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<nettime> The ABC's of Conferencing
Trebor Scholz on Sun, 6 Feb 2005 22:11:47 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> The ABC's of Conferencing


[ Dear nettimers, In April 2004 Geert Lovink and I organized the Free
Cooperation conference about the art of (online) collaboration. Out of this
event resulted the following essay that is published in the current issue o=
f
Springerin.=20
In May 2005 we will publish a book about the conference topics. A DVD that
contains Christoph Spehr's video "On Rules and Monsters: An Introduction to
Free Cooperation" and interviews with Brian Holmes, Stefan Roemer, Simon
Biggs, Barbara Lattanzi, John Duda, Claire Pentecost, George Schoelhammer,
Ricardo Rosas and many others is already available now. Best, Trebor]


The ABC's of Conferencing. Experiment, Play, Reflect
by Trebor Scholz & Geert Lovink

People love conferences. They can't get enough of all the offline events on
offer. Like festivals, conferences are venues where you can meet future
collaborators, debate ideas and artworks, party intensely, get inspired,
provoked, learn, make new friends, and then occasionally carry on the
dialogue in the sauna. These days, the event industry is an integral part o=
f
the shopping-driven locative spectacle. Conferences are also an opportunity
for people who can't meet otherwise, to spend a few days together away from
their obligations, zooming in on ideas. Whereas, socially speaking,
conferences may be exciting, most events use conventional, unreflected
formats. In this essay we investigate why this is the case and what
alternative models are available to disrupt the everyday consensus machine.
Beyond good or evil, conferences are here to stay, so they better be good.

Critique of Panelism
For a moment let's not focus on what people like or do not like. We were
always looking for conferences free of keynote speeches and panels. It's a
relief to see speakers argue freely, be brief - leaving ample time for
questions from the audience, and focus on the points raised by the chair of
a session. Formats and the vocabulary used lock us not only into structures
but also impact the way we develop content. In the age of the Internet
'rhetoric', we can feel free to move on, away from reading a 'paper' to mor=
e
distributed and collaborative forms of discourse production, discussion and
dispute. The ritualized academic structure of panels and the
non-communicative form of the keynote speaker feed into the celebrity syste=
m
reinforcing hegemonic paradigms that get in the way of genuine dialogue and
of diverse, emerging voices being heard. Some will read this criticism as a=
n
attack on the scientific community as a whole. We disagree. Academics are
not a species in danger of extinction and it is time to get out of the
defensive mode. Panelism is part of the dark side of 'academism' and needs
to be addressed, exactly because it is spilling over to other contexts such
as the arts, culture, new media and even activism.
A good example of well meant but misplaced panelism is the Intersociety for
Electronic Arts (ISEA), a bi-annual conference, a somewhat tragic event in
which artists have to participate in scientific formats in order to
contribute. In part this is an effect of the forced 'edufication' of the
arts, particularly in the United States, but increasingly also in countries
such as Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. Within the American
=8Cuniversity of excellence=B9 (1) language and research formats in the arts ar=
e
modeled increasingly after the business logic of the sciences. People who
decide about grants in turn are looking at the military-industrial complex
that supports them to an ever-growing extent. The possibility of failure,
even in the sciences becomes almost impossible due to an all-powerful resul=
t
imperative. Instead of addressing this topic directly, a culture of academi=
c
simulation is being introduced in which a wide range, from designers,
programmers and activists to net artists are persuaded to respond to 'call
for papers,' motivate each other to submit a 'proposal for a panel' and eve=
n
have to buy into the dirty business of (blind) peer reviewing, enforcing
lengthy citations, in order to get something 'published' on a website.
Increasingly, dull formats of the sciences are imposed on the arts. Mind
you, these are mostly unnecessary, 'alien' formats that no one would come u=
p
with on their own. There is by no means a 'natural' desire amongst artists
to sit in panels and write 'papers.' In fact, these formats are despised--
but nonetheless hard to resist. We do not suggest that artists cannot speak
for themselves or should not be involved in practices embracing theory and
production, or arts and sciences. But we do question the forced adaptation
of scientific formats and argue that it is high time to start public
awareness, openly talk about it and label the occurring tendency by its
proper names: paperism and panelism.

