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Helmut Kuhn
translation by Ruth Martin

 

The medium is the message. PechaKucha night

 

“Hi!”

The young woman taps the microphone.

“I thought I’d talk today about 20 places where I’ve had sex. So, here we go,” says the young woman on the stage.

An image appears on the screen. It shows a bunk bed, the sheets tangled, a guitar, a guidebook, trainers on the floor.

“Yeah, like here: a hostel in Barcelona.”

The young woman turns away from the audience and looks at the image.

“Everyone knows it, Las Ramblas. The excitement of being on holiday, the dormitories, and at some point it’s all about who gets to go on top.”

The image on the screen changes. A kitchen table appears.

“My kitchen table.” The girl now steps closer to the microphone, and gets louder. Her face gives nothing away. “The kitchen table I inherited from my grandma, flowers from the garden, half seven in the morning, half naked, breakfast... and then maybe there’s something else to eat...”

Laughter.

The young woman on the stage has a cute bob and big, watchful eyes. She’s wearing a dark trouser suit and trainers. The image behind her changes. It shows a section of beach at night, beer bottles, a straw hat, handbag, bra, the camera flash highlighting a hollow in the sand.

“Ha! Berlin Hauptbahnhof, just behind the station, at the Sensation Festival, you might remember it. Er, yes, you in the middle…”

The woman on the stage grins.

Loud laughter.

This is a Berlin PechaKucha night. Thomas has come to the Kreuzberg Festsaal tonight, because the chessboxers are there – Otto, Friedrich, Fat Daniel, Daniela, Murat, Sammy the Lawyer and a dozen or so others. This is their scene. They don’t miss a single show. If chessboxing is the sport of the ‘Precariat’, then PechaKucha is their platform. They even postpone training for this. There are drinks in the courtyard, and at the bar. The image on the screen changes. It’s a lift, photographed from the inside. In a corner of the lift are some little red panties.

“Oh yeah, the lift, that was pretty bad. Near Kurfürstendamm. Six per cent of all German men have had sex in a lift. Long days at work, sexual tension building all day, and then suddenly there’s nobody there but this guy and me...”

Around five hundred people have turned up. The city’s creatives, and those who think they are. These are the people who spend the day sitting, concentrating, in front of their laptops in Berlin’s cafes with their macchiatos and paninis and tramezzinis. This is where they come. The people who hang out in intelligence tech hubs, shared lawyer workspaces and joint ateliers, or who sit alone at their desks, by the window that looks out onto the chestnut tree in the courtyard. Thomas recognises them and the boredom on their faces copied from magazines and their carefully constructed charity shop outfits. Elvira, his neighbour, is there too. These are people who embrace loneliness, sitting in little cubes sawn off at head height, in shabby canteens, in dead hallways, on linoleum that looks like pizza-vomit, or who hand over their lives to people in glass palaces, and attend endless conferences. Thomas identifies them by their business suits, their three-day stubble and their bossy manner. Some nights there are more than a thousand of them. The meetings take place in clubs and halls, museums, on an abandoned factory floor, or in a supermarket. Whatever’s available and is hip enough. The Kreuzberg Festsaal on Skalitzer Straße also hosts rock concerts, poetry slams, chessboxing matches and Oktoberfests with yodelling and test-your-strength games. The image on the stage changes again. It shows a steam room, a small space, like you’d find in a hammam.

“Ah! Friday night at the swingers’ club,” says the young woman. “You’ve all been to a swingers’ club, right? You go in, there’s a giant bowl of condoms on the cash desk, you go downstairs, private rooms, 2,000 square metres, 400 people, you go through the cruising area, dark rooms, past the cages, glory holes everywhere, people hanging on crosses, then you reach the Jacuzzi and the sauna...”

Whispering.

