The Architecture of Dialogue
By Roger Beebe
Let me state clearly at the outset that the organizers of the 2010 International Experimental Media Congress set for themselves an impossible goal, one that was inherently doomed to be nitpicked, second-guessed, etc., and yet they still availed themselves admirably in the face of all that. My overall experience of the Congress was a good one, I emerged with new connections and a handful of new ideas bouncing around my head, and that’s really what I expected might come of my attendance.
That said, I do want to critique a central problem with the way the Congress was organized, or rather, I want to offer a critique of where it was organized. The choice of the word “Congress” (and the designation of attendees as “delegates”) to describe this event was surely deliberate, summoning as it does a more open and dialogic forum than a mere “conference” or “symposium,” both of which in common usage (if not in etymology) suggest the more rigid academic forms with the separation between presenters and audience clearly delineated. But while the dream of the Congress organizers might have been an open dialogue among all the delegates, what we ended up participating in was something much more like the academic conference model that they were trying to avoid.
I place some of the blame for this on the format. Panels were constituted with the standard slate of 3 or 4 presenters with time left for discussion afterwards. As anyone who has ever been to a conference knows, presenters never stay within their allotted time and the time left over for discussion is always shortened as a result. So as a mere question of format, there was a naiveté in not reducing the number of presenters and increasing the time for discussion.
But the bigger problem had to do with architecture. In brief, one cannot turn an academic lecture hall into a forum for dialogue just by rechristening it. Panelists were seated at a table (or rather a series of tables) at the front of the room with a lectern (sometimes used, sometimes not) to the side and a number of microphones arrayed before them. “Delegates” were seated in tiered seating stretching up and back in a series of parallel rows with an impassable divider between the lower and upper halves of the room.
When one thinks of a Congress, the architecture is quite different. What comes to mind immediately are the U-shaped forums in the United States Congress or the United Nations General Assembly. As any classroom teacher knows, the point of this seating arrangement is that it affords delegates (or Senators, Representatives, ambassadors, etc.) a clear view both of the central area (where often presenters or presiders are found) and of the other delegates. While there is still often a privileged central focus (where the Speaker of the House or Vice President, for example, is seated), there is some sense that the delegates are more or less on even footing.
So, to return to the Media Congress, we had, from the start, an architecture that resists the kind of dialogue the organizers hoped to create. The dialogue that followed the panels was largely the familiar form of the Q&A, with attendees lining up at two microphones in the lower tier of the hall to ask questions or make statements to the panelists who usually responded before moving on to the next question (although in one of my favorite moments of the Congress, Tess Takahashi asked that the panelists not respond for a change, in order to allow the voices of the other delegates to be heard). This format is dialogue in the strict etymological sense (i.e., a discussion with just two poles), but I assume the Congress organizers had hoped for something more substantial. (This binary schema was reproduced in a number of unfortunate ways: panelists representing the largest urban centers with many other delegates from smaller cities, established artists as presenters with students as audience, etc. These hierarchies that are reproduced in the architecture or that reproduce the architecture are understandable — this is how conferences work — but they’re also inimical to the non-hierarchical structure of a truly dialogic form.)
While the organizers did seem to recognize the failure of this limited dialogue and convened a special “breakout” session or two to allow people to discuss issues further, they ultimately couldn’t overcome the dispositif of the primary hall, and consequently my/our experience was essentially that of attending a conference, not a Congress. Accommodating hundreds of voices (and finding a space and the technology to accommodate them) is a difficult task, and there would certainly be frustrations and dysfunctions in a more properly open forum; but since this event is going to take place again next year and, I’m guessing, still under the same banner of the International Experimental Media Congress, a more honest attempt at confronting these challenges might begin to explore the possibility of other models. If the organizers aren’t up to the challenge, or if the host institutions don’t have an appropriate space, then perhaps they can be convinced to simply change the name to the International Experimental Media Conference as a matter of truth in advertising.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Roger Beebe is a filmmaker and professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of Florida. Beebe has screened his films around the globe with recent solo shows at the School of the Art Institute of Chicao, Anthology Film Archives, and dozens of other venues. In addition to his work as a filmmaker, he is also a film programmer: he ran Flicker, a festival of small gauge film in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, from 1997-2000 and is currently Artistic Director of FLEX, the Florida Experimental Film Festival. He also owns Video Rodeo, an independent video store in Gainesville, Florida.