What is the purpose of a conference?
I’ve heard variations of this over the years. I’ve even said it myself, though these days I’m less likely to spend the time and money, and ‘put up’ with the other stuff. I’ve attended, presented at and even organised different sorts of conferences from the tightly-controlled academic versions to experimental-type formats.
Asking people why they are not going to a conference – particularly if it is their annual ‘industry/professional’ conference, can be quite interesting. I’ve had this conversation with a few people recently and (recognising that this is not a legitimate survey and analysis, just some random thoughts) there’s a common theme emerging. It boils down to this: we want conferences to be radical, to challenge and to stretch us. We’re less likely to be interested in the conferences that reinforce existing practices and maintains the status quo.
And therein lies the problem – it’s risky, and if the (unexpressed) purpose of a conference is to get bums on seats and make money, then it’s better to give people what they expect, to not be too edgy.
This, of course, has been a dilemma felt by artists and performers forever. Continue to give audiences what has proven to work, or mix it up and take a risk with offending, or worse, alienating people? This is the challenge for performers – whether in the arts or in business or elsewhere – is around being liked. Everyone wants to be liked, everyone wants good reviews, awesome feedback, five stars – yet in the effort to achieve this, and please everyone, we do this by not taking chances.
Time, I think, to reclaim conferences as spaces for experimentation and discovery.