Amidst the preparation for the 5th Inter-format Symposium, co-curators Vytautas Michelkevičius (LT) and Andrew Gryf Paterson (SCO/FI/FR) discuss the issues of a symposium that intends to reflect on the issues of scheduling, time and inter-formativity. The symposium will take place on the 22-25th August at the Nida Art Colony of Vilnius Academy of Arts, Lithuania.
The majority of the organising and scheduling work has been done remotely over the summer months, asynchronously discussing together over Skype. In a similar but different way, the following text was compiled from the Skype chat spread over the recent two days while the curators were actually sitting shoulder to shoulder in Vilnius. Time-stamps are accurate but misleading. Editing the conversation into a meaningful narrative was made afterwards. As will probably happen with the reflections after the symposium itself as well.
[15:02:00] Andrew Gryf Paterson: This years symposium has two goals. Lets discuss them. The first hope is to reflect upon and rethink the symposium as an experiential and discursive space where knowledge sharing happens in very different formats.. But we also hope to consider the role of time as a medium for sharing experiences and knowledge, including it’s out/on-goingness and limitations. Firstly, what type of formats do you mean.. Symposia makes me think that it is mostly discussions.. presentations.. But I know Inter-format aims to support and promote a broader range than this.
[15:09:31] Vytautas Michelkevičius: Maybe the contemporary discourse has narrowed down the meaning of it. From the very ancient Greek time it was a place to socialize, exchange ideas (in a poetic way or in poetic forms), eat and drink. From very beginning of Symposium in 2011 I wanted to address more this ancient concept since Nida Art Colony ideally fitted for it: it has relaxed atmosphere, can host people, their meals and discussions. So, the symposium is a mixture of conference and art festival which can host a few dozens of formats.
You had taken part as participant or co-organizer in lots of different events. Maybe you can share a few experiences of formats from which you learned the most or the ones which made the biggest impression.
[15:14:41] AGP: I have been drawn to a mix of informal and professional gatherings, where the location has had an influence in the atmosphere in how participants take part. One of the most influential formats that I have appreciated and experienced over the years of organising events in both informal and festival events have been hybrid ‘unconference’ or camp events, which create space for participants to decide themselves the way that they wish to contribute. A camp is a rather ambiguous description because it has so many different interpretations, from an informal couple of day space of exchanges, that is a temporary space outside the usual pattern. To one where the participants are living, eating and working together over a longer period, including actually camping in tents and so on. As well as the tradition of summer camps…
[11:29:33] VM: What is BarCamp or media BarCamp which is also very untypical and recent format of organising professional gatherings?
[11:32:45] AGP: BarCamp, as a branded form of ‘unconference’ began as self-organised gatherings of technology enthusiasts in California in the mid-2000s, where an informal meeting encouraged participants to share what they were working on or passionate about. It developed from the facilitation and hosting methodology of ‘Open Space Technology’ (OST) introduced by Harrison Owen a few decades earlier, which began without agenda, and each participant would determine in the meeting what they wished to pursue, and invite others who were interested to get involved. The BarCamp approach updated this way of thinking for a younger social-media enthusiastic generation, and participants are encouraged to assist in documenting, spreading the word about what was happening there online and so on. As a format it has been adapted in many ways, and often the gatherings have been thematised for example in education, or certain web development tools etc.
My experience with Pixelache Festival in Helsinki has witnessed the adoption of this open participatory format into cultural festival organisation. This led to experiments by the organising group, including myself, in taking groups smaller and larger to locations which feel out of the ordinary, such as islands both in rural and urban environments. Recently this has been documented for the Agents of Alternatives publication, and as part of our Open Sourcing Festivals Project.
[11:38:31] AGP: I believe there are interesting challenges of mixing participatory, open facilitation, with the expectations of professionals from the cultural and art scenes. Many are used to a more hierarchical model where decisions are made by the organising or curating team, but there are also those who are self-organising and -institutionalising.
[15:15:42] VM: If to come back to the pre-history of Inter-format Symposium, one of the motivations to start it was disappointment of attending too many boring academic conferences and losing hope in their formats of 15-20 min reading/listening to a paper and chatting with each other for another 15 min during coffee breaks. Since I had both experience with academic and artistic worlds, I wanted to merge both and to experiment with something new.
