PechaKucha! With Speed, Slide-Show Lecture Emerges as Nightclub Entertainment

The first thing you need to know about PechaKucha is how to pronounce it. You emphasize both Cha's: pe-CHA-ku-CHA. If you say it fast, p'CHA'k'CHA, as veterans do, it gives you a sense of the pace of the thing that, at its best, slaps around your perceptions a little. It's a sort of gymnastics class for the brain. It's a Japanese term (literally, "chit-chat") for an intellectually efficient night of high-speed slide presentations on an often unpredictably liberal array of subjects.

"We like to have people present about anything they're passionate about," says organizer Ashley Pace, the Knoxville architect who co-founded the movement's local offshoot about two years ago. The sixth local event since 2011 will be this Thursday, Jan. 24, at 7 p.m. at the Square Room at 4 Market Square.

Presenters' subject matter is practically unlimited. The only rule, and it's pretty strict, concerns timing. Each presenter is allowed to show exactly 20 slides in a PowerPoint format, and can show each slide for 20 seconds. Each presentation, therefore, can last no longer than six minutes and 40 seconds. For an audience, Pace says, that's what makes it appealing.

"If you hate what they're talking about, it's over really quick," she says. "If you like it, you can talk to them afterwards."

Another aspect that distinguishes PechaKucha from routine lecture circumstances—auditorium talks and after-dinner speeches—is that the venue tends to be an informal place, typically a bar. You can get up and get a beer, have something to eat, move around some. Though it's hard to measure whether the previous five events have spawned any interesting projects or movements, PechaKucha has at least introduced lots of interesting people to each other.

The phenomenon started in Tokyo in 2003, mainly as a means to swap design ideas among architects, but the fast visual format lends itself to a wide variety of other subjects. PechaKucha slipped into Knoxville thanks to Pace and landscape architect Sean Vasington. They'd both seen PechaKucha in other cities—and, yes, regrettably, this is another case of our smaller sisters Asheville and Chattanooga catching onto an international trend before Knoxville does. Pace first witnessed it in Chattanooga back in '09, when her architect husband, Brandon Pace, was invited to present, and was impressed.

The last PechaKucha Night—PKN, for short—was in late October at Relix Variety Theatre on North Central Street. It was a fast-moving evening of presentations on cantilever-barn architecture and its relation to modern energy-efficient design, "tactical urbanism" (one tactic: guerrilla gardening; another: "pop-up cafes"), the Book of Ecclesiastes, and loony costume design. Among the presenters then was celebrity glass sculptor Richard Jolley and former University of Tennessee architecture dean John McRae. The latter spoke not on architecture but on a collaborative project, an offbeat illustrated adventure book for children.

Represented was a wide array of charisma quotients. A few gave ordinary PowerPoint presentations, as if they were talking to another sleepy Rotary luncheon. Others were more memorable, even when they didn't make perfect sense. Just a few presentations rang gongs in the minds of the 100-odd attendees, and they were worth the wait. All in all, it was pretty fascinating, and more fun than many rock 'n' roll bands. Several attendees are repeat visitors, and the concept seems to be growing in popularity.

Architects started PechaKucha about 10 years ago, and it's interesting how many are involved in it in this articulation of the idea, 10 years and many thousands of miles away. The current PKN Knoxville committee of eight includes several architects—Daniel Johns, Jona Shehu, Rebecca Ware, and Pace herself—rounded out mostly with professionals in design. (Original co-organizer Vasington remains a fan, but has stepped aside to attend to his workload, which includes the ambitious Fort Higley park project.)

What they're doing, emphasizing images more than words, is akin to the general rhythm of an efficient architectural presentation. But a much wider number of subjects could go airborne on the PechaKucha plan.

The first was held about two years ago at a warehouse space on West Jackson Avenue. Later they tried the Knoxville Museum of Art; some thought it felt too formal.

At the last PKN, several remarked that Relix, a good bar with a performance stage—supplemented that night with some boxes of take-out pizza—was the perfect place to witness the PechaKucha phenomenon. It drew a couple hundred. This time, Pace says, the committee wants to try the center of downtown for the first time, mainly to catch the attention of casual passers-by and droppers-in. A little over a year ago the Square Room drew a full house for Knoxville's first TEDx series. The timed lecture series might be seen as a sort of second cousin to PechaKucha.

Meanwhile, since October 2011, UT, through its office of the provost, has been holding its own version of PechaKucha separate from PechaKucha Night Knoxville, an event in an off-campus venue open only to faculty and staff—not students, reportedly because alcohol is sometimes involved. Called Mic/Nite and held just two Wednesdays a year, the next event is scheduled for Relix on March 13 (but to attend, it sounds like you need to know somebody). Organizer Beauvais Lyons, a printmaking professor, says it's an attempt to foster an "interdisciplinary dialogue" and "more of a sense of an intellectual community" than is likely in a university separated by departments and colleges.

As it happens, this Thursday's public PechaKucha show will feature that same Professor Lyons, one of academia's most esteemed pranksters, as a presenter on the subject of the usefulness of pranks in teaching. Joining him will be an impressive mix of local minds: Knox Heritage's maverick preservation activist Kim Trent; wakeboarder-videographer Alex Oliver; motivational scientist Chad Hellwinkle on permaculture; architect/graffitist Brian Pittman on his most beloved project, the Temple House at Henley and Hill; and versatile artist Chris McAdoo and his architect wife, Robyn, on the subject of possessing a "Right Brain in a Left-Brained World"—with further explorations by other presenters on the subjects of flow, crypto-satanism, bellydancing, and "Intimate Portraits of Automobiles." How each subject will unfold is impossible to predict.

It's free to the public, but they request a $5 donation.

PechaKucha Knoxville agreed with the international organization to do four a year, but this Thursday's show marks only the sixth overall. "I keep having children," says Pace, a mother of three, a little helplessly. She was cradling a vocal baby as we spoke. But she says they're angling toward holding a seventh event in late April, exact date and venue to be announced.