Last week I attended Vol. 4 of Chicago Pecha Kucha (pronounced PEH-CHUH ku-CHUH). Essentially, it is an evening of presentations where each presenter gets to share 20 slides and has 20 seconds per slide. Someone gets up, has six minutes and 40 seconds to do their thing and then it is on to the next. Read more about it here.
I’ve long been fascinated with the relationship between form and content. The way material is presented is another layer of the material itself. That Michelangelo made frescoes, Van Gogh painted on canvas and Bill Viola uses video speaks equal volumes as their widely varying subjects.
Theosophy likewise comes in different forms. Palm leaves, oral teachings, precipitated letters, books, videos, podcasts (well, the last one has yet to happen, but it will soon, I promise!). Outside of the written word, the most common dispensation is the lecture, where a purported authority stands in front of and higher than an audience of individuals all seated in rows faced forward. The lecturer speaks for about an hour, maybe answers a few questions, and then everyone leaves. It is a classic model for information sharing: a single active authority giving, and a mass, passive audience receiving.
I have to confess I actually have a soft spot for this model. I love listening to John Algeo, Joy Mills, Tim Boyd, Ravi Ravindra, Huston Smith, etc. And these people are all far more informed than me, they have information and perspectives I want, and I’ll happily sit for an hour taking it all in. When I was studying at Oxford, the high point of my week was having the opportunity to listen to Stephen Mulhall ruminate aloud for an hour about Heidegger’s Being & Time.
That being said, I think the model is increasingly irrelevant and reflects out of date political and social models. Most people don’t want to sit passively, hell, most people can’t sit for that long. I have no desire to moralize on this point; it is simply a reality to be recognized. People have less time and attention; they want to be engaged. Lectures simply won’t cut it.
So, I attended Pecha Kucha with this thought in mind: can this provide an alternative model for how we present theosophy? The short answer is an enthusiastic ‘yes’. The event I attended was sold out. Over 300 people crammed in a bar on a Tuesday night to hear presentations by artists, designers and writers, and they were excited to be there. When a presentation worked, it left you wanting more, scribbling down names and websites to explore later; when one didn’t, well, it was over pretty quickly.
Now, theosophy deals with some rather complex and frequently abstract ideas, and 20 images at 20 seconds apiece isn’t much opportunity for depth. However, it is exactly limitations like this that inspire creativity and innovation.
My idea is this. Pick a theme. Invite four to six people (or teams) to give presentations, within the Pecha Kucha parameters, leave room for dialogue between each presentation, and then end with a panel discussion.
I think we would pack the house, inspire incredible discussions, encourage tremendous creativity and leave people wanting more. The presentations could then be housed online along with forums for further discussion and sustained treatments. If particularly appealing, they could even be packaged and distributed.
So, my fellow theosophists, especially those in Chicago, what do you say we pick a theme and commit to doing this next Fall at Olcott? If it works, we could then invite others from all around and do another event during the Annual Conference.