Thursday, August 11, 2016

The innovative power of art connects local and global – Craft ACT embracing diversity

As globalism proceeds apace, the counter-balancing world of the local and regional is becoming more important, anchoring us firmly in the places where we reside and create, where culture is made and lived. A set of Canberra exhibitions built around innovation and celebrating the achievements of craft and design connects local creativity and cultural life with the larger international significance of the themes and artists involved.

Like many other Australians who live in smaller towns rather than in our biggest cities, I like to celebrate the power of local culture. The fact that my local town is Canberra merely makes the link between local, regional and national more challenging, complex and perplexing – not to mention fun. Canberra was built as the result of a momentary nation-building frenzy and the power of that vision has never really abated. Still at heart it’s also a bit of a country town, with all that entails.


The result of a cross-disciplinary research project to develop and test a lego-like assembly educational toy to assist Japanese language learning for Australian children. The rectangular pieces are imprinted with images, Japanese words and phonics and click and connect together using colours to help match up the right pieces. The result is a correct construction of a Japanese sentence. Credits: Dr Yuko Kinoshita, Associate Professor
Carlos Montaña-Hoyos and Sam Tomkins. Prototype, 3D print, paper print. 2016. Image credit: Sam Tomkins. 

Dense and diverse works in a small space
A small cluster of exhibitions currently at the Craft ACT Gallery in Civic, Canberra's main city centre, offers a pleasurable and thoughtful mix of viewing. Like most of Craft ACT’s exhibitions, much gets crammed into a relatively small space.

I have to acknowledge some self-interest beyond my new-ish home town here. I have been on the Board of Craft ACT since late 2014, so naturally exhibit some degree of bias. However which comes first is open to question. For anyone, whether involved with Craft ACT or not, this group of contrasting offerings is a welcome and stimulating package of exhibition delights.

‘Her interest in the symbolism of the black box – the electronic device that tracks a plane, particularly after its demise…shows clearly how craft is about far more than pleasing objects – but also big concepts’

Craft ACT’s latest exhibitions start with a simple and moving pop up exhibition celebrating the life and work of Robert Foster, the long-term member of Craft ACT and local artist with a stellar career and a huge global influence. His F!NK + Co anodised aluminium water jug is in homes across the world and lauded as a work of exemplary contemporary design in major arts institutions from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. 

A small procession of the iconic jugs greets you as you approach the gallery up the stairs from Canberra’s main central square. It is a reminder both of how much positive influence one talented person can have and also of how easily and shockingly it can be cut short by the most mundane of misfortunes – a road accident – that reminds us we are a country city, often with a need to travel distances by road to maintain connection.

The secret life of black boxes
After this tribute to a pioneer whose influence continues, the exhibitions segue into works ranging from those by well-known artists (internationally, at least) like Judi Elliott to less-well known but equally fascinating artists and designers. Judi Elliott has a whole solo exhibition of work here and as a Canberra artist with a big international reputation, offers a chance to see a comprehensive range of material. She has a series of richly coloured large glass sculptural works referencing the home as a metaphor for safety and security – ‘safe as houses’ – that are a series of boxes made from glass. Given the reputation of glass as fragile and anything but safe (except for ‘safety glass’), the contradiction is apposite.

I was particularly taken by her interest in the symbolism of the black box – the electronic device that tracks a plane, particularly after its demise. It shows clearly how craft is about far more than pleasing objects – but also big concepts.

The real meaning of ‘innovation’
Then there is ‘Embracing Innovation 6’, part of a series of Craft ACT exhibitions in recent years about how design, technology and industry can work together. In an intriguing observation, Canberra Times reviewer Kerry-Anne Cousins notes that in many ways ‘it is a contemporary version in miniature of the great exhibitions of art and industry held in Victorian times.’

Having worked for many years at the great Powerhouse Museum, sadly now in limbo as its future is bought and sold, I long have had a fascination for the world of 19th Century Grand Exhibitions and collections that relate the dirty art of economics to the almost as dirty art of art. Those Victorians understood how art and industry were connected. I’m sure if they had been around today they would be over-using the word ‘innovation’ just like everyone else. Here’s an opportunity to see the real thing the word is meant to describe.

‘In many ways “it is a contemporary version in miniature of the great exhibitions of art and industry held in Victorian times.”’

The range of approaches and exhibits in this collection is astoundingly diverse. It bears some careful appraisal to appreciate the subtleties involved. There is so much in the relatively small but very dense exhibition that it is impossible to do justice to all the contributors. Much of the work is experimental and continues in development which lends a sense of excitement.

