New Haven’s most celebrated guerrilla street artist got his start in New Haven dodging Yale security as he painted illegally on university property. On Saturday, he made a surprise cameo appearance as an invited guest to a high-profile event with Yale’s name on it.
True to form, he was conspicuous by his absence.
Anonymous street artist Believe in People (BiP) made his unannounced visit at a weekend conference at the Shubert Theater, appearing as a pixelated face and distorted voice in a video screening.
Also improbably onstage Saturday was Eddy Wang, a Yale freshman who told an hypnotic tale of overcoming a lifelong stutter—without a single stammer.
Those were two stand-out moments from a day of more than two dozen performances, presentations, and poems delivered as part of the TEDx Yale conference at the Shubert Theater on Saturday.
TEDx conferences are locally organized franchises of the global brand of TED conferences, which feature polished and carefully produced talks about all manner of topics. Saturday’s was the third TEDx event to be held in town in the last several years.
It was organized entirely by Yale students, who chose the theme “Solve For Y” for the conference. The topic had a kind of triple meaning, not only referring not only to mathematics and to Yale, but also punning on the word “why,” as in: Why do you do what you do? What motivates you? What’s your passion?
The theme brought a wide range of responses. Scientists spoke about the search for dark matter deep below South Dakota and tracing the evolution of beauty by studying birds. An economist offered “the rule of three” as the best way to use condoms. A Rwandan refugee told her story of fleeing genocide at 6 years old. The mayor (pictured) talked about helping immigrants make a home in New Haven. And the day was woven with dance, spoken-word poetry, and a cappella song.
The lineup included a surprise screening of a video made by BiP, the mysterious street artist who has been working in town for several years. BiP claimed via Twitter that he wasn’t at the conference.
“Reach For The Sun”
Midway through the first afternoon session, conference organizers Grier Barnes and Paul Fletcher-Hill (pictured) came out on stage to announce a surprise presentation. They asked the audience—comprising mostly Yale students—to refrain from taking cell phone pictures or video. THey momentarily shut off the live video feed broadcasting the event on YouTube.
A video began rolling on the screen suspended above the stage, a message from Believe In People (BiP), the anonymous street artist who has been working in town for several years.
The video opened with footage of a rat jumping off a high granite curb to get a roll of bread, then trying unsuccessfully to pull the bread back up the curb.
The letters B,I,P followed on a black background, then quick cuts of video footage of BiP at work and footage of his artwork around town, over a Latin pop song. His face was pixelated to hide his identity as he was shown up on ladders, on the ground in broad daylight, and underground in Yale tunnels, spray-painting with blue latex gloves on, working with stencils, cans of spray paint and liquid paint.
The music stopped and the video cut to a nighttime view of the New Haven skyline. A voice began speaking, distorted to a strange low baritone. As BiP spoke, his words appeared as supertitles in the night sky.
“I climbed up here to do a little thinking and talk to you,” he said.
He told a story about a conversation he’d had with a woman who’d been through a rough break-up. Oh well, she’d said at the end, it’s all just chemical reactions anyway. BiP said he’d been upset by the notion, by the thought that the wide range of emotion and human experience could be reduced to a kind of mechanical chain reaction, a Newtonian machine that was just playing out according to predetermined laws.
He set about to prove the woman wrong by filming moments from daily life, moments that he thought showed that life had to amount to more than just chemical reactions, that the mechanisms that result in emotions and experiences don’t make life less real or meaningful.
BiP said that when he showed the video to the woman, she thought it was stupid. He showed it to the TEDx conference Saturday nonetheless.
The video, set to Polyphonic Spree’s “Reach For The Sun,” showed clips of people on the streets of New Haven and elsewhere. Some were inspiring, uplifting: A child sleeping in her dad’s arms on the subway, kids rolling down a hill in a park, Eric Triffin dancing with his inimitable exuberance during a concert on the Green, golden reflections from the Chase Bank building illuminating the back of the courthouse, teenagers doing back flips off walls, a kid riding a double-decker bike, a lonely purple slipper abandoned on the sidewalk as people passed by. The video ended with footage of BiP painting a graffiti-style piece reading “Reach For The Sun,” in big blue letters.
