Spurring conversations

In-depth talks tackle complex topics at festival of politics art and ideas

Artistic producer Nick Hutcheson says two years spent working at The Banff Centre gave him the ideal training and inspiration for planning Spur a “festival of politics art and ideas” that will make its debut in Calgary from April 25 to 27. “You’re exposed to so many different disciplines and such a high level of content” he explains.

Unlike other festivals featuring a series of talking heads discussing issues ranging from politics to science to the environment Hutcheson says what sets Spur apart is more in-depth speaking events and debates that seek to not only propose issues and problems but also to offer a way forward. “Ideas are great but how are we going to implement them?”

Spur “sprang” from the Literary Review of Canada magazine and Toronto reading series Diaspora Dialogues. After trying out some different models of what the festival and its events would look like Spur launched in 2013 in Winnipeg Toronto and Vancouver and has expanded this year to include Ottawa and Calgary. Hutcheson says he sees the festival filling a gap by providing more long-form conversations. “I’m impressed with how heavily produced TedX is and how well it does” he says. “People have a hunger for live ideas. But the format tends to be unnecessarily simple and clean when the problems facing the world — and their solutions — aren’t so simple or clear.” Unlike a quick snappy and flashy five-minute presentation speakers are expected to take on a bolder idea or concept and discuss it at length 25 minutes or longer with no window dressing (Hutcheson says PowerPoint isn’t allowed) followed by a panel and audience discussion.

This year’s theme is Signal vs. Noise: finding meaning in a saturated world. The dialogues explore community and civic policy in an age of digital cacophony and dire negative media. Our reliance on technology to reflect the world back to us and give our lives purpose has created a dearth of worthwhile information and meaning. “There’s this great quote from [academic and civil servant] Alex Himelfarb that in the age of austerity the biggest byproduct is the death of imagination” says Hutcheson. He adds that it’s Calgary’s large young and urban population combined with an increase in civic infrastructure and a focus on revitalizing the downtown core that made it a perfect candidate for Spur’s guiding interest in urban reform and policy.

The conversations readings and performances involve artists authors scholars and journalists among others. Presenters include the National Post ’s Diane Francis; CBC’s Dan Brown; author Greg Bechtel; actor and playwright Ellen Close; the National Music Centre’s Candace Elder; Wired ’s Clive Thompson; recent Calgary poet laureate Kris Demeanor and more. If you only have time for one event Hutcheson suggests Political Branding (Sunday April 27) featuring a roundtable discussion on the inner workings of the political world that includes Ian Brodie director of research at University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy; Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s chief of staff Chima Nkemdirim; and political advisor Scott Reid.

The festival is described as multi-partisan and Hutcheson says it isn’t a think-tank and there is no particular political or social agenda to the programming. “We want to make space for a wide range of opinions” he adds. “I think we need to move beyond angry talk radio speakers that just attack and make things negative and personal. We want people to find real stories that move beyond just validating their beliefs.” Hutcheson says Spur’s approach to longer more multidisciplinary discussions seeks to challenge the often pat easy answers offered at festivals like TedX “praising the god of technology and the Silicon Valley side of politics” or gurus like Malcolm Gladwell that “popularize sociological research and apply it to marketing and business.”

He adds that if Spur has an ideology it’s a belief in the power of society. “It’s not about everyone for themselves but how we can work together.”

For more info and a complete list of events visit spurfestival.ca .