With the TED Fellows, expect the unexpected: 3D animated molecules, tethered quadcopter cameras, death row inmates turned lawyers, quantum chaos. It’s the fifth-anniversary edition of TED Fellows talks, live from Vancouver, and here’s what happened in Session 1.
Usman Riaz, musician + artist
The Fellows stage comes to life quietly with the melodic strains of Pakistani composer Usman Riaz’s guitar. The piece, called “Boneshaker,” accelerates into one of his signature percussive pieces. Hammering on strings with his fingers and knocking on the body of the guitar with his knuckles, the piece crescendoes and crashes. The 23-year-old multi-instrumentalist from Karachi is also a composer, filmmaker and visual artist.
Ziyah Gafic, photographer + storyteller
Ziyah Gafic photographs simple, everyday objects: books, keys, shoes, combs, glasses. But these mundane items tell a violent story. Exhumed from mass graves 20 years after the Bosnian War of the 1990s, these objects belonged to the victims of genocide, and are cleaned, catalogued and used to help identify the bodies found with them. Afterwards, they become what Gafic calls “orphans of the narrative,” either destroyed or stored away out of sight and out of mind. His quest is to keep them in view as a last testament to the fact that these people existed, preserving them as an easily accessible visual archive that tells the story of what happened — integrating an objective forensic perspective with human compassion.
Alexander McLean, African prison activist
With quiet intensity, British lawyer Alexander McLean tells the tale of Susan, a female prisoner living in a 7-by-9-foot cell, whom he met while volunteering in a Ugandan prison. Women and girls are particularly vulnerable when they come into conflict with the law, says McLean, often suffering torture and rape at the hands of interrogators and punished for crimes committed by their husbands. Susan, for example, was sentenced to hang for killing her husband when he tried to attack her with a machete. To help people like Susan, McLean founded the African Prisons Project, an organization that offers prisoners a legal education via distance learning so they can defend themselves in court, help empower fellow prisoners, and pave the way for a promising future. Susan finished her degree, spoke for herself in court and had her death sentence overturned. She opened a legal aid program in her prison, and will practice law upon release. This year, the project will launch a class of female inmates from Uganda and Kenya, establishing a new generation of prisoners-turned-lawyers, proving that one’s future need not be determined by one’s past.
Dan Visconti, composer + concert presenter
Dan Visconti wants to update the image of the composer from an old man in a wig with a quill pen to a figure deeply integrated and in service to his or her community. Growing up listening to pop but trained as a classical violinist, Visconti creates vibrant new ways to present classical music, letting it serve as a locus for engaging in social issues. One recent project, a work commissioned by CityMusic Cleveland, was a weeklong musical event based on the experiences of the city’s 30,000 refugees — including musicians and dancers from refugees’ home nations. This project gave voice to typically sidelined communities, helped young kids learn about their own cultural histories, connected the city’s refugee groups, and helped identify and empower community leaders. With this kind of public engagement, Visconti is embodying a new classical composer’s role for the 21st century.
Aziza Chaouni, architect + ecotourism specialist
The river that runs through the ancient Medina in Aziza Chaouni’s hometown of Fez was once considered its soul, sending water to both public and private fountains throughout the city. But since the 1950s, overcrowding, over-development and pollution from such industries as tanning turned the stream into a toxic sewer. The city responded by covering the river over with concrete slabs, in the process destroying houses and creating dumping grounds. When Fez received a grant to divert and clean the water, Chaouni proposed the Fez River Project to uncover and restore the riverbanks, create pedestrian pathways, reclaiming these areas as public spaces and reconnecting them to the rest of the city. Over the course of years, the river is gradually being uncovered, illegal parking lots are being transformed into playgrounds, trees and other vegetation are being planted, revitalizing Fez as a living city.
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