About a year ago, on a beautiful morning, I sat outside on a deck. In my hand I had a mug of coffee, and as I sat I was enjoying the way the light wind tugged at my hair and snatched little rising lines of steam from the coffee. The birds chirped from the treeline in the distance. Across from me, my father reclined in a chair. We were discussing gardens: What plants we would want, why, where they would go — he wanted flowers, I vegetables. He wanted for the beauty; I wanted for the use. “It’s odd,” he said. “You of all people, an artist, I would think would appreciate things independent from their use.” And, innocuous as that comment is, it touched upon one of my central anxieties: What is the use of doing art in a fractured world?

***

By nature I am a rather pessimistic person. As long as I can remember, I have viewed the chance of success (no matter what the subject) with wary eyes. Whenever the clouds part to reveal a glorious sunburst, I squint and wonder what pitfall I’m missing. I have faith in very little other than the inevitability of decay. Paradoxically, I also get swept up by broad, romantic ideas about the possibility of a utopian future; I’m occasionally overcome with grandiose visions of total equilibrium and ample bounties, perfect worlds wrought with human hands, all of which I think is — theoretically — attainable. It just won’t happen. In essence, I believe that Elysium exists but that we’ll never reach it.

Enter TED talks: It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the entire concept is supremely uncomfortable to me. I simply don’t know what to think of it. On the one hand, having a place to share ideas and visions for a better world with the general public kindles an enticing spark of hope within my mind, a hope that we might yet do something to save ourselves and our planet from oblivion — at least for a little while longer. On the other, I sometimes wonder if TED isn’t just a collection of self-congratulatory pseudo-intellectual liberal types who commend themselves for doing little more than acknowledging that the world has problems (which, granted, is probably an unnecessarily acerbic and not-wholly-accurate critique, but there it is). I sometimes wonder if it’s not a great example of the sort of elite liberal smugness that has been so discussed over the past year.  These two conflicting conceptions of TED have been in competition more or less since the first time I saw some lectures posted online years ago. When I first came to the University, the annual conference hosted on campus reawakened these ideas.

When I first conceived of writing about the University of Michigan TEDx conference, I envisioned something like this: I would walk into the conference, notebook in hand, wry smile suspended on my face, keenly observing the swirl of bodies flowing in currents around me, picking up snippets of enthusiastic conversation as I occasionally scribbled down some witty observation. I would sit quietly in the audience listening half-attentively to the lectures, making intermittent notes of insightful comments I would tuck away for later use. At the end of the presentations I would clap dutifully, pack up my things and go home. A week later I would have produced a commentary on my experience that would be simultaneously thought-provoking and funny, filled with clever observations, dry wit and telling anecdotes. I would be David Foster Wallace on a cruise ship, Hunter S. Thompson writing an obituary.

That was one year ago. A lot has happened in the world since then, and the inclination of my thoughts has turned dark concurrent with public events. I want us to do something to improve our world or mitigate the fallout from recent events, but more and more it seems as if our efforts yield nothing but an elongated death spiral. So, inevitably this article is going to end up very different from what I might have written even just a few months ago. In the past few weeks, I’ve sat down to write it maybe a dozen times, but each time I’ve found my ideas are haunted by the spectre of everything that’s been going on. By now I’ve just accepted that.

I brought the notebook at least.

This year’s TEDx Conference (at this point it’s worth point out that the University conferences are TEDx events, which means that they are organized independently from TED Conferences, LLC) was about a month ago now, and it was the first time I had attended an event of that sort. The conference was held at the Power Center on Fletcher Street, which is probably familiar to most Ann Arborites as that imposing concrete building with an abundance of windows and vaguely modernist architectural aesthetic. The first thing I noticed when I entered the building was the excited, high-decibel chatter bouncing around the concrete walls. The second thing was the large, firetruck red “TED” sign / sculpture, just in case there was any confusion about what was going on. People posed dramatically with this, capturing a piece of visual memorabilia with a little tap of their thumb.

The festivities surrounding TED began long before the first talk was given. In the lobby, tables and stands were assembled in a manner that vaguely resembled the air of a scaled-down, less weird carnival — imagine the energy without the strangeness. Refreshments were provided, courtesy of Avalon Pastries and RoosRoast Coffee. A heat-sensitive video camera displayed a real-time image of passers-by in vivid, psychedelic color. Along one wall was something called a “Dream Line,” where people would write an aspiration on a notecard before hanging it from a line already weighed down by dozens of other notecards, little pithy phrases like “turn compassion into action” or the standard-fare American-Dream-style “get a job with a six-figure salary.” Not really my kind of thing, but after several friendly proddings by an eager-looking volunteer in a red TED shirt, I scribbled something down and left it. My favorite feature by far was the stand run by Literati, which contained a selection of books picked out by the featured speakers — there were even a few titles that are on my own to-read list. The atmosphere of the whole thing was that of optimistic pageantry.

