Published in Culture + Travel
Around the world in 20 slides
By Fred A. Bernstein
On a recent Wednesday evening, Boulevard Saint-Laurent, the sometimes seamy spine of Montreal nightlife, was hopping—with the comedy festival Juste Pour Rire and the strip joint Café Cleopatre among the attractions. But, incredibly, the biggest crowd on the Boulevard was watching architecture. Inside the Société des Arts Technologiques, a bare-bones art and performance space, more than 500 people had gathered for the latest installment in a global phenomenon known as Pecha Kucha (a Japanese expression meaning chit-chat). For three hours, architects, artists and graphic designers presented work according to the Pecha Kucha rules: Each is allowed to show 20 slides for 20 seconds each—no more, no less—while speaking into a microphone. Audience members, mostly in their twenties, socialized over beer and wine while viewing the presentations on large screens.
The idea, according to Mark Dytham, who co-founded Pecha Kucha with Astrid Klein (his partner in a Tokyo architecture firm) five years ago, is to get architects to show their work without putting he audience to sleep. “Normally you give an architect a slide projector, and you’re sitting there for hours,” Dytham says. Which is why architecture lectures are deadly dull, and why Pecha Kucha has spread virally from Tokyo to more than 130 cities worldwide— it’s hard to think of another attraction that would work in cities as diverse as Tel Aviv, Tijuana, and Trieste. Indeed, there are now so many Pecha Kucha nights that a traveler could check the calendar at pecha-kucha.org and plan an entire trip around them—in a single week in August, it would have been possible to attend Pecha Kuchas in Stockholm; Auckland; Bandung, Indonesia; Kampala, Uganda; and Portland, Oregon.
In fact, Pecha Kucha events, which usually cost under $5, may be the cheapest, and most entertaining, way to take a city’s cultural pulse. This I learned firsthand in Montreal ($3 suggested contribution), where, in the space of three hours, I was able to focus on one interesting cultural phenomenon after another. Among the presenters was Scott Burnham, artistic director of the 2009 Montreal Biennal, which will be devoted to “open source” music, art and design (pieces that the public has had a chance to modify on the web). Burnham’s Pecha Kucha presentation made me put the Montreal Biennal in my datebook—especially after I’d had a chance to chat with him during one of the long intermissions (a required part of every Pecha Kucha). As Dytham says, the format ensures that “if someone’s presentation interests you, you’ll get a chance to meet. Which doesn’t happen at a regular architecture lecture.”
At the average Pecha Kucha night, some architects go the relatively conventional route of presenting projects – in Montréal, a young firm called A4 showed an ingenious fountain (made of standard garden sprinklers) that they’d installed at a park on the Gaspe Peninsula. In New York, I once saw Greg Pasquarelli, of the hot architecture firm ShoP, present slides of proposals that hadn’t yet been made public, making the event feel just slightly illicit. (“If there are any reporters here, I’ll deny the whole thing,” he told us.)
Others use the opportunity to present performance art pieces designed around the 20 by 20 format. In New York, conceptual artist Sarah Oppenheimer presented a work in which sculptural objects were classified according to the Dewey Decimal System. Landscape architect Kate Orff of New York’s SCAPE focused, with charts and humor, on the tension between answering emails and actually designing.
At the recent Montreal event, artist Stuart Kinmond played a taped narration while creating 20 slides in real time, using a stylus on a computer screen—a reversal of the Pecha Kucha slide-show-and-microphone format. The performance, which resulted in a 20-panel graphic novel, received a standing ovation. Then Jane Rabinowicz, the founder of a meals-on-wheels organization known for creating lively intergenerational social events, described the group’s need for a new space when its current least expires. “Let me know if any of you want to help,” she told the crowd.” (No doubt some of the architects texted her on the spot.)
Pecha Kucha was born after Dytham and Klein created an underutilized event space called SuperDeluxe, and needed a way to fill it (and an excuse for Dytham to show slides of his trip to Costa Rica.) They now serve as a roving ambassadors, visiting— and presenting at—Pecha Kuchas whenever they travel for business. In some cities, organizers look for architecturally significant spaces in which to hold the events. New York Pecha Kuchas have filled a beer garden in Queens, a church in the East Village, and a disco. One London Pecha Kucha was held at the Tate Modern.
Klein and Dytham have produced a book documenting the early days of Pecha Kucha (for sale at klein-dytham.com). Otherwise, they say, they make no money from Pecha Kucha, to which they devote several hours every morning. (“I try to remember that I have a day job,” Dytham says.) Their biggest problem is keeping a modicum of control over Pecha Kucha’s global growth spurt—at present, Dytham says, there are 80 new cities in the works , which means “we’ll be at 200 by the end of the year.” Often, they say, they have to choose between five or six aspiring organizers in one city. This has led them to develop a formal application process. They are also developing software that will make Pecha Kucha presentations viewable online. Of course it makes sense to make the performances—which are often witty, thought-provoking, and just plain beautiful—available to a wider audience. But something may be lost. As Dytham points out, “we’ve created a global network that’s live.” In an era when people spend all day alone, looking at screens, that’s worth the price of a cab ride and a beer.