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A 20×20 Vision

Pecha Kucha takes back big, concise ideas from the Internet

By Morgan Laurens

Photo: Guest MC Jason Antonick by Briana Snyder

It’s painfully cold just outside Dayton’s Masonic Temple. Even the coarse chunks of rock salt can’t cut through thick slabs of ice coating the inky blacktop of the parking lot. Several women in knee-high boots cling to each other as they struggle up a nearby embankment, sliding helplessly backward like an unhinged train. The last woman notices me approaching, grabs my arm, and pulls me after them.

We’re inch-worming our way toward the small rectangle of light marking the entrance of the temple. A sign reading “Pecha Kucha” is perched in the doorway and assures us we’re headed in the right direction. Abandoning my companions in the coat room, I head into the depths of the temple, taking the stairs to the ground floor two at a time. If I didn’t know better, I might expect to see clandestine rituals performed by shadowy, hooded figures at the bottom of the staircase. Instead, I am greeted by the comparatively mundane sight of folding tables, clipboards, and sign-up sheets. Volunteers are taking names and donations as a crowd of people stream past them into a large vaulted room. There is a row of chairs in front of me, and in front of them, a mic stand and a blank projector screen. A crowd of strangers drifts back and forth between the bar and the concession table, returning to their seats with wine and flimsy paper boats filled with pretzels, apples, and cheese.

But, within 20 minutes, we’re all singing “Happy Birthday” together—we’re not sure whose birthday it is, but we’re in the mood for a toast. Finally, the first presenter steps up to the mic.

Say what?

If you’re nervous about pronunciation, you can just say PK,” Shayna McConville says. I’m sitting in a nearly empty room in the recesses of a local coffee house, facing three coordinators from the Dayton area Pecha Kucha. McConville, Jill Davis, and Matt Sauer sit opposite me at a large round table shoved into a corner of the room. Between sips of what is probably lukewarm coffee, they’re teaching me, with limited success, how to pronounce the Japanese phrase for “chit-chat.”

“Peh-CHAA kuh-CHAA,” Matt Sauer intones, with heavy stress on the last syllable of each word. His pronunciation is fast, and the “kuh” part barely makes an appearance. “[Japanese] run it together, probably,” he says. “It’s a dialectic pronunciation.” McConville is quick to add that those who are sweating over their delivery can easily shorten the phrase to its initials. “Stop torturing yourself,” she insists, a command directed not just to me, but to curious would-be PK participants everywhere.

First formed in Tokyo, Pecha Kucha is a simple, fast-paced, multiple speaker event intended to be a grassroots platform for connecting ideas and people. Since its inception in 2003, chapters have been launched in over 900 cities worldwide. In a PK presentation, participants abide by a few simple rules: choose a topic they’re passionate about, be prepared to speak in front of an audience, and limit your talk to 20 slides. The catch? Presenters only get 20 seconds to talk about each slide. That’s bad news for ramblers, because the slides—projected on a large, white screen via PowerPoint presentation—keep clicking ahead, with or without you.

The format is known among insiders simply as 20X20—20 slides, 20 seconds. When PK nights first started, creators Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham, both architects from Tokyo, wanted to create a relaxed, informal event where creative types could share their interests—the caveat was that they had to do it quickly.

“A lot of people find it a challenge,” McConville says. “There’s an energy and excitement to it.”

Pecha Kucha came to Dayton, not by way of architects, but from the minds of orators and speech writers. “I started a Toastmasters chapter with a bunch of graphic designers and creative types,” Davis says, “and they wanted something more creative for the way they think than [traditional] Toastmasters.”

Discovering through local activists that Dayton lacked a PK organization, Davis reached out to the Tokyo chapter for help. Soon after, she found herself “signing” the informal, but required, handshake agreement implemented by the founders who hope to ensure a maximum of one PK organization per city. “They made me promise to hold four a year…”

Davis pauses here and Sauer leans in to add, “For the rest of your life.” It’s clearly a joke, but perhaps there’s a little truth in it.

PK in Dayton

While every city is different, in Dayton, PK moves from place to place for each event. Josher Lumpkin, a Dayton City Paper freelance writer, is the first speaker to present during the December Pecha Kucha held in Dayton’s Masonic Temple.

Lumpkin steps up to the mic amidst whistles and cheers from the audience. “Thank you, fellow glasses wearers,” he says, before proceeding to explain the difference between European and American board games. (Apparently, American games have been dubbed “Ameri-trash” by game geeks for their flashy plastic parts and chance-based playing style). Before leaving the stage, he also insists that his grandmother would kick our collective asses at Scrabble. He is the first of seven presenters featured at tonight’s PK.

One artist shows us the progression and development of her work—simple watercolor crows and cats—finding pleasure in the simple application of craft and technical skill.

