marcus westbury

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How to fail and why it’s important (Deakin University occasional address)

April 24th, 2013 by marcus

Deakin Photo Small


I was asked to give a commencement address at Deakin University today. For various reasons (mainly because i’ve never actually finished Uni myself) it felt like kind of a big deal to me. What follows below is my notes of more or less what i said. I kind of winged it in person…

Deputy Chancellor Meehan, Vice‐Chancellor, Professor Jane den Hollander; academic staff, distinguished guests, graduates, family and friends.

I am not sure why I was invited to be here. Let’s just say there are probably a fair few people far more famous and qualified than me who are otherwise engaged today.

I am sure that at least 80% of you don’t have any idea who I am. So a quick introduction. My name is Marcus. I’m 39 years old. I grew up in Newcastle – a place quite a lot like Geelong I reckon. I live in Melbourne. I have a beautiful wife and an adorable two and half year old son.

Over the course of the last decade I have done everything from run a few major-ish festivals, had a weekly column in a major newspaper for a bit, the ABC gave me a chance to write and present my own TV series. I even got to go to The Logies once.

A few years ago I accidentally started Renew Newcastle, a low budget cultural and creative project that borrows empty buildings and lends them to artists in my home town of Newcastle. It has become a model that has been picked up, adapted, and emulated in cities across Australia and around the world.

I feel lucky now. My life gives me the opportunity to travel. My work seems to have mostly earned the respect of colleagues and communities whose respect I personally value. I am, for the most part, a man who is I content in who I am and who enjoys what I do.

The interesting part is that I got here. I only got to anything like contentment through a process of almost continual failure.

Unlike those of you I am privileged to address today, I have never actually graduated from university. The only thing I feel qualified to talk to about today is failure.

Newcastle in the 1980s and 1990s was itself failing. Unemployment in my age group was more than 40%.

My own father’s business failed, and ultimately through no fault of their own my parents’ expectations for their own lives failed. They didn’t expect it and didnt handle it well. By the time that I was in my early 20s both my parents had killed themselves needlessly and way too young.

As you can imagine it had a profound effect on me.

At the time that I was attempting to study at university. On the upside I had a great time, it kept me distracted engaged and amused and I somehow managed to get sidetracked in every project and every initiative that wasn’t my study from the student paper and student politics to the uni bar. On the downside I was kicked out of my university degree.

I spent about three years unemployed.

It is customary for people at events like this to tell you how they never stopped pursuing their dream. How they had a vision and never let go of it. I didn’t. I actually stopped a lot. I gave up a lot. I went backwards quite a few times. And, truth be told, there never has actually been a big overarching vision. I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.

Yet somewhere, in the story of why I failed university there is a hint to how i ended up being good at something else. I responded to adversity not always by doing the best, or the right thing, but mostly by doing something.

In those years of unemployment my friends and I experimented in all manner of things. We took on spaces we couldn’t afford to try projects we hadn’t defined, and chase visions we hadn’t particularly thought through. I put on gigs and ultimately started festivals. We didn’t get grants — we didn’t know they existed — we mostly just got our mates and their mates to do stuff, joined it up and called it a festival.

Many of those early projects were terrible. They failed. Many of the gigs lost money. My idea for a small bar failed spectacularly. My events got shut down by over zealous authorities. I made many mistakes costly in coin and reputation.

But every time I stuffed something up I learnt something and became better at it.

Eventually, I made every mistake at everything I wanted to try my hand at and, as a result, I started to become good at it. I became uniquely and particualry good at some things because i was the only one stupid and persistent enough to keep doing them.

Understanding my own mistakes evolved into an understanding of the mistakes and the assumptions of the system i was operating in. Learning why I was failing taught me why others might be failing too. Renew Newcastle, which has now opened more than 100 creative projects in more than 50 empty buildings in that city, at its core is an exercise in removing the very same barriers that I have tripped over myself countless times. I have built on my own mistakes so that others can do what they want to try. Ironically, the main reason I started it was a failed idea for a TV show that never actually happened.

There is a Silicon Valley venture capital cliche that entrepreneurs should “Fail fast, fail cheap, and fail often.” Nothing quite so pithy was ever in my mind in Newcastle in 1995 but failing cheap and often has been one of the few constants in my life.

What are your horizons from today? Who knows? I could not have forseen where I ended up and I actually still have no idea where I’m going.

The only useful observation i can make is that it is not only possible but inevitable, that in order to do most things worth doing you will fail and flail along the way. It is ok. It is important.

The advice from me today is not so much to fail but dont be afraid to fail.

