marcus westbury

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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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My submission to the National Cultural Policy

December 20th, 2011 by marcus

Earlier this year, the Federal Government called for submissions in response to their draft discussion paper on the forthcoming National Cultural Policy. Being quite time-deprived at the time i hastily cobbled together a response – somewhat compiled from other things that i written in the past and probably desperately in need of a good editor. I have pasted it in full below…

About you or your organisation

My background is as a festival director, broadcaster, writer, and media maker who has worked both paid and voluntarily across a range of roles in arts, technology and media. My experiences are informed by having worked extensively in the arts, media and “creative industries” but generally outside the institutional structures that make up most of the funded arts sector. [Read more →]

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Video: A talk to government

December 17th, 2011 by marcus

Recently i had a chance to do a talk about Renew Newcastle and Renew Australia to some staff of the Department of Planning and Community Development in Victoria. They filmed it and it turns out they posted in on YouTube. It’s one of the better captures of a talk i’ve done recently.

[At this point it’s worth pointing out that you too can have one of these talks: both I and Renew Australia are available for talks, workshops, training, consultancy, and general advising on these kinds of approaches for communities across Australia and around the world. Drop me a line if you’re interested.]

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US Visit March 2012: The “I won a free trip” tour!

December 15th, 2011 by marcus

Thanks, most unexpectedly, to the lovely folks at Virgin Australia who are giving me a Free Trip to New York (i won a competition, would you believe it?) i will be heading state-side again early in the new year. I’m keen to meet with and talk cities, urbanism and geekery with audiences of artists, architects, urbanists, city planners, students and anyone else.

I will be in New York and thereabouts from about the 3rd to the 8th of March then heading to Austin for SXSW interactive from the 9th to 13th of March and then off to San Francisco or thereabouts from the 14th to the 21st before heading back to Australia via LA. I’m really keen to meet people, do talks, generally hang out with interesting types in any of these places or anywhere a short hop from them. Paid gigs definitely encouraged but any all interesting offers will be considered! Will post in more details about plans later but if you’re interested in catching up or have any great suggestions of things to do people to meet then let me know.

Meanwhile i have posted my TEDxNewy talk above and there’s a bit more background on me from my last US trip here, a talk i gave at Project for Public Spaces in New York last year.

Suggestions of people to meet, things to do? Anyone? Contact me here with any suggestions.

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Fluid Cities Create

October 27th, 2011 by marcus

[This essay was originally written for Griffith REVIEW back in 2008. In many respects it is the forerunner of the Renew Newcastle project which did not exist (and i had no intention of creating) at the time that I wrote it. I realised recently that i had never actually published it on this blog so to celebrate the recent launch of Renew Australia I thought it might be time to post it here and release it under creative commons]

What makes a city culturally dynamic? What makes a city the sort of place that people want to visit, move to and explore? What makes a city the sort of place that spits out or draws in artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers? What makes a city culturally desirable and talked about, or a hub of music, literature, media and the arts?

The cultures of cities are far less predictable than their hard infrastructure. You can quantify good transport links, and you can commission public buildings or even the quasi‐scientific art of designing successful communities, yet there are few roadmaps to apply to the hard task of fostering a dynamic successful culture. It is much more than placement of monuments, buildings or transport links.

Cultures aren’t fixed or fixable. They are barely measurable. While you can identify the preconditions that led to Renaissance Italy, early twentieth century Paris, the San Francisco techno‐hippie culture, Hong Kong cinema, the Seattle grunge explosion, Melbourne laneways, the music scenes of Manchester and now Glasgow, or the anarchic wonder of early ‘noughties’ Berlin, it will never be possible to replicate them.

They are a product of living things and become living things themselves. They’re fluids, not solids. Cultures flow. Cultures surge. Cultures stagnate, inundate and flood. Cultures pool and freeze, and in doing so they create another landscape in cities, countries and continents as tangible as the legacy water leaves on smooth plains and jagged mountains on the ever‐changing earth. The very act of quantifying these preconditions risks undermining the vitality that produced them.

They aren’t transferable. Culture is the process by which we communicate with each other, exchange ideas, explore possibilities, and collect and curate our personal and collective histories. They are the means by which we learn something of each other’s lives and experiences, and reflect, respond to and reject inner and outer worlds.

For cities, though, culture takes on another role. Culture is an aspiration. It is a driver of status, and status is bound to wealth and prestige. Global cities increasingly aspire to cultural prestige for its intangible aura and because they believe it will drive economic growth. Wealthy cities race each other to build grander museums and hoard ever more of the world’s treasures; poorer cities look to cultural renewal for salvation and rejuvenation.

There is no easy way to buy or build a culture. Culture has properties that defy planning. The more you grab at it, freeze it and attempt to set it in its place, the weaker it becomes. Grand buildings, landmarks or monuments are often the legacies and artefacts of profoundly resonant cultures that echo to this day. But they are not catalysts. Today they are far more likely to be signs of aspiration than achievement, and are no more likely to produce culture than tyre tracks would be to produce a car.

