Think fast

Lecture series limits presentations to seven minutes

Pecha Kucha – a TED Talk sound-alike lecture series that gives a range of different voices the opportunity to speak – proves that creative people with creative ideas can successfully stimulate an exchange of interdisciplinary thoughts, even if they are considerably pressed for time. This was the arrangement for 13 speakers last Wednesday night at La Société des arts technologiques, where Pecha Kucha made its 13th appearance in Montreal. Lecturers are given only seven minutes and 20 slides to present. Then they are politely asked to take a seat. It’s a bit like speed dating for the intellectually ambitious.

It was my first time at La Société des arts technologiques. After first getting the sense that it looked like the type of bar Christian Troy from Nip/Tuck would visit on one of his womanizing sex-endeavours, I was impressed not only by its unpretentious layout, but also by the visual atmosphere: walls and curtains were lit by erotic shades of white and red, and between presentations projector sheets were adorned with moving images of digital art, pop art, and photography. The DJ played a collection of minimalist electronic tracks, loud enough to tap a foot or shake a hip to – and for conversational incompetence not to get too awkward. Together the layout and music operated congruously, contributing to a stimulating atmosphere replete with creativity and optimism.

After a large crowd had filled the venue, speaker Jason Prince opened the night with a succinct and occasionally theatrical lecture on the Turcot Interchange and its alarming environmental effects. Seven minutes later, activist Pascale Barret underpinned her argument against animal cruelty in the art world with disturbing images of starving and beaten dogs across the wide projection screen behind her. Then Paula Meijerink, an assistant professor of landscaping at Harvard, argued for the multifunctional usages of asphalt in the developing and redeveloping of urban areas.

Such was the diversity the lectures provided. The rapid exchange of ideas covered topics ranging from cookbooks and food to the pleasure and playfulness of the creative process, and from the relationship between cars, philosophy, and people to designing your own games on an iPod Touch.

What united the speakers was a sense of optimism about and a devotion to creativity. Whether the means of expression being discussed was photography, architecture, game-design, or journalism, each speaker promoted the importance of imagination and the value of ideas.

However, the diversity of speakers revealed that the brief nature of the Pecha Kucha talks means that it’s not always an effective medium. Some speakers rushed through their lectures, skipping slides and providing overly summarized accounts of their already brief presentations, while others seemed to lose track of time. Overall, however, the effect was that of a coherent synopsis: speakers made their key points and left the minor details out.

Aleece Germano, after giving an effective slide-show presentation on the Swap Team – what she hopes will be “North America’s biggest clothing swap organization,” – confessed that “it’s really hard to say everything you want to say in 20 seconds…. If you cough you’re finished!”

The audience seemed to appreciate the format. Avoiding exhaustive ramblings and trivial digressions is not usually a bad thing. “It managed people’s attention span well,” said Erin Taylor, a McGill student.

It’s no surprise that, since Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham of Tokyo’s Klein-Dytham Architecture formed Pecha Kucha in 2003, it has visited 237 cities worldwide. Its populatrity speaks to the capacity that the Pecha Kucha medium has for encouraging accessible discourse in today’s Twitter-obsessed society.

Pecha Kucha should be back in Montreal in two months or so. For more information, visit