As resolute event-pursuiters Palaver Media was privileged to be at – and ‘report on’ – a series of cool gatherings in 2013 including Webstock in Wellington in Feb 2013, & Storyology in Sydney six months later in August 2013.
The philosophy of our quid-pro-bono approach is that *Event Reportage* is about putting an event on the record, respecting its integrity and attaching some news value to it. It’s not about marketing per se, nor PR for PR’s sake.
Semi-Permanent, held in Wellington for just the second time on Friday 18 and Saturday 19 October 2013, presented another classic case of people magically assembling audiences together to hear from and engage with an eclectic top-notch cast of speakers.
Video capture, casual coverage and Storyfied twitterfeeds notwithstanding, the cornucopia of content we believe every event delivers, deserves some extra after-the-event wrapping; which is what this site is setting out to provide for a limited time. Before memories fade and move on.
In this instance, another motivation that spurred us on is that Semi-Permanent is a festival for celebrating not just the mastery of design as visual art, whatever the technology, medium or industry, but across ALL its remits and realms – including the crafting of text by wordsmiths and copy writers.
Set against other events we especially enjoyed the Semi-Permanent format. Twelve speakers paired into six sessions, three each day and with an hour between each session was excellently well paced. A darkened cinema is bound to have somewhat of a somnolent side-effect, but if so this was 200% offset by having access to each and every speakers’ considered clutch of time, sufficient to say what they meant to say.
Congratulations to Simon Velvin, Andrew Johnstone and all the Semi-Permanent directors associated with @semiglobal for staging it all and making it happen. And likewise to local whirlwinds like Anna Dean for keeping the wheels spinning.
For some concurrent coverage excised from Semi-Permanent and penned by Palaver Media associate Stephen Olsen see:
- Idealog 18 Oct; Semi-Permanent Chucks Up Creative Diversity
- Idealog 14 Oct; Peeking into the keyhole at Mistress Creative
- Architecture Now 14 Oct; Architecture to be at centre stage at Semi-Permanent
- Idealog 11 Oct; Semi-Permanent brings a touch of vaudeville to Wellington
Also…. highly recommended
Design Assembly’s debrief article on Semi-Permanent http://www.designassembly.org.nz/articles/the-semi-permanent-wellington-2013-debrief
Helen Baxter (@msbehaviour): http://storify.com/TheBigIdea/semi-permanent-wellington
BUT FIRST… Semi-Permanent 2014 – Take a bow Messrs Mombassa and Kratochvil
Two drily spoken sixty-somethings set people back at Semi-Permanent Wellington this week with a show-and-tell of what amounted to their respective oeuvres and raw aesthetics.
A whistlestop presentation from New Zealand born Australian legend Reg Mombassa, 63, opened the doors to his glittered gallery of colourfully surreal antipodean motifs – sourced from a lifelong devotion to the pursuit of painting.
For globe-traveling Czech-born photojournalist Antonin Kratochvil, 67, things were more real, more black and white, yet also with a painterly quality to his work of an equally eclectic and signature style.
For Mombassa, aka Chris O’Doherty, identification with his work was more or less immediate, a tribute to the well-worn fame of his designs for vernacular commercial brand Mambo – from t-shirts to posters and everything beyond.
Who else has combined the realms of public art and public music so extensively for so long?
Commenting that “it’s very good for a landscape painter to be in a band” (his being Mental As Anything to 2000 and currently Dog Trumpet) Reg has traveled on highways so much he calls himself a “connoisseur of roads”.
What he’s formed around our tenuous toehold on the land is a humongous body of work: from homages to houses and studied landscapes, to his more raucous carnival-like concoction of anthropomorphic renegades.
A man of few asides – “I have the technical skills of a five year old … this one was inspired by Brueghel … anything you can whack an image on is good” – Reg always has the lingo he’s invented within the wonderfully wrought captions he embeds with much of his work. A favourite from Semi-Permanent: the Australian Jesus sitting side-saddle on a motorbike to protect his trousers from engine oil.
The lexicon of images presented by Antonin Kratochvil also spoke largely for themselves and of a life lived on the extremities of road, facing both inhumanity and humanity.
The rapid-fire stories told by his lens at Semi-Permanent constituted a veritable A to Z of the last 40 years’ of global flashpoints and meltdowns up to the present.
A founder of the VII photo agency, Antonin’s bio describes his career as one in which he “has sunk his teeth into his fair share of upheaval and human catastrophes whilst going about his documentation of the time in which he lives”, set apart by a “consistency and struggle to carry on”.’
As tweeted by audience member Amy Potter the impact of viewing his photographs was by turns “captivating and harrowing”, while making another, Jo Bailey, “feel like I’ve been holding my breath”.
When Antonin did speak he offered either darkly sombre asides or whimsical reflections. Of a photo of the Rwanda genocide he noted an observation that “blood is a powerful narcotic”. On assignment taking photos around Chernobyl he jokingly contrasted offerings of radioactive apples and radioactive marijuana.
Antonin designated one photo as his version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, and throughout exhibited to fellow photographers the power of retaining shots that may be out of focus or blurred by motion or emotion. His takeaway message for photojournalists: “Understand your subject and have empathy”.
