Exploring the Extraordinary is an annual conference that recognizes and discusses the extraordinary things – a wide range of them – that occur in people’s everyday lives. Christopher Laursen speaks with its co-founders about the upcoming conference.
Dr. Hannah Gilbert and Dr. Madeleine Castro co-founded Exploring the Extraordinary (EtE), and it’s held every September in York, England. Currently, they are preparing the fifth conference, scheduled for 20-22 September 2013. Last year, I made it to York to present at this conference while doing archival research in England – and it truly was an incredible experience. A variety of interdisciplinary scholars, artists, and people from around the world who are simply passionate about the topic presented and were in attendance, sharing some of the most innovative, open-minded ideas that I have come across in a conference environment. Furthermore, registration for the event is quite inexpensive, and you get to experience the grand spooky spaces of the old city of York while you stay there.
Here is a small sampling that shows the diversity of speakers at the conference in 2012:
- Cal Cooper, a parapsychology graduate student at Northampton University who has garnered well-deserved attention with his follow up on D. Scott Rogo and Raymond Bayliss’s research in Telephone Calls From The Dead.
- Sara MacKian, a senior lecturer in Health & Well-Being at Open University, who recently published her book Everyday Spirituality.
- Visual artist Sarah Sparkes on the organization of the multimedia series GHost Hostings held in London.
- Anthropologist Christel Mattheeuws on ceremonies for the dead in Madagascar.
- Writer and shamanistic healer Zoë Brân who took conference attendees on a shamanic journey.
- The energetic “ghost excavator” John Sabol on innovative new methodologies of conducting interviews with spirits through live electronic voice phenomena interviews.
- The study of paramusicology with Melvyn Willin, including people who channelled deceased musicians.
The full list of all speakers in all conferences is on the EtE website.
I had a chance to catch up with Hannah and Madeleine as they prepare for the fifth conference being held in the autumn about the concept of EtE and how it’s been going.
Christopher: First of all, a sincere congratulations for making it to the fifth Exploring the Extraordinary conference this coming September. It really is an incredible endeavour. Can you tell me a bit about how EtE came to be, including what inspired it? And, of course Extraordinarium gives some clues as to the influence of the concept of extraordinary things and experiences as a subject of study, but I’d like to hear your take on it.
Hannah & Madeleine: Thank you very much! We had no idea when we started our annual conferences that they would be so successful, and that we’d end up networking with such a wonderful array of researchers who share our passion for this area of research. It’s been a real joy.
It’s that passion for research which has been the driving force behind EtE. As researchers we recognise the importance of the extraordinary for many people in their everyday lives. We have also been keen to ensure and argue for the fair, respectful treatment and representation of those who report extraordinary experiences. Historically, much of mainstream academia (unfortunately, this is still the case in some contemporary contexts) has sought to undermine the significance of studying the extraordinary. However, thankfully, there are increasing numbers of researchers share both our interest and our belief in equity in this field. We have always wanted to do our bit to support these researchers (and others interested in the field with a non-judgemental approach), because we think it’s vitally important and the papers on our conference schedules reflect this. When EtE started, one of our primary aims was to create a supportive network for researchers who may feel somewhat isolated because of their research interests. Studying extraordinary experiences can present significant challenges in the research and academic environment, due to a tradition of disbelief and sometimes ridicule regarding extraordinary topics. We’ve both been lucky in that respect, though we have also both encountered ‘tutting’ or ‘eye-rolling’ in response to our respective fields of study. Michael Brown‘s reflections on how his peers viewed his research into New Age channelling is humbling: they were unable to understand his interests, and some even assumed he was ‘going native.’ There are few subjects where you get the same level of ‘concern’ except perhaps criminal underworlds! Brown’s book is fantastic, and it is saddening to think that some people may be put off researching in this area because of this kind of reaction.
Also, academia alone can be difficult. Doing a PhD is likely to be a very challenging process, much of which is unexpected and potentially isolating. Battling demons and sometimes quite crushing moments of inadequacy or doubt appear to be fairly common experiences during this time. So if we can do something small but meaningful in terms of offering a space that is supportive, which emphasises encouragement and sharing ideas respectfully (rather than putting people down as a exercise in intellectual prowess), then we are doing at least some of what we set out to do. Some of the most meaningful feedback we’ve had from conference delegates was how the atmosphere at the conferences is friendly, safe, supportive and encouraging. This is one of the things that makes all the hard work worthwhile!
Hannah: When I started my PhD there were few recent sociologically-orientated studies of mediumship. This was exciting, but also challenging as it felt like journeying into the unknown with few footholds. I was constantly looking up papers, contacting academics to find out more about what they were doing, and I discovered this world of amazing research that, to be honest, became like a warm coat that I could wrap up in when I doubted myself or struggled to conceptualise what I was looking at. Having colleagues to work with during PhD research is a godsend, and it really cements how important it is to be able to discuss your ideas with like-minded people.
