At the Invisible College, tuition costs $5. Class is in session only twice a month. The eclectic course of study ranges from Moroccan lounge music to conspiracy theory literature, from pioneers of the psychedelic movement to pulp art history.
In fact, nothing is strictly academic at this biweekly bohemian salon, where artists and intellectuals, young and old, exchange ideas and laughs. Although there is dancing and drinking, conversation rises above dim bar chatter. Invisible College, held at downtown's Blue Bongo Cafe, is as close as L.A. gets to a nouveau beat movement.
"By putting on some sort of multimedia cabaret, we're providing an excuse for people to talk," says Peter Giblin, one of the college social directors. He and Coco Conn have been throwing the event at the Blue Bongo Cafe since October. "It's the thinking man's party," Conn chimes in.
They're a complementary pair. Giblin produces conferences on technology's effect on society. Conn, for decades, had been throwing private parties that were popular with the bookish-but-hip crowd.
When Conn recently sold her house in the Hollywood Hills, she and Giblin sought out a public space for these offbeat learning-discussion events. The Blue Bongo Cafe seemed ideal. "It's like a giant living room where people are welcome," Giblin says.
During one particularly lively session of Invisible College, Boston-based painter Paul Laffoley holds court. Known for his metaphysical subject matter -- one painting is a diagram of a "motor" for metaphysical energy -- the bald, bespectacled 63-year-old stands in front of slide projections of his work. Microphone in hand, he spews odd anecdotes. But the class isn't always well behaved. Some laugh and cheer; others heckle.
Esoteric multimedia publisher Richard Metzger sits attentively at the front and quietly shares an anecdote. "Paul's leg was amputated below the knee because of diabetes," he says. Apparently,the painter had his prosthetic fitted with a lion's paw created by special effects artist Stan Winston. "He's a Leo," Metzger explains to the young lighting designer sitting next to him.
Both Giblin and Conn make a point of emphasizing that the Invisible College is not about intellectual one-upmanship, but rather about taking an interest.
"It's all in good spirit," agrees Internet producer A.J. Peralta of Venice, attending his fifth Invisible College event. "[Peter and Coco] are pop culture solution providers."
Certainly, creativity and a whimsical spirit are a big part of the events. At an earlier event, several twentysomething fashion designers created live "flash couture" on mannequins and tattooed models. Outside, an auto mechanic gave free consultations on attendees' cars. Another event saw local artists painting live to music. "You can witness the creative process as opposed to buying the result," says Giblin. "Really, it's a lifestyle as opposed to a business venture."
The evenings attract a diverse group of free-spirited thinkers from their 20s through their 70s. The thread weaving them together is the nexus of technology, art and science. Giblin and Conn met through the high-tech and special effects network, and their respective backgrounds have colored the invitation list. It's a highly wired group. Many spend most of their time in front of computer screens, by vocation or avocation. Invisible College provides the human touch that pulls them away from their CPUs.
Mark "Vordo" Wlodarkiewicz is a 38-year-old movie music editor from the Bay Area who pops in at the Blue Bongo when he's working in L.A. "There's a sense of wanting to turn people on," he says. A similar event in San Francisco, he says, might include such carnival antics as fire dancers; here in L.A., it's being done in "a very covert way."
The point of unity between the northern and southern bohemian scenes? Burning Man, the crazy counterculture arts festival in the Nevada desert each summer.
"Ten percent of the people here camped together in the desert at Burning Man," Wlodarkiewicz says. To one surveying the cool but dignified folks in the Blue Bongo, that assertion wouldn't be obvious.
There is, however, a Burning Man relic on wheels parked just down the street from the cafe. "The salon," as it is called by its inhabitants, is an inconspicuous old camper being used by four Invisible College attendees as a chill-out spot. Inside, supine bodies on shelves unwind in the dim radiance of a single glow stick. Low and infrequent murmurs punctuate the silence. It's a quiet space.
Even bohemian intellectuals occasionally need a refuge from the madding crowd of other bohemian intellectuals.
Where: Blue Bongo Cafe (formerly Little Pedros), 901 E. 1st St., downtown Los Angeles
When: Tonight. Event is biweekly on Thursdays, starting at 8 p.m.
Contact: (213) 687-3766 or www.sometimesidonothing.com /invisible_college