Pecha kucha – pronounced pet-shah coot-shah – is an onomatopoeic Japanese phrase meaning “the sound of casual chatter.”
But for a small but growing band of international designers, artists and creative types, pecha kucha is nothing less than the buzzword of 2006. For these people – and since last Tuesday I’m one of them – pecha kucha has come to mean a chance to get out from behind your computer, meet like-minded people, show them your work, and exchange ideas – all in a six-minute slot.
The key to the success of the Pecha Kucha evenings springing up across the world over the last two years – they now exist in around 30 cities, from Bogota to Buffalo – is simplicity. Participants get a six-minute pitch in which they can show 20 slides, and talk for 20 seconds about each one.
Slides are submitted to the organizers a couple of weeks in advance, and sequenced into a tight, smooth keynote presentation. So when you’re on the mike there’s no chance to overrun – although conversations continue at the bar afterwards.
My first Pecha Kucha Night here in Berlin last week was highly entertaining – a blend of vaudeville-sketch revue, design-school degree show and slam-poetry tournament. A Japanese industrial designer showed snapshots of her recent trip to Japan; a guy with a pink Mohican made fun of “digital bohemians” (to riotous laughter from the digital bohemians in the audience); a Swede from a magazine called Nord confirmed-slash-overturned a few preconceptions about Scandinavians; and a graphic designer drew squirms, cringes and giggles from the crowd with technical drawings of bone-elongation processes he claimed were made for his first customer, his osteopath uncle. The six-minute slots felt just right, and the event came off feeling more like good entertainment than tedious self-promotion.
Pecha Kucha evenings are the brainchild of Tokyo-based architects Mark Dytham and Astrid Klein, who make adventurous buildings together as Klein Dytham. Their club SuperDeluxe, a beautifully designed basement close to the Roppongi Hills development and frequented mostly by ex-pats, has hosted the Tokyo events since they started in 2003.
“Pecha Kucha Night is alive and kicking in every city that is on board,” Dytham told me in an e-mail from Tokyo. “We have a full-time staff in touch daily with all the organizers. We do it for love. There is no sponsorship – we ask nothing from the event organizers other than that they respect the name and format – and the spirit. People need to talk and share their work more and more. This is – unlike MySpace, Friendster or Mixi – a real social network.”
That seems to be very much the point of Pecha Kucha. The problem: How do you get a bunch of visual visionaries – many of them isolated, introverted, self-employed people who tend to hunch all day behind their computers – out into meatspace, communicating, drinking, networking? The solution: Give them a format, a structure, a parlor game, a chance to talk about their current interests and listen to others doing the same.
During the 20-minute interval that punctuated the Berlin evening, I added to the ambient chatter by interviewing local Pecha Kucha franchise operator Luka Hinse, a tall thirty-something designer in basketball boots and a funky leather jacket with red flashes at the shoulder. As we stood directly below the AV screen, with the crowd drifting between the low seats and the bar, I asked Luka where and when he’d first heard the term “pecha kucha“.
“Actually, in Tokyo,” he said. “I was working as an intern for Panasonic for three months at the beginning of 2005. I got an e-mail from one of my colleagues inviting me to one of those 20/20 Pecha Kucha Nights at SuperDeluxe. I didn’t really know what it was about, but I liked it from the beginning and thought it would be really cool to do that in Berlin too. So when I came back I started this, in January 2006. This is the fourth one.”
Did you have to talk to Mark Dytham to get the exact parameters of the format?
“Well, calling it Pecha Kucha, of course, we got in contact with him. I met him in Tokyo and said I wanted to start my own one in Berlin.”
“Well, it’s hard to describe what it is, and I don’t know what they’re working on in Tokyo to get it as a trademark or something like that….”
I couldn’t find any other Pecha Kucha websites around the world that put all the presentations online as podcasts. That’s really cool.
“We are three people, and we record everything that is spoken during the night. We are the only site doing podcasts. We’ve got the advantage of having Joachim Stein – he’s the IT specialist in our team. He’s doing the whole website and I think it’s a good thing for people to listen to it, and to see what the presentations are about.”
It’s been highly viral this year. Even Tasmania has a Pecha Kucha event now!
“Yeah, I’m actually going to New Zealand next year, to live there for a while, and I will do the Pecha Kucha Night in Auckland. I talked already with Mark Dytham about that. There’s none in New Zealand so far. I think it’s the right format for the right time, you know.”
Designers mostly stay at home all day with their computers, and in a way they’re still in front of their computers here, or in front of someone else’s computer. So is this a way to get information from one computer to another, but without using the internet?
“I don’t think so, I think the thing is really to be here. And the term – I just talked to Hiroko Ota, the girl from Tokyo, and pecha kucha means basically what you hear now, the sound of people talking to each other. And I think it wouldn’t work just on the computer, you know, people wouldn’t just look at 20 slides on the computer. You really have to be here, to see the person speaking, and to be able to talk to the person afterwards.”
“Yeah, in a different way. I mean, I don’t know of any other platform where creative people come together and are able to just look at other people’s work, you know. Perhaps a public university or something like that? Maybe the university should start more public lessons, I don’t know. But I think it really fits into this concept of people getting really high-quality information about what other people do and what other people see.”
One thing it reminded me of is David Byrne, when he started doing PowerPoint presentations. He didn’t have the time restriction, though. Just the idea of doing a PowerPoint presentation almost as an artistic thing.
“Yeah – have you heard about PowerPoint Karaoke? There’s an event in Berlin where everybody downloads PowerPoint presentations from the net and they get people to talk about the presentation without seeing it beforehand.”
That sounds like a lot of fun! Perhaps just a tad too silly and random to become the buzzword of 2007, though. For now, Pecha Kucha’s viral spread seems set to continue unchallenged.