We’ve just come to the end of what I can quite confidently describe as the best conference I have ever been to, Fractal’11 in Medellín, Colombia. Hernán Oritz, one of the festival organisers (alongside Vivi Trujillo), contacted me around 18 months ago to speak at last year’s event. At the last minute the unpronounceable Icelandic volcano erupted and my flight was cancelled. I was relieved and excited when I was invited again this year. We’ve had an extremely busy but rewarding few days.
During a fun first evening getting to know the other speakers and organisers over crepes and smoothies we discovered we had an interview for Colombian daytime TV at 8am the following morning (the first of several surprises). An early night followed. After a gorgeous breakfast we went to the lobby to meet the film crew. I think we were all a bit apprehensive, but as with most public speaking, once you start talking the nerves tend to evaporate.
Once the interviews where over I was whisked away to do an Augmented Reality Q&A at a local tech company called Ilimitada ran by the charismatic (and slightly mental) Juan José Mejía. After a brief introduction to AR the questions began. The audience seemed very excited by the technology and many interesting ideas came up during the discussion. Next stop, lunch in the jungle.
The launch party was at a great venue called DRY. We were treated to Martini cocktails called Fractum created especially for the event before partaking in another TV interview. Halfway through the night I was introduced to an interesting character called Alex Bennett who is the Headmaster of a local school. He informed me of our next surprise, that we were coming to his school the following morning to to judge an innovation competition his students had been involved in. We continued drinking and laughing into the night with Alex and the rest of the guys, all looking forward to our next adventure.
Another early and slightly hazy start. We made our way up the mountain to the heavily guarded Columbus High School and met some of the teachers and students. We selected a category each and began to sift our way through the work. I chose the video and stop motion projects which were, on the whole, very impressive. Once we had selected our top 5 we made our way to the assembly hall where we got on stage in front of 300 students to discuss the categories and announce the winners. My fiancé Juliet had come along and was also on stage. She was handed the microphone a couple of times to address the audience. She was nervous but did a great job.
After a quick lunch and a tour of the school we went to the event. The venue was the outdoor theatre at the beautiful botanical gardens of Medellín. This made such a change from the usual stale conference rooms. The surrounding forest and mountains combined with the sounds of the exotic birds and occasional thunder resulted in a dramatic location for such an event.
After Hernán introduced the event, John Kessel, the award winning Science Fiction author and professor of creative writing at the NC State University began his talk. The heavens opened within moments of his presentation but he didn’t let it phase him. John discussed the way in which science fiction authors consciously and subconsciously include current social issues in their renditions of the future.
Sam Pool AKA SPL is a Dubstep DJ and producer. He had been invited to perform a set and do a presentation. Sam spoke with passion about the current state of play in the music industry, the effects of piracy and digital technology and his open source approach to his craft. He ended with a walkthrough of the technology he uses to perform and create.
Johanna Blakley is deputy director of the Norman Lear Centre, a think tank at the University of Southern California. Her presentation was a discussion of her background in academia and her current research into entertainment, particularly TV drama and it’s influential effect upon the behaviours and attitudes of the viewers.
I was one of the first speakers of the day with my Augmented Storytelling presentation. It’s an investigation of AR as a platform for constructing unique interactive stories. The gorgeous surroundings definitely put me at ease and, according to the other half (and my fiercest critic), it was the best presentation I had ever given. Even my demos worked perfectly which is always a bit sketchy in an outdoor environment. Lots of great questions followed and even a little Spanish heckling by a crazy old guy.
Kij Johnson is another award winning Science Fiction author and educator. In her talk, she compared writers to enigma machines in the sense that they use fiction to encode their own ideas into stories. She finished up by reading one of her short stories. Tij also contributed a story called “Myth Girls” to an interdisciplinary book created specially for Fractal’11. This work also involved fashion designer Camilo Álvarez, illustrator Oscar González, graphic designer Carlos Andrés Ortiz, and editors Viviana Trujillo and Hernán Ortiz.
Amber Case is a Cyborg Anthropologist and tech consultant. Amber discussed the idea that our reliance on technology is transforming us into cyborgs. A wide variety of technology was discussed with in relation to how it is affecting us. I found the discussions on mobile phones and our online social selves particularly fascinating.
My last responsibility on the list was to take part in a panel called ‘Decoding the present’ alongside all the other speakers. I’m not usually a fan of panels so I can’t say I was looking forward to it. The fact that it was being broadcasted live on local TV didn’t make me feel any better. Within minutes of it starting I knew it was going to be a good one. John was moderating and had put together a thought provoking collection of questions. A stimulation discussion ensued in which everyone had something interesting to say.
The evening ended with Sam’s stomping 2 hour Dubstep set. Although there were only 50 or so people present, the crowd soon transformed into a crazed mass of dancing maniacs. A Peruvian feast and much merriment followed before heading back to the hotel for the final night.
I’ve been to some great conferences in the past but this one had it all. Interesting and affable speakers, excellent organisers/hosts, a lovely enthusiastic audience, a stunning setting, excellent catering and entertainment and a full and rewarding schedule. What more could you ask for. A big thanks to Hernán Oritz and Vivi Trujillo for inviting me to such an exciting conference. Event organisers, take note.