I Attended ‘Night of Ideas’ in DC. Something Was Lacking.

Community-based artists are important, too. And let's include a lot of them.

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"Appearances/Disappearances" by Les Souffleurs (The Whisperers). Photo: FrenchCulture.org

On Jan. 31, Washington, DC hosted its first-ever edition of Night of Ideas, part of a global festival of performances, art installations, readings and lectures, accompanied by delightful food and wine. It was, all in all, a fabulous evening in a city known more for buttoned-up happy hours and over-the-top political fundraisers than for spaces to take your pick of arts and lectures, popping in and out as you see fit. It served as a temporary unplugging from the craziness of the hyper-partisan District under a Trump presidency. This year’s theme, “Facing Our Time,” could have easily lent itself to many Trump-related conversations but, quite artfully, the organizers took a broader view of the timely social issues we face today.

The Night of Philosophy and Ideas began in 2012 in Paris, when a gathering of intellectuals convened to discuss philosophy and to engage and reflected with strangers. Over the last six years, it has grown to an annual global festival held in more than 100 cities around the world, each with a unique twist, based on locale and interests. This inaugural DC iteration was co-organized by the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Embassy of France. Due to a not-so-small inconvenience known as the US government’s 35-day government shutdown, the Hirshhorn Museum also shuttered for nearly a month, leaving it unable to host the soiree, hence the French Embassy stepping in to save the day.

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On entering the neon-lit embassy, I encountered nearly 100 large dominos, each inscribed with “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” monkeys. I was curious if we could play with them. Being a cautious spectator, I took it all in and kept walking; later, I was delighted to discover a swarm of people giddily rearranging the dominos and taking shots at knocking them all down.

The theme of the night did not disappoint; it opened with a keynote by renowned writer Chimananda Ngozie Adichie, who presented a thought-provoking lecture on empathy, critical thinking and the pull of social media to make us engage 24/7 with no time for ourselves. Adichie’s lecture was followed by more performances, talks and installations than one person could possibly enjoy, but energetic performances by the Marching Band Baltimore Project bookended things, while Franklin Foer of The Atlantic delivered a lecture called “The Existential Threat of Big Tech,” plus there was an interactive performance art piece by Les Souffleurs Commandos Poétiques. These were artists clad in black, armed with black umbrellas, reciting poetry to unsuspecting members of the audience through long, cardboard tubes. The audience was encouraged to recite something right back.

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DC’s Night of Ideas, in other words, was a meaty evening. I relished the opportunity to reflect, as I can get lost in reactive conversations about the latest political abominations. While I reveled in the moment, I couldn’t help but allow #45 to once again color my view of the night. Here’s what I said to myself:

I am here in the French Embassy with this awesome group of artists, intellectuals and hybrids of the two because Trump literally shut down the government and the Smithsonian just couldn’t make this event happen in time.

Then took a natural step back and recapped US History 101:

France, our oldest ally since helping America to Victory over the Brits during the Revolutionary War, has stepped up and saved US again. Kind of like they did back in the 18th century.

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I continued down my Trump-fueled dark hole, searching for a deeper meaning to it all. I wondered if Night of Ideas was a metaphor for the precarious situation that we and our national and international political institutions find ourselves in. Or whether more promises will be broken to our citizens and to the international community. Or whether any of our allies would come to our rescue should we need them for something larger than an exciting evening of art and lectures.

A delicious sandwich from a local French bakery pulled me back from the brink. And then I realized what was missing: more local artists. This happens too often in the District, home to national treasures like the Kennedy Center and historical monuments and museums. DC gets so focused on bringing nationally and internationally acclaimed artists to our events and institutions that we fail to support local creators who make community-based, socially conscious work. Don’t get me wrong: there were DC-based artists present; the Marching Band Baltimore Project offered one of the most exciting performances I’ve seen in years. But the evening, with its unique mix of policy wonks, arts enthusiasts and locals, failed to really showcase local makers on a large scale. Why would we overlook artists at a grand event like this one?

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As you read this, I will be attending the 10th annual Atlas Intersections Festival, a two-week long performing arts showcase in Northeast DC that highlights local artists. This festival is cutting-edge and locally grown. But it’s no Night of Ideas in its reach and funding — and it’s not part of a global movement that draws thousands of people together, that can put arts in significant numbers at the table with policy wonks and philosophical discussions, or can use art as a tool of social commentary and criticism.

Given the chance to host another one of these enthralling events, I hope the DC Night of Ideas will build on this year’s success and push for more DC-based artists to be present and involved. And more dance, please. Always more dance.