As as you do remember the golden rules of making mistakes: Own them and learn from them; Have another go; and, most importantly. NEVER REPEAT YOUR MISTAKES.

Congratulations to you all on achieving something I haven’t. I wish you well and I hope you find contentment and success.

I hope there is something useful that you can take away my words from today. If not, I’m certain I will be better at it next time.

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Four years on: Renew Newcastle’s video pitch to property owners

January 7th, 2013 by marcus

I’m really posting this here mainly because i just realised that i never have. This video is a pitch from Renew Newcastle to local property owners that was released a few months ago. It does a great job of capturing the energy and vitality of what we’ve been doing there. On current count we are up to more than ninety projects launched in what were more than fifty otherwise empty properties in Newcastle in what will be four years next month. That’s 50 buildings in Newcastle no longer empty as the direct result of our actions.

As we edged towards our hundredth project and think about how to celebrate it, I just read this post from the weekend in 2009 when our first projects were moving into their first buildings again and shed a little tear. The Newcastle Herald recently caught up with some of those 2009 alumni as well.

As always, you can get in touch with me or Renew Australia if you are keen to try something similar in your own communities.

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Help! Looking for inspiring examples of #MakerPlaces

December 30th, 2012 by marcus

 Studio Melt — A Renew Newcastle project

Help! I’m looking for interesting examples of Maker Places from around the world.

Over the last few months, i’ve been doing some extensive research and note taking for a book that explores the idea of what i’m calling Maker Places. The book builds on the work of Renew Newcastle, Renew Adelaide and Renew Australia and is about one particular aspect of that work: how a surge of DIY, small scale, maker based creativity online is reflected (or fails to be) in the real world.

A lot of what Renew Newcastle’s projects have been about is getting digital cottage industries, Etsy stores, Flickr photographers and other digitally connected creative types into real world spaces. As noticed in this recent TEDx talk it’s something I’ve noticed that most cities and places don’t do very well and (as I believe Renew Newcastle has demonstrated)  it is something that offers a great deal of untapped potential for bringing real business, economic development and cultural vitality to real world communities.

At this stage i’m working up a book that weaves together real world stories and examples from around the world of how makers have made the transition from the online world to the offline one. I’m interested particularly in examples of where makers have grown their online businesses into successful real world ones, where this new layer of activity has made a real difference and also stories of places where the cost, complexity or other difficulties of accessing spaces have made it too difficult for makers to bother with.

Over the next few months, all going to plan, i will be trying to gain the interest of a few publishers in Australian and around the world. I may well be trying to hit up the community to help crowd fund the project and trying to apply for a few fellowships and grants to travel and visit some of the more interesting examples i’d like to feature in the book. For now though, i’d really welcome people to contact me from all over the world with any leads, stories or examples of interesting makers, projects and places that it would be ideal to incorporate in the book or include in my own general research.

You can drop me a line via email ( via Facebook or via @unsungsongs or using the #makerplaces hashtag on twitter. Thanks for your help.

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Iterative cities … or why the activity is more important than the act…

December 5th, 2012 by marcus

Of late much my work has been with cities, towns and communities independently and latterly through Renew Australia. A lot of it involves taking the lessons learnt through Renew Newcastle and attempting to apply them in other communities and contexts. It also involves a lot of training up, talking to, working with and simply observing other places as they attempt to do similar things – sometimes very successfully and often less so.

In watching this and participating in these dialogues there are a lot of terms that get used to describe the project or applied to the process we’ve been doing that sit a little bit uncomfortably with me. More often than not it is not that they are wrong so much as that they capture something less important and miss the bigger point.

For example, the term “pop-up” gets used quite a bit but I’ve never been comfortable with it. The short-term thinking that it seems to imply and the association with stores as a pure marketing exercise for larger or bigger brands are not really the right angle. There is an implication inherent in there somewhere that the purpose is to come and go whereas in my mind the purpose is to come and discover what might endure. Temporariness is a tool or a feature and not, in itself, an outcome.

The term “tactical” urbanism also gets used quite a bit but again it sits a little uncomfortably. To me it implies a sense of a guerrilla action in service of a larger agenda – as protest, as theatre or as illustrative example. I’m all for it but again it is not exactly what Renew Newcastle is attempting to do. Closing a road to turn it into a park for a day or stealthily turning a wasteland into a garden greatly appeal to me but at the core it misses something quite essential about the logic of Renew.

Finally, a lot of what we have been doing is broadly captured under the term “DIY urbanism” which sits less uncomfortably — after all the logic of reducing the city to a level where you can influence it with your own sweat and imagination is critical to what we have been doing — however the low-budget nature is, in the larger sense, a tool. Ideally it is also the whole of the community (or at least a broad cross section of it) that are involved and not merely an individual or a small group.

