The Juxtaposium: Seeking an Alternative to the Symposium

The Juxtaposium: Open Letter/Invitation to Event Organisers from Baruch Gottlieb, Brian Holmes, Alessandro Ludovico, Esther Polak and Ivar van Bekkum, Edward Schanken:

Curators, festival and symposia organizers, please use this letter as a starting point to help us develop together a new symposium format. Use our desire to speak about each other’s work and make it fuel the first “Juxtaposium”.

Time for change: Theoretical and critical reflection and exchange are fundamental strengths of New Media Art practice, and our tradition of festivals and symposia is part of that. But it is time to push beyond conventional formats and academic conventions for discussing our work. It is time to put aside polite camaraderie and pursue more critical forms of debate that will make constructive contributions to strengthening our practices and discourses.

Our field is all about hacking, deconstructing and reformatting existing formats, but it seems as if the classic Symposium format has come to be unchallenged. It is time to apply these principles to reinvent an appropriate form for discourse. It seems to have become a black box instrument or software that we do not dare meddle with. We hereby invite all curators, festival organizers to consider our proposal for a Juxtaposium.

Our main goal with this letter is to emerge from the contemporary situation where artists are expected to be their own mirror and critics are not sufficiently critical. We could all gain so much from honestly looking each other in the eye and encountering each other on each other’s terms in a way that is both generous and critical. Instead of the artist giving the standard talk about his/her own work, we need to talk about each other’s work, sharing and developing our perspectives as artists on our colleagues’ practices. Instead of the critic discussing his/her own theories illustrated by artworks, we need to perform close readings of specific artworks and self-consciously reflect on our motivations and evaluative criteria.

Proposal for Juxtaposium: Several artists/theorists are invited as usual. But instead of speaking about their own work, they present about each other’s work. Artists speak about other artists and their work. Theorists foreground specific works of art, perform close readings of historic or critical literature in the field, and/or reflect on the more subjective aspects of their practice. (or cross-disciplinary (many artists also theorize) Artist-theorist teams could attempt hybrid forms of critical analysis and presentation. The point is to put the work in a new perspective, and in new contexts. These new interpretations should not be to illustrate their own work but rather to expand discourse. They can be critical, contextual or radically poetic. It will be surprising and fun, unsettling and enlightening, tragic and fertile. We will grow from each other and nobody will fall asleep.

Suggestions and thoughts:

– There is no such thing as misinterpretation.
– That the work be attended to as an object distinct from who had made it, may permit us to free the interpretation of the work from the biography of the artist. This format will provide new access to the work for the audience, as each juxtaposium interlocutor creates a new intermediate space between work, reflection and reception.
– Juxtaposium will temporarily free the work from its maker and the maker from his/her work.
– No repetition of talks: All presentations will be newly developed.

Our Motivation: As artists, we prefer to do our work, exhibit it and publish it, rather than define it ourselves, thereby choking off the space for other new and fertile interpretations. We would like to contribute to the development of our field by publicly discussing the work of our peers. Our interpretation of our peers’ work may also generate new insights into our own. Our artistic inspiration is drained by having to repeatedly lecture about our own work, repeating our own interpretation of our own work again and again at symposium after presentation after lecture after workshop. We think our work and the artistic field will only stagnate if we stick to this self-referential format.

As theorists, repeatedly lecturing about our own work is a fundamental part of our practice and the feedback we get from this is integral to our growth as scholars. But all too often we become so immersed in discursive arguments that works of art become secondary. Through acts of interpretation, we can identify artworks as primary conceptual sources, giving credit to artists as important theorists, rather than citing the same “usual suspects” that dominate critical literature.

What is the equivalent of “artistic inspiration” for theorists? Why do we do what we do? What is our process? How do we choose and apply our tools? Theoretical practice is no less subjective than artistic practice, but rarely do we reflect — at least in public — on the personal sources and motivations that inspire our work, and how they have evolved during the course of our careers. Could we speak about our work in a way that is closer to an artist’s talk? What would we learn about our practice if we talked about our work as a personal journey rather than presenting a specific, coherent argument?