Reg Mombassa and Antonin Kratochvil: take a bow.
Semi-Permanent 2013 – part1
The 2013 Semi-Permanent Wellington (#SPWGTN) event took place on 18–19 October.
Semi-Permanent master of ceremonies, the inimitably down-to-earth Te Radar, opened this year’s touchdown in Wellington with the above photo projected on the glorious screen at the Embassy Theatre.
Taken in 1969 by Barry Durrant — a long-time photographer at Wellington’s Dominion newspaper — the photo depicts the exact moment in time when a detonation in the Manapouri power station’s tailrace tunnel caused a bigger blast-back than intended.
Te Radar characterised the photo as a quintessential NZ scenario, going so far as to suggest that as it was an obvious contender for the “greatest photo taken in New Zealand’s history”, it would be worthy of being on the walls of every inbound arrival hall.
Most of all it was a credit to Barry Durrant, Radar explained, for having the presence of mind (and discipline), to be pointing his camera not towards a ceremonial explosive charge, but towards the reaction it might cause — not knowing ahead of time that it would send a concussive shockwave down the tunnel.
Hats flying, each person’s expression could be read as a study in laconic Kiwi stoicism. The illustrative point was that but for Barry looking the other way it would have never been captured.
Radar: “What we are celebrating (here at Semi-Permanent) over the next two days is those people who look the other way, or off to one side”.
A sub-theme of looking back and backwards happened to surface and resurface throughout those two days.
It’s in that spirit Palaver Media has decided to reshuffle its first look back on this year’s Semi-Permanent Wellington (henceforth SPWGTN) into a dedicatedly reverse order, focusing on a replay of day two and with the luxury of a longish-form treatment.
PLEASE READ ON.
Memo Akten is a maestro of converting computing-enabled scientific and engineering R&D into situations of art, of motion and of music.
Listening to him at SPWGTN, you soon got the impression that standing before us was a lifelong prodigy – in the sense of his conviction from boyhood that if there was something he wanted “out there” that he couldn’t have he could make it, through to his restless inquisitiveness and questing for new instruments, new canvases and hidden universes beyond our everyday ken.
The first exhibit he presented of his pursuit of experimental ways to interactively conduct new instruments was a 2009 project called Body Paint, culminating in a Parisian gallery with two joined souls losing themselves to expressive dance. Witnessing what he had wrought, gave Memo pause to think that here was one of those rare occasions of being able to say: “My work here is done”.
One of the distinct underlying markers of Memo’s work is an unwavering commitment to open source. To not share the resulting repositories of his professional “tweaking” of numbers would to his mind be selfishly unsustainable and unethical, or, in a word, “retarded”.
With the skills he has at his fingertips Memo and collaborators are in demand to create and realise projects in formats other than a cinema screen.
This has resulted in recent commercial work such as Meet Your Creator, a stunning live theatrical performance that set in place moving head spotlights vis-a-vis sixteen flying robots each equipped with LEDs and motorized mirrors, for Saatchi & Saatchi (advertising), and the intuitive McLaren P1 Light Painting (cars) project, utilising long exposure photos. [Note the nod to Picasso above, which could just as easily have been a nod to Len Lye].
Putting large scale projects requiring concomitant expertise to one side, Memo then took the SPWGTN audience on a journey into the elastic reaches of infinite galaxies and almost genomic interiors; telescopes and microscopes.
The inescapable point Memo sought to make was that we humans have senses that are “pretty rubbish” at physically perceiving all of the information that exists within existing phenomenon. Without flying over peoples’ heads Memo extolled the simple rules in nature we look past and that can be extracted if we build tools to do so.
Referencing old narratives from the likes of science communicator Carl Sagan and theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, Memo talked about how exploring layers of sight and sound and behaviour add to the “excitement, mystery and awe” of our world.
It’s what repeatedly fascinates him about the simple harmonic motion of a pendulum, or that pushes him to create a prototype for a performance he wants to do with cloned images of himself.
Ultimately Memo told SPWGTN that he wants everyone to be a creator. And in that pursuit he spoke about looking back to one of his heroes of all time, Étienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904) – the famous French scientist, physiologist and chronophotographer – in telling the story of an evolving series of studies on human motion he and fellow visual artist Quayola have embarked on (Forms, 2012).
Thinking of Memo Akten – born in Istanbul, living in London and honeymooning in New Zealand – as an emerging Etienne-Jules Marey of the 21st century would not … by any stretch of the imagination … be far wide of the mark.
GAVIN MCLEOD / LEE GORDON
Back on brand planet earth, as we know it, the multidisciplinary relationship between science and art was also top of mind for R/GA’s Gavin McLeod – himself blown away by Memo Akten – and Lee Gordon.
A doyen of digital production, R/GA is testament to big shifts in business models and staying a step ahead of becoming commoditised itself in order to do what it strives to be best at.
What is that? In R/GA parlance it would be creating systematic preferences that people want to participate in. And share. Ideally it would be providing a framework where people can tell their own stories. A la the Nike+ Fuel Band or McCormick’s FlavorPrint, helping people understand what their “quantified self” is. Delivering an all-important utility (and the undeniable “binding effect” of data).
