Generic Conference Man

On Tuesday 20th January I was in Hull for Digital Utopias. I was originally going as a regular attendee but was invited at the last minute by Alex McLean to take part in A Yorkshire Hack, which was an informal relaxed space for hacking. I was in a hackathon with him a couple of weeks earlier at Hack the City, so jumped at the chance to do some more!

Like Hack The City there wasn’t really any agenda or goals for the day. We had access to a bunch of data to play with but I wanted to make something that related to the day itself. Upon arriving I looked for opportunities to work with the event. Could I access data about attendees? Were there any devices in the venue that I could re-appropriate? Was there a 3D printer or 3D scanner that I could use to recreate objects or attendees? I also thought about hijacking the #artsdigital hashtag but was quickly shot down by the Arts Council England Twitter account (nice work!).

Triggered by a tweet by Hannah Nicklin I was reminded of the Bullshit Bingo cards that Rosa Menkman made for Transmediale 2014. I hastily began to make my own versions, featuring many of the buzzwordss that are often spouted at tech and art conferences.


These were well received, so I knew I was on to something good! Rather than just create bingo cards – Becky Stewart already made a script for that – I talked with the other hackers to devise ways of taking it further. In collaboration with Shelly Knotts and Alex De Little, we looked at ways to retrieve and present these buzzwords. We explored using sonification of tweets, doing data visualisations, tag clouds (so 2000-and-late!) and more. Later that day, after many experiments, Generic Conference Man was born!

Generic Conference Man

Why sit through hour-long presentations about the latest innovative disruptive wearable tech when you can just watch someone spout those all-important buzzwords instead!

Generic Conference Man works by first grabbing the most recent tweets from the #artsdigital hashtag. The most common words are then extracted, with words that appear only once being discarded. Shelly Knotts accomplished this using a combination of Twurl and SuperCollider. This list is then fed into the simple lip-sync animations script by Silas S. Brown. The illustration was grabbed from Open Clip Art Library.

As you can tell from the above video, at the time the tweets were grabbed a session with Ruth Catlow of Furtherfield was taking place and so they were talked about a lot on Twitter. If you’re interested you can see the complete list of words here.

If this were to be developed further it would likely turn into a website that would deliver/speak the tweets live instead of on a prerendered video. URLs, usernames and other generic words would also be discarded. However, as a quick hack we made on the day I think it makes its point.

One more thing

Our thoughts going into this was to make a light-hearted critique of the way individuals, corporations and institutions talk about digital art and technological developments, but without targeting specific individuals. Of course, in order to talk about things such as wearable technology one has to actually say those words, but quite often this descends into buzzword-laden hyperbole that undermines the art form, accomplishments of the industry and the audience/viewers. Rosa Menkman had this to say about the Bullshit Bingo cards, which I think is quite relevant:

During every festival I visit, I see keywords getting overused and oversaturated. Specific words, sometimes initially undefined or in dire need for re-definition (trashure, mediatic, mcluminations, othernet, afterglow, post, etc) are used so often, and in so many contexts that they lose any kind of significance. These words become omnipresent memes within a festival-discourse bubble. But for festivals such as Transmediale, that dictate quite a bit of the discourse of the contemporary media arts, this power is under exposed and under criticized.

I spent my time at Digital Utopias hacking, so was unable to attend many of the presentations, and so perhaps many of the presentations weren’t a barrage of buzzwords. However, when we showed Generic Conference Man to attendees it seemed to resonate with them, which could be a reflection on the conference itself or their experience of previous conferences. Judging by the impressive range of speakers on the day I hope it’s the latter.