Presentation|Tech (IV): Curating events

Presentation, presentation technology and presentation culture all depend on curation and curatorial practice. In a sense, any presentation and presentation environment is curated. A number of choices have been made to create the environment even if it is a default type of setup with a screen upfront and rows of chairs. When a moderator allows a presenter at a conference to speak for longer than the allotted time slot, this is an example of curation (or rather, lack of curation).

My interest in curatorial practice is both related to events (I am working on a book project on academic events) and to the digital humanities more generally. In my forthcoming book on digital humanities, I suggest that curatorship is a key process for doing work in the digital humanities. I will not repeat that lengthy argument here, but rather first reflect more mundanely on curating events based on two examples: a corporate event and an upcoming workshop at the Graduate Center, CUNY. I may do a longer post in this series later on curating events.

Example 1: Surrounded by CEOs

I once attended a large-scale corporate event with more large-company CEOs than I ever seen before. We were involved in producing something for the event and I was also supposed to a five-minute presentation about HUMlab and topic under consideration (social media). Although I had done quite a few academic events, this was a very new experience in several ways:

The scale. This was a large operation and there were something like 25 people involved in the production.

The sharpness of it. Unlike many academic events, this was professional-rate in terms of rehearsal, time management and production.  Also most of the key people came to the rehearsal. There is a cost factor here, of course, but also a sense that one has to be professional as a speaker. it is not okay too use too much time or not be prepared for instance.

The technological setup. I am fortunate enough to have done much of presentational work in an environment (HUMlab) with fantastic infrastructure and first-rate technology and human support. There is no comparison there, really, but it was interesting to see the production studio setup of the corporate event. And the preparations that went into the all this. Again there is a major cost factor. Another observation was that although they had a three-screen setup, they did not really use it as we would in HUMlab (experimentally, to tell a story) but rather to replicate the same “story” again.

Curatorship. Academic events can certainly have very strong curatorship, and corporate curatorship in this case was fairly instrumental, but taken very seriously. And there were no glitches. There was a production leader who did a very good job (but the whole ting was fairly templated and production-focused, which meant that there were limited experimentation).

At rehearsal (in a grand space) there were probably thirty people present and the production leader interrupted me immediately and asked whether I really needed to have notes and also why I had notes with such a small font. It was a humbling learning experience. And again, a great deal of sharpness which I really appreciated. I think academia can learn from these kinds of events, but also it is important not to lose the level of heart, creativity and flexibility that are part of really good academic events. And not everyone or everything necessarily has to be a polished, but I do think that many academic events could benefit from stronger curatorship and awareness of the conditioning of knowledge production that is suggested or enacted by the formats we employ.

Example 2: Critical making event in NYC on December 1, 2015

The below text was written before the event. The event turned out really well, and I will write about it in a later post. The photo is obviously from the actual event.


Right now I am involved in curating an event an event at the CUNY Graduate Center, New York City in early December on “Digging Deep: Ecosystems, Institutions and Processes for Critical Making”. I invited eleven people and all have accepted. I work closely in the organization committee with Matt Ratto, Univeristy of Toronto, and Shannon Mattern, New School, on this event. The theme was originally suggested by Matt Ratto.

I am very  happy about the invited participants: Cathy Davidson, Anne Balsamo, Matt Gold, Matt Ratto, Maria Sachiko Cecire, Pelle Snickars, Sara HendrenDennis Tenen, Shannon Mattern, Thomas Augst and Natalie Jeremijenko. This is a formidable group of people with different backgrounds and expertise. We might end up adding or two more invited participants too.

Because I manage a larger share of the practical aspects of this event than I normally do back home (at HUMlab), I am somehow in closer contact with the development of the event. For instance, we use an online service for registration of participants, which means that I receive emails when people sign up. This has been a source of joy for me over the last two weeks. I guess I already knew that I enjoy curatorial work, but I am now more sure than ever, and I am excited about the opportunities that New York City provides. We truly have spectacular signups – from all over the place, different backgrounds (academia, art, activism, libraries, startups etc.), and I sense, with a strong interest to engage. Indeed, the list of signups makes me rethink and reimagine the event somewhat. And it seems relevant to make sure there is an opportunity for these people to network. If anyone reading this would like to make a donation to treat the whole group (probably about 40-50 people) to a nice (networking) lunch before the workshop, please be in touch with me.

This event will probably be less experimental in terms of use of technological infrastructure than the some of the experimental events I have curated in HUMlab, but we will think carefully about how to use space (and make there is space for everyone).

In between the two session, there will be Swedish-style fika (coffee break) with princess cake (traditional Swedish green marzipan sponge cake whipped cream jam kind of cake). Food and baked goods are also part of the curation (here I would have liked to quote Margaret Mead from The Small Conference, but I do not have the book with me).

sapce invaders 2
The fantastic cupcake scape from a 2009 HUMlab event (creator: Stephanie Hendrick).

There is still time to sign up for the critical making event (by October 16). The next post in this series will be on software/hardware systems to run presentations.

Some further observations

There are some qualities I find particularly important with regards to curating events. Please keep in mind that there are many different types of events and occasions, and that curators have individual preferences and styles. These are just some preliminary observations.

Practical curatorial skills. There are certain rules to any (academic) event and the curator/s must be able to reinforce these rules. Time is an important factor here. I once asked a high-level professional moderator about advice for how to intervene when people use too much time. This person – who would often moderate people not used to be told what to do (international CEOs etc.) – told me that he would look for a moment to connect to something that speaker said and then round things off even if the speaker was not planning to finish. Myself I often use physical proximity to indicate how speakers are doing with regards to time. Humor is a useful asset and also just being able to tell people they are out of time. But equally important is to be sensitive to how an event is unfolding and sometimes the right thing to do is to let a session or a person go on for much longer than the allotted time – essentially breaking the rules – because there is need for that discussion and because it is shaping the event.

Challenge and play with the format. There is a strong template for academic events which structures the conversation (programming, speaker slots, the space, hierarchies etc.). I suggest that we should challenge this template much more strongly. It is true that alternative types of events – such as unconferences and thatcamps – do this to some degree, although they come with their own templates and assumptions, but I believe that also more traditional events can be experimental. The event itself can also be an enactment of an idea or be a provocation. And really small things can make a difference. For instance, with panels where there is one keynote participant (who has more time etc.), I have tried to frame the session in such a way that all participants engage with the theme in question rather than the non-keynote participants having to relate to the keynote speaker (as commentators).

Have a vision and a programmmatic strategy. Very large serialized conferences may not lend themselves easily to strong ideas and programming. The format is fixed, there is no single track and the event has to work for a large number of participants with diverse interests. Individual session or tracks may work better for curatorship, but often only on a limited scale. With smaller conferences and workshops there is more opportunity for curatorship and suggested intellectual direction. This is related to what Margaret Mead calls “the small conference”.

Work with contrasts and tensions. There are many different ways of structuring or encouraging an exchange of ideas. I have found it useful to work with contrasts and tensions – to group people and themes in such a way that there is difference of opinion (not the kind that would likely lead to fist fights, but the kinds where there is space for dialogue and marked differences in opinion).

Think about the material side of things. In many contexts, parameters such as space, presentation technology and digital platforms may be more or less given, but there is often some room to change or tweak such systems. For instance, people who take part in events in a distributed manner with a video representation are often shown on large screens (typically used for presentation slides). This has always seemed a bit weird to me. Why not use a small screen instead?

Svensson, Patrik. 2015. “Presentation|Tech (IV): Curating events”, Published on October 12, 2015. Updated on March 30, 2016.

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