[15:19:37] AGP: In response to your comment about 15-20mins presentations, lets discuss the influences involved in deciding the format and lengths of times of contribution. Who decides the 15-20 minutes? It is mostly the conference organisers, but also some form of convention, as an outcome of trying to balance that everyone gets a slice of time democratically.
[15:27:14] VM: Yes, the organising committee decides or the culture of organising event decides and it is very difficult to get out of it. Not only the time was a problem but also a way how these presentations were made. They were not expressionistic (expressed performatively) at all. You can imagine me as an audience member listening to a guy literally reading a paper for 20 min either slowly in broken English (if he was non-native speaker) or too fast and impossible to understand (if he was a native speaker). And not so many of them had slides next to the reading. Only Americans had the expressive culture of presentation.
[15:28:56] AGP: And this is just the culture of sharing based on presentations, not to mention visual arts or installation, audio or time-based media, performance, which also have their own conventions of presentation, viewing, listening. One of the ambitions of the Inter-format Symposium, is that respect is given to these different formats and conventions… As well as recognise the limits and need to do something different than usual if it suits.
[11:43:49] AGP: The venue and location for symposium or camp or festival does set up expectations and limitations, which can be taken for granted. If it takes place at an artist residency centre, a university or adult education centre, or a personal farm building in the countryside, then each have different expectations or affordances about what is possible to do and for how long. On this occasion it may also be the end of summer camp with our late August event. Before work starts again for many in the city.
Another aspect to mention is that the Inter-format symposium offers for those interested in participatory or social practices a group of people who have committed time already to being there at the colony, who are sympathetic to experimental practice, and so may also be willing to give some time to another person’s proposal or activity, to take part and be involved. Where living and eating extends to generously acting together. This year, for example, all symposium participants are invited by Marina Noronha to “hallucinate with ping-pong balls”, or by Clotilde Amprimoz to make a ‘choreographic phrase’ of 30 seconds of movements. I wonder if over the years symposium’s participants have refused to take part in another artist’s participatory work? I guess not so many.
[15:30:04] VM: You are right, that’s why Nida is working perfectly for symposium as a site which can offer at least 10 different spaces to interact. The biggest discovery for is that most of the time sharing the space and time was productive both for artists and academics (researchers, etc.). The only problem is distribution of time and this we want to solve and experience in the 5th edition of the symposium.
[15:30:48] AGP: One of the things we recognised in the open call for participation in the symposium was the limited time together – it has been usually 4 nights, 3 days in the past – to keep reflecting upon the formats that habituate us in sharing within symposia and cultural festivals, and need to do something different than usual if it suits. We recognise that within the culture of organising the event there are things which you say are difficult to get out of. Time to introduce. Time to present. Time for breaks. Time to eat, sleep. Time to summarise (or summer-ise in late August?) or reflect. But then each participant wishes to do something that will potentially enhance, but may also arguably waste time. Several contributions are explicit about this: A “Time Consuming Presentation without any Content” by philosopher Aldis Gedutis or “How to have a good airtime” by artist and designer Julijonas Urbonas. While Fiona Reilly invites us to join her counting for 1 hr, potentially losing track of time.
[15:32:40] VM: This time we have less participants, so the intensity of spending time is the same. And we have also programmed the eating and even sleeping times with some interventions, overlapping discussions with dinner, or accepting Error’s #ApplePorridge for breakfast.
I like the rhythm of the symposium we have at the moment. One day is heavily programmed and the other one is left for the participants to decide on spot and on time (in the morning of that day). First day we have very intensive traditional conference slot and completely reversed slot where presentation slots are only 15 min each and coffee breaks go as long as one hour. At the moment the schedule is only programmed and we have to experience it to make some conclusions. For example, I am really curious to share experiences how did these 60 min breaks go.
[15:39:32] AGP: Even if we had asked each participant to define their own amount of time (rather than it be defined for them) we would have had a challenge still to fit the schedule together.
