There are few events that I find more inspiring than TED talks. Their speakers are a motivational living proof of our ability to achieve what we are passionate about. And yesterday I got to experience that vibe first-hand at a TEDx event: TED Talks’ baby brother. As it turned out, however, TEDx Brussels had a surprise up its sleeve.
On their line-up was Deborah De Robertis: a Luxembourgish performance artist with a penchant for getting into trouble by exposing her vagina in museums and public places. De Robertis came on stage in the third part of the programme, which had a loosely feminist sub-theme to it. Sitting on a stool, fully dressed, the artist started an uninhibited verbal account of her indecent exposures at various Parisian cultural institutions, notably the Musée d’Orsay and the Louvre. Her soliloquy was accompanied by a slide show depicting these ‘performances’, including the often-violent reaction of security staff and the police. When a group of black-clad dancers came on stage and started to savagely scissor her hair (a wig?) it became obvious this was not going to be a run-of-the-mill TED talk.
De Robertis’ message was clear: it is fine for society to show female genitalia passively but it is embarrassing when this is done actively, and the reaction is usually violent. Right on cue, a TEDx staff came on stage, stopped the performance and dragged De Robertis off-stage, exposing her breasts in the process. The slide-show, accompanied by the artist’s voice-over, continued playing for another 5 minutes. For us in the audience this appeared to be a well choreographed event meant to highlight what De Robertis was showing in her slide-show. However, when the compère came out, apologising for what happened and underlining that the Luxembourger had not abided by her contract with TEDx, it became clear that something had gone wrong. By the end of the event, three quarters of an hour later, I saw Belgian police walking in back-stage.
This incident left me baffled. To be honest I find De Robertis ‘performance’ (and I insist on the quotes) at TEDx Brussels rather useless. Surely there is a lot to say about the objectification of women but there are better ways to pass the message across in a TEDx talk rather than simply insisting on being disruptive and spoil the show. It smacks more of cheap attention-grabbing than a real interest in passing an inspired message.
However, I find the reaction of the TEDx Brussels organisers even more baffling. Firstly, up to that point, there was nothing in De Robertis’ act that was particularly out of place, in an event that aims to create a space for innovative ideas – including artistic ones. Secondly, when one controls the technical and audio-visual aspects, there are more elegant ways to stop a performance that breaches one’s ethics. TED talks seem to be of the same idea, since they revoked the license of the individual responsible for clearing De Robertis off-stage.
Still, I consider TEDx Brussels to have been a success: I came out of there bubbling with excitement, and it had nothing to do with Deborah de Robertis’ exposure!
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Photocredit: André Corrado