Beauty/Complexity: The TED Salon in London

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TEDSalon: Beauty-Complexity

Welcoming a Unicorn Theatre jammed with 250 TEDsters old and new, host and TED’s European director Bruno Giussani promised “possibly one of the most eclectic programs we’ve ever put together” on Wednesday night in London at the spring TED Salon. The Salon was hosted in collaboration with TEDGlobal partner frog. And eclectic it was, covering design, education, synthetic life, contemporary art, flowers, child marriage, and the sound of space, among others, under the theme “Beauty/Complexity.”

“Grace and magnificence often hide intricate realities, while elaborate systems frequently express themselves in captivating and comely ways”, Giussani said, laying the stage for the two-session event.

Legendary designer Richard Seymour was the opening speaker. He has had his hands (and pencil) in designing daily objects such as cell phones and kettles, as well as in figuring out the interiors of spaceships. His talk about intrinsic and extrinsic beauty touched on the complex system of ideas that hit our brain before cognition, discussed the millisecond first-impression, and explored how a designer can approach this challenge.

Katharine Birbalsingh used to teach at an inner-city London school until last year she gave a talk about education at the Conservative Party conference, got a standing ovation — and subsequently was fired. She gave an impassioned talk about returning to the traditional education of basic, core knowledge. She recently published “To Miss with Love”, a book chronicling a year in the life of a failing inner-city school, and is now setting up a free school centered on knowledge acquisition and learning in South London.

The transition from inner city to outer space was sharp, but Honor Harger managed it brilliantly. After reminding the audience how overwhelmingly visual our experience and understanding of space is, the artist asked: what about listening to the universe? “If we were asked to think of the sound of space, most of us would think of silence”. But there are weird and wonderful noises and sounds emitted by celestial objects, by stars and planets and pulsars. She regaled the audience with a series of clips, and the story of how they were discovered, identified and recorded — and ended with “the oldest song you will ever hear”: the sound of the cosmic rays left over from the Big Bang.

Giussani then offered a rapid status report through some recent TED projects and initiatives — “we in the TED team ultimately report to you, the TED community” — and among other things shared the creative ways used by TEDx organizers to spread ideas.

Neuroscientist and engineer Aldo Faisal from Imperial College followed by demo-ing an amazingly low-cost eyetracking contraption that allows to control a computer without keyboard, mouse nor touch screen. Similar systems exist already, but they are extremely expensive: using only off-the-shelf components, Faisal and his team (he was helped in the demo by Will Abbott) built one good enough to play “Pong” just by the movement of the eyes, for less than 50 dollars.

Jonathan Drori, a member of the Board of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, amazed the audience with his photos and stories of how plants have sex, and even more pointedly how they deceive pollinators such as bees in order to have even more sex, in a funny and delightfully visual talk called “Do you think you know flowers?”. (Watch Jon Drori’s previous TEDTalks.)

The second session opened with Mabel Van Oranje, CEO of The Elders, giving a powerful speech about child marriage, and the astounding 10 million young girls who are married off every year. These marriages are not only a symptom, but a powerful driver of poverty at every level for the girls, their families, and their communities, she said. Yet child marriage is a strangely taboo subject, ensconced in fears of being accused of cultural imperialism. The first step in breaking the cycle of child marriage is indeed to talk about it — and the Elders (a group of former states(wo)men established by Nelson Mandela and whose members include Jimmy Carter, Mary Robinson, and Kofi Annan) intend to make it one of their core issues.

Taking the audience on a tour of the contemporary art world, from Marcel Duchamp to Ai Weiwei to Marina Abramovic, author Sarah Thornton (“Seven Days in the Art World”) explored the global spread of belief in contemporary art, describing it as “a religion of questioning”, and a “bridge to democratization”. Referring to Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Box”, she called the artwork “as close to God as I have ever come”.

Who would have thought that two small blobs of dancing chemicals in a petri dish could be so fascinating? Discussing his research on living systems, Martin Hanczyc, an associate professor at the University of Southern Denmark, mixed together non-living things in order to try to create a new artificial form of life. “Start simple, with protocells,” he said, “and work your way up to living systems.”   This path of exploration is giving us tools to think about the origin of life and about “alternative natures”.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, author, broadcaster, and raconteur delighted the audience with a portrayal of the “most promiscuous tribe on Earth” — namely, the English. She posited that the British holds a guilty secret beneath their tightly bound image and self-control, and proceded to demostrate her argument with a funny and deep historic and cultural excursion. “This is not about multiple cultures: it is about England metamorphosing constantly, absorbing the other.”

In an electric end to the Salon, celebrated soprano Claron McFadden levitated the room with her rendition of John Cage’s “Aria,” then did it again with the audience singing along. (Watch her TEDxAmsterdam performance.)

TEDSalon speaker collage

Photo, from top left: Drori, Thornton, van Oranje, Faisal, Birbalsingh, Seymour, Harger, McFadden, Hanczyc, Alibhai-Brown, Giussani, and the public.

(Reported by Caitlin Kraft-Buchman; photos by Robert Leslie)