What's so bad about three or four people, each sitting on their individual
hobby horses, introduced by an ill-informed chair of the session far distan=
t
from the divulged audience? The fact that the panelists do not know each
other and have not seen let alone read each other's 'papers'? The fact that
there was hardly time for questions? Who cares? Exactly. Who cares? We do.
We, the audience, are those who care. We have to say no to the supermarket
mentality in which both audience and presenters are merely shopping around,
not showing up on panels, are clearly programmed in the wrong section of th=
e
program or have no ability, or even wish, to addressing the handful of
people in the hall in a clear manner.

The source of 'panelism' has to be located at conference organizers, not
speakers, let alone the audience. What panelism expresses is laziness and a
lack of creative thinking as to which format in what (discursive) situation
will work best. Panelism is often an indication that too many people have
been involved in the decision making process. The panel structure is the
flipside of justified attempts to be more inclusive and have as many
speakers as possible. But that doesn't always result in interesting events.
The best conferences are being produced by a small team of both researchers
and producers that closely collaborate. Events curated by one individual,
such as Ars Electronica, have the tendency to become narrow and repetitive
and develop an informal circuit of guessing and gossiping around the
intentions of this one person, much like Documenta and the biennial system
with its small group of circulating curators.

The worst panels are those when speakers really have no clue why they are i=
n
the same session. Or take this situation: a competitive, slightly irritated
atmosphere arises when the first speaker goes over her time limit, then the
second as well, leaving no time for the last one. A variation of this would
be the case in which the last speaker 'eats up' all the remaining time for
questions. Another general pattern is the fact that the last speaker gets
most of the questions as the audience has forgotten what the previous
panelists had to say. These problems can only partially be solved by a good
moderator. The key issue here is not the all too human qualities of certain
subjects but the deep liberal, unfocused approach in which the topics might=
,
at best, be described as a cloud of question marks. The audience in respons=
e
develops a liberal, 'surfing' attitude towards the 'collage' of information
that is presented, a mechanism so precisely described by Marshall McLuhan.
There is no compelling reason why panel members would have to discuss with
each other. Usually they have been introduced minutes before they start and
can barely remember each other's name. And while all this happens the
audience sits as a silent block in the dark.
Maybe we missed something and only have been at events where there was
nothing at stake. Perhaps there is a universal human right to present one's
paper in public. We are being told that in this democratic idea science
should be seen as a bazaar full of mediocre but necessary products in which
it is up to diehards to find the precious gems. Noise to signal ratios are
varying greatly and one has to learn to filter in order to get through.
Keynote speakers do not make up for the tragedy of panelism. They only
mirror the problem and try to compensate for the middle of the road
methodology that creates artificial celebrity. Reputation does not exist, i=
t
has to be made, and the keynote system is an ideal vehicle to do so.

The Search for Alternatives
Before we slide into radical negativism, let's focus on alternatives. The
FreeCooperation conference that we recently organized (2) took place on a
campus of the State University of New York, late April 2004. The topic of
the event was the art of (online) collaboration. From cell phones to email,
and multiplayer online games, mailing lists, weblogs (3), and wikis (4) our
everyday lives are increasingly enmeshed with technology. This at least is
true for societies benefiting from the globalization of the information
order. The necessity to examine what happens when we collaborate in these
technological channels through which we communicate will soon become more
apparent. How can we find independence and more freedom in a context of
networked collaboration?

