the practical implications of organising transdisciplinary events meant as a forum of exchange for artists, academics, activists and people of other backgrounds.

In this post, Angela will tell you about their own experiences of attending different kinds of conferences. They will also raise questions sparked by the conventions they encountered and that strongly influenced our organisational efforts for Changing Worlds.

A story (by Angela)

My first contact with the format “conference” was TYPO Berlin in 2008. I went there with my class from art school, and back then, it was just an amazing experience. Students, researchers and all sorts of people working in the creative industries attended, from all over. TYPO (in typical design conference fashion, as I would learn) offered a wealth of contributions in the form of talks, workshops and art projects. Sometimes the “art” part consisted of exhibitions or installations, sometimes it was performance art – I’ve even attended experimental concerts.

The image has 3 Panels. The first one shows a sign saying “Anders ist die neue Norm” (Different is the new norm). The second and third panel show a human hand, painted hot pink, emerging out of a white wall made of ribbons and waving at the audience.

Translation, first panel: Different is the new norm. Second and third panel: Hurry slowly. A molecular gastronomy snack bar that is also an art installation/performance at TYPO Berlin 2011.
If a button mounted outside the booth was being pushed, brightly painted hands would deliver a jar of food and a little paper bag containing instructions on what the food was, and how to eat it. (Photo: Angela Prendl)

A big auditorium, dimly lit and almost empty. A full drum set is set up on the stage.

The main stage at OFFF 2016 in the break before a concert/multimedia art session. (Photo: Thomas Gradisnik)

People are sitting outside on chairs and sofas, eating and drinking. Most of them watch the talk from the main stage which is being streamed on a big screen mounted in front of the lounge area.

The outdoor lounge are at OFFF 2016 was featuring summer sun, food trucks and a live stream from the main stage. (Photo: Thomas Gradisnik)

Describing the atmosphere of such an event is hard, but at its base, I would say it’s just people engaging with what they are really passionate about. As a result, it usually ends up being more of a festival for all senses than anything else. The air is buzzing with creative energy and a palpable excitement to have fun with like-minded people – fun that can result in spur-of-the-moment art performances and collaborations just as much as in wild afterparties.

A few years later, I was studying Cultural and Social Anthropology, and I started to attend academic conferences. And I realised very soon that a conference held in a university setting was nothing like the art/design festivals I had gotten used to. Suddenly, the heart of a “conference” became people giving structured talks about their work, with maybe some poster presentations mixed in. The schedule was interspersed with coffee breaks and, as a social highlight, one evening that was dedicated to a (net)working dinner.

The shot from the audience shows the stage of the 13th Network Meeting of the SDN at the welcome note. Ulrike Felt and Sheila Jasanoff are talking, standing behind the speakers table.

Welcome note at the Science and Democracy Network Annual Meeting 2015. (Photo: Clark Miller)

Academic conferences often centre around work relations and networking. For that reason, they tend to be rather formal (and sometimes stuffy) affairs, even though they can be great events in their own right. Typically, there is one rather narrow topic that is being discussed from different angles. Such conferences weave a tight net of different theories and cover one specific field of interest, which I appreciate a lot. It can be rewarding and incredibly inspiring to attend a theory-heavy academic conference, but it is an experience entirely unlike a design festival.

I experienced another change to conference culture once my academic focus had shifted towards digital media and communication technologies: I got involved with the hacker-, activist- and do-it-yourself (DIY) technology scene. Consequently, I started to attend events such as the Chaos Communication Congress and smaller conferences about technologies, society, and participation. Compared to the first two types of conferences I talked about, these are heavily influenced by the DIY movement.

Overlooking a camping site with tents in all sizes – From big circus tents to one person camping tents.

Chaos Communication Camp 2015: This picture only shows a small area of the conference venue/camping grounds.
The circus tent is the main stage, the other bigger tents have workshops and the like. The small tents are for sleeping. On the top left behind the hedge is where the family camping area is located. (Photo: Angela Prendl)

Nighttime-view from above on the camping grounds. It is late at night, but all the tents are brightly lit in bold colours.

