Bridging Disciplines and Conventions: Practicalities

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, we will consider some practical implications for conference organising that result from aiming to bridge divides such as those between academia, art, and activism. We will cover questions to consider when trying to facilitate inclusive spaces and to attract participants from different backgrounds.

Norms, conventions, expectations

We use the term “inclusiveness” a lot to highlight one of the main ideological key points of Changing Worlds. It seems fairly straightforward: we want to establish conditions in which people from all backgrounds can feel welcome and safe to act, move, and speak without having to fear harrassment, silencing, or oppression. The term also refers to an openness towards a wide range of topics in conjunction with science, technology, and society, as well as a desire to integrate different formats for presenting ideas.

However, such an optimistic straightforwardness gets tripped up when we are confronted with the practical, material, and systemic realities of sharing space with people from different walks of life, especially when we consider that we are all subject to power dynamics structured by the inequalities that suffuse our societies. When it comes to aspects of communication and interaction, then, inclusiveness rests upon recognising and breaking down ignorance and lack of awareness of perspectives and experiences that are not our own.

So what does this mean for the practice of conference organising? As Angela demonstrated in the previous post in this series, different groups and disciplines institutionalise their exchanges of ideas in different ways. These varying norms and conventions have very real impacts on what people expect to experience when they go to an event called a “conference”. Where a social scientist might expect a series of meticulously timed panel presentations, a member of an anarchist hacker collective may expect space for spontaneous collaborations among participants.

It’s important to remember that as conference organisers, we are not exempt from such expectations – for our Changing Worlds team, this meant examining our own assumptions and being mindful about making decisions intentionally rather than taking things for granted, particularly since many of us were mostly used to academic events.

Questions for facilitating inclusive and intelligible spaces

A big step towards realising our aim to stretch the limits of “conferences” lies in the title for the 2015 event, “Changing Worlds: Engaging Science and Technology in Art, Activism and Academia”. The title suggests that even a purely academic audience would ideally include not only people from technology, engineering, or the natural and social sciences, but also from the humanities, art/design programmes, as well as those with an interdisciplinary or hard-to-categorise focus.

We were, however, also keenly aware that a lot of work in and on science and technology topics existed beyond academia. Artists, activists, and people creating and working with technologies should all be part of this discussion regardless of their affiliations.

Some of the practical questions that arose in this context were:

  • What are the differences in (“good”) scientific practice in different academic disciplines as well as beyond academia, and how can we embed and balance these differences in our organising efforts?
  • What does “critical” engagement entail in different disciplines?
  • What formats of presentation are people of various backgrounds used (and receptive) to?
  • What are people’s expectations of the conference’s being a space for work, fun, adventure, experience, collaboration, etc.?
  • What language conventions exist in different spaces, and how can we speak to a diverse group of artists, academics, and activists without causing misunderstandings, confusion, or alienation?
  • How are participants socialised regarding the handling of conflict in a conference space?
  • Are there implicit hierarchies that are assumed (e.g. between “speakers” and “the audience”), and how would such hierarchies impact participants’ interactions?
  • What levels of interaction or back-and-forth will people expect (e.g. during panels, workshops, break times, etc.)?
  • What kinds of feedback do people expect on their contributions (e.g. critical/challenging/confrontational questions, prompts for elaboration, personal anecdotes)?
  • What are the expectations around bringing children into the conference space?

These questions are very much non-exhaustive, but they all speak to one conclusion: that unspoken assumptions can potentially mess with any well-intended organisation and ultimately defeat the purpose. As a general rule, therefore, it serves well to make all kinds of things explicit, as well as to ensure an atmosphere where making “mistakes” is allowed and not seen as catastrophic. Members of the organising team play an important role here in that they tend to serve as contact points for questions.

Questions for attracting participants

So far, we have discussed a number of things organisers could consider when planning a conference, but how to actually get in touch with people? Again, this question is impossible to answer unversally, so we compiled a list of more practical questions that might be useful.

Questions that helped us to start thinking about our audience:

  • How can we, in practice, be transdisciplinary and reach people from outside of academia – people who may not usually go to (academic) conferences? What do we need to do in order to reach them?
  • How can we identify groups, organisations, or individuals who could be interested?
  • What expectations and assumptions would they bring to Changing Worlds?
  • How do we establish contact in the first place (for example, can we draw on existing connections, who can we ask for help?)?
  • Are there possibilities to form institutional collaborations and/or give mutual support?

And where did that lead us?

So far, we have been asking a lot of questions. Now, in this last section, we will share some of the answers we found for Changing Worlds.

Approaching multiple audiences was closely tied to our funding process. We specifically approached funding bodies that are connected to what were our imagined audiences. This not only had the nice effect that we could reach a broader audience through the networks and communication channels of our funding bodies and collaborations – We hoped it would also further our efforts to get in touch with the people we actually wanted to reach.

We created a website very early on, and tried to maintain a social media presence. This provided interested people and collaborators with relevant information, but also gave them easy and convenient opportunities for dissemination. We put a lot of effort in communicating, approaching and collaborating with people, groups and institutions.

What worked for us:

  • Engaging with people and institutions on their own terms and in their own spaces, e.g. by visiting open spaces, talking to the people there, attending open plenary meetings.
  • Approaching institutions that were a good fit for the conference directly, e.g. the Art & Science programme of the University of Applied Arts (members of which provided many of the art pieces for Changing Worlds), to help out with their areas of expertise and steer us towards people interested in contributing.
  • Getting funded by institutions that are connected to people we actually wanted to reach.
  • Using social media by creating a online presence throughout several channels. Again, this is convenient because it does not require physical presence.
  • Preparing information in a way that is easy to share and multiply for others, e.g. website content or mail templates to forward through mailing lists.
  • Having a website providing as much information as possible. Easy access to relevant information makes people feel appreciated and welcome.

What else could be done to open up a space and reach more people from “outside”? How can we engage people who could be interested, but usually would not consider attending the type of event in question?

Money again

We only want to touch on financial matters briefly here, as we are working on a separate and more extensive post about money and funding that will be published in a few weeks. But there are two issues that should not be left out when we are talking about opening up Changing Worlds: the first one is keeping the conference affordable, the second one is dealing with unexpected expenses.

Keeping the event affordable might seem obvious: low conference fees (or even a free event) and affordable food options eliminate financial barriers for younger and/or financially disadvantaged audiences and/or attendees that are not backed by institutions.

The second issue we encountered was a bit more stealthy. Adding opportunities for interaction, experimentation, and play such as light installations, art performances or music sessions can be a great way to make your event special – and we think in our case it was worth the extra effort. However, it is important to keep in mind how contributions outside academic presentation formats might lead to unexpected expenses or efforts (such as planning exhibitions in accordance with fire safety regulations) for the organising team – Inviting non-academic speakers for keynotes might be expensive. People that make a living speaking or performing, for instance, will not only require their expenses to be paid, but also collect speaking/performance fees. In the same vein, some projects or installations might require the organisers to supply special infrastructure or extra funding. The upside is that all of these expenses can be planned for to a certain extent. While some of them took us by surprise the first time around, it gradually got easier to plan with these kinds of things.

Our experiences

The two posts in this mini-series are our personal experiences not only in planning, but also attending different events. We do not want to provide a step-by-step recipe for transdisciplinary events, but we hope that sharing our stories will be helpful for others.

These posts also bring to the fore how challenging transdisciplinary event planning can be, reflecting where we ended up after 2.5 years of Changing Worlds. But most of all they raised many questions: what are your answers?

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