Now is not an age of information or an age of entertainment. That was then. This is now an age of participation “where everything is changed” and storytelling is now “transmedia”. Where the inter-relationship between articulating a big idea and delivering utility is all about being systematic – “otherwise people aren’t informed yet alone enabled”.
A takeaway message from Gavin was the observation that it is probably becoming more and more difficult to do disruptive story telling, simply because of the risk of becoming too interruptive. Actions vs Annoyance.
Instead the present / near future is seeing campaigns that increasingly focus on the power to leverage or subvert events (amping up State of Origin rugby league through a Sportsfan Lab for Telstra, or the Show Your Colours campaign for Beats by Dr. Dre). Further into the future perhaps with less clunky over-reliance on screen devices as we currently experience them.
Is branded content automatically king? Nah, that would be a fallacy in today’s terms. In differentiating products or services the message from R/GA at SPWGTN was that being obsessed with the new isn’t the answer either, if it means forgetting everything that’s been done before, including a recognition of both how far and how little advertising has progressed.
The sweet spot for R/GA is meeting consumers in the middle and in their daily lives, reaching them both with ‘Story’ and ‘System’. System to inform and enable consumers to play. Story that entertains, demonstrates utility and that gets them to hit play.
MATT ARNOLD & TIM KELLEHER
What’s not to love about graphic + web designers who are holding on to an aversion to expanding, alternative revenue streams, SEO and social marketing?
For Sons & Co founders Matt and Tim to say they have no plan, no idea where they’re going (other than “secretly sitting there hoping no one unplugs the internet”) wasn’t just schtick.
They had no top-out advice to offer. They’d read some books with sensible lines like ‘don’t eat the yellow snow’. They liked the attitude epitomised by luminaries like Bob Gill. If Bob Gill was ok with bumping along, so were they.
Their story so far? Setting up in Christchurch. Sticking with a dress sense “kinda like Helvetica”. Appreciating that words are a really important part of design. Really liking people who only do one thing. Being attracted to people like Murray Crane of Crane Brothers, Auckland. Or Bruce Murray of Boundary Breaks wine, The Finger Lakes.
End game? Striving towards being a little bit off centre, a little bit weird, a little bit odd, slightly unconventional, a little bit contrary. Fast. Cheap. Good. Why not all at once? Not being wasteful. Being mindful of momentum, and that a job is really only fun when it’s flying with momentum. That losing momentum “really starts to suck”. Saying yes to everything that doesn’t matter (with the bonus that when you say “no” it really does matter).
Process? “People want a fancier answer… (but) we just show up and start working”.
Without ramming it down any throats, these SPWGTN crowd favourites simply told it like it has been, and is, for them – ending with a declaration that, yes, web design may have its seriously uncool aspects and commit dreadful sins, but that it needn’t be so if your eye remains firmly fixed on good graphic design principles and practice. Amen to that!
In the remote company of his brothers-in-creativity, Benjamin Harrison Bryant (USA) and Karim Charlebois-Zariffa (Canada), Paul Fuog took SPWGTN with him on his personal odyssey from the “boring shit” of everyday Fitzroy, Melbourne to the “island of collisions” that is Bali, Indonesia.
The purpose of the odyssey was to make a complete break from conventional comfort zones and to carry out what the trio dubbed “Field Experiments“.
Paul’s presso wasn’t snaps of three designers on a 90-day holiday. The mantra was make-make-make. Reconnecting with how things are made. Slowing time to create a breathing space in which conversations didn’t have to be cut short. Learning about other people through design. Waking up each day under the same roof to start another day of making side by side with village-based communities dedicated to utilitarian crafts.
Freed from commercial pressures or briefs the loose framework and sequence that the three amigos followed = Observe, Play, Collaborate.
Observation, Paul said, was the catalyst for creation. Discovering new stimuli and new inspiration amidst wholly material surroundings, where necessity was the mother of adaptation, natural colliding with artificial, active with idle, preserved with degraded.
“Play was a means to learn and to use our hands and hone our skills … Stacking things, unstacking things, restacking things. We did daily experiments around a hanging question of What If? What if we put disposable items in rattan, or wrapped beach inflatables in rubber … or adorned masks with contemporary colours and patterns”.
Collaboration enabled Paul, Ben and Karim to arrive at considered forms. Local craftspersons were embedded as partners in design. Each and every one equally taken somewhere outside of their own ingrained lifestyle.
A stone carver exhibiting phenomenal accuracy; a wood carver whose young son was already engaged in the same craft; a kite maker set to making kites with recycled bags from NYC (when not taking part in serious kite flying competitions with other “bad ass” kite makers); batik makers and a realist painter who had sent himself to art school and who Paul misses the most (pictured above with Paul’s daughter Frances).
At the end some 50 projects were worked on together, creating a diverse range of purposively repurposed “experimental souvenirs” infused by place, time and story. A charity is seeing money from activities like an exhibition and publication put back into waste recovery, setting a replicable example of responsibility.
It could occur next in similar fashion somewhere in South America. Where probably isn’t the point. The point for Paul was this: “For me right now I can’t think of a better way to use design”.
Tamara Dean also offered SPWGTN a change of pace and another personal journey, over a lifetime.
In a care-filled portfolio of photography Tamara began by recollecting a scene in an abandoned citta in Italy, coupled with this great sentence: “I was making my way around Europe fire twirling at the time”.
