photocredit: rob campbell
Last weekend I was lucky enough to be involved with what ended up being the best, most fun, and most inspirational “conference” I’ve yet attended — Zap Your PRAM, hosted by the ever gracious and ridiculously awesome folks of SilverOrange.
The conference (more aptly described as an “unconference” by those in the know) was held in lovely Dalvay-by-the-Sea in PEI, a mere stones throw (and a 1.5 hour drive including 12-odd kilometers over the Confederation Bridge) away from our Monctonian abode. When the time came, we just hopped in the car and drove over to the island.
The conference itself was astonishing. I could sit here and write for hours about it, but I’ll hit the highlights now and maybe continue with some follow-ups if the mood strikes:
1) No name tags. I’m not sure if this was strategic or just because no one thought of it, but it doesn’t matter. The result was that when you walked up to someone the first time, you looked them in the eye and introduced yourself instead of the standard “wandering around peering at name tags ’til you find someone interesting to talk to” crap you get at other conferences. Sure, this may have also been the result of there only being 50 people in the entire hotel save for a few staff, but it was great either way.
2) No “ice-breakers”. We started with random rambling around the first floor of the hotel with pre-dinner drinks followed by a short introduction session that was maybe 5-10 minutes long. We then immediately broke for dinner where we all ended up at tables of 6 or 8 people. If you put a bunch of interesting folks together for three courses and wine over a 2 hour period, they’re going to strike up a conversation, no matter how shy or reserved they (*ahem* I) may usually be. People were given the space to interact however and whenever they were comfortable doing so, and so they did instead of withdrawing from an uncomfortable situation and retreating to their rooms.
3) The meals. Good lord, the food was incredible. The schedule allowed for 2 hours each for lunch and dinner, so the meals weren’t an “eat and run so you can get to the next talk” thing, they were an absolutely integral part of the experience. It was in the dining room where most of the conversations really got into gear (to be continued lingering over coffee, and later out by the fire with wine).
4) The talks. There was one track and everyone attended every session. Two days consisting of three one-hour slots in each the morning and afternoon, held in what amounted to someone’s living room (albeit with a few more comfy sofas and chairs that most of us have). Talks were generally informal, and the audience equally so — random questions evolved into discussions which further evolved into wild gesticulating and wandering all over the conceptual map. The hosts managed to cut each session off at the hour mark (which is good else we would have just continued the first discussion for the full length of our stay), but topics were inevitably revisited during meals or random-drinking-in-front-of-the-fire later in the evening.
5) The environment. Comfortable, welcoming, and, most importantly, isolated. Zap put 50 people together in a hotel all by themselves with nothing else to do but hang out and talk. The rooms had no TVs, telephones, or radios. There were no local bars or restaurants to wander off to and hide in. If you weren’t in your room sleeping (or lying awake wondering just how haunted the place could possibly be) you were downstairs interacting with the rest of the Zappers.
6) The people. Limiting attendance to 50 is a master stroke. It’s large enough that there was a great diversity of interests and viewpoints represented, but small enough that by the end of it everyone had spent time talking to pretty much everyone else. And everyone was…incredible. Smart, funny, inquisitive, engaging, knowledgeable, interesting, and insightful across the board. No giant overinflated egos, no primadonnas, no holier-than-thous. Just good, friendly, decent folk, all of whom had interesting stories to tell.
7) Which brings us to: the storytelling. Brad Turcotte (aka Brad Sucks, whose music you should go get right now, omg go) managed to establish “storytelling” as the underlying theme for the whole conference. It was wall-to-wall stories all weekend — how a song gets made, what the writer’s strike looked like from the inside, why the economy is in dire shape (and why you should get to know a farmer), how the internet and technology are changing the foundations of art history and how we interact with images, why design matters, how work is changing — and those were just some of the formally scheduled sessions. So many more stories were told in the time before, in between, and after. No bullet points, no sales pitches, no rapid-fire slickly-rehearsed committee-approved marketing “decks”. Just regular folks telling interesting stories about things they’ve done or experienced or thought about.
I have never come away from a weekend of interacting with a large group of people this energized and inspired. My need to create something rather than just consume things is in absolute overdrive. My PRAM was definitely zapped.
I have only two regrets about the weekend. The first is that I didn’t stay up ’til 3 or 4 am every night, taking part in the wee-early-hours discussions that were apparently held. There is something in the island air (augmented by wine and so much rich, incredible food) that just made me a sleepy, sleepy girl.
My other regret is that I didn’t take the opportunity in the final wrap-up session to talk about the stained glass project I’m embarking on, because I think the Zappers would have appreciated the strange nerdish craftiness of it. So, since I’ll be pointing the Zappers at this post, I’ll just put it here.
Something I’m working on: a story
I love stained glass — the interplay of colour and light can absolutely hypnotize me, and I will sit and stare at it for hours. I also love making stained glass — even though I’m relatively new to the craft, I find it profoundly satisfying and meditative. Being a telecommuting knowledge worker, I live on the computer, so the act of creating something physical and tangible is incredibly gratifying. I don’t have very many moments in life where I can point at something and say, “I made this.”
What complicates things is that I want to make stained glass based on designs that I create — unique items that have never been done before, by anyone. One day when I was wandering around the internet looking for inspiration, I stumbled across (and this is where it gets a little nerdy) the Florida State University Molecular Expressions optical microscopy website. Here FSU hosts “one of the Web’s largest collections of color photographs taken through an optical microscope”. This may sound less f’ing awesome than it actually is, so here’s an example:
Paging through the gallery, I found dozens of images that are beautiful, abstract expressions of the interplay of science and nature. They also already more or less look like stained glass, so it wasn’t a huge leap from “those look like stained glass” to “I want to use them as the inspiration for stained glass”. The FSU Microscopy website has a relatively scary “Licensing Information” page, so I erred on the side of caution and sent an email asking permission to use the images in this way. They consented, and thus my project was born.
All of this happened the week prior to Zap, so I have no completed panels to show you, but I have more-or-less finished the first design I’m going to attempt. It’s based on the microphotograph of Albuterol, a bronchiodilator used to treat asthma, bronchitis, emphasema, and other lung diseases. (FWIW, I didn’t actually know that, I just read the website.)
Here’s the original image:
Here’s what my pattern and colour sketch look like right now:
Since this is my first complex self-designed piece, I figure I’ll make it relatively small…maybe 12×15″. It’s an experiment and a learning tool, so I really have no idea how it will work out. I’m super excited about getting started on it, however, and I’ll probably post copious updates while it’s under construction. I’m hoping to turn the microscopy idea into a series of at least 12 pieces, but there’s enough material in the FSU site to keep me busy for a lifetime. We’ll see how it goes.
Reading back through this post I realize that it is more or less in the very spirit of Zap, starting with “I’ll just hit the highlights” and then wandering at length into realms only tenuously connected with the original topic at hand.
I had such a great time. I learned so much. I want you all to be my new best friends.