The best way to explain the difference in thinking is to put forward the idea that the driving logic of Renew is the activity and not the act. It is not merely to showcase ideas about what might be possible in order to influence some future trajectory or to create something that might come and go fleetingly but to introduce a process of experimentation that allows that future to start now. It is to build layer upon layer of activity that endures over time and not merely a collection of powerful individual acts.

For lack of a better term, let me call it a form of Iterative Urbanism.

The most basic point at which cities, towns, communities and streets that are failing is often that they fail to fail enough. They become immune to experimentation and innovation and instead get stuck in a binary distinction between “the big solution” and “the status quo.” What Renew attempts to do — in a certain sense — is lower the cost of failure and accumulate small successes over time. It introduces a “fail fast fail cheap” dynamic to the urban experience.

The point of Renew projects collectively (although the logic of any individual project can be much broader) is not simply to pop up and disappear or to put forward a powerful provocation. It is instead to introduce a layer of experimentation and activity to the city and to build on that over time. The point, I have often said is “to discover what works by doing it” or — to put it another way — to discover what is sustainable by seeing what endures.

For whatever reason iteration and experimentation isn’t a fashionable subject. Blogs and magazines love powerful, beautiful, successful projects and examples that are beautifully designed, conceptually powerful and aesthetically pleasing and are logically self contained. As much as those examples appeal, to me it is the more mundane accumulation of unspectacular successes that make a place start to work.

It’s a tricky approach to advocate for. Planners, renewal and revitalisation experts and others tasked with making places work are generally expected to know what works, their job is not to discover it but to design, select and build it. The “renew” approach to renewal and revitalisation is not to design outcomes, or exciting short term blips, but to facilitate an iterative process that empowers individuals and local communities to experiment. Through iteration, accumulation and trial an error such an approach ideally gets to a working and successful place, through trial and error in the most cost effective and efficient way possible.

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Makers and Places: from creation to consumption (and back again)

December 3rd, 2012 by marcus

This is the video of a recent talk i gave as part of TEDx Moreton Bay. It’s really a balloon floating exercise as part of a larger argument than i will be running a bit in the not too distant future: that we are witnessing something of a cyclical turn from places largely of consumption to places — at least partly — of creation. In the video i argue that this is actually a return to something of an historical norm — albeit driven by very different economic dynamics — as we witness the decline (but probably not the fall) of mass retail as the dominant logic by which design and create space.

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The Design Files loves Newcastle

May 9th, 2012 by marcus


Melbourne based design blog The Design Files recently spent a week in Newcastle enabled by the outstandingly awesome Siobhan Curran

NEWCASTLE.  It is AWESOME.  I won’t hear a bad word said about it.  Totally and truly I am 100% cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die in love with the place.

Originally settled as an industrious coal mining town, Newcastle is Australia’s second-oldest city.  It’s around 160km North of Sydney.  Only about 150,000 people live there. But for a small-ish town I have got to say there is some seriously cool creative stuff going on there, and what’s more, you can go surfing on your lunchbreak. (No kidding!)

There is great coffee, incredible beaches, the best fish ‘n chips I have ever eaten,noticeably good looking people, cute hipster children on every street corner who appear to be able to skateboard from an extremely young age, an affordable housing market… all this and you’re only 2 hours from Sydney.  And YET, there’s not a skerrick of ‘Sydney’s little sister’ about it.  Newcastle really does have it’s own unique sense of pride and quietly confident vibe going on.  It is very attractive.

I agree – and it was particularly great to see so many Renew Newcastle projects being featured. See the various posts here or check out the special Guest blog on Renew Newcastle projects here.

In other news The Seattle Globalist named Newcastle as one of 5 Global Hipster Meccas.  Nice. Flattering. Almost certainly completely untrue. Unlike TDF i suspect they haven’t been there.

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Brickstarter interview with Dan Hill

May 8th, 2012 by marcus

I recently did an interview with Dan Hill of City of Sound, Helsinki Design Lab and everything else fame. Well, i say “an interview” but really it was more of a conversation where he took notes and ended up writing it up later. As a result i found it a lot more interest to read back than most of the interviews i do where, desptite my best efforts, i tend to find myself saying the same things over and over again. It’s worth a read because i think it teases out some of the underlying thinking behind Renew Newcastle and Renew Australia better than most.

You can read the full thing here.

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Golden Resources: China and the expectations of exponential growth

May 6th, 2012 by marcus

Mid last year i spent 3 months in Beijing on an Asialink Writer’s Residency. One of the major outcomes was this essay about China’s expectations of exponential growth and what it might mean for Australia. 