This was a segue to highlighting the impact of her motley band of friends on the style that emerged in her photography. People on the edges.
In her subsequent career she has practised both photo-journalism and photo-documentary, jumping from newspapers to gallery walls. The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) provided a hotbed of learning, where Tamara gained skills that “did not at all come naturally as well as to hone the skills that did”.
Of these acquired skills the most challenging was directing. Walking into a situation and being asked by the person about to become the subject of a photo this question: “What do you want me to do?”. Getting to grips with this discipline of setting up shots made sense to Tamara when she saw it was something akin to portraiture.
As related at SPWGTN her most incredible assignment for the SMH – one that would be very rare and complicated now by current requirements to also be a videographer – was a six-week assignment in Bali timed around the ongoing aftermath of the Bali bombings of 2002.
Balanced with her work in the media , where heartfelt images could be edited within an inch of their life, was a parallel membership of the Australian photography collective Oculi. Tamara described the process of putting up new work to be judged as addictive. Indeed her frequent entreaty at SPWGTN was to commend the fundamental worth of being part of a collective to anyone in a creative field, adding “if you can’t find a forum or sense of community create one”.
SPWGTN heard how Tamara’s body of work has transitioned and how becoming a mother in 2005 turned her technique on its head. She recounted how early motherhood was both a shock and a difficulty, prompting her to de-romanticise motherhood and its encumbent loss of identity.
She shifted to “diarising shoots” and into conceptual work that calls on months of planning ahead of tiny windows of actual photography. This taught Tamara a different type of patience, one determined in different circumstances by weather, in others by access to sites within a certain radius, yet all still based on the basics of respect for your subjects, lighting conditions, and a good eye, and with process signifying as much as the outcomes.
The pace she follows now is set by galleries and residencies and photographic series with core themes of our relationship to nature (without having to travel the world), and titles such as Ritualism, This too Shall Pass, Only Human. It’s a path influenced by Mary Ellen Mark, Sally Mann and Carol Jerrems (an Australian photographer, 1949–1980, known for documenting the counter-culture spirit of Melbourne in the 1970s).
At the same time Tamara has embraced Instagram, and her stated lack of snobbery about photography also meant she was happy that any photos she might leave Wellington with would be those taken on her phone.
Tamara rounded off her eminently curated presentation – often commenting on the relevance of gender and culture – with her most recent series, The Edge, a reflection on the absence of structured rites of passage through instigating moments such as the image (see above, left) of young adults poised on the edge of ‘jumping off’ as photographed in the “optimal light” 15 minutes after the sun has set.
Semi-Permanent 2013 – part2
“In order to save the human-race,
we need to become better story-people”
Tall orders don’t come any bigger than an invocation to “save the human-race”, as weaved into Matt Checkowski’s presentation on the end of the first day of Semi-Permanent in Wellington (SPWGTN) – and such invocations, for obvious reasons, shouldn’t be taken lightly.
One of the natural risks with design-centred speaking events however, is that they can easily turn, no malice intended, into a parade of portfolio-munching slides.
The first instalment of this event reportage, played off an undercurrent of looking back; this second instalment mixes it up some more and dwells momentarily on the points where vocation meets story telling, leading to a pertinent question we should all keep asking from the back seat: Are we story-people yet?
Los Angeles contrasts:
MATT & SCOTT
While Matt Checkowski (The Department of the Fourth Dimension) and Scott Harris (Mistress Creative) may not be California natives (Matt’s originally from Massachusetts and Scott’s a Sydney-born Australian) they both brought a big dose of a vibrant LA vibe with them to Semi-Permanent.
Working out of studios in downtown Industrial Street and coast-side Venice Beach respectively, they also presented a number of reasonably stark contrasts in their commercial endeavours: the boutique contrasting with the entertainingly bombastic; subtle and elegant framing, contrasting with shameless in-your-face advertising with a twist.
Like any city, LA begins with the sum of its parts and they’re constantly overlapping.
In Matt’s case this was manifested in his gravitating from design to working on feature film sets, and although disavowing the tag ‘Movie Director’ he had a turn at the helm of a 2006 flick starring Steve Coogan (Lies & Alibis, a timely tale of infidelities).
Having subsequently carved out a niche in short-form documentary format films and experience design, Matt confessed to a long struggle with the buzzword phrase ‘story-telling’.
“When I went into film making I was tossed into a world where design and story had to co-exist. I adamantly believed I was a designer, as a calling. It was about ideas for fuck’s sake. The word ‘story’ felt like dressing up, it felt like a scam”.
Gradually he ‘started over’ in his thinking. “I had to figure out what this word was all about it. I didn’t know how to wrap my head, or my heart, around it. (Then I considered all the) weird ways for people to plug into stories that we can’t predict”.
By way of illustration Matt took SPWGTN on a piece of backwards time travel: Charlie Chaplin; the first heliographs; the birth of opera (when audiences were rowdy not poncy); the Greco-Roman epoch; way, way back to cave paintings.
Matt posed a genesis scenario for story-telling as a key part of human evolution and survival. Adopting good Californian vernacular it went something like this: “Dude gets bored, dude goes on an adventure over the hill, dude survives and returns to tell his tribe what he saw… perhaps even to warn them there’s a nearby sabre tooth tiger ready to eat them all”.
