Review: We Can Create 2012

Review: We Can Create 2012

What better way for a weathered creative soul to see in the summer than with an infusion of inspiration from some of the world’s most notorious purveyors of aesthetic goodies?

Now in its second instalment, WCC#2 delivered a sumptuous experience, which had all of the hallmarks of a tasty, bohemian version of a travelling circus: mad scientists, frank social and political commentators, digital wizards and a guy who kept spinning what looked like a hypno-wheel on a stand.

And how can a creative not get high on Vitamin D when such a star-studded stable of contemporary graphic design and artistic celebrities decide to grace our fair city with their luminary rays: Sarah Maxey, Nea Machina, Assembly, Jonathan Barnbrook, Rockin’ Jelly Bean, Adbusters, Taika Waititi and Super Everything? If at least one of these names doesn’t trigger a euphoric chemical reaction in your occipital lobe then you probably don’t spend enough time involuntarily staring at a logo of a bitten-off apple.

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Sarah Maxey  – A dose of concrete poetry and animal simulacrums

Writer’s block?! Isn’t Maxey an illustrator? Yes, but an illustrator who has forged her own brand of illustration, Concrete Poetry, to international acclaim. Her worst nightmares (unsurprisingly) involve e-books, and she confessed a slight remorse for the death of the printing press. If nothing, the lecture took the audience on a sentimental journey that became an ode to the beauty of analogue … and animal simulacrums, which if we squint hard enough, can be found among our daily surroundings.

Maxey’s presentation finished with a question during the Q&A session as to whether she had any tattoos of bears, as her love for the Ursidae animal family came through quite clearly during the lecture. It makes perfect sense then that this Kiwi expat now resides in Berlin which, unsurprisingly, has a bear on its coat of arms.

Nea Machina – Method to the madness

The two German mad scientists of multimedia, perched behind their studious-looking stage setup, methodically explained the birth of Nea Machina, an experiment-turned-book that grew out of their university master’s thesis. They also gave the audience a virtual tour of their studio, an ex-theatre that they transformed into a 'Dexter’s Laboratory' of art and craft, explaining with surgical precision how they carry out their multifaceted creative experiments as well as the theory that fuels their 'Artistic Machine'.

The Bavarian twins can be forgiven for the slightly dry, pedagogic style of their lecture as it was the first time they had ever delivered it in English. They definitely succeeded in inspiring the audience with their graphical Frankenstein creation and seconded Maxey’s advice about being open to the world around us, as creative inspiration can be found everywhere you look.

Assembly  – Digital wizardry with an Xbox KInect

The love of analogue that Maxey talked about at length was something the digital wizards from Assembly would probably have a hard time relating to given the niche that they have carved out for themselves, namely, representing the vanguard of digital creativity in Aotearoa.

They used their time on stage to showcase a jaw-dropping sample of commercial work produced for various trusting clients. Who says advertising can't double as art? If these guys are anything to go by then it seems a creative agency’s clients are becoming the new benefactors for creative experimentation that may not necessarily have an immediate ROI – a digital version of l’art pour l’art for the YouTube generation. Assembly even admitted to using its advertising work as an ongoing boot camp for an as-yet-unidentified higher calling. However, it takes some serious time in the trenches and more than a few battle scars to find oneself in such a privileged position. Young guns take note – client trust can lead to real creative magic later on down the track.

Jonathan Barnbrook – Banned in North Korea

Apocalypso, Bastard Fat, Coma, Doublethink, False Idol, Prozak, Regime, Tourette…

If you are wondering what a list of 90s-era death metal bands has anything to do with We Can Create then you should probably re-take that typography class that you flunked at design school. The above assortment of names lists the enduring legacy that Jonathan Barnbrook’s font creations have had on the art of 21st century typography. And the man is quite serious about his fonts, even getting quite poetic at one point during the presentation about something that may often be an after-thought for most designers. His near-lyrical analysis of the place that typography holds in modern society and its symbiotic relationship with language itself was quite captivating.

Barnbrook ended up kicking off an interesting politically-tinged rant on the role that design assumes in wider society, which touched upon topics as wide-ranging as Northern Ireland and the IRA as well as the subversive value of creating spoof pictograms for the Olympics. Not a bad diatribe against the corporate machine from a typography heathen who is apparently banned from entering North Korea.

