Talk About the Talks
Mat Lippincott – What It’s Like to Speak at TED
Research Club alumni Mathew shares his thoughts and blunt observations about the cultural phenomena that is TED.
Last Sunday, the official second branch of Research Club had our first session, in Nashville, Tennessee.Inspired by Research Club during his time living in Portland, Bobby Allyn brought the idea to Nashville, where people drive cars and are terribly family oriented, spending weekends at brunch or at home. But Nashville has lots of cool stuff going on- with a handful of universities in town, a powerful medical center at Vanderbilt University, and lots of working artists, Nashville has a lot of thoughtful people making great work. While brainstorming one day with friend Perrin Ireland on how to coalesce more bright Nashvillian bulbs more often, the pair decided to try to set up Nashville's own Research Club to bring people together around thought-provoking ideas and projects in Nashville. After months of planning and consulting with Nim Wunnan, last Sunday, May 27th, we held our first Nashville RSRCH CLB meeting at the Brick Factory in Cummins Station. Our speakers included Diana Sullivan, a former realtor who is coordinating Tennessee's first cohousing project, who shared about the group strategizing that's gone into the development of a plot of land in Germantown for cohousing. We heard from Michael Bess, a Vanderbilt University historian who's focused on our genetically modified technological cultural future, Kevin Seale and Molly Thoreson, who spoke about the science of birthing and their personal quest for information and alternative practices for bringing their children into the world; and lastly, Lucas Hofmeister, a graduate student at Vanderbilt University, who shared about his research in biomaterials to cure heart disease. It was an intimate gathering and a committed discussion ensued over biscuits and hard-boiled eggs. We felt very lucky to have such distinguished speakers join us for a round-table discussion about the issues they are passionate about. We hope RSRCH CLB will foster the growth of an ideas forum in Nashville, where people can gather and be exposed to thinkers they might otherwise not encounter, and expand our collective thinking as a city. Thank you to our speakers for joining us- see you next month, June 24th!
In the last year and a half, Research Club moved away from planting its own original projects towards a role of tilling the soil for the ambient projects in the surrounding community. Our own project became the study and development of a certain variety of community dynamics. What little conscious theory that I applied during this period of time was developed out of our Heavy Meta tour, especially the conversations I had with directors at the School of Life in London and Per Schumann of Entwurf Direkt. In proper meta-fashion, this theory was directly addressed and extended by the material taught by one of the ambient projects that we helped activate, What Philosophy Can Do for Art II. Direct experimentation and collaboration with like-minded organizations and projects comprised the rest of this study.
The theory goes something like this — New organizational structures and patterns are developing in the gaps between the areas controlled by existing institutions and conventions or in place of failing ones. The patterns at work here are social manifestations of patterns that have established vocabularies at various locations of cultural production — especially the arts, education, and internet culture, but also in mathematics and the natural sciences. The social manifestation can be see in local, artisan economies, alternative or cooperative education, open data, and community organizations.
The broadest differences we see in these patterns are:
These patterns have a built-in self-referentiality, because they apply to distribution as much as they do to engagement. Part of the pattern is to say “If we support this way of doing X, we will also distribute the means and idea of doing X according to similar principles.” That’s the systemic integrity piece. If that seems to abstract, this is what I mean:
Take the example of tool libraries. The DIY culture they serve is organized around the idea that the people or communities that use goods should be able to fix or build them themselves when possible and prudent, rather than stepping outside of the cycle of use and maintenance by buying new things and throwing out old things. But some of those goods are tools, so if everyone goes out and buys their own tools from outside their community, that just relocates the displacement of resources from the inefficient purchasing of end consumer products to the inefficient purchasing of tools. The DIY repair culture isn’t just about fixing and repairing — it’s about self-sufficiency. So places like tool libraries extend the idea of meeting one’s needs where they are located rather than appealing to outside support. They unite this idea from the actual fixing and making of goods to the distribution of the means to do so. That is what I mean by systemic integrity.*
The general rule is that if the net effect is the empowerment of all the parties involved, than the system has integrity. (What about Home Depot? Won’t it sell fewer table saws now? We can talk about the integrity of the system again when there are so many tool libraries that Home Depot feels anything on its bottom line.)
Since coming back from Heavy Meta, we’ve been trying to operate according to these patterns and principles as strictly as possible. That means:
The system is not so well-oiled that participants always spontaneously organize around ideas and needs, but as chief stone-provider and gap-filler, I can guarantee you that most of the support I have provided — financial, edible, conceptual, or participatory — has been purposely inadequate, so all of our successes are authentically participatory and because of the many, many people who have chosen to contribute for their own reasons. (As are our failures.)
The point of this is that we are trying to devise a way or ways to scale up the self supporting growth manifested by communities organized around these patterns to a degree that has not been done before. There is a magic to the way that communities can innovate, grow, and support themselves from within that is more efficient and more empowered than conventional means, and since coming back from Heavy Meta, fostering and studying that magic has been my only real reason for putting so much time and effort into Research Club. The Portland Passport project is an attempt to build a new way to spread that magic more than it spreads already.
