TED talks have the rare ability to make you feel smarter and more stupid at the same time. The 4th TEDx Talk at the Lowry in Salford inspired, frustrated and educated under the title ‘Festival of the Mind’. It hosted a wide range of different minds from different backgrounds: A Nobel peace prize winner, a 17-year-old who found a method to diagnose pancreatic cancer more efficiently and a man only known as ‘Mister Toilet’ were the highlights of the day and received standing ovations from an audience in awe.
Although the diversity and ambition of the speakers were vast, they all had one thing in common: they never gave up. No matter how many letdowns and ignorant people stood in their way, they kept following their dreams and pushing boundaries. A very good example for this kind of mindset was Jack Andraka, who developed a method that diagnoses pancreatic, ovarian, and lung cancer during their early stages—when there is a better survival rate—before he turned 17. He didn’t give up, even after his biology teacher, his parents and 199 researchers didn’t believe in his abilities. But because one professor believed in him, he kept trying and many more lives will be saved in the future because of it. As if that wasn’t impressive already, he criticised the overly theoretical approach to science in classrooms and he spoke of a class hierarchy in terms of knowledge because most of the research is not available to the public unless a certain amount is paid, starting with $25 per research paper. At least 85 per cent of the population live in knowledge poverty and he hopes for more democracy in knowledge distribution worldwide.
Another common theme at TEDxSalford was the breaking of taboos. People are not supposed to talk about shit or the clitoris, but that is exactly what Jack Sim and artist Sophia Wallace are trying to change. Topics which are not talked about are often neglected and only by breaking the silence, change can happen. Jack Sim, a successful businessman from Singapore realised at the age of 40 that there is no use in making more money. He counted the days until his death and came to a number which frightened him. He realised that time is the only true currency in life and decided to devote his life to toilets. A lack of sanitation is a huge problem in developing countries. In India alone, 90 per cent of the water is contaminated and because of flies, even the rich are “eating the shit of the poor.” Instead of increasing his wealth, he decided to raise awareness about this problem and is travelling through countries, meeting presidents and proposed his movement to the UN, who welcomed his innovative mind and we can now all celebrate the official ‘World Toilet Day’ on the 19th of November.
One of the highlights of the afternoon was the speech of the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Tawwakol Karman, romanticised as ‘The Iron Woman’ and ‘The Mother of Revolution’, who gained a standing ovation from an audience unable to decide whether to weep or to celebrate with her. Her body language was neutral, her speech laconic, and through a thick Arabic accent—frequently divulging into actual Arabic when she could not muster the phrase in English—she stood centre stage and told the story of her part in the revolution in Yemen, part of the Arab Spring. Unlike many of the other speakers, she did not flinch or falter once, as no doubt a fresh-faced audience of students, academics and middle class Mancunians were markedly less intimidating than a heavily armed Yemeni government riot control unit, and she embodied all you would look for in a leader. Her speech went into great detail about her involvement in the 2011 protests, where she organised student rallies against the rule of Abi Abdullah Saleh, whose lack of democratic reform, widespread corruption and claimed human rights abuses had beset the Yemeni people for three decades.
The large pictures being projected behind her were extraneous—her expressions and mannerism amply displayed powerful emotions as they bubbled up within her and guided the audience through the talk. From moments of great celebration, such as the students coming together and rallying in swathes of extraordinary fervour, to moments of endurance camping outside the government building for days on end, to a forlorn picture of one of her dead friends, Karman’s reactions married each event to a more poignant, deeper picture, one that cannot be told, but only experienced. An ebullient audience was turned sombre and pensive by a flicker of grief that played across Karman as she remembered her dead friends. The ‘Iron Woman’ embodied a natural leader, a woman who could stare the devil down but weep uncontrollably for the dead child of another. When her talk ended, and in characteristically stoic fashion, she thanked the audience and stood still, expecting the usual applause, yet what she received was a cacophony of palms. People jumped to their feet, moved to move for a woman that had done so much for so many. The compère acknowledged the eruption of applause as the longest in TEDxSalford history and even as Karman left the stage, she left a strong sense of empowerment within the audience.
