On 3 December at the Melbourne Recital Centre in Southbank, TEDxMelbourne held its last event for 2013—Seeing The Unseen.
The theme for the afternoon was introduced by a quote from science fiction writer Wendelessen “What is unseen, is not necessarily unknown.”
The first speaker was greeted by a silent hall.
Tim Chan, an eighteen-year-old poet, writer, recent year 12 graduate and an advocate for people with disabilities, has a story that is a lesson in the power of human potential.
Tim’s talk was unlike other TEDx talks. Joined on stage by his mother Sarah, who sat with her hand placed lightly on her son’s shoulder to, as she informed us, give him a sense of his body in space. The two sat on chairs, with a table central over the TED red carpet, and worked seamlessly as Tim’s electronically assisted voice echoed across the hall.
His first sentence took minutes to punch in as we politely waited. Disjointed electronic words exploded from the PA until the machine compiled and read back the completed sentence: How do you see me? When you try to talk to me, I look away, I don’t respond. I flap my arms, I make noise. I may lie down on the floor.
From then we were captivated.
Diagnosed with severe autism as a child, Tim is non-verbal and hypersensitive. He shared with us how being on stage was a mini miracle for him because his anxiety levels can get extremely high. He explained that his mother saw the unseen when it came to him. She “saw the potential to be fully human” and “to live a satisfying life.”
He told us it can be frustrating because people ignore him, they don’t see him as intelligent. The voice output machine takes effort to use and every time someone other than his mother helps him, he must make accommodations for that person’s particular style. Tim reminded us that the next time we see someone having a meltdown at a train station or flapping their arms at a supermarket, you may be looking at someone like him.
Elizabeth Broderick, the federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, began her talk with examples of discriminatory quotes made about women in the past. While there has been progress, the Commissioner reminded us that this kind of thinking continues in unseen places like during private conversations, sporting clubs, parliament, male-dominated industries, boardroom tables and even in some of our homes.
“Organisational power still resides in the hands of men,” she told us. “We must urge men to be involved and deliver equality for women if we want to see movement in the right direction.”
The words ‘military’ and ‘emotion’ are often not used in the same sentence but the Commissioner has seen what can happen when we bring the head and the heart together and commit to engaging in real conversation. Changes can, and do, occur.
Following the 2011 Skype sex scandal at the Australian Defence Force Academy, she conducted a review of the armed services and uncovered stories of discrimination and sexual assault due to gender. Her approach brought together military chiefs with female personnel for meetings of reconciliation.
Tania de Jong AM came onto the stage with the song ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, reminding us that there was a time when we all used to sing and that we all can sing. Demonstrating this comment, Tania divided the audience into three groups and shortly had the room singing in a three-part harmony.
Aside from the physiological benefits of singing together in a group—an increase in endorphins and oxytocin which lifts your mood, to name just one benefit—Tania’s talk also illustrated how such groups can support and enrich the lives of all participants.
Jon Osborne asked the audience to listen to how silent the room was. He began to explain some of the unseen factors that make Elisabeth Murdoch Hall excellent as a concert venue, such as the 250mm of reinforced concrete behind the walls and a floor suspended on spring bearings to minimise vibrations.
“Why does all this matter?” Jon asked. “Because true silence is the blank canvas on which musicians work. “
As his conversation progressed, he suggested that electronic vehicles will change how our cities sound, bringing quietness where there is now engine chatter and that we’ll have an opportunity to add pleasant sounds back into our cities, like water fountains and parks where children play. “This way,” he concluded, “we don’t withdraw, rather we engage once more with our surroundings.”
The first half of Seeing The Unseen ended with Tania de Jong AM taking the stage once more for a rendition of ‘Somewhere’.
Following afternoon tea, local circus group Three High Acrobatics treated us to gravity defying feats of strength, endurance and flexibility. They energised the crowd with their chair and hand-to-hand partner acrobatics.
The first speaker of the second session was Lisa-ann Gershwin, a marine biologist, ecologist, conservationist and author of Stung! She is an expert in the field of jellyfish. During her career, she has identified 16 types of jellyfish and 150 new species.
Jellyfish are “invisible, we just don’t think about them,” she told us, “but they are flourishing and causing problems.” Power plants, desalination plants, trawlers and other machines that suck in water, regularly suck in thousands of jellyfish that clog and damage machinery.
The huge number of jellyfish blooms is a visible indicator that something is out of balance, mostly due to human impacts on the ocean: transport ships, coastal construction, entrophication (too many nutrients), pollution, climate change and ocean acidification. Lisa-ann finished with the question, “How far will we let the ocean degrade?”
Dr Keith Joe asked us whether healthcare could become fun. He thinks so. He has a radical approach to make hospital visits more enjoyable, especially for kids. As he explained, “hospitals are places of healing but are also the most stressful and least pleasant of experiences. It’s the fear of the unknown that creates anxiety.”
He described that, as a patient enters hospital, “we’ll use electronic gaming to demystify and engage, and reward patients for their participation and treatment.” After downloading the hospital app, “the patient creates an avatar, they gain points and at the end of their stay they have enough points for a voucher or movie.”
Keith is now working with some of Melbourne’s best game designers to create this interactive app to “improve kids’ experience of healthcare [and] to look at an old problem with new eyes.”
Sami Shah is a Pakistani comedian, journalist and satirist who immigrated to rural Western Australia with his family. His talk explored racism, attitudes towards refugees and asylum seekers (“these are the good guys, the doctors and lawyers”) and his experiences in Australia, including a recent altercation with a kangaroo—“a velociraptor covered in suede.”
With verve and wit, he quickly deconstructed the arguments against accepting refugees; “They’ll take our jobs. Well, be better at your job!” He spoke of the power of comedy to change minds, connect and make us to see different perspectives.
“Australians seeing asylum seekers and refugees as human and treating them as human. That’s something worth seeing,” Sami concluded.
Morris Miselowski is a futurist. This is someone who explores predictions and the idea of “learn, unlearn, relearn” to think about what the future may look like.
His children’s generation will have six careers and fourteen jobs and, as Morris says, “perhaps the three Rs are not as relevant, while skills like collaboration and creative problem solving are.”
By 2055 we will need “600 million more jobs to keep employment at its current level.” Most of these jobs don’t exist yet. Morris commented that this doesn’t mean that we have to forget the past or what it has given us, rather “listen to yesterday, but speak to tomorrow.”
Seeing The Unseen included a special appearance by Australian music legend Tommy Emmanuel. In his talk “How I became a one-man band” he spoke of being in the “happiness business”. Tommy was inspired by Chet Atkins’ complex technique of cascading harmonies and from this developed his own percussive style so he “could make all the sounds at once”.
Delivering an encore, Tommy Emmanuel closed TEDxMelbourne’s event, Seeing The Unseen.
She has contributed to several publications including Frankie, Time Out, The Pun, Lingua Franca, Sotto, Horror, Sleaze and Trash, Spineless Wonders and Australian Love Poems 2013.
Cece Ojany is a writer and life coach. Her passions are creativity and contribution. She is the Writers-In-Prison Officer at PEN Melbourne and founder of The Main Protagonist. Her poetry has featured at several events including Federation Square’s Light In Winter Festival and The Dandenong Laneway Festival
You can follow her at mashariki.wordpress.com