conferencing (or: why aesthetics matter)

The picture shows a workbench with cutting mats, covered in colourful paper decorations. The decorations are big pink, purple and white tissue paper puffs in different sizes as well as big colourful printouts of the conference logo and poster artwork.

I have been incredibly busy lately, but last week the 2nd installment conference I have been organising took place. And we made lots of decorations. Paper puffs!

The picture shows a close up of the big, puffy paper decorations as well as some spray cans and crafting tools.

You might ask yourself why I am showing you paper decorations here, but they are actually an integral part of the process of creating a space that feels welcoming to different audiences. We have noticed early on that academia, and academic spaces like conferences, aren’t particularly welcoming to/for non-academics. So in year two, we got to get more creative with the space itself.

Attracting a diverse audience beyond academia was a main goal for the second year of the conference. In order to achieve this, we connected with arts collectives, hacker spaces and other non-academic, technology-adjacent institutions to invite people and proposals to our conference.

As organizers, we decided to include (and specifically invite) art interventions and exhibitions. One part of this effort was collaborating with the University of Applied Arts: We visited the art&science class to talk about our ideas and invite proposals for art installations, exhibitions or interactive experiences. (We also realized early on that this needs to be considered during the funding phase of the event: We applied for funding so we could give art grants to all projects happening at the conference. Making art is expensive!).

But we also made paper puffs. The Institute of Advanced Studies (IHS) hosted us in the freshly renovated Palais Strozzi, a wonderful old building that is very traditionally academic. We chose to decorate with colorful paper flowers and pink yard flamingos to add a bit of whimsy and set the mood for the conference.

The space felt like a good mix of university, exhibition space and party lounge which made it nice to hang out and connect both with the conference attendees and the regular inhabitants of the building, which were very curious about the unusual format we chose.

This picture shows a stack of the biggest puffy paper flowers, which are bigger than an adult's head.