ideaCity, part 3
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, June 23, 2001)

Chris Buck, a Canadian photographer who has built a reputation in the U.S. by making fools out of the celebrities he photographs for magazines, yesterday turned up at the ideaCity conference and proceeded to take off his clothes, looking in the process a bit foolish himself.

At ideaCity the speakers, working alone on the stage, usually without texts, reveal rather more of themselves than is customary in public lectures. They sometimes seem a little naked, which until yesterday was a metaphor. Then, in the middle of the third and last day in this festival of egotism and innovation at the St. Lawrence Centre in Toronto, Buck came on-stage and immediately took off his shoes, his socks, his shirt, and finally his pants. He delivered the rest of his talk wearing red shorts.

Adding to the oddity of this scene, the stage behind him looked like the place where old TV sets go to die. In fact, this was the symbolic decor of the conference, a sampling of 20 or so sets from the vast collection of Moses Znaimer, the emcee and producer of ideaCity. They are to be part of the TV museum Znaimer is opening (he will explain them to you if you ask, or even if you don't). They made a wonderfully appropriate setting for conversations about great new ideas in the media. Each of them having been in its day a novelty, and all now being more obsolete than sun-dials, they functioned for the conference-goers like the human skulls kept as memento mori on the desks of medieval scholars. They reminded us that even the most brilliant of the ingenious notions described during the conference will one day go to the junkyard or, if lucky, the museum.

Still, the ideaCity audience loves any new idea, and therefore loved Chris Buck's near-nakedness. They listened, enthralled, as he described how he got terribly sick on a holiday in China yet came home with plenty of good ideas for pictures. His point was that taking time off is good for creativity; presumably taking clothes off is also good, though he didn't explain that part. As he spoke, the screen behind him showed a series of his photographs, each more outlandish than the last. He seems to be pushing, in his grotesque way, toward a kind of portrait photography (an old man standing on his head would be considered a numbingly normal shot in Buck's catalogue) that will presumably reveal fresh truths about subjects ranging from Francis Ford Coppola to Philip Johnson.

Most of the people who go to ideaCity have heard a good deal about the speakers and in many cases know their work well. What they acquire in this setting is some sense of the person behind the work. Placed in a not very big auditorium with these demicelebrities, and encouraged to approach them privately over coffee, the audience may come to know them in a new way.

Many of us had heard about Tim Kaiser, the Royal Ontario Museum archaeologist who made a sensational discovery in Croatia last year, but just about everyone was delighted to become better acquainted. Kaiser, who is 46, told us that for certain his career can go nowhere but downhill from here. The reason is that he's made the discovery of a lifetime. Many professionals, in fact, would consider it an accomplishment large enough to justify several lifetimes in archaeology.

While doing relatively routine digging in a cave on Croatia's Adriatic coast, he found a small hidden tunnel and crawled into it. While telling the story, he paused to warn us that archeology is not for the claustrophobic. How small was that opening? To show us, he lay down and crawled into the space underneath a coffee table on the stage. (It was a magic moment. Who knew he was a showman as well as an archaeologist?)

After much crawling, he entered a chamber in which, he was surprised to realize, he could actually stand up. This space had apparently been sealed for about two millennia. There he found a phallic-shaped stalagmite that had been moved from its original place elsewhere in the cave, so that it sat under a beam of light from above, the focus of attention. Around the phallic shape the archaeologists found many fragments of clay wine-cups. This was apparently the sanctuary or maybe the clubhouse of an Illyrian cult--a revelation whose implications Kaiser and his colleagues will be studying for years. "Archaeology," Kaiser said, "is pretty boring, but every once in a while, something special happens."

Dr. John Butt was an unusual speaker in a different way. He's the pathologist who directed the DNA identification of the bodies recovered after SwissAir Flight 111 crashed off Nova Scotia three years ago. Butt turned ideaCity's stage into a kind of confessional booth. Those who listened to him yesterday morning found themselves conscripted, before they knew it, into a relationship with him that was both personal and illuminating.

He started off by saying that while people have spoken of many ideas at this conference, no one had talked about death. He was there to speak of death and his most vivid experience with it. He said that pathologists practicing in a morgue can close the door on human relationships with patients because most of their patients are dead. But the SwissAir crash forced him to work closely with the relatives of the victims, a process he found disturbing yet touching.

When he learned he was expected to direct this process, "I was terrified. I was scared to death." Eventually he decided he was glad to be there, and that the relationships with the relatives and other workers were enriching, more so than anything else in his experience. But there were horribly painful times. He discovered that the job was bigger and far more complicated than he had imagined; he showed us a picture of wildly assorted body parts, most of them smaller than jawbones, that were scooped from the ocean bottom a year after the crash.

At several points in this long, tedious, and emotionally charged project, he began to fear that it might well kill him, since he has high blood pressure. "I wanted to run away, run far away from the whole thing. Sometimes I was stopped only by the thought of what the headlines would say." Now that's naked. Metaphorically.

ideaCity, part 1
ideaCity, part 2

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