Just after 10 am on a cold Saturday morning in February, the lobby of The Sheldon Concert Hall in Grand Center is crowded with St. Louisans stomping snow off their boots and slotting parkas into an overfilled coat rack. They’re here to attend a yearly conference organized by TEDxGatewayArch, a St. Louis-based offshoot of TED, a nonprofit that gathers expert speakers from around the world. Over the course of a day, technology, art, and cultural commentary will collide in a rapid succession of 17 talks. As attendees find their seats, two of the six speakers who will take the stage this morning prepare: burlesque performer Lola Van Ella finishes her mascara, and botanist Kyra Krakos adjusts her microphone headset.
After a brief introduction, Krakos walks into the spotlight and centers herself on a small red circle of carpet. She looks out at the audience, rows of quiet faces watching expectantly as the first slide of her PowerPoint flashes into view. A photograph of a single pale pink flower is centered in the frame, just above the title of her talk–“Plants, Pollinators, and People: A Love Story.” “I’d like you all to take a moment and envision your first school dance,” she begins.
Above her, the next slide clicks into view: a snapshot of a middle-school dance in an anonymous gym. Boys sit awkwardly on the bleachers, wearing t-shirts that are much too large, while a line of girls dance in the middle of the basketball court. “These are humans acting like plants–absolutely immobile. And this is what plants face with regards to romance,” she says. Krakos’ research focuses on how plants reproduce–“plant sex,” she says. “I have students in botany who, once they’ve had the class, despair at ever being able to give their grandmother Easter lilies again.” The slides alternate between carefully plotted graphs of data she’s collected and photographs of flowers, their rounded petals drenched in color. They have evolved to trap insects and other pollinators plants need to reproduce. Their bright hues and sensuous curves, she explains, are a costume.
A few speakers later, Lola Van Ella struts on stage. It’s not yet noon, but she’s in full performance attire: dark lipstick, mascara lining her eyes, and a satin dress that glows beneath the stage lights. “I do hope that if you’re not so much into what I’m saying, at the very least I will blind you into submission with my costume,” she jokes. She wears matching white gloves that come up past the elbow, and her hands shimmer with each gesture as she talks about how she has been inspired by famous burlesque performers of the past. “I love these women because they remind me that I am the architect of my own dreams … that I am not either/or. That I can be funny and sexy, feminine and strong, beautiful and intelligent. And that I’m allowed to be both. I love being a walking, talking, shimmying juxtaposition.”
As she speaks, she removes one glove with a theatrical tug. A few minutes later, she pulls off the second one and drops it onto the stage next to her. The auditorium is tense with a collective question: how far will she go? As piano music echoes from the auditorium’s loudspeakers, Van Ella unlaces her corset and strips down to silver pasties, smiling at the shocked audience. “Like any artist that has a medium, a painter and an easel, I use myself,” she explains.
As attendees file out the door for lunch, talking excitedly among themselves, her glittering costume lies discarded on the stage. “We work really hard to create a diverse tribe,” explains Steve Sommers, who founded TEDxGatewayArch. Upstairs, audience members discuss what they’ve just seen over free Pi pizza, clutching bottles of water and cocktail napkins. Krakos approaches the buffet table, opening the cardboard lid of a pizza box. Meanwhile, Van Ella mingles with stragglers downstairs, wrapped in a semi-sheer robe. Soon, they will all return to the auditorium to listen to the next set of speakers, who will tackle topics ranging from architecture to infectious diseases. “A good TEDx is like a carnival,” says Sommers. “If you get a group of people coming out and you ask them what their favorite thing was, everybody is going to answer something different.”