Finally, we need a new, more challenging role for the moderator. Is there too much (or too little) pressure on them in the current format? Is there too much respect for the artists and theorists? We are surprised by their reticence and anxiously waiting for them to challenge us with critical questions and unexpected interpretations.

On [spectre], Susanne Jaschko wrote:

Dear friends,

You have made an interesting proposition that I would like to comment on. Let’s leave the provocation aside with which you apparently tried to get our attention and stir up some debate and let’s try to be a bit more objective in favour of a serious discussion. I totally understand that you are tired of traditional symposium formats. We all have been there. We all have attended and participated in conferences and panels that went nowhere, at which the speakers did nothing but present themselves in the ordinary, boring way and were often not able/ not willing to respond to each others’ ideas, concepts, works or to discuss a subject sufficiently. People who just read out their paper, speakers of whom you get the impression they have not considered the subject of the symposium, theoreticians repeating themselves, artists not going beyond the information that they provide on their website.

Moderators who fail to generate something like an interesting debate, because the presentations are so disparate. There are a number of reasons why this is so. Lousy speakers’ fees don’t explain everything. Laziness might be one of the factors. Laziness of the organisers to find speakers who actually “in theory” have something to say to each other, laziness to take the effort to communicate with all participants in the panel about their individual contribution in advance and making them understand what the context is in which they speak. But also laziness of the speakers to think of something different than the usual presentation. In all those years that I am organising these kind of events, I was rarely surprised by someone making the effort to come up with something fresh, something extraordinary, although there the space for it was there.

I don’t want to play the ball back to you (or eventually myself I have played all positions in this game: curator, moderator, speaker) asking you to be more inventive and responsive to each other, even after delivering your speech. Maybe we need a change, a challenge, to refresh. Maybe we should just stop trying to offer topic-driven conferences to a larger public and just do little, informal conversations like for example Andreas did at Tesla or create workshop like situations in which real exchange is easier. Which all really work well, we know. Since real and debate is so difficult to achieve in larger groups, why not give up on that in general, or do it in the way we do it here, have a remote, but focussed discussion?

But let’s look at what you proposed here. Artists talking about each others’ work, not their own. I have seen that, but not too often at symposiums, granted. However when artists teach at art school, this happens all the time. This does not excite me per se.

You should elaborate on this, make it clearer what you are expecting to happen, or define even super clear rules to make it special. Only speak about the artists who are present? Is there still a kind of general subject to which the presentations will refer or do you envision it more like a pecha-kucha, straight forward presentation/reflection of one or many artworks without a conference like theme?

How this will foster critique? I am not sure it can. Real critique means also negative critique – in public this is very unlikely to happen. And why should an artist be more suited to critique another artist’s work than anybody else? Finally the theoreticians – self-absorbed in their own theory and discourse (like you say) they should now disclose their subjectivity and/or speak predominantly about the art. What I am missing rather in our field are more theoreticians who come up with strong theories… theoreticians who are not caught up in the scholarly world but have some connection to reality. There is much more to say about your idea, this is just a quick response, and we should continue talking about it. I agree, we need more and new formats, because we all want to talk to each other honestly, but we still hardly know how to in public.


susanne jaschko

On [spectre], Josephine Bosma wrote:

hello al,

I would like to second Susanne’s call for some self-reflection on the side of the authors of the juxtaposium proposal. I respect and admire the work of most of you (juxtaposium authors, I just don’t know Baruch Gottlieb), but I think this proposal completely misses its mark. Let me try to explain why.