The plan was to build cross-community momentum with a series of events at the same time as building the infrastructure of the network — a website and a set of printed passports. The conventional way of doing this would be to develop the website and promote it and the events like crazy, probably while raising money to do so. The integrated way is to share the idea and open up some venues and let the people who get excited by it turn it into something bigger.
So, that said, it’s not working right now. Many organizers and individuals have thrown in with the stone soup, and it’s a bigger and heartier soup than we’ve ever had before. However, we were trying to build a feast, and that’s not happening.
I’m just being frank — this isn’t a call for help or an admonition. I don’t even think it means that it can’t be done, but it is a very difficult thing that we are trying to do. Please see the passport project for more.
So what does this all mean for the future of Research Club?
Most of our events in the last year have been events that are meant to be nodes in a network rather than terminal destinations. They have done very well as events, but I think they have reached their usefulness as network-builders. We’ve learned from the Passport Project that we need more support than we currently have if we want to increase the scale of the network.
Brunch — brunch is very easy to do, and I encourage anyone who is interested in keeping it going to give it a shot. You can feed about 40 people for about $20 with our recipe, and we can put you in touch with a few venues that would be interested in hosting it. Email email@example.com with any questions you’ve got.
Future Events — There will be more events in the future, but they will be on themes that are personally interesting to me or other active members of the Research Club community. Any network-building or collaboration that comes out of them will be purely accidental. They will probably not be free, but they won’t be expensive. They may be through other organizations.
In the meantime, we still have a reservation for the Norse Hall on July 21, and New Ranch at Silver Falls State Park for Labor Day weekend. If you want to make something of these venues, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Publishing — We’ve been too busy facilitating other projects to properly disseminate the many wonders in our archive. Look for many updates to the website, the long-promised Heavy Meta documentary, and possibly a quarterly in the next year.
Thanks everyone for your participation and interest over the last few years. Think of this as a cocoon stage for Research Club, but a cocoon where a badger enters and a three-subject notebook and a cup of tea emerges. There, that should explain everything.
* This is where people will start calling you a socialist, because one of the reliable means of of making money is to buy something that people want so you control their access to it, and then profit from that control. Arguments that involve those sorts of accusations are boring and usually pointless, because what both sides are arguing over is the restriction of freedom. “Socialism” is a bad word when it looks like a tool to take away freedom, just as is “capitalism.” I have yet to see a community organization like a Tool Library spring up because of a deep, local and agreed-upon need to restrict a party’s freedoms, so forget the name-calling and look at the effects of these patterns (Conversely, you can often find outside influence in local organizations that do work to restrict freedoms)
About a month ago at our Cross Community Summit, I said that we’d know in a month whether or not we’ve got the necessary momentum to launch this project. I’m a little — but not a lot — sorry to say that we don’t. That is, we don’t have what we need to launch the project in the way I wanted to — from the ground up, using participatory, distributed methods instead of conventional ones.
It means that I am calling off development on the website for the network, and we will not be printing passports.
Whether or not we still do prom is up to the people and groups who want to be part of it. I’m pretty sure we’ll have something fun.
The Portland Passport Project was a challenge and an experiment — to launch an ambitious project using only the support of the community that would use it rather than through outside support and advertising.
After talking to many, many people in many different communities, I’m convinced that the idea is too abstract and the schedule is too tight to motivate enough people to participate enough to launch a project this size without funding or a massive PR campaign.
However, thanks to the participation of an impressive variety of talented artists, developers, musicians, organizers, and designers, we hosted two amazing, interdisciplinary events, and inspired a few more. Check out the International Waters calendar for a cross-section of this city’s schmorgesborg of culture.
Conventional means — trying to attract outside support and non-participatory promotions.
Someone takes the reins — This can’t be done without a dedicated administrative board. With enough volunteers, we could try again.
These tracks require a lot of homework and preparation so that means a) they won’t happen for a while and b) the only participants will be those doing the homework.
I am going to take the idea for the network and the conversations that it has started and look for other contexts where they can be useful. But I’m going to take my time doing so.
A lot of people do, but we haven’t been able to turn that desire into enough action. If you are prepared and able to put in consistent hours on this, email email@example.com.
Stay tuned for a post about the future of Research Club.
Last Wednesday, May 9, White Bird closed their 14th season with a one-night, high-energy performanc by the Compagnie Kafig troupe at the Schnitzer. Portland Stage Reviews documents the show well, but see the White Bird press release for some crucial background on the troupe and this show’s choreography:
An encounter between Mourad Merzouki and 11 young dancers from Rio de Janeiro at the Lyon Dance Biennial in 2006 is the inspiration behind this unique performance. The young dancers’ individual stories about their lives in the favelas and how they were determined to make something of themselves moved Mourad to create two heart-stopping works that showcase the young Brazilian’s astonishing acrobatic skills and dazzling virtuosity. According to Merzouki, “This language – hip-hop – is movement that comes from the streets, from poor neighborhoods, where there is a primordial rage to speak out, to give expression to furious energy, to the fierce desire to live. It is a voluntary act that matures over time, absorbing different schools of thought. Nourished by disparate elements, it becomes not only art but a commitment – to dispense with clichés and conventional thinking and to dismiss bromides about hip-hop as a social movement, in order to establish this language as an art in its own right.
