Ideas City Festival


Here’s one way to break through all that noise and get the attention of a mostly under-thirty-five-year-old audience, a demographic fawned over by marketers and worshiped like a cult by brands, a niche all of us millennials were born into against our will and can’t, even if we wanted to, escape: Woo it with impressive deck, then tell it to its face it’s screwed.

That was the route special-interest-money foe and free-culture friend Lawrence Lessig took last Thursday during his keynote at the New Museum’s three-day Ideas City festival, a biannual conference and street fair devoted this time around to the theme of invisibility. The tech-y Harvard Law professor whizzed through hundreds of well-cued slides, did a bit on the differences between the electrical grid and cable television he called A Tale of Two Networks, and played a blurry video of a dumb bird inside a Skinner box—the bird, like members of Congress, operantly conditioned by special interests—before he dropped this shocker: “Inequality hates youth.”

Lessig wasn’t referring to Bret Easton Ellis (although he might as well have been when he threw the over-fifty contingent under the bus: “I increasingly think my generation is the worst generation”). Rather, he was describing how unequal governance by wealthy oldsters shifts today’s burdens to tomorrow and forecloses future possibilities. “We need to remember and celebrate the equality that the Internet has come to stand for,” Lessig said, trying to bring arguments for net neutrality to bear on “the network we call democracy.” He formulated this comparison: If the Internet is ideally like the open and neutral electricity grid, enabling innovation through user freedom and diversity, then democracy in America resembles something more like the cable network, offering lots of choices and little control. Today a tiny fraction of people—precisely .02 percent—fund the primary elections that select the candidates the rest of the population gets to vote among. “The result is a democracy responsive to the funders only.”

A kind of tech and culture conference with an urbanism slant, the day proceeded on from Lessig’s mix of the Internet and inequality into issues of citizenship, political unrest, incarceration, surveillance, and mapping. I couldn’t say from which fields the approximately half-capacity audience inside the Cooper Union’s Great Hall came, though participants included cartographers, photographers, entrepreneurs, and activist consultants. The mayors of Houston, San Juan, and Ithaca, New York, discussed policymaking as a form of design. And science-fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson and architect Bjarke Ingels sat down to talk “plausible utopias.” The implausibility of this pairing—Robinson called for an alternative to capitalism; Ingels’s firm is designing Google’s new Silicon Valley campus—was overcome by their admiration for each other’s work and mutual enthusiasms for outer space.

If there’s something about these types of summits that make participants conflict-averse, it doesn’t mean that culture clashes can’t be the subject of discussion. “The unfortunate thing is that computer science programs don’t do a very good job at producing people who have empathy,” said ACLU technologist Christopher Soghoian during a standout panel on the “morality of information” with artist Trevor Paglen, activist Jillian C. York, and hacker anthropologist Gabriella Coleman. “Programmers are taught to communicate with other programmers,” Soghoian added. “They use buzzwords, they use lingo.”

Kind of like obfuscating art speech, right? But Paglen defended the right of artists to refuse to speak sensibly: “I’m actually not interested in making something that explains something to you. I’m interested in making something that tries to put something on the cultural agenda.” And images, Paglen added, are deeply strange things: “If you just go by the Snowden documents, mass surveillance looks like PowerPoint.”

On Friday morning, US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro delivered the festival’s second keynote. I streamed the event from Brooklyn, avoiding the levels of security that might trail a cabinet member and Democratic Party rising star. There has been speculation that Castro will be a vice-presidential candidate in the 2016 election, and the address did have the feel of a stump speech, more spirited than substantive. “We call ourselves the Department of Opportunity,” he remarked, explaining how their goal is to give people “the foundation they need to dream.” Aware that he was among creative “thought leaders,” Castro adjusted his rhetoric accordingly. “This doesn’t require a big government or a small government: It requires a smart government.” It’s not the size, it’s how you use it, essentially.

That night, inside a gymnasium three blocks from the New Museum’s stack of cubes, a hot air balloon was repurposed as a dome. “A Performative Conference in Nine Acts” is how the event was billed, though the friend I was with described it as “very sad.” I’d describe the mood as lukewarm, amputated. Parents of teenage participants, friends of the DJ, and museum brass were there to show support, but, tapping their feet awkwardly around the gym’s perimeter, appeared almost like chaperones at a prom. Bowery Poetry Club proprietor Bob Holman stood atop a round stage in its center and read a poem off of dot-matrix-printer paper, the night’s first act in a series of anachronisms.

“Old New York, the New York that is passing away, was about pleasure, and pleasure is a radical value,” groaned downtown diva Penny Arcade during her performance of Longing Lasts Longer, a wry personal commentary on the city’s gentrification. “New York is in a coma. New York is in a sugar coma,” continued Arcade, outfitted with a red shock of hair and polka-dot dress, as sound collaborator Steve Zehentner cued Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy.” “If it’s not a macaroon, it’s an artisanal gelato. If it’s not an artisanal gelato, it’s a cotton-candy mojito. If it’s not a cotton-candy mojito, it’s probably a cupcake.”

If matcha green tea donuts and mango agua fresca were not what you were after at Saturday’s street fair, which encircled the museum’s Lower East Side address and spilled into a nearby park, there was raspberry pink peppercorn sorbet and toasted coconut milk chocolate ice cream. Organizers reserved half of a block for a food court where New New York’s gastro-industrial complex got put on full display. In one stall, a juice proprietor marketed raw, cold-pressed liquid under names like Elevated, Grounded, and Balanced. In another, Nicola Twilley and Zack Denfeld, two culinary brains technically part of the cultural programming, offered sooty confections free of charge but at one’s own risk: smog meringues flavored like air from London, Atlanta, and Los Angeles, prepared from eggs, gluten, hydrocarbons, nitrogen dioxide, nitric oxide, nuts, orange, pine, rocks, soot, sugar, sulfur, and terpenes. Further down the street, Slovenian artist and architect Marjetica Potrč and her Hamburg students had constructed a one-hundred-foot-long table. They served gratis melon and bolles of bread, social lubricants they hoped would get attendees to open up about the city’s housing issues.

Around 5 PM on the Bowery I caught part of the Living Theater’s NO PLACE TO HIDE. A participatory work by their late director Judith Malina, it dealt with the reasons for and consequences of going incognito. Performers stood in single-file lines, waiting their turn before aggressive, screaming examiners.

“State your name,” a man demanded.

“I don’t know!” a woman responded.

“Privacy or safety?” the man demanded.

“I don’t know!” the woman responded.

As the troupe took over the sidewalk, pedestrian flow was facilitated by members of Starwatch Security, the rent-a-cop outfit the museum hired to keep an eye on things. I asked one guard if there had been any trouble.

“No problems,” he answered. “Everything has been good.”

“And how many of you are there?”

“I can’t say,” he replied.

“And I see there’s NYPD too.”

“Yes. And undercovers.”

That’s one way to address invisibility.