Vox et praeterea nihil

Proving Plutarch Prescient

PechaKucha and the Fonz?

Has PechaKucha Night jumped the shark, run out of steam, shot its wad—if not globally, here in Calgary?

The immediate and superficial response would be to declare the question ludicrous. After all, (free) tickets now routinely “sell out” in a matter of minutes. Demand for the last one or two PKNYYC events has actually overwhelmed servers. So if sheer popularity is the only measure, the answer to the question is immediate dismissmal.

But surely popularity is not the only measure. I’ve been attending the local PKN events going back to #6 in November of 2010 (with a couple of misses along the way). Unfortunately, I have to say that PKNYYC#14 may well have been the last one I will attend. It was profoundly disappointing. Basically, it amounted to nothing more than a mutual admiration society among the “cool kids” in town and an orgy of Twitterati self-congratulation. I’m trying not to call it a (T)wankfest, but the temptation is hard to resist.

When the best presentation (by far!) has precious little to do with the stated theme of the event; when the second-best presentation is a last-minute “what I did on my summer vacation” substitute (albeit fun and thematically relevant—perhaps the most thematically relevant of all, which is a sad commentary in its own right on those who had much more time to prepare); and when the remaining 8 presentations are lackluster at best and downright lousy at worst, the only possible conclusion is to give the event a 1.5 out of 10—a failing grade by any measure.

We got a “purpose-driven life” derivative (albeit with pretty pictures), several cringe-worthy “personal stories” (more than one of which was nothing more than shameless self-promotion (and even corporate promotion)), and a couple of “institutional” presentations (which may have had some decent content but were sadly lacking in, shall we say, panache). That’s it?!?

Rigorously examined from the perspectives of form and content, then, PechaKucha Night Calgary #14 can only be classified as an extremely disappointing event. If it were to be “reviewed” by a “critic” and subjected to the same standards of expectation and scrutiny as a film, play, concert, dance piece, or any other performance, it would have to be panned mercilessly.

As a social event, it’s fantastic! I’m on the periphery, but some of the folks I’ve just said harsh things about are at least acquaintances, if not friends (or even relations). But sometimes you have to have frank conversations with the people in your life, right?

I have been harboring some concerns about the Calgary PKN events for a while, but I’ve been keeping them to myself, figuring that it must be “just me”, since everybody else (both in meatspace and in the Twitterverse) is consistently full of nothing but gushing and lavish praise. But even if it is just me, I can hold my tongue no more.

Like TED before it, PKN’s initial focus was essentially on technology, art, and design. Remember—PKN was launched (almost exactly a decade ago) by architects in Tokyo in an attempt to draw people to an experimental event space. The content was largely focused on design. The form was witty, clever, and a critique of (or metadiscursive meditation upon) the ubiquitous and banal “PowerPoint presentation”—the acknowledged bane of all humanity.

The decision to create (the now institutionalized and increasingly banal) “20 slides, 20 seconds, auto-advance” structure was inherently a commentary on PowerPoint and the “typical” form and content of agonizing presentations—the kind we have all had to both make and endure. It was a design or artistic practice. It also had a certain formal and cultural resonance with the Japanese social, cultural, artistic, and technological context in which it was launched.

But now that thousands of PKN events have been held in almost 600 cities around the world, it has become an institutionalized structure. The artistic or design intentionality is long gone, replaced by codified ritual and Beaudrillardian simulacrum (how’s them for fancy words?!?). It’s like going to Benihana instead of Sukiyabashi Jiro or even some little hole in the wall in Tokyo. PKN has become as bland and boring as any other PowerPoint presentation (in fact, its principles have permeated into PowerPoint “culture” at large, I would also argue).

To the point, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen anybody do anything innovative or creative with either the form or content of a PKN “presentation”. Speakers are more or less animated and engaging. They are more or less text-bound. They are more or less able to stay in sync with their “slides”. But when was the last time somebody did anything truly “performative”?

Slides are more or less “pretty”—but they’re all pretty darn static. The occasional text box flies or dissolves in or out—oooh, ahhh. When was the last time somebody did something that actually interrogated the actual medium of PowerPoint or deployed it creatively in any way, shape, or form?

In the same way that TV news is merely illustrated radio (try this at home kids—watch the news once with the picture on and the sound off, then once more with the sound on and the picture off, and think about which one still lets you get the gist of the story), PKN talks are now nothing more or less than illustrated mini-lectures. (I actually did the “TV news” experiment at PKNYYC#14, and my hypothesis was confirmed.) Yes, there’s the occasional “funny” slide that’s supposed to “speak for itself”—but even that minuscule bit of cleverness is all too rare.

