By Austen Fiora
5:40 PM EDT, April 9, 2013
Pecha Kucha New Haven
April 17, Bentara, 76 Orange St., New Haven, (203) 562-2511
On a Wednesday night, Orange Street's Bentara is overflowing with people. Some are seated around the Malaysian restaurant's long tables, talking loudly and waiting for food to arrive. Others sit in rows of chairs arrayed in front of a projector screen that hangs on a high brick wall. But most people are talking in tight clusters, some pushed up against a small bar, and as more patrons trickle in it's becoming clear that tonight's event will be standing-room only.
Among these is Jessica Sack, who is about to deliver a roughly six-minute presentation on, in her words, "Why I bought a camera." Though just minutes away from speaking to a full house, she says she's not nervous. She has done this before, and her advice to first-time presenters is simple.
"Don't try and rehearse too much," she counsels. "Know the content."
The crowd is here for New Haven's sixteenth Pecha Kucha night, a community tradition nearly four years in the making, yet one that has flown well below the radar. Each Pecha Kucha (whose name means "chit-chat" in Japanese) began in Tokyo with Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham of Klein and Dytham Architecture. Though the two were involved in a successful firm, as American expats they encountered unique difficulties in forming a creative community. Pecha Kucha is the result of this tension: a way to channel creative energy and disseminate it to an audience.
In order to do this, the founders had to gut some elements of traditional presentations. Powerpoints with exhaustive bullet lists call up images of endless board meetings, so the format of a Pecha Kucha night is tuned to keep the presentations high-energy. "Architects talk too much," the official Pecha Kucha explanation goes, so the format puts a limit on rambling and a premium on brevity. The rules are simple: presenters are allowed 20 slides, shown for 20 seconds each. The slides advance automatically, so speakers have to keep up, as if on an intellectual treadmill.
The first Pecha Kucha night took place in February 2003 in Tokyo's SuperDeluxe lounge. Since then, the model has spread virally: a global count reveals Pecha Kucha nights in 614 cities around the world. Mauritius, the Indian Ocean island nation, has one, and so do Kabul and Teheran. While most nights take place in bars, lounges, and studios, one Pecha Kucha evening was held in a disused New Zealand quarry. Another, allegedly, occurred in a prison, though a fully decommissioned one. Starting a new chapter is easy: each city initiates a "handshake agreement" with global Pecha Kucha, pledging to maintain only one event series per city and agreeing to hold four events per year. Each event becomes a "volume" in the city's history.
Like most community organizations, Pecha Kucha New Haven relies on the support of many. Bentara has played host to the event since its second volume; local firm Design Monsters handles the posters, and a certain institution for tinkering and practical mechanics, too modest to be named, built the armature that supports the projector screen. Running the event is a collaborative effort as well. Among the organizers, though, Greta Hotopp stands out. Hotopp, who now works at an online start-up based in New Haven, met Klein and Dytham while living in Tokyo. She was drawn to the pair — and their project — very quickly. "They were clearly amazing," she remembers, "and too busy and smart to be arrogant." After moving to New Haven, Hotopp caught wind of the first Pecha Kucha Night. Six years later, in August of 2009, she and others launched New Haven's first volume.
Hotopp has stepped back a little from what she calls "an iterative process of organizing." Thanks to the efforts of many passionate volunteers, a new Pecha Kucha night rears its head every season. Many were persuaded (Hotopp prefers the term "wrangled") into giving a presentation, and have remained part of the process. This is true for Chris Randall, the MC of the most recent Pecha Kucha Night. In between snapping photos and mic-checking, Randall explains a presentation he delivered on an earlier night in which he documented the decay of English Station, the abandoned power plant that sits on eight acres by the Mill River.
Eric Epstein is central to the process of wrangling. Though currently on a hiatus in New Orleans, Epstein specializes in "daring people into making presentations." Epstein was in the crowd at New Haven's first Pecha Kucha night, and he was hooked. "The format fascinated me," he says. "It's really unforgiving. It forces the presenter to just talk about the juice."
Epstein is no stranger to the sometimes taxing demands of a six-minute presentation. For his Pecha Kucha debut, he tried to teach the audience to sing a round. "It was way too ambitious and it collapsed of its own weight," he admits. "It was hilarious."
Back in Bentara, though, the presentations go off without a hitch, to thunderous applause. Jessica Sack explores layers of perspective in her and others' fine artworks. Todd Jokl drafts plans for an immense public sculpture project made entirely of light. And Zubin Doshi tells the history of US-Iranian Relations, from Mossadeq to Ahmadinejad, through the medium of internet-style "rage comix."
All of this happens in six-and-a-half minute increments. As the night comes to a close, the audience mills around, digesting the bursts of information they just received. The curious and the concise will return to the next installment of Pecha Kucha New Haven, on April 17th.
In search of a similar economy of language, at one point I ask Eric Epstein to describe Pecha Kucha in six words. After a pause, he answers.
"Tell me what you're loving now."
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