City Living

The Grumpy Optimist – an interview with Marcus Westbury

You may have unwittingly beamed him into your living room as he hosted Not Quite Art on ABC TV. He’s helmed the Next Wave Festival and is currently Artistic Director of the prestigious International Symposium on Electronic Art (ISEA), taking place in Sydney in 2013.

In 2008, he founded Renew Newcastle, a low-budget, not-for-profit urban renewal project in his hometown: former steel city, Newcastle. Using his own funds (including much plastic, card-based currency), Marcus and ‘Renew Newy’ have replaced the tumbleweeds, ‘for sale’ signs and perpetual gloom in Hunter Street mall with DIY, can-do energy. Over 30 empty buildings have been transformed into over 70 creative enterprises, small businesses and artistic projects. For Marcus, ideas, opportunities and initiativism (a made-up ‘Westburianism’ that suggests that culture stems from initiative and opportunity) are the key to dynamic and thriving cities. These unconventional but strangely commonsense ideas are now transforming cities nationally via Renew Australia. Of late, Marcus has also travelled state-side to places such as New York, Austin and San Francisco to talk “cities, urbanism and geekery” with artists, architects, urbanists, city planners, students and general curious types. Eugenia caught up with Marcus on his current home turf, somewhere off the bustle of Sydney Road.

Assemble Papers
Can we rewind back to 1998 when you started This is Not Art [TINA] Festival. How did that come about and why?

Marcus Westbury
Friends and I started the organisation behind TINA about three or four years before TINA itself. We were young, bored and unemployed – an obvious starting point. It was about 40% unemployment in Newcastle, so we were all just making a lot of fun basically. TINA evolved out of a series of local projects… a Fringe Festival and other things that sort of started and died, started and died. With TINA, we were doing things that were all about media and culture; not art in a traditional sense. The idea was simply if we got all the people that we thought were doing interesting stuff together in one place at one time we’d have an interesting event. That’s where TINA came from.  I think it evolved to something a lot bigger than what we expected, just partially from being the right idea at the right time and because it was catering for a very different niche than what other events or things were doing at that time.

APSo there was a gap between what was showing in museums and what TINA hoped to showcase?

MWYeah. There was a real tipping point around that time. It was when people started to sort of widely get internet access. I always describe TINA as a DIY media festival.  There was a stack of people that were in that DIY media space, whether as writers or running record labels from their bedrooms. I traveled around the country and met lots of people who were doing that sort of stuff but they’d not met each other.  The Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide scenes were all very isolated at that time.  Now the cost of communication has dropped so that’s not really a factor anymore.  But back then, starting TINA was just at the right time where it became possible to nationally connect those communities. So the idea of providing a convergence point for them was very timely.

APFast forward to 2006. You were both the Artistic Director of Next Wave Festival and the cultural program of the Commonwealth Games. In the lead up, you travelled the world, looking at different cities and their cultures.  What did you learn, from Glasgow and cities like that?

MWWhen I made Not Quite Art (the TV series), making the comparison between Glasgow and Newcastle was the best way of illustrating a key point rather than trying to suggest that Glasgow had the perfect template…it wasn’t really.  [Glasgow] provided practical examples around ideas I was otherwise struggling to illustrate – the idea that culture and arts are about the makers. What interests me is the ability of people to make and create things, rather than the idea that our culture is a kind of fossilised, collected phenomenon. Where cities and urban planning often go wrong are when they begin with the idea that the precursor is the infrastructure rather than the maker.  To me, the needs of the makers are the critical component to what makes a place diverse and interesting. And that’s really what I was trying to get at with the Glasgow comparison.

APWas there a point of realisation, when you saw a link between your current work in urbanism and the work you’ve been doing for years in the arts?

MWYeah, I was talking to someone about this recently. The typical planning or infrastructure-centric or funding-centric approach assumes that people need a push or have complex requirements before they want to do anything.  My starting premise is people have simple requirements.  They need space.  They need opportunities.  They need a chance to experiment. One of the precursors to Renew Newcastle (that was blindingly obvious to me but apparently not to everyone else!) was the assumption that there was a stack of people in town who wanted to do things with all the empty buildings. I didn’t need any convincing whatsoever that if you created the right framework there would be a lot of people who would want to use it. And that comes from years of dealing with festivals and proposals. It’s never been a difficult thing for me to find self-motivated creative people who want to make things happen.  It’s a very different dynamic.  So I think that’s been quite critical in my understanding of what the possibilities were.

