Thinking Inside the Box

These four images by Portland artist Gwenn Seemel were part of her Pecha Kucha presentation that explored the challenges of artistic creation. Can you find the differences? Paintings by Gwenn Seemel

Two years ago in San Francisco, Garron Hale ’00 didn’t know what he was heading for. He was visiting his brother and had been promised a night on the town—something special. He knew something was up as soon as he saw the line snaking along the sidewalk for two blocks. There was a definite buzz. Something exciting in the air. Rock show? Poetry slam? Going directly to the front of the line, Hale and his brother were greeted and sent on in.

“I had no idea what was going on,” he says.

There, in what he recalls as a “modern, hip” setting, a bar with a large, open central space, they found a seat and waited. It was only then that his brother told Hale what was going on—a Pecha Kucha night. His brother was a key organizer.

Pecha Kucha. It means, roughly, “chit-chat” in Japanese. Founded in Tokyo in 2003, it’s an antidote to “death by Powerpoint,” say enthusiasts, “show-and-tell with beer,” twenty chances to tell your story, share your fascinations, or present details of a project you are particularly interested in or proud of—all in the constrained format of twenty images projected for twenty seconds each (6:40 total). In San Francisco, the night began with an architect extolling the ecological virtues of building green, his specialty. Next up, two women performing a combination tightrope act and poetry reading—using the slides not as visual aids, but theatrically, as scene-setting backdrops.

Founders Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham, architects based in Tokyo, created Pecha Kucha as a venue for designers, especially young ones, to present their work. Since then it has grown in scope and sites, with more than 400 gatherings held regularly from Amsterdam to Zagreb, Boston to Bali, Dubai to Delhi, on every continent except Antarctica and in at least a dozen cities on the West Coast. One of those gathering places is Eugene, where local enthusiasts Hale and Dan Schmitt have been the driving forces behind Pecha Kucha since 2009.

In his professional life, Hale, forty-six, is associate director of information technology at the University of Oregon College of Arts and Sciences. Schmitt, thirty-seven, is a ceramics artist and teacher at Lane Community College, as well as a master-level adult swim coach and student in product design at the UO.

They share a nearly evangelical commitment to Pecha Kucha. “It’s a chance for people to hear your story,” Schmitt says of the gatherings, “to give your work more meaning. I walk away with passion. I get fired up about what I’m doing.”

Think your story might not be interesting?

“Sometimes,” Schmitt says, “we’re not as aware of how interesting we are.”

“It’s human nature,” Hale says. “But if you have a heartbeat, there’s something interesting about you.”

“It’s the modern version of a variety show,” Hale adds.

“The art salon idea,” Schmitt says.

Recent topics? Ready?

Why genocide continues and people don’t act; making B movies in Eugene; a painting of mother and dog; small-scale interiors (think doll houses) and the fears of childhood; iPhone map apps; sculpture and politics; adult graphic novels; the ideas of ceramics; how to think about food.

One presentation that stood out for Hale and Schmitt was that of Richard Johnson, who owns Eugene’s Midtown Pipe and Tobacco. Johnson’s presentation was on fire, they say—but not with burning tobacco. Burning Man.

Johnson had just returned from the community-oriented, self-discovery and creativity-based event that takes place annually in the Nevada desert. “I love to share that experience,” Johnson says. At the Pecha Kucha gathering, he had the opportunity to focus his bubbling enthusiasm. “I was able to show them how important that experience was to me.” And he did, vigorously, “with my heart, my head—my crotch—I hung them up by their toes.”

“In talking about Burning Man,” Hale recalls, “this incredible passion came through. I’ve never seen as much passion.”

Pecha Kucha, Johnson observes, is the perfect format. “It’s fast, it’s a cool environment, and you can see an entire person in that experience.”

Still a relatively new idea, the gatherings are something of a work in progress. “We’d like to see more younger people participate,” Hale says, “broaden the spectrum, see the projects they are working on.”

They also would like to see more women participate. “Right now it’s about ten-to-one male,” Hale says.

One female who skewed the ratio the other way was artist Gwenn Seemel. Though she lives in Portland, where Pecha Kucha also meets, she says the vibrant Eugene art scene interested her. At first she feared she would be boring. “Then I realized that I could only bore so much in five minutes—and the audience would only have to suffer for five minutes,” she says

She chose for her topic a portrait she’d painted of her mother with her Brittany spaniel on her lap (not unlike Renaissance paintings of Madonna and Child). “It was something I wanted to talk about,” she says. Using the slides to illustrate her points, she took the audience through the process of creating the painting, demonstrated the evolution of the work, related its backstory, and detailed the trials of creation. She explored “the challenge of thinking you are doing something right, then not having it work out.”

Again, Pecha Kucha was the perfect format, its limitations offering freedom. “People often think there should be no limits in art,” she says. “That’s hooey!” You need boundaries, she explains. “You need to think inside the box, then push the boundaries of the box. With Pecha Kucha, working within the rules, you can be really creative.

“It was inspiring to think in those five-minute terms,” she adds. “It was a great way to communicate.”

Another way of communicating with images was mapped out by Ken Kato, MS ’00, assistant director of the UO Department of Geography’s InfoGraphics Lab.

“Mapmaking,” Kato offered, “is in effect telling stories in space.”

Using the mobile mapping project he and his fellow geographers have been working on as an example—a mobile phone app with multipurpose maps of the entire UO campus—he demonstrated the level to which those stories can be told. (The app, which recently won the prestigious Special Achievement in GIS Award, has gone public and more than 14,000 people have downloaded it. More information is available at www.uoregon.edu/mobile.)

Kato says he found the informal setting of a restaurant bar to be more comfortable to work in than the usual square-room-with-lines-of-chairs space typical of a conference center. In that relaxed atmosphere, he also connected with a UO colleague, psychology professor Paul Slovic. On the night of Kato’s presentation, Slovic had talked on the subject of some of his research: why genocides continue to take place regardless of the opposition people express regarding such horrors. The coincidence of the presentations got Kato and Slovic talking, sharing ideas, exploring possibilities of using technological capabilities from the InfoGraphics Lab to learn more about some of the darkest corners of the human heart. A research project was born.

“We realized that there was overlap,” Kato says. “It spawned a collaboration that probably would not have been made without Pecha Kucha.”

With Pecha Kucha popularity booming across the globe, Hale and Schmitt hope that more people will be attracted to the local events. Meeting four times a year is their goal for Eugene. In the past, these have taken place at local restaurants and pizza joints, with announcement of the events spread mostly with posters and by word of mouth. They have personally paid for necessary equipment: a screen, digital projector, a laptop, and audio speakers. “An expensive hobby,” Hale quips. He and Schmitt believe Eugene needs Pecha Kucha and, as a community, benefits from it. The next Eugene meeting is scheduled for September 15 at the White Lotus Gallery.

“It allows you to see the diversity of people in Eugene,” Schmitt says. “People complain about how provincial Eugene is, but there are some fascinating, creative, brilliant people in Eugene.”

And Pecha Kucha brings them out.

By Jim McChesney ’90