Speed-talking Alec Soth at Paris Photo 2012. Image © Platform.
Pecha Kucha is a talk format that allows speakers six minutes and 40 seconds to showcase 20 slides — and it’s proving wildly popular, having now been adopted at events running in nearly 600 cities worldwide, including in Paris when it was first introduced last year at the Paris Photo fair, as Laurence Butet-Roch finds out
Within the short space of an hour, the audience gathered in the amphitheatre of the Grand Palais during the third day of Paris Photo had heard from eight of the most eminent personalities in contemporary photography. There was Simon Baker, curator of Photography and International Art at Tate; Magnum photographers Susan Meiselas and Alec Soth; bookseller-turned-publisher Markus Schaden; Tobias Bezzola, director of the Museum Folkwang in Essen; the art critics Brigitte Ollier and Erik Verhagen; and the young artist Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc. And the topics ranged from a riveting new book by Michael Schmidt, Lebensmittel, to the challenges and opportunities of developing collaborative projects, such as Postcards from America, undertaken by some of Magnum Photos' leading lights.
The event - which, inspired by Pecha Kucha, was organised in a presentation format where each speaker had less than seven minutes to talk over 20 slides - left the audience exhilarated, as if they had just gone through several successful rounds of speed dating.
20 seconds to comply
Pecha Kucha, which loosely translates as "chit-chat" in Japanese, was devised almost a decade ago by Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham, two architects living in Tokyo. "It started as a show-and-tell for our staff at our weekly meetings," they explain. "Then we thought it would be fun to see what other architects were up to. But give a microphone and some images to an architect, and they'll go on forever."
Thus came the idea to devise a rule - 20 slides for 20 seconds each - to share ideas more effectively. "It is interesting in the YouTube age to focus on the still image. It allows you to look, listen and think for 20 seconds. That is a long time, and generally impossible to do today with the 24-hour news cycle. You can never pause to look at an image," says Dytham.
Now the format has gone viral. More than 580 cities have held a Pecha Kucha night - from Eureka in Montana, a town of just 1500 people near the Canadian border, to Dubai and its ever-growing multinational community - and it's no longer confined to architects and designers. "People have realised that you don't need more than six minutes and 40 seconds to get your point across. Pecha Kucha presentations allow anyone to get up and present their latest work or passion, especially young entrepreneurs who may only have one project to their name and thus not enough for a full lecture," observes Dytham. And so far everyone from schoolchildren to yacht builders have adopted it, photographers included.
"When I suggested it, most people didn't know what it was," says Roxana Marcoci, curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, who this year introduced Pecha Kucha to Paris Photo as the guest director of its Platform programme of talks and conferences.
"Perhaps it took longer to reach us because it is not a Western- centric invention," she says. "I wanted to conceive the Paris Photo Platform as different types of sessions that would foster critical exchanges and bring together today's influential thinkers within the field of photography. It had to go beyond panel discussions and include a variety of methodological approaches such as performances and interactive lectures. The dynamic pace of Pecha Kucha made it perfect for the middle of the day. After a more classical and academic address, the audience would have the opportunity to find out about a larger spectrum of subjects and projects."
It was Seth's first time at a Pecha Kucha event, but he's not surprised to see the photo community adopting the trend. "Young people in particular take their information in short bursts. Sometimes it can stem from a lack of attention span, but quite often you can get to the most poignant information in a short period of time."
He admitted that his talk on the different approaches to storytelling was basically a condensed version of an hour-long lecture. "Restrictions can be helpful. In photography, not only do you have to deal with the limitation of the medium, but adding other constraints can help you be more productive. The same is true when presenting. I do feel like I got to the essential thing - with the added bonus that no one fell asleep," he says, smiling.
Many of the participants were stopped by the sound of the gong, which signified they had reached the seven-minute mark. Schaden was only halfway through his story on how his first ebook production, Amerika 67 by German artist Henry Maitek, rose from a series of disasters - including the closing down of his legendary bookshop in Cologne, and a fire - when the metallic note resonated in the room.
"I had practiced for weeks. It started as a 25-minute presentation from which I cut certain elements. It can be a brutal exercise. You have to forego telling some of the background stories, and be precise and clear in your motive," says the book publisher.
Seducing the audience
Evidently, having a short amount of time can dictate your subject matter and your approach, as was the case for Meiselas in particular. "I couldn't present the depth of any of my own projects, but I felt I could best extend some understanding or sense of the collective Postcards from America project - to give a glimpse of it and the ideas that generated it," she explains. The seven-minute limit forced presenters to be succinct rather than analytical, informative rather than descriptive. And they had to be entertaining.
The different speaking styles and the range of subjects broached reflected the array of personalities asked to participate. There was something to attract anyone and everyone. And, if someone came to hear about Baker's latest coup de coeur, he would also discover what his German counterpart, Tobias Bezzola, deems noteworthy, or where a contemporary artist such as Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc finds inspiration. "The question always is, ‘How can we get the information out to the public?' Pecha Kucha divulges a lot of it in a short period of time," declares Marcoci.
To engage the audience, Schaden drew from his experience attending similar events in Cologne. When his turn came, he moved away from the lectern and walked around the stage, borrowing from Steve Jobs' famous keynote methods. "At the Cologne events, people came from different walks of life. They had something to fight for, something to prove. Often they were trying to raise funds for an upcoming project. That made them focused and spirited. In my talk, I was trying to get people to care about the evolution of the photobook. Gatherings such as Paris Photo or other festivals are rare moments to engage with the community. We have to take advantage of those," he says. Unfinished, his talk became an effective teaser.
"Presentations of this kind are mere introductions to be further explored," remarks Meiselas, who was left slightly unsatisfied by the lack of discussion inherent to the restrictive format. However, Soth saw it positively: "What is interesting with having a limited amount of time is that it then allows members of the public to reflect on their own."
Pecha Kucha is not the only event of this sort, of course. In 2000, photographer Casey Kelbaugh initiated Slideluck Potshow, when he gathered a few friends on a Sunday around a shared meal and an old slide- projector. A mash-up between a photographic slideshow and a traditional potluck, where people each bring their own dish of food to be shared out, it differs from the Japanese concept in that it doesn't include simultaneous spoken and visual presentation. The conversation comes afterwards, informally, around the food prepared by the participants.
For those looking for a faster-paced event, Ignite shows - 20 slides that automatically advance every 15 seconds - have been spreading worldwide since 2006. Even Marcoci tampered with Pecha Kucha principles by allowing the speakers an unlimited amount of slides. "I do not play by the rules," she comments. "Rugby was invented when football players took the ball in their hands. Sometimes you have to take something and alter it to fit your needs."
But regardless of the format, the aim is the same - to share, connect and spread the word. "It is increasingly difficult to enter the art world, to be exhibited in galleries or published in magazines. Artists are therefore looking to other venues to show their work," observes Maria Teresa Salvati, director of Slideluck Potshow London, who came to the Paris Photo Pecha Kucha. "Every platform that allows them to do so is great." Soth agrees with this sentiment. "It'd be fantastic to hold a more informal one at a bar..."
This article was first published in BJP's January 2013 print edition.
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