Wednesday, March 2, 2011

One of the books I picked up during my visit to Publication Studio’s Portland storefront is The Condensed Fourth Edition of the Greenhorns' Guide for Beginning Farmers. The Greenhorns is a non-profit group who “promote, support, and recruit young farmers nationally.” One of its members, Patrick, was completing a PS residency, on leave from his farm in New York’s Hudson Valley.

The Greenhorns’ book is one of many published by PS, who, like The Greenhorns, promotes, supports and recruits interest in writing, editing, designing and publishing. So far there are a number of PS nodes in North America, including Vancouver, San Francisco, Toronto and New York. It is refreshing to see this kind of generosity and enthusiasm in both publishing and farming, as the two are not unrelated.

Another organization that spreads itself far and wide, one that I have been in conversation with, is Pecha Kucha, a presentation format generated by a design studio in Tokyo and now operating in over two hundred cities. However, the openness and generosity of PS and The Greenhorns is lacking with the originators of Pecha Kucha, who treat their concept less as a presentation format than a brand franchise, as evidenced in Vancouver last fall when a group of UBC Curatorial Studies students were told they could not use the name Pecha Kucha (the Japanese word for "chit-chat") in their 560 Seymour exhibition because it was already taken.

The Vancouver Pecha Kucha franchise is Cause+Affect, a design firm whose expertise extends more towards real estate decoration than expanded notions of the liveable city. When I was asked two months ago if I would be interested in participating in their 15th Pecha Kucha at the Vogue Theatre (in conjunction with the Vancouver Art Gallery’s We: Vancouver exhibition, which I contributed to), I said yes. But the more I found out about Cause+Affect, the more I wanted no part of them. Propriety was a factor; same with the proceeds -- $15 x 1100 seats is a lot of money. Where does it go? And why are the presenters not paid?

My problem with Cause+Affect began when I proposed a set of images we might use to accompany my talk (20 images for 20 seconds, each). In the spirit of “cross-platforming”, I suggested we use a macro/micro version of my Digital Natives billboard project, with guidelines on how to achieve the effect, only to be told that they had no one in their organization (a design firm!) to implement them, but that I should “go for it,” because “what your images will lack in terms of visual interest I’m sure you’ll make up with your presence and dialogue on stage.” When I suggested an even easier idea, easier than the process by which we were to submit our images in the first place (the first twenty images that come up when you Google Image “Vancouver, BC”), I was told they did not have a “volunteer staff” and that maybe they could find me a “student” (as if the latter could not also be the former). That’s when I asked where the proceeds went – because it was clear that none of it was going towards the presentations.

It cost Cause+Affect $5K to rent the Vogue, with $4 of the ticket price going to venue administration. From there things got murky. I was told that “[t]he time it takes to curate, organize, promote and sustain the event is far beyond what minor money we make to host the event,” leading me to wonder what part of curation precludes helping to mount what people are paying to see, especially when Cause+Affect have referred to their Pecha Kucha as a “non-profit" affair. Couldn’t some of that “minor money” go towards the minor cost of on-stage production? When asked this, I was told I was given “an invitation,” and that “no one is forced to present,” and that “[a]ll our presenters to date have been very grateful of the opportunity, it’s fun and often great exposure for them, often providing them with new opportunities, etc. We have 100s of people on the waiting list to present,” etc.

For those who emailed to ask where I was that night, I was here, at Websit. For those who saw what I refused to take part in – a trade show – I am sorry for that too. I just wish I did my homework first.

The difference between projects like The Greenhorns and Cause+Affect’s Pecha Kucha speaks to the times we are living in, a gulf that mirrors the divide between those who have, and those who have not. That the Greenhorns are in my world is reassuring and offsets the despair I feel towards Cause+Affect, especially when firms such as theirs are increasingly active in cultural brokerage, working with larger public institutions (like the VAG) as well as government. Is this the future? Not so much Cause+Affect but this ever-widening divide?

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