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Dig into the cultural Petri dish 

Listen in on an oval-table interview with a few local pecha kucha founders

click to enlarge GIRL MEETS BIKE :  Tod Rafferty is new to the local pecha kucha scene. His presentation—a slide from it is pictured—will kick off the Sept. 10 event. - PHOTO COURTESY OF PECHA KUCHA
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF PECHA KUCHA
  • GIRL MEETS BIKE : Tod Rafferty is new to the local pecha kucha scene. His presentation—a slide from it is pictured—will kick off the Sept. 10 event.
Vanessa Amerson, Brian Lawler, Eric Meyer, Peter Steynberg, and Cate Trujillo assemble around a table in the Steynberg Gallery for a clandestine pecha kucha tell-all. They’re all heavy hitters in San Luis Obispo’s cultural framework: Cal Poly professors, curators, gallery owners, instigators, city planners—though in the case of their collaborative effort, their ultimate goal is rather humble.

They’re hoping to inspire chitchat.

On Sept. 10, the enterprising gang will be host to its 12th local installment of pecha kucha.

Pronounced peh-cha kuh-cha—the “kuh” should rhyme with “duh”—the event was the brainchild of Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham of Klein-Dytham Architecture. The name is, in fact, the Japanese word for “chitchat.” Since the first event hit in Tokyo in 2003, the concept has expanded to 340 cities playing host to quarterly pecha kucha events, putting San Luis Obispo in such illustrious company as Amsterdam; London; Barcelona; Vancouver; and Gainesville, Fla.

Tom Di Santo, a local pecha kucha co-founder, learned about the phenomenon from the founder herself when she was invited to Cal Poly to speak on behalf of the College of Architecture and Environmental Design’s Hearst lecture series. During her presentation, Klein mentioned the happening that she had sparked overseas.

“I didn’t realize it was a global phenomenon until I was chatting with an ex-student in Thailand who talked about pecha kucha,” Di Santo, located somewhere in Europe during the time of the interview, revealed via text message. “I said, ‘Wow, I thought you were in Thailand, not Japan.’ That’s when she said, ‘It’s in 80 cities.’ My mind immediately thought that [San Luis Obispo] could be the 81st.”

The presentation format is simple: Between six and 14 people each give a 20-slide presentation. Each slide shows for a mere 20 seconds, totaling six minutes and 40 seconds per presenter. That makes the event run slightly longer than an hour, counting introductions.

“One of the things that I love about this is I hate PowerPoint,” said Lawler, the event’s audiovisual geek who’s responsible for the technical aspects of the slideshow. “When I see people get out their laser pointers, I run screaming from the room.”

Drumming up oddball presenters is never a hardship, though the organizers aim to strike a balance. For each installment, they look for an artist, a nonprofit, a musician, and what Meyer calls an “off the Richter weird thing.” Meyer is the official pecha kucha emcee, and the most likely of the entire group to crack a joke. He sometimes shares these responsibilities with
Di Santo.

Meyer’s education as an emcee has been a learning process. He once introduced an installment in Spanish.

“I tried to be too funny once,” he admitted.

But one of the biggest challenges is finding the right comment between presentations without giving away his opinion of a particular presenter. Generating poignant comments on demand with an audience staring expectantly is a very particular skill.

The beauty—and perhaps risk—is that there’s no formula for achieving the right mix, no prototype for the ideal presenter. Past pecha kucha presentations have expanded beyond the traditional two-dimensional images to include dancers.

click to enlarge EIGHT WALLS :  BK Richard will give a pecha kucha presentation on behalf of the Land Conservancy’s Octagon Barn Center. - PHOTO COURTESY OF PECHA KUCHA
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF PECHA KUCHA
  • EIGHT WALLS : BK Richard will give a pecha kucha presentation on behalf of the Land Conservancy’s Octagon Barn Center.
When the quintet began discussing their favorite pecha kucha moments at a recent round table, OB/GYN Heidi Freeman’s presentation on “Uterine Anomalies” was quick to come up.

“She was so nervous beforehand,” revealed one of the organizers, after another remarked Freeman’s presentation was “really funny.”

At the most recent installment, furniture designer Christopher Allen proposed to his girlfriend during his 20th slide. The audience reaction was so enthusiastic, Meyer had to turn the microphone over to the surprised girlfriend in order for everyone—especially Allen—to hear her “yes.”

The group has soldiered past a few duds as well. One presenter didn’t bother to show up for the slideshow, leaving Meyer to improvise his own explanations of the images. A group of out-of-town presenters showed up both late and drunk.

“If they do suck, it’s a limited time,” pointed out Trujillo, who’s also one of the event’s founders.

Beyond a brief bio and explanation of each presenter’s area of interest, the organizers themselves are usually in the dark as to what will happen during any given installment. When asked about the highlights for the 12th round, Amerson responded, “We don’t even know.”

“Ask us on the 11th,” Lawler joked.

Despite fears that no one will show up to watch, and that all the presenters will fail miserably—concerns that seem unfounded given the event’s historical successes—the organizers aren’t unlike children awaiting Christmas morning.

“You get there, and it’s just like a magic show,” Trujillo enthused. “You don’t know what to expect.”

“They have their script that they’ve been studying and studying, and inevitably they decide not to read it, and they shoot from the hip,” Meyer added.

Lawler gets to see the presenter’s images while assembling the slideshow, but images can sometimes be misleading.

“It’s pictures of dancing squirrels, and it ends up being about crocodiles,” Meyer quipped.

It’s conceivable that any formula—even one as distinctive as pecha kucha—can become dull. But the organizing collective is always a few steps ahead of the game, a mile ahead of the game, really, if you’re judging on creativity. When visual artists are reluctant to speak, the group pairs their slides with musicians who perform in lieu of words.

When the quintet realized that the 12th installment’s first presenter—Todd Rafferty—has never before attended a pecha kucha evening, there was a brief moment of concern. Very brief.

- A LITTLE BIT OF CHIT, A LITTLE BIT OF CHAT:  The 12th installment of Pecha Kucha takes place at the Steynberg Gallery on Sept. 10 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $3. The Steynberg Gallery is located at 1531 Monterey St. in SLO. -
  • A LITTLE BIT OF CHIT, A LITTLE BIT OF CHAT: The 12th installment of Pecha Kucha takes place at the Steynberg Gallery on Sept. 10 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $3. The Steynberg Gallery is located at 1531 Monterey St. in SLO.
“Throw them out there, let’s see what they do,” Trujillo suggested. “It’s like a Petri dish.”

This particular seething mass of mystery does come with a few rules. The golden rule is that presenters aren’t allowed to make sales pitches. For this reason, the group tends to avoid selecting businesses as presenters. Participating nonprofits are allowed, however—even encouraged—to makes pitches.

Round 12 features the Land Conservancy, a storyteller, a muralist, a painter paired with a musician, and a presentation on paleoethnobotany, among others. In short, there’s literally something for everyone. And no pretentious expectations or demands of the audience.

“Every emotion is a valid response,” Amerson said. “We’re just trying to provoke anything.”

Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach speaks as much Japanese as French, which is to say none. Send linguistic sponsorship to aschwellenbach@newtimesslo.com.

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