Skip to content

Rethinking Symposia

An interview with Dr Nathan Jones 

Have you ever been to a symposium? Was it part of a conference, a whole weekend of talks and workshops? Did you get anything from it? Maybe you made contacts, learned new things, or maybe you struggled to engage with the format — maybe there wasn’t enough focus on the subject you came to hear about.

This summer, Dr. Nathan Jones ran a workshop through NEoN titled ‘Rethinking Symposia.’ The workshop intended to ‘explore how symposia around digital technology-driven art can be more accessible and animated, create more value for a broader range of participants, and play a better role in how we think about, publish and programme arts.’ In this interview, The White Pube speaks to Jones about the purpose of symposia, how they might change for the better, and his wider practice as an artist and writer.

1: Hello! who are you, what do you do (generally), and what do you do at NEoN?

Hi! I am an artist and a writer, and I am a lecturer in Fine Art (Digital Media) at Lancaster University.

I’m working with NEoN on a project called ‘rethinking digital art symposia’, and I have written an article/proposal for them that symposia could be more ‘distributed’: less time-limited, longer-term, smaller, giving a more bespoke response to artworks, rather than the thematic, weekend-long approach that is currently very common.

2: Could you give us a quick overview of your research and the work you’re doing around symposiums and digital access? 

In Liverpool’s poetry, performance, and music scenes, I learned that collaborative artistic practice is often, and most importantly, about knowledge-making and social empowerment. This interest has drawn me into a field I call critical new media art, which allows for a lot of cross-over between experimental art and thinking about the social repercussions of technology. Coming from there, I have written a book about glitch, poetry, and class, made artworks for a library using AI writing tools, and edited interdisciplinary books about new technologies and art featuring people from medicine, media theory, community art, philosophy. For me, all this is about taking advantage of what art helps us know or ‘realise’ about our time.

One thing I am acutely aware of is the difficulty of some critical new media art. Oftentimes, the work I am interested in doesn’t result in a tangible object for audiences to look at or experience -- it’s difficult to grasp. Or perhaps it involves some complex or long-winded process that requires specialist knowledge. My current research takes up the idea that difficulty might be the key feature of this work. I think that we need to think of the artwork, not as an object or relational thing, but rather as a ‘research environment’, a problem around which various kinds of expertise and interest can coalesce. This is where I came to work with NEoN.

NEoN shows a lot of work that is challenging in terms of its form and subject matter, and they have a symposium that runs alongside the festival to draw out the themes, bringing in expert perspectives from other areas of thinking, and connecting the art to contemporary issues. What I think organisations like NEoN should do, rather than restrict this activity to an annual event, is empower collaborative groupings of audiences as experts: to get people to look at the work from the pov of their profession for example or as a representative of some interest group. The benefit here is that people involved would be able to develop and nurture the ideas produced by artists, putting these into action in other fields. Otherwise, it seems to me that a lot of the real potential of this work is lost.

So, what form a ‘specialist audience’ could take, for this new kind of art, is the key question really.

3: What actually IS a symposium? What does that term refer to as format and event? 

I am not sure. I associate it with a conference-like activity where people get together in a room and listen to lectures or talks, and then ask questions afterward. I think the implication is that a symposium is more discursive than a conference, maybe with a more flexible form, more participation from attendees. But in practice, they are the same.

A lot of people draw from the history of the term, particularly Plato’s book “Symposium”, which describes a particular discussion between friends, about love and beauty, as a way of exploring these ideas. The form of the symposium Plato writes about is a multi-day discussion involving lots of booze. So, that’s one interpretation. But one of the points I made in my work for NEoN, is that we can’t necessarily rely on historical precedent when understanding what a symposium has to be today, in a time of multiple crises for ideas of ‘event’, ‘space’ for example.

The idea that something has to be happening for multiple people all at the same time in the same place, seems to be somewhat broken up by the realities of the networked society, distance learning, and the like. So, I prefer to just think of the word symposium as a prompt, a name for the thing that accompanies art festivals where academics, artists, and audiences combine their views and try to develop knowledge of some kind together.

