There are two moments in my life that have stuck with me since as some of the most intense and visceral memories I possess.
The first was when I was around seven years old. I was at school, Watford Fields, a draughty old Victorian place where I was from five to eight. We arrived as usual. We went to class. And then we went to the assembly hall and it was a submarine. Under water. With submariners guiding my class mates and me around the controls.
There hadn’t been some sort of natural disaster. It wasn’t an actual submarine. Rather the county’s Theatre In Schools team had created a submarine in the school hall, a construction of canvas and lights and costumes and drama. I remember to this day the sense of elation in being tricked. Of being absolutely taken in by the illusion. It was wonderful.
Step forward twenty something years, and the opening of the Tate Modern gallery in the converted Bankside power station in central London. Soon after opening I visited, and loved the collection of modern and conceptual art. And then, bimbling around the space I came upon a room where the builders hadn’t quite finished yet. Pallets. Empty cups. Power tools. Strewn around. But with a carefully curated path through the middle, marked by a metal rope.
And then I looked again. At the sign on the wall. The name of the artist. The medium: carved foam and paint. Everything in the room was an illusion. Everything had been created by an artist to give the illusion of a building site. Everything that I saw wasn’t what it seemed.
I was immediately taken back to that moment in the submarine.
These two memories came back to me in a recent conversation with Amy Kean. It appears when two sociologists chat they’ll end up devising devious experiments. And the idea of a conference where nothing is what it seems was discussed. I can’t divulge the full details because a) it would ruin at least one of Amy’s ideas and b) we don’t know what on earth, for the most part, a conference where nothing is what is seems would actually look like. Yet.
In my head, it’s a bit submarine at the primary school, a bit conceptual art at the Tate Modern. But why? Why on earth?
Well, because conferences are soooo predictable, and soooo formulaic. You’ve got the cheap ones that you pay to attend. The very expensive ones that you pay to attend. And various ones that are paid for by sponsors where you mostly pay in your time to be sold to, often very clumsily, and usually quite unsuccessfully.
There are notable exceptions to prove this rule. Matt Desmier, take a bow. You too, Julia Hobsbawm. But even they create things that are recognisable as traditional conferences, and just go the extra mile in curating speakers and guests.
And the problem with the conference format is that, as Marcus Brown put it to me on WB40 last week, within a few moments with most speakers you know pretty much exactly what they are going to say. And if you know what they are going to say, or even just think you know what it is they are going to say, then you don’t listen. You’re not engaged. You’re waiting for the coffee break so you can check your emails.
But what if this “nothing is what it seems” conference were to continually challenge you, continually ask the question “what exactly the fuck is going on here then?”. Not an unconference (although those are worthy formats) but a gathering of a diverse bunch of people, many of whom had interesting things to convey in interesting and novel ways, and we saw how much we could challenge one another?