Mixed Taste on Ice kicks off at MCA

Chicken and waffles.jpg
The Museum of Contemporary Art's wildly popular Mixed Taste series kicked off its first ever Winter series on Friday. For the uninitiated: MCA Denver invites two speakers on unrelated subjects to lecture for twenty minutes separately and then answer audience questions jointly. This week's juxtaposition was Adrian Miller on Chicken and Waffles and Kirk Johnson on the Ice Ages.


First, the good. Lecture series are a notoriously tough sell, and here is one that barely gets any tickets past a members-only pre-sale. Credit Executive Director Adam Lerner, who brought the series with him from his post at the Lab at Belmar, for making the thing sail. There's a lively cocktail hour and people seem to leave smiling.

And the speakers themselves are insanely impressive. Ice Age speaker Kirk Johnson, who is the Chief Curator at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, is involved in the massive Ice Age fossil dig currently unfolding in Snowmass. That places him at the front lines of the most fascinating paleontology happening at the moment, and given his subject matter, he's as deft and entertaining a speaker as I've ever seen.

The chicken and waffles portion came from Adrian Miller, who is publishing a book on Soul Food. He's another great speaker and provided twenty minutes of informed backstory and unique analysis. His topic, narrower and less well-known than Johnson's, allowed him to be direct and focused -- here's how chicken and waffles started, here's why, here's where you can get it. Steuben's provided sample plates of chicken and waffles to supplement his presentation.

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Adam Lerner raffles off a bag of ice. Hijinks!

Then the two men retook the stage to take questions from the audience. Here's where the thing flies off the rails. Because, as it turns out, the Ice Age and chicken and waffles have absolutely nothing in common. That's the point, of course, but the Q&A session turns into a hopelessly pithy and academic guffaw-fest, with wordplay enthusiasts offering stilted jokes about fried mastadon. The whole thing serves to undermine the potential value of the individual lectures because the absurdist marriage of the two subjects becomes the featured attraction.

Think back to when you were in school and the teacher would do something like write the word "cock" on the whiteboard in the course of talking about something not related to penises. The male chicken or something. Except everyone would burst out laughing because, you know, cock, and that's all anyone would remember from the class. This is a lot like that, except the principal is the one making the first crack.

We're obviously not opposed to undermining potentially serious subjects with stupid humor, but it's not even like the jokes are funny. This is literally a room full of people in fits of hysteria over a "question" from an audience member that starts with the word "socio-politically" and ends with comparing white people to waffles and black people to fried chicken and suggesting the combination is a parallel to Obama's post-racial America. Fucking LOL, right?

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This is exactly why Mixed Taste is valuable. Unlike an online blog, where you're not required to represent yourself by name or in flesh (so you're perfectly safe to say any outlandish or rude thing to another person), Mixed Taste provides a space where it is safe to air your idea, your dorky pun or reach for the sublime among real people. It connects you to people (who you don't already know) and ideas. Where else do we do that, and in just one hour? Maybe it's about cultural efficiency.

Philip Joseph
Philip Joseph

Messy discussions, even some pretension, are part of the point. The writer ignores completely that there is a method here: Mixed Taste makes difficult, esoteric topics approachable by combining them with more familiar topics (e.g. waffles). So waffles become an object of serious inquiry, and the Ice Age becomes a source of play and fun. It's pretty democratic at base: Everyone feels that they have something to say. That the method. It would be good, in my view, at least to recognize its seriousness and innovation.

Adam Lerner
Adam Lerner

Great job, Kiernan, on your account of the last Mixed Taste. I guess it's about time that Mixed Taste got a little criticism. But you miss the crucial element that fuels the program: that all its energy comes from the fact that you don't know whether or not any one night will have the magic of a completely inspiring connection—whether it will be awesome or just interesting. In that sense, it has a rock-n-roll quality. Last Friday, both speakers were unbelievable, the Q&A was informative and silly in a geeky way, but there were no magical connections. Sometimes the connections are mind-blowing. (I still think about the profound insight I had about modern life at the Big Foot and Karl Jung evening last summer.) What you saw on Friday was actually the audience’s attempt to reach that high note that they never quite hit. But that’s OK because you will never get something original place without some failed attempts. And you can’t have public intellectual life without some annoying questions. I’ve accepted that long ago.

Mixed Taste is an engine that forces you to think about subjects outside of the traditional paths. That’s interesting to think about in light of your post because, as honest as it is, it ends up in a pretty traditional place. What is the engine that drives your argument: When a quirky outsider event becomes popular, the cooler position is to criticize it? It sounds like you need more Mixed Taste.


I don't actually think the questions are ever that elevated (though I missed the Mixed Taste reviewed here). From my experience it seems like the laughs that the questions get are mostly produced by people that don't get out much...there is a reason that there is a simultaneous kids' program...

I think the program is still great, just massively annoying when [as noted in the above critique] people [that seem to think they are extremely funny and clever] ask really dumb questions and everyone laughs like they've heard something funny or clever. It does start tinging on like, grotesque hysterical parody.

Adam Lerner is a fool
Adam Lerner is a fool

Adam: The fact that you replied to this shows both your insecurity and arrogance. “iguess it's about time that Mixed Taste got a little criticism” Where have you been?Mixed Taste is roundly criticized by attendees. Every Mixed Taste attendee that I have talked to points out the “npr” crowd and The fact the you draw about 200 of the same people to every mixed taste.

It is a joke Lerner and you know it.

“It sounds like you need more Mixed Taste.”

It sounds like you need a dose of reality without the overflowing pretention that permeates everything you do.

Paul Andersen
Paul Andersen

I don't know of a lecture series like Mixed Taste, at another contemporary art museum or any other institution for that matter. Whether you love it or hate it, it is an original way to develop ideas.

Criticism is always a risk of trying something new. I happen to like the Mixed Taste program. In a world that primarily pushes people to specialize (in their jobs, their relationships, their intellectual interests), it is refreshing to look for relationships between things that aren't obviously related. There will inevitably be a range of responses from the audience, including insightful, idiotic, funny, and lofty ones. But the discussions offer people a way to participate in contemporary art - to engage in the kind of connection making that defines one view of what contemporary art is. Funny that Adam should be labeled "pretentious" for making contemporary art interesting for a wider audience.


Given that blogs are a public forum, it doesn't make much sense to object to the article's subject choosing to contribute his thoughts to the conversation. The point of criticism is not for the critic to have the last word (particularly if it's published on a comment-enabled blog) but to incite debate, as this clearly has.

Mixed Taste, too, is designed as a staging ground for unexpected conversations and debates, and as Adam points out, the risk you take when you're the one setting the stage is that you don't know how the scene will play out. But that's part of the fun, for speakers and audience alike. The spirit of the MCA's programming has a lot to do with taking thoughtful risks, tempting the unpredictable, and allowing the community to have a hand in making something amazing happen. It's a different way of doing things, but that's the whole point.

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