By Julia Belluz
At the top of the freshly renovated Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, it’s the opening of Jonathan Ezer’s Salon Voltaire, a lecture series and supper club hybrid. The boyish mastermind behind tonight’s event paces the limestone-clad Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar, disappointed. “I don’t know what to do with myself,” he says. The event, which promises to arouse the mind and palate, is off to a late start. A photographer laughs, “He’s like a nervous bride!”
Just 30 years old, Ezer has already visited 68 countries, even climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. He is the kind of guy who exists half in front of you, the other half in some place in his mind, maybe pondering the impact of technology on developing nations, the focus of his post-grad studies in London. While abroad, Ezer participated in his university’s nightly lecture scene, and felt an “intellectual buzz” he thought was lacking in Toronto. He brought that buzz back in the form of Salon Voltaire.
A view of the ROM and Queen’s Park, obscured only by a pattern of wooden beams, is the backdrop for this affair. In front, glasses of wine swirl and a swell of people mingle against a screen that plays images of the greatest minds of recent centuries: Marx, Gandhi, de Beauvoir, and of course, Voltaire.
“Voltaire represents big ideas, wit, radical thinking,” says Ezer.
People file into the grand yet minimalist room, filled with neatly set tables of six. The crowd is quirky, and mostly middle age: there’s the ubiquitous bow-tied and mustached gentleman, an attractive young lady awash in white (after Labour Day?!), an IT guy scribbling notes for his blog, and one woman who looks like she stapled swaths of plaid fabric to herself to form shorts and a vest.
Drinks and the first course of soft boiled egg and cherry tomatoes settle in as Ezer introduces the evening’s format: two speakers will wax for a half hour about different topics, each followed by a discussion and question period, which sandwich the intermission. This arrangement suits our shortened attention spans, unlike, he says, the ancient Greek symposiums that lasted for hours.
The first speaker, Amy Lavender Harris, approaches the podium, her long hair swinging behind her. An academic, geographer and environmental phemonologist, Harris explores how this city is represented in the writings of local authors like Michael Ondaatje and Dionne Brand. She says there’s a disconnect between Torontonians and their literature, and questions whether the literature has caught up to the city, or vice versa. All of this competes with the constant rhythm of forks and knives, chopping, eating. The crowd responds, asking questions like why Hogtown has no theme song, and who provides the inspiration for Toronto’s prose.
At intermission, a local professional who wishes to remain anonymous, says of Harris’ talk, “I am surprised people are still hung up on Toronto paranoia. I thought we were past that.”
A university student and daughter of the second speaker, Mandy Pipher, says she thinks Harris’ assertions are too obvious. “It’s going to take a much longer time for the literature to develop here. Places like New York, Montreal, they’re older, they have more history.”
At Piphers’ table, Stephen Kershaw, a recent university grad, says, “I was looking at my shirt, thinking maybe I don’t fit in.” The orange T features an immense man’s body flopping a smaller one. Kershaw is unsure of what message to take from Harris, but says “I think there’s a lot of potential here.” His friends would be interested in an event like this, a welcome deviation from the usual Friday night film or party. “There are a lot of ideas here that people don’t talk about everyday.”
Ezer’s long term goal is to have his own venue where he can hold Salon Voltaire every night. He says that when this happens, he’d like to have events that are more conducive to students’ budgets. “Right now, in order for this business to work, I need to charge about $50, which I think is out of range for the majority of students.”
Jean Mason, a professor in the department of Professional Communication at Ryerson, is sitting with her husband at Kershaw’s table. She is asked about whether this is the type of event Ryerson students in hands-on, less theoretical programs could benefit from. She believes so. “If you want to create reflective practitioners, theory is very important. You need a balance between [theory and practice].” She thinks Ryerson could also use graduate houses, like at other universities, where students may freely share ideas outside the classroom.
Masons’ departmental colleague, J.D. Pipher, is the next speaker. Along with cold smoked salmon followed by artisan cheeses, the assistant professor asks the audience to “Put on [their] metaphysical sea belts.” His energetic presentation titled, “From God to Gates in 30 minutes,” explores humanity’s move from a natural to technological environment. But to begin, he requests that each person in the room rewrites the first words of the Bible (“In the beginning…”). Mason offers, “In a lapse of critical judgment, woman created man and we’ll all pay for thousands of years.” Everyone laughs.
Ezer looks out onto the crowd, smiling constantly. If these biweekly events are a success, he dreams to eventually have Salon Voltaire café, furniture and cruise ships.
But first, he says, “I want people to say, ‘Wow, this is a new kind of nightlife. It’s not dumbed down. It’s not snooty, like the opera or ballet.” He pauses and corrects himself, smirking, “Actually, I’m snooty as well, so it’s okay if they say that.”