Expanding the !!Con Aesthetic

TL;DR: There’s a cool new project to put on plays about computing. In addition to traditional talks, we’re inviting people to submit more artistic 10-minute plays or other “non-talks” to !!Con as well as The Art of Python.

Sumana Harihareswara and I had lunch sometime late last year and talked for a while about her newest brainchild, The Art of Python. To steal her own description, The Art of Python is a miniature arts festival at PyCon North America 2019, focusing on narrative, performance, and visual art. The Art of Python was recently accepted into the PyCon Hatchery Program, an incubator for PyCon-related ideas. It will be a series of short plays, 5-20 minutes each, held on the evening of Friday, May 3.

Sumana has worked with the !!Con team before and wrote one of my favorite articles about the conference, Toward a !!Con Aesthetic, which I re-read every year to re-center myself on what !!Con can (and in my opinion, should) be. One of its sections is titled Spectacle and play, and explores how some of the talks cross from being a “talk” into being a comedy or sketch show. We as audiences remember these moments where the magician shows us that something more than meets the eye can be done – and in our case, presents a new kind of magic to an audience of magicians.

That’s why we’re inviting people to open up the idea of what constitutes a “talk” at !!Con this year. We would love to see drama, comedy, and magic. If you are interested, we invite you to submit a play to both !!Con and The Art of Python, theme and length (10 minutes for !!Con) allowing. Note that The Art of Python’s CFP specifically says that the play does not actually have to be about Python, just the emotional experiences of programming.

Our CFP will open Feb 6 Feb 8, and The Art of Python’s CFP is already open. Bring us your explorations and reenactments. Show us how your computing is spectacle and emotional. Explore with comedy and tragedy the feelings that surround this field that has only been around for one generation, two or three if we’re really generous.

Some caveats: !!Con is still going to be looking for “the joyous, exciting, and surprising moments in computing”, and we’re not going to have a separate track or approval process for non-talks. But, based on the amazing work that we’ve seen in years past, and ideas we’ve been pitched, I don’t doubt that you the reader have something worth submitting to !!Con and The Art of Python.

Of course, I encourage you to submit your proposals for 5-20 minute plays to The Art of Python regardless of whether you go on to submit them to !!Con! You should also check out the Hatchery program for next year, if you have an idea for a conference track that you’d like to try out in the context (and with the backing of) PyCon.

We talk at !!Con a lot about the intersections of humans and computers, since indeed the things that computers do are ultimately created and consumed by humans (well, or their pets). The lecture format is often ill-suited to explore this emotional side of computing, and especially poor at exploring the relationships between people who make the magic lightning rocks go fast.

I will admit that watching a play about programming sounded awkward at first, but then I reminded myself that 1) the spectacles that Sumana mentioned from previous !!Cons have only been amazing, and 2) when I go to plays about far more uncomfortably introspective topics, I generally end up learning something about myself and/or the world. It’s sometimes not even something that can be put into words – but that’s exactly the point. Some things are very hard to describe by speaking at a room with a slideshow behind you. Perhaps one of these non-talks will inspire, delight, and amaze in a way that’s uniquely deep.

We are still exuberant about accepting traditional-format talks and are looking forward to seeing all of the cool, fun, scary things that you have done with computers. Polish up your demos, dust off and re-submit your !!Con talks that didn’t make it in previous years, think about the fun bug that you defeated, and come tell us about it. If you want some more information before we post the CFP: Lindsey Kuper, organizer emeritus now leading the charge on the west coast, has a great article about the kinds of talks we’re not looking for. I’ve written previously about how we select the talks.

I’m optimistic about this widening of our focus. Similar to our inclusion efforts, there’s a difference between not-not-permitting and inviting. If people had submitted drama/magic/spectacle to previous !!Con we would have judged it seriously, but to openly request it alongside the traditional talks breaks down the assumption that a 10-minute !!Con slot is only for a “talk”, which, to be honest, is just because that’s what other conferences do. I like to think of us as more avant-garde than that.

One thought on “Expanding the !!Con Aesthetic

  1. Pheng Heong Tan

    That’s a really intriguing idea.
    I’m not that knowledgeable about the subject matter of existing plays – and how often computers appear in said subject matter – so I shan’t comment on the novelty of your idea.
    I’m reminded of a book I read by Suzi Gabik, called ‘Has Modernism Failed’, in which she commented that images of industry and industrial machines have seldom appeared in artwork (which are from the period of time that she considers in her book), despite the Industrial Revolution. She gives the example of Monet’s picture ‘Saint-Lazare Station, Arrival of a Train, 1877’ as an example of how “anomalous” (or rare, rather) it is to see depictions of industry, or the industrial, in art. (and even in Monet’s picture, the industrial is barely recognisable).
    Having said all these, you and Sumana Harihareswara may be on to something, in promoting/encouraging creative work about computers. I would be interested to hear what comes/came up for you in such a pursuit – what you encountered, and was it to your expectations – or even your thoughts on Gabik’s claim that the industrial (and by association, computers) has been rarely represented in art.


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