OpenCon: A New Kind of Poly Event
This year, people came to OpenCon from France, Germany, Catalonia and Switzerland, as well as from all over the UK. Sixty people converged in Dorset – around half of whom had attended last year – to share longer, deeper conversations about the intricacies and complications of non-monogamy than are usually possible at more hectic poly events.
OpenCon isn’t intended as an outreach event, or particularly as an introduction; it’s for people who are already practising non-monogamy, to discuss it but also to socialise and relax. While poly events in the UK initially grew out of the UK BiCon, a long weekend event held in a university, it feels as though OpenCon has separated from this background into a unique event with a very different atmosphere.
Many people didn’t really know what to expect. The venue isn’t well-known, the format of the event is relatively unusual and the event itself is still brand-new: even the central facilitators didn’t really know what it’d be like. The unconference model, where every attendee is also considered an organiser and everyone is expected to participate, was adopted by last year’s founders as a low-energy and sustainable way to run the event, but kept and cherished this year as a model that led to an absolutely awesome event happening.
My background is not only as a member of the UK bi community, but also as a Burner: I like to go on holiday to the desert and work hard (with dozens of other volunteers) for eighteen hours a day, running an arts festival. Burners emphasise radical self-reliance, communal effort, the participation of all attendees and decommodification: for example, it was really important to me that everyone involved in organisation bought a ticket and gave their time and energy as a gift, rather than to save or make money.
I wanted to break down the distinctions between organisers and attendees, to emphasise that anyone could make good stuff happen and that we were all organisers. This wasn’t a case of attendees paying the organisers to put on an awesome show for them, but of everyone collaboratively paying the fees needed for us all to stay in a cool venue in which we could discuss interesting topics. I feel like this contributed to the brilliant, informal, non-commodified atmosphere of the event; not only was the event completely non-profit and all the organisers’ efforts a gift, but the fees themselves were going towards funding a home. Osho Leela does not run for profit: the residents hire out their centre to help cover their own expenses, and they all live there and participate fully in their community because they feel passionately about it. The venue is a home, not a conference centre, and we’re guests. It already had worn sofas, well-used guitars and friendly cats, and I feel like the event felt homelier and more friendly because of that, too.
Someone in the feminism workshop, who had a background in participating in skillshares, pointed out another really awesome thing about making all attendees organisers, which I hadn’t considered. People who take central organising roles in communities gain a great deal of social capital (or social status, power) from this, which can create a problematic dynamic. When all attendees are organisers, it’s less likely that just one or two people are ‘that awesome person who runs everything and knows everything and is really shiny'; dynamics shift more towards ‘oh, you’re that awesome person who ran that really cool workshop, and there’s that person who helped make the amazing pasta salad for lunch, and that person wrote part of our lovely website’. The high status of one or two pedestalled organisers breaks down somewhat, and that’s brilliant.
In all, thirty-three workshops were run. They filled almost all the time we had and three or four were scheduled in each slot. Many people worked really hard, diving headlong into complex conversations about difficult issues such as gender stereotyping, multi-occupancy households, the media and parenting. Fun, light workshops were scheduled alongside these, too – we had games, a smut reading, drumming and dancing – and the workshops on flirting, on kink and on creative communication were absolutely packed out. Most people didn’t seem to be interested in dancing in the evenings – it seemed as though it didn’t quite fit in to the mood of the space. This was a time for conversations, relaxation and deep connections; most people spent their evenings moving between sofa, sauna and cuddle pile.
It felt as though we had so much more time than usual, and with that came the opportunity to explore more subtlety. I found that I was able to express quite difficult, complex points in the workshops on feminism, bisexuality and kink, and I was able to trust that they’d be taken seriously and with the nuance intended. Some of my ideas felt to me as though they would be controversial, but they were met with many others’ agreement and stories. Increasingly, I realised that we really need more spaces in which to discuss, with small numbers of trusted people, the intricacies of living non-monogamously. I’m very much looking forward to continuing the conversations online and at future events.