PechaKucha is a lecture evening. The word comes from the Japanese and means something like chit-chat. But that’s not what it is. It’s a quick-fire series of PowerPoint presentations with strict rules. PechaKucha is a worldwide movement, the globalisation of creativity, invented by two architects in Tokyo. PechaKucha takes place in 534 cities, from Dawson City on the Yukon to Bangalore, Hyderabad and Honolulu. Now the screen shows a car park, bushes. A car, a motorbike.

“There in the bushes, you can still kind of see something, in the middle, there, it smells of sweat, and dogging. In laybys, you just go for it, you can find out where it’s happening on the websites, the men get there first, hang their member out of the car window; women have different signs...”

The young woman on the stage laughs.

The audience cheers.

The rules are simple. You can talk about anything as long as you’re passionate about it. You can present any theme: your work, your product, yourself, as long as it doesn’t last more than six minutes and forty seconds. Nothing is too irrelevant, too perverse, too meaningless, as long as you don’t overstep the boundaries. A toilet appears on the screen. One of the doors is open, and the red panties are there on the floor again.

“The Panorama Bar Berlin, in the Europa-Center. In the toilet to the left some girls are doing coke, and in the middle things are getting wild!”

The young woman wipes sweat from her forehead, Thomas drinks his Coke. He’s getting hot, the hall is sweltering. Otto is sitting next to him, grinning from ear to ear, when somebody knocks the Coke onto the floor. PechaKucha is a new dimension. Not in the sense of space, in the sense of hyperspace. The following shot is of a mattress on the floor of a room that looks like a house-share, then a deserted desk in an office (“that’s how you get on at work: networking, networking, networking”, says the young woman). And suddenly there’s a photo of a young man with a champagne glass in his hand.

“There! There he is!” cries the young woman, now completely hysterical. “That’s the man I had all this legendary sex with! Wessel Wubs. There! He’s Dutch, great looking, this is him at a party, totally charming – gay, unfortunately, which I only realised then,” she says, her voice now nearly tripping over itself, then there is a picture of a group of young people waving; in the middle of them, the young woman herself. “Yeah, and this is my crew, they were watching the whole time.” She laughs, and the final image lets the cat out of the bag: it’s an advertising banner, the logo for the new “DON’T GIVE AIDS A CHANCE” campaign, which will soon be on posters all over the country, as the young woman says enthusiastically.

“Yeah, stay safe, all of you, be good. Thank you, you’re welcome!” The young woman nods and blows kisses to the crowd.

Thunderous applause.

“So Otto, we paid an entry fee to watch adverts?” Thomas muses.

“Doesn’t matter. It was cool, wasn’t it?”

Otto is grinning from ear to ear and looking around for something sexually exploitable.

The brief is a lecture using 20 images, each 20 seconds long. You bring the images, you decide on the order. Each image is projected onto a screen and remains there for exactly 20 seconds. Then the image changes – you have no control over this. You say something about the image or you read something out, you talk to the audience or to yourself. As you wish. You have six minutes and forty seconds. The next lecture follows directly on from yours. The lecturers are called speakers. In the course of an evening there are between eight and fourteen of them. Anyone can be a speaker, you just have to register. Then you’re added to the list. Another young woman steps onto the stage and says: I’ve been studying myself for fifteen years, and taken 2,000 photos of myself. She shows herself naked twenty times over, and categorises these pictures as Drugs or Depression. Otto is completely beside himself with excitement. He’s made contact with the girl sitting next to him.

The next person takes the microphone and says: I am a Korean project, in collaboration with a telephone company. You put twenty-four young creatives in six rooms of a factory in Seoul for twelve weeks, and let them work on whatever they want, pixels, programmes, quadratic cell phones, and what is the result of this experiment?

“Julia.”

On the last picture, baby Julia is five months old.

