Friday, January 28, 2011


There is a trend in the world of presentation called PechaKucha. Pronounced ‘pe-chak-‘cha, the term is Japanese for the noise of chatter. There is much to find on the Internet about its history (e.g. on Youtube or here and here), but its most salient characteristic is the fact that it is formatted by 20 PowerPoint slides, each timed to last 20 seconds – no more and no less. Totaling 6’40”, this presentation model is typically prescribed for PechaKucha Nights, of which there are dozens per night on a global scale and which consist of a dozen or so such presentations. As trends go, one can expect a lot of babble clouding their potential, or lack thereof, so I decided to go and sit in on a PechaKucha Night myself.

PechaKucha is an excellent exercise in being concise and to the point, and in timing the telling of a story. The ruthless format makes it easy to identify the gifted or well-prepared presenters: for some those 20” are too long and they are embarrassingly lost for words when the image is not ready to move on yet, for others it is by no measure enough to say all they think they should tell, ending up explaining a slide that has already been replaced a while before and struggling to catch up.

Here also, of course, Wagenaar’s art (see another post) applies – I don’t think I'll forget about the Smart Grid presentation, in which that term was smartly repeated with every slide – but it does so also to the verbal part: since slides are the focal point, much more than in regular presentations where they change only when the presenter is ready to move on (the PechaKucha audience sees a clock on the screen to make the passing of time explicit), their choice is an even more crucial ingredient. The images form the backbone of the presentation: the slide selection enables or disables the flow of the talk and the timing steers the structure of what has become a storyboard. The presenter’s challenge is reduced to a tough one for he has to develop a story structure that is both flexible to match the narrative logic and strict in keeping with the 20” rhythm.

With the na├»ve expectation of going to the PechaKucha Night to hear research presentations (I’ll explain why that was my mind set), I soon feared to have made a mistake and to be surrendered to enduring sales pitches from corporate marketing executives that had discovered yet another way to Spam their way into an audience’s awareness. Yet, I am happy to conclude that those had actually been a minority: most were idealists who came to show their passion for something that would have the hardest time getting exposure through the regular promotion channels in their field, such as a chef who showed how his restaurant thrives on food that is cultivated under his own supervision in a radius of maximum 30km, or a young gallery owner developing new ways to connect the collector with the artists. Most satisfactory was to realize that I would probably never have learned of such initiatives if I hadn’t gone to this event.

The format is definitely a sign of the times, with people seeking new ways to divulge information, ways that are in keeping with the possibilities of new media and cater to the frustration of the limits that the old media suffer from. The way PechaKucha Nights further connect to our time is noticed in the interaction that the audience is offered by seeing live Twitter comments appear on a second screen.

Wondering if anything can be relayed in some 6 minutes without losing the opportunity to explore some depths, the format is also easily associated with the sound-bite needs of the zapping generation. Yet, looking and listening to a radiologist showing the potential of present-day technology in his field, it must be admitted that the advantage of being forced to compress for PechaKucha’s sake outweighs the danger of overloading a longer and more loosely timed presentation. Perhaps more problematic is the level at which the image rules, rendering facial expression of the presenter not only useless (nobody sees it, especially in the big halls PechaKucha is staged in, with a large screen for the slides but no comparable interest in highlighting the presenter), but even a waste of misplaced effort: it is the inflexion of the voice, if anything, that must take care of the expressive necessities.

Why posting this, then? I am very much occupied with dissemination of artistic research and how it can be developed to be more efficient than by taking over formats from other/older disciplines. An artistic researcher’s presentation is not well served by some of the traditional ways: concerts are deficient because to play a composition does not transfer enough information to know how the piece or the performance can be reproduced; paper alone will not do either, since new insights in making sounds are often better off when heard instead of read about. New technologies provide opportunities here, with e.g. on-line publishing that can integrate sound and moving image. In the same vein, new media and new formats are worthwhile to keep an eye on: it is easy to see how PechaKucha sessions may replace the tradition of posters sessions at scientific gatherings. The event I witnessed was the closing session of an international conference, providing those for whom there had been no time to schedule a fully-fledged presentation an alternative to be heard.

On an artistic level, the PechaKucha format is inspiring as well. One presentation was made by a photographer who showed 20 items of her work while a live flutist played a composition that had been written for that particular slide show. There were no spoken comments. Thinking of the specificity of live artistic research dissemination, a composer may well see the creative advantage in showing 20 slides of text while a musician plays the necessary musical comment, proof or illustration, neither necessarily continuous nor necessarily live. 

As the official PechaKucha website finds that a good PechaKucha presentation uncovers “the unexpected, unexpected talent, unexpected ideas”, I cannot but look forward to see the doctorandi at docARTES experimenting with this format. If the timing of the slides turns out to be prohibitive of fluency or efficiency (which may end the infatuation – already variants are popping up), then it will still be excellent for the reasons stated in the second paragraph of this post.