Looking back on SPWGTN

Looking back on SPWGTN

Semi-Permanent master of ceremonies, the inimitably down-to-earth Te Radar, opened this year’s touchdown in Wellington with the above photo projected on the glorious screen at the Embassy Theatre.

Taken in 1969 by Barry Durrant – a long-time photographer at Wellington’sDominion newspaper – the photo depicts the exact moment in time when a detonation in the Manapouri power station’s tailrace tunnel caused a bigger blast-back than intended.

Te Radar characterised the photo as a quintessential NZ scenario, going so far as to suggest that as it was an obvious contender for the “greatest photo taken in New Zealand’s history”, it would be worthy of being on the walls of every inbound arrival hall.

Most of all it was a credit to Barry Durrant, Radar explained, for having the presence of mind (and discipline), to be pointing his camera not towards a ceremonial explosive charge, but towards the reaction it might cause – not knowing ahead of time that it would send a concussive shockwave down the tunnel.

Hats flying, each person’s expression could be read as a study in laconic Kiwi stoicism. The illustrative point was that but for Barry looking the other way it would have never been captured.

Radar: “What we are celebrating (here at Semi-Permanent) over the next two days is those people who look the other way, or off to one side”.

A sub-theme of looking back and backwards happened to surface and resurface throughout those two days.

It’s in that spirit Palaver Media has decided to reshuffle its first look back on this year’s Semi-Permanent Wellington (henceforth SPWGTN) into a dedicatedly reverse order, focusing on a replay of day two and with the luxury of a longish-form treatment.


Memo Akten is a maestro of converting computing-enabled scientific and engineering R&D into situations of art, of motion and of music.

Listening to him at SPWGTN, you soon got the impression that standing before us was a lifelong prodigy – in the sense of his conviction from boyhood that if there was something he wanted “out there” that he couldn’t have he could make it, through to his restless inquisitiveness and questing for new instruments, new canvases and hidden universes beyond our everyday ken.

The first exhibit he presented of his pursuit of experimental ways to interactively conduct new instruments was a 2009 project called Body Paint, culminating in a Parisian gallery with two joined souls losing themselves to expressive dance. Witnessing what he had wrought, gave Memo pause to think that here was one of those rare occasions of being able to say: “My work here is done”.

One of the distinct underlying markers of Memo’s work is an unwavering commitment to open source. To not share the resulting repositories of his professional “tweaking” of numbers would to his mind be selfishly unsustainable and unethical, or, in a word, “retarded”.

With the skills he has at his fingertips Memo and collaborators are in demand to create and realise projects in formats other than a cinema screen.

This has resulted in recent commercial work such as Meet Your Creator, a stunning live theatrical performance that set in place moving head spotlights vis-a-vis sixteen flying robots each equipped with LEDs and motorized mirrors, for Saatchi & Saatchi (advertising), and the intuitive McLaren P1 Light Painting (cars) project, utilising long exposure photos. [Note the nod to Picasso above, which could just as easily have been a nod to Len Lye].

Putting large scale projects requiring concomitant expertise to one side,  Memo then took the SPWGTN audience on a journey into the elastic reaches of infinite galaxies and almost genomic interiors; telescopes and microscopes.

The inescapable point Memo sought to make was that we humans have senses that are “pretty rubbish” at physically perceiving all of the information that exists within existing phenomenon. Without flying over peoples’ heads Memo extolled the simple rules in nature we look past and that can be extracted if we build tools to do so.

Referencing old narratives from the likes of science communicator Carl Sagan and theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, Memo talked about how exploring layers of sight and sound and behaviour add to the “excitement, mystery and awe” of our world.

It’s what repeatedly fascinates him about the simple harmonic motion of a pendulm,  or that pushes him to create a prototype for a performance he wants to do with cloned images of himself.

Ultimately Memo told SPWGTN that he wants everyone to be a creator. And in that pursuit he spoke about looking back to one of his heroes of all time, Étienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904) – the famous French scientist, physiologist and chronophotographer – in telling the story of an evolving series of studies on human motion he and follow visual artist Quayola have embarked on (Forms, 2012).

Thinking of Memo Akten – born in Istanbul, living in London and honeymooning in New Zealand – as an emerging Etienne-Jules Marey of the 21st century would not … by any stretch of the imagination … be far wide of the mark.


Back on brand planet earth, as we know it, the multidisciplinary relationship between science and art was also top of mind for R/GA’s Gavin McLeod – himself blown away by Memo Akten – and Lee Gordon.

A doyen of digital production, R/GA is testament to big shifts in business models and staying a step ahead of becoming commoditised itself in order to do what it strives to be best at.

What is that? In R/GA parlance it would be creating systematic preferences that people want to participate in. And share. Ideally it would be providing a framework where people can tell their own stories. A la the Nike+ Fuel Bandor McCormick’s FlavorPrint, helping people understand what their “quantified self” is. Delivering an all-important utility (and the undeniable “binding effect” of data).