Chaos Communication Camp 2015: The camping area in the dark. Activities, workshops and parties last all night. (Photo: Angela Prendl)

There are similarities, of course: talks and workshops are still at the heart of the events, but the difference to more traditional academic events lies in focus and organisation. While there usually are stages and rooms with a predetermined programme, there is generally much more room for spontaneity: there may be workshops, talks and events which only emerge during the conference, established independently from the organising team by participants who feel a desire to engage with certain issues. There might be tracks for lightning talks, or tracks that provide a space for impromptu talks or collaborations. At bigger events, this often includes infrastructure to let groups or institutions have their own workshop spaces, booths or meeting spaces throughout the entire event. In case of the Camp pictured here, this might mean a tent where people can learn to solder and buy kits to do so, a tent where an activist group would sell merchandise and inform about their projects, or a huge outdoor kitchen run by a group of volunteers to provide (vegan) dinner each night.

Big open space, surrounded by trees. It is the food court and market of the Chaos Communication Camp 2015 There are tents that act as restaurants. People are eating, drinking and hanging out.

Chaos Communication Camp 2015: The market. (Photo: Angela Prendl)

Chaos Communication Camp 1015, the food court by night. People are standing and sitting around, light installations and music make it an outdoor-bar.

Chaos Communication Camp 2015: At night, the food court/market becomes a club. (Photo: Angela Prendl)

People can (and are encouraged to) submit all kinds of plans or ideas that do not fit into the categories of talks or workshops. In a lot of ways, these types of activist/DIY/anarchist/etc. events, to me, feel like a mishmash of both academic and creative conferences – just with a completely different “target audience” altogether, and often overtly tied in with particular ideologies.

Finding common ground

So what do these three types of conferences – these different cultures with their own conventions – have in common? They all facilitate spaces for people with particular interests to meet, to share, and to be passionate about ideas – not only as individuals, but as a community. As such, the organisers and participants of the respective events draw on distinct sets of assumptions, knowledges, and protocols when it comes to creating and navigating those spaces.

The term “conference” takes on a multitude of meanings depending on the field(s) the event is embedded in, its institutional and economic entanglements (or absence thereof), the un-/conscious choices made by organisers, and the politics and ideologies that spark or underlie an event in the first place. Thinking back to the three examples above of what a conference can be, we know that a wide range of lived practices does exist.

Not only do conference practices change based on a field’s culture – the content varies as well. What I find incredibly interesting is that while speakers at academic conferences tend to talk about their day jobs, artists and designers will often focus on their private (or non-commercial) side projects. This can be related to non-disclosure agreements client work often is protected by, or, at times, because commercial projects can be less fun since they tend to come with a lot of restrictions. However, the reasons are also grounded in the respective communities’ social norms.

Academic conferences, for academics, are usually attended as part of the job to stay up-to-date in one’s field, to network, and/or to disseminate or gain feedback for one’s own research. Design conferences are considered work as well, but they do offer a good amount of fun and play. Tech conferences, at least the the type I have been describing above, then are something people have a professional interest in, but just as often use up their holidays for. Consequently, the events I would consider offering the greatest variety in projects and topics all fall into the DIY/creative categories.

Of course, it is a bit perilous to construct clear boundaries between work and play, especially when the individuals in question are passionate about what they do. What this is meant to illustrate, however, is that familiarity with the conventions of one’s “own” kind of conference results in expectations for what a “conference” should look like, what a participant is meant to get out of it, and what one’s contribution to it may mean.

All of these factors have strong implications for developing the framework of a conference that aims to bridge disciplines and conventions. As organisers for Changing Worlds, we certainly faced a learning curve when it came to reacting to or anticipating participants’ expectations of what our event would (or should) be.

Putting implications into practice

Bringing people together, as is the aim of a conference, means establishing conditions for communication and exchange. When attempting to bridge disciplinary, conventional, ideological, and other divides, it is therefore crucial to consider the norms and assumptions participants bring into a conference space. After all, these factors will influence the culture of communication and provide grounds for potential mis-/understandings.

In the second post of this series, we will therefore go on to consider some of the practical questions that arise when organising transdisciplinary conferences. We we will talk a bit about our approach to the topic, but also ask a lot of questions.

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