Talks ranged from the emotive, to the empowering, to the cerebral, with much overlap in between, but James Glattfelder can confidently be said to fall into the latter. His business card is impressive to say the least, first a physicist and then researcher at a Swiss hedge fund—a job that must require no small amount of creative thinking—and now a Ph.D. holder in ‘Complex Systems’, the focus of his talk. ‘Complex Systems’ is a very vague term for a concept that on the surface—like all good concepts—is very simple. It refers to the idea that all systems are interconnected and every system, say a shoal of fish or a basic forest ecosystem is more than the sum of its parts. He has applied complexity theory to economics and argues it tells us a lot about how the economy works. He co-authored a controversial study that revealed “less than one per cent of all players in the global economy are part of the highly interconnected and powerful core.” A man with these credentials you may assume would be dense, tiresome, wearing a tweed suit with blocky square glasses, surprisingly he only possesses the latter. Glattfelder chose to focus his talk on the complex system of, with a sadistic regard to the mental state of the audience, the system of the universe and the brain. If such a talk can be rated then the existential crisis I was having, staring limply like a battle-weary veteran onto the stage, is surely high praise. With topics ranging from the bizarre way that our brains seem hardwired to be able to understand the universe in mathematical terms to ethnobiology—here in terms of psychedelic flora—Glattfelder gave a talk that has begat many hours of reading, thinking and taken me one step closer to playing with Lego and eating jelly under the supervision of a nurse for the rest of my days. To surmise the concepts his talk wrestled with here would be impossible, but if the ideas interest you then I would suggest you further research him.
We all think that humans are very advanced and know a good deal about our anatomy. Think again! The clitoris was discovered in 1998, 29 years after landing on the moon. How could such an essential female organ be neglected and why are we not talking about it more? Sex education often focuses on the pleasure of boys and only tells girls to endure pain during first intercourse. Women are shamed for having several partners, but they possess a powerful organ, the only human body part that exists solely for pleasure. It is often described as a button, but it actually is an iceberg with at least 8000 sensory nerve endings, the penis in comparison only possessing 3000. The artist Sophia Wallace uses language to shift discourse and she creates street art and posters with witty wordplays called the ‘100 Natural Laws of Cliteracy’ saying “The hole is not the whole,” “Democracy without Cliteracy? Phallusy” and “The world isn’t flat and women don’t orgasm from their vaginas.” The clitoris is not only ignored, 125 million girls’ clitorises are still removed in the process of genital mutilation in in 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East. Furthermore, most people wrongly call the female organ a vagina—the correct name is ‘vulva’. Sophia Wallace fights against this kind of daily ignorance because we are exposed to objectified female bodies every day and being unable to name an essential female organ proves her point further.
Yet not all talks fell within the realm of the serious. Robin Ince, a well-known stand-up comic, gave an animated and hilarious talk on what are known as ‘intrusive thoughts’. This notion encompasses all unwelcome thoughts, from wanting to punch a stranger in the face to being in a high place and suddenly considering jumping off. However, Ince had done his research and found to the audience’s surprise that the two most common ‘intrusive thoughts’ are wanting to throw a baby you are cradling and wanting to have sex with a dog you see—the latter being bizarre and demonstrating that the survey must have been carried out in South Carolina. Whilst these thoughts are naturally, in most instances, considered impure and the sign of a sick mind, Ince actually contended that they are normal and posed the question: would you rather give your baby to someone who thinks “should I throw this baby out the window,” and then rebukes themselves, or absent-mindedly sends the baby careening onto the front page of The Daily Mail?
Likewise, the softly spoken Benjamin Clementine brilliantly sung for the audience a soundscape consisting of more notes than Nick Clegg takes at a Conservative party conference and his onstage persona beget many a laugh. Bouncing in between a sombre faced, self-deprecating comedian who never ceased to ask the audience, “why are you laughing?” to an unabashed tenor, channelling the soul of Pavarotti as he sung about broken promises, love and home. One of the most memorable acts of the night and also one of the most humorous and bizarre, the chants of “one more song,” drowned out the ushering voice of the compère who had to let him play one more fantastical, unclassifiable song.
We were lucky to take a peek behind the scenes while attending one of the workshops in which the curator of the event revealed numbers and facts about TEDxSalford. This year, the organisers tried to focus on better speakers with real content instead of trying to line up big names. The organisation team, mostly consisting of volunteers, normally sends about 300 invitations to speakers from all over the world, although they try to focus on local speakers as well. It was the first time that the balance between male and female speakers was equal which was due to the increase of invitations that they sent to female speakers. Speakers are not paid to be on the stage, but all of their expenses are normally covered. Speakers normally receive training before their big day because they are often confused about what they should actually talk about. At the event, it was obvious that a lot of the speakers were nervous and it took some of them a while to get into a good rhythm. While freedom is important, speakers have to abide by the TED Talks’ guidelines of not trying to sell products or convince people of radical ideas or religions. If you wondered why there is an ‘X’ in the TED Talks at Salford, TEDx Talks are of a smaller scale, independently organised and a lot cheaper. A normal ticket for a TED talk goes into the range of several thousand dollars. The budget is smaller as well; for this year’s TEDx Talk, it was just over £30000 and the event often breaks even.
It was fascinating to find out more about the effort all of the volunteers put into the event and although not every speech was mind-blowing or inspired thoughts of a revolution in the audience, most of the presented topics found resonance and left the audience stunned. On a very long and educational day, we truly witnessed a festival of the mind at the Lowry in Salford. The next TEDx Talk hosted by the University of Manchester will be held next year at HOME, the new cultural centre at First Street.