As I was sitting in the Chicago History Museum's on Saturday, waiting for Michael Taussig's talk, Beauty and the Beast: The Monstrous Side of Plastic Surgery to begin, I realized that one small thing I'm really loving about the festival is the opportunity to see all the different theater spaces I never knew about. From University of Chicago's Victorian Mandel Hall to the Francis W. Parker school's ultramodern auditorium, each space has a character of its own. I've been reminded over and over of how much I enjoy simply taking my seat and looking around while the audience assembles itself; it calls to mind how excited I always was, as a suburban kid, to come into the city to see theater or ballet with my parents. (Except it's even better now, because I don't generally get bored ten minutes into the program and want to go right back home.)
The one drawback to all of these lovely spaces is that they're not as close together as one might hope. When I was planning my theoretical event schedule, I didn't take venues into consideration, so in practice, my ambition has been thwarted by logistics; so much for making it to both
Taussig's lecture at the History Museum and Tomorrow's History at the Chicago Cultural Center immediately after, for instance. Making matters worse, Saturday was the most difficult day of the festival for me, choice-wise. Between 1 and 2:30, I wanted to see Lend Me Your (Bionic) Ears at the Parker School, Facing Up to the Uncanny Valley at the Harold Washington Library, Sylvia Nasar at the UIC Forum, and Taussig. I will always have to wonder what might have been, and what might have been, and what might have been. Oh, the humanities! (Look, you knew I had to say that once. Now it's over.)
Still, what I saw last week was pretty great. On Sunday, Virginia Eubanks's talk, A Jane Addams for the Digital Age challenged assumptions about the "digital divide" and the role of technology in creating opportunities for poor women. During four years of "participatory research" with women who used the resources at a YMCA in New York's capitol region, Eubanks found that most already had access to computers and at least the basic skills taught in classes meant to bridge the divide; many were working in "low-wage, high-tech" jobs at call centers, or performing data entry. The problem is, these jobs tend to be temporary, unstable, and unsustainable--and just as troublingly, advances in technology have decreased workers' privacy and autonomy, created negative impacts on their health and quality of life. Eubanks argued that we need to look at technology as "another site of struggle" and build it around specific social justice goals, instead of assuming that access to computers and skills training will magically create a level playing field. I look forward to reading her book, Digital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age.
And then there was Laurie Anderson. Holy cow! I took three pages of notes during her conversation with the Steppenwolf Theatre's Martha Lavey, but what kept going through my head was, "Wow, this woman is just frightfully smart." I don't mean to say she was intimidating or abstruse in fact, she was a wonderfully accessible and engaging speaker. What flabbered my gast so thoroughly was the way her mind connects disparate sensory elements to create art that operates on multiple levels, a sound leads to an image, which leads to a physical project, for instance. She spoke of using art to evoke desire, "the way perfume works," creating an image in the mind and an instant sense of longing. And in a move dear to my puppy-loving heart*, Anderson once staged a concert for dogs because she wanted an audience for her music that wasn't limited by weak human hearing. The axiom that we only use 10 percent of our brains may be false, but Anderson left me feeling as though I use only a small fraction of my senses.
This week, I'm especially excited about Mother Jones editor Clara Jeffery's interview with David Carr, Rebecca Solnit's "Technological Wild West" lecture, and Shakespeare By the Numbers at the Poetry Foundation, among others. Plus: even more new (to me) auditoriums!
*Murray had surgery on a cherry eye this week, by the way; he's recovering nicely.
Tags: Kate Harding, Chicago Humanities Festival, November, Digital Dead End, Mother Jones, Poetry Foundation