The Birth of Cool in Tel Aviv

How do you transform something from being interesting and nifty to being hip and essential? Something worth waiting in line for? Pecha Kucha plays it cool.

Every four months, about 2,000 people gather inside Hangar 11 at the Tel Aviv Port for two hours, where they listen to short presentations by artists, animators, photographers, industrial designers, graphic artists, architects, musicians and other creative types with no defined profession. The event - which sells out within hours, leaving hundreds of disappointed people outside - is called Pecha Kucha.

Selling 2,000 tickets within a few hours is hardly commonplace. And all the more so because the event's presenters are not celebrities, pop stars, well-known actors or reality show veterans; they are, rather, artists who simply want to share some of their work with the audience.

For those who haven't yet heard about this phenomenon, here is a quick history: Pecha Kucha started in Tokyo eight years ago. The phrase is Japanese for "the noise that arises from a conversation." A pair of architects, Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham, sought to create a place where designers and artists could showcase their work - and without involving any commercial aspect.

The format is rigid: Each participant is allotted six minutes and 40 seconds - no more and no less - to make their presentation. During this time, 20 slides projected on a large screen change every 20 seconds. There's no way to change the format, as the rate is computer-generated. Since its inception, the concept has found a home in more than 380 cities worldwide.

Pecha Kucha Night came to Tel Aviv after Anat Safran, a photographer and designer, met the two organizers on a visit to Tokyo and asked their permission to import the format to Israel. Safran was joined by Itay Mautner, and together they curate and emcee the evening, in cooperation with Faza, a production company which finances the event.

The first evening, which was held in July 2007, drew an audience of 250; the second attracted 600; and 1,000 bought tickets for the third, which was held at the Theater Club (another 200 remained outside ). After that, it moved to the Jaffa Port and then to Hangar 11 at the Tel Aviv Port, where it is now attended by 2,000 people - making it the world's most successful Pecha Kucha event.

The impressive list of presenters to date includes choreographers Ohad Naharin and Renana Raz; writer Etgar Keret; artists Sigalit Landau, Amitai Sandy and Yair Garbuz; graphic designer Ohad Ezer; painter Michal Rubner; musician Kutiman; and pianist and singer Shlomi Shaban. The next Pecha Kucha Night, scheduled for next Wednesday, February 9, will for the first time be staged twice (two identical presentations, at 7:30 P.M. and 10:15 P.M. ), allowing twice as many people to get their cultural fix.

Packaging is everything

Contrary to the conventional wisdom which holds that nothing interests us anymore, it turns out a large number of people are interested in genuine content presented in an attractive manner. But beyond content is packaging, and the Pecha Kucha format is unusual. In other words, this is a salient case in which something that looks dry on paper has been transformed into a cool event, which you certainly shouldn't be ashamed to attend; in fact, you can brag to others that you were there.

Itay Mautner, former editor of the magazines 360 Degrees and 42 Degrees, and current artistic director of the Jerusalem Season of Culture, cannot really explain why the Tel Aviv evenings have become the most successful in the world. What he can say is that, from his perspective, it is not only a matter of cool, but of content.

"Why this, of all things? How did Pecha Kucha become the biggest art movement around?" he says. "We've been wondering about that for quite a few years now and I'm not sure we've arrived at any good answers. There's something about the format of six minutes and 40 seconds, and 20 slides that change every 20 seconds, which makes people think again about their work. It distills thought and makes you create new things."

Mautner cites other examples of cultural initiatives in Israel, such as the magazines Picnic and A5; the 11:11 lecture evenings, organized by Guy Hajaj and Asaf Sagi; or even the In-D-Negev music festival. What they all have in common is initiative that sprang up without any establishment support, a unique format, a loyal audience and, most importantly, quality content.

"The moment you bring in content that's of interest, there will be consumers," Mautner says. "After that, people who are not necessarily looking for content will turn up and say 'cool' or 'groovy' - but that was not the creative intent. Hype is ephemeral, qualitative content is eternal.

