DIY: What Worked and I'd Do Again
Well, revisiting after several months the MelbourneDAC blog, largely to finish the last of the documentation and to provide here the final information. The conference hit a lot of home runs, which for the sake of brevity (and fatigue) I'll list and note here. These are all things or ideas that I'd do again if I were running another conference:
Posted by amiles at November 24, 2003 05:53 PM
- Active International Academic Board
- We had an international board made up of former DAC board members, new senior academics and a smattering of young career academics. Virtually every person invited to participate said yes, and the majority did all of their reviewing and board duties brilliantly.
- Review Board
- All of those on the academic board were invited to nominate people to join the review board. There was an emphasis in the invitation to introduce young researchers and academics, including PhD students, to be involved. This was done because a) they would be hard working and accountable to the needs to the conference, b) it was an excellent professional development opportunity for them to develop reading and review skills and to learn what goes on 'under the bonnet' of a conference.
- Use of a Database to Manage Reviewing
- We found a free version of a conference database that was not particularly elegant but allowed papers to be submitted, recorded, catalogued, and then assigned for review. Reviewers logged in, found a series of abstracts or papers assigned to them, and could download them. Reviewing followed a standard template so that there was some consistency across how abstracts and papers were read and judged. The database also collated these results so an index of ranked abstracts was easily produced.
- Requiring Completed Papers
- Presenters first submitted abstracts which were fully peer reviewed (minimum of three reviews per abstract) by the academic board. The best papers were invited to be long papers (10 A4 pages), a second tier of papers were invited to be short papers (4 A4 pages), and the rest were rejected. All papers had to be submitted as completed for a second round of reviewing. This is when the review board was formed, as there was a substantial amount of reading to do, and all papers received further feedback and criticism, and all authors had the opportunity to amend their work in light of these comments. As a result everyone presented thoroughly researched and critiqued work.
- Providing a Style Guide for Authors
- A Word template was available which contained the style guide for authors. This saved a lot of time when formatting papers for publication, also caused some problems. However by enforcing a strict style guide, including page length, authors had clear constraints and it made budgetting the publications much easier.
- Mentoring and Professional Development
- The Review Board provided and was used as an opportunity to introduce and mentor (socialise?) new career academics into the protocols and practices of academic reviewing and to see 'behind the screen' at a major conference. As this conference was requiring an exceptional level of peer review it was also hoped that best practice would be modelled for these young academics.
- Best Practice Benchmarking
- Many conferences in the humanities consist of an abstract being peer reviewed, and little else. And in some contexts the peer reviewing that attaches to the abstract is mediocre, and that's being generous. By providing three reviews for each abstract, then completed papers which where then reviewed, we established a benchmark standard for such conferences. It should be noted that this sort of peer review is common in many other fields.
- Distribution and Publication of Papers
- All papers were available to conference delegates via the Web a week before the conference began. On arrival at the conference all delegates received a hard print copy of the long papers and a CDROM containing all papers (short papers, long papers, panel presentations). Post conference all conference papers are archived from this site, as well as forming a special issue of Fine Art Forum.
- Development and Maintenance of a Conference Web Site
- The migration of the conference site into this blog enabled various conference participants to document their experience and opinion of the event. MelbourneDAC considered its online presence to be an integral part of the promotional strategy of the conference. This strategy was aimed at encouraging artists, industry representatives, and researchers to attend the conference, but it extended to envision the online identity of the conference as a meeting place or information resource for those intending to attend, wanting to find out about the event, and more significantly to be available as an ongoing resource. The traffic the site currently receives indicates that this has been successful.
- Effective Use of Appropriate Technologies to Manage Event
- The blog, conference database, and extensive use of several email lists (for conference and review board, presenters, administrators, and general public information) were highly successful. This was helped by the digital 'literacies' of the people involved in a conference on Digital Art and Culture, but the manner in which the lists were used also contributed to their success. For example the academic board email list was used to mentor, encourage, cajole and solicit support, work, and suggestions from the board members.
- Promotion of a "Flat" Conference Culture
- This is a tricky one. We decided that the conference should reflect what I guess you could call an Australian informality. This was managed in numerous ways. For example the lists of names of the academic board was alphabetically sorted by first name and not family name or academic rank. Minor point I know, but it was all about being friendly. Similarly the tone of the emails sent to the various lists, particularly the academic board list, was, well, irreverant. For similar reasons a decision was made to have no key note speakers - the best abstracts became the long papers and would be presented in single session. In addition most of those we might have considered as key notes were either already intending to come to the conference, or had already been keynotes at previoius DACs! Other ways of promoting and developing an inclusive conference culture was the scheduling of a conference 'day out', including most of the conference events within one registration price structure, the conference dinner, artists' day, performance evening, and the very strong 'invitation' to all speakers to talk to their papers rather than reading.
- Promotion of an Ideas Forum
- Sort of obvious for a conference really. However many conferences become theoretically slow or clumsy because speakers have only been accepted on the basis of an abstract, the paper is then unfinished (and usually finally roughly drafted the day before), and then read. At MelbourneDAC all speakers were invited to talk to their papers, since all delegates had access to them prior to the event. They were encouraged to identify what was significant in their work, why this was so, but also to acknowledge what was lacking or where further research was needed. Speakers were specifically invited to consider the conference as an opportunity to think of their research and/or practice in process, rather than as something fixed, closed and 'correct'. This gave the papers being presented an informality in their presentation which assisted in the dissemination of the ideas being discussed - simply because by talking to their papers a more appropriate 'oral' mode of presentation was adopted instead of reading the complex subordinate clauses that features in academic conference papers. In addition, since all work was completed papers, it meant that speakers knew their material well, and so could easily (generally) talk to their ideas - the need to have submitted a finished paper, and to have responded to further review of that paper, meant that an intellectual terrain and tenor was already established. The conference then became the site to explore this.
