Talking gibberish on a tech conference

It's been a month since I "performed" my conference talk at ClojureD (a German conference for the programming language Clojure). In the meanwhile I've had a lot of questions about it and would like to shed some more light on it.

I started the talk hinting at it being a puzzle after which I immediately started reading 20 minutes of computer generated gibberish to the audience. The random sentences, generated on the fly were accompanied with generated slides (with quotes and snippets of code), gestures ("lean on right elbow", "hiss", "pop lips", "hold up lighter") and even answers to the audience's questions.

My idea was that the audience had to figure out which rules were in place. By giving hints via code snippets on the slides, programmed repetition in the rules and showing my teleprompter with cues briefly, I hoped that people could piece it together themselves. I didn't end up revealing anything to the audience concretely after the performance. Leaving it open for interpretation just like a koan. From the feedback I received afterwards, a couple of people understood it and confirmed the rules with me, which was already more than I hoped. I expected people to walk out, but that didn't happen. Success!

The most beautiful piece of feedback I got was from someone who called it transcending. He said that after 5 minutes he wanted to leave the room and go to the other track, but 10 minutes in he found himself wondering about his own patience and stress, finding himself listening as if it were to a mantra and feeling peaceful. Although unintentional (although not unwanted), I wonder if this is the zen of the wise John Cage shining through on who's "45 minutes for a speaker" I based the talk on.

It was a risky endeavour and I regretted a couple of times submitting this talk as the software was quite tedious to write. Also I was afraid that the engineering audience wouldn't be so receptive of something artsy, but it seemed like it was (with the exception of a couple of negative reactions). I'd love to do more performance talks in the future.

The sources for inspiration for the talk were 45 minutes for a speaker by John Cage, Guy Steel's conference talk Growing a language and a mysterious video game called the Witness.

Talking gibberish on a tech conference
Jelle Ack
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