To this conference we invited the Bremen-based media critic Christoph Spehr
who coined the term 'free cooperation' in his essay "Gleicher als andere"
(More Equal Than the Other). Most of Spehr's writings are not translated
into English and this event was an opportunity to introduce his ideas into
anglophone media discourses. Spehr's writings use references to 1960s Sci-F=
i
movies to think about contemporary cooperation insisting on the option of
refusal, independence, negotiation and re-negotiation with alien corporate
or state monsters. Focusing on these ideas of equality and freedom the
conference asked how they can be made useful for alternative networks of
learning and the university.

We designed the FreeCooperation conference scenario after the dramaturgical
structure of a Brechtian play. The somewhat staged environments of the even=
t
were rather theatrical. In order to make way for new structures there it wa=
s
a crucial need to crush all hope amongst possible followers of panelism. Th=
e
mantra =B3no lectures, no panels=B2 took a long time to sink in. Yet, at the
same time the event had to be as open and participatory as possible. There
is a wide range of alternative formats one can choose from nowadays. To
state that keynotes plus panels is the only possible way of doing a
conference is pure nonsense. All it takes is the willingness to experiment,
undaunted by the prospect of failure.

At FreeCooperation, in a talk show-style session participants impersonated
sci-fi filmmakers, scientists, and "flexible personalities" and were
accompanied by musical intermezzos on Tony Conrad=B9s "phonarmonica."(5)
Remote guests commented on the debate via Internet Relay Chat. In the
staging process we included an intimate talkathon (four hours, one room, tw=
o
speakers, eight people in the audience at a time), a few dialogues,
performances, a conference radio, a video conference in tandem with remote
desktop, a game about games, streamed net radio discussions, brainstorming
sessions, film screenings, a small exhibition, several workshops, a
turntabilist collaboration, and one monologue. There were no keynote
speakers and, obviously, no panels, which worked well in particular because
the topic was collaboration. We explicitly asked participants not to delive=
r
long lectures aiming at a more dialogical format. This approach caused
concerns for participants who usually walk on red carpets but was perfect
for those who were willing to contribute to an event, the success of a
debate as a whole, for those who could briefly present a summation of their
thoughts and are then open enough to engage in debate responding to others.

Venues at the FreeCooperation event were organized with seating in circular
shapes, no top-down auditoriums. Large gatherings like this are good
opportunities for students and other locals to create their own networks--
relationships that may become fruitful for them in the future. Here,
encounters with other students, artist friends or cultural critics may in
the end even turn out to be more formative than regimented course work.

On the outset of the organization of an event the question needs to be aske=
d
if this is a half-day, one day, two day or week-long event or if it can
better be realized as networked program, for example on the AccessGrid (6).
Don't underestimate the amount of work that it will take: you will need
help. It's pertinent to be very clear about the pay-off for all involved--
the host institution, volunteers, participants and organizers. For us, this
event-based cultural practice was rewarding as it gave the opportunity to
highlight urgent issues, play with formats, to create discourse and
resources about online collaboration.
How can you avoid overloading individuals with work and maintain a sense of
more-or-less free cooperation in a context of next to no funding for cultur=
e
in the United States (7)? In the enthusiasm of organizing one can get
carried away and might make promises that will cause disappointments later.

Event planning needs to start early. But how early? Discussions and fund
raising should start at least one year before a large-scale event. We began
by carefully deciding on a date, cross-checking with university calendars
and public holidays. Often in US academia the planning time for big
conferences takes up to two years. The problem with organizing a new media
event in this manner is that the topics may not be as current this far
ahead. When deciding on a city for the event location does not always
matter. People are willing to travel to off-the-map places to have good
discussions. At the crux of the success of an event, however, is that all
parts of the conference take place in one location. That is not always
possible but organizers should be aware that splitting event venues gets
disorienting especially for jet-lagged international participants. They wil=
l
find it tiring to take costly taxis to get around, see which sessions start
up at what time. In addition, many sessions may be on at the same time,
which makes it hard to see what one came for and to meet other participants=
.