Also like TED before it, PKN has suffered from a certain dilution of the original premise as it has both aged and spread around the world. TED itself continues (more or less…and increasingly less) to hew fairly closely to its original premise of concentrating on technology, entertainment, and design. TEDx events, on the other hand, are an entirely different matter. I have attended both TEDxCalgary and TEDxYYC events, and in both cases walked away wondering what they possibly had to do with the “TED concept” other than in name only.

Perhaps a certain amount of dilution is inevitable as the TEDs and PKNs of the world proliferate. Perhaps a certain ossification is inevitable as they “mature” (i.e. age) and become institutions. There is absolutely no doubt that local TEDx and PKN events take on the character of the cities where they take place—and I fully support that “localization”. But there’s absolutely no reason that TEDx and/or PKN events should devolve into bland, banal, feckless, and potentially irrelevant quasi-events.

To return to the original “jumping the shark” question, it’s interesting to note that PKNYYC#15 will be an “All-Stars” format. All I will say to that is that we need only to look at the world of (reality) television (viz. “Dancing With the Stars” (coincidentally in “Season 15”) et al.) to know what the “All-Stars” ploy prefigures.

Before I proceed, let me say that I did initially try to submit this diatribe privately to the organizers of PKNYYC, but that proved to be rather difficult. The Feedback tab on the home page for PKNYYC only directs the user to a generic forum. The “about” page on the Calgary Culture website also provides a handy-dandy link to the generic “contact” page for CADA. But nowhere is there any specific information about the actual person(s) responsible for planning, organizing, and executing PKNYYC events—no names, no email addresses, no nothing.

Herewith, then, are my unsolicited (and probably unwelcome) suggestions in the form of a fabulous “Five Point Plan” to rescue PKNYYC, even though sheer popularity would suggest it needs no intervention and that I should summarily and forthwith piss off:

  1. Decrease the frequency of the event. It now takes place 4 times per year (February, May, September, and November). Rather than 4 mediocre events, let’s have 2 really good ones per annum. Shall we say November and May?
  2. Organizational transparency: Clearly identify the people involved in planning PKNYYC events, their roles, and now to contact them. What if I might want not only to whine and moan but perhaps get involved? It sure would be nice to know how it all works and who to get in touch with!
  3. Open call (event transparency): Every time I attend a PKNYYC event, the theme for the next event is announced. A few weeks later, the preliminary roster of presenters suddenly and mysteriously appears. As the event draws closer, another name or two is added from time to time. Speakers frequently refer to having been “invited” to participate, so one can only assume that the process is (largely) by invitation. This leads directly to the problem that so deeply troubled me about PKNYYC#14—i.e. the palpable sensation that the event was by and for a club of mutual admirers and follow-me-follow-you Twitter cool kids. This is what happens when you rely on friends and colleagues—no matter how “wide”, “broad”, or “diverse” your “networks” may be. It’s high time to open up the process.
  4. Juried submissions (quality and fairness): If the event were to be held semi-annually rather than quarterly, there would be ample time to announce a theme (entirely appropriately determined by the “shadowy cabal” that is PKNYYC), put out an open call for submissions, jury the submissions, and have a much better event. (If the same “cool kids” are the ones we keep seeing again and again, at least the process has been open and transparent, and apparently they’re just really good at coming up with interesting PKN presentations!)
  5. Keep it focused: Yes, themes are great, but more importantly, remember the founding principles of PKN, and try to keep the events focused on design (in ALL its forms!), arts/culture/entertainment, and technology. Far too many PKN (and TEDx) events seem to have drifted into the world of social causes. Don’t get me wrong—I’m all for social justice and making the world a better place, and design, culture, and technology all have crucial roles to play in that—but maybe there should be another kind of similar event for social activism. PKN (and TEDx) are far more interesting to me when they explore the topics for which they were originally created. Personally, I would much rather attend an unthemed PKN in which 10 people talk about design, culture, and/or technology (an event at which themes and commonalities in fact may well emerge!) rather than a themed event which does not deal with the founding topics and in which presenters struggle (and often fail, or succeed only in trivial ways) to address the theme.

I adore the basic premises and potentials of PKN and TED/TEDx. But the realities are increasingly disappointing.  I don’t expect the best sushi in the world, but I do hope for good sushi and not just a Benihana simulacrum.

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