PANEL | BrisCulture’s Creative Brisbane Conversation

Posted on 27/05/2009


This week, I participated in BrisCulture’s Creative Brisbane Conversation and have reflected on the sprawling nature of that conversation since. This is a personal reflection, not particularly theoretical, seeking out a space for the aspirational and hopeful. I didn’t know what to expect – an open conversation spiked by comments by panellists and spurred by questions from the chair, Bruce Muirhead of the Eidos Foundation. When first proposed by convenor, Mark Bahnisch, it seemed to have the potency of an idea expressed in Richard Ingersoll’s Sprawltown: Looking for the city on its edgessynoikismos, which is an ancient process of city-making through agreeing to live together in dialogue.

  1. What have you done that you most take pride in? My response to this question is my introduction. I take pride in things because they are meaningful to me. It is my vanity and I am revealing my conceit. My sense of my achievement comes from aspiration rather than ambition. In answering this question I responded, “I don’t want to take pride in a single thing. I’d like to say that my pride is found in every moment where something – an idea – has sparked, where I’ve brought something new into the world, or somehow changed some part of the world for the better – either on my own or, more usually, in collaboration with others”. Sometimes we step into things – our ideas – just to have them heard or to create momentum rather than to claim authorship.
  2. I am undertaking research about suburbs and had developed a proposal for the State Government Community Forum, as one of several voluntary members, about establishing a social innovation, enterprise and design hub at QUT’s Carseldine campus, which is now closed. The underlying idea was to consider a different kind of social infrastructure, communty catalyst, capacity building and community asset building for the suburbs, to think about our suburbs differently and to grow something in the suburbs that would benefit the whole city. Can a different kind of social infrastructure catalyse a different kind of community? While that proposal drifted along the chains of command in government, it seemed no one was listening. However, the ULDA (who also received copies of the proposal) appears to have embraced some of the ideas informing that proposal in its consideration of social infrastructure provision for the Fitzgibbon UDA. Perhaps the whole proposition didn’t take flight, but perhaps there is some opportunity as a result of prising open the discussion, to establish a new dynamic and direction. So I take some pride in having released that idea. It comes of a writer’s life. To write things into the world. To test and to try. To see what ideas stick, which ideas take. To see what space might stretch out in anticipation.
  3. But then, I wondered afterwards, perhaps that isn’t pride at all. Perhaps that is pleasure – it is aspiration, breath and hope. Where is the line between pride and pleasure? I take pride, like a deep breath. I feel pleasure, like joy exhaled. Recently, a colleague said that she once had a job that was her ‘rule the world job’. I’ve never had such an urge and responded that ‘I’ve never wanted to rule the world, I’ve just wanted to change it’. In the company of a much younger woman, I suddenly felt that I lacked ambition or purpose.
  4. It often seems strange, almost displacing, to be talking about ‘creative cities’ as if such an entity is indeed possible. As if it is an end in itself. As if, like culture, creativity is not cultivated. Is the city so sentient or muscular that it can create itself? Creativity is embodied. People create cities – cities cannot create themselves. Should a city take credit for the work of its people so easily, so readily? Or people, so readily, imbue their creations with our human qualities, as if creation/creativity is a mirror of the creator. It is people who are creative and when we talk about creativity we could be well served to speak of releasing the potential of a city’s citizens. We are not just talking about artists or intellectuals or scholars or ‘bright young things’. When we talk about a creative city it can sometimes feel like we are forcing creativity rather than catalysing it among networks and clusters of people – or as Mark Bahnisch said the ‘connectivities’ and ‘aggregations’. Does our idea of creativity still dwell in a romantic artistic notion or the avant garde – or perhaps in an idea of the creative as inherently good or worthy or warranting attention? As someone who has written as a cultural critic for nearly two decades, this question might cut to the core of something integral to the arts and artists given that art has significance in its relationship to or exchange with others.
  5. I want to say it again. It is the people. It is the people who create and are the foundation of creation (in a cultural sense). The people who are our cities’ wealth, the people who populate places and the people who make connections. ‘Creative Cities’ express an aspiration not an intractable truth.
  6. There are dangers in talking about creativity as though it is not contingent on conditions, on people, on cognetics. Creativity can never be the end, it is the process, it is part of us, of me, of you. We probably desire a culture of creativity.
  7. It is the people. Creativity cannot be confined to a narrow group of ‘creatives’ or some wunderkind who has an apparent Midas touch and/or the gift of the gab. What if, in deciding to become a ‘creative city’, we committed to developing a culture of creativity and sustaining the creative capacity of all citizens?