Arriving at events with hundreds or thousands of speakers, it=B9s a
challenging task to connect with those attendees with whom one wanted to
talk for a long time. Nametags are half-concealed by bags or coats making
for a strange detective game. A simple piece of software could help here. A
Twiki (8) or proximity area network could be a space in which people can
read each others=B9 texts before they attend the event, then being able to
jump right into the discussion after a short summation of their argument.
People would also have an easier time finding each other as photos in the
wiki, one could see where others are at a particular time during the
conference, and allow for brief exchanges to arrange meetings. This require=
s
attendees to prepare the conference and take part in pre-conference
exchanges still leaving things to debate for the event itself. Some
conferences use commercial social software platforms such as ORKUT (9) to
meet in. Using wireless networks one could also adapt software such as
ActiveCampus (10) or "Wifi Bedouin" (11) for personal data assistants (PDAs=
)
or wireless enabled laptops. Best, we should write a free/ open source
application that serves the described conference needs.
When organizing the FreeCooperation conference we were overwhelmed by the
large numbers of proposals that we received in response to our call. We rea=
d
the submissions deciding based on their relevance to what we set out to
organize. Like Phil Agre, media critic at The University of California Los
Angeles, who remarks this in a text about the organization of conferences
(12), we were uncomfortable selecting on the basis of already established
reputations in the field or nepotism because this simply re-inscribes the
circulation of a virtual class, the same voices are heard over and over. We
decided based on proposals which led us to program undergraduate students
next to established media artists and critics. We also choose participants
whom we got to know on the preparatory mailing list. The main question was
if the proposed presentation would fit into the thematic framework of the
conference. We emphasized that we look for reflection on collaboration
rather than mere descriptions of projects.

Our advice: be careful when you consider and re-consider whom to invite.
Which format suits the personality of the participant best-- a more intimat=
e
setting of a workshop or rather the polemic format of the roundtable? Try t=
o
imagine the best number of people for each workshop or session. This is a
difficult task when you don't know how many people will attend the overall
event. It is administratively difficult to invite international speakers in
the current political climate in the United States. We focused our finances
mainly on participants who are not employed in American academia.

When drawing a chart of the dramaturgical flow of the conference, we
oriented ourselves on the structure of Brechtian plays. A big concentration
of energy (talk show, debate-intensive sessions) was planned for the first
day, and again towards the end of the second. When setting up a list try to
have full control over it, and also to secure the list archive. Don't use
list services offered by commercial enterprises as this has the potential
for disaster (ie. unbearable amounts of advertisement are suddenly added to
posts). Shortly after we initiated the mailing list we announced that we'll
close it down a month or two after the event not intending to run this as a
mailing list beyond the conference preparation. Seven months prior to the
event the mailing list became a useful tool to enter into debate. People
briefly introduced themselves, posted texts, pointed to collaboration
theory, and collective art projects. Short posts containing one argument
seemed to best start up discussion. But, even one or two critical or hostil=
e
voices on a mailing list can taint the overall perception of an entire
event-- a problem of list culture in general.
Funding. Ask yourself if your event really can get (or needs) outside
sponsorship. We wrote countless letters to local businesses. As a trade sho=
w
or any other corporate presence at the conference was not an option because
of the politics of the event we could have saved the energy that we put int=
o
those applications. In US academia one has to first demonstrate that one is
dedicated and already in full gears working on the organization of an event
to get funding for it. You should consider the costs of your event carefull=
y
and make contingency plans in case you'll get less money. Alternate plans
are also important all throughout the organizing process.