Considering all this Matt said he had largely overcome his wariness of lazy over-use of the phrase story-telling and had become more intent, personally and professionally, on encouraging people to protect the heritage of story-telling and to become ‘story-people’ through three ingredients.
Quoting a famous Stanley Kubrick line that “the emotions of people are far more similar than their intellects .. the common bond is their subconscious emotional reaction” for provenance, the first ingredient is to accept that stories are a flight simulator for life.
Next up is a belief that craft empowers storytelling (demonstrated via Matt’s work with passionate baristas, butchers and brewers), followed by the third ingredient: New experiences make new stories (a platform for showing an olfactory-bending D4D project known as the Sephora Sensorium).
Matt: “The core of it all is that story-telling builds culture. and shapes conversations. There’s a unique opportunity for designers to seek out creative new ways to find stories and to uncover environments where people are comfortable being themselves”. And the final gist is to leave room for “people to plug their own stories into the stories”.
Scott Harris, 43, has been in the advertising game since he was a teenager. After scaling up from BMF to Ogilvy New York and then Mother London, you get the sense that making the move to found award-winning small agency Mistress, along with creative ally Damian Eley and three other partners, is all at one with a desire to be in the driver’s seat towards making everything larger than life.
Scott’s preferred modus operandi is fuelled by doing whatever he can to avoid “brand zombies” – so-called brand icons such as the Michelin man (tyres), Mr Clean or the Green Giant (peas).
Here’s his guide on how to spot a brand zombie:
1. Kind of alive – but not really.
2. Don’t exist in the real world.
3. Don’t talk to you – they just talk.
4. Don’t listen to you.
Scott hadn’t realised till recently that he’s created a lot of characters over the years. And the difference between characters and brand zombies?
1. Characters are real.
2. People care about them.
3. They live and interact in culture.
The spiel is that once you have a great character they can talk to people, and people can talk to them.
Cue Pablo the Drug Mule Dog (a character with its own Wikipedia page). The (former) British Government wanted to turn people on the fringe of having a cocaine problem – a demographic called contemplators and dabblers – away from and off cocaine. Having a taxidermic version of a dog killed in transporting the drug was a different type of hook. It took on a life of its own in tackling an issue with such a dark side.
As did two talking nostrils used to drive home the message of cocaine’s effects (said one nostril to the other: “Man I wish I was one of the other orifices…”). As did the renaming of an advice line to talktofrank.com And meanwhile Pablo kept on occupying a life of his own, playing out video chats and interviews with a cop, a parent, a toxicologist, a custom official, an ER doctor… even the Columbian Minister for the Environment.
Then there was the story of taking “a bit of a nothing product” (Pot Noodles) and adding two male slacker characters to the mix. So successfully it all ended up in a ground-breaking musical comedy at the Edinburgh Festival in 2008. All because Scott and Damian didn’t run away from a supposedly limited proposition, but embraced it for what it was, crossing various borders with lines like “I wish that girls were more like Pot Noodle”, and “Pot Noodle … more fun than throwing a poodle”.
As Scott said you’d be surprised just what will result if your character is well-enough liked and lives on, and on, and on. Enter two more corroborations of that truth: the Cactus Kid (also with a Wikipedia page, this one carrying an accusation the subject is being promoted in a subjective manner; lol) and Rubber Duckzilla, both used to float the message that people who don’t like drinking water have options.
To borrow a saying, the back story Mistress created to propel toymaker Mattel and its Hot Wheels property back into popular consciousness makes these characters seem like small beer.
Production involved constructing a life-size Hot Wheels facility, with everything riding off the interest shown in the super-sized incarnation. When you’re setting about breaking authentic world records (a Double Dare Loop at X Games Los Angeles) the trifle of “buying eye balls” takes care of itself, minus the media spend.
But wait there’s more… Hot off the press Scott announced at SPWGTN that the whole approach is now on its way to being made into a major movie. This could be seen as an out-of-the-park home-run for product placement, or more generously a continuation of successful audience-based stories taking on a successful life of their own.
Matt and Scott doubtless measure their successes differently.
Scott described his mantra as hitting a truth, adding “as much as people like to think advertising is based on smoke and mirrors and lies, I prefer truth”. Truth as a proxy for ‘keeping things real’, however unreal the scale of fictional story telling.
For his part, Matt’s finely tuned higher-end branded content is produced in a completely different capacity almost akin to creative non-fiction.
These guys aren’t in direct competition. What they both represented at SPWGTN were two directions from the crucible of LA that will yet again influence how we take part in consuming information and entertainment. The choices are ours.
Getting away with it:
JONATHAN & FARZIN
With Jonathan Kneebone of The Glue Society and Farzin Lotfi-Jam, director of his own architectural fête at the eponymous farzinfarzin.com , SPWGTN gained access to two roving minds that couldn’t be put in a box.
Jonathan is an absolute exemplar of the triumph of free-wheeling, free-spirited creative talent; blessedly so.
After finishing a degree in electronic engineering that he owns he was really badly suited for, Jonathan plucked advertising from the dictionary of qualifications starting with the letter A. He then had the good fortune to study at the feet of John Gillard at the School of Communication Arts in London.