The film ends where it started, with a clip of the rat and the bread.
When the video was over, at least one conference-goer objected to BiP’s no-recording rule for people viewing his video. He noted that BiP’s own video was made of footage he’d taken of people without asking their permission.
Asked about that sentiment after the conference, BiP had this to say: “This guy’s making a good point about my home videos. They’re not meant to be seen. Stuff I show my friends when we’re hanging like, ‘yo check this rat I saw over in Chinatown.’ TED’s this situation ... you get a lot of people together in a room that aren’t gonna make fun of you for being the outcast misfit you are. They’re gonna celebrate that and tell you, ‘keep on keeping on.’ So I played some personal home videos. That’s it. That’s what happened there. Nobody missed out, students won’t remember it. Caught the live stream, there was way cooler stuff happening. TEDxYale is a killer event.”
BiP’s video was preceded by a spellbinding talk by Eddy Wang (pictured), who delivered a presentation like none other that day.
Wang, a Yale freshman, told a simple tale of overcoming his stutter. The manner of his delivery, and the very fact of it—someone with a lifelong speech impediment speaking on stage before hundreds of people—captivated the room.
Wang walked on stage wearing a fleece vest and oversized gray winter boots, looking small as he stood at the center of the black stage with his hands at his side. He began to speak, shifting his weight occasionally from foot to foot.
The words came out at a hypnotically slow pace, with occasionally gaping pauses between words, but with no trace of a stutter. Fast forward to 4:39:30 in the YouTube video to see his talk.
Wang talked about attending a two-week speech therapy program last fall in Hollins, Virginia. He learned techniques there that helped him control his stutter. The techniques also made him speak slower, tackling words syllable by syllable.
When Wang returned to Yale, he felt out of place and spoke less than he used to.
“I was still in a stutterer’s mindset,” he said. “Being cautious about when and where I speak is not who—I am.”
Wang said he realized he needed to talk to more people, in more situations. “But to do that requires courage on my part. There are going to be more times when I fall down and have to pick myself up … But if that’s what it costs to become a fluent speaker and to be who I want to be, I’ll take it. Thank you.”
With a quick nod and a broad grin, Wang left the stage to applause and hoots. Everyone in the room recognized that his presence on the stage embodied the very courage he spoke about.
Another afternoon speaker offered a kind of meta presentation. Cartoonist Sandra Boynton (pictured) offered an absurdist take on a TED talk, hilariously questioning the conventions of the format.
TED talks are characterized by their highly polished presentation, carefully scripted to lead the listener on a journey of discovery punctuated by personal revelation and eureka moments. Boynton showed her mastery of the medium by delivering the very inspirational and personal anecdote TED talks demand, wrapped up in a stream of nonsense humor, puns, one-liners, and meta-commentary. Fast-forward the video above to 4:53:30 to watch it unfold.
Other TED speakers offered practical solutions to perplexing problems. Yale law professor and economist Ian Ayres offered a simple rule to address the spread of STDs: Use a condom the first three times you have sex with a new partner. Most STD infections are caused by “super-spreaders,” people who have lots and lots of one-night stands, Ayres explained. He said that conventional messages on condom use are contradictory and unrealistic—practice abstinence and use a condom every time you have sex. The rule of three is simple, clear, and would knock out the majority of STD infection if put into practice, he said.
Yale undergrad Clemantine Wamariya spoke about her six-year journey through several refugee camps as she escaped the genocide in Rwanda.
Sam Spaulding, a Yale student who was a contestant on Jeopardy, talked about the need to embrace artificial intelligence.
Jacob Sandry delivered a stem-winder of a spoken-word poem about a boy who refused to let bullies force him to take a different path to school.
Astronomer Debra Fischer spoke about the search for planets like Earth, where life may have taken root.
Yale dancers Gracie White and Christian Probst gave an acrobatic performance.
The Duke’s Men sang a tune.
Sean Beckett gave a passionate recited a poem.
Cody Pomeranz, a sophomore at Yale, made a convincing argument for teaching chess in schools.