PechaKucha is a show. Not in the sense of comedy, in the sense of reality. Somebody talks about his experience as an election observer in the Congo. A doctor explains how you manufacture prosthetic legs. A photographer shows twenty portraits of poodles, and straight after him, a young German-Iranian tells the story of how his cousin disappeared at a demonstration in Tehran – after 25 days, his body was released to his family on bail. PechaKucha is a game. Not in the sense of fun, in the sense of deadly serious. It’s about cybernetic love, hunger in Somalia and a collection of curd soaps. A woman has been riding a motorbike for thirteen years, and is looking for a publisher and sponsorship for the first motorbike magazine that isn’t about technology: the look has to match the machine, down to the stitching on the saddle, she says. “Here we have a Dolce & Gabbana cowgirl outfit from the spring show in Milan, try and track down the Ariel 350cc Replica from 1978 to go with it, love that short saddle”. PechaKucha is entertainment. Not in the sense of conversation, in the sense of channel-surfing. A Japanese fashion designer presents twenty dresses for a hot-air balloon wedding. A Dutch architect presents a lounge chair for God, and an English designer presents an idea for a TV shopping channel selling fake watches. PechaKucha is the internet. Not in the sense of online, in the sense of live.

Most of the PechaKucha lectures follow the American principle of the sales pitch. The sales pitch is a presentation designed to sell a product, an idea or a service. Its aim is to introduce the product, idea or service to an audience who has no idea about the idea, the product or the service, or to spread the word about the functions and advantages of products, ideas and services that are already familiar. Somebody gets up on stage and says: “I want to tell you about good capitalism. I want to teach you how to start a company when you don’t have much money. How to successfully market an idea like bicycle polo, which costs practically nothing”. On the screen, you see a hoard of young people on bikes with polo mallets in their hands, chasing a tennis ball. Ideas that are born in the safety of the virtual world need to have currency with the piranhas of the real world. PechaKucha is a forum. Not in the sense of opinion, in the sense of the market. Thomas is entirely spellbound. Otto is leaning right over the arm of his seat, engaged in an intimate conversation with his neighbour.

A good sales pitch speaks directly to the customer. It uses his first name, or calls him Mr, it creates a feeling of commonality. It talks about your problems, our difficult situation. The speaker throws up questions that he immediately answers. He throws up questions that the listener immediately answers. The more often he does it, the better. Each question serves to increase recognition, and leads inevitably towards the product. Your goal and the goal of your listener are one and the same. The issue is secondary. The climax of your lecture should be when you bring in your most important selling point, something effective and convincing. That’s your pitch; that’s when you throw the ball. That’s what the lecture boils down to. The sales pitch is not like presenting toothpaste, a kitchen appliance, washing powder or jewellery on a home-shopping channel. The sales pitch is a part of life. Advertising, art, marketing, fashion, architecture, film. Even an editor on a local newspaper has to convince the managing editor how important his next story is on a daily basis. It’s a sales pitch, and he would do well to understand that.

Your sales pitch can be dramatic or comic. It doesn’t matter how you reach your goal. The bigger the laugh, the more you freak people out, the longer your product, your idea, your political message will stay in their heads. The more often you repeat a running gag, the more intelligent it becomes. The best PechaKucha speakers produce laughs the way a stand-up comedian does. But a shy speaker, a frightened or mischievous presenter, a real oddball, or a nervous speaker who fluffs his lines, whether this is calculated or not, can still enthral his audience and achieve his goal. PechaKucha is a collective form of existence. Not in the sense of human, in the sense of The Borg.

In the interval everyone crowds round the bar. Thomas and Otto stand in the queue. The place is full of agents, trend scouts and marketing guys. Thomas recognises them by their tracksuit tops and biker jackets, their crazy pirate outfits. Thomas realises: this is where the industry picks up their digital children. That’s how it is. Architects, event managers, designers, ad men, beer bottles in their hands, looking artistic, scouting for fresh meat. That’s how it goes. PechaKucha is their connection. Not in the sense of intimacy, in the sense of networking. Thomas doesn’t know if he should be disgusted or sad. He thinks he understands: the new human is the complete consumer. He designs, promotes, markets and buys the product, all at the same time. All he asks for in return is a little recognition. Thomas gets angry.

