Karl Rove and Chelsea Handler are yelling at each other, because this is 2018, and they’re on a panel titled “Impeachment Is a Strong Word.”
“We have a right as American people to know what happened in that conversation!” says the sardonic comedian on a stage Sunday in Central Park, talking about President Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.
“All right!” says Bush’s brain, defiantly raising his voice in her direction. “All right! Good!”
“We have a right to know!” she continues.
Rove is chopping the air with his hand as the audience at this strange festival of ideas applauds the verbal combat. “If you want to have it, then let’s be equal: What the hell did President Obama meet — ”
“Who gives a s---?”
“Let me finish!”
“Who gives a s--- now?”
“Let me finish!”
It’s almost hard to hear the Ozy Fest headliners over here in the VIP section, where Palo Alto techies are mingling with New York consultants. Here you can get your hair barbered behind some fake topiary, or your face painted with glitter and tiny crystals. A nice woman will show you the proper way to pour cold-brew coffee from a bottle, even though you don’t want her to. If Rove and Handler are getting too screechy, you can borrow a pair of headphones and listen to the session one tent over, where transgender actress Laverne Cox and rapper-actress Awkwafina are gabbing in dulcet tones about “The Future of Hollywood.” There are six panels at this festival whose titles start with “The Future of,” including one called “The Future of Everything.”
Maybe the future of everything is festivals. Maybe once the robots take over and offices become obsolete and we have nothing to do, we will just meet up, a few thousand people at a time, in outdoor spaces like this one, where everything’s sponsored by German airlines and Swedish carmakers and American tech companies. We will eat Kind bars and drink Napa Valley rosé and listen to stand-up comedy and indie-electronic music and surrender our likenesses in various corporate photo booths, and we will feel not so very alone.
“Have you figured out what this is?” asks a marketer visiting from Santa Monica, Calif., standing on the purple carpeting of the tiered VIP section.
“That’s the thing — it hasn’t figured itself out yet,” says Irene McGee, a freelance content strategist who was a cast member on “The Real World” in 1998.
This is not the real world, but Ozy Fest so wants to understand it and predict where it’s going. The festival is a production of Ozy Media, a 5-year-old news outlet whose goal is to make you smarter faster. Its U.S. Web audience has been shrinking, but this spinoff confab has been growing in scope and buzz since 2016, and its branding suggests a miniature East Coast version of South by Southwest, or an intellectual’s Coachella, or an Aspen Ideas Festival for the masses.
The Internet was swift with ridicule: “the music festival of your nightmares,” the A.V. Club wrote last week, but this is not totally fair. Ozy Fest is a daydream, not a nightmare. It is a junket for brand pushers, and a two-day summer camp for progressive aesthetes who are biding their time before an anticipated “blue wave” hits the polls this autumn.
Ozy Fest is cheaper and more interactive than TED Talk conferences, and similar to Burning Man in the sense that Grover Norquist is here.
“The only way we’re going to deal with an issue like marijuana prohibition is to go state by state,” says the anti-tax celebutante, who took the stage with GOP exile Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) to almost no applause from the “change generation,” which is what Ozy Media calls its audience — “insatiable” people with “big curious minds who don’t want to be in an echo chamber,” according to Ozy’s founder, Carlos Watson.
Here in the flesh, though, the echoes are loud. Attendees are wearing T-shirts that say “I’m still with her” and “The future is female” and “Love trumps hate.” They are getting their charts read by an astrologist wearing a feathered mohawk headdress. They are commissioning custom-made poetry from Brooklyn performer-artist Lynn Gentry, who sits behind a manual typewriter asking for a word or two of subject-matter inspiration.
“Hillary Clinton,” we say.
Check back later, the poet replies.
Clinton herself is here at Ozy Fest, in a flowing sky-blue caftan and white linen pants, looking like she was choppered in from East Hampton. For 45 minutes, she is the president of this little plot of Central Park, astride the ritziest Zip code in New York City, a bubble within a bubble within a bubble. Her interlocutor is billionaire philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, the sixth richest woman on the planet and a primary investor in Ozy Media, whose name comes from the Percy Bysshe Shelley poem “Ozymandias,” which is about, uh, the dusty remains of a fallen empire.
“There is sufficient evidence that the Russians are back into our systems,” Clinton says, adding, “We also know they’ve been probing and gathering information about critical infrastructure: our electric grid, our air traffic system, our water system, nuclear power plants.”
But Clinton’s appearance concludes with a bath of optimism, in the form of a video montage of the resistance that depicts “over 10,000 marches in 547 days in all 50 states.” The audience gobbles it up.
“That’s the United States of America,” says Jobs, addressing the congregation mustered by her money. “That’s where I want to live.”
“I really think people have found how much it matters that they speak out,” Clinton replies, “and be part of these movements to reclaim our future.”
The future the future the future. For all the talk about the future here, and the invocation of “mega trends” and “super-forecasters” in other panels, Clinton boils it all down to a simple instruction: “Vote in November,” she encourages, in a tone that seems to say “I know some of you didn’t last time around.” Her husband’s new beach-read political thriller, co-written with James Patterson, is featured in the festival’s pop-up bookstore.
Also happening around the grounds: a campaign speech by New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, a panel on entrepreneurship with retired MLB performance-enhancer Alex Rodriguez, a dating game hosted by the drag queen Eureka, a chat about mass incarceration with the rapper Common, book-signings by Rose McGowan and Salman Rushdie and Roxane Gay. A “special guest” is on the program for 3:10 p.m. Sunday; a promotional video suggests the guest will be comparable in stature to Oprah or Obama.
“We’re such sheep that I regard it as an act of transgression to buy a Google laptop instead of an Apple laptop,” scolds Malcolm Gladwell from the main stage, and yet some VIPs have their headphones on, so they’re hearing Chelsea Handler — this time in conversation with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) — ruefully admit: “Yeah, I’m an elitist. I tried very hard to become one.”
Ozy Fest is only semi-elitist. A one-day pass is as cheap as $79, and you get to see stand-up comic Michelle Wolf and the band Passion Pit perform. There’s the fenced-off VIP section (about $300 for two-day access) and the more rarefied “House of Ozy,” which is its own tent of even more important people.
But what is it?
“I’d call it a live podcast,” says Melanie Linney, 33, who recently moved to Jersey City from San Francisco, and heard about Ozy Fest on Facebook through a Groupon deal. “I don’t know what Ozy is. I’m here for the conversation.”
“I think it’s probably the most fascinating festival I’ve been to,” says her friend Abbie D’Errico, 27, a marketing specialist who lives in Queens. “It’s constructive. Everything has a positive spin.”
Whatever frightful lunacy has been simmering in Tucson, where an armed group of anti-government conspiracy theorists believes that an abandoned homeless camp is tied to a nonexistent child-trafficking ring coordinated by the Clintons — Ozy Fest is the exact opposite of that.
On Sunday the special guest never appears, and no explanation is given. This seems very Ozy. Maybe each one of us is meant to be the special guest. That would also be very Ozy. We leave the festival with a commissioned poem on the marquee guest, and fittingly it includes a bit of subversive empire-dashing, which is very Ozymandias. Here is the middle of it:
all I know is that money moved
and laws were made
so when people say things
like mass incarceration
I don’t see statistics
I see a brother that left
at the age of 15
returned two months ago
Who had more potential than me
and I wonder if the world will ever know