I had the good fortune to attend two of the Globe and Mail/Concordia University events of the Thinking Out Loud Series. Granted, all I had to do was sign up on line ahead of time.
This intellectual event brings together two “thought leaders”on specific themes. One thought leader is a public entity, the other a Concordia prof. A Globe and Mail reporter moderates the discussion by asking questions. I wouldn’t call it a discussion so much as I would call it a live talk show. Mostly the thinkers just answer the moderator’s questions and only occasionally address each other’s points.
I attended Gender Performed with Irish gay rights activist Panti Bliss and Irish studies professor / Guardian writer Emer O’Toole and Curating Life with CBC’s Jonathan Goldstein and professor of ethnography Erica Lehrer. For both, the connection between the thought leaders went beyond their related subject matter. O’Toole and Bliss are both Irish, while Goldstein and Lehrer are Jewish (Lehrer joked about their shared neuroticism).
I found both evenings informative and intellectually engaging. I walked away from both interested in new ideas and perspectives. This may just be my inherent nerdiness and love of learning, but neither discussion was overly academic or full of shop talk. The topics were relevant to most people and good questions were asked both by the moderators as well as the audience members (save for a few really out there questions).
The format for the talks had the speakers sitting in low, leather padded chairs, while the moderator went through a list of prepared questions constructed from prior conversations. Though their format was similar, the two talks had quite a different feel from one another.
Panti Bliss and Emer O’Toole was the more theatrical of the two, if only because O’Toole came out in an Ally McBeal shorter than appropriate skirt to reveal her unshorn legs. Panti Bliss came in her identity as a drag queen, though she was wearing a toned down dress. Bliss made a point of saying that she’d dressed for an academic setting, and the decision seemed to be as calculated as a chess game. While I knew Bliss would easily win over the audience as she was entering as a hero of homosexuality, I was happy that O’Toole held her own with sharp wit. I almost got the sense of competition from the two, not just in appearance but also in a desire to win the audience. Intentional or not, the subtle jockeying made for a fascinating evening.
Beyond that, the discussion largely focused on the concept of gender and how the performance of gender is received in society. Overall, both seemed to express that gender within defined roles, even ones such as drag queen and bull dyke, don’t raise that many eyebrows. Instead, the most hostility and surprise comes from straddling two gender performances simultaneously: a man in a suit wearing eye make-up or a woman in a short skirt with unshaven legs. As I know I spent probably too long wondering what prompted O’Toole to feature her unshorn gams, I suspect I illustrated their point.
As for Jonathan Goldstein and Erica Lehrer, the two were far more relaxed. No fancy suits or dresses here — just jeans and nice shirts. I was almost disappointed, as I felt like their casualness took away from the atmosphere. That said, their dress suggested something about who they were, which fit with the topic: the relationship of public, private, and personal. The moderator asked questions such as distinguishing between private and personal and the impact of sharing personal information in a public forum. A considerable amount of discussion focused on the idea of memory and creating it.
As with the other discussion, I was interested in the topic and saw its relevance to my own life quite quickly. For one thing, I learned that in another life, I would like to be an ethnographer. Lehrer spends her life living among different people and telling their stories! How did I miss the memo on that one. In particular, Lehrer spent time living in Poland with some Polish people who run a holocaust museum even though they are not Jewish. I also learned that my mind’s picture of Jonathan Goldstein was completely wrong. He looks very new media, not at all like the face-for-radio schlub that I’d thought he was. It’s pretty trippy to hear his voice come out of a human being after hearing it come out of headphone speakers for so long.
Both in the course of pursuing their goals — Goldstein claiming “song and dance man” and doing it for a laugh, Lehrer claiming to amplify the stories of others — put themselves very visibly into their work. Goldstein played a clip of his parents arguing over the chicken and egg, while Lehrer read a passage of her experience in Poland. Both said that they were themselves in their work, but implied that their personalities were secondary to the work itself. For example, Goldstein mentioned a show he’d done on Mason Reese, the ’70s child star, and how he decided to cut some parts, feeling they didn’t serve the piece and insulted his subject. They both seemed to suggest that the “selves” presented were amplifications, curations, and projections that are conscious of an audience, chosen and presented for a reason. They both noted that the difference between private material that remains unshared and personal information that is, changes constantly. Unlike the Bliss-O’Toole performance, this one was more sedate and more heady. Nonetheless, both Lehrer and Goldstein are funny, observant people and their discussion insightful.
The Thinking Out Loud Series took place at Concordia University (D.B. Clarke Theatre, Hall Building) and will be available on line after April 13.