I read about pecha kucha somewhere and felt that it could be fruitfully appropriated. It had been conceived in 2003 by two architects working in Tokyo, Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham, who had been trying to find ways to curtail a tendency in young architects to speak for an intolerably long time when pitching a scheme for the new library or whatever.
Klein-Dytham decided to restrict all candidates to a slide show comprising 20 slides, each of which would be projected for 20 seconds whilst being explained or described by the presenter. In the course of this 6 minutes and 40 seconds long presentation the presenter should aim for utter precision – if, for example, you consistently spoke for 19 seconds per slide then one of two things would happen. You’d stand, albeit briefly but in this context unattractively, in silence until the slide transitioned or, if you moved on to the next speech without a break, you’d start to go into overdraft i.e. the next time round you’d finish a little earlier, eventually leading, in theory, to the catastrophe that is Talking-Mostly-About-Slide 17-While-Slide 16-Still-Occupies-the-Screen. Or, of course, you could stand speechless at regular intervals. This takes nerve but in those silences resides the possibility, if you remain calm, of recovering the synchronisation.
Conversely, if you spoke too slowly or had consistently underestimated the length of a speech then you would find yourself describing the past while the present awaited your attention, its duration being steadily reduced but separated from its carefully crafted commentary. It’s only natural at this point to speed up but this inevitably involves an unseemly gabbling.
Surely, one might imagine, the slide operator could accommodate such all too human wavering with a succession of benign adjustments. But where’s the fun in that? A counter-empathetic dimension was added to the setup, ensuring that a cold, dispassionate, machinically fixed set of timings would proceed at the click of the mouse that launched the PowerPoint display. From Tokyo to London, pecha kucha presenters whose puppy had died earlier that day would not be favoured in the least. The playing field was now, like a billiard table, level. PowerPoint is not indifferent to puppies – it doesn’t know what they are.
Audiences sense these presentational challenges, especially when they are alerted to them by the compère, who happens to be me. Such disclosures endear the compère to the audience and introduce the latter to an athletic dimension not generally found in your average lecture.
I learned that ‘pecha kucha’, as used and pronounced by the Japanese, has an onomatopeic quality that resembles ‘the sound of chatter’. I also learned, having determined to use the format as the basis for a series of live public shows, that if I called these occasions ‘Pecha Kucha Nights’ I might be sued for breach of copyright. Thus it was, on January 31st 2008, that ‘David Gale’s Peachy Coochy Nites’ opened in the bar at ArtsAdmin in London. Months later, when the Nites were well under way, a lawyer told me that the copyright threat was nonsense – it had no legal basis at all. Anyway ‘Peachy Coochy’ was much better.
Thanks to the welcoming enthusiasm of Judy Knight and Gill Lloyd, the directors of ArtsAdmin; Chief Dawethi, the head technician and Toby Saunders, the free-lance projection tech, the bar, set with tables and chairs, proved to be an ideal location for the show. It was one of those venues that look gratifyingly full when they are not at capacity and pleasingly packed when rammed.
Each Nite comprised six presentations – three either side of an interval. I aspired to bring together on each monthly occasion as diverse a selection of presenters as possible. It would, I felt, be tremendous if, on a typical bill, we could offer a policeman, a surgeon, a criminal, a taxidermist and a quantum physicist. My own background was arty – I knew lots of performers, playwrights, directors, film-makers, writers, journalists, designers, dancers etc. It came to pass that these dominated the line ups because they were rather easier to recruit than, say, members of the police force.
We did, however, succeed in presenting a quantum physicist and our arty colleagues proved, more often than not, to be daring in their bending of the stern Peachy Coochy rules and thoroughly unpredictable in terms of topics and styles.
My perk as curator of the cultish events was to install myself as master of ceremonies and to compose my own presentations, which I inserted in the first slot after the interval. Whereas the five guests were, with some exceptions (Wendy Houstoun and Ursula Martinez, for example, were audience favourites) presenting for the first and last time, I decided to link my own presentations so that they had a degree of thematic and narrative continuity. They are assembled here, in the order in which they were presented.
I should point out that I was hardly the first person to notice the potential of the Klein-Dytham pecha kucha format – it is regularly presented in over 1000 cities around the world and, I imagine, tweaked and stretched on every occasion.
Our press information pack, assembled with producer Amber Massie-Blomfield sometime in 2010 (slightly updated 2019), dramatised us as follows:
David Gale’s Peachy Coochy Nites is the perfectly shaped art form for the new decade: a celebration of artistic expression that is concise, precise and fleet of foot. In its brevity artists feel liberated to explore challenging subject matters and take risks with new material, whilst audiences thrill in the creative tension between the improvised compèring and the highly formalised, almost athletic presentations. The show prompts reflection in audience and artists alike on the way in which we consume media; specifically, images and words.
Past Coocheurs have included: Oreet Ashery, Mark Borkowski, Duncan Campbell, Marisa Carnesky, Robin Deacon, Richard DeDomenici, Tania El Khoury, Tim Etchells, Marcia Farquhar, Gareth Brierley, Ant Hampton, John Hegley, Wendy Houstoun, Alex Kelly, Lois Keidan, Keith Khan, Richard Layzell, Brian Lobel, Jeff McMillan, Ursula Martinez, Nic Rawling, John Smith, Julian Maynard Smith, Trevor Stewart, Gary Stevens and Hilary Westlake.
Past topics have included: My 20 Favourite Fonts; The Dangers of Health & Safety; Lustful Emails Sent Subsequent to my Nude Cabaret Act being Illegally Released on YouTube; Criminal Gangs of 50s London; My Family Photo Album used as Evidence of my Precocity as a Live Artist; An Introduction to Quantum Physics; Public Art in Poundbury, Dorset; An Enquiry into the Origins of Compressed Chewing Gum Found on Pavements; Art on Roundabouts; My Life and Art in Bombed Beirut.
David Gale’s Peachy Coochy Nites has run monthly at the Toynbee Studios since 2008; it has also played at the National Review of Live Art, the Riverside Studios, The Victoria & Albert Museum, Battersea Arts Centre, Cambridge The City Wakes, Poole Lighthouse, The Maritime Museum, Greenwich. The show works particularly well in a festival context, as an alternative, arty end-of-evening entertainment. It prompts dialogue between artists and audiences around their work, offers a platform for fledgling ideas and encourages audiences to experience the work of artists they may not typically take a risk on. It also goes down very well with a drink.