The talks began after the audience — all 1,300 people — finished filing into the auditorium of the Power Center. After the usual we’re-pleased-welcome-you standard introduction stuff, the first speaker strode onto the stage. The ASL interpreter stood poised at the edge of the platform, waiting for speech.

Koen Vanmechelen looks like a storm. His dark eyes and wild, graying hair perfectly embody the image of the pioneering artist — which is good, because that’s what he is. A close-up image of a chicken flashed onto the projection screen. The Belgian spoke.

“This is not a chicken,” he said. I honestly didn’t expect that.

Vanmechelen went on to discuss his years-long conceptual art project, the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, explaining in imperfect but intelligent English the ways in which he tries to unify our diverse world through his art, which is a “metaphor.” Through the breeding of various types of chickens, he works to show the diversity and interdependence of humanity with itself and the natural world. Strange as it sounds, at the end of his presentation (which was punctuated by little “you know(s),” a habitual exclamation that seemed to both thrown-away placeholder and genuinely inquisitive, gently emphatic plea), I felt I had both enjoyed and learned from it — though I had been expecting this, as it isn’t the first time I have encountered Vanmechelen’s work, and have a CCP poster to prove it.

Most of the remaining speakers capably presented their ideas, though at a month’s remove I would have difficulty telling you what they all spoke on without my notes. I won’t touch on everyone here (and soon enough you’ll be able to watch the talks yourself online), but I will mention a few moments which I feel are pertinent to my point. The artist Sophia Brueckner, now an Art and Design assistant professor, perhaps indirectly addressed the principal concern at the heart of this piece: The place of optimism. “Critical optimism” was the way she described her approach (in her case, to the potential impact of new technologies), a midway between “pure optimism” and “everything is terrible.” And perhaps that is the most healthy way to view things. But for myself, I fear that far too often optimism takes the place of action, that our dissatisfaction with the world can be sated through a simple, cheery belief that things will all work out — the problem lies in that, like trying to sate a physical hunger with pure glucose, this solution essentially has no substance.

One of my principal issues with TED, I suppose, is that it gives a smattering of anodyne verbal offerings while rarely translating words into tangible gains. Its audiences are full of essentially well-meaning people who more than likely will never do anything about the very real problems discussed (and I do not exclude myself from this group; and of course there are obviously others in any given TED audience who I would exclude, but here I speak generally). The conference’s theme was “Dreamer’s and Disrupters,” and my concern is that the former perhaps overbore the latter to an unhealthy degree. While a TED conference indulges in the dopamine rush of what seems to me an extreme, often irrational optimism, I’m unable to overcome the feeling that the whole of our civilization is careening towards some grisly wreck. The tragedy is greater because I feel that this wreck is probably avertable if we simple managed to rouse ourselves to action. But maybe it’s not, and maybe all that will be left one day of this pleasant little jaunt around the park of liberal democracy are the steel skeletons that were once our cities, skyscraper tombstones whistling in the wind. Oh well. Of course, this is probably a hyperbolic thing to wonder — I do that sometimes. But I’m not the first to think it, and I won’t be the last, and someday one of us is bound to be right.

The inadequacy of mere talk turned out to be perhaps my biggest take-away from the conference, but this isn’t to say that the feeling is merited equally by all the presenters. Many of the speakers do engage in exactly the sort of concrete, tangible altering of the world that I’m advocating. Scott Matzka has become an ALS advocate. Erika Newman is trying to cure cancer. Abdul El-Sayed is the Health Commissioner for the city of Detroit — a few days after the talk the 32-year-old announced his candidacy for governor. All of these people do real work to improve the world. But one of the things they all have in common is they strive to use science to address material issues. For the artists of the conference, the impact they can have was far less obvious, and far more abstract —  all of which raises the much larger question of art’s role in changing the world. In what ways, in the light of all the wrong that exists, can what we do as artists be ultimately meaningful? I don’t have the answer. But what I do know is this: We have to believe art means something. The alternative is negation and despair.

 

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