Nestled between the third and fourth ring roads in the unfashionable west of Beijing, the Golden Resources Shopping Mall is part monument and part reality check to the growing emergence of China as an economic superpower. At about a thousand vendors and half a million square metres, ‘The Great Mall of China’ was the largest mall in the world until China built an even bigger one further south in Guangzhou. Yet even by the incessant scale of Beijing, Golden Resources seems plenty big enough.

You wouldn’t call it suburban—Beijing is an eternal and seemingly endless city—but out here is a long way from where most Westerners go. It’s a different world to the Singaporesque new centre of Chaoyang where most expats reside; the charmingly rebuilt hutongs in the city centre that are a magnet for expat hipsters; the once-gleaming, now dust-drenched Olympic venues; the knowing irony of the 798 contemporary art district; or the ancient palaces and modern monuments to Mao around the Forbidden City where large numbers of local and international tourists flock.

Out here even the nearest underground station is a few kilometres away. If you walk here through the miasma of the Beijing summer, the air leaves a gentle tingling (or is it burning?) sensation with each breath. As the massive building emerges from the smog it evokes a mass of references, such as the steroid-fed bastard child of Melbourne’s Chadstone, the Big Pineapple and the design aesthetic of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. I had seen it described as art deco, but if that’s occasionally evident in the details it’s lost beneath layers of kitsch, dust and aggressive consumerism. It’s only seven years old but nothing new ages well here. Beijing is at its best with the recent and the ancient. From inside you can’t tell whether the opaque corrugated fibreglass roof is intentionally frosted or was once transparent before the constant sandblasting by the dust storms.

In a country of monumental communo-capitalist mega projects, Golden Resources has become conspicuous—in the West at least—as an early and particularly epic failure. Wikipedia suggests as few as twenty to thirty people per hour actually visit here. On this particular Tuesday it seems slightly more active than that but it is easy to imagine that many of the stores could go through a full day without paying customers. The cleaners, the shop assistants, the information desk attendants, the three staff watching over a children’s play area with no children playing in it, or the hosts of the game show with elaborate staging and dozen participants but almost no audience easily outnumber the shoppers.

Inside it is bewildering and overwhelming. It is large and at once strangely familiar and uniquely Chinese. ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ plays on the muzak. The constant assault of pseudo Western brands and generic international retail design makes it impossible to distinguish between the Chinese labels, the knock offs and the real ones. Do Jeep sell children’s clothes back home? Trendiano? TR/BECA? Plory? Are these real brand names or has someone just gone crazy with a map and a faulty version of Google Translate? Louis Tocool? I-baby? Everywhere cartoon characters sell unrelated products. There is a Snoopy shop here, while Garfield has a clothes store and a bakery. Disney logos are slapped on an impossible range of goods and services from furniture to English lessons. In a country notorious for rampant piracy it’s hard to tell whether it’s a brand consultant’s horizontal integration fantasy or an IP lawyer’s nightmare. In the West, shopping centre placement is a carefully considered pseudo-science of demographics, transportation and assessment of competition. By contrast, the rationale behind building this mall here is difficult to discern—it seems too big and in the wrong spot. Yet somehow, despite early predictions of its imminent demise, Golden Resources has remained open for the best part of a decade. It is mostly tenanted. At first it’s difficult to understand how.

Wikipedia suggests that several of the foreign brands are subsidising their presence here as a loss leader to break into the Chinese market. Perhaps once that was true, but it seems unlikely now given the abundance of faux Western brands and the many genuine new flagship offerings and designer stores appearing downtown. Is it simply that the costs of labour and materials are so low that the overheads are affordable here? Is it hubris that won’t let the world’s biggest mall fail? Is it a capitalist creation or a folly of the state? Is Golden Resources a socialised loss in a sea of private profit, or is it a capitalist liability? As country after country is forced to confront bad loans and poor risk assessment, we might well ask: who’s left holding the mortgage to an underutilised, oversized shopping complex? After three months in China, my lingering fear is that the whole Chinese miracle looks better on paper than it does in the Beijing summer dust.

You can read the full article for free online at Meanjin.

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Upcoming talks in Cardiff, Helsinki and Rotterdam in May

May 5th, 2012 by marcus

Renew Newcastle’s Make Space (photo by Simone Sheridan)

Just a quick heads up that i’m heading to Europe over the next few weeks and will be doing talks about Renew Newcastle and Renew Australia in Helsinki, Cardiff and Rotterdam.