  8. I live on the edge. I live in an outer suburb in the mythic heart of the great Australian dream. In the literature I read about city design and planning, the suburbs are a problem, fraught territories. Governments and Councils traditionally don’t invest in suburbs which cry out for reterritorialisation or the other extreme deterroritalisation, where the absence of planning might produce something other (John Thackara). Brisbane has one local government which centralises community and cultural resources. The city can feel divided, so divided, while simultaneously feeling connected. It is fruitless to continue to talk in terms of a city/suburbs divide because there are connections across the cultural landscape – new technologies, suburban creativities, many identities and places. But, the suburbs can sometimes feel very segregated, very introspective and very selfish – walled estates, gated communities, aged care facilities, inequitable land uses and cars, cars, cars.
  9. I enjoy this city. I enjoy noticing how we think and talk about the city. What parts of the city, what parts of ourselves and what human creations do we experience when we speak of the uniqueness of locality/localness? In whose image is Brisbane created as it transitions from sub-tropical to tropical and labours to accommodate a burgeoning population? Connected with the world, Brisbane borrows in the drive to be global. Sometimes, these local articulations look like new hegemonies despite their potency for change – subtropical design, mixed use developments, destinations and precincts, urban renewal, creative industries, walkable urbanism, borrowing from international social and cultural programs. They speak of the music scene (venues are closing), the ARI scene (venues are closing) and the art scene (studios are no longer available). There’s nothing new or unique about underfunded arts and cultural organisations and artists who struggle to find a space, but the city has not generated the fourth sector models and the social innovation needed for cultural and social change. I can’t bring myself to speak of ‘capital’ anymore, preferring instead language like resilience, capability and capacity. There is space in the suburbs, plenty of space. Ample opportunity for renewal. Ample possibility for those who cannot find spaces in more traditional locales and haunts.
  10. The shape of the city influences the flow of resources, not as a form of spatial determinism, but as a result of the pooling of population, both permanent and transitory. Sometimes it seems like a type of cultural segregation. I venture into my suburban locality to map and observe, to understand how this place works and what it means. Young people have no space in my suburb, but they have cars, roads and carparks. So they drive the circuit between Aspley, Pinkenba, Caboolture and beyond. For young people, cars are identity and escape. They are flight and freedom. They are power and speed. They are fight and play. They are life and death. These young people gather in the carpark of the Aspley Hypermarket on Thursday nights in significant numbers. This is the only time that the carpark approaches any significant use and is ordinarily less than half full even in the lead up to Christmas. There’s more going on that just driving and cars – there’s aggregation, there’s music, there’s mobs and content sharing, there’s sociability, there’s connection. Suburbs make cars necessary for living, car cultures proliferate, carbon emissions escalate. Another form of expression is graffiti. There is also surveillance and rules and crackdowns on hooning have seen these groups moved on. The privatisation of space and disengagement of community censors and steals – it makes stolen moments of expression necessary – it steals our future.
  11. It is not just culture. If we begin to value creativity should we also demand social, economic and political creativity? Can we demand policy innovation? Can we bring a new quality of conversation to our negotiations about policy and planning so that they, as Charles Leadbeater proposes, are done ‘with or by us’ rather than ‘to or for us’?
  12. It is the people in synoikismos – and Ingersoll presents a poetic possibility – “to accept one’s responsibility toward others, to take care of the environment, to participate in dialogues that define and resolve collective problems is to negotiate ways of finding freedom, even within the confines of consumerism. The polis was a city based on dialogue. Sprawl is conducive to escapist monologues.”
  13. What about the weather? In committing to ‘with and by us’, can we commit to living with the environment and living our culture in a climate positive way? I’d like to see more double loops where our cultural acts and initiatives effect systemic change. Where initiatives like those that occupy disused spaces – in a formal and recent example, Renew Newcastle, but more informally, acts and practices that have a long history in our cities – inform the decision-makers to introduce regulatory changes in areas such as leasing and planning provisions. To operate outside the marketplace, as Renew Newcastle seems to do, introduces new economic and cultural possibilities. Just as there is a need for affordable housing, there is a need for affordable office and commercial space that supports community initiatives and the non-profit sector. A double loop might mean efforts made to ensure that such affordable office spaces are embedded in new developments and strategically sprinkled throughout the city.
  14. ‘Cultural literacy’ is an interesting idea. Initially appealing and compelling, but somehow not quite sufficient for the city’s cultural policy. Is it understanding, awareness or mastery? What of plurality and ‘manyness’? I enjoy the pleasure of readability (readerliness), moreso I appreciate the city and its cultures as experiences that I am in not just reading or as Jaz Choi proposes, playing. Choi quite beautifully and reflexively plays with the idea of play. Where is the reader or the player situated in cultural literacy?