"I'm also not sure I agree with the view that it's cool," he adds. "It's true that some people say that nothing is interesting anymore, but just look at what's happening. Both Picnic and A5 are sold widely, Hajaj sold all the tickets to 11:11 within minutes, and the double Pecha Kucha Night will sell out within minutes, too. Cool or not, what it mainly shows is that there is a huge crowd taking an interest."

The end of nostalgia

So if there is an audience and a demand, why aren't there more cultural initiatives out there? Mautner identifies a trend similar to what the creators of Mediterranean music claimed for years: that tens of thousands of people were buying their music, but that the mainstream was ignoring them. Culture, he says, is now undergoing the same process.

"Tens of thousands of people are tapping into deep aspects of serious culture, but the establishment institutions are ignoring this," he says. "It's as though this audience doesn't exist. Look at the entertainment sections in the newspapers - you'll see items done in the style of entertainment news. That's fine, but at the same time we are being hidden. It's a population group that doesn't get any exposure, that doesn't get satirized on [the TV show] 'Eretz Nehederet' ['A Wonderful Country']."

Asked who he means by "we," Mautner replies, "Everyone who is not ashamed to think and ask questions, to challenge their own basic conceptions, who is fond of aesthetics; everyone who manages to hold a conversation using more than four verbs in Hebrew. It's not just that we're not seen on Channel 2. That's not it. It is disregard for a place which I believe could provide a place of healing for the society we are a part of."

In contrast to Mautner, Adi Englman - one of the three editors of Picnic, and an independent curator and art researcher - accepts the term "cool" warmly. Englman, Meir Kordevani and Hila Toony Navok, the co-editors and designers of Picnic - a totally visual, non-textual art magazine published twice a year (www.picnicmagazine.net ) - currently run a multidisciplinary art project showing at the Beit Ha'ir museum on Bialik Street in Tel Aviv.

Entitled "Picnic in Beit Ha'ir," the show consists of posters, a music studio, a free store, meetings with artists and live music. Speaking at a press conference marking the project's launch, Ayelet Bitan Shlonsky, the main curator and director of the Beit Ha'ir museum, described the exhibit as "more artistic, more urban and more cool - a project that draws an extraordinary profile of the experience of life in the city and reflects the young, international, diverse and restless spirit of the first Hebrew city, Tel Aviv-Jaffa."

There's no doubt that, like the organizers of Pecha Kucha, the Picnic group is also identified with that elusive term: cool.

"Cool is a quality, a lifestyle, a mode of behavior, language and verbalization, and in the cultural-artistic context it's a type of sensitivity that is given expression in low dosages of the manifestation and exposure of emotions - at least at first glance or first listen," Englman says.

She goes on to offer a historical perspective of the phenomenon. "The cool tradition in culture overlaps with the modernist tradition; its roots lie in the first decades of the 20th century in Europe," she says. "Cool in art refers to all types of creative work: plastic art, design, fashion, music, architecture. Cool places an emphasis on look, meaning, form, style and presentation."

Still, how does something become cool? Englman offers a circuitous reply, which while it will not help us spot her as cool on the street, suggests a particular direction.

"In terms of form, cool is precise, not to say sparing, in its appearance. It is mostly sharp, clear and void of extraneous attachments," she explains. "It's not nostalgic, not faded, not baroque, not serpentine, not overly sentimental. It's brave and lacking in fear, does not make an effort or betray an effort. Cool does not decide that it's cool. It works like that because it can't work any other way. That's how it connects with the world, with its colleagues, its friends and its audience.

"Cool is urban and cosmopolitan. Cool betrays its coolness in its appearance," she continues. "To discern whether something is cool or not is to make a value judgment. In other words, there can be beautiful cool and ugly cool. There can be good cool and bad cool. Good cool integrates a cool appearance with interesting content, stimulates thought, is deep, always fresh and does not stagnate in its essence. That is the type of cool we are trying to show and create in Picnic."

Finally, Englman notes that it is impossible to ignore the fact that the word "cool" (in English ) has entered spoken Hebrew.

"Unlike the objective conception of cool in the history of art and culture, cool is a word of affirmation - so it acquires a judgmental value of the good, the desirable, the correct or the beautiful," she says.

To which there is only one reply: Cool.