MCA Denver's Sarah Kate Baie on Casa Bonita, the fiscal cliff and nine years of Mixed Taste

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Sarah Kate Baie has seen Mixed Taste -- the recurring lecture series kicking off tomorrow at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver -- grow exponentially over the last nine years, from its early days at Belmar to its current, summer-season mainstay status at the MCA. Programming curator Baie and her staff spend the year creating ths program that brings often uncommon but always entertaining topics together for parallel conversations.

This year's lineup sees specialists on Sandhill cranes and performance-enhancing drugs come to the stage together, while Tyrannosaurus Rex and Lucha Libre experts will also battle it out (conversationally speaking) in front of a live audience. In advance of the first Mixed Taste of 2013 -- zombies and raw milk cheese -- we spoke with Baie about how, exactly, something like the fiscal cliff wound up paired with Denver's famous Casa Bonita cliff divers.

See also: - Noah Van Sciver goes punk at MCA Denver - How to survive Casa Bonita, the world's weirdest Mexican restaurant - MCA Denver's Feminism & Co. 2013 lineup announced

Westword: What goes into the curation of a season of Mixed Taste?

After nine years of doing Mixed Taste, we're always trying to find a fresh way to approach the topics, by bringing in new and different speakers. This year, we wanted to do something that was a little bit different -- we've always done two lectures on completely unrelated topics, but we wanted to create programs that maybe seemed like they ought to be related. So, we did a few things differently than we ordinarily do.

We're doing a program on the fiscal cliff and cliff diving -- which is a lecture on the fiscal cliff and then a lecture on cliff diving by the Casa Bonita cliff divers. It sounds related, but it has nothing to do with each other at all. Or, sinkholes and wormholes -- sinkholes are, of course, the geological phenomenon that happens underneath the ground in sandstone-rich areas, and wormholes are a space-time continuum phenomenon that happens at the center of black holes.

In doing it this way, we've been able bring in a bunch of speakers who are brand-new to Mixed Taste, as well as some local luminaries that we're excited to have on board. On August 29, when we close out the season, we're bringing in Dr. Scott (Sampson), the new curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and he's going to speak on Tyrannosaurus Rex. And Delta Jr., who is a luchador on the Denver Lucha Libre circuit, is going to speak about Lucha Libre.

Mixed Taste is a popular event -- beyond interesting topic-pairings, what else do you think attracts such a devoted audience?

The thing about Mixed Taste is, you really don't know what is going to happen. Sometimes, things that have no relation to each other wind up becoming very connected and you can't believe you didn't see the connections between these two topics before. But sometimes, topics that seem like there would be more connection between actually don't prove to be that fruitful.

Half the fun is that Mixed Taste can work a little like a game show -- the live element of chance combined with humor and play means that no matter what happens, it is going to be unexpected. I think that's why people keep coming back to the series again and again -- even though the format is fairly rigid, the magic that happens that night is unpredictable.

I also think one other aspect is that it taps into areas of expertise in the community that perhaps people didn't even know were there. For instance, with déjà vu, the woman giving that lecture is a professor of psychology at CSU [ Ann Cleary]. Her post-doctoral research is on déjà vu and the brain phenomenon known as déjà vu. So what might seem like a "light" lecture that will be really funny may in fact be really funny, but it is actually a very serious lecture on a phenomenon that is known in the brain, and what the certain set of circumstances are that allow us to perceive that phenomenon.

Déjà vu is one of those expressions that has become a commonplace way to describe a feeling -- but has little or no connection to the actual scientific definition.

Yes! When I went to look for a déjà vu expert -- it was a topic that had been suggested to me -- and it was like, who on earth could I find that is an expert on it? Come to find out, there are people researching this phenomenon in the brain.

Do you pick the topics and then seek out the experts? Or vice versa?

It's a little of both -- I work all throughout the year collecting topics, from the staff at the museum, from patrons who have come to Mixed Taste and given me suggestions, from people outside the museum who contact me and offer up their expertise in a topic that they are particularly knowledgeable about. I collect those and kind of put them in the hopper and see what jumps out at me as something that I'm interested in working with. I try to see if anything coalesces around a theme, or if there are things that stand out.

Sometimes, things like performance-enhancing drugs (paired with Sandhill cranes on August 15) also happens to be an opportunity -- we have the United States Anti-Doping Agency located here in Colorado, in Colorado Springs. It is a topic that has been in the news lately, with athletes, and it is a little misunderstood. What are performance- enhancing drugs? We know that it's steroids, but is it more than that? How does it work?

We have access to these experts that live right here in our state, so they can come in and talk about exactly what they do.

Sometimes, it is just about the interesting people that we meet -- for example, the Mixed Taste on paper recordings (paired with honky tonk on June 15) will be done by Alexis Madrigal, a blogger from San Francisco who is a friend of the museum. He's sort of a tastemaker on a national scale, who is doing research on an early recording device when people had Victrolas.

Long before cassette tapes, long before YouTube, people would use this device to make recordings of whatever they wanted. But what they did make recordings of were their families, themselves playing instruments, their bands -- and a lot of it was the same things that we use YouTube for now.

He'll trace back the history of this thing that happened, then sort of the cultural history that came out of it, and then the series of innovations that followed, and how one led into the other. It's a way to explore cultural history, and look at the present in a new way -- maybe through a lens you might not have thought about before.

For (Madrigal) it's great, because he's writing a book about it -- and we get to hear about it first. He's working through ideas and research, and I invited him to come and speak on this, so we'll get to hear some of these early recordings and listen to what he's discovering and how he's putting it all together, before anyone else gets to.

Can you talk a little about the Casa Bonita cliff divers and Fiscal Cliff lecture on July 25?

The Casa Bonita cliff divers are like a Colorado institution, right? Everyone who has grown up here, who has come here or even just visited here for a day or two, has certainly learned about Casa Bonita. They are extremely excited to come in and talk about how to cliff dive. It's fun to be able to reach out to Colorado institutions, but also bring in people who are doing research on a national scale too, and being able to have interactions between them is very fun.

That's also our first economic lecture that we've ever done in the history of Mixed Taste. One of the pieces of research I did this year as I was putting together the topics was I made a list of every Mixed Taste topic that we've ever done, from 2004 onward. It was fun to track the progress -- like, oh, this is when we started doing more science topics, this is when we started doing more cultural history topics, and so on. And we've never, in the history of Mixed Taste, done an economics topic.

Mixed Taste takes place at the MCA Denver; the pairing on Thursday, June 6 is zombies and raw-milk cheese. Doors open at 5:30 p.m., and the talk begins at 6:30. Tickets are $15 for members, $20 for non-members; a season pass runs $165. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the museum's website.

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