Rockin’ Jelly Bean – A meditation on the immortal nature of Japanese porn

If there is one person who remained totally impervious to Barnbrook's definition of a graphic designer as being the bottom feeder of the artistic food chain, it was Rockin' Jelly Bean. Having been the essential global ingredient of the lowbrow scene for several decades now, RJB revels in his specific flavour of (fairly) graphic artistry. Drawing on the combined heritage of American comic book and manga art, as well as 150 years of Japanese porn, he has created a formidable portfolio of lush cartoon beaus, while simultaneously etching himself into the annals of pop history. Like a pimp version of a Mayan high priest – donned in a stark white suit and a matching-colour Lucha Libre mask – which seemed to resemble the head of some carnal bird, RJB-san delivered his rhetoric in soft-spoken Japanese to an open-minded, if slightly bemused, audience.

Due to the incongruity of the graphic material being displayed – for instance, a larger-than-life Japanese female genitalia that lingered on the massive screen for slightly longer than was socially comfortable – and a periodically blushing translator, there was an obvious comedic element to the proceedings, which got both sexes erupting in fits of school-girl giggles throughout the presentation. Despite the dubious take on women’s rights and parenting that this emissary of lowbrow unabashedly expressed to the slight incredulity of the listeners, the RJB circus succeeded in delivering a good show and the crowd was definitely entertained.

Adbusters – Guardians of the Holy Graph

The Celine Dion Titanic Trio, as MC Vaughn Davis called them, or Adbusters (as they are known to the rest of the world) took the stage having picked up the political baton from Jonathan Barnbrook along the way. Their verbal marathon was focused on the ecological ramifications of corporate greed and mindless consumption, as well as this celebrity couple’s infamous bastard child – advertising. The Adbusters crew passionately lectured on how artists and graphic designers can use their talents in order to help ‘fight the good fight’ on behalf of Mother Earth.

‘The Graph’ that they kept bringing up on screen at different points of the presentation was a symbolic representation of our over-consuming society and a call-to-arms for the future generation of artists, egging them to embrace the social responsibility that lurks somewhere beyond the margins of most agency’s job ads. Their presentation also mentioned a fairly small-scale, "unambitious" project that they are working on, an economics textbook whose primary goal is to redefine the study of classic economics as we know it. A pretty bold move for a publishing house that is supposedly on the CIA’s watch list, but nothing new for these modern-day Canadian guerillas.

Taika Waititi – Rousseau as Inspiration for Kiwi vampire B-movies

While being the most risqué of the speakers in terms of the bag of jokes that he brought on to the stage with him, Waititi managed to coax the loudest laughter from the audience, which was a welcome departure from the fiery discourse of the Cannucks. Following a chaotically loose structure, which included spinning the hypno-wheel on stage for more times than was probably necessary, his presentation touched on almost everything, from being artistically obsessed with Robocop as a child to his fascination with Rousseau in later life and a preview of his new lo-fi vampire flick, which was produced together with Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords fame.

The perennial piece of wisdom Waititi imparted on his viewers (apart from being careful about what you pledge to your investors when raising money on Kickstarter) was that all artists experience failure at one point or another and that this shouldn’t stop one from continuing to experiment.

Super Everything – Leaving the audience super speechless

Super Everything is a fitting name for the visual and auditory mishmash that took over the Mercury in all of its quadrophonic glory. Despite the 10 solid hours of back-to-back lectures, it was hard not to be awestruck by the performance that unfolded. The ceiling was lit up, along with everyone’s eyes and ears, as socially-conscious questions were posed to one and all by the cosmopolitan actors on the 4D screen. It seemed as if the senses were at once bombarded on all fronts by a multiplicity of messages that eloquently fused issues of consumerism, globalization and the ultimate price that we pay for mindless consumption. However, the messages were not prescriptive, rather acting like multimedia Zen Koans and seeking to challenge the notions that we, often unconsciously, embrace as being the bedrock for living out our lives in the new millennium.

Closer towards the end of the feature and, consequently, the curtain call for the event itself, one of the actresses from the movie uttered a memorable phrase relating to her homeland, Malaysia: “This country inspires me and, as long as it continues to inspire me, it will be home", which seemed like a fitting epitaph for We Can Create #2. However, with inspirational events like this happening in New Zealand on a regular basis, who needs to consider anything but how to fill the time until WCC#3? No doubt about it, creatives young and, well, more experienced, filed out of the Mercury Theatre in high spirits, uniformly inspired to once again start changing the world for the better one sentence, brush stroke, pencil sketch or Photoshop layer at a time.

By night, Dennis Kibirev is the head content fiend at Trendstreet, responsible for the few words that occasionally get written as a way to fill the empty space between fashion eye candy. By day, he is a digital talent-monger and can be reached at on either account

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