By Sarah Fisch
George Bernard Shaw suggested that every five to seven years, a person should appear before a committee to justify his or her continued existence. Without the attendant possibility that their lease on life might not be renewed, the eight participants in last night’s PechaKucha rose to just that kind of challenge. There are few spectator experiences so rewarding as to engage with somebody who plain-out loves something.
On Thursday night, a lively crowd overflowed the HQ of the Architecture Foundation of San Antonio in the Full Goods Building at the Pearl complex, home to the San Antonio iteration of PechaKucha, the Tokyo-born, now worldwide program of locally held show and tell gatherings. Presenters have six minutes and 40 seconds to do their thing. That’s 20 slides, 20 seconds each, with a running monologue. They can talk about their work, their passions, or make it an apologia of their aesthetics and ethos, or simply to experiment. This is the fourth San Antonio iteration of Pecha Kucha I’ve attended, and the sixth in San Antonio, orchestrated by the Architecture Foundation of San Antonio, the redoubtable Lake/Flato architect Vicki Yuan, and writers Ben Judson and Callie Enlow.
Although the format’s constrained — or rather, perhaps, because the format’s constrained, it’s fascinating to watch as different thinkers compress or stretch to fit into it. There’s a subversive utility in thinking inside the box — think of the rewards yielded by the formal criteria of a fugue, a yurt, or villanelle. Also note that it’s always the grocery store and hardware materials challenges that get the Project Runway folks on their best game.
There have been presenters over the series of evenings who’ve treated the platform as more or less a Powerpoint presentation. This can be very effective — months ago Diana Kersey, ceramicist, documented the painstaking process of her fine art and her object-based, consumerable work, through her series of slides which showed the various processes she’s mastered. It left the crowd having learned something not only about the woman, but the woman at work. Justin Boyd, sound artist, undercut the visual element of Pecha Kucha, using each “slide” as a caption to state the location and date of the 20-second audio sample he played in conjunction, working outwards in his field recordings from the crowded muffle of an elevator’s interior to the majestic openness of a seaside. Other presenters have allowed the slide show to supplement the verbal points they make, rather than sectioning their verbiage into slide-by-slide commentary.
The great appeal of the Pecha Kucha formula lies in its meta-didactic angle, and its economy. There’s almost nothing so boring that you can’t sit and listen for six minutes and 40 seconds, and best case (and more likely) scenario is that you’ll learn something.
Such is the case with Monika Maeckle, a self-described “butterfly evangelist.” (Maeckle is half-owner of the Rivard Report and writes the Texas Butterfly Ranch blog). I knew that Monarch butterflies have an extremely long tenure in the ritual subconscious of this part of the world, since pre-Columbian times. By “this part of the world,” I mean the region of Texas to Michoacan, blessed as we are by the yearly flow of butterfly life. As Maeckle pointed out, though, we’re not the whole territory; the Monarch emigrates from Canada to Mexico, in successive generations, following a milkweed road now increasingly endangered by pesticides, climate change, and habitat encroachment. She was careful to point out that while the species isn’t in danger of extinction, it’s the journey itself that’s tenuous. The Monarch migration is arduous in the best of times, and wondrous in its very being.
One of her slides was a video of the grand and consuming occupation of the butterflies in Michoacan, where millions of the insects
colonize every branch and tendril, occasionally bursting forth into “Monarch explosions.” She used the video to feed our eyes, and described the preternatural experience of standing there, engulfed in such beauty and such endless intention in each flutter. She described the young insects emerging from pupation to stretch their antennae into the world. She referred to them, familiarly, as “these guys.”
I looked — throughout the standing-room-only throng, eyes shone as her voice came close to breaking. Maeckle wasn’t crying like a thwarted and despairing naturalist in an age of mass extinction. She’s a person regularly overcome with wonder. Her intellectual curiosity undiminished by exposure, fueling her mission. She plants milkweed, and encourages others to do so. “I have seeds!” she offered. What she wants, and makes clear, is to protect the butterflies’ jobs. I came to believe that she serves a universal purpose in the simple planting of milkweed. In under seven minutes, Maeckle imparted a deeper understanding of this familiar and miraculous little beast, its route and habits add to a whole that goes beyond species. In honoring the Monarch, she clarified without having to say, we keep sacred the physical forces of the Universe into something like actual harmony.
Following Maeckle was Beverly Ingle, a Design + Marketing Strategist who delivered a smart homily about the good manners of community-building. The empathy and compassion that knit us together aren’t just necessary, but fundamental to our very roots, she said. She added that we’re enduring a period of personal nastiness, where a journalistic reliance on snarky commentary, a neo-plague of hurtful anonymous internet comments, and hostile political gamesmanship has put us into a state of “root rot.”
“Bullying abounds. It’s the M.O.” Ingle said. “We’ve all participated in it. We’ve been covert and overt about it,” adding that it comes in under the guise of “assertiveness.” She came clean about her own bullying/assertiveness, and she’s weary of it. “Empathy needs to take (pause) a stand.” This is a good grito.