From the perspective of the potential of design, I was taken by a work which redesigns the whole shopping experience from beginning to end. James Mazengarb from the University of Canberra was the recipient of Craft ACT’s 2015 Emerging Contemporary Exhibition Award. In this exhibition he has applied design to one of the most mundane and everyday activities in order to improve daily life – surely a central role of design.

Cultural diversity and the Asian century
One aspect I particularly appreciated was the cultural and linguistic diversity that finds expression in this collection. Cultural diversity is crucial in fostering innovation because where cultures intersect, innovation occurs. Additionally, given the global nature of the economy and Australia’s reliance on it and on the potential of the Asian century, international and cross-cultural linkages in the exhibition are a healthy sign. A good example is a lego-like assembly educational toy to assist Japanese language learning for Australian children, with the pieces only clicking into place when the sentence construction is accurate. There is also stunning work by a group of Israeli designers, using computer technology to design and produce handbags.

Craft ACT, like many of its peer organisations, relies increasingly on the breadth of its supporters to realise its vision. In the case of ‘Embracing Innovation 6’, Rolfe Classic BMW has put its hand up to help make it happen – a highly suitable alignment, given the innovation theme.

Local and international intersect in the city of design
These exhibitions are dealing with matters of relevance far beyond Australia. Professor Geoffrey Crossick, Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the School of Advanced Study at the University of London, recently popped in to see the exhibitions during a visit to Canberra. Amongst other things he was here to talk about his work directing the major British study on understanding the value of arts and culture. However, as a man who travels with many hats, he’s also Chair of the UK Crafts Council, and was particularly interested in the innovation exhibition because he considered that the innovation agenda of Craft ACT fitted very well with the UK Crafts Council’s own strategy to demonstrate the way in which contemporary craft has a significant impact on wider innovation. The Crafts Council has recently published a report about this internationally relevant topic, ‘Innovating through Craft’.

This entrancing set of exhibitions is on only until 27 August 2016 so if you live in Canberra or are visiting, perhaps to check out the circus on the Hill or to sample the cooler side of Australia, don’t miss out.

See also

‘indefinite article’ on Facebook – short arts updates and commentary
‘Short arts updates and irreverent cultural commentary about contemporary Australian society, popular culture, the creative economy and the digital and online world – life in the trenches and on the beaches of the information age’, 'indefinite article' on Facebook.

Designs on the future – how Australia’s designed city has global plans
‘In many ways design is a central part of the vocabulary of our time and integrally related to so many powerful social and economic forces – creative industries, popular culture, the digital transformation of society. Design is often misunderstood or overlooked and it's universal vocabulary and pervasive nature is not widely understood, especially by government. In a rapidly changing world, there is a constant tussle between the local and the national (not to mention the international). This all comes together in the vision for the future that is Design Canberra, a celebration of all things design, with preparations well underway for a month long festival this year. The ultimate vision of Craft ACT for Canberra is to add another major annual event to Floriade, Enlighten and the Multicultural Festival, filling a gap between them and complementing them all’, Designs on the future – how Australia’s designed city has global plans.

The intriguing world of tiny exhibitions – Craft ACT shows what small organisations can do
‘We’re all used to the great big blockbuster exhibitions with all their wow and flutter. What’s really intriguing though is the world of tiny exhibitions, a babbling brook of activity that flows away – often unnoticed – under the tall timbers of the big institutions. At Craft ACT you can get four of them at once – in one smallish gallery space. These are artists who are likely to go on to produce better plumbing and lighting (always a good thing), design theatre costumes with a life of their own, produce unique fabric or jewellery such as you have never seen before, hinting at a history stretching far back, and give you furniture that can be folded simply and put away, but not forgotten’, The intriguing world of tiny exhibitions – Craft ACT shows what small organisations can do.

The big picture and long view – creating a cultural future
‘The never-ending election campaign that became the never-ending election tally has turned into the unpredictable second term government. What does this new world of fragmented politics mean for Australian arts and culture and the organisations, artists and communities which live it and advance it? There are a series of major factors which are hammering arts and culture organisations. These intersect and mutually reinforce one another to produce a cumulative and compounding long term disastrous impact. All this is happening in a context where there is no strategic policy or overview to guide Government. It is critical for the future that the arts and culture sector think broadly about arts and culture, build broad alliances and partnerships, never forget its underlying values and draw on its inherent creativity to help create a society based firmly on arts and culture’, The big picture and long view – creating a cultural future.