Cultural evolution has more in common with divination than design. A city can’t build a culture any more than it can build an idea, a thought process or a polar bear. Cultures emerge from the spontaneous, temporary nature of human motivations, passions, interactions and enthusiasms. They often form in rebellion and opposition rather than by deliberation and design. They are unique and idiosyncratic. They result from adaptation and evolution, and they have a tendency to be strongest in the places where no one is looking or particularly wants them to be.

All is not lost. Once you let go of the idea that cultures are constructed, new possibilities emerge. Cultures can be nurtured. Cities can seed and feed culture. They can give it somewhere to live, to move, to breed, to grow. And when it fails (as it often does), they can provide fertile ground to go to seed in. Cultures are living things – they die as often from ill‐thought‐out initiatives to preserve, protect or resuscitate them as they do from starvation. They live in a complex ecosystem of regulation, regeneration, tax laws, economic decline and resurgence, subsidy, anarchy, inspiration, history, technology and – most importantly of all – the unpredictable, unquantifiable and subjective fertiliser of human creativity.

Great cultural cities are those which allow their cultures to flow rather than freeze.

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Not Quite Art now showing on

September 18th, 2011 by marcus

Just when i thought that my short lived TV career had gone to the great archive in the sky the fairfax web site currently has both series of Not Quite Art available on live streaming I’m not exactly sure how or why, but i’m not complaining. Unfortunately there is no function to embed them and from what i can tell from here they only work within Australia.

Both series are 3 episodes. Series one is essentially an exploration of the question where culture comes from – it’s essentially an argument that is also manifested practically in projects like Renew Newcastle and Renew Australia (coming soon – but more about that later). Series two is really about the impact of technology on culture – how it’s changing how it’s made, how it circulates, who the makers and audiences are – which, oddly enough – will probably be manifest in my other big project of the moment which is the gig as Director of ISEA 2013 (but more about that one soon too!).

Anyhow, if you are in Australia (or can convince the SMH web site that you are) and have an idle 3 hours to kill you can watch both series here.

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Elitism (or why art is a bit like tennis)

June 1st, 2011 by marcus

IN POLITE company in arts circles these days, you do not mention the “e” word. No, not e-books or e-commerce or the other electronic innovations running a wrecking ball through Australia’s much loved big-box retailers. The uncomfortable e-word in the arts is “elite”.

The arts are in a bind when it comes to elitism. Once central to the very idea of the arts, elitism now seems best not talked about. On one level, that notion of being elite, of being separate and better, is unashamedly (or not ashamedly enough) a reason why many gravitate to the arts. There are plenty of people who genuinely believe that “the arts”, and some art forms more than others, make for a better class of person.

I’m not a better class of person. I tend to see culture with a more inclusive bent. The notion of the arts as disproportionately for an elite sits very uncomfortably. That particular kind of elitism is exhibit A in why much thinking around the arts is dysfunctional and alienated from many Australians.

It’s easy to get stuck between two different meanings of the word elite. The first and relatively unproblematic definition is the idea of elite as the “best” of something. While it opens up plenty of practical debates about exactly who gets to determine it, the idea that the arts should aspire to producing stuff that is somewhere between pretty good and downright awesome is not particularly contentious.

On the reverse side is another idea of “elite”  the idea that reserves certain status for the privileged few. Historically, this has been a major part of what “the arts” have been about. It’s probably why every single ticket to the nation’s symphony orchestras is subsidised to the tune of $137, while many excellent musicians couldn’t get $100 to produce an album.

Arts lovers are quick to point out that Australians are mostly comfortable with the idea of “elite” sportspeople. Yet the comparisons between how arts and sport approach the term can be misleading if not disingenuous.

Australia takes a pretty broad view as to which sports are elite  inclusive of any with television coverage or medal tallies involved. Every Australian need not follow aerial skiing for there to be a consensus that we like having Australians who are good at it. We don’t generally suggest that particular sports are more elite as a matter of policy.

The arts have tended to approach it from the opposite end  beginning with the assumption that certain art forms are more elite than others and working back.

It’s simpler in sport, where the competition itself shows who is the best and funding has, to some extent, rewarded medals, participation, interest and success. In the arts, any simple measure of “Are we any good at it?” and “Does it need a subsidy?” is complicated by who gets to decide.

There is a legitimate role for nurturing the elite in the arts, but there are dangers. One danger is detachment from the living cultures around us. Cultures are plural, so striving to be great needs to be less about elevating select elite cultures and more about supporting a range.

There’s a bigger danger, and it, too, has a parallel in sport. Tennis star turned Liberal federal MP John Alexander last year convincingly argued why Australia is producing fewer great tennis players. The problem was not underinvestment in the elite or our choice of Davis Cup captains. The problem was Australia has been losing its tennis courts. Alexander estimated that Sydney alone had lost more than 2000 courts in the past 15 years.

The same thing has occurred in the arts. Places to rehearse, to play, to exhibit, to try  and fail  are disappearing, swallowed up in a property bubble or regulated out of existence. If you had been focusing exclusively on the elite, you might not have noticed. But greatness will always need somewhere to practice.

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