Transforming a River to Transform a City
Irby Hightower, a principal at Alamo Architects, served up Pecha Kucha in its classical, architectural mode. A longtime force behind the restoration and redevelopment of the San Antonio River, he showed us slides of old concepts for this mitigated resource and ambivalent cultural touchstone. We saw 1940s mockups of the domesticated Paseo del Rio as “mariachi-land,” saw slides of clogged and gutted portions of river gone unloved, now strengthened by clean-up and care. He made sophisticated distinctions; the river’s progressive domestication serves the city as public space. Meanwhile, progress at its crudest via the utilitarian efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers means the river no longer terrorizes us with flooding. However, Hightower’s current push is in river restoration, the re-imagining of our downtown canal into something fit for, and exemplifying, the natural world.
Without vainglory or ego, he measured out the patient progress of river development, from the public art exuberance of the Museum Reach to the re-pioneering of the Mission Reach to this new project point; a design-enabled time travel of a sorts, curving the constrained waterway back into a goddamn river. Hightower’s had to counter, again and again, civic and other forces bent on reducing this moving water to the tactical shorthand of a linear irrigation canal. He’s quietly prevailing, though. HIs efforts are as if to say, after all its hard work of energizing downtown and Southside San Antonio, let the San Antonio River have a day off. I admit that Charles Barkley crossed my mind; if, under the contrarian bluster, he in fact admires and recognizes pattern and strategy, Hightower might have won him over. As it was, Hightower delivered foresight, insight, and earned the audience’s trust that thoughtful progress is not only possible, but happening.
After Irby Hightower’s deceptively casual delivery, came intermission, or what emcee Randy Beamer called “beer break.”
I’ve been of two minds about Beamer’s role in Pecha Kucha, this whole series. On the one hand, he makes time to attend every damn one — between news broadcasts, mind you — and handle the compressed timing of the proceedings like a true pro. On the other hand, his (PG-13 rated) “saucy uncle” routine is undeniably, self-consciously hammy, and seems a weird fit with the often-cerebral subject matter. But no matter. It’s a hoot to have him. He takes every opportunity at a double entendre or a jocular jibe at the audience’s level of intoxication, or whether or not “chicks dig (insert presenter’s preoccupation here).” He gets, and earns, huge laughs. And just when you’ve begun to take him up on his offer of boozy, flirtatious self-deprecation, he offers a real insight, or evinces true concern and curiosity about a speaker (he briefly interviews each after his or her presentation). He’s grown into a keen audience surrogate and idea participant over the course of the series.
On Thursday night, he addressed nihilism as a possible component of surrealist theory. No shit. This Beamerism was occasioned by copywriter and creative writer Ryan Newberry, who riffed on his love for surrealist and absurdist humor. Of the presenters, his was the most obvious schtick, and it was fun to watch. Amid the jokery, too, he managed to get in that an early love of Monty Python was fostered by his dad, who “brought [him] up on it.” He posits his nerdiness as a form of ardor. Fanboy love of wacky ideas as a praxis growing, hopefully, less knee-jerk quoting of “the knights of Ni” and more fecund. Not surprisingly, he was by far the youngest presenter of the evening, but with his keen eye and shiny wit, he’s a thinker to watch.
Newberry provided a good set-up for artist/chili queen Ana Fernandez, no slouch in the absurdism department. Although an in-demand and accomplished painter, a graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago and UCLA, with a sold-out one-woman show at Joan Grona among her recent credits and an exhibition up currently at Austin’s Women and Their Work gallery, she chose instead to focus on her reign as a Chili Queen. A disclaimer: I collaborated with Fernandez on the catalog copy for her Austin show, and on some of the early copy for her Chili Queen concept. So I can’t be objective.
But I was surprised and impressed that her attitude towards her different modes of artmaking could be summed up thusly; yeah, I’m a painter. Meanwhile, I lost my job as a Paseo del Rio barge driver (true story!) and decided to buy a taco truck, use my talent for cooking, and honor the original Chili Queens of the 19th-into-the-mid-20th century, who sold chili by the bowl in public plazas to swells and workers alike.
Fernandez developed a recipe using the flavor profiles and traditional ingredients favored in Chili Queen heyday. She’s incorporated them into craze-inducing dishes including “The Roosevelt” and “The Bomb.” Very cannily, she featured slides of the food. The audience swooned and gasped. She was funny, too, describing her Botanica to Go, also housed in her taco truck, the signal product of which is a line of incense which, depending on which you buy, ensures friend-requests on Facebook or the ability to control others.
Beamer went all puzzled in his follow-up, re-iterating Fernandez’ impressive educational and artistic background. She explained that she cooks at certain times, and paints at other times. It’s not so crazy. She loves good food and the chili queen tradition, so she’s doing that too. She manages a humor in everything without anything being a joke, or an ironic pseudo-dive into the service industry. Contemporary painter? Yup. Chili Queen? Yes.
Two other visual artists represented themselves — I’m deviating from the timeline, here, to have a go at theme.
Nate Cassie and Cruz Ortiz (another disclaimer, both personal friends of mine) both emphasized the role of contemporary art in the San Antonio community.