Another artist, Yetunde Rodriguez, creates textile designs from Adinkra symbols via printmaking, translating her native Nigerian script back into modern language.

We also hear from a baker, who informs us that “Dayton water is the best” for making sourdough bread, an artist who explores the subconscious of his computer, and a graphic design teacher who instructs his students in quick poster projects. It may seem like a small blip in a sea of noteworthy ideas, but it is this last presentation that really seems to mimic the structure and appeal of Pecha Kucha.

“Attention spans have gotten slightly worse,” says Mitchell Eismont, who teaches photography and graphic design at Central State University. Eismont is right: last year The New York Times reported that the average attention span has fallen from 12 to eight seconds—shorter than that of a goldfish—over the last 15 years. Adapting to his students’ decreasing capacity for attention and increasing tendency toward distraction, Eismont teaches critical thinking through his politically charged poster design projects that have included subjects such as Christopher Columbus, satirical French newsweekly Charlie Hebdo, and the execution sentencing of Troy Davis. Eismont assigns his refugee project in hopes that the posters act as a connector between Americans and deteriorated Muslim communities. Students are often given only an hour or two to complete their posters while they grapple with both design problems and difficult subject matter.

Purposeful engagement within a limited time frame seems to be the thread connecting projects like Eismont’s with events like Pecha Kucha, borrowing elements from modern culture (time restriction and social connectivity) and filtering them through the slower-paced features of critical thinking and reflection. Pecha Kucha is appealing because it both embraces and rejects modern culture, working within its parameters without letting the format trample all over its participants.

The ‘world’s largest physical social network’

Pecha Kucha has been called “the world’s largest physical social network,” and it’s not hard to see its overlap with social media platforms like Facebook, Pinterest, and especially Instagram. These platforms share information between distant groups of people, and in Instagram’s case that information is largely visual. There might be a small blurb about the crumbling castle your sister’s best friend’s cousin visited in Ireland last year, but the format makes it incredibly easy to skip over that information, continuing on to the next mindless listicle or checking your Smartphone for Tinder matches.

Whether social media is to blame for shortening attention spans or merely a symptom of a problem that was already in motion, it looks as though it’s with us for the foreseeable future. The major criticism of these platforms is that their content often lacks meaning and is created at such a rapid-fire pace that there is little time to fact-check or even reflect on what is being produced.

So, how do we stay engaged? Go on an old fashioned digital diet? Indulge in some deep reading or hit the great outdoors? However, events like Pecha Kucha, which give context to an image and voice to the creator, seem to suggest that adapting to social media culture, rather than being swallowed by it or rejecting it outright, is what will strengthen critical thinking skills and allow us to weather any storm our eight-second attention spans will bring. As Eismont says of his poster projects, “[They’re] a way of thinking critically no matter how fast information is coming in. If you can think critically, you can do anything.”

Of course, not everything about social media is bad. Along with the internet as a whole, it is largely responsible for the democratization of data, the unprecedented spread of information with a profound effect on technology, politics, and culture. Information that was once available to a select few is now available to nearly everyone. Anyone with a laptop and an internet connection can now post a music video, start a blog, become an Instagram superstar. Recently, Hollywood darling Leonardo DiCaprio spotted a painting on Instagram and instantly called the gallery in order to make a purchase. Of course, rapper Soulja Boy was discovered on YouTube, so admittedly there are some downsides to the whole democratization thing; it too requires an amount of critical thinking to remain effective. (Google “Crank That [Soulja Boy]” and you’ll understand.)

Though individual Pecha Kucha events reach a much smaller number of people, the spirit of democratization is alive and well among both the organizers and the participants.

“We’ll take a chance on a really shy person,” says Davis, stressing that Pecha Kucha is not TED Talks. The shared information aspect of both events is clearly an overlap, but, as Sauer notes, Ted Talks are scripted and rehearsed down to the last detail: “TEDx presentations tend to follow a narrative arc, and they all sort of resolve in a similar way. And ours are just totally open ended… it’s a little bit more grassroots.”

In other words, you don’t need a Ph.D. in cartography to wax philosophical about your love of maps at a PK Night.

What you do need is an inquisitive mind and a love of shared ideas in a social setting. PK Nights are beehives of conversation, mutual interruption, and abruptly changed topics, just like you would experience in a face-to-face chat with a friend. That the term “pecha kucha” is almost onomatopoeic is no accident—even the American translation of “chit chat” sounds like little birds passing bits of information back and forth, putting into song their most brilliant insights and intimate thoughts for everyone around to hear. No Instagram account required.

The next Pecha Kucha takes place Thursday, Feb. 23 at Hope Church, 500 Hickory St. in Dayton. The event runs from 7:30–9:30 p.m. Admission is free, but donations are recommended. For more information, please visit PechaKucha.org/Cities/Dayton.

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Morgan Laurens
Reach DCP Associate Editor Morgan Laurens at AE@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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