[15:39:47] VM: There is always another problem related with time. How long can the presenter keep the attention of the audience? 1 hour is very difficult to follow but 10 min is also very difficult to say what you want. And I always feel stressful how to fit everybody in limited time and make everyone happy.
[15:40:49] AGP: As my interest in open planned events goes, I have been sympathetic and encouraging to leave parts of the programme undecided or at least unscheduled, to create space for parts of the programme to be decided more ad-hoc or in the mood of the moment. I think it was appreciated that the draft programme and schedule was shared in advance with participants, and some gave positive feedback towards this, but very few people negotiated with the times proposed by us, or order of their activity among others.
[15:42:19] VM: So, democracy in setting up the programme is not possible? Have you experienced any failures in letting the participants to decide ad-hoc?
[15:44:21] AGP: I have experience of supporting and facilitating a ‘very open’ workshop in Helsinki, proposed by Antti Ahonen, where no agenda was decided in advance, only that we had to spend 300 EUR in an accountable way over a weekend. Those with experience of trying to develop consensus will understand what happened. It really took many hours just to find out what people wanted to do with that resource, and negotiate how to agree together from the extraordinary but infeasible, possible and ideal, or actually mundane proposals that emerged during the discussion. Some people dropped out before anything even happened, maybe some when they realised their proposal wasn’t going to happen. In the end, practical matters like eating, and limitations of time and shared capabilities started to decide how we used our time and money allocated, and what we could do together where all could be involved. In the end we pooled together kitchen equipment, and learned how to make vegan cakes the following day. It wasn’t a failure, but we certainly learned how long it can take to work through various ambitions, motivations, expectations and egos.
[15:44:26] VM: If you remember our experiences in the first Symposium in 2011, there were some participants left without having a chance to present.
[15:45:35] AGP: Yes you are right that there is the danger that there is not a respectful use of one’s own time, and some get pushed out. I mean that is more a failure of the facilitators and the participants to maintain good use of time.
[15:46:11] VM: So, the conclusion is that soft but sharp moderator(ship) is essential? Soft means maybe said in a polite way but cut on the needed moment. No compromises on time or about time.
[15:47:13] AGP: Yes, but it doesn’t mean that only the organisers need to moderate, just that there is someone who is giving attention to the issue. Most often that is someone nominated in advance, and if not it falls on the organisers shoulders. You have also invested in a range of sand-clocks to help us along. Traditional analogue, but also a little inaccurate with some discrepancies (grin). Is it possible to have soft time management? I suspect that it is easier to be soft about time at the beginning, and increasingly harder towards the end of the symposium.
[15:53:21] VM: If you are sharply soft from the beginning, you have more time for the dinner and sauna. I had some terrible experience when due the lack of moderation conference has ended at 9pm instead of 5pm and it has eaten coffee time and even dinner time.
[15:53:44] AGP: In our schedule at the moment, as you mentioned, there is a busy first day and an seemingly unbusy second day. I like to think that after a day of scheduled events, participants will be encouraged to suggest and propose things to do in the second day. What looks relaxed time-wise at the start might be full and challenging to manage time-wise. There are quite still quite a few not-yet scheduled activities. It is also curious to have a late night programme of concerts, and indeed even some proposed events for when we are sleeping. If more participants proposed middle of night events, are we saving or using our time wisely? Would the symposium stay on time during the day?
[15:58:18] VM: In this sense night is still under-programmed… How do you feel about the ambiguity of this year title: “Symposium On Time”?
[15:57:33] AGP: The ambiguity of the symposium on time, being good if it is on time, in schedule, without delay in the important matters of relaxed exchange, food, sauna, dreams and sleep.. That we should all turn up in time for apple porridge. That we make time to go to the beach as part of the programme? Can we be too respectful of scheduled time? A symposium on time is both respectful and not of the influence of scheduled time in our everyday and professional lives. As responsible organisers and participants, we need to try to make sure there is a good balance in-between these positions and give permission for all participants to find their own way and place among it.
[15:48:13] VM: The event has always universal or objective time and personal times (experienced by every participant). I enjoyed the idea of artist Ernest Truely in 2011 when he issued tickets which gave the chance to skip one event during the symposium without feeling guilty.
