Small & well-formed: CRASSH and other cute conferences

From Bruno Giussani, European Director, TED

“The more our lives and work become dematerialised and information explodes, the more conferences become relevant moments of confrontation…they will be a necessary social mediation that ‘social media’ cannot provide”

As they argued in Wired’s December run-down on the year’s most exciting conferences, ideas need people to spread, and people need people to be at their creative peak. Being in the same room is the perfect antidote to the frantic zeitgeist hyperbole we’re subjected to in social media. Communities are essential in fostering creativity and innovation. Silicon Valley, Sillicon Roundabout, Soho on Sea…

By all accounts, conference attendance is up, and the options are only increasing. “I’ll be at a conference for two days” doesn’t really say mischief and innovation but, without fail, I return to the studio highly energised, better networked and bursting with examples of great work in the field.

Thought Den missed some of the big guns this year – Museums and the Web / SxSW / Remix Summit – but we’ve otherwise talked at and attended a nice spread. The last of the year, clashing rather unfortunately with a similar event at the British Museum, was hosted by CRASSH in Cambridge – “Beyond the Mobile Guide: Cultural Objects, Gallery Spaces and Mobile Devices.” Andrew Lewis posted a writeup on V&A’s Digital Blog.

Day 1 was an invite-only workshop facilitated by two accomplished academics. The aim was to explore a ‘post-mobile’ world by using selected presentations from creative practitioners to stimulate discussion. The day culminated in a vaguely competitive pseudo-experiment in brainstorming.

Team A, deployed to the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, were pitted against Team B, dispatched to the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology. Our task, helped significantly by spending two hours “in context” surrounded by the artefacts of our respective museums, was to focus exclusively on enhanced in-gallery experiences. And what a great way to really explore this issue, live in the space, with curatorial input, coffee-addled creative brains and good old fashioned academic rigour.

Innovative engagement doesn’t have to mean mobile app. Rosie Poebright from Splash & Ripple cleverly exemplifies this with her Georgian Listening Device; a beautiful box that guides visitors through the Holburne Museum’s now extinct pleasure garden in Bath. No visible smartphone, GPS technology or user interface, but these all feature behind the box’s beautiful antique facade. Keep your eyes peeled for more blended culture / technology experiences from Splash & Ripple.

On Day 2 the workshop was followed by a conference-proper. Alongside selected speakers, the issues and ideas of Day 1 were fed back to conference attendees, adding a sense of currency and freshness to proceedings. The informal tone and enthusiasm of the floor to discuss with presenters made for a very rewarding day. With only 20 attending the workshop and 70 the conference, it was possible to delve that much deeper.

Jane Alexander’s frank and thorough rundown of her Gallery One exploits at Cleveland’s Museum of Art added some weight to the day; I’ve always enjoyed peeking behind the scenes of projects that make the news through their scale of ambition and achievement. All too rarely is the line crossed between classic ‘This is what we did’ presentations and a more analytical ‘This is why we did it’ style that offers much better take-aways.

Loic Tallon, face of Pocket Proof, came wearing his poacher-turned-gamekeeper hat, sharing insights from his new role as Senior Mobile Producer at New York’s MET. His excellent presentation made concrete something the industry finally seems to be grasping; mobile is a behaviour, not a technology. Let’s look beyond the screen.

In September Thought Den and National Museums Scotland invited 40 arts and culture professionals to play Capture the Museum in Edinburgh. Afterwards, under “Chatham House Rules”, the group talked freely and frankly about the issues an experience like Capture raises; engagement with young people, depth versus breadth, sustainability, institutional change. Once again, the smaller size meant greater detail and depth.

To put it simply, smaller-format conferences, such as the one hosted by CRASSH, the successful Playful, upcoming No Boundaries and regular #LEGup meetings are doing a great job of invigorating the arts/culture/technology/creative communities. Where larger conferences provide breadth, these intimate gatherings with structured facilitation play an important role in narrowing the field of focus, unpicking the detail and ultimately building stronger relationships.


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