At SPWGTN he fondly recalled one of his first jobs, an auspicious brief to make people interested in using the postal service of the Royal Mail – “something that would be an impossible brief now!” The work this inspired was a series of postcards in the late 80s that Jonathan commented “are almost so ‘out’, they’re ‘in'”.
Fast forwarding through the 90s he highlighted a novel campaign for selling cars in the days of VHS recorders, and, on arriving in Australia as a pale Englishman, a controversial campaign for UV sunscreen – so controversial it was pulled off the airwaves (the ironic lines were “Mother Nature must be Black. For Whites who want Equality” – out there on Youtube here).
By 1998 he, along with colleague Gary Freedman, was ready to attempt to put Idea and Execution ahead of the advertising agency model. The first piece of work was naming the venture, with some “terrible names” (Cancer, The Blood Committee) fortuitously avoided.
There were early concerns as to whether anyone would use an independent creative collective committed to project work, but these were soon allayed when Virgin Mobile happily hopped on board for a round of viral marketing that stamped their “reason to exist” on the market.
Next followed a phase of being highly sought-after guns for hire in directing projects around the world, from Iceland to Argentina. Enter characters like Esteban Ortega, The Dip Desperado.
This was strong story-telling, but also from Jonathan’s point of view added a confusing set of strings to the bow of The Glue Society. Which is the point at which he shared a bit of angst at SPWGTN about the work that The Glue Society had to do “in defining ourselves”.
“In terms of Art v Commerce there’s a view that you’re either one thing or the other. We thought maybe we can blend these two things together and get away with it”.
First there was the advertising for an Australian television satirical comedy series – The Chaser’s War On Everything – leveraging the cheapest billboards in the world (such low-traffic advertising non-spots as found in Estonia and India).
Now there is Watch With Mother – The Glue Society’s very own app-enabled experimental “sketch horror show”, a non-gaming, non-animation way to have audiences freaking out to the point of figuratively pissing or crapping their pants.
Where Jonathan himself identified a defining strand it is probably that The Glue Society consistently applies “principles of slightly disorienting people”, in the cause of prodding people to react and respond in ways they haven’t done before.
Given this restless mission, it was fitting that Jonathan had to depart SPWGTN early to wing his way to the Adelaide Festival of Ideas (17-20 October). He was there both to speak and also to oversee progress on an educative public awareness project destined to provoke much-needed debate about food waste.
Titled “More Than Ten Items or Less” it featuring a fruit shop in the middle of Adelaide where all of the produce was being left to rot within plain sight for more than ten days.
Jonathan’s patent glee at the prospect of seeing just how rotten the fruit had become was a testament to the enthusiasm he places on being an ‘agent provocateur’.
Farzin Lotfi-Jam (29) conveyed equal enthusiasm in a completely different field of activity – architecture.
Unlike many other SPWGTN speakers Farzin’s portfolio in the realms of academia and practice possessed more of a slow-burner aspect to it, being more theoretical and less filmic.
Farzin’s biggest challenge stems from wanting to argue for a “fuzzy architecture – one that embraces the complexities of a complex world”.
Set against this challenge is the fact that “architecture is notoriously slow and has a tendency to reinforce the status quo”.
His own touchstone for grappling with indeterminate design strategies remains his alma mater, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). Indeed much of his talk was in tribute to the mainstays of RMIT, particularly Peter Corrigan for “refuting the international style and challenging (Australia’s) cultural cringe”, as well as to the studio spaces formed by his formative peer group (see also Architecture Now).
Heads were nodding around SPWGTN as Farzin talked about being suspicious of traditional practice environments that often mitigate against creating spaces that meet the “need for autonomy and mutual exchange”.
Emerging from RMIT, Farzin has had a frenetic globe-trotting career, is currently residing as the Sanders Fellow at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning near Detroit, and is continually refining his methodologies around a framework of Collecting, Sorting, Plotting.
A fan of counter-disciplinary history and techniques removed from conventional architecture, he presented several examples where to the naked eye building facades were reskinned with hazy thresholds, facades pushed into buidlings and fractal tiling patterns allowed full expression.
In a built environment designed by Farzin and collaborators we could expect to see instant high-rises and permanent pavilion armatures at special venues such as the Venice Biennale to be resurfaced as a cyclical feature of the event.
A competition entry winner for a public space surrounding the venue for the world cycling championships in the Columbian city of Medellin is a likely precursor of more radical designs to come, designs that strive for the most efficient structures with as little volume as possible and that will tend to mimic nature.
The denouement to Farzin’s presentation was a graphic lesson in bringing new logic to reassembling the disassembled spectacle that is the Parthenon, perhaps the world’s most iconic structure yet one that is “totally exhausted in its current use”. By adding metadata and other computational variables Farzin showed how the Parthenon could be lifted from its time-locked pedestal into multiple narratives.
This was a presentation punctuated by ‘selfies’ that Farzin has snapped or been tagged in over the last decade. In part his reason for injecting these unguarded and party-mode snapshots was to “destablise” his own presentation.
In a further reflective mood Farzin noted that he has yet to get hitched, yet to become a dad, and as an architect, yet to build things.