  15. Policy is directional – it directs our attention to the priorities of government, it tells us where resources will be directed and it directs the path to prescribed goals and outcomes. This directionality gives it the quality of a script or a story – we might need to be writing our own scripts and our own endings. Perhaps systems of governance, including policy makers and urban planners, need to develop cultural literacy as integral to their practice rather than casting this notion across cultural policy. I am interested in a type of planning that writes things in rather than rubs things out. I am writing towards an alternative and integrated approach for cultural planning and development.
  16. Says one person, we need to develop the ‘cultural literacy’ for higher density living on par with the largest cities in the world. Referring to the form of the city, ‘how we live’, I flashback to Raymond Williams and the idea of culture as a ‘whole way of life’. Culture is ignored in the development process. What are the mechanisms for assessing cultural impact, cultural wellbeing and cultural need in the making of a city? Development in the city has destroyed and displaced successive waves of cultural and community vitality, the type of activity that is now lauded in the agendas for creative cities. I am frustrated by the assertion that the BCC’s Local Growth Management Strategy will see us all living in 30 storey apartment buildings while land releases enabling suburban subdivisions, devoid of community infrastructure, continue to be approved. It frustrates me to hear that we need to become ‘culturally literate about high density living’ when resources are not released into the community, when cultural conversation (necessary for cultural literacy) is not enabled in the places where these dialogues might occur, where ‘protecting our way of life’ or ‘out of character’ is chanted like a mantra drowning out the possibility for civic life rethought. Understanding the cultural values and histories of communities is vital in the futuring process. Instead of cultural literacy, I prefer memetics.
  17. Mark Bahnisch refers to a decades old historical text about Brisbane, which includes a series of interviews with octogenarians who have recollections about housing in the first part of the 20th century. They recalled life in houses and flats brimming with life. We would now call this overcrowding – we might even call it a slum – but Bahnisch’s point is that there is a cultural imprint of high density living. It was, in the slum clearance era, an undesirable and unhealthy situation. This weight of history makes change all the more difficult to negotiate.
  18. Cultural sustainability, sustainable culture. A discussion yet to happen and one that perplexes me in the urban frame. Sustainability considers resources, intergenerational equity, endurance and preservation. The theorist Tony Fry talks about ‘sustainment’ as a cultural process, a redefinition of the common good. Culture must be addressed in a larger context – what are we throwing into the future; what are we taking from it? The car cultures of the outer suburbs, despite their articulation of identity, are not sustainable; they propagate behaviours and actions that deplete and that have negative climate impacts and negative impacts on others. They are not acts of ‘with’ even if they are acts of ‘by’. How do we account for what we destroy in our creativity? As the former Chair of the Australian Network for Art and Technology Board, I initiated a conversation at Board level to encourage organisational thinking about and assessment of the cultural, social, economic and environmental sustainability of our organisation with a view to developing policy and procedures. Non-profit organisations are not well placed to address the challenges of transitioning from the carbon economy due to financial constraints. Despite this, our organisations have an opportunity to show some resolve and leadership about environmental impacts where governments and the for profit sector vacillate and comprise.
  19. It’s about the people. A culture, like a city, is nothing without people. It is multiplicity and complexity. A culture is nothing without communication and conversation. Culture needs to live – just as culture has history, culture needs a future. Culture lives through people; we pass on those memes; we code, decode and recode. So we need broader, deeper and longer perspectives. The change we need is a cultural change, we need new memes, a renewed renewal, and a change of direction. This change needs us to be present and cognisant in a conversation of global proportions. It needs regard for difference and diversity, just as it needs awareness of the common good (connectivity and aggregation).
  20. In reiterating that it’s the people, I am saying that it’s about you. So in saying, “I’m just an artist and all I want is a space to work in”, what are you actually claiming? When discussions about cultural policy gradually dissolve into a discussion about how to ‘get a grant’, what is actually happening? In believing that everyone has something important to contribute, catalysing the creative potential of people assumes priority. What is one thing – no, 10 things – you can do in your community, your workplace, your neighbourhood or your city to release the creative potential of others or yourself? Or as Elizabeth Sanders says in Everyday Creativity, how can we make opportunities for people to “do, adapt, make and create”. If we grew our own and if our cultural institutions (ie cultural patterns) multiplied, would we still need to plan (or market) our cities so that they attracted creative people? Cultural change is hard to negotiate at the best of times – often slow and incremental. Recasting or recreating our ‘way of life’ and shifting our aspirations to align with new conceptions of wellbeing, culture and sustainability needs more than what we are giving it and giving up for it. It needs all of us.
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