When the juxtaposium proposal came in my mailbox I was a little surprised by the contrast between the content and the style. Then what caught my eye were the names at the bottom. Three well known critics and three artists that all seem to come from very different directions and backgrounds drop a harsh criticism and radical (?) new presentation format onto our laps, completely out of the blue. If it would have been posted today (april 1st) I might have thought it was a hoax. Where does this come from? How was it created? How did the writers come together? Have ‘social media’ so undermined our communication skills that it is easily forgotten we are posting into each others private email boxes/ homes and that addressing the mailing list members as a mass instead of possibly smart individuals is not the way to go? Don’t get me wrong, I like a manifesto from time to time, but this seems to miss the mark by not having any clear context but the writers’ personal experiences, which are barely explained. More info needed urgently please!

Like many working in the field of art and (what was formerly known as) new media I am aware of the problems with symposium formats. Everybody complains about them from time to time, like one complains about the weather. It is good to criticize them. There have however been plenty of experimental formats going around in the past 15 years if not more. What bothers me a little about the juxtaposium proposal is that this is completely ignored. It does not help to negate one’s own history. The problem with polemics like this is that it turns what is a very diverse field into a black and white situation, even retroactively. Institutional and corporate phenomena are placed on the one side, and the victims of it on the other. This way you actually become part of the problem. The reality of the past 15 years is different and I personally feel very happy to have witnessed some of it. I know that many on Spectre must feel the same way.

What we also do not need I think is a return to the polemics that destroyed for example The claim that “Our field is all about hacking, deconstructing and reformatting existing formats” is just nonsense, sorry to say. Misinterpretation is actually a rather standard approach of new media art that needs heavy criticism, if I may be polemic a bit myself. If anything our field is about a diversity of practices and exploration of new materials, hard, soft and wet. I welcome a call for a renewed criticism, but only from an awareness of and respect for past failures and successes, and from an acknowledgment of existing constructive and/or interesting practices.

With respect,


On [spectre], Darko Fritz wrote:

Dear Juxtaposiumists and Spectrists

I agree on the urge of new presentation formats for both art practices and related theory and criticism in symposium format.

Many artist talks already transgressed reading/ papers/ listing/ slides symposium formats turning the presentations of art practice into specific kind of performances. We can learn from it while searching
for new symposium formats.

At the other hand, I propose to look closer the cases where theoreticians transgressing their usual formats, making use of an art toolbox in their practice. An example is the presentation of Next 5 minutes festival (N5M) by art historian / organizer / theoretician Eric Kluitenberg made as TJ (theory jay) performance. Performance was dealing with the subject of change of the language within political context, in format of live sound-performance with sampled texts, sounds and text-to-speech (with Theory Machine software designed specially for this event by Adam Hyde). It was presented at the CLUB.NL project that I co-curate back in 2000. Presentation was made after curatorial proposal to present Next 5 minutes festival, but strictly expressed that presentation don’t use reading/ papers /listing/ slides format. This presentation did not prezented realized artworks/ projects/activities/outputs of N5M festival as usual, but its content / idea in another format. Same went for several other organizations and institutions that were presented within CLUB.NL project, each choosing different way of presentation. As well, CLUB.NL merge the press-conference with 15 minutes presentations of each invited organization (with standard reading/ papers/ listing/ slides), while two artist simultaneously made performances in the same space and made some noise that deliberatelly disturbed readability of the presentations / press conference.

All in all, it’s about leaving the safe zone of established presentation formats and inaugurating new relationship to presented content. It is applicable for ones who are ready for it, with the respect for ones who are not. In some cases standard symposia formats working best for presenting the content, so here I vote for supporting all (new, old and hybrid) formats in the symposia, where the content is in forefront.

Best regards


Darko Fritz

Josephine Bosma wrote:

hello all,

I realized this week that I had completely forgotten to respond to Esther Polak’s request for examples of alternative symposium models. Yesterday would have been the best time to finally sit down and talk about it, but unfortunately I was very busy. One of the things I had to do was score a bucket full of Italian ice cream to celebrate the 15th anniversary of ‘ per se’. This small but legendary gathering on May 21st 1996 is one of the examples I was talking about, but there are more.

