TEDxCMU: Ideas for the Arts!

The premise of a TED talk is wonderfully simple; an idea, a good idea, can be captivating, inspiring, and even revolutionary! At CMU, this past Sunday, it was the reinterpretation of an idea that took center stage at the independently organized TED event. There were a total of 12 speakers who gave talks on everything from sodium ion batteries to self-love manifestos, from neuroscience and classical music to the history of comic strips! It may have been snowing outside, but within the auditorium, there was neither a flake of disinterest nor a gust of sighs.


And as serendipity would have it, many of the speakers addressed (even performed!) topics that directly related to the performing and visual arts!

The talks began with Matthew Manos, the founder of the social graphic design firm, a verynice design studio. Manos spoke of about his desire to help not-for-profits through design services but knew that his company would need a sustainable business model; not necessary a for-profit model (thus becoming like all the other design firms), and neither a not-for profit model (he would need help to help!).

It was the idea of social entrepreneurship that helped him realize a model where he would operate as a for profit design firm that would “dedicate over 50% of its services to pro-bono design". As of now, the firm states that it has “provided $250,000 worth of pro-bono design and consulting services in 6 continents to 125+ clients thanks to our team of 60+ international volunteers.”

According to Manos, organizations that rely on fundraising would fare much better were they to operate on the model of a social enterprise. This would help free up time spent in areas such as grant writing and development, allowing an organization to focus on its mission and core activities. As you may have read, Telemarketing was swiftly killed by one of my colleagues, perhaps the entire field fundraising needs some re-interpretation?

But apart from fundraising, a product that clearly requires some re-thinking is powerpoint! Bohannan’s talk is intriguingly titled A Modest Proposal: Dance vs. powerpoint.  Although John Bohannan’s talk was filmed in Brussels, it was shown to the audience via video, and it was absolutely compelling!

According to him, it’s time powerpoint was replaced by interpretive dance. And no, he did not use any slides, pointers, or smart art graphics to make his case. If you haven’t seen it already, see it! See an idea gracefully unfold itself in 18 minutes! For words are static, devoid of the essence of rhythm. They cannot explain what Bohannan so clearly demonstrates using dancers, using the “human body in motion”!

Bohannan is also the creator of Dance your PhD, a contest where PhD students in the field of science present their research using dance. On the contest’s website, a dance inspired by the roaring twenties explains the “Plant Community and Ecosystem Effects of Drought in the Pinon/Juniper Ecosystem” Or how about “Cosmological Simulations of Galactic Disc Assembly” where the “dance starts with a bang, a Big Bang.”

But let’s saunter back to TEDxCMU, and to the talks, where it was the fields science and music that had been dancing to a complicated waltz, and at times, a three step cha cha cha!

One of the inspiring speakers at the event was Stephen Neely, “an Artist Lecturer of Dalcroze Eurythmics” at CMU. According to Neely, the physicality of music appreciation is more important than its cerebral aspects. He compared the feelings experienced when listening to music as those of a child sitting on a swing; an undulating movement between moments of heaviness and moments of weightlessness.

Furthermore, Neely spoke about the difference between what is considered to be art vs. that which is artful. In music, the performance only becomes artful when the audience interacts with the performer, identifies the move from weightlessness to heaviness. And the success of a musical piece depends on its ability to enable the audience to experience an “authentic forward motion” through these phases.

To continue on the complexities of music appreciation, the comprehension of classical music was the core focus of Ardon Shorr’s talk. Shorr is “currently pursuing a PhD in Biology” at CMU and he spoke wonderfully about his idea of “unlocking classical music with neuroscience.” Shorr said that classical music is inherently difficult to follow but it could become easier, and more enjoyable, if we were to visualize “how music is organized” and learn the “shape of symphonies.”

According to him, there is inherent structure in compositions and instead of trying to memorize each and every phrase, it would be easier to group them. He plans to build an interactive website where people can come together and begin to appreciate the virtuosity of Mahler’s symphonies.

In all, TEDxCMU was a great day for the re-interpretation of ideas. Among the audience, many a light bulb of inspiration flickered, eventually becoming brighter as the event progressed.