Another pivotal question in the organization of a conference or other event
is that of outcomes. What do you want the participants to take away from th=
e
event beyond the participation experience? Positive networking and the
exchange of ideas always take place but what can you do to go beyond that?
For the FreeCooperation conference we edited a theory newspaper, simply
designed, that was launched on the first night of the event. We printed a
large number of copies, some of which participants took home with them and
the rest was distributed locally and throughout new media institutions. We
also created a DVD that besides short video impressions of the conference
sessions also included interviews with conference participants, and a video
by Christoph Spehr and J=F6rg Windszus. The conference website, created with
the helpful free software package Open Conference Systems (OCS) (13)
simplified some of the registration issues but was also limiting as too man=
y
non-customizable features were based on the needs of traditional academic
conferences. The conference Wiki became a rich repository for ideas, and a
growing archive about (online) collaboration. Out of the conference emerged
the Institute for Distributed Creativity (14) and the Institute for Network
Cultures (15). We are currently editing a book on the art of (online)
collaboration that will be published by oe/b_books by the end of spring
2005.

We can't wait for the moment that complex, stable, and powerful open source
tools for presentation become available. How many times have we tried to
replace proprietary software such as =B3Powerpoint=B2 or =B3Keynote=B2 but had to
surrender as packages such as OpenOffice (16) did not have the necessary
features or were not reliable enough?

Many conference organizers, based on a few topics start to invite a range o=
f
participants. They make sure that they are good speakers with engaging
presentations, and that they are geographically diverse (local vs.
inter/national) to avoid an isolated alien landing of a conference crew sta=
r
ship. In this balancing act between ideas, equal representation of gender,
minorities and available finances the focus on a few specific topics easily
gets lost and events become unfocused.
The challenge is to avoid the tokenism of the multicultural spectacle while
still achieving the much-needed balance. Globalization has yet to arrive in
many cultural/new media arts events. One of the ways to speed up diversity
is to question dominant organization formats and introduce basic forms of
interactivity and dialogue.

October 2004

References:

(1) Readings, B. (1999). The University in Ruins. 4th ed. United States:
Harvard University Press.

(2) The "networks, art, and collaboration" conference, a.k.a.
FreeCooperation, took place in April 2004 at the Department of MediaStudy,
The State University of New York at Buffalo. The conference was organized b=
y
Trebor Scholz (New York/ Buffalo) and Geert Lovink (Brisbane/Amsterdam),
assisted (in more or less free cooperation) by Dorothee Gestrich (now Banff
Centre) and Orkan Telhan (Ankara/ Buffalo), Tom Leonhardt (Toronto/ Buffalo=
)
and Arzu Telhan (Ankara/ Buffalo).
Trebor Scholz. (2004). networks, art, & collaboration. Freecooperation.
Available: URL http://freecooperation.org. Last accessed October 5, 2004.

(3) =B3A weblog, or simply a blog, is a web application which contains
periodic, reverse chronologically ordered posts on a common webpage. Such a
web site would typically be accessible to any Internet user. Part of the
reason "blog" was coined and commonly accepted into use is the fact that in
saying "blog", confusion with server log is avoided.=B2
(2004). weblog. Wikipedia. Available: URL http://wikipedia.org. Last
accessed October 5, 2004.

(4) =B3A Wiki or wiki (pronounced "wicky" or "weeky" or "viki") is a website
(or other hypertext document collection) that allows any user to add
content, as on an Internet forum, but also allows that content to be edited
by any other user.=B2 (2004). weblog. Wikipedia. Available: URL
http://wikipedia.org. Last accessed October 5, 2004.

(5) Tony Conrad's Phonarmonica is an update of Benjamin Franklin glass
armonica- an instrument that spun glass bowls and was played with finger
tips. Conrad's DJ version uses a power drill to spin a stack of 78 RPM
records at incrwsing velocity while they are played by a manual contact wit=
h
a pair of phonograph tone arms.

(6) Access Grid
The Access Grid=81 is an ensemble of resources including multimedia
large-format displays, presentation and interactive environments, and
interfaces to support group-to-group interactions across the Grid.
The AccessGrid Project. AccessGrid (accessgrid.org). Available: URL
http://accessgrid.org. Last accessed October 5, 2004.

