"I used to live in a room full of mirrors
All I could see was me
Then I take my spirit and I smash my mirrors
And now the whole world is here for me to see" -Jimi Hendrix.
Mr. Hendrix would have loved the Idea Festival which went down this last weekend in Louisville, KY and not because he used to live above a tobacco shop. Festival Organizers would have plugged his guitar into a laser-powered kaleidoscope and had him converse on the relationship between blues chord progressions and the movement of constellations with Stephen Hawking. Then both would have split a Kentucky Hot Brown with the folks in the audience. Down here in the home of the Louisville Slugger, D.W. Griffith and Muhammad Ali, they ain't big on pretense. Just ideas. And ideas that can make us see ourselves and the world differently as though open windows instead of mirrors, is what brought here this cold fall weekend.
The Idea Festival began about 80 miles to the east in Lexington in 2000 and moved here this year. It doesn't like to call itself a "conference," I'm guessing because of all the negative that implies: An inherently self-serving motivation for attendance, a gold rush for the presenting sponsors and an iron gate between the important people on the podium and the rubes in the audience. Instead the Idea Festival, wants to be a celebration of the human mind and its capacity inspire, frustrate and to envision the world as if hanging from our ankles. While wearing a VR helmet. And talking to our (also hanging) neighbor about the spiritual ramifications of human cloning.
I've been here in the Louisville the last four days and I have to say they've succeeded admirably. No I haven't hung by my ankles but I've learned from world-renowned primate biologist Robert Sapolsky that chimpanzees commit genocide on rival troupes and that chess masters can burn 6000 calories a day from mental taxation during tournaments. I've heard Steve Curwood, host of NPR's "Living on Earth" propose a government-sponsored corporation ala Fannie Mae to guarantee loans for the building of home solar and wind systems. I've heard inventor Ray Kurzweil inform us that we are only a decade and a half away from computers having the processing power of the human brain, witnessed DJ Spooky remixing "Birth of a Nation" live and science writer K.C. Cole explain quantum mechanics in 10 minutes better than my college professors did in 4 months. Along the way, I also missed a presentation on Zora Neal Hurston, another on the mind of Leonardo Da Vinci, and a third on the special effects wizardry of The Matrix. I'm disappointed on the one hand: When will be able to hit on those three topics in a single afternoon again? On the other I'm relieved, because the psychic contradiction they raise may have made my head explode: At the Idea Festival, you feel smart and stupid at the exact same time.
What makes it work is a blend of two conference ideologies, one classic, one new agey. In structure, the Idea Festival resembles gatherings of long ago where rich men summoned the finest minds of their generation to a single site to see what the aggregate brainpower produced. In spirit, it borrows lightly from Open Space Technology, a meeting methodology based on the notions that the audience is half of a dialogue instead passive observers, that the best conversations often happen outside of sessions and that ideas are always holier than the reputation of the person voicing them.
This second part may help explain why, despite drawing A-List talent since its inception (Sir George Martin came last year, Twyla Tharp and Oliver Sacks at Festivals prior), the folks here in Louisville remain committed to keeping the front door open wide. Tickets cost a few twenties rather than a few hundreds and attendance from students and civic boosters is high. Events are at venues throughout downtown instead of walled inside a convention center. Featured presenters walk among us instead of dolled out on schedule like gruel to the bowls of orphans. Over the past 48 hours, I've taken a stroll with Robert Sapolsky, nearly collided with DJ Spooky in the hallway and shared an elevator with Ray Kurtzweil, none of which required a $5000 VIP pass or a flirtation with a hotel chambermaid. Ideas are among the only currencies we have that are unbound by race, gender and social capital. Festival organizers seem committed to both showcasing and living in that spirit.
The Idea Festival is young still and a lot of funny things can happen on the way to maturity. Veteran attendees of Sundance, South by Southwest or E3 can tell how far away a festival's core values seem when the big money and news crews start pulling into town. Let's hope that the Idea Festival can hang on to the same fearless spirit that got it here even as it grows, the inherent value of creative thinking, the democracy of knowledge and belief, like a smashed mirror, that the world is infinitely more fascinating than we normally see it.
Me, I'm just looking to get invited back because that Hendrix-Hawking idea sounds just crazy enough to try. The folks at the Idea Festival will make room. I'm sure of it.
"I used to live in a room full of mirrors