Sometimes lectures ask a lot of you: maybe you have to wake up at 7am and trek across campus. Maybe you paid thousands of tuition dollars for the privilege. You have to share the fluorescent-lighted lecture space with hundreds of semi-disinterested peers, while a professor talks at you for an hour or more. Or maybe you’re crammed into a boardroom, as your boss clicks through a presentation of third-quarter earnings and fourth-quarter goals. By the time you’ve reached the age at which interesting, free lectures are available to you, maybe you’ve just lost interest.
Which is a shame, really, because interesting people sharing their stories is one of life’s underrated joys. The goal of the Lost Lectures is to reinvigorate that platform. Describing itself as a series “enchanting talks from secret locations,” the Lost Lectures is a London-based media organization that hosts lectures by scientists, artists, techies, designers, entrepreneurs, and entertainers in obscure locations around the world. Previous speakers include Simon Baron-Cohen, a Cambridge neuroscientist who spoke about affective empathy, and Daisy Ginsberg, a synthetic biologist and designer whose talk offered a creative vision of a genetically designed future.
Last Friday, the Lost Lectures came for the first time to New York City, following months of furtive transatlantic planning. Past lectures have been held in a lighthouse, an empty swimming pool, and an old hotel; this one was at the Knockdown Center, a 50,000-square-foot factory with exposed timber ceiling beams and brick walls, built in 1903, that sits on a gated three-acre lot in Maspeth, Queens. The event was cohosted by the radical art website Hyperallergic.
Hundreds of people came out, eating banh mi from Bun-Ker and drinking free slushies provided by Green Pirate. The first speaker was Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prize, who humorously recounted the 1999 winner: a couple who designed the Blonsky device, an imaginary contraption that employs centrifugal force to facilitate the birth of a child: the in-labor mother is strapped in to the device, which is then spun at ever-increasing speeds, until out pops the baby.
Similarly humorous was Choire Sicha, founder of the Awl and self-proclaimed “anti-blogger.” After describing himself as being “on the Internet for far too long,” Sicha played a slideshow that explored the ever-pressing question: is the Internet getting stupider? Sicha engaged in a bit of formal humor, clicking through hand-drawn diagrams and reading off his iPhone as he recounted the history of newspapers in America (largely stupid) and the evolution of Internet usage, with its latter-day, venture-capital imperative on “liking” and “reposting.” “We enter a cycle of mindless sharing,” Sicha said. “So share mindfully.”
Barbara Nitke, a New York-based photographer who has shot stills on hundreds of porn shoots, shared her portfolio and hard-won insights from her 12-year career. “This is a hard job for guys—pun intended,” she said, to laughter. “They gotta do long strokes, deliver a cum shot on cue, and then he’s got dialogue!” Nitke concluded with the sobering diagnosis that “we live in a society that demands sex work—we want to see porn videos—and then we turn around and shame [porn stars].”
In addition to the interesting talks, there were several compelling live performances. Dev Hynes, of Blood Orange, performed a piece of music that was intended as a demonstration of both his anxiety and synesthesia. As he played a lush, droning piece, polychromatic visuals were projected on screen, swirling into tendrils and fractals, or resolving into solid, impressionistic blocks of color. A team of dancers from filmmaker Deidre Schoo’s documentary Flex Is Kings demonstrated the moves that comprise Flexing, a dance style that originated on the streets of East New York, including gliding, posing, connecting, hat tricks, the get low (“a series of floor moves where you defy all means of gravity”), and bone-breaking, which drew cringing gasps of awe.
The highlight of the evening was Amanda Lepore, a transgender model, fashion icon, and the owner of the “most expensive body in the world.” Lepore touchingly recounted her career, beginning with growing up gender-confused—“substitute teachers couldn’t tell if I was a boy or girl,” she said. She started taking hormones at 15, became an emancipated minor a couple years later, had surgery, and ran away to New York, where she became David LaChappelle’s muse. “Ever since then, I’ve had euphoria,” she said. Now Lepore’s a singer, too, and she concluded her lecture by singing one of her songs, a vaguely house-indebted number called “I Wanna Be Loved By You,” and dancing in a shimmering pink dress.
If the Lost Lectures are supposed to be a creative reimagining of the trope, then Friday night’s offering can only be counted as a success. Keep an eye out—you never know when and where they’ll return.