It's good to talk
SOCIAL FORUMS:Got something to say? Get it off your chest at one of the growing number of social forums that bring together bright sparks, critics and social commentators for lively debate. EOIN BUTLERlooks at what’s on offer around the country
A GATHERING OF like-minded souls. Some earnest debate and the sharing of new ideas – all washed down with a few glasses of whatever you’re having yourself. Sure, what could possibly go wrong? Well, Fianna Fáil’s media handlers might have something to say on that particular subject. But despite Taoiseach Brian Cowen’s misadventures in Galway last month, the “think-in” has never been so popular.
From economists to graphic designers, trance DJs to unaffiliated messers – the recession has inspired a craze for convivial soul-searching on a scale hitherto unprecedented. The following are a handful of the specialist talking shops that blend public discourse with entertainment.
Created by Naoise Nunn and hosted (usually) by economist David McWilliams, Leviathan political cabaret can rightly claim to be the daddy of them all. It was first staged in 2003 and since then has played host to contributors as diverse as Michael O’Leary, Naomi Klein, Sebastian Barry and Dara O Briain. But according to Nunn, it has come into its own during the turmoil of the past two years.
“In times of plenty, people are content to party unselfconsciously. But in times of recession, such as Berlin or Paris in the 1920s, say, people become a bit more reflective. People come along to Leviathan to express their own opinions and, in the process, are exposed to other views.”
The format is informal. There is a host, a topic and a panel of four people. The host usually kicks off proceedings with a question to one person and the conversation ebbs and flows from there, punctuated by contributions from the audience and comedy inserts from satirist Paddy Cullivan.
Given that the lifespan of the debates straddles both boom and bust, which of his speakers, does Nunn feel, predicted our present predicament most accurately, and who got it most spectacularly wrong? “David McWilliams, obviously, called it pretty accurately. As did Dr Alan Ahearne, who now works for the Department of Finance.”
And who got it wrong? “As recently as October 2009, Frank Fahey was insisting, in a manner reminiscent of Comical Ali, that Nama was going to make lots of money for the exchequer. Dan Boyle too. The audio of the Nama debate is on our website and people listen to it, because there are some choice quotes.”
Despite the present gloom, Nunn remains convinced of the vital importance of robust public debate. “Part of the reason for setting up [Leviathan] is that consensus – particularly in the context of this notion of proposed consensus on the economy – is fundamentally anti-democratic. You need to see the thesis and the antithesis before you get the synthesis.
“One of the most important things we can have, heading into the next election, is a well-informed electorate. Public anger is useless unless people recognise the Government we’re all giving out about on Liveline are in power because we elected them. So it’s a bit much for the electorate to say we were sold a pup.”
Leviathan hosts Peter Mandelson in conversation with Miriam O’Callaghan at the National Concert Hall tonight
The brainchild of Richard Cook (the man behind the Cat Laughs Comedy Festival), Kilkenomics is a four-day “economics festival”. Like Leviathan, it promises to blend a cake-jumper-esque combination of economics (Philippe Legrain, Bill Black, Ha-Joon Chang) and comedy (Des Bishop, Barry Murphy, Colin Murphy) in 24 events across five venues in the Marble City.
At least two of Ireland’s Four Angry Men (Fintan O’Toole and Shane Ross) will be participating, but Cook is adamant that the emphasis will not be on rancour, but rather on identifying constructive solutions.
“We’re not looking for skin and hair,” he says. “We’re not looking for poverty porn. We’re looking for clarity. If economists can’t help us tackle unemployment then I don’t know what the point of them is.”
The festival will have its own currency – the Marble – that can be exchanged 1:1 with the euro, but will actually be worth €1.10 when spent in Kilkenny pubs, restaurants, bookshops and other outlets. For one weekend only, the Marble will be the strongest currency in Europe, say organisers.
A season ticket (€100) buys five shows, one book from the list on the website, one ticket to the festival club and 20 marbles – don’t lose them.
