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Wednesday
Feb012006

The Social Event Machine

auditorium.jpgEvent 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 “young nothings” 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 someone’s resume.

Who cares if they have nothing to say. And let’s 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 glowing 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? Let’s stop the sing-along choir! Have a walk on the dark side. (Who are the Darth Vaders of new media?) Let’s 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. “Wow! 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.” It’s 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 don’t 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 today’s new media events. Ok, it’s tough. We don’t care about skin color or gender-- all we care about is expertise. I heard those argument endless times. Well, that’s just flat out ignorant! Expertise takes all kind of forms. But also don’t 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 “patrons” because the event planners did not accentuate that “slot.” You see a few people far away with their faces lit 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 the person next to you who just drops a tea bag into a double espresso 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 effort. And of course, nobody can pull that off alone (or in that case: 2 people can’t 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 participants’ 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 shot 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 “Share, Share Widely” (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 of 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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