Human contact is at the heart of Pecha Kucha

Meeting of the minds
By MARION DAVIS  |  August 4, 2010

The setting was perfect: outdoors at the Steel Yard, on the city's West side, on a clear summer night, with free wine and beer, a Haven Brothers truck, and big, spectacular art all around — from a sculpture made of bicycle parts to the Flower Tower, a 10-foot pyramid of plants.

The theme last week was "Back to Nature," inspired by the Wooly Fair, the annual carnival at the Steel Yard and Monohasset Mill that was happening two days later. But as always at Pecha Kucha Providence, what people did with the concept was up to them.

"The Wooled," as the carnival organizers call themselves, offered a preview, complete with Honey Bunny Security girls and a glow-in-the-dark juggling act. Mark Van Noppen, who works in real estate, showed his almost abstract-looking photographs of an icy pond near his home. Yarrow Thorne, a student at RISD, brought his team's entry for the NASA Moon Buggy Race, a super-light cart that folds into a box, and offered rides at intermission.

This is what draws well more than 100 people each month — sometimes twice that many — to gatherings at venues across the city: a wildly diverse mix of presentations by artists, designers, activists, and more, each formatted as a slideshow with 20 slides shown for 20 seconds apiece.

Since its debut in March 2009, Pecha Kucha (pronounced p'CHAH ku'CHAH) has been enormously popular, far exceeding the expectations of founder Stephanie Gerson, a 29-year-old social-networking consultant who started the series soon after arriving here from San Francisco.

Created in Tokyo in 2003 to help young designers meet, network, and share their side projects, Pecha Kucha is now an international phenomenon, with chapters in 330 cities, from Glasgow to Mumbai to Cleveland. Gerson knew it from San Francisco and thought it would appeal to artists here. She signed a contract with the Tokyo office and jumped in.

The first event packed the basement of Local 121, drawing RISD students and a broad swath of people active in the creative community, in technology, and in social entrepreneurship. From there, the word spread quickly, attracting an even more diverse audience.

Gerson says she now realizes "how ripe Providence was for Pecha Kucha.

"There's a very strong art and design scene, but that doesn't matter that much because Pecha Kucha is pretty diverse: anything from arts to politics to health, activism, education," she says. The real key is "the size of the city and just how dense the social network is."

Whereas in San Francisco people attend Pecha Kucha as one of many interesting activities, in Providence it quickly became "a community event," she says, part of the social fabric, with a loyal following that extends far beyond the art and design world.

Providence sorely needed that, says John Speck, a Web 2.0 expert who is active in local issues. The IT sector had the monthly Providence Geeks dinner and "it was a galvanizing force; it really was great for morale." Pecha Kucha, he says, did the same for creative types in the city.

Speck presented at the first event, sharing his photos of the Apex building in Pawtucket, accompanied by a poem likening it to Mount Fuji, "always in view." A year later, he did an interactive choral piece using just the words "Pecha Kucha."

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