— Cultural Sources of Newness

Speed dating as a cultural source of newness

Can an old electric power transformation building be a cultural source of newness? Yes, if, like the Ewerk in Berlin,  it transforms itself into an incredibly cool techno club—then retransforms itself into a venue for more bourgeois events like a gathering of European academics seeking research funding. And that brings me to my second question: Can speed dating be a cultural source of newness? Maybe. This was the idea of the organizers of the HERA matchmaking event I attended today.  

The acronym HERA stands for Humanities in the European Research Area, which, as the organizers proudly announced, is very important because “culture matters!”  Out of over 1000 applicants they had selected 300 researchers for this event. The day was designed to inform us about the application procedure and offer the possibility of finding partners for joint applications to the second round of HERA funding. The theme of this round is “Cultural Encounters,” with 18.5 million euros (a peanut for the natural sciences but a pot of gold for the humanities). Imagine 300 researchers who have submitted proposals for ideas that they believe are super cool, desperately trying to find partners who might share their fascination,  but have no beamer with which to present powerpoint slides? How can they communicate their question, its theoretical background and relevance, and their method? By transforming the conference venue into a speed-dating center.

HERA academic speed dating at Ewerk Berlin 21 Feb 2012

Well, a revised form of speed dating, because the usual 3-8 minutes has to be extended to 20 minutes for academics.  It is actually a fascinating process—probably facilitated by some wine over lunch. I had 10 “dates” lined up, half of whom I had selected in advance with Anke, my co-author for proposal that was accepted for the event (an invisible coauthor because, unlike some other participating countries, the German regulations do not permit doctoral students to submit proposals). The other half of my “dates” had read our proposal on the HERA internet platform and found it intriguing enough to “book” a slot with me.

For example, I heard about an Estonian colleague’s standardized questionnaire to study how different ethnic group’s values affect their ability to integrate; an Austrian’s multi-city project on urbanism and game culture; a German who is based in Sweden and studying the evolution of choral practices in Europe; a Swedish study on interpreters as culture brokers; an American based in Ireland who studies the historical emergence of local fiddle movements and their hybridization when they re-encounter each other in world music; and five more.

Although none of my “dates” could immediately see how they might fit into the project Anke and I envisage on “Artistic interventions as cross-cultural encounters: Negotiating identity maintenance and change”, all of them had an interesting example or recommendation for me to look into. Such as an experimental theatre group in Estonia that created a political party as a hoax; a sound artist who had to introduce the police to contemporary music so that they could handle crowds of people who were upset by his sound installations in public spaces; a German art group called Wochenklausur that went into institutions to instigate radical change in the 1980s; a sound artist in Berlin who created an installation in the underground at Alexanderplatz that was also connected by Internet to passengers in Warsaw; a doctoral student who studied clowns in hospitals…. and more. Quite a harvest of examples in a few minutes of speed dating!

Whether the speed dating exercise at the Ewerk today ends up generating newness via successful project proposals for the HERA program remains to be seen. Food for thought: The two project leaders from the first HERA round who presented their lessons learned had not participated in the matchmaking event for their round. They both mentioned having learned about the call quite late and having put together a team through other connections. So all of us who met interesting people but no project partners today can pursue other avenues to compose an international team.

That is, if we have the courage to do so: it was striking that every person I spoke with was daunted by the prospect of having to manage the highly complex task of respecting the different national regulations that apply to eligibility and funding practices, as well as the reporting requirements.

The researchers who reported on their experiences with the first HERA round were effusive in their praise for the national representatives who helped them deal with the ins and outs of the different regulation systems. Actually, I would like to experiment with two kinds of events for the regulators themselves: a speed dating event and an artistic intervention. Which of the two kinds of cultural encounters would prove more conducive to generating new regulations designed for multinational teams? And while I am compiling my wish list, I would also like the budgets to provide funding for the artists. There is an unhealthy imbalance when researchers are paid while the artists whose input into the project is essential are not remunerated for their time.