How was my OpenCon?
Friday evening was introductions. People arrived, found their accommodation and parked up on sofas to meet and chat. I brought everyone together for a big welcome before separating people into randomly assigned small groups and sending them off to make their own introductions – a really useful way to meet a few new people in a big unfamiliar crowd! Each group then fed back some suggestions as to what they’d like to see at OpenCon (and in non-monogamous communities in general), and together we wrote up a big ‘OpenCon Wishlist’ which was then hung in the dining room.
One of the residents of Osho Leela had offered to run a session of biodanza – guided, silly, kinda-cuddly dancing – which was well-received by lots of people (it seemed an especially useful thing for people who had done it before) and completely avoided by others. I then put on an iTunes playlist I’d thrown together, to which only my partners (briefly) danced while everyone else socialised elsewhere. I was assured this was because they were keener on conversations, rather than because my music was rubbish!
We’d also started discussions of entertainment for Saturday night and people quickly got to work putting together a community cabaret and scheduling a quick meeting to discuss the logistics of a cuddle pile.
On Saturday, I dragged a bag of circus toys outside, whereupon a poi workshop spontaneously happened, before moving on to talk about feminism, flirting, cuddle pile rules, bisexuality, the media and article writing. It was a long day! Later, I heard about people relaxing on mattresses in the erotica reading, getting really in-depth in a double-length discussion and creating personalised ‘user manuals’ in the communication workshop.
In the evening, I stepped in to compere the cabaret (I was even lent a top hat!) and enjoyed songs, poems, storytelling and dancing – it was brilliant to see our community’s talents. I then joined the cuddle pile, which had a list of regulations on the door and a wonderful host who outlined rules, gave guidelines and generally oversaw to ensure everyone had a good time. From what many people said the next day, they really did!
Sunday morning started slowly. The only workshop I’d planned to run, a stencilling session, was scheduled early so as to avoid missing any other awesome workshops and I spent a happy hour playing with stencils and paint with a couple of friends. It left me chilled out and charged up for a noisy hour on the kink panel, holding forth and sharing thoughts about all aspects of kink and non-monogamy, followed by another noisy hour of chatting about feminism.
One thing that particularly struck me in the feminism workshops (I’m sure this tendency occurred elsewhere too) is that, although the facilitator asked complex, advanced questions that were specific to non-monogamy and poly communities, many of the workshops’ participants seemed to be keener on simply sharing their everyday experiences of sexism. Our small group discussions quickly turned into talking about others’ assumptions and preconceptions and had women talking about male entitlement and imbalanced flirting. I think it was because many people had very little chance to talk about sexism in their everyday lives, and so, when the chance came to be in a space full of feminists, their stories just poured out. I realised that this is a really simple and important thing that workshops on feminism provide: space and solidarity, and I feel like there was lots of pent-up frustration with sexism that had to be aired before we could even start to get in to the intricacies of addressing sexism in poly communities.
I feel like this was the case for the rest of the weekend as well. At a short, hectic poly event, there’s usually time to recap basic ideas and maybe cover a little new ground, but not much more. It’s really important for people to share stories and to discuss non-monogamy at an introductory level, but it can also feel a bit tricky to move beyond that. This longer, more relaxed weekend allowed time for people to unpack their ideas and lay them out, to share stories, and also to consider new, unfamiliar and more complex ideas on top of those. We have to allow time to touch base, and if we’re to delve deeper, we need time and space on top of that.
The last workshop I attended looked forward: we talked about building local communities and providing support and socialising where we live, as well as discussing the arrangement of future poly events. In this and the closing session – in which I asked everyone to share something they’d learned, or something they’d liked – the feeling seemed to be that a year was too long to wait for another weekend like this. We talked about arranging a poly picnic in the spring, and considered one-day regional meet-ups as well. As people left for the station we exchanged contact details, and the conversations now continue online, tiding us over until next October.