Occupied spaces as sources of newness: Some lessons from EGOS 2016
Under the theme of “Organizing in the shadow of power,” the 32nd EGOS conference in Naples, Italy, July 7-9, 2016 offered multiple opportunities to consider the conditions under which occupied spaces can be sources of newness. More than 2,400 conference participants from around the world occupied essentially the entire Monte S. Angelo campus of the University of Naples Federico II. And during precisely those same days the fashion giant, Dolce & Gabanna, occupied much of the seafront and the old town–with the help of innumerable police and security guards. The Arts, Design and Organizations (ADO) track of EGOS continued its tradition of connecting to the host city, by visiting two very different cultural centers, one of which started when artists occupied a former monastery. What did we experience, and what can we learn from these various ways of occupying spaces?
Contrasting examples from EGOS plenary and a women’s roundtable
By definition, conferences should be sources of newness: people work for months writing papers about their fresh research findings to present to colleagues. Hugh Willmott’s opening keynote was indeed interesting. First he surprisingly linked ideas from two very different texts: C. Wright Mill’s Sociological Imagination to Carol Hanisch’s ideas on The Personal is Political. Then he took an additional surprising turn (given the academic setting): he recommended the practice of meditation in order to truly be open to addressing the issues in society. However, looking around at the number of people in the auditorium who were writing emails or working on texts and powerpoints during that plenary session, I am skeptical that the traditional format of frontal presentations is generative.
In the following days, listening to colleagues talk about their frustration in their sessions in which they had been required to pack all their ideas into a 10 minute presentation and then listen to a discussant comment harshly on the paper’s weaknesses added to my skepticism about how much newness can actually arise in this kind of conference setting. There is a great risk that our traditional formats of keynotes and paper presentations mean we simply occupy physical space together for a while. Fortunately, there were other formats at EGOS that show we can be far more generative at conferences.
For example, the EGOS Women’s Networking roundtable on “Academic Careers as a Platform for Working for Social Change” bubbled with energy and fresh ideas for actions to take forward in our teaching, research, and civic engagement. We had prepared no papers in advance, we came with curiosity. This is not to say that no preparation is needed for a generative conference session! The convenor, Svenja Tams, had prepared a question-driven, arts-based process to stimulate us to share ideas that mattered to us, and she had brought materials to help us visualize our thoughts so that we could make connections and build on them together. This event was part of the pre-conference program, so it preceded Hugh Willmott’s opening keynote. If the way we occupied the physical and social space had been filmed, it might well have provided a useful case study documenting the value of combining the essence of the sociological imagination with the feminist persuasion that the personal is political.
How ADO occupies spaces
The EGOS track “Arts, Design and Organization” (ADO) also offers evidence of alternative ways of occupying time and space generatively in a conference. The local organizers in Naples were very responsive to our request for a special space to work in. They gave us a surprising–and ideal–physical space to occupy in the university’s chemistry department! The “Lab Merceologia” was large and flexible, so we could move tables and chairs around freely to suit our needs.
Ever since ADO was created as a Standing Working Group in EGOS 6 years ago, the team of conveners has experimented with processes of enlivening–intellectually and humanly–the interaction between participants, their papers, and the local environment. (See also the post I wrote about our sessions in Montreal in 2014. The standard paper-presentation format has never been on the agenda.)
This year, when Philippe Mairesse, Victor Friedman and I designed the program, we asked the participants to come to the first session with a “short, lively, and memorable teaser” to introduce their paper in less than 4 minutes. The prospect was daunting for some participants, some were skeptical, but by the end of that session, we had seen and heard all the participants and their key ideas—and were curious to learn more from them. We had grouped the papers thematically in advance and asked the participants to come prepared to discuss those assigned to their subgroups: Organizational spaces; Institutional spaces; Learning spaces; Embodiment and boundaries. There was therefore no need for formal paper presentations: the entire time was to be dedicated to discussing the ideas in each paper and learning from one anothers’ perspectives to strengthen all the contributions (two sessions of 120 minutes, so each paper received 30-45 minutes of attention).
But instead of delving right into the papers on Thursday afternoon, we left the campus and went into the heart of Naples for an excursion that would give us insights into our theme (arts, design, and organization—and this year also power: see next section) while also offering an opportunity for the participants to connect with each other during the shared experience. We have found in previous years that this program flow on the first day lays the groundwork for the quality of conversations around the papers the second day.
At the end of the paper-sessions on Friday, we asked the participants to note topics they would like to take forward on Saturday morning. Once more we reconfigured the physical space, now using the floor as exhibition space. People laid down sheets of paper with their ideas. Standing in a circle around those sheets on the last morning, the participants quickly identified three themes that they were energized to work on together: (1) hybrid spaces; (2) exploring processes with aesthetics; and (3) bringing power into the theory of social space, and occupied spaces. I had to make a choice, and went to the third group, which examined the two cultural centers we had visited on the first day in light of theoretical concepts that had been offered in several papers. It was exciting to see how the discussion of the cases of occupied spaces in Naples enriched our theory-building about the exercise of power in and with the arts, boundaries, and the occupation of “empty/unused” spaces.
For the closing session we reconfigured the space we occupied yet again, this time inviting the participants to sit around a table to reflect on the process and talked about how to take ideas forward. The shared conclusion was: the ADO process had been very generative, intellectually and humanly. This was the last ADO event, and it leaves the potential space for new projects, conferences, and books wide open.
Conclusion: Conferences can indeed be sources of newness. Physical space matters, social space matters, preparation matters, and–trusting the process matters! As facilitators we had spent a great deal of time preparing the program and we also frequently challenged ourselves to leave our comfort zones, helping each other push back our personal need for clarity and control in favor of trusting the process, in keeping with Shaun McNiff’s recommendation from the world of the arts. We recommend other convenors experiment with formats at conferences to enhance the quality of interaction between people, their ideas, and also the local context.
Arts-occupying-spaces in Naples: Made in Cloister and Il Asilo Filangieri
We were extremely fortunate: the curator Adriana Rispoli arranged for us to visit two very different occupied spaces in which the arts are playing a significant role. Made in Cloister is a new private initiative that opened its doors just a month before we arrived, while Il Asilo Filangieri is an informal community that has existed since artists occupied the monastery in 2012. (The Asilo successfully negotiated a special status with the city of Naples, and one of the indicators of its success is that the city recently extended the same status to 7 other spaces.)
Both organizations, in their own ways, are offering opportunities for artists and craftspeople to develop and exhibit their work and also contribute to the community, for example by offering workshops, performances, new products—and possibly most importantly, models of how to run an organization differently. Members of both occupied spaces generously explained the ups and downs of their approach, and the ins-and-outs of dealing with the public, private, and “shadow-power” sectors in Naples. The visits were so interesting that several ADO participants intend to follow-up with case studies, so that the innovative experiences with arts-occupying-spaces can be shared more widely.
The night the EGOS conference closed, Dolce & Gabbana ephemerally expanded its occupation of Naples into the night sky. May the outcomes of ADO’s interactive sessions at the university and in the city be equally brilliant but much longer lasting.
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