TEDxKC 2012: Straining for Transcendence

Julian Zugazagoitia at TEDxKC (Photo: Don Ipock)


This year, TEDxKC reached critical mass. Almost.

After three years of spilling over in the Nelson-Atkins’ auditorium, our little discount TED took the big stage.

On Tuesday, August 28, nearly 1,600 people piled into the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts for a three-hour production that alternated between lavish and clunky, inspiring and awkward.

Presentation-software blues beset the proceedings, leading to an ongoing sparring match between the gremlins in the projector room and the event’s founder and sneaker-and-jeans-clad host, Mike Lundgren, a partner at VML. These are the kinds of hiccups, one presumes, that they edit out of talks before they end up on TED.com.

This year’s TEDxKC, in fact, offered an unedited view of how a community has embraced, adopted, and tried to rise to the level of Big TED. From its beginnings in the ’90s to the current moment — when there is an “independently organized” TEDx event happening literally every day somewhere in the world — TED has become a global phenomenon. It has married eggheadedness and celebrity, birthed an idea industry that launches careers, and has miraculously made watching public speakers cool again.

But most impressively of all, TED has gained the power to impact a community like KC.

Tuesday night’s crowd was a mix of creatives and business types, culture scenesters and cubicle serfs.

I saw people I know who work in city offices, nonprofits, ad agencies. I saw many entrepreneurs, from highbrow consultants to t-shirt-wearing tech geeks, to scarfaholic artists. I saw several friends, young and older, who had joined the ranks of volunteers to staff the natty downtown pre-parties leading up to the big night.

I also saw depressingly few urban minorities, but that’s another story — which, if you are interested in following, check out TEDx18th&Vine.

I also saw a lot of vacant seats inside Helzberg Auditorium. I would guess there were maybe 200 no-shows from the sold out crowd — the same crowd that had jammed up the Kauffman’s website for hours clamoring to buy tickets the morning they went on sale. Perhaps that egalitarian $15 price point engendered fickleness.

Well, I was there, and I’m better for it. I got to learn about John Gerzema‘s compelling Athena Doctrine (how women and people who think like them will take over the world); Samuel Arbesman‘s theory of the half-life of facts (how things once thought scientifically true are disproven according to predictable patterns); and local marketing ace John Jantsch‘s “commitment engine” (how feelings of success grow from feelings of altruism for entrepreneurs).

I also enjoyed the psalms of Julian Zugazagoitia, the Nelson-Atkins Museum’s seraphic director, who reminded us to take our time looking at art and not try to eat everything on the menu at the museum. And I found myself softening to yoga-man Max Strom‘s exhortations to seek happiness far away from technology and practice breathing before texting.

The other speakers, I’m afraid, were too sales-pitchy for my tastes.

But all in all, it was a great evening, and the most telling moment came at the end. Quixotic, the local dance troupe that made the rare leap from x to TED, left its stamp on the night in a brilliant way: by performing half a mile away, at Union Station.

The theme for this year’s TEDxKC had been “The Long View,” and Quixotic took it literally.

Attendees at the closing reception were given binoculars and telescopes to watch the distant dancers twirl in front of the Station’s facade, lit by changing colors as the music pulsed inside the Kauffman’s Brandmeyer Hall.

Granted, it didn’t work well, technically speaking. All the viewing devices I tried couldn’t bring the dancers close enough, and from some vantages the glare of the lights off the Kauffman Center’s windows completely obscured the view.

But there was something going on there — something arresting about all those people standing together, peering through lenses into their city at night, straining for a glimpse of something transcendent.



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