(7) "While France pays an average of $17 per capita on international
cultural programs, the United States spends 65 cents."
The Globalist. The Globalist| Global Diplomacy-- Europe's Soft Power.
Available: URL=20
http://www.theglobalist.com/DBWeb/printStoryId.aspx?StoryId=3D3886. Last
accessed October 5, 2004.

(8) Twiki
"TWiki is a WikiWiki TWiki also enables simple form-based web applications,
without programming, and granular access control (though it can also operat=
e
in classic 'no authentication' mode). Other enhancements include
configuration variables, embedded searches, server side includes, file
attachments and a plugin API that has spawned over 130 plugins to link into
databases, create charts, sort tables, write spreadsheets, make drawings,
track Extreme Programming projects and so on."
(2004). weblog. Wikipedia. Available: URL http://wikipedia.org. Last
accessed October 5, 2004.
(9) Orkut is an online community that connects people through a network of
trusted friends. We are committed to providing an online meeting place wher=
e
people can socialize, make new acquaintances and find others who share thei=
r
interests.
Orkut. Orkut. Available: URL http://www.orkut.com/. Last accessed October 5=
,
2004.

(10) ActiveCampus
The ActiveCampus project aims to provide location-based services for
educational networks and understand how such systems are used. activeclass
enables collaboration between students and professors by serving as a visua=
l
moderator for classroom interaction. ActiveCampus Explorer uses a person's
context, like location, to help engage them in campus life.
(2004). ActiveCampus. explorations in community-oriented ubiquitous
computing. Available: URL http://activecampus.ucsd.edu/. Last accessed
October 5, 2004.

(11) WiFi.Bedouin is a wearable, mobile 802.11b node disconnected from the
global Internet.
(2004). TechKwonDo. TechKwonDo__WiFiBedouin. Available: URL
http://www.techkwondo.com/projects/bedouin/. Last accessed October 05, 2005=
.

(12) Phil Agre. (1996). Notes on organizing conferences. Phil Agre's Home
Page. Available: URL http://polaris.gseis.ucla.edu/pagre/. Last accessed
October 5, 2004.

See also:
Geert Lovink (2002). Dark Fiber. 1st Edition Cambridge (Mass.): MIT Press.
On Conferences and Temporary Media Labs(13) Open Conference Systems (OCS) i=
s
a free Web publishing tool that will create a complete Web presence for you=
r
scholarly conference.
(2004). Open Conference Systems. Open Conference Systems (OCS). Available:
URL http://www.pkp.ubc.ca/ocs/. Last accessed
October 5, 2004.

(14) Institute for Distributed Creativity (IDC)
The research of the Institute for Distributed Creativity (IDC) focuses on
collaboration in media art, technology, and theory with an emphasis on
social contexts. The IDC, founded by Trebor Scholz in May 2004, is an
international network with a participatory and flexible institutional
structure that combines advanced creative production, research, events, and
documentation. While the IDC makes appropriate use of emerging low-cost and
free social software it balances these activities with regular face-to-face
meetings.
(2004). Institute for Distributed Creativity. Available: URL
http://distributedcreativity.org. Last accessed October 5, 2004.

(15) Founded mid 2004 by Geert Lovink, this research institute, based at
Polytechnic/University of Amsterdam (UvA/HvA), will look into the (internal=
)
dynamics of online networks by organizing lectures, conferences, reseach
progams and, most of all, both offline and online collaborations.
(2004). Institute for Network Cultures. Available: URL
http://networkcultures.org. Last accessed October 5, 2004.

(16) OpenOffice
OpenOffice's mission is to create, as a community, the leading internationa=
l
office suite that will run on all major platforms and provide access to all
functionality and data through open-component based APIs and an XML-based
file format.
http://OpenOffice.org : Homepage. Open Office. Available: URL
http://openoffice.org. Last accessed October 5, 2004.


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