One of the things that’s quite critical to Renew Newcastle is the idea that we create a temporary set of opportunities rather than permanent ones. I had no problem with that, providing it was conveyed – that everyone understood what the prerequisites were.  But people who deal with planning tend to always think in terms of permanent infrastructure – the idea that if you can’t give people certainty no one will want to take up an opportunity. That just seemed wrong to me.

APPeople are looking for opportunities to experiment…

MWThat’s my argument.  That experimentation is the missing piece.  Actually people want opportunities to discover that things don’t work.  They want opportunities to try and fail… to do projects that may lead to a dead-end.  And people are okay with that as long as you’re not misleading them into thinking they’re getting a permanent piece of infrastructure.

Meanwhile use – The Roost Creative in full flight making temporary use of a shop being marketed for sale.

APExactly. So how did you convince council and local government that it was going to be okay?

MWWe didn’t.  We went around them.  I mean the key point with the process is that in the end, we realised that we didn’t need councils…they’ve ultimately become funding partners; the council in Newcastle funds the project a little bit now.  But they fund on the basis of the result, not on the basis of the idea; once it was fairly obvious that it was working.

APWhich other cities are on board now?

MWI’ve lost track a bit to be honest. In terms of places, I’ve been working with Renew Adelaide (it started quite independently but is aligned with what we’d been doing). There are projects using aspects of the model in Cairns, Townsville, Gold Coast, Lismore, Parramatta in Sydney.  There’s a pop-up project in The Rocks, there’s Central Coast NSW.  Every time I turn around there’s a project starting up that is drawing some inspiration from what we’ve been doing.

APYou’re still involved in Renew Australia?

MWI founded Renew Newcastle and was very very heavily involved in the early stages.  Over time I’ve become less involved.  Marni Jackson [General Manager of Renew Newcastle] really runs it on the ground and I have a small ongoing consultancy role with Renew Newcastle. Then I founded Renew Australia, which really started in the last six months or so in response to the demand for talks, consultancy and advice that came out of Renew Newcastle.  So the idea is that we’re doing training and support for people trying to run similar projects; not necessarily the exact same model but the thinking behind it.

APSo they can adapt the idea to their own cities…

MWAnd circumstances. A lot of it is process and expectations. How you manage the need for cultural diversity with economic viability.  There’s one place that tried to emulate the model but decided they’d kind of skip the culturally interesting stuff and just showcase things that were likely to be viable businesses.  And it’s failed on both fronts: no viable businesses (because of the lack of experimentation) and also the failure to make the place interesting as well.

APCan you talk about your idea of cities as software and Maslow’s law…?

Strip of a Lifetime – a Renew Newcastle project. Photo by Paula Birch.

MWYeah, Maslow’s law of the instrument.  The idea is that if you only have a hammer everything looks like a nail.  I look at Newcastle specifically, but I think the problem is generalized.  With Newcastle, everyone has long said the reason the city is empty is because something is wrong with the infrastructure.  ‘We need to physically rebuild it, we need to knock something down then build something up. We need to change the road system, the traffic circulation or the rail line that runs up the center of town’. All these big infrastructure, big picture questions.

And that’s because the people that have mostly looked at the problem are hard infrastructure people.  They’re just looking at it through their paradigm.  Now there are legitimate planning and hard infrastructure issues that I’m not trying to deny.  But the fundamental problem was actually much simpler.  The problem is that people wanted to use the spaces but couldn’t.  All this empty space; a surplus of space, surplus of energy, but nothing connecting it. I think [Renew Newcastle] demonstrated that it’s actually possible to do an enormous amount by simply changing the process. The software rather than the hardware. So we didn’t build anything.  We didn’t buy anything.  We don’t own anything.  What we did is simply invent a new process that allows things to happen that were not possible before.

Essentially most people who are urbanists, most people that are into the cities are hardware people.  They’re physically interested in how traffic flows, how buildings are preserved or rebuilt, public transport and all that sort of thing.  All interesting questions, but all hardware questions. Really, more practical questions for me about a city are: how can people use it? What can you do?  What can’t you do? What does this city encourage people to make happen or discourage people to make happen? I don’t see those questions being asked enough.  Even when they’re being answered, they’re not being asked.

