TORONTO - IdeaCity, the intellectual and cultural smorgasbord that opened its three-day run at the St. Lawrence Centre in Toronto yesterday, works best when it startles its assembly of business executives, media bosses and computer nerds with something entirely unexpected. That's the genius of Richard Saul Wurman, the American architect-entrepreneur who invented the TED conference (it stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) and made it a huge annual success in Monterey, Calif.. He brought his panache to a conference called TEDCity in Toronto last summer, partnering with Moses Znaimer, the Toronto media baron. But this year Znaimer renamed the event ideaCity, followed the same format and took over Wurman's role as producer and host. That left TED fans wondering whether Znaimer could demonstrate the ingenuity that made Wurman's annual extravaganzas flourish.
If one day's showing proves anything, the answer is Yes. Znaimer provided us with a vaudeville that was clearly Wurman-like in its casual, eclectic content. As with everything Wurman does, the quality ranged from excellent to not so hot, but with far more of the first than the second.
TED, traditionally, comes most vividly to life when someone with no great reputation reveals a startling talent or some unbilled moment turns into a sensation. Yesterday the great triumph was provided by the unlikeliest performer, Isabelle Chassé, who works on the high wire for the Cirque du Soleil. Andrew Watson, artistic director of the Cirque, was talking about the Cirque's reinvention of circus art. As he spoke, a woman walked in darkness toward a line dropped from the flies. Those who know the Cirque wondered what point she could possibly make -- one performer, in a theatre hardly designed for circus. But when finally Watson turned the stage over to her and the music and sound effects started up, she made a stunning kind of magic. Dashing up and down two thick silk chords, falling and then recovering, demonstrating first incredible strength and then touching vulnerability, she performed a vertical ballet that left the audience astounded, breathless and happy. It was the perfect moment for this kind of conference, entirely unlike anything we expected.
Her highly charged and highly personal performance demonstrated the value of a gathering like this, where a sociologist, a neuroscientist, a jazz singer and a journalist end up appearing on the same bill. IdeaCity justified itself by delivering a high degree of spontaneity and intimacy. Each speaker came out alone, with no script, no set subject and no instructions except to discuss whatever he or she was currently thinking about. Some chose to tell a few jokes, like Dr. Joe MacInnis, a physician as well as a deep-sea explorer ("I was in the top 94% of my medical class"). Others jumped on an opinion and rode it happily across the stage, like Diane Francis describing Canada as a shame-dominated culture where we can't let anyone fail, even in school, because we think failure is a source of shame rather than (as she argues) just one way of learning. Some offered fresh research, like Michael Adams, who can tell us precisely why (despite globalization, free trade, etc.) Canadians are not being culturally assimilated by the U.S.
These are like monologues in a living room, and they have the charm of the random and apparently aimless. Not everyone can carry them off. Peter Jennings, for instance, turned out yesterday morning to be the kind of guest who probably wouldn't get invited back. He nattered a lot, and in a brief period demonstrated several times that he can't finish a sentence, much less a thought. He deplored the fall of old-fashioned serious journalism, such as he, for instance, used to practise.
Of President George W. Bush's European trip, he said the Europeans were initially disdainful, seeing him as ignorant and wrong-headed, but when he turned out to be humble and willing to listen, why, they kinda liked him, and sent him home happy. Jennings delivered this as if he had just thought of it, though it's the standard line spouted by just about every American TV network and newspaper correspondent in the last four days. (Did they all get together and agree on it at some secret meeting in a high-school gym in Sweden -- or do they communicate subliminally?)
Some guests at ideaCity decided it was a time for revelation and autobiography. The wonderful Molly Johnson, even before demonstrating what a terrific singer she is, told us she was tired (the baby got her up at 2:30 and then again at six) and that later in the day she had to go to Winnipeg and do two shows. She said that people sometimes say she's a happy woman -- nice husband, nice kids, lives in a nice house -- so how the hell can she sing the blues? She explained: "I'm in the music business -- the Canadian music business." Apparently there's nothing bluer than that.
She spoke of "the dearly beloved Allan Gregg." He ran the music firm that famously went broke, so her songs now are in the hands of a trustee in bankruptcy. She uttered another, more general complaint. Jazz, as an art of improvisation, requires living musicians to maintain it, but many, many jazz fans of today (this stirred a little guilt in me) listen mainly to dead musicians. As she said, "There are people out there still waiting for Miles Davis to make another record. You know, he's dead. Ella, Billie -- dead."
She wants to play her tunes, her way, and tunes by other living musicians. And even those of us who had often heard her voice felt yesterday that we now, somehow, knew her.
Michel Auger, who took six bullets in the back from someone annoyed by his reporting on the biker gangs in the Journal de Montréal, bounced onto the stage looking entirely recovered, and delivered some bad news for New Age people in the audience. As he lay on the ground in that now-famous parking lot, calling 911 on his cell, he may have been close to death but, alas, didn't see a white light at the end of a tunnel -- nor did his life flash before him.
However, when he recovered, he was a new man -- a celebrity. He was recognized on the street, described for the first time as a great reporter, and given prizes. He was asked to do a commercial for Viagra, but declined. He said that if he had that sort of trouble, talking about it on TV would be the last thing he'd do.
What was most striking, as the conference got under way, was the complete absence of references to the crash of the New Economy, in which many people in the audience, and some on stage, earn their living. As part of the conference package, everyone got a copy of Shift (now, after years of incoherence, a readable magazine) with a coverline that said, "The rise and fall of the geeks." But no one seemed concerned.
Perhaps it was because the worst losers didn't show up this year. They preferred to stay in their beds in the depression ward at the Clarke Institute, attached to their Prozac drip.