After the interval, the girl next to Otto has moved to sit somewhere else. A physicist and manager of a telephone company talks about the quantum theory of brands. Advertising on the web is getting smaller and smaller, he has observed, down to tiny pixel-images on twitter messages that you can hardly see with the naked eye, but which you often click on accidentally. He calls it nano-marketing. A gangly guy with a mop-top, pleated slacks and a tracksuit jacket leaps onto the stage and gives a lecture entitled Digital Traps. The guy looks like an intelligent version of Tom Cruise, and he doesn’t beat about the bush. He says he’s the creative director of an Amsterdam agency that develops computer games, and he talks about his work. He shows cartoons, from Mickey Mouse to hellish apocalyptic drawings, and then suddenly there’s a photo of a boy in front of a Christmas tree.

“Yes, that’s how it started. Christmas used to be different, as some of you here in the auditorium will remember. That’s how I made my first sketches, with coloured pencils and things, on paper.”

The picture changes, it shows a drawing of a zombie all wired up, hooked up to tubes and machines.

“And here’s what it’s like today.”

Laughter.

“Do you know, it’s all become so monotonous, everything just goes through this screen like the eye of a needle. We don’t work with scissors and paper any more, things that actually have a nice look of their own. In principle, everything is always the same. I think in the computer game business, you get a pretty good idea of what happens when you take a thing to extremes.”

Now there’s an image of an overflowing ashtray.

“Sometimes it’s like we’re chain-smokers: the industry tells us we should savour each cigarette, but there are always people who just do it the whole time. And we are those people,” says the guy on the stage, and it’s pretty quiet in the hall.

The guy’s speech is polished and snappy, but there is a kind of melancholy in his voice. He talks about distractions, and about thousands of creative programmes running at the same time on his screen every day, crying out for attention, about social networks wanting to be fed, and how at the same time nothing is happening in his life. The guy speaks quickly, and he speaks from his heart to everyone in the hall. Thomas feels as though he’s sitting in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The guy is almost in tears up there. “What’s it really all about? You mustn’t forget why we started the whole thing in the first place: not because we said, hey, I want to spend the rest of my life in front of a computer screen, no, because we wanted to create something, and the computer was just a means of doing that. And I think it’s good for us to take a step back now and then, and to say, er… ok, now for once I’m just going to turn it off.”

Otto is now whispering to a different girl sitting in front of him, and Thomas has had enough for one evening, but he’s right in the thick of it, and a real corker has been announced for the end. A short, fat man takes the stage. He has a pince-nez on his nose, and is wearing a retro three-piece suit. He’s a high-ranking representative from the Austrian Tourist Board, and he talks about the renaissance of postcards in times of crisis. He has a voice like schmaltzy Viennese Schrammel music, and he speaks without drawing breath.

“People will keep spending their precious holiday time travelling, but they’ll aim for different destinations, in times of economic crisis, people think about value,” says the man without drawing breath, “and this has an influence on holiday decisions, no more expensive flights to exotic places, people think about true holiday experiences, hospitality, the growing focus on world culture and experiencing unspoiled nature close up, at first hand so to speak, Austria stands for the harmonious trinity of cuisine, friendliness and nature, Austria has always seduced people with its culinary delights, and we invite you to experience a holiday with all your senses, to experience for yourself stories you won’t find in any travel guide, so let us tempt you to take a trip filled with experiences you’ll want to tell people about, lasting encounters with real people, moments of peace you’ll savour, and so…”

Just then, a photo of a gigantic postcard appears on the screen, depicting a mountain scene and the slogan “Experience Austria with all your Senses”. It’s on a stand the height of three men, in front of a station, and it looks a little like it's been glued onto the photo –

“…and so the good old postcard has become the canvas for our new campaign, it’s a symbol of holiday pleasure, but larger than life. A seven-meter-high postcard stand will be touring German cities, and everyone walking past will pause to experience Austria anew, with all their senses.”

The little fat man who doesn’t draw breath pauses for breath.

