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Vienna and Constructivism November 22, 2009

Posted by astridjohnson in Cybernetics, Graphic Design, Philosophy, Travel.
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Grand Vienna.

Mark was invited as a speaker to the  2009 Heinz von Foerster Congress about Learning. He asked me to come with him and I gladly said yes.

I attended all the sessions, apart from on the second afternoon when I took off to the Leopold Museum to see some Schiele and Klimt (awesome).

It was not surprising that with the originator of radical constructivism, Ernst von Glasersfeld, just about to open the conference, the moderator made a point about the Third Reich and Holocaust to having been real. I appreciated that for three reasons. One is that the conference was taking place in a Germanic country, second, I have trouble with diluting the horrific reality of what my forefathers (and mothers) have done and thirdly, although I do appreciate the inter-subjective approach I like my constructivism slightly less… well, relative.

All the speakers, from a wide area of disciplines which ranged from education, the AI side of cybernetic in person of the venerable Margaret Boden, linguistics, biology, statistics and math, economics, journalism to some misguided instructors in awareness exercises, were in some way involved with in constructivist thinking (I think the latter weren’t or were too much) and cybernetics.

The main memory I take from the event is the lively engagement amongst the speakers to get to know each other and each others work  and explore ideas about their respective fields. The atmosphere was inspired and although at time I felt out of my depth I enjoyed the after talk and mini-seminar discussions immensely.

I deplore though the old-fashioned conference format. Speaker in front with qualitatively varying Powerpoint presentations (sorry, but the designer in me would like to report some people to the ministry for cruelty to design, layout and typography) or reading from scripts. It does not lend itself to a real participatory learning experience.

Ernst von Glaserfeld and Josef Mitterer, the moderator of the conference.

With Ernst von Glaserfeld, a student of Heinz von Foerster, giving the keynote speech and many of the people he inspired present there was a historical band weaving its way through the two days. I was not quite sure where it was pointing to though. Maybe cybernetics is at the cusp of moving into new relevance, but my experience was confusing. There is also something stagnant in the subject matter although energetically I felt people genuinely cared and were pushing into solutions for our troubled planet.

That brings to mind the memory of an Italian man, who had an uncanny resemblance to Einstein and was interrupting more than one session. He protested a lot, but unfortunately I can not remember what he protested for or against.

If you looked up to the ceiling during one of the sessions, this is what you saw...

There were a number of people who stood out for me. Ranulph Glanville, the English head of the American Society for Cybernetics – incredibly and bitingly charming. Pille Bunnell is a very serious and engaging woman and amongst other things editor of Maturana’s “The Origin of Humanness in the Biology of Love”, a book Mark had given me recently. She gave technically the best presentation but amongst all the other scientist I found her discourse the least grounded. Science and Love, a subject worth exploring though. Alfred Inselberg gave a chilling application of Parallel Coordinates to recognise hostile vehicles by their noise signature. He meant Russian cars, bought by Palestinian, being heard by Israelis. In itself interesting, but due to the humourous nature he presented the case I would wish he would have explored more the term hostile and to who else it might apply. Stuart Umpleby from The George Washington University gave an inspiring overview of the relevance of cybernetics and its future and Tatiana Medvedeva brought tales from a land where development in this area has not reached the western world standard.

At the end of the conference we were invited by the mayor of Vienna to a cocktail reception in the town hall. Vienna lives from tourists and conferences like this and it does feel pretty grand to get an embossed invitation.


We stayed in the town centre, between Stephansdom and the town hall, just behind the baroque St. Peter’s Church. After Paris this is the grandest city I have ever been to. There must be somewhere a more grungy and off-beat subculture, but unfortunately in that short space of time it eluded us. But we did enjoy the retro food and famous sweets. We have to come back for the Burgtheater, galleries, art, architecture and definitely more cake.


Grand in old and new ways, interior and exterior...

Mark, on his way to the session he was giving with Dai Griffith.

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