His motivations are in big, fuzzy, unanswered (sometimes unanswerable) questions. “By what criteria do you assess or judge what you’re doing? When you make something ‘new’, how do you know it’s new? Does it respond to something bigger?”
Then, surprisingly – because Semi-Permanent is all about surprises – Farzin took consolation from an article that appeared in 1992 in Sports Illustrated.
It’s an article about a running coach named Tom Tellez. It’s titled “The Art of the Sprint” and is still available to read in the archives of the Los Angeles Times.
At one juncture the story focuses on a 28-year-old sprinter by the name of Mark Witherspoon. Mark has had it drilled into him that running relaxed is the ticket. After the coach’s repeated insistence to “Slow down! Slow down, and you’ll go faster,” he adopts the mantra of “Don’t get quick. Slow down.”
As well as an element of zen, there is a scientific breakdown that must appeal to Farzin and his own speed dial for how best to hit “peak velocity” and still cross the line at your personal best.
Thanks for sharing this with us Farzin:
1: React to the gun (1%)
2: Clear the blocks (5%)
3: Accelerate to peak velocity (64%)
4: Maintain peak velocity (18%)
5: Decelerate (12%)
Are we story-people yet?
Day one of Semi-Permanent Wellington (SPWGTN) was bracketed with a brace of design talent in the forms of creative director Michaela Webb of Round Studio, Melbourne, and, at the very beginning, Gemma O’Brien – also known in the persona of typography obsessive Mrs Eaves – of Sydney, PLUS the Designworks trio of Michael Crampin, Noel Blackwell, Jef Wong.
Michaela Webb, as well as partner in life Robert Nudds (in the SPWGTN front row with their 4-year old daughter Eva), could be described as one of the ones who ‘got away’.
Both are expat New Zealanders making a success in their adopted country, as per that vital phenomenon sometimes known as the ‘kiwi diaspora’ so closely monitored and mirrored by initiatives like Brian Sweeney’s enduring project NZEDGE.COM
Round Studio’s impression on Melbourne alone saw Michaela named as one of the city’s top 100 influential people in Melbourne Magazine two years ago, as noted in the official SPWGTN programme. What this could only fail to even allude to was Michaela’s opening prelude – her love affair with her childhood in Tokoroa.
Born in South Africa to English parents, she called Tokoroa home from age 6 and shared what may well have been one of the most captivating reels put up on the towering Embassy screen at SPWGTN – a sample of theatrically staged old film footage from the ‘suitcase’ of her family upbringing, a home movie as produced and directed by her talented dad. This was a wonderful moment, transporting a well-preserved episode of backyard comedy into the Embassy, which, if it had been in scratchy black and white would have resonated as a piece of classic silent movie magic.
In an ode to Tokoroa, Michaela celebrated the emboldening layers of the forestry engulfed township – set apart by the dominating physical presence of the Kinleith pulp and paper mill and characterised by the immersive influence of Polynesian classmates and teachers.
Having just touched on this part of the world Michaela then leapfrogged straight into a sampling of her aspirational design career, supercharged by the experience of working on some of the world’s biggest brands while at renowned brand agency Wolff Olins, where she worked on drawing out a bolder identity for the Tate as a nexus of world-leading gallery venues. The brief was to democratise the Tate, without “dumbing it down” and her work on this gave Michaela a lasting appreciation of the strength of an aligned strategy.
Following this, she moved to smaller agency Spin in London where she shared responsibility for developing creative ideas and strategies for a wide variety of fashion, cultural and corporate clients. Her work there featured designing a “reductive presence” for the then dealer gallery Haunch of Venison.
Within the decade since establishing ideas-driven Round Studio in Melbourne’s Flinders Lane, Michaela and Rob have assembled a 12 strong team and maintained a strong emphasis on the design of public / private venues people are drawn to inhabit: museum and art galleries, restaurants, retail spaces, workplaces, hotels, homes and cities.
For SPWGTN Michaela provided insights into three specific case studies and projects, one in Tasmania and two in Canberra.
The Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery typified the role of designers in mediating practical solutions (“I love doing signage”) and getting alongside the people who experience venues from the inside-out and outside-in.
Michaela’s Canberra imprints both keyed into a synergy with architecture and property and hospitality, both located within the Molonglo Group’s impressive NewActon / Nishi development near the shoreline of Lake Burley Griffin.
The first was designing a retail tenancy pack for a mixed-use building and apartment complex. Sounds prosaic yet the approach was to highlight financial and social benefits through the use of specially sculpted timber pieces deployed as infographics, and a host of other collected materials.
Round Studio’s design input to the soon-to-open Hotel Hotel within Nishi’s ‘vertical village’ was informed by the idea of beg / borrow / steal as a rationale for re-utilising and re-purposing disused or excess local materials and from hotels around the world – described on the Hotel Hotel blog (yes, it has a blog even before the hotel has opened) thus: “It’s a bold, bold idea. And the execution is difficult”.
Michaela: “Our approach was why add something new when there’s a plethora of material already in existence.. to arrive at a patchwork of personality, not over-branding”.
