December 19th, 2006



My Pecha kucha is dead piece a couple of weeks ago was a facetiously premature obituary for a meme which is still very much alive, as I explain rather more straightforwardly in the Wired News column that went up this morning, Pecha Kucha: Design Virus. One of the more surprising responses to the Click Opera piece was a mail from architect Mark Dytham, who, with his partner Astrid Klein, started the pecha kucha virus back in 2003. "Pecha Kucha is dead?" he spluttered. "Phew - glad I read down the blog thread [to the comment where I admit I'm just kidding] I was just about to flame you... But all is cool now!! PS - any ideas how we can cool the fire?"

The difference between the Click Opera piece and the Wired News one isn't just a question of tone. In the interim I actually attended a pecha kucha night here in Berlin and found it highly entertaining. Berlin "franchise operator" Luka Hinse explained to me how he'd got the pecha kucha "religion" during a stay in Tokyo interning for Panasonic. He'd visited SuperDeluxe, Dytham's club in Roppongi, seen a pecha kucha event, and decided to set one up when he got home to Berlin.

That got me thinking about my Mukokuseki Diasporans theme again -- thinking of Tokyo as a mecca for a certain kind of international creative, as a place where a sort of "third culture", a blend of East and West, gets fused in "style labs" and exported all over the world in the form of digital products, ideas, music, memes. It's certainly happened with pecha kucha, and SuperDeluxe is certainly one of the places where this "third culture" congregates in the city. If Tokyo-as-highly-viral-third-culture-style-lab had a logo, it would be Klein Dytham's SuperDeluxe logo.

There are a few things to say about this viral third culture emanating from Tokyo. First of all, the creative people working within it are highly privileged, a kind of brahmin class amongst global creatives. Tokyo is still the world's most expensive city. If it takes ambition to move to New York to try and make a living from art or design or music, it takes even more gall and guts to move to Tokyo to do the same. Secondly, they're very much visually-oriented people. We saw in The trip inside how Richard Lloyd Parry puzzled, in the London Review of Books, over why foreigners would stay in a place "with no intellectual climate at all". The conclusion was that people like Donald Richie are lifelong sex tourists -- they stay there for Asian bodies. But Parry's perspective is a fusty one; as a literary intellectual he's attuned to a literary and political culture which is all but dead in the West as well as in Japan. The foreigners in Tokyo are not so much a literati as a designerati; they're primarily visual people. And Tokyo's visual culture -- an intellectual climate of a textural rather than textual kind -- is a very rich one. It's the culture on display daily in blogs like Jean Snow, Pingmag, or Shift, and represented in international events like Tokyo Design Week. Anyone who thinks that Tokyo is off the boil is deliberately snubbing this visual culture.

One question we might ask ourselves is how Japanese this emerging visual "third culture" is? And one way to answer that is to look at what the creatives involved are saying. The picture of the digital bathhouse above is an installation Klein and Dytham made for London's Architectural Association in 2005. Mark Dytham tells me he and Klein "have just finished a large bathouse in Japan's Southern Alps", a real-world extension of the fun digital bathhouse they put together for the AA. Meanwhile, over at Wieden and Kennedy's Tokyo Lab Eric Cruz (in a promotional film made for Apple) puts it this way:

"One of the biggest influences, to us, is the city of Tokyo itself. The Tokyo youth culture always demands innovation. We pay attention to the visual landscape. And then we approach it from a sense of 'How do we introduce something that they've never seen before?'" Since W+K's lab is dedicated to the fusing of music and visuals, that means finding new fusions on the level of sound too. You can hear some of that going on in the podcasts labber Shane Lester does. But you could as easily hear it in the work of Digiki, Lullatone, Marxy, or any of hundreds of non-Japanese stationed in Japan. It's also, of course, implicit in the Mukokuseki Diasporan idea that there's a network of non-Japanese Japanese-influenced people in other countries too. And one thing I've noticed is that my lifestyle -- living outside Japan, participating in "franchise" events which originated there, making regular trips to Tokyo to recharge my creative batteries -- is becoming much more normal. For instance, Helsinki teens on the Hel-Looks website are now as likely to say they go shopping in Tokyo as that they merely buy clothes mail order from Japan. Let's listen to them:

"I visited Tokyo last January and fell in love with Japanese street fashion, language and culture. My style comes from Japan." Nina (17).

"London and Tokyo are the best cities for shopping." Aino (17).

"The whole set is from Tokyo. There's nothing else to do but shop there. Laforet sales – I had never seen anything like that before. What a hassle!" Teemu (29).

The inside of Laforet is of course also a Klein Dytham design, which brings us full circle back to pecha kucha, and the peculiar viral global reach of the Tokyo designerati.