What has long seemed to be missing was an interdisciplinary setting that was specifically about the extraordinary – not just the paranormal for example, but something that combined all those things that transcend the mundane. From a personal perspective, I found my own research interests increasingly difficult to define in specific categorical terms, and could see its relevance is a whole range of different arenas. Mediumship is often labelled as paranormal, but that does it a disservice. I think its far more complex than that. I think EtE is about opening doors… and having fun while sharing our knowledge and experiences, of course.
Madeleine: I think my natural inclination intellectually is to be a little butterfly-like. I have quite eclectic interests (e.g. contemporary spiritualities, transcendent and mystical experiences, dreams, feminism, methodology) and I tend to flit across disciplines, so I think the importance of a context that was interdisciplinary was high. Having an environment in which we can support others, hear about and discuss our own and others’ work but also constantly be surprised, challenged and introduced to new perspectives and new material is a privilege actually.
Christopher: What did the first conference look like compared to the one this past September? How would you say things have developed in those first four years?
Hannah & Madeleine: The first conference was a much smaller event – a one day event that took place in a room in the Sociology Department at the University of York. It was a lovely event, with a good buzz. We’d wanted to start reasonably small to see how it would go, what the interest level would be, as well as the practical experience of running such an event, which was new to all of us. An email list had been operating for just over a year, and we were keen to start running annual academic conferences. As it happens, others were equally enthusiastic, and by the next year we’d received enough submissions to cover two days. This was also due to popular demand for a longer conference with more time for networking with other delegates. These increased again the following year, with more and more international participation. In the third year, we included an exhibition, to encourage links with artists, and exhibited some wonderfully creative pieces.Christopher: What have some of the surprises been in the conferences for you? Unexpected outcomes, if you will.
Hannah & Madeleine: The enthusiasm and breadth of the submissions we’ve received over the years has been a very pleasant surprise indeed! From a practical perspective, there were various hiccups associated with venues, coordinating catering services and problems with accessing some university spaces. This meant that we were often preoccupied with the logistics of the early conferences and things didn’t always run as smoothly as we’d like (and made us very keen for a glass of wine at the end of the day!). We moved to the Holiday Inn in 2011, which made things so much easier. Finding such a friendly, helpful venue has been another pleasant surprise, and it’s a joy to work with them. We now get much more involved in the intellectual aspects of the conference, which we love, as well as keep an eye on how it’s running.
Christopher: Related to that, can you tell me about how scholars of different disciplines mix, and how those who don’t work in academia fit into EtE?
Hannah & Madeleine: Good question! On the whole, this works well. What seems to unite conference speakers and attenders alike is a real passion and interest in the extraordinary, and an eagerness to hear what people have to say. In our experience, the distinction between academics/non-academics isn’t a huge hurdle. We’re keen to promote a supportive atmosphere at our conferences – we want our conferences to be places where people feel able to try out ideas, where students feel comfortable presenting (perhaps for the first time). That doesn’t mean, of course, that everyone agrees with each other. It would be very dull if they did! Rather, there is a level of respect for what people do. It hasn’t been something we’ve needed to enforce, EtE tends to attracts open minded individuals who are there to learn, discuss and debate, not attack.
Christopher: Who have been some of the key proponents of the concept? Are there other conferences or gatherings that resemble the EtE form?
Hannah & Madeleine: When we started out there was nothing like EtE out there. There were other funded organisations such as the SPR (Society for Psychical Research) and the PA (Parapsychological Association) interested in psychical research and parapsychology, but we wanted to be much broader. Plus we are not, and never have been funded. We don’t get paid to do this, we do it for the love of the extraordinary! Our strength is probably the interdisciplinary nature of our conference, and its focus on the ‘extraordinary’ which is diverse and eclectic, rather than only the paranormal, for example. Many other conferences and events tend to be more specific. As for similar events, we are fairly sure we’re unique (though others are doing great events too). For instance, ASSAP have started doing ‘Seriously Strange’ conferences which include a good range of topics on the anomalous.
Christopher: You have an upcoming conference: EtE 5. Can you tell me a bit about why people should consider attending?
Hannah & Madeleine: If there are people out there who are either researching extraordinary topics or who have an interest in this area and are open to interdisciplinary discussion in a supportive and friendly environment, then this is the conference for them! As always, we have a great mix of papers and some fantastic speakers. The draft schedule will be published on our website http://etenetwork.weebly.com/ in a couple of weeks with details of how to register. In the meantime if people are interested in us they can join us on Facebook – Exploring the Extraordinary – or sign up to our email list or get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christopher: If secrets can be revealed, where would you like to see the interdisciplinary studies of the extraordinary – and EtE itself – go?
Hannah & Madeleine: To infinity and beyond? Perhaps not… it would be nice to see a continuing development of interdisciplinary approaches to the extraordinary, and a burgeoning field of researchers who are genuinely passionate about what they do and looking to open new doors to enquiry. Certainly, other groups and organisation are helping this to happen – its a very exciting time to be involved in such research.
With regards to EtE… we’d like to see it continue to provide annual conferences, perhaps branching into other kinds of events in the UK and elsewhere. At the moment we both have other work commitments that are paid! However, we both still harbour a dream that one day there might be funding for EtE, perhaps even as research institute… We can dream! And we’re always open to suggestions about things we could do!