Cruz Ortiz is a printmaker, performance artist, community organizer, teacher and off-kilter bon vivant. He founded the Dignowity Pushcart Derby, an annual event which spotlighted the importance of fun on the city’s Eastside. He’s shown, at LACMA and in England, the galvanizing rasquache of his rickety, sculptural control towers and ad-hoc encampments, the densely imagined terrain of his Tejano alter-ego, Spaztek. Currently, he’s got a pirate AM radio station happening, which has the wattage to cover a two-mile perimeter around his house. And with each and every project he surveyed, Ortiz unfailingly gave credit to the “crazy people” of his city who serve as volunteers, viewers and inspiration.
Cassie gave a retrospective demonstration of his near-bewildering range of work. Elegant, graphic, semi-abstract lithography, some collected by the McNay museum, often suggest a natural network, like synapses or something vascular. Human organization is part of this sprawling megaverse, of which these beautiful pieces are notations. Cassie’s a maker by theory, an idea guy who can show you the thingness of it, he’s steeped in engineering, the natural sciences…and hairdos. “Vacancy” is an ongoing guerrilla curation project. The first one-night exhibition of local artists, Cassie staged in a vacant apartment. Then at the second Vacancy, at Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, he fashioned a pop-up barbershop and spent three hours or more at the opening cutting hair. For real. Cassie’s not just a thingmaker, but a service provider deeply invested in interaction.
One of his biggest projects, “Be Careful What You Wish For,” spans about fifteen years, from a period when, as a grad student, he took photos of friends who stopped by his studio, to his installation at the 2011 Luminaria wherein he hung superb charcoal drawings rendered from the long-ago photographs. Some of the photographs and drawings’ subjects are still around, still part of Cassie’s community of networks. At Luminaria, he placed a long wooden table on the porch of one of the houses used as exhibition space. The seats faced out towards his waiting camera, Last Supper-style, and he documented the flow of community a near-generation since the initial, seemingly casual, documentation. In a wildly diverse career, it amazes me what a strong through-line Cassie himself is.
And Then the Drought Came…
Finally, it’s hard to articulate the impact of Linda Perez. Perez is a rancher, among other things. Some of the other things include graduating from UT in the sixties with a self-designed major in African studies, many years in Zambia researching culture and agriculture, and in the words of her short program bio, “her life scattered in various countries and professions, including education, agriculture, healthcare, paleontology and scientific research.”
Her bona fides include Harvard and Johns Hopkins universities.
Unlike most ranchers, who are born into the family gambit, Perez founded her own Ranch, the L&M, nineteen years ago. She told us with easy frankness and upbeat candor that she learned by doing, and that what she needed to know she could only learn by doing it wrong. She seated her hay barn in a watershed. Every Christmas, her gift to herself was to build a new fence. Cattle raising is a grueling and endless travail, but one she took to with gusto. She became an avid “grass farmer” through necessity, working through grass seeding to making hay.
Perez expressed respect for the motherhood of cows, the precious individuality of each calf. She advised the women audience, “Ladies, pick your bull carefully.” She grew her herd carefully, naming each animal, treating the individual lives in her purview as a personal responsibility no less serious for its joy. It’s important to know when to castrate a steer. There’s no sense in being humane in the abstract without seeing the job of animal husbandry well-done. When she was able, she arranged for the beef processing to take place at the ranch, to reduce stress on the animals she knew personally. She ensured their health, provided for their satisfaction, observed their natural inclinations, and oversaw their transition into death, a cattle Boddhisatva. She’s never make such a claim about herself, of course; she posits herself as a Texas girl who figured that it was in her set of regional responsibilities to ranch cattle, that’s all.
But in her absolute straightforwardness and unself-consciousness, her varied and longstanding habit of hard work, Perez exerted an effortless authority. To a crowd of design professionals and media natterers and social networkers on the go, she quieted us with something like genuine adulthood.
For three years, she supplied beef to the Pearl Farmer’s market and elsewhere.
Then, during the terrible drought of 2011, the wrenching crisis that struck the rest of Texas didn’t spare her. She spoke simply to an audience who sighed in commiseration, all of us having watched the 18-wheeled hay trucks speeding through this past summer, hearing the reports of suffering and dying animals, the donations of hay by farmers in the Midwest, the herds dwindling. It was a horror.
And Perez, after holding out as long as was feasible, finally had to sell her herd.
She made no maudlin show of saying it. She had to do it, and she did it. The audience gasped in sympathy. She sold her cattle carefully, to outfits which, like hers, valued the animals as more than mere commodities. She deflected all inference of self-pity; she’s a potter, too, who plans to buy a set of kilns for the barn and go into production of useful and beautiful objects. If the climate holds for a while, she might raise cattle again, but in any case, she feels change is not only inevitable, but desirable. And what else can you say?
It’s the first time in Pecha Kucha history that a presenter has gotten a standing ovation. It was different in intent and temperature than the standing ovation you experience in the theatre. It was immediate, organic, and spontaneous, a recognition of simple courage and compassion, a heartfelt butterfly explosion of respect.