As part of the TED Fellows program, 21 people kicked off this year's weeklong TED event in Long Beach last week before the official sessions even started. These minds come from 15 countries and focus on 14 different disciplines, making them a unique group of young pioneers.
This year, the TED Fellows program included three figures involved in the arts: filmmaker and artist Negin Farsad, musical artist Ryan Holladay and graphic designer and satirist Safwat Saleem.
Saleem works as a creative director for Arizona State University but in his spare time creates satirical art and makes movies. Stand-up comedian Farsad also works in the film arena, currently channeling her energy into The Muslims are Coming!, a film about Muslim-American comedians. Holladay co-founded BLUEBRAIN, a project with his brother that involves the two making music that can only be heard in specific sites, changing up the experience of listening to an album.
We chatted with the speakers about their talks and the experience of the entire TED program. This was the speakers' first time getting up on that prized stage so naturally their nerves were high.
Farsad took some risks but luckily for her, they paid off in the end. “I didn't know how people would react, for two reasons,” said Farsad. “One, early on in the talk I say 'We have this really annoying Islamic racism age today and the best way to deal with it in my estimation is to make white people laugh. And why white people? They control the government, outer space, AMC's Mad Men, and TED talk[s].' I thought, are they going to take kindly to me immediately making fun of the institution in which we are sitting or are they going to have a sense of humor about that? Luckily they really did.”
TED talks range from everything like scientific discovery to inspirational stories. Even though Farsad uses her comedy to bring attention to political issues, the mood she wanted to bring to the stage was totally different from the speaker before her.
“The other thing is the talk before me was this woman… she like deals with mortality issues with babies in the world and had saved all this premature babies from dying,” said Farsad. “The audience was in tears… And I was like motherfucker. Really?! You're throwing a self-absorbed piece of shit on the stage after this woman talked about saving the lives of however many BABIES?”
But what brought a comedian and a baby-saver at one event is the fact that they both share important ideas worth hearing. As BLUEBRAIN co-founder Holladay pointed outs, the people at TED events share the common thread or just being awesome, ambitious people. So much so that going back to reality kind of sucks.
“I feel like I'm still processing a lot of it and making sense. The entire thing is such a marathon and it's become such a blur that it's almost hard to process and I think getting back to the real world will take some getting used to,” said Holladay. “But it's an utterly surreal experience being around both people that are beginning big ideas and people who have spent their lives executing big ideas.”
But just because you have a great idea doesn't mean you're totally okay with getting on a stage with tons of eyes on you all. For graphic designer Saleem, giving his talk meant facing a huge fear.
“I'm deathly scared of public speaking so I was most nervous about that,” said Saleem. “It's all a strange experience, actually getting up onstage and trying to do like any kind of comedy kind of routine because I'm a graphic designer. But my artwork is all humorous and the idea is I've got four minutes and I'm going to use graphic design to make people laugh and I had never tried that… and it worked and some people enjoyed it.”
The “very supportive” audience eased that nervousness. Similarly, Holladay actually took the stage first out of his group but he got comfortable once he felt a “wave of love and support coming from the audience.”
For the remainder of the time, the three connected with like-minded innovators in an environment where perhaps — with the right meeting of brains — anything could happen.
“I don't think it was just, 'Oh I did a TED talk, it was fun, the audience laughed and thought I was hilarious,'” said Farsad. “I think, hopefully, I will have developed allies from being a part of it.”