Show and tell for grown-ups
Architect Tim Lai gives a presentation. Photo by Dan Trittschuh.
Alexandra Kelley has that can-you-believe-it look in her eyes. The Pecha Kucha co-organizer had anticipated a good crowd, but not quite the record-busting numbers (about 1,200) that turned up at the Columbus Museum of Art on another relentlessly cold night in February. Pecha Kucha, a kind of social show and tell for grown-ups, has been in Columbus since 2007. Volunteers, Kelley included, pull together the event four times a year, each one at a different venue. Last August marked a new high when 600 people came to Grandview’s Junctionview Studios. If that night was the tipping point, this night is the flood, and the museum’s Derby Court, while beautiful, can barely hold the tide.
Many of those standing elbow-to-elbow at the 16th Pecha Kucha are creatives and scenesters. Some are first-timers, but most arrive knowing the rules: In 20 slides, each shown for 20 seconds, scheduled presenters say what they have to say, “then sit the hell down.” For anyone not into speed math, that’s six minutes and 40 seconds. The drone-proof format originated in Japan, the brainchild of two European architects. The name is Japanese for “the sound conversation makes.” Some say it pa-cha-coo-cha, others insist on p-chak-ka, but many simply will avoid pronouncing it altogether.
The first event was held in Tokyo in 2003. It has since spread to 383 cities around the world. Columbus, on the front end, was the 68th. “There were about 40 people in a back room at Due Amici,” says co-organizer Stephanie Patton, “and most of them family and friends we dragged in.” Four years ago, few had heard of Pecha Kucha. Though that has now changed, Patton points out, “There’s no knowing what will come out of someone’s mouth once they are up there.” For her, this is the best part: “I might be surprised, delighted, even shocked,” she says.
Tonight, the biggest surprise (and perhaps delight and shock) is the crowd itself. In the packed Derby Court, the aerial view reflected in the glass canopy overhead is a definite plus, but the acoustics are challenging and the screen too small and too short. The result is an event split in two: the one for those who arrived early or managed to wind their way to the front and another for those in the back dealing with an obscured screen and distracting chatterers. Some surely bail (“Good luck with this,” says one man as he walks out), but others successfully negotiate a sightline (“I’m short, you’re tall, let’s switch”). Out in the Twitterverse, the grumblings are few; most tweets actually are enthusiastic.
While no strict rules govern content, at any Pecha Kucha a talk extolling, say, the latest military weapon is unlikely. The Columbus organizers make their picks “using a broad definition of creativity.” They look for passion, inspiration and variety. By the night’s end, the audience will hear about architecture, sperm, puppets, cheap laptops, “giving a damn,” free music, childhood dreams, net impact, the exact mileage between Columbus and Albany, New York, and even unicorns and rainbows.
Starting things is Aleks Daskalov. The affable, bearded and tall co-organizer (there are about eight in all) bends over the podium to reach the microphone and introduce the first speaker. Derby Court is still noisy and unsettled, and Jeff Sims is well into his talk about videotaping artists-at-work before the crowd finally behaves. Transitions at Pecha Kucha are swift. Next is Rachel Rowen, her green glittery hood a subtle choice compared to co-presenter Heidi Kambitsch’s fuzzy yellow long-necked-birdlike suit. Both from OpenheartART, Rowen talks while Kambitsch transforms from one “body puppet” to another. There are slides, but they’re easily missed and, honestly, so are most of Rowen’s words. You see, there is a Heidi Kambitsch-sized electric-pink dodo bird up there, too, and it’s flapping all about. It then becomes a tentacled thing swooping around and then an odd creature sporting six rather large and fuchsia ram horns and then . . . it’s gone. Show over. The crowd cheers and whoops.
Not even the audience dawdles at Pecha Kucha, because within seconds the room is utterly engrossed in the next story, jointly told by Julia Applegate and Liv Gjestvang. While the screen shows a baby and the two biological elements needed to make one, the two women lay out the problem: “We have lots of these, none of those and we want to make one of this.” In a hilarious romp, they share frustrations (“do I want a sperm donor born the same year I was listening to Rick Astley?” ), complications (“all our friends will choose the same donor, either the artsy one, the vegetarian or the one who plays bass in an indie band” ) and logistics (shipping chilled semen 582 miles from Albany). Perfectly utilizing the slide-plus-story format, their tale, well-told and funny, is a blast. When an ultrasound image pops up, the perfectly round shape of a head clearly visible, “Ahs” are heard around the room.
Before intermission, Amy Turn Sharp, one half of the toy company Little Alouette, shares a mini-memoir starting with her childhood dream to be a writer, moving to her early adult “romp through herself” to marriage to motherhood to toy-making and then to working her way back—not to being a writer, but to writing. Her talk runs over only by a minute or two, but the audience gets nervous. Her speech is rushed (or perhaps exuberant) and her slides are completely out of order. Undaunted, she pulls off an honest, revealing and entertaining tale with a moral at the end: You can still try to be what you always wanted to be.
During the break, the offerings include local food, drink, live music, screen-printing, a photo booth and galleries to explore. “We like to hit all the senses,” Kelley says. When the presentations begin again, the socializing, for some, doesn’t end. Every second-half speaker must now contend with the constant din. The first, architect Tim Lai, comes closest to the spirit of professional sharing of the original Tokyo Pecha Kucha. Crisply dressed in a black jacket over a black T-shirt, Lai shares his inspirations, his recent work and his belief that “simplicity creates clarity in a chaotic world.” The audience that cheered for fuzzy fluorescent-pink body puppets cheers just as heartily for this polished presentation.
For those who remember that old slogan Discover Columbus, something similar, but hipper, is at work here. Alex Bandar, for example, talks about a little known local resource, the Idea Foundry, and its mission “to empower the creative class with technology and tools.” Also in the room is the faint echo of another retired city slogan, Columbus: We’re Making It Great. Musician Tristan Seufert has big expectations for the city and its international reputation. He insists, “Our local music scene will soon be part of the global music scene.”
In a much lower key, brothers Caleb and Levi Ely—both photographers and irreverent, but only one, for reasons unclear, in a parka—offer advice. In their “poor man’s guide to an arts-based business start-up,” they first suggest “get a steady job,” preferably, “low stress so when the boss is not looking you can work on your blog.” Their tips (“get a cheap laptop”), while not wildly groundbreaking, are funny and motivating, even as (and probably because) they break every rule in the motivator’s go-get-em guidebook.
Overall, the room is friendly and approving, and the mix of talks so eclectic there’s no use for categories such as best or worst. Yet all share the goal to communicate and some are more successful at this than others. Blatant self-promotion is frowned upon, but passion, belief and proselytizing have a way of finding each other and the talks that sermonize more than share are the ones more likely to lose focus and run aground. Even if the idea is great, if the speaker jumps off track, no one will know what bandwagon to hop on.
Pecha Kucha ends with a delight. Christoph Ono, a regular-looking guy made a little less regular by a European accent, is an interactive expert who created, on a whim, an online “button” that has been downloaded by 500,000 and pressed, at last count, more than 30 million times. And when it is pressed, Cornify, as it is called, decorates a website or digital picture with images of unicorns and rainbows. ESPN’s site was clandestinely cornified for three days. Barack Obama has been cornified (“Yes We Corn”). But the one-man developer of cuteness on demand, while delighted, seems egoless about it all. After giving a lot of thought to why Cornify caught on, he turns contemplative and shares his hard-won conclusion: “It all boils down to . . . people really like unicorns.”
The crowd erupts, and with that bit of wisdom, people laugh more, applaud more and then go home—or to wherever the tweets tell them to go.
Kendra Hovey is a freelance writer.