Watching this show while sitting in the Schnitzer near seats that cost nearly much as a full day’s work at a minimum wage job, you sit among the tension between where the dancers and the dance itself came from and where they were performing. They came from a very different place, and those differences are all touchy — they are national, racial, and economic. Riskier still was the fact that the show was very fun, and the dancers grinned a lot. Was the fun to keep us from worrying about our difference from the foundations of the performance, or did the fun belong to the dancers, given as a gift to the audience?
The tension is one of accessibility in both the literal and theoretical senses. There’s the familiar pull of irony-vs-victory whenever performers or styles rise to a prominence from humble or rough beginnings. Is the exclusivity worth noting, or is it not since the show costs just as much as it would for any other world-class troupe whose members didn’t grow up in favelas? Is hip-hop declawed by entering the stage or does it do so as a deserved acknowledgment of its formal qualities? It is and it isn’t and that’s why there’s tension, but the challenge is in addressing it without suffering from it, in finding the art within and around it rather than slapping some on top of it. (And it should be noted that in case Portland has any budding b-boy geniuses who couldn’t afford a ticket, White Bird generously arranged a showing and Q and A earlier that day for public school students.)
Besides a bit too much grinning, I think they did exceedingly well by this measure. (And maybe I’m simply cynical in thinking that that much genuine grinning isn’t possible — I’m sure I’d be pretty damn happy myself if I could move like the men in Kafig).The piece is definitely a contemporary, stage-dance piece, doing more than simply showcasing some incredible breaking. At the same time, when the dancers do show their roots and flex their muscles, it does not feel watered down. They could have gotten away with a lot more showboating. Rather than restraining themselves, it felt more as if they were showing the freedom that masters of an art have to explore when they don’t need to prove how good they are. Breaking is the central vocabulary of the show, but the show as a whole is ontologically mixed and experimental. While making for a more interesting performance, this also means that the show avoids the hazard of being trumpeted as the greatest breaking you can see. There’s no question that these guys are among the best, but the best work within formal breaking is happening on streets and stages at the same time. But this show is not about what one can do within hip-hop dance but what hip-hop dance can do within a contemporary, international context.
The spareness and ingenuity of the second act, Agwa, nails this. The troupe dances with two props: clear plastic cups, and water. Nothing about it requires the Schnitzer any more than it requires a clear sidewalk. It needs a stack of plastic cups, some water, and a crew of incredibly athletic dancers and inspired choreography.
The first act both required and mocked the theatrical context more, but it still carried the infectious energy and freedom that blossomed in the second act. “Infectious” tends to get thrown around when talking about vague things like “energy”, but I mean it very specifically here. From the first moments on stage, the buoyancy of the performers filled the hall and lightened everyone there. Even sitting there as a critic, trying to feel for the edges of the sort of socio-economic tension that art school refugees like me usually seize on, it was impossible not to have fun at the show. It was so entreating that it did not require a deep reading to get at the reason it exists, but it was satisfying to see that the overall choreography stands up to that sort of rumination that you could do if you weren’t as busy clapping as we all were throughout the show.
The audience reaction, and the lightness of mood throughout the hall was striking. There’s a bit of cold war about clapping in high-class venues, but the side of clapping conservatism didn’t stand a chance at the Schnitzer. From the start of the show, the audience was gasping and clapping at each of the many surprises and moments of fission in the show. The obligatory standing-ovation even swayed a little bit during the encore — because the audience demanded an encore and the dancers had one ready, which didn’t seem at all out of place.
The unavoidable fun and blockbusterishness of the show certainly made it a good choice of a finale for the season. The house was packed, and the crowd was diverse and excited. Being my fourth White Bird show ever, it gave me a glimpse of the broadness of their program, especially when compared with some of their Uncaged series.
As White Bird prepares for some really exciting stuff in its 15th year, I hoped I could come up with some new insight into what makes it an interesting and important part Portland culture. But they’ve been doing a great job for half my life, and anyone who hasn’t figured that out for themselves isn’t in that position for lack of evidence or documentation. So instead, I’d like to borrow White Bird’s success for a moment to make a comparison.
In gallery world, we like to talk about advancing dialogue, of pushing boundaries, of entertaining the new art of a given field. But we are still quite cut off in Portland. We are cut off from buyers, from international fairs, and from most touring shows. We punch well above our weight as a city, but we send most of our best emerging artists away to big cities like the Midwest sent their best punk bands to New York in the 1980s. Why don’t we have a White Bird of visual art, and why have the past and current efforts to create something like that been so fraught? Visual art may not have the ticket-selling draw that performance does, but if it wants to be considered just as relevant it needs to look at its own metric of participation in comparison. By those metrics, we still do not have the coordination of patronage, audience-education, sustained international dialogue, and community development that White Bird represents to the dance community. We have a few institutions that do what they do very well, but until someone brings world-class artists to Portland as regularly and as visibly as White Bird brings world-class dancers, I think the gallery crowd needs to pay more attention to groups like White Bird and maybe even less attention to themselves.
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