A Seminar’s Worth of Creativity in a 400-Second Slide Show

Pecha Kucha is not your boss’s PowerPoint
by Lia Grainger, from This Magazine
September-October, 2009
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image by Guillermo Damián Fernández / www.gferna.com.ar

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On an outdoor patio in Kampala, Uganda, observers lounge in the near-darkness, watching as an image is projected on a bare white sheet slung between two trees. In Reykjavik, Iceland, a spellbound audience fills a basement bar and waits for the first slide to illuminate the wall. In Toronto, a crowded pavilion is abuzz as the lights dim and the first presenter takes the stage. In more than 200 cities speckling the globe, Pecha Kucha is bringing people together for art, design, and change.

The concept is simple: Each presenter shows 20 slides, and each slide is shown for 20 seconds. Originally created as a way for designers and architects to share new projects and ideas, Pecha Kucha (Japanese for the sound of conversation) has expanded to include participants from virtually every field, including artists, politicians, comedians, and journalists.

Mark Dytham, a British architect who founded Pecha Kucha with Astrid Klein in their creative studio in Tokyo, says that the events have proved to be a fantastic showcase for unknown talent. “One of the biggest surprises was that in some of the smaller cities, people would say, ‘That was amazing! We had no idea there was so much creative talent working right here.’ It’s as if people don’t realize what they have right at home, because we’re not really communicating effectively anymore,” he says.

At a recent Pecha Kucha night in Toronto, graphic designer Bob Hambly, a thin, middle-aged man in a black polo shirt, was the first to present. In a slightly nasal voice, he explained that his presentation would be on “the design and art of nature,” at which point a 10-foot image of a parrot in a wooden box was projected onto the screen behind him.

Hambly launched into a mile-a-minute lecture on the natural world as creative inspiration. The screen flashed 20 images, among them Australian salt ponds, an Audubon print of a swan, and a dead lamb encased in glass, courtesy of conceptual artist Damien Hirst.

The speech proved too long, and Hambly’s words streamed out with increasing speed to catch up with the slides. The presentation’s climax came when, during a projection of his bird nest collection, he pulled out a real nest, crushed it, and watched it bounce back into its original form, demonstrating the weaverbird’s knack for resilient design. The audience cheered, and he concluded with a quote from architect Frank Lloyd Wright: “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”

Hambly’s presentation served as a six-minute-and-40-second highlight reel of a career’s worth of creative inspiration. Pecha Kucha’s enforced brevity distills the motivating idea to its essence; clarity, if not always depth, is a happy consequence.

With an event almost nightly somewhere in the world, Dytham hopes to harness the worldwide enthusiasm for Pecha Kucha to address social, political, and environmental issues that could benefit from the design community’s attention. “I’m tired of going to design conferences and seeing another really funky-looking chair, another really funky-looking building,” says Dytham. “We want to support people who are making things that will improve people’s lives and the world in a tangible way.”


Excerpted from Toronto-based This Magazine (May-June 2009), a radical observer of politics, popular culture, and the arts since 1966. www.this.org

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