- Significant Networking Events
- Awful conference speak really. Generally, conferences are experienced as successful because of the quality of the material presented, how it is discussed, and the conversations that happen outside of the sessions. The latter is extremely important, and certainly in my own experience the best conferences I've participated in (and all of the previous DAC's have been llike this) have been very social events. By social I simply mean there have been a lot of discussions held informally around and outside of the conference sessions, and that it is in these informal forums that viable networks are established and maintained. MelbourneDAC encouraged this by the scheduling of several social events within the conference. This included the performance night, the conference dinner, but more significantly the DAC Day Out. This was a bus trip to the Healsville Sanctuary and then de Bortoli's vineyard for lunch. The day was completely informal, was scheduled for the Wednesday so provided a rest after two intensive days of sessions, ensured that international visitors actually saw some Australian animals and bush, and let the locals explore and explain things for others.
- Conference Dinner
- Well, of course you have to have a conference dinner and there's no big deal about this. However the dinner was scheduled at the end of all the academic sessions, the night prior to the artists' day and closing panel discussion. Since the artists' day was a late start this avoided the common conference problem of a dinner in the middle of the conference and so those presenting at the first session of the following day finding attendance decimated by the conviviality of the previous evening.
- Performance Night
- As many practising artists were attending MelbourneDAC it was decided that a performance evening would allow those artists involved in performance work and the digital to showcase their practice. This was held to a full house at a city bar (Bourgie) on the second night of the conference and was a hoot. An international cast, exciting work, another chance for delegates to come together as a group, rather than coteries.
- Affordable and Integrated Conference
- A decision was made quite early on in the managing of the event to make the conference affordable for artists as well as academics. The rationale for this was partly the theme of accessibility (of ideas, speakers, networks) that MelbourneDAC adopted. It was also so that we could establish a single price for the week, which would then include the DAC Day Out, performance night, all sessions, proceedings, CDROM of proceedings, and artists' day at Experimedia, State Library of Victoria. The rationale here was very straight forward. If we charged a flat rate for the conference, then additional for proceedings, the DAC Day Out, performance night, etc, then many delegates would treat these as optional and not participate. Once that happens you end up with a conference with at least two tiers or classes. Those that can afford everything and those that can't. Or those that think going to the sanctuary is sort of daggy (Australian slang for I guess geeky, but geeky without any cachet of the digital) and those who are from overseas and want to see some koalas and kangaroos. So by including all of this in the one price and making these not optional most people participated in most things. This was a major plus since everyone not only had a good time (to their surprise) but also it reinforced the networks that existed or where being established - the day out ensured that there was time to meet, talk, relax, discuss.
- Technical Support
- It is surprising how many major conferences do very little to provide network access or technical support. It is common to find only 2 or 3 networked PCs available for things like web mail, but no ethernet access for those with laptops (indeed I've been to major international conferences that are about Internet technologies where the only network access was in one room through dial up connections!). For MelbourneDAC we provided 6 networked iMacs, each with DVD and CDROM burning capabilities. In addition there was an ethernet hub with 6 spare ethernet ports for those with laptops, and an AirPort wireless network was established in the foyer which extended to most of the main conference venue. All presentation spaces contained a computer and network access. Technical support was available during every session. A common thank you through the conference was for providing decent network access and tech help.
- Integration of Practice and Theory
- A conference such as DAC has always attempted to include digital practice and digital theory. MelbourneDAC did this through the +playengines+ exhibition, hosted by Experimedia at the State Library, but it was also done through including artist's papers with academic papers in the same sessions. The traditional practice is to theme sessions, which inevitably separates practice from theory, artists from academics. This happens even in those conferences that think they're 'interdisciplinary' and the like. Placing this content together meant, and not theming sessions, meant that delegates heard a range of material, from a range of perspectives, encouraging interdisciplinarity, engagement with ideas, and helping indicate the connections between theory and practice. Much the same was facilitated by the artists' day held on the final day of the conference. This was more informal than the conference sessions, allowing the event to wind down, but also allowed the artists with work in +playengines+ to talk to their ideas.
- Running a Conference Blog
- Was an interesting experiment. Quite a bit of live blogging was undertaken by a small group of interested delegates. Sessions were documented, the city, the experience of the conference, and also social networking all happened via the blog. The blog engine (Movable Type) also proved useful as a simple web content management system for maintaining the conference web site.
- Small Things Becoming Joined
- The success of the conference I believe was in the small things that worked and the outcomes this produced. There are many of these, and those here are just a sample of what I mean.
As one New Zealander said to me at the wine tasting at de Bortoli's, things like the DAC Day Out had 'humanised' academic culture for them so that they no longer felt intimidated meeting people who's work they'd read, or discussing their own work with them. These are the small outcomes that I actually regard as the most significant for the conference.
- Or my colleague who has been invited to contribute a book chapter to an academic anthology because someone read his DAC paper that we made sure was publically available from the conference web site.
That we made the Net Art News of the Day as an event, or that Taylor and Jakobsson's paper got Slashdotted.
- The speaker who, because they were invited to reflect on why their work was significant, realised (and told us all) that they were drawn to games and theorising games in a particular way because of the games they had played using the patterns on the family rug as child.
That artists papers were included with academic presentations in the same session and people would walk out discussing both.
- The provision of decent network infrastructure meant people could live blog, do email, etc from within the major conference room.