This is Russell and Arthur Davies, father and son, outside Conway hall, site of Interesting2007. The quietly charismatic servant of ceremonies and his son, the latter in this picture graciously standing in for the rest of us, our hand in a bag of crisps, playing shyly to the camera, pleased to be included, living this brief moment in the protected space of a congenial world. (Russell will so hate this metaphor, more on that later.)
I participated with trepidation. Russell was clear. No talking, he said, about anthropology, economics, branding, marketing, blogging, creativity, culture, or commerce, and so removed all my usual crutches, obsessions, and the very parachute I like to wear while public speaking. Kindly, he suggested I talk instead about my Oprah episode and it turned out pretty well. Clever Russell.
My first guess on why Interesting2007 was going to work (if it worked) was that everyone in the room was drawn from one of the creative industries (design, planning, art, advertising, film making, and so on). This means that everyone in the room at Conway Hall was good at metaphor capture and pattern recognition.
So you could talk, as Adrian Gunn Wilson did, about how to cut wood, and the audience was bound to help themselves to that and much more. The details themselves turned out to be flat out interesting and the room fell into a state of silent absorption. And the metaphors were everywhere, including the very big piece of wood on which Adrian cuts wood. I forget what he called it, but it’s huge and well scored and serves as the platform for the undertaking. It stabilizes the piece of wood that’s being chopped. It absorbs the blow of the ax. It catches the ax as it completes its arc and especially when it misses its mark. This is what we used to call an "agency," I think. It is strange and horrible to look at. Yes, quite like an agency.
My second guess was we were looking at the reinvention of the conference. Many cultural artifacts that have been dislodged by our new world. Our world has been decentered, flattened, destabilized, distributed, and made participative, anarchical, elite indifferent, cloudily networked, self organizing, and concatenating. So it’s natural that we’re having to rethink entertainment, information, elites, experts and especially speakers. Who now wants to sit in a room and hear someone hold forth? Certainly, there are a couple of people who we would like to hear speak in this way. But how often do they turn up to the conferences we go too? Mostly what we get is two things: 1) badly concealed self advertisement, and 2) a view of the world that means to be comprehensive but proves to be alarmingly (and unwittingly) partial.
Conferences used to create value by giving us the benefits of a sorting exercise. The organizers would choose experts and the experts would choose topics and treatments. We the audience would undergo edification mixed with a couple of moments of epiphany (with the opportunity to build networks over drinks). The trouble is we are now fantastically good at sorting for ourselves. What we want from a conference is not a surrogate intelligence of a big name speaker. What we want is a tide that delivers new and interesting things that present themselves in fresh and unexpectedly formed ways. (Interestingly, some presentations were overformed by their very effort to be underformed. This happened when you could see that the presenter was deliberately casting a topic or treatment against mainstream type, as it were, the better to claim a quirkier credibility.)
Put us on the Kauffman continuum, the one that arrays the world between fixity at one end and chaos at the other, and it turns out that we most of us have paddled our way away from fixity towards chaos, and now tread water here in rougher, whiter waters with no discernible effort or difficulty. Experts be damned. We can read the world quite nicely on our own, thank you very much. It doesn’t have to be very fully formed for us to "get it." (It was fun listening to Johnnie Moore on this theme, and a pleasure to meet this fella in real space and time.)
Clever Russell. To forbid the recitation of what we think we know for things that are interesting, this is a good way to oxygenate an occasion with things that are less formed in just about the right measure. Less formed, and more charming. There is something "nice" about things that offer the world up all in the jumble and leave us to think what we will.
Now, someone is bound to say that this is merely the planning world, in the person of Russell Davies and conference attendees, discovered the well established truth of post modernism, that the world is now a thing of perfect incoherence, that the architectures of knowledge, the consistencies of culture, the thematicness of contemporary life, these have all collapsed, and that Interesting2007 was in fact merely an exploration and a demonstration of same.
Wrongo! What collapsed was mostly the intellectuals’ favorite interpretative frames. Naturally, this made it look like the sky was falling. Naturally, because they are intellectuals, they worked very hard to make their problem our problem. But the rest of us, those of us who actually make and manage meanings in the world know the truth of our present condition, and this is that if you have the right powers of metaphor capture and pattern recognition the world is still a relatively intelligible place. The things to remember is that the coherences are multiple, the interpretive frames many and conflicting, and the world changeable and fluid. And when all of this is true, then not only is the sky not falling, but Red Lions Square and Conway Hall when filled with speakers by Russell, is a very interesting place to be.
Thanks to Bowbrick for the photo. (More photos by Bowbrick here.) Thanks too for his support of Interesting2007
To Johnnie Moore for interesting thoughts. See Johnnie’s website here.
Flickr Nugget keyword of the moment: London.