“As an entirely unique and irreplaceable form of communication, the postcard has strong competition in our digital age from high-speed mediums like e-mail and text messaging, and it has become the norm to tell people about the wonders of far-away places via our mobile phones when we reach our destinations – those temporary repositories for our holiday fantasies – but new media are all enveloped in an aura of impermanence, and these intangible, digital memories fade and end up forgotten on anonymous servers, or in the electronic cave system of modern notebooks. But who would be so heartless as to simply throw away somebody’s enthusiastic, euphoric greetings, messages that have become manifest, pure joy expressed in sentences, and their disappointment, too, these snapshots preserving their special moments, the things their senses have experienced, worked into feelings, into handwriting?”

On the screen, postcard-images of things like alpine meadows, cows and lakes follow one another. The little fat man doesn’t even glance at them. He is focused on the audience.

“Every written word on every single postcard has a synthesising effect for sender and recipient, and only in this one unique case, yes, this form of communication allows us to express a unique intimacy in a simple way, despite the fact that everything is in plain sight, on the surface, for anyone to read. In particular, it should be pointed out...”

The man on the stage turns around for the first time, and there is an image of a small, yellowed postcard with tattered edges and a similar alps-and-cows picture, only in black and white.

“…that the picture postcard and its modest predecessor, the correspondence card, was an Austrian invention, suggested in 1869 by Emanuel Hermann, a professor of national economics, in the newspaper Neue Freie Presse – his idea was to produce a correspondence card with a printed stamp, the point being that it was cheap to make, and saved using an envelope, thus creating the possibility of written communication for the general population; the correspondence card was only half the price of sending a letter, with messages limited to a maximum of 20 words, so the professor’s idea was a sort of historical PechaKucha, if you like, and he proved to be a trendsetter: this was enthusiastically taken up by the Imperial and Royal Post Office, and it was a complete success, the whole Hapsburg Empire broke into fits of chattiness, the likes of which had never been seen before. It was the triumph of a very specifically Austrian medium, without which no proper holiday is complete.”

The man adjusts his pince-nez. On the screen there is an enlarged handwritten note, evidently the back of a correspondence card. The man points at the writing and reads:

“This is a forest, and in this forest one can be happy. So come here! Franz Kafka wrote that from the Zuckmantel sanatorium to his friend Max Brod in 1906. It doesn’t bear thinking about,” says the little fat man, “what would have become of Kafka's message if he had sent it as an e-mail. It would probably have been obliterated if Brod’s hard drive had fried, and then lost forever, banished to oblivion. Wittgenstein, very much like Kafka, was a difficult though extraordinary man, and a huge influence on Austria's history of ideas: vor hus, that’s Norwegian for our house, and venlig hilsen, Norwegian for best wishes, we can see there on his postcard…”

A postcard appears, with a forest on it.

“…which is remarkably fitting: you could almost say that Wittgenstein’s postcard leads you out of the woods into which Kafka vanished, as it were, sometime between 1885 and 1918, the golden age of the postcard.”

The fat man from the Austrian Tourist Board removes the pince-nez from his nose and takes a low bow.

“The medium is the message, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you.”

Frenzied applause.

 

From Gehwegschäden by Helmut Kuhn (© Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt, 2012). Translation © Ruth Martin.

 

Helmut Kuhn was born in 1962, and studied history and media in Berlin and Paris. He worked for the German-Jewish journal Aufbau in New York, and now lives in Berlin as a freelance journalist and author. He writes for the Süddeutsche Zeitung and Die Zeit among others. His debut novel Nordstern was published in 2002 to great acclaim. He also co-authored Five Years of my Life. An innocent man in Guantanamo with Murat Kurnaz, translated by Jefferson Chase and published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2008.

Ruth Martin was born in 1979 and obtained a PhD in German studies from the University of London before deciding to do something completely different. She now translates fiction and non-fiction from German and Dutch. Her work can be found on the Litrix.de and New Books in German websites, amongst other places. She is currently translating a big book about Nazis.

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MadHat, Issue 14, Spring 2013