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Marina Abramovic speaks at TED2015 - Truth and Dare, Session 1, March 16-20, 2015 at the Vancouver Convention Centre.Bret Hartman

It's not easy being a cynic in general, but it's even more difficult at a TED Conference, where you are surrounded by believers, and brainy ones at that. So it's a bit of sweet relief when my cynicism is alleviated for a moment and I get to be wowed by these high-genius-quotient talks (in 18 minutes or less) along with the rest of the crowd. Here are a few of my arts-related highlights from this week's conference in Vancouver.

The artist was present

We were instructed to put on blindfolds as artist Marina Abramovic began her TED talk, and she walked us through an early performance. It's 1974, she's in her 20s. Before her is a table of 76 objects, for pleasure and for pain. You can use everything on the table on me, she said, I will take responsibility, even if you want to kill me. At first the participants were gentle – feeding her a glass of water, handing her a rose. But things got violent as people took up the scissors, a razor blade, a pistol. She still bears a scar, and not just figuratively.

Abramovic, 68, has been making performance art for 40 years. But it was her groundbreaking The Artist is Present at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010 that became the basis for a documentary and brought her mainstream recognition. People lined up for hours so they could sit across from her silently for as long as they wanted (one stayed for seven hours). "I understood when I stood up from that chair after three months I'm not the same any more," she told the TED audience. "And I understood that I have a very strong mission: that I have to communicate this experience to everybody."

It gave her the idea to establish an institute of immaterial performing art, which she is trying to build in Hudson, N.Y. Her plan for the Marina Abramovic Institute calls on visitors to sign a contract promising to stay for at least six hours, to don a lab coat and lock away their cellphones, then do some slow walking and water drinking, spend time in a number of chambers including an eye-gazing chamber, and then settle in for a performance of immaterial art such as music, theatre or dance in a "long duration chair." (Those who fall asleep will be transported to a sleepers' parking lot, she explained, completely serious, to some laughter.) At the end of the day, you get a certificate. For now, the institute operates virtually, as a platform, setting up shop at partner venues. It's now in Sao Paulo. Lady Gaga has tried it.

I completely understand why people lined up for hours at MOMA for the Abramovic experience, so I was surprised at how reluctant – even terrified – I felt when she asked the audience to turn to the stranger next to them and stare into their eyes for two minutes. My neighbour was not super game, but I was kind of insistent. It was a long two minutes – fairly weird but kind of beautiful.

"I didn't make art to be rich and famous," Abramovic told me afterward. "I made art because I believe in this."

Subversive notepad

Growing up in Louisiana, Matt Kenyon was taught at school that if he had a concern about something, he could write to his member of government. Words can register political dissatisfaction, but so can art. Kenyon, 37, creates art projects that stir the pot.

The product of a military family (his father and step-father served in Vietnam), Kenyon, concerned about the U.S.-led war in Iraq, created a black armband modelled after an improvised explosive device. Every time an American soldier died overseas it would stab him in the arm. But he knew there would be many more Iraqi civilian victims. While the United States doesn't engage in "body counts on other people," As Kenyon explained during his TED Fellows talk, his research tells him it is estimated that between 150,000 and one million Iraqi civilians have died as a result of the conflict.

It was the kind of thing that you might want to write a letter to Congress about, but not on regular paper. Kenyon created tablets made up of pages that look like regular yellow notepaper. But when magnified, the lines on the paper are revealed to be microprinted text made up of the names of individual Iraqis who have died.

For five years, he has been smuggling it into the stationery supplies of the U.S. and the coalition governments (he didn't reveal how), creating what he calls a living monument that exists in the world and circulates. He handed out the paper at TED and asked people to use it to write to a member of government. "You can help to smuggle this civilian body count into government archives… Together we can put this in the mailboxes and under the noses of people in power."

360-degree tool for change

"Are you in the desert?" asked the woman adjusting the dorky contraption on my head. I was.

You hear the "game-changing" descriptor with some frequency at a TED Conference, and also "life-changing."

There in the desert, I was experiencing it with my own eyes – and more.

Let me explain.

Filmmaker Chris Milk is probably best known for his music videos – particularly his work with Arcade Fire, including the interactive music video The Wilderness Downtown (where you plugged in the postal code of the home where you grew up) and the Summer into Dust glowing-balls installation at the Coachella festival.

He is keen to use technology in his storytelling and a few years ago became interested in virtual reality. He wanted to do something artistic and began making short virtual-reality films. But he wanted to do more. "I used to say … this could be a medium where you can walk in someone else's shoes and you can go to a Syrian refugee camp and feel what it actually is like to live there," he told The Globe.

At a party last November thrown by U2 (with whom he has also worked), he was introduced to a UN adviser who said he was going to a refugee camp in Jordan and suggested it would be great to film something there in virtual reality. "I grabbed him and said, 'This is exactly what I've been saying we need to be doing,'" Milk recalled. A month later, he was in Jordan with his ball of cameras capturing the Syrian refugee camp at every angle, in 360 degrees. "My name is Sidra. I am 12 years old, I am in the fifth grade, I am from Syria and there are problems," begins the resulting work, Clouds Over Sidra.

Watching it is an astonishing experience, beginning in the desert, through which Sidra's family fled, and immersing you in the refugee camp, her home for more than a year. You smile as you meet its young inhabitants and shudder at the camp's vastness.

In January, Milk took the film to the World Economic Forum, in Davos where global leaders – the kinds of people who can truly effect change – were immersed in this virtual world. "And they were affected by it," he told the TED audience.


"When you're sitting there in her room watching her, you're not watching it through a television screen. You're not watching it through a window. You're sitting there with her… And because of that you feel her humanity in a deeper way. You empathize with her in a deeper way. And I think that we can change minds with this machine. And we've already started to try to change a few."