Global Issues

Unseen Narratives: The TEDSalon in London

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Books, film, art, food — and science and social issues — were at the center of the talks at the sixth TEDSalon in London. The event took place on May 10 in a packed Unicorn Theatre, with the support of longtime TED partner frog.

“Our bodies are made of atoms, but our lives are made of stories”, host and TEDGlobal curator Bruno Giussani said, introducing the event’s theme: “Unseen Narratives.” We are our stories, he suggested, our memories, desires, passions, dramas. Stories are what our imagination projects, what our creativity produces, what helps us to make sense of the world and relate to others. And an eclectic set of little-known stories the Salon presented.

The evening started with a sharp talk about the million children who live in orphanages in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Georgette Mulheir, CEO of nonprofit Lumos, told how behind each of them “there is a story of desperate parents who feel that they have run out of options” and explained the huge emotional, developmental and economic cost of separating children from families. Mulheir’s groundbreaking work focuses on helping governments from Eastern Europe to Sudan reform systems, close down orphanages, and set up alternative services reuniting children with families or foster care. When they started, more than 200,000 children were in orphanages in Romania; now there are fewer than 10,000. “This is one form of child abuse that can be eradicated in our lifetime.”

Another story of youth and growing up, but of a radically different kind, was told by movie director Beeban Kidron. She’s a co-founder of Filmclub, one of the largest after-school organizations in the UK. She beautifully narrated a film she made specially for the TEDSalon, a story about the power of stories and creating a common narrative and about the transformational power of film. “If we want different values,” she said, “we have to tell a different story. Or, as a 12-year-old said after watching The Wizard of Oz, ‘every person should watch this movie, because unless you do, you may not know that you too have a heart.'”

David Battistella, another filmmaker, followed his heart from Canada to Florence when he fell in love with the story of the Florence Dome and Filippo Brunelleschi’s Renaissance struggle to build it. “Everything that went into building the Cupola went into building the modern world,” he said in a powerful talk, and then went on to describe inventions, designs, technologies — and the power of human ingenuity.

Choreograher Jasmin Vardimon, whose eponymous company is in residence at contemporary dance powerhouse Sadler’s Wells in London, brought a sequence of her piece “Yesterday” to the Salon. In it dancer Aoi Nakamura, tracked by a camera, simply and hauntingly traced maps on her skin, representing the physical memories that are stored in our bodies rather than in our minds.

Stem cell pioneer Pete Coffey was next, leader of the London Project. Fifteen years after stem cells were isolated for the first time, the first real clinical trials using stem cells are now taking place. Research carried out by Coffey and his team has shown that stem-cell therapy can halt the course of a common form of blindness (AMD, or age-related macular degeneration) and possibly restore sight. Coffey made both a scientifically and economically convincing case for this therapy.

Communication entrepreneur Laura Galloway told a tale of “genetic tourism”: presented with a DNA test kit, she found to her surprise that she’s genetically related to the Sami people, the last remaining indigenous people of Northern Europe, who inhabit large portions of northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and a corner of Russia. Galloway’s experience with Arctic farmers’ markets, festivals and the Sami led her to suggest that genetics may bring us increasingly in contact with our “original sources.” “Everyone belongs somewhere,” she said. “You have a tribe. DNA is your birthright.”

The first session was closed by three science comedians. The Festival of the Spoken Nerd, comprising Helen Arney, Matt Parker and Steve Mould (it’s them in the photo), examined the ubiquitous barcode — a hilarious and informative story of lasers and math and of a piece of technology that’s so embedded in our lifes that we dont’ notice it anymore.

There are many places where we can find hidden stories. Author Tracy Chevalier opened the second session by sharing how she looks at artworks to find those narratives. She described how she came up with the story of The Girl With the Pearl Earring by interrogating Vermeer’s painting and its historical context, how Chardin’s Boy Building a House of Cards can suggest a story of two servants, and how the wistful look in the eyes of an anonymous portrait inspired in her yet another story.

From those three paintings, the Salon jumped to thousands, with Phaidon’s editorial director, Amanda Renshaw, describing the ten-year journey to curate The Art Museum, a unique and uniquely ambitious art book. The project started with a question: If you had unlimited space, unlimited budget, and access to the most important, the most beautiful and most desirable works of art from around the world, what would you put in an ideal museum? Ten years later, the result is itself a piece of art. Renshaw talked about the process, the choices, the organization of such a vast array of artworks from all around the world — from cave paintings to today’s — and the panic and joys associated with it. And at the end of her talk, one of the attendees found an envelope carefully hidden beneath their seat, and won a copy of the 992-page, 3,000-photo book.

Health practitioner, former Buddhist monk, and talented juggler Andy Puddicombe, the go-to meditation teacher for British politicians, executives and celebrities, was challenged to change the audience’s minds about meditation in 10 minutes. “When is the last time you took 10 minutes to do nothing?” he asked. He dispelled the idea that meditation involves seating in awkward positions for long periodsof time, and invited to take care of our mind, 10 minutes a day. “Our mind, the one that needs to be focused, creative and spontaneous for your to thrive, needs to be taken care of.”

British pop band Red Box was first active in the 1980s and early 1990s. Under the leadership of Simon Toulson-Clarke, it is now back on tour forging new path sand stories made of music and friendship. They played the beautiful “Brighter Blue” from their new album Plenty, and their classic “Heart of the Sun.”

Norwegian historian and economist Sturla Ellingvag told a story of pressure, transparency and dialogue. When a young Norwegian woman was brutally killed in London and her presumed murderer escaped to Yemen where he lives free, protected by his father’s wealth and connections, Ellingvag and others started a Facebook group to put pressure on multinationals to cancel their contracts with the father. 53,000 signed up, and at the end several companies withdrew their business connections with the father, because of the family’s refusal to let their son stand trial.

Tristram Stuart bounded on stage next to share his mission to expose global food waste. Stuart used nine (still good) biscuits from a small box salvaged from a bin outside a supermarket the morning of the Salon to illustrate what happens to our food and how we waste it on such a colossal and systemic scale. If 9 is our total food supply: 1 is lost before leaving the farm; 3 are used to feed livestock, but we get only 1 back; and 2 are thrown away in various ways. Food waste is colossal, and it happens for different reasons, both in developed and in emerging countries.

The closing speaker, Pam Warhurst, raised the roof of the theatre with the story of Incredible Edible. This is the story of the transformation of a “normal” market town, Todmorden, 15,000 inhabitants in the north of England, around the narrative of food. By focusing on community (turning plots of unused land into communal vegetable gardens), learning (teaching food in schools and more) and business (promoting local food), the entire town was brought into the movement, with the inclusive motto “If you eat, you are in.” It’s a powerful, inspiring story of the (real) power of small actions. Edible landscapes are now being replicated in England and around the world, from New Zealand to Chile.

Bringing the Salon to an end was a showing of a 360-degree photo of the speakers and of the audience listening, taken by British photographer Thomas Mills.

Attendees left with copies of Andy Puddicombe’s book Get Some Headspace and of frog’s design mind magazine, whose current issue is devoted to the theme of “Passion.”

A group of TED translators was in the audience and wrote their own take, while TEDster Nesta Morgan turned the event into art sketches.

(Reported by Caitlin Kraft Buchman. Photo Dafydd Jones/TED)