[15:50:16] AGP: I recently participated in a residential 12-day Camp event where the presentation and discussion programme was quite full, including deep listening exercises, eating and living together, although there were also decently scheduled periods for sitting around a large communal fire, sauna and so on. It was a really encouraging although intense experience. There was a very interesting set of camp guidelines promoting the camp as a ‘safe space’, including permission given to not take part in all scheduled events, to take time out whenever anyone wished to.. However, everyone there was present to learn as much as possible from the different events and discussions. And it was hard to not take part.. To miss out.
[16:01:20] VM: I would interpret “On time” also as the anniversary occasion of it – number 5 which makes us to feel the gone time and think it over. So far, in the course of 4 years we had over 150 participants and only a few have met in one time and space. So, I would like to think about them as a community which has similar experiences but never had met. This year more than half of the participants are from previous symposiums and they will finally meet for the first time and could reflect on their symposium experiences which were similar and very different each year.
[16:04:15] AGP: This feeling of community of Inter-format participants is something which is important, and I am looking forward to hear reflections which overlap. And there are only a handful of you have been there on each occasion.
[16:06:02] VM: I have already heard from the permanent participants (there is only 2 (Ernest Truely and Jurij Dobriakov) who took part in all the 4 previous and will take part in the forthcoming one) about trying to rate them – which was the best or the most inter-formative.
[16:06:52] AGP: The first dinner gathering of the symposium will be the occasion to reflect and hear about the different memories of returnees.. We will also make a recording of this event. For those who attend for the first time, they will be induced into the past already, but also included as a way to build and develop the community around Nida Art Colony.
[12:16:40] VM: How to avoid being self-referential? If we are doing a symposium on symposium?
[12:23:01] AGP: Difficult question. At least we invited some people who have not been involved before! ; ) Fresh faces.
[12:23:43] VM: How to be open if every member of the audience is a participant and there is no passive audience?
[12:26:32] AGP: Has the inter-format symposium ever had events for an audience to turn up? For locals or for those from Vilnius or Kaunas. The remoteness of the location is in relation to the passive audience that may or may not be present. We could of course stream to the internet what happens. But opening up the content of the event doesn’t necessarily make it an open event for participating, or necessarily make it interesting to an audience who is not there.
[12:05:53] VM: I think that documentation is really important for such kind of event which happens in remote place. If we want to be open and share the outcomes and experiences we need to make quite a big effort. First year we had a website and unfinished book, second year a blog, third year a book “Tourists Like Us: Critical Tourism and Contemporary Art” and fourth year a documentary movie “On Flux of Sand and Aquatic Ecosystems”. Every form of documentation had its own influences and reaches. How we are going to use documentation this year?
[12:09:14] AGP: “Documentation, and its other forms like procumentation (proactive documentation), documentary compiling, archiving and processing, etc.” was mentioned as an important aspect of this symposium in the open call for participants, as it focuses on reflection of past Inter-format symposium, and also on time, which is closely connected with recording and acknowledging presence. We received a handful of proposals to document in subjective ways that activities that take place in the symposium. For example, Hannah Harkes contribution “Your Time” will follow exactly 1 hour of each participant documenting it appropriately, while Nastja Säde Rönkkö proposed to take over Nida Art Colony’s Twitter feed for 3 days.. While Marianna Maryuama & Saulius Leonavicius are concerned with what happens in our dreams. In addition to the usual photographic and media documentations, we have several invited journalists or writers to attend to give some outside perspectives and observations.
[13:14:42] VM: I think we could propose to our participants and remote audiences to have a look at the compendium “Sympotica: a symposium on the symposium”, edited by Oswyn Murray (Oxford University Press, 1990). It has a lot of inspiring essays. One of them proposes patterns how to sit in the symposium and how to arrange furniture to get better results (they were intended to Greek Symposiums but we can use some of the advice today as well).
[13:25:01] AGP: So people have reflected already on the use of venues and furniture and their effect in sharing and learning environments. At this symposium we will ask our participants and give attention to how we use, manage and disrupt the time we have together.