4: Historically and currently, what problems have symposiums as a format run up against? What areas and functions do they fail or fall flat in? What do they miss or not make room for? 

I really don’t know much about history. But the symposium, like so much else in the world right now, is definitely facing a current crisis. I think that the problem of difficult art, the problem of what a symposium should be, and the difficult political and ecological moment we find ourselves in, have a common solution. Or at least a common thread between them.

5: Why hold a symposium in the first place? What is the benefit of working/thinking through symposiums? What do they help facilitate? What do they specifically bring to the table as a benefit or an upside? 

I like to go to symposia. They’re valuable social events for select interest groups, they are great for concentration, ‘time out’ dedicated to a specific task, fun and engaging discussion… perhaps the question is, why not?! The answer is that perhaps symposia are wasteful. A lot of the energy and value in the event dissipates after it’s happened. That’s how I came to the idea of permaculture, which is a design system, originally for growing (permanent + agriculture), which we could address the idea of waste through.

6: Can you talk about the specific focus on permaculture? How does that overlap with your thinking on symposiums, and why do you feel like that overlap needs to be investigated? 

There are two key ideas of permaculture that I’m interested in. The first is the method of diagramming a system in detail and understanding the various flows of resources, energies in that system (for example a garden) in a holistic sense. The second is that permaculturists look to find where there is wastage, and try and echo nature by turning the waste in one part of the system into a resource or fuel for another. The term for this is the ‘closed loop’ system. In the workshops you attended, we discussed how the symposium event could be used to close the loop of NEoN’s art-organisation system. So, how energies that dissipate from the symposium or exhibition, could be looped back into the other tasks of the organisation, such as curatorial work, partnership, explanatory materials… so, we looked first to map and discuss what the component pieces of this system are.

It might seem like a bit of a leap to go from talking about efficient gardening methods to organising an art festival, but there is definitely a link between a culture of waste and short-termism in our approach to the environment, which has led us into the climate crisis and various other apparent crises in soil quality, species diversity, pollution, etc., and the arts ecology. I know you’ve written a lot about this on your blog. Art funding, the competitive nature of the attention economy, the downward pressure on fees and materials for artists, the lack of time for audiences to spend in galleries, and the necessity for new coinages and ‘new ideas’ in academia also, lead to a culture that is very extractive. I know NEoN wants to rethink how it can operate towards art and society, and I think it shares this intention with other fantastic UK critical new media art organisations like AND Festival and Furtherfield. I believe permaculture could offer a model for them.

7: How did you feel after the workshop you ran for NEoN this summer? What were you hoping for as an outcome and did you feel like that outcome was achieved?

It had been a long time since I ran a workshop! But everyone was very generous. My collaborator Daphne Dragona bought some practical examples, showing how she’d looked to rethink the symposium model in her own practice at events in Europe, and then we tried to use the notion of the diagram or system model to stimulate thinking about the symposium form. Lots came of it for me. Perhaps the key realisation was the particular value that art symposia have over symposia for other disciplines. The particular vibe and energy that art brings into the room. Lots of what people acknowledged that, even when it is difficult, even when our attention is waning, or we’re nervous or angry at the way things happen, there is something, which I describe in my article for NEoN as energy, which art gives to our shared experience. What the relationship between that energy, which is so easily lost after the event, and the kind of knowledge and collectivity that we need today, is the subject of my proposal or NEoN.

8: What will you be working on next for NEoN? 

I don’t know! I’d love to think that I could help to join up some of the thinking between NEoN and the wider critical new media or digital art ecosystem. The UK and Europe have such as rich culture for these kinds of practice, and I’d like to think I can help to articulate its value, distinguishing it from the normative sense of art’s function that people have from the ‘art world’… whatever that is. 

Text by Gabrielle de la Puente, The White Pube

NEoN are working with The White Pube as part of its Wired Women* programme. They are writing responses on the different public outcomes of the programme.Find out more here.