APExactly.  So going on this sort of computer analogy, you’ve spoken about the idea of sort of “hacking into the mainframe”. I guess a kind of shareware system.

MWInitially my assumption was to look at the city as a software problem where we actually had to change the laws.  We actually had to go and rewrite the tax code, the building code, or the local planning provisions to allow us to do the sort of thing we wanted to do.  What I realized, sort of by trial and error, was that there’s a whole bunch of things you can do within the existing rules.

APHow would you build a city from scratch in real life?

MWI’m not sure I would. The idea of actually designing the city from scratch kind of takes the fun out of it.  In some ways, the idea of my ideal city isn’t a constructive fantasy. I think it’s more interesting to start with an existing city and think about what you can change about it than it is to imagine a perfect kind of world. But, if I did have my way, the thing I’m passionate about in the built environment right now is scale. I’m really fascinated with scale. I realized comparatively recently the dynamic I love most about cities is actually disappearing – the small-scale urban block. You know, the terrace house. If you go to a Japanese city like Kyoto, a 5-storey building is just 5 meters wide. I’m kind of fascinated by why we don’t do that anymore. One of my concerns is not about greater density of the city, which I actually love.  But it’s about the scale of development becoming so large that it loses its capacity to evolve easily.  And that’s my curiosity at the moment.  If I started a city at a blank slate, I’d do lots of really really small blocks and then, within reason, allow people to go crazy with it.

APCan you tell us about ‘initiativism’?

MWYeah.  It’s clunky.

APIt’s hard to say…

MWI was trying to capture the intent of the people that I’d been working with off and on in all contexts really in my life.  The people who want to make things happen, really want to find out whether something is possible by doing it.  They don’t want to write risk assessment plans – they’d rather just take the risk. The world is full of people who want to take initiative.  So I just think that’s what I was trying to capture with ‘initiativism’ really.

I also keep going back to being obsessed with the idea of risk. Risk is a good thing.  Risk is what you want.  You want people to try things that might not work.  Now, there are certain kinds of risks that you don’t want.  You don’t want the risk of thousands of people getting killed because you designed a building that fell on top of you.  But within reason, risk is what you need more of in the city not less.  And I think we’ve designed a whole series of processes that are about the idea of eliminating risk, about trying to make risk quantifiable. Trying to only do things that you know will work is actually an incredibly false principle to start from.  You cannot know what will work. And to me initiative is a process bound up in risk.

APSo I’ve been doing some internet stuff. Your Twitter profile reads ‘cynical idealist, idealistic pragmatist and grumpy optimist’.  How do you balance that mixture of cynicism and hope?

MWIt’s interesting.  Cynicism and hope… I don’t actually feel that they’re opposites on my spectrum. My personal view is to constantly ask what is the best thing possible to do?  Like, try to find the cracks where it’s possible to do things. I think I’ve always been like that for better or worse, probably just lots of trial and error and a bit of luck.  I’ve always been able to do things that I thought were worth doing.

And there’s an immense amount of possibility in the world if you start to look at it on those terms. If you actually look back at my career… I’m not even trying to be anything in particular. It might be possible to make a TV show – I’ll go and do that.  It might be possible to take over lots of empty buildings in Newcastle – I’ll go do that.  It might be possible to do a festival – I’ll go do that. I think the trick is to look for the possibilities not the barriers.  Because barriers are huge.  But they’re actually sort of awkwardly shaped with lots of gaps in them.  You only ever really hit a barrier if you come at it from 90 degrees and really smack against it.

I find it odd that I’m now talking to groups of architects and urban planners about architecture and urban planning.  Because I’ve never studied either [formally], you know. I’ve written things where I felt like I had to kind of convince myself I wasn’t being fraudulent in writing them! I mean I’ve got to be careful….there’s a lot I don’t know. But there’s also often a danger in formal training.  I don’t want to sound you know…but I think there’s a lot of disciplines where you train to look at the problem in a certain way.  It goes back to the hardware.  You’re trained to see the problem rather than the possibility….

Check out Marcus Westbury on the internetz.