The execution has surfaced in multivariant forms e.g. notepads, pencils, and expressive sources such as playful hotel-centric pull-quotes from people like American writer and humorist Fran Lebowitz (“Los Angeles is a large city-like area surrounding the Beverly Hills Hotel”) … all in accordance with a design recipe of 10 guiding touchpoints:
- The sensorial
- Humour and fun
- The importance of makers
- Diversity & tolerance
- Open source
Last but not least Michaela grounded her SPWGTN talk in a quick unpacking of two words central to her design practice: Humanity and Culture.
It’s a given that any brief that touches on branding will cover off questions like who are you? who needs to know? who cares? The bigger challenge posited by Michaela is the one of getting clients to see beyond the answers to those questions, and to inject intuition-based design-led thinking that enables them to “see ahead”.
In their turn on the dance card at SPWGTN, Designworks trio Michael Crampin, Noel Blackwell and Jef Wong temporarily transplanted themselves from Auckland to Wellington to impart the ethos behind NZ’s “everything”, if not yet everywhere, design house (Auckland, Melbourne, Sydney, Wellington, Christchurch).
A compacted 30 year history of clients spanning land, sea, sky was presented along with a run-through of the personalised business cards used to humanise Designworks. (As an aside this year Designworks is taking part in the 100 Days Project, pitched as ‘Telling the DW Story‘ and about which Zoe Nash of Design Assembly has written an accessible overview).
In terms of exemplars from Designworks, the unusual combo of Chocolate and Merino meat was dished up in support of the notion of design’s ability to amplify.
Artisan chocolate making – as practised by the Mast Brothers – was proffered as an illustration of amplifying connection and leveraging mythology. And branding work for Silere Alpine Origin Merino was illustrative of “amplifying sensations”.
A common factor underlined during this section of the presentation was the importance of research as applied at Designworks – “researching with the end in mind … researching for inspiration not fact”.
Also on the Designworks menu was their work with Shona McCullagh – “a kindred spirit” – of the New Zealand Dance Company. And to illustrate that no-one should be averse to making fools of themselves, the Designworks’ principals closed out with a video showing them taking a turn on the dance floor themselves, neatly described by Michael as “elegant mincing”.
Which now brings this furtive running record of SPWGTN to what, in a grab from the lyrics of Do-Re-Mi, is a matter of ending “at the very beginning” – with typography wunderkind Gemma O’Brien.
Gemma is a very good place to end as an inspiration for young designers to live the(ir) dream, precociously as possible but unpretentiously.
Now living and working in an attic, blissfully addicted to typography and with a jet-packed CV that happens to include art direction for motion graphics, film, televison and 3D, Gemma’s entry to design all started after a decision to drop out of Law School in her home state of Queensland to embark on new studies in Sydney.
As Gemma told it the fateful obsession she developed for eating and breathing fonts was simply unavoidable. As a sign of being happily resigned to her obsession she even has an alter-ego, Mrs Eaves, after Sarah Eaves, the mistress then wife of 18th century printer and type designer John Baskerville – a moniker which has also given rise to variations like Mrs Heaves (sic).
Finding herself in the thick of a rising tide of “typography nerds uniting”, Gemma’s own rise has something of a fairy tale quality to it. This stems from the attention she garnered by her “Write here, right now” Youtube clip made in 2008 (8 hours of writing, 5 permanent markers, 3 baths and 2 showers to clean it off) which helped to make her semi-global and was a springboard to appearing at TYPO Berlin 2009, with the invitation initiated on Facebook. One of her career highlights since, also shown at SPWGTN, is her commercial work for the Taronga Conservation Society – viewable on The Loop.
Most recently Gemma has also branched into exhibiting her artistry in her first solo show at a gallery – “Better Left Unsaid” at the Fremantle Art Gallery. As the exhibition blurb states there is a sense in which the handwritten word is becoming increasingly sparse in the digital age. In that sense “the craft of lettering is deviating away from the traditional context of graphic design and into an art form in itself”. [Ed: See also Gemma’s Instagram page at mrseaves101]
There is an awareness on Gemma’s part that to a degree authenticity has become a “commodity”. A resurgence in design of things that are inky or chalky is at the borderline between crafted authenticity and achieving authenticity by craft. While some jobs will involve vectors that never leave the computer, her own preference is to resolve designs firstly by hand.
Gemma has a deeper awareness too that there are many important questions for designers like herself to explore. Questions about writing and why we still write. Do we write to remember or write to forget?
Things that live on long after the creator are important. Writing and memory and wordplay are important. Because after all said and done, as Gemma says “the written word and language is what makes us human”.
Which in a circular way brings this write-up back to ‘Do Re Mi’:
Do Re Mi Fa So and so on
Are only the tools we use to build a song …
When you know the notes to sing
You can sing most anything
A good note to end on for the 2013 edition of Semi-Permanent Wellington. Roll on 2014!
These are a few snaps not featured for other SPWGTN reportage in 2013.
Farzin Lotfi-Jam ^
MC Te Radar at Semi-Permanent Wellington ^
An interview with Gemma O’Brien ^
Postcard designs from the scrapbook of Jonathan Kneebone
Sublime photography by Tamara Dean ^
Paul Marcus Fuog ^
A kite made in Bali with recycled NYC bags (“Field Experiments”) ^
Sons & Co ^
Memo Akten ^