Andrés Colmenares: The Futures of Conferences, Curation and Critical Dialogues
We spoke to the co-founder of IAM – an alternative think tank and consultancy behind one of the most relevant conferences in Europe exploring the futures of the internet and everything it touches – to get the scoop on how to design conferences that matter.
Founded in 2014 by Andrés and Lucy Black-Swan, IAM takes a transdisciplinary approach to understanding the ever-evolving influence of the internet and emerging technologies on humans and the planet. To date, the IAM team has worked with partners such as the BBC, Tate and Red Bull Basement on everything from curatorial and research projects to strategic consultancy and training.
Each year, IAM – which has the motto ‘In Randomness We Trust’ – hones in on a timely theme that becomes central to the team’s research for the year and culminates in an annual conference unlike any other. Held in Barcelona, IAM Weekend brings together some of the brightest and most inventive people working in digital culture to spark critical dialogue about the futures of the internet and our existence.
What makes it stand out among a sea of mediocre conferences is its inherently unique approach to designing an event and diverse curation of content and speakers. It’s a much-needed breath of fresh air. Here, Andrés discusses the process behind curating provocative conversations, embracing risk and challenging conventional notions of what a conference is.
A – There’s often a perception that IAM is only an event, but we’re actually an alternative think-tank and creative foresight consultancy – and the annual research theme applies to all the activities that we do during the year, with the main one being IAM Weekend. Having a conceptual theme allows us to use our research to create a multidimensional canvas, which is basically a network of thought experiments where we can address relevant topics. The theme juxtaposes seemingly unrelated concepts from different contexts and disciplines – and is useful for creating a provocative space to discuss questions.
Because things are changing all the time, it’s important to us that the theme covers a network of dynamic topics, speaks to our current affairs and is in conversation with our intuition as well as the collective intelligence that we’ve been sieving with our community. Sometimes, we’ll be experimenting with topics for six months before things begin to make sense and connect. So the serendipity that emerges also forms the network of topics in a theme.
"We’re aware that by organising a conference we have a lot of privilege and responsibility, and we try to use it as an opportunity to bring people from different contexts together to have interesting conversations about everything."
A — In terms of curation, it’s very important for us to think about the content of the conversation first, rather than the names. Before jumping into specific works, artists or speakers, we always look at the questions, topics and perspectives that we think will facilitate a more critical and optimistic discussion about the theme. At the same time, by looking at the content, we can map out the networks of people who are shaping these conversations. When we’re curating an event, we’re looking at the bigger picture and the overall experience design, rather than specific interventions or talks.
Since we’re independent, we have room for experimentation and can take more risks. We’re always seeking out perspectives that aren’t usually represented or that may be well-known in one context and not in another – and then we’ll bring them into a new context. So we play in a very transdisciplinary way. We also try to challenge popular conversations about diversity at conferences, because diversity often seems to be about adding tokenized representation.
Having a set of criteria for speakers based on whether someone is a man or a woman, black or white, is acting on a superficial and limited idea of diversity. And I think this can make the problem worse. Instead, we try to look at other kinds of diversity. But when you have a conference and you’re expecting someone to give a good speech, it can be risky because sometimes really interesting perspectives or stories come from people who don’t necessarily have the best communication skills by Western standards. Most of us have the idea that everybody should speak like a TED speaker and we want to actively challenge that.
A — Since the beginning, we’ve been striving to go beyond the idea of including the “perfect speaker” at our events. One of our criteria is that if someone is an experienced speaker, we actually put them on a second list. We’re more interested in people who have an interesting project or question to pose to the audience – this is more important to us than their ability to speak. This can be challenging because sometimes these talks might be difficult to connect with, but most of the time we’ve built up a safe space and atmosphere for that and it’s more like an opportunity to engage with other ways of seeing and experiencing the world. We’re aware that by organising a conference we have a lot of privilege and responsibility, and we try to use it as an opportunity to bring people from different contexts together to have interesting conversations about everything.
Last year, we experimented with an Open Call for Proposals and almost 40 to 50 percent of the program came from that. It was a good way to connect stories, projects and perspectives that weren’t in our search-level radar as well as to open up the conversation on the theme well before the event took place. I think many conferences are in a position to take more risks, but many just feed on other conferences and it’s kind of like a filter bubble. It’s surprising that in 2019, there are design events that have Stefan Sagmeister as a headliner when there are so many other interesting conversations to be had, like about systems, ethics and responsibility. I also don’t necessarily share the idea that it’s difficult to find new perspectives on a particular topic because with the internet we have the tools to connect... I think it’s more about trusting your gut and taking risks.
"We need to move beyond the kind of conference that’s only about recognition and status, and think about them more as community gatherings with outputs."
A — In the past couple of years, we’re seeing more and more how important is it to diversify the conference ecosystem. By this, I mean each conference should play a different role. We need to move beyond the kind of conference that’s only about recognition and status, and think about them more as community gatherings with outputs. Otherwise, it’s very difficult to justify the carbon footprint of conferences. If you have the responsibility and opportunity to gather hundreds or thousands of people around a topic, you need to be keenly aware that they’re investing money and time to be there. It's important to challenge the idea that attending talks is the goal. Conferences should be a tool for having more conversations.
Also, it’s worth thinking about how to use the technologies we already have in better ways. For instance, when some of our invited speakers couldn’t make it to the event, we tried using video for their talks and it worked really well. If you do have a person on stage, it should be about bringing a group of people together and making sure they spend quality time with each other because that collective processing of information can lead to new ideas, knowledge, opportunities and so much more.