November 11th-14th; kilkenomics.com
“Obviously, the country is in the doldrums at the moment, so I suppose the basic idea is to bring in some original thinkers – both Irish and international – to inspire the next generation and help find some way out of the mess we’re in.” Richard Seabrooke is one of the directors of Offset, a three-day design conference that recently concluded its second annual outing in the Grand Canal Theatre, to great acclaim.
The event caters for visual art “creatives” working in photography, fashion, graphic design, illustration and architecture. Offset has brought in some big names – George Lois (the brain behind countless iconic Esquire covers from the 1960s and 1970s), digital advertising pioneers Poke and hip-hop/electronica legend DJ Shadow among them.
Does Seabrooke find it remarkable at all that offline gatherings such as Offset are proliferating at precisely the same time as the internet and, in particular, social media are supposed to be rendering an artist’s physical location increasingly irrelevant?
“One of the fundamental reasons we organise Offset,” says Seabrooke, “is so that people aren’t reading about these things on the internet or magazines. It’s about getting all of these people in the same room.”
For Seabrooke, one of Offset’s main functions is to establish a reassuring sense of community. “You may be a struggling designer, a struggling journalist or musician. But you aren’t on your own. We’re all walking a tightrope and, if you fall, this is the net you’re going to fall into.”
Subtitled “the earnest pursuit of ludicrous things”, Chaos Thaoghaire (pronounced “theory”) could be described as a cross between performance art, a pub table quiz and a children’s birthday party. Conceived and run by two American ex-pats, journalist Jane Ruffino and folklorist Amiee Curran, Chaos Thaoghaire is a monthly night of storytelling and games, inspired by poet George Dawes Green’s The Moth podcast in New York.
“I’m obsessed with oral culture,” says Ruffino. “I’m a really big fan of radio documentaries like This American Life. Chaos Thaoghaire is all about having a good time and judging work based on an audience’s response to it, rather than an aesthetic.”
She dismisses any suggestion that such unabashed silliness might seem frivolous at a time when the country is such deep trouble.
“It’s not frivolous; it’s ludicrous. Humour is a serious business and we take what we do very seriously. I come from an academic background and I burned myself out hyper-theorising everything. Anyone can theorise. It takes genuine intelligence and creativity to go the next step, to say, ‘okay, I understand why this is the way it is – now I’m going to have fun with it’. ”
The next Chaos Thaoghaire, “a Budget special”, will be held on Tuesday, December 7th in The Grand Social, Liffey Street, Dublin 1.
Since July 2009, The Irish Timesjournalist Jim Carroll and club promoters Bodytonic have been hosting informal discussions on pop culture at the Twisted Pepper venue in Dublin and at festivals around the country. To date, Banter has tackled everything from blogging to running your own record label and even running your own festival. Carroll agrees that these kinds of public discussion forums are a new departure for the industry.
“There didn’t used to be anything like this,” he says. “Or if there were, they were closed shops. Imro would host occasional talks, but you’d only hear about them after the fact.”
He links the rising popularity of events such as Banter to the economic climate. “I was recently involved in a panel discussion held on a Friday afternoon. The room was packed out. I remember thinking, ‘where are all these people coming from?’”
Like Seabrooke, Carroll stresses the social community aspect of these events. “It’s about meeting like-minded people. It’s about groups of people coming together who wouldn’t otherwise have done so – the 18-year-old kid who’s planning on running a club night and the 40-something trance promoter who’s been there, done that and bought the T-shirt. They operate in separate bubbles, but when they meet up there’s a lot they can learn from each other.”
He acknowledges that the internet is crucial in helping to bring like-minded people together. But he believes there are limits to the usefulness of purely online interaction.
“You could spend all day making smart comments on Twitter, or checking out girls you fancy on Facebook. But coming together in a room – that’s where things really happen.”
The next Banter @ Twisted Pepper on November 24th will look at the future of publishing, with panellists including John Ryan (Broadsheet.ie) and Hugh Linehan of The Irish Times