The grand design of things – the lost unrealised potential of the Powerhouse Museum
‘With its extensive collection of design of all kinds, from engineering to fashion to ceramics and jewellery, and with its links to industry, I always had high hopes for the Powerhouse Museum. Despite its fragmented nature, the Powerhouse was a great design museum precisely because it was also a museum of science and technology – and a museum of social history, which could place it all in a historical and social context. In many ways design is a central part of the vocabulary of our time and integrally related to so many powerful social and economic forces – creative industries, popular culture, the digital transformation of society. That the Powerhouse failed to realise its potential is a measure of the lack of strategic vision, including from successive governments which have never properly grasped the power of culture in shaping society and the need for the long-term substantial commitment to enable it’, The grand design of things – the lost unrealised potential of the Powerhouse Museum.

The immense potential of creative industries for regional revival
‘Across Australia, local communities facing major economic and social challenges have become interested in the joint potential of regional arts and local creative industries to contribute to or often lead regional revival. This has paralleled the increasing importance of our major cities as economic hubs and centres of innovation’, The immense potential of creative industries for regional revival.

The clever business of creativity: the experience of supporting Australia's industries of the future
‘The swan song of the Creative Industries Innovation Centre, ‘Creative Business in Australia’, outlines the experience of five years supporting Australia’s creative industries. Case studies and wide-ranging analysis explain the critical importance of these industries to Australia’s future. The knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape, is both clever and clean. Where the creative industries differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they draw on, intersect with and contribute to Australia’s national and local culture’, The clever business of creativity: the experience of supporting Australia's industries of the future.

Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture
‘The developing creative industries are a critical part of Australia’s future – clean, innovative, at their core based on small business and closely linked to the profile of Australia as a clever country, both domestically and internationally.’ Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture.

Indigenous cultural jobs – real jobs in an unreal world
'Subsidised Indigenous arts and cultural jobs are real jobs with career paths that deliver genuine skills and employment capability.' Real jobs in an unreal world.

My nephew just got a job with Weta – the long road of the interconnected world
‘My nephew just got a job in Wellington New Zealand with Weta Digital, which makes the digital effects for Peter Jackson’s epics. Expertise, specialist skills and industry pockets can occur just about anywhere, as long as you have connectivity, talent and a framework of support that makes it possible. This is part of the new knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape. Increasingly the industries of the future are both clever and clean. At their heart are the developing creative industries which are based on the power of creativity and are a critical part of Australia’s future – innovative, in most cases centred on small business and closely linked to the profile of Australia as a clever country, both domestically and internationally. This is transforming the political landscape of Australia, challenging old political franchises and upping the stakes in the offerings department’, My nephew just got a job with Weta – the long road of the interconnected world.

Design for policy innovation – from the world of design to designing the world
‘Design and the language of design is very broad – much broader than architecture or industrial or graphic design – the forms we are most conscious of. Design is also very much about processes and the development of concepts across almost all areas of human activity. This means it also has a high relevance to the development of policy to solve pressing social challenges, moving beyond the world of design to embrace the design of the world. In a highlight of DESIGN Canberra this year, respected Dutch presenter Ingrid Van der Wacht led discussion about the relevance of design to innovative policy – from local, highly specific policy to grand strategic policy designed to change whole regions and even nations’, Design for policy innovation – from the world of design to designing the world.

Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy
‘I always thought that long after all else has gone, after government has pruned and prioritised and slashed and bashed arts and cultural support, the national cultural institutions would still remain. They are one of the largest single items of Australian Government cultural funding and one of the longest supported and they would be likely to be the last to go, even with the most miserly and mean-spirited and short sighted of governments. However, in a finale to a series of cumulative cuts over recent years, they have seen their capabilities to carry out their essential core roles eroded beyond repair. The long term impact of these cumulative changes will be major and unexpected, magnifying over time as each small change reinforces the others. The likelihood is that this will lead to irreversible damage to the contemporary culture and cultural heritage of the nation at a crucial crossroads in its history’, Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy.

Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?
‘With a Coalition Government which now stands a far better chance of being re-elected for a second term, the transfer of the Commonwealth’s Arts Ministry to Communications helps get arts and culture back onto larger and more contemporary agendas. This move reflects that fact that the new industries in the knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape, are both clever and clean. Where they differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they draw on, intersect with and contribute to Australia’s national and local culture and are a central part of projecting Australia’s story to ourselves and to the world. In that sense they have a strategic importance that other sectors do not’, Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?

Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture
‘A far more important issue than arts funding is how can the broad arts and cultural sector become a better organised, effective voice for arts and culture and its wider importance for Australia? Changes like this happen because they are able to happen – because decision-makers think they can get away with it. The arts and culture sector and its supporters have to be influential enough that decision-makers think carefully about the importance and the standing of Australia’s arts and culture and weigh any decisions they make carefully in terms of the strategic needs of the sector. These current dire circumstances may provide the opportunity we have needed to look seriously at this question’, Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture.

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