A Tale of Two Talkshops

J.J. Charlesworth compares two discussion-based weekenders

By J.J. Charlesworth

Halil Altindere, Wonderland, video still, Serpentine 89plus Marathon, 2013

Talk is cheap, but you still need to buy a ticket at the door, especially in the fast growing event-economy of talks festivals. I muse this as I shuttle between the Barbican centre and Hyde Park on a crisp autumnal Frieze week Saturday: between The Serpentine Gallery’s 89plus talks marathonand the Institute of Ideas’ annual Battle of Ideas.

The Serpentine’s annual Frieze-week jamboree of artworld celeb talking-heads and young artworld hopefuls, plus a raft of other cross-disciplinary experts that the Serpentine’s non-stop co-director Hans Ulrich Obrist happens to rate that year, is a speeding conveyor-belt buffet of artworld cultural hipness.

the speakers are smart people who get to be challenged by other smart people

The Battle of Ideas, by contrast, is a smoothly organised, 2-day avalanche of debates covering current controversies in science, politics, technology, the arts and culture, organised by the maverick libertarian-humanist think-tank The Institute of Ideas, and its equally relentless director Claire Fox, under the banner ‘shaping the future through debate’.

It’s something of a contrast, to say the least. This year they are happening on the same weekend, and as I usually go to both each year, and am speaking on a panel at the Battle, this means a bit of an intellectual pile up, and a whole lot of compare-and-contrast.

Escaping from the vast and labyrinthine concrete fortress of the Barbican centre on Saturday – I’ve been there all morning already – I head to the Serpentine’s spanking new, Zaha Hadid-designed Sackler Gallery. The Serpentine Gallery, once a single, slightly too small gallery that is quite hard to get to – being in the middle of London’s huge Hyde Park – has now morphed into two slightly too small galleries, that are both equally quite hard to get to, in the middle of London’s huge Hyde Park.

Arriving out of breath to catch some of the Saturday afternoon action, I find a crowd of young, well-dressed, good-looking young people, queuing and hanging out outside the Sackler – a neoclassical brick box, with its Hadid-signature wavy white roofed glass walled event-space stuck on the side. Some of the good-looking moochers are hanging out at a Fortum & Mason’s outdoor snack counter, munching on tiny expensive sandwiches and boxes of fancy macaroons.

Inside the glass event-space, things are in full swing. Everyone seems very young, very relaxed. I start to feel very old. The reason for this youngness is that this year, the marathon is showcasing ‘89plus’, a ‘long-term, international, multi-platform research project’, co-founded by Obrist and the handsome, buzzy young curator Simon Castets. It’s called 89plus because, well, the focus is on practitioners who were born after 1989, ‘to address the impact networked society and an evolving global economy have had on today's young generations’.

the irony is, nobody questions what is said, there is no time for questions

The atmosphere is a bit like a happening, but with everyone sat politely on plastic chairs – there’s a nice young man called Crispin Best at the lectern, reading his poems off his iPhone, poems which have lots of references to consumer goods, pop culture nostalgia, technology and being in love in a slightly distracted and amused way. The audience is slightly distracted and amused. He wraps up and Obrist strides on to hurriedly declare a ‘five to ten minute break’.

Half an hour later, things get going again, and boyishly handsome Simon Castets welcomes on an even boyish-er Nick D’Aloisio, the 18 year-old who has just sold his app Summly to Yahoo for $30m, and now works for the company. Castets awkwardly asks a few questions about how Nick started writing apps.

D’Aloisio seems to be enjoying the attention, while appearing a little bored, and keeps talking about how his generation has to deal with ‘information overload’, which is why he wrote Summly, an app that abbreviates long, wordy articles into short, mangled summaries you can read on your iPhone.

Castets asks him about his predictions for the future of digital technology. D’Aloisio casually offers the revelation that the future will be all about, um, smartwatches and wearable computers, an insight which has the audience a little underwhelmed, given that smartwatches and wearable computers are so five-minutes-ago. No time for more questions, though, and D’Aloisio is clapped off stage, no doubt so he can hurry back to Yahoo HQ, to play tricycle table-tennis, or whatever they do when not handing over our emails to the NSA.

discussion takes time, but something useful emerges

And so it rushes on; a presentation by an enthusiastic guy who runs an educational project to get computer coding onto the school curriculum; then it’s James Darling, a guy who is pretty annoyed at the corporate take-over of big data, and so has decided to work for the British government; next up, Smári McCarthy and Ásta Helgadóttir, a very serious pair of net activists who make some good points about how governments are trying to take over the internet. Less than an hour has passed and I’m already itching to escape.

Back at the Battle of Ideas the next day, I’m listening to an earnest panel debate on the subject of ‘digital creativity: can we all be composers now?’ The panellists are arguing, points get made, people get the wrong end of the stick, revise their arguments, then a few interesting positions start to emerge.

The audience pitch in, some good points, some dull points, awkwardly or confidently made. People are listening, intently. Oldies mixed with teenagers. The session goes on for an hour and a half. It’s a struggle. Discussion takes time. But something useful emerges.

This is what I missed at the Serpentine’s marathon, I realise – questions, arguments, people disagreeing, the audience taking on the speakers. At the Serpentine, the speakers are stars, professionals presented as unchallengeable role models, as the smell of celeb-worship wafts through the air. At the Barbican, the speakers are smart people who get to be challenged by other smart people.

The issues are allowed to be controversial. At the Serpentine, for all the sense of youthful energy, the ideas seem conventional, rehearsing current liberal anxieties about politics, the net, capitalism, social media. And the irony is – nobody questions what is said. There is no time for questions.

If these are the insights of the post-89 generation, I conclude, then the post-89 generation need to grow up. There’s more to what the future will look like than the internet and social media. Too much is made of these developments, and the 89plus project merely condescends the young if it thinks they are only interested in digital culture and their next iPhone.

The artworld, getting a bit old and tired and directionless, is fascinated by digital culture, which it sees as youthful and authentic. But at the Battle of Ideas, by contrast, there are post-89 young people discussing other things, grown-up things, and being young is only a starting point.