Very quick details below…


Time and details TBC
Friday 18th of May 2012
Event will be held here (apparently)
Being organised by Helsinki Design Lab and Sitra so perhaps check their site for updates if i get too sidetracked in transit to update it here.

Cardiff, Wales

Meanwhile Uses: Revitalising the High St
4pm-7pm 22nd May 2012
Cardiff University: School of City and Regional Planning
For more information see here

Rotterdam, Netherlands

Creatief Met Leegstand Festival
25th May 2012
For more information see Renew Rotterdam (and no i didn’t make that up!).

As it stands my trip to Europe is now quite booked up but feel free to drop me a line if you’re anywhere near those places and/or Manchester and Budapest and you’d like to catch up.

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ISEA 2013: My new(ish) gig

January 19th, 2012 by marcus

Mid last year I was appointed to the role of Artistic Director of ISEA 2013 in Sydney. I haven’t said too much about around here in part because i’ve been busy doing it and in part because there hasn’t been much to say. Now that proposals are open i thought it might be a good idea to reflect a little on why and how i ended up doing it and what i hope to do with it… 

Considering that about 5 years ago I told anyone who listened that I would never do another festival again many have taken it upon themselves to remind me of the flat out hypocrisy of this. In the intervening years i’ve said no to several offers and enquiries to take on other festival type-gigs down but there was something in the opportunity of ISEA – the International Symposium on Electronic Arts – that made it an easy decision and an exciting opportunity.

From the late 90s when Newcastle’s This Is Not Art festival began through to the end of 2006 when I finished up as Director of Melbourne’s Next Wave Festival, I was never not working on a festival – sometimes juggling several other day jobs at the time. There is a particular insanity to devoting a year or two of your life to an event that comes and goes in a little over a week. There is a uniquely empty emptiness when you wake up when it’s all over partly exhausted, partly elated and often asking “was that it?” But there is also something enthralling and terrifying that draws you back.

Part of the reason I thought I wouldn’t be doing it again was the lack of something that actually fitted.  My skills aren’t really suited to the large-scale performing arts or major biennale and that’s what the majority of festivals are based around.  As the opportunity to take on ISEA came up it really caught my attention. ISEA is part conference and symposium and part festival – it is a format that particularly appeals to me. Its success will be measured less in box office numbers and more in the lasting legacies and connections it makes. It comes with a fantastic brief and a great history. It provides an opportunity to position electronic arts and creativity at the centre of Sydney and Australia’s cultural life for a while – a place where I think it increasingly belongs and yet is often under acknowledged. Also, the fact that in 2013 Sydney will become the first place in the world to host ISEA twice after 21 years is also a nice excuse to get electronic art out of its “perpetual tomorrow” and to acknowledge the contribution that artists have made as experimenters, explorers and questioners in creating the world we have today.

The other reason I jumped at the idea of doing ISEA is that I think I have something to bring to it. Both in Australia and internationally there is a sense that it may be time to play with the model and reinvent it. While the community gathers at ISEA is engaging in work and ideas that are fascinating, provocative and at times inspirational the context often doesn’t do them justice. There are so many adjacent communities of artists, experimenters, imagineers and media makers that are not yet part of ISEA that could be as audiences and participants.

We live in a world where creativity, culture and technology are deeply intermeshed and ISEA should sit near the centre and not at the margins of that. My experiences creating festivals and events that connect to some of these audiences will hopefully lead to better contexts, new audiences, and lasting connections between the core of what ISEA does with the possibilities around it. The fact that ISEA’s theme “resistance is futile” – provides a direct invitation – to acknowledges and embraces the idea that electronic arts are increasingly ubiquitous is a great platform from which to do this. It gives us both an excuse and an obligation to connect out to those forms of contemporary media-based creativity that are all around us.

A challenge, for better or for worse, is that I am not an electronic arts specialist. I don’t pretend to be and yet all my projects there is recurring obsession with the ways in which technology is changing creativity and artistic practice in all its forms. Indeed, making a TV series about that idea first took me to ISEA in Singapore back in 2008 and that interest has led to many of Australia’s ISEA those artists have already crossed my path through This Is Not Art, Electrofringe and Next Wave through to my writing and media work.

ISEA 2013 is fortunate to have Ross Harley as chair of the academic advisory committee and Kathy Cleland as chair of the curatorial advisory committee. Both bring a wealth of knowledge and their knowledge, and the teams weare assembling will bring even more. With their help I’m excited about the prospects for curating a compelling platform of ideas, artists and exhibitions and a context that brings a community together more effectively than before and that presents them to a new, excited and engaged audience.

Calls for proposals have now opened so check out the ISEA 2013 web site if you are interested to submit or find out more. 

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