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Right Time, Right Place - A Retrospective on MAIN 09
by Gargaj of Conspiracy

Download the pdf here

It's almost a given that an event will bode interesting when the first official announcement conveys that the location is a former train-welding hall bearing probably the largest LCD screen in Europe mounted on the rafters, and is conveniently placed in the middle of the Côte d'Azur, about 60 km from the seaside. It then gets even more interesting when additional announcements reveal that the event's budget is, for the most part, provided by the local government officials who seem thrilled about the fact that computer artists gather in their town, and wish to provide any means necessary to make them feel welcome - going as far as to pitch in to their travel, which we all know is easily the biggest problem when it comes to attending foreign gatherings.

Sum all this up and you can understand that our expectations about MAIN were pretty insane. And we barely knew what we were looking forward to.

The first shock came when we entered the cozy little town of Arles and the first thing we saw was a large yellow arrow on a fingerpost saying "MAIN FESTIVAL", pointing towards the partyplace. Not that we weren't particularly used to having arrow signs at Breakpoints doing that, but this thing wasnt paper - this was purpose printed metal. At that point, we realized they weren't taking the piss - they were dead serious about this. The large billboards and vinyl banners we encountered later only served to reinforce this feeling: It all very much seemed to us that the entire town was ripe with excitement about this strange phenomenon they've never seen before. It was as if they felt the circus was coming to town.


We only realized the validity of that statement later on during the opening ceremony: Some of us started raising eyebrows when we saw the plexiglass lectern on stage, the amount of flags hanging around, and the increasing amount of middle-aged people in suits seemingly waiting for something. Eventually it all culminated into a lengthy (and I mean easily half an hour long) opening ceremony, during which we were somewhat perplexed to see the apparent importance of this event for the region: the entire top brass of the city (I can't recall the exact titles, but we're talking about 20 people here) lined up for the microphone, and gave impassioned speeches about how much they rejoice for such an event being a precedent here and hope to assure us that they're very much willing to be partners for us for following years as well. And finally, at one point, they also took time to greet all the local folks, who came to observe the demomakers in their natural habitat.

That was the point where we turned around and received the shock.


The hall was full with the town inhabitants, ranging from kids to elders, meandering between the rows bewildered. Occasionally peeking over the shoulder of someone, they seemed to be desperately trying to put two cubes together. It wasn't particularly awkward or intimidating as such (although one of us has noted that "...I can't do it when people are watching", a sentence I never expected to hear in THIS context at least), it certainly was unusual. After the ceremony ended, we were presented with a variety of drinks and snacks (which ultimately resulted in the locals and officials having a chat over a sip of wine, and the sceners just grabbing as much munchies as they could get and huddling back in front of the computer), and after we collectively decided not to spike the punch with whatever vile liquor we had at hand, we started to discuss the situation around us. While generally we all seemed to agree that the degree of hospitality is probably unprecedented, and that we do enjoy that we get all this almost for free, there was a certain level of unease in some of us. Judging from purely a visual perspective, the demomaker area was surrounded with a daisy chain of crowd control barriers, which was understandable from a technical viewpoint, but it only helped to reinforce a hint of discomfort that the residents walking around in the aisle (trying to make heads or tails out of the weirdness seen on the screens) are none other than spectators in what is roughly equivalent to the computer version of a circus freakshow or a zoo.

Now, don't get me wrong, people were extremely nice: Some of the locals would walk up to us, and after a minute of confused stare, they'd muster up the courage to ask us what we are doing. While there was a certain language barrier in some cases, they all seemed thrilled by what we were doing, and visibly did their best to gain a general understanding about why we treat ourselves different from other computer art societies. It genuinely seemed they were craving some sort of yet-unseen event happening in their town, and they certainly got it - from an outreach perspective (depending on how much you consider educating the mass of smalltown France outreach), it certainly was a raging success.

The question is, however, as raised by some of the sceners on location, whether we were sacrificing any of the demoscene integrity. I know this sounds like a mundane question, but certainly, given the haughty opinions over any sort of expansion, I can certainly see the nay-sayers coming up and claiming that having a government organization expose the demoscene is almost a political statement, and so on, given how the reception of corporate entites doing the same is generally treated. Part of the scene believes in self-sustainability, the separation from outside forces or effects, and believes that the persistence of such is able to preserve the scene for an indefinite amount of time. The other part of the scene believes that the outside influence, with proper filtering and attention, can not only serve as nutrition, but also as a means to evolve.

Let's look at this from a historical perspective: We already raised an eyebrow at Breakpoint when the leaders of Bingen sent their best wishes about the party and so on, an unusual trait from outsiders in high ranks, but I can't recall hearing about an event in scene history where such an impressive display of political figures stands up and publicly assures the scene of their local support. It certainly sets an amazing precendent in many aspects. Any party or event now, who has had problems getting their relevance through to outsiders can now simply take MAIN and present it as a very profound example. In some places of the world, this is what they do for demosceners. This display of support will be able to put immense weight on the scale when it comes to dealing with sponsors, local governments, generally anything bureaucratic.

I was happy to see a lot of newcomers at the party. A few days later, I got to know that some of them were young enough to be brought to the partyplaces of previous parties by their parents, which makes me wonder. Assuming I'd be, say, 16, and my parents would be concerned about my first party, the footage of the MAIN opening ceremony would certainly be on my side. Another important aspect is outreach, but I won't go deep into that - suffice to say that people still have problems relating to the supposed importance of our scene. Anything so blatant can only help.

Certainly I was able, to a certain extent, to commiserate with the voices who claimed that the demosceners (or "demomakers" as they called it) were being used as a bit of an attraction for the local folk. While I'm unsure what kind of attraction an unslept, hung-over, computer nerd, in front of a screen of characters can be, it was somewhat unsettling to be measured up by a variety of people displaying a mix of curiousity and worry. But I consider that issue minuscule. Something that will pay off in the long term. People of Arles will get used to us over time, and unless something unfortunate happens, they'll look forward to their little carnival annually.

The demoscene keeps writing its own little history over time, chapter by chapter. MAIN seemed, for me, to be the turning point of a large page. Not that I have any idea about what's on the other side, but with tendencies changing in the scene, I think MAIN was very much at the right time, in the right place. One thing is sure: I'll do my best to be there this year as well.
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