Performing History: A PechaKucha Night in Buffalo

In the middle of an inauspiciously cold, wet week in Buffalo, New York, the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) planned something a little different for its annual meeting this April. On Friday night, after a full day of sessions, meetings, and tours, a crowd of academics, architects, local activists, and students munched on tacos from the food truck parked outside and sipped beer from a makeshift bar in the darkened nave of Asbury Hall, a 19th-century church designed by John Selkirk and restored by musician and activist Ani Di Franco. The church, now a performance and arts space, thrummed with anticipation, but when the cavernous room went dark, no musicians stepped onstage. Instead, a lone spotlight illuminated a microphone in front of a huge screen. This was the beginning of PechaKucha Buffalo, an event in which each participant talks about a project or idea using 20 images which are shown for 20 seconds each.

“Bethlehem Requiem (2010) by Lesley Horowitz, a participant in PechaKucha Buffalo.” For more images in this series, see: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rustbeltjetset.

PechaKucha, which is the sound of “chit chat” in Japanese, began in 2003 as a way for architects and designers to meet and show their work to each other and interested members of the public. PechaKucha is now a global phenomenon, according to the website (www.pechakucha.org), with PechaKucha nights taking place in over 600 cities with presenters from wide spectrum of backgrounds. Part of the success is the clearly the appeal of the highly structured format: Six minutes and 40 seconds of precisely timed slides is enough time to get into a topic but not enough to lose the audience, and it’s a perfect platform for projects that are still in the brainstorming or doodling phase.

PechaKucha Buffalo was the first time the SAH had co-sponsored an event of this kind and it offered a way to think about sharing research at an academic conference in a new way. The participants included SAH meeting attendees but also a mix of local preservationists, neighborhood activists, architects, academics, and historians. Many of the presenters wore at least two of these labels, and the projects reflected a truly inventive range of creative responses to the urban conditions of Buffalo. Other presentations highlighted projects undertaken by academics outside their customary fields. In fact, one of the most common introductions was, “My research is about X, but this doesn’t have anything to do with that.” In the course of the event, SAH attendees heard about projects on spatializing the revolution in Cairo, the scheming figure of the architect in Greek theater, heart-bombing vacant houses, and trespassing as a mode of artistic practice, among many others.

As an addition to an academic conference, the PechaKucha format creates an opportunity for historians to share their new research or interests in a way that is a refreshing departure from the 20-minute academic paper.  SAH attendees I spoke to felt it was a hugely enjoyable and productive evening and the success of the SAH co-sponsored event suggest there may be further benefits to these kinds of alternative programs at academic conferences.  PechaKucha provides platform for scholars to get their works-in-progress out in front of an audience, not unlike the Lightning Talk format favored at some conferences. It is also a way to talk about projects that are outside one’s normal research track with low expectations in terms of completeness or application to the field. PechaKucha nights are open to the public as well, and can be an alternative way to showcase what it is historians actually do or think about outside of more formal professional environments.

PechaKucha also asks presenters to think the particulars of pace, narrative, and audience in a way that could be productive no matter what the level of experience. Reading directly from a text, while allowed, is clearly less dynamic and compelling for the audience and different performance tactics than ones used in classrooms or research forums need to be employed. In addition, the use of carefully timed images as the central focus could lend historians of all stripes new insights into crafting an argument and public speaking. With exactly 20 seconds for each image, the presenter has to think through exactly how much and what kind of information to show in order to build a coherent story. Too much text or detail on a slide is distracting to the audience, while too little leaves them fidgeting in their seats as they wait for the next one. You can’t rush through or slow down the presentation so each point and image has to be carefully balanced with the one before and after.

As we begin our planning for the next annual meeting, we wanted to ask: Would you participate in a PechaKucha night if one was offered? Would you attend as an audience member? Let us know your thoughts in the comments or on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter.

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  1. Gretchen Boger

    Have been doing Pecha Kucha presentations with my students for three years, with fantastic results. Was skeptical before trying it about what seemed a gimmick, but there really does seem to be something about that timing that works. In the past I have had students developing a PechaKucha presentation out of a longer, compelted research paper. This spring we’re skipping the paper and going straight to the PK as the students’ final project in the U.S. survey. Will see how it turns out.

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