Conference learning from surprising questions
Which is more surprising: to hold a conference on the theme of Hidden Hunger at a Mövenpick hotel? Or to bring in artists to intervene in a conference of technical experts from around the globe?
Some 360 experts from universities, development agencies, international organizations, NGOs, ministries of health and agriculture are gathered in Stuttgart for the 2nd international congress on Hidden Hunger. The dramaturg and curator Jan Philipp Possmann and the conference chair, Professor Dr. med. Hans Biesalski (University of Hohenheim) believe that there is more to be learned by bringing artists into this setting to engage with the experts. They therefore decided to enrich the mix by inviting 6 artists who are intervening in various ways, and 3 master students in Transdisciplinarity from the Zürich University of the Arts who are conducting interviews. In addition, a colleague from Audencia Nantes School of Management and I are here as researchers to observe what happens when artistic interventions are part of the program at such a congress.
Abundant Mövenpick food at a conference on Hidden Hunger?
When I asked members of the hotel catering staff about the food and the topic: they smiled and nodded, and said, “yes, it is a bit strange.” One explained that in fact there is less food, less variety than usual for their conferences, so it seems that someone thought a bit about the ironic connection.
When I asked participating experts who were standing next to the tables laden with little cakes and commenting on how they always gain weight at conferences, their answers included:
– “It is normal at these conferences.”
– “Imagine if they only served a bowl of rice: people would not come back in two years to the next conference!”
– “I heard that a speaker decided not to come when she saw that Nestlé is one of the sponsors. That is something to think about, that is a problem.”
– “What do you expect when you have a conference in such an expensive place? You need sponsors.”
– “Actually, why do they put Haribo Gummibärs on our seats? We don’t need that.”
– “Thank you for asking that question.”
Artists and art in a technical congress?
Danish artist Dorte Holbek ‘s project idea–with the help of interior architect Romana Schwaer–is to involve the conference participants in an artistic process that brings their domestic privacy in the form of their favorite dish, into this official space, rather than just hiding behind what is on their name tag. She invites participants to write the name of the dish on a tag, then she creates their portrait, which will be exhibited at the Stuttgart Theaterrampe on Friday evening.
When I asked participants who had just been engaged in Dorte’s artistic intervention what they thought about involving the arts in such a conference, among the answers were:
- “It is much more attractive to bring in artists. Just research papers is boring.”
- “Having art is good here because it is much more immediate and it gives you exposure to people, to the human being. Food is intimate and art is great to bring that out.”
- “When you look at presentations, they all have some some kind of “art work” with diagrams and graphs—it could be good to analyse that, and see whether audiences feel it works the way it is intended. We never talk about it, we prepare, present, then go back home. And there are a lot of different professions here, it would be interesting to see if they use visualization differently. I notice that presentations have changed over the years. The visuals have less text, they are more direct, the diagrams are less complicated than they used to be. People lost confidence in those complex images. They have toned down the complexity in the images, less ambitious. They acknowledge verbally that things are not that simple.”
- “It is amazing to have arts here. This can only happen in Europe because Europeans pay more attention to the arts that we do in Asia. It is important to have arts here to capture what we humans do, that is what artists do.”
- “I like the idea. It is different. And I really like my favorite food. I like the whole idea of art here, to perform hunger in an artistic way.”
- “I participated because I wanted to show the variety of food, there are not many people from my region here. The art input at this conference makes more people aware of hidden hunger in the rest of the world. It raises awareness. It makes people think. It helps promote the feeling that we are all human beings on one planet.”
And what about the artist’s view on the presence of arts in this setting? Dorte Holbek believes that people see art as decorative rather than as a social, political, emotional factor in society. “There is a big gap between how I see it and what they think.” “Art is a dynamic thing, not just decorative to make you feel better.” She wants art to be “biting the hand that feeds you,” in other words, to criticize society.
While I write this blog, the performance artist Andreas Liebmann is preparing a video installation with photographs from the conference and phrases collected from interviews and presentations that he and his team of art students have heard. They laugh–and almost cry!–at some of the surprising things they have heard coming out of the experts’ mouths. Some students are compiling the quotations in other formats to display tomorrow, another is working on their conference blog. More food for thought.