An Evening of Eavesdropping

By Dick Anderson Photo by Marc Campos

Oxy Live!—the College’s new conversation series featuring a world-class lineup of artists—engages audiences in dialogues about culture and society

“The arts provide us with a special window on the truth,” President Harry J. Elam, Jr. said last October to an enthusiastic Thorne Hall audience on the opening night of Oxy Live!—a new conversation series highlighting a diverse lineup of cultural luminaries at the forefront of their fields. “In and through the arts, we gain insight into the changing human experience in all its dimensions. I know I am not alone in this room in believing that the arts truly have the power to change the world.”

Laurie Anderson at Oxy Live! in April 2024.
Laurie Anderson had a near-capacity Thorne Hall crowd in the palm of her hand on April 10.

One speaker at a time, the series more than lived up to its potential over five nights of conversation during the fall and spring semesters. Beginning with internationally celebrated writer, artist, and nonbinary activist Alok in October—more on them to follow—the lineup continued with thought-provoking writer and progressive icon Rebecca Solnit, sociologist Ruha Benjamin, and visual artist Julie Mehretu—culminating in an illuminating (and at times hilarious) conversation with Laurie Anderson in April. The multimedia legend shared her thoughts about artificial intelligence, the virtues of optimism, the pleasures of eavesdropping, and much more to a near-capacity crowd in Thorne Hall.

Conceived by Meldia Yesayan, director of Oxy Arts, the College’s community-based arts hub, the series got off the ground thanks in large part to the support of Occidental trustee Lisa Coscino ’85, who has made a multiyear commitment to Oxy Live!

“When I was first approached by Meldia about supporting the program, I was immediately drawn to the mission of bringing thought-provoking conversations and cultural experiences to campus,” Coscino said in her remarks on April 10. “The idea of creating a space where ideas could flourish and minds could expand resonated deeply within me.”

Julie Mehretu, Paul Holdengräber, Oxy Live! February 2024
Renowned painter Julie Mehretu, Sotheby’s top-selling African artist of all time, discussed her art in Thorne Hall on February 21.

The common bond among these conversations is Paul Holdengräber, a self-described “curator of public curiosity” and “a consummate interviewer and unparalleled artistic interlocutor,” in the words of Coscino. In 2005, Holdengräber founded and directed the New York Public Library’s esteemed Live From the NYPL cultural series, where he hosted and interviewed over 600 iconic figures, and more recently served as founding executive director of Onassis Los Angeles (OLA). 

While an Oxy Live! conversation is best experienced in totality—and for those who cannot attend events in person, all but the Ruha Benjamin conversation can be viewed on Oxy Arts’ YouTube page—here’s a taste.

To open his conversation with Alok, Holdengräber read aloud “a poem that came to my mind when I was thinking about you and discovering who you might be”—“The Danger of Wisdom” by American poet Jack Gilbert (published in 2009).

We learn to live without passion, to be reasonable. We go hungry amid the giant granaries this world is. We store up plenty for when we are old and mild. It is our strength that deprives us. Like Keats listening to the doctor who said the best thing for tuberculosis was to eat only one slice of bread and a fragment of fish each day. Keats starved himself to death because he yearned so desperately to feast on Fanny Brawne. Emerson and his wife decided to make love sparingly in order to accumulate his passion. We are taught to be moderate. To live intelligently.

“I am wondering how this poem resonates with you,” Holdengräber said. “There are reasons for me to read it to you quite precisely. I’ll say a little bit about it, but I’d like for you to say something about it before I do.”

Alok, Oxy Live! October 2023
The inaugural event of Oxy Live! last October featured writer, artist, and nonbinary activist Alok.

“No resonance whatsoever—try again,” Alok replied to laughter. “Of course, I feel like I began so much of my creative work through the rubric of gender, and I would often be told that I looked ridiculous, and I would try to correct for that like it was a stain that I could not remove. Now, I’m legitimate. Now, I’m reasonable. Now, I’m valid. But then eventually you begin to wonder why you have to be legitimate in order to be worthy. And then you begin to wonder, why not be ridiculous? Isn’t there so much beauty in being ridiculous?

“So now I find myself quite ambivalent about gender and more invested in ridiculousness. I want silly solutions to serious problems. I want to be irreverent and foolish, ludicrous and far-fetched. When people call me naive and idealistic, I say, ‘Thank you. Who broke your heart?’ I find that the real grief is that everyone was wonderful once upon a time and then got told to be reasonable—and I find that profoundly unreasonable.”

“Too often the arts and artists are shunted into the back room as being frivolous and denigrated as serving merely entertainment,” Elam noted on opening night. “This series enters into this conversation determined to position art as not tangential but central to the debate and discussion of our future. It is fitting that this engagement with the arts takes place at Occidental, with its proximity to the arts industry in Los Angeles and its ongoing commitment to critical inquiry and to championing social justice. Starting with this discussion tonight, this series seeks to apply arts thinking as a way of providing insight, not into simply arts practice  but into critical issues that we face today.”

Ruha Benjamin, Paul Holdengräber, Oxy Live! November 2023, Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice
Sociologist Ruha Benjamin talks with Holdengräber on November 20, 2023, at the Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice in New York City. 

In celebration of its milestone reunion, the Class of 1974 has established an Oxy Live! Speaker Series Fund as its class gift, with a goal of raising $350,000 to help fund the program over the next five years. Les Zendle ’74 has created a matching gift challenge of $65,000 to support the effort.

Oxy Live! returns this fall with opening speaker Tavares Strachan, a Bahamian-born conceptual artist whose 2018 sculpture The Encyclopedia of Invisibility will be on display as the centerpiece of Invisibility: Powers and Perils at Oxy Arts (in association with Getty’s PST Art) beginning in September.

We can’t wait for the conversation. 



Top photo: Rebecca Solnit reads from her 2023 book, Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story From Despair to Possibility, as interviewer Paul Holdengräber listens intently.

Photo credits: Jane Kratochvil (Benjamin), Sarahi Apaez (Mehretu), and Marc Campos (all others)