Out of Speech
The Wham City Lecture Series seeks to spread knowledge and maybe even instigate change
The public lecture, once a common form of education and entertainment, has been out of style now for generations. Instead of bearded men and bonneted women giving lectures on the gold standard and temperance, lecturers now are only found on college campuses, pontificating on academic minutia.
But the Wham City Lecture Series, which has run sporadically since 2005 and now occurs twice monthly at the Zodiac bar in the Station North neighborhood, has resurrected the idea. "It has a sense of show and tell," says Connor Kizer, who started the series in 2005 with poet Allen Mozek and now runs it himself. "There are so many people around who are learning about things and coming up with ideas that don't make it into their art. This is a venue where they can share stuff they've been thinking about."
While many of the speakers are drawn from the Wham City collective's own membership, the series distinguishes itself by presenting people, and topics, that are not normally onstage. In recent months, lectures, which are always presented in pairs, have been given on everything from John Candy to Sufism, Bobby Fischer to drinking games. Evan Moritz, member of the Annex Theater company, recently gave a talk on Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle. He said that he began preparing his 45-minute lecture with modest intentions, but like Wagner's work, the piece grew over time.
"I wanted to get the audience to understand how the leitmotifs work in the Ring Cycle," he says. "In order to do that, I had to explain everything leading up to that. Being a playwright and someone who belongs to a theater, I wanted to tell the story as fast and enthusiastically as I could. By the time I was getting to the final leitmotifs, it had this feeling of picking up, as if there were still even greater and greater levels to this. In my ideal world, people might want to explore that."
Although some lecturers speak on topics on which they have some expertise--chimp grunts, orgasmic birth--Kizer encourages people to use the lecture series to educate themselves on a topic. "Sometimes it just promotes auto-didacticism," he says. "I love learning, but I have a hard time learning in a classroom. [The lecture series] is not part of some institution. There's no tuition, no curriculum."
In fact, Kizer suggests that the lecture series is a kindred spirit to the Baltimore Free School, recently established by the Red Emma's collective. Many lecturers are also teachers. Matthew Smith, who received his MFA in creative writing from the Johns Hopkins University and is currently an adjunct professor there, speaks at this week's installment on the subject of gifts and giving.
"I've done a lot about thinking about what it means to give a gift, and I've dedicated an unhealthy amount of time to what makes for a bad gift," he says. "When someone gives you a really good gift they're giving you the idea of the person you'd most like to be. When someone gives you a terrible gift it's an idea of a person you're not."
Smith, who, like many of the lecturers, attended the series before braving the crowd, calls the series "self consciously homemade." He says that the first lectures he attended were more rambunctious affairs, with audience members interjecting with questions and comments.
"It was a good test of the merit of the lecture as to whether [the speaker] was able to respond to the heckling," he says. But "there's also an earnest experience of learning. It is closer to the tipsy post-dinner family discussion in the living room than a proper lecture in the classroom. The principal difference between the Wham City lectures and the living room lectures is that everyone is there on purpose."
Even though lecture audiences might be better behaved now, the subjects and styles of the lectures remain idiosyncratic. Susan MacCorkle, a costumer currently living in Baltimore, also speaks this week on the history of undergarments. While MacCorkle will put together a PowerPoint presentation on the impact of wars, inventions, and culture on undergarments, she will also demonstrate how a corset is laced.
"I just want to give people a nice unbiased review," she says, noting that she worked for a custom corset maker in Providence, R.I. "I'm not interested in giving any sort of feminist bent on corsetry."
One of the criticisms lodged against Wham City is that its members have not included Baltimore's larger arts community in its enterprises. Moritz feels that the lecture series might help change that. "In order to be expansive and to include more people in the community, it takes education," he says. "For some reason, our art doesn't reach out to every person in the city. While we're getting all this heat for not being 100 percent universal, we still want to broaden the community."
He feels the lecture series helps artists, who make up much of the audience on a typical night, engage with the public in new ways. "They see fun lectures, educational lectures, and at some points get really riled up," he says. "[Lola Pierson's talk] about the Federal Housing Project changed how artists thought about how segregation worked in Baltimore. She was able to speak very clearly about the segregation problems in Baltimore. That was a very big change for a lot of people."
Kizer admits that while many of the lecturers are Wham City members and their friends, he tries to include people he doesn't know but finds interesting. "We're friends with people who are idiosyncratic in their socialization," he says. "Musicians and stage performers are in the public eye talking about stuff. You don't get to see people who are writing speak as much. The quiet ones intrigue me. We give people a venue. You have 45 minutes that no one's going to interrupt you."
And starting with this week's lecture, Kizer is encouraging attendees to bring pamphlets, newsletters, chapbooks, and other printed material to be shared or sold during intermission. "The lecture series is an open market of ideas, and hopefully, people will start bringing their print ideas as well," he says.
Moritz believes that the potential for the lecture series may be even greater. "Now, as it goes on, we keep the atmosphere heterogeneous and congenial," he says. "The thing that's good about the Wham City Lecture Series [is that] it has the forum for something explosive to develop. I could see at some point one of them really triggering a strong change."
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