As I wrote earlier, it surprised me to find such well informed peoplecome up with such a limited description of symposia and conferences. In hindsight I guess what they were addressing is probably a very particular kind of event, and very particular presenters: big events with (generally) lots of financial backing, inviting very specific speakers that are on the road nearly 24/7, who are delivering the same speeches everywhere. I do believe that in the larger scheme of things such events and speakers are a minority. Maybe, and please don’t take this the wrong way, the writers of the Juxtaposium proposal have ‘arrived’ at a certain level of events, the most institutional kind, and do not see the many smaller and alternative events that are no less important?

Anyway, before I dart off on another lengthy criticism of the juxtaposium idea, let me try to give a few different examples of fruitful events that I have witnessed myself. In most of these the boundaries between audience and speakers was non existent. This is at the top of my hat, and I know that alternative conference models have been around since at least the sixties. I read in Dark Fiber by Geert Lovink that for example the founders of de Waag, Carolien Nevejan and Marleen Sticker, were also adamant to avoid the traditional, hierarchical conference model in events in the early nineties. A quote (page 246): “Using audio-visual media, constantly changing position of tables and chairs and a sharp, witty rhetoric of well instructed chair (wo)men, attempt were made to cut through the routine pitches of experts, politicans, and writers. Remotre contributions via telephone, video conferencing, web cams and chat rooms were brought into the local debate.”

I am sure the examples I mention (above and below) in my mail are not the only ones, and that these alternative conference practices have not disappeared and are still alive today. I welcome anybody chiming in and giving some, but I know that is rare on mailing lists these days… So here are my examples:

1: The First Cyberfeminist International, at documenta X in 1997. In the summer of ’97 the Orangerie in Kassel was occupied by ten different groups for ten days at the time. It was called Workspace, and each group had a very alternative presentation model, which was partly due to the setting: it was an open workspace with people coming and going. There was not a symposium audience, but an exhibition audience, which behaves differently. The mailinglist Faces, for women working in new media culture, was one of them. They organized a very loose and sympathetic event, part of which were talk sessions, in which everybody would gather in a circle and discuss issues. There was no hierarchy. there was only a shared interest in (cyber)feminist issues. There was not even a very tight schedule, if there was one at all. My memory fails me on this point. This conference model reminded very much of that of Beauty and the East, the first nettime conf, in spring 1997, but there was more openness for experimentation.

2: There are the three events I have described in my book Nettitudes: per se (in Trieste, Italy, organized by Vuk Cosic), Digital Chaos (in Bath, UK) and ‘the secret conf’, and event in the ‘Anti-with-E series (in London, both organized by heath bunting). In all these meetings the emphasis was on participation and accessibility (of ‘experts’, or a leveling of roles), and on escaping the traditional conference model. True, per se was so small one could say it was an ‘insiders only’ event, but the whole idea of these kind of events is a very basic destruction of hierarchy and the creation of true social interaction. This happens in small and bigger meetings.

3: The Cool Media Hot Talk Show is another very interesting model. This was/is an initiative of Tania Goryucheva, and was organized and (literally) programmed by Eric Kluitenberg and Michiel van der Haagen of De Balie in Amsterdam. It was an event that could be entirely planned through an online audience. Special software was created through which anybody could compile an event, choose the speakers, have it voted for, create questions, etc. The event itself happened on and offline. The online audience could vote for specific audience questions that came up during the event itself.

What is missing in all these models is of course the Big, Awesome Expert. What I am missing form the juxtaposium proposal is any view on the role (and value?) of this expert and of the audience. It just wants to get away from boring speakers talking about themselves or the same things over and over. In a living social environment people actually do not get away with such behavior. Having someone discuss
the work of another person is no alternative in my point of view: I do it almost every time I give a lecture, and so does almost every critic and theorist. What is interesting however is getting real conversations going between real people.


Apr 1, 17:04
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