Now is not an age of information or an age of entertainment. That was then. This is now an age of participation “where everything is changed” and storytelling is now “transmedia”. Where the inter-relationship between articulating a big idea and delivering utility is all about being systematic – “otherwise people aren’t informed yet alone enabled”.

A takeaway message from Gavin was the observation that it is probably becoming more and more difficult to do disruptive story telling, simple because of the risk of becoming too interruptive. Actions vs Annoyance.

Instead the present / near future is seeing campaigns that increasingly focus on the power to leverage or subvert events (amping up State of Origin rugby league through a Sportsfan Lab for Telstra, or the Show Your Colours campaign for Beats by Dr. Dre). Further into the future perhaps with less clunky over-reliance on screen devices as we currently experience them.

Is branded content automatically king? Nah, that would be a fallacy in today’s terms. In differentiating products or services the message from R/GA at SPWGTN was that being obsessed with the new isn’t the answer either, if it means forgetting everything that’s been done before, including a recognition of both how far and how little advertising has progressed.

The sweet spot for R/GA is meeting consumers in the middle and in their daily lives, reaching them both with ‘Story’ and ‘System’. System to inform and enable consumers to play. Story that entertains, demonstrates utility and that gets them to hit play.


What’s not to love about graphic + web designers who are holding on to an aversion to expanding, alternative revenue streams, SEO and social marketing?

For Sons & Co founders Matt and Tim to say they have no plan, no idea where they’re going  (other than “secretly sitting there hoping no one unplugs the internet”) wasn’t just schtick.

They had no top-out advice to offer. They’d read some books with sensible lines like ‘don’t eat the yellow snow’. They liked the attitude epitomised by luminaries like Bob Gill. If Bob Gill was ok with bumping along, so were they.

Their story so far? Setting up in Christchurch. Sticking with a dress sense “kinda like Helvetica”. Appreciating that words are a really important part of design. Really liking people who only do one thing. Being attracted to people like Murray Crane of Crane Brothers, Auckland. Or Bruce Murray of Boundary Breaks wine, The Finger Lakes.

End game? Striving towards being a little bit off centre, a little bit weird, a little bit odd, slightly unconventional, a little bit contrary. Fast. Cheap. Good. Why not all at once? Not being wasteful. Being mindful of momentum, and that a job is really only fun when it’s flying with momentum. That losing momentum “really starts to suck”. Saying yes to everything that doesn’t matter (with the bonus that when you say “no” it really does matter).

Process? “People want a fancier answer… (but) we just show up and start working”.

Without ramming it down any throats, these SPWGTN crowd favourites simply told it like it has been, and is, for them – ending with a declaration that, yes, web design may have its seriously uncool aspects and commit dreadful sins, but that it needn’t be so if your eye remains firmly fixed on good graphic design principles and practice. Amen to that!


In the remote company of his brothers-in-creativity, Benjamin Harrison Bryant (USA) and Karim Charlebois-Zariffa (Canada), Paul Fuog took SPWGTN with him on his personal odyssey from the “boring shit” of everyday Fitzroy, Melbourne to the “island of collisions” that is Bali, Indonesia.

The purpose of the odyssey was to make a complete break from conventional comfort zones and to carry out what the trio dubbed “Field Experiments“.

Paul’s presso wasn’t snaps of three designers on a 90-day holiday. The mantra was make-make-make. Reconnecting with how things are made. Slowing time to create a breathing space in which conversations didn’t have to be cut short. Learning about other people through design. Waking up each day under the same roof to start another day of making side by side with village-based communities dedicated to utilitarian crafts.

Freed from commercial pressures or briefs the loose framework and sequence that the three amigos followed = Observe, Play, Collaborate.

Observation, Paul said, was the catalyst for creation. Discovering new stimuli and new inspiration amidst wholly material surroundings, where necessity was the mother of adaptation, natural colliding with artificial, active with idle, preserved with degraded.

“Play was a means to learn and to use our hands and hone our skills … Stacking things, unstacking things, restacking things. We did daily experiments around a hanging question of What If? What if we put disposable items in rattan, or wrapped beach inflatables in rubber …  or adorned masks with contemporary colours and patterns”.

Collaboration enabled Paul, Ben and Karim to arrive at considered forms. Local craftspersons were embedded as partners in design. Each and every one equally taken somewhere outside of their own ingrained lifestyle.

A stone carver exhibiting phenomenal accuracy; a wood carver whose young son was already engaged in the same craft; a kite maker set to making kites with recycled bags from NYC (when not taking part in serious kite flying competitions with other “bad ass” kite makers); batik makers and a realist painter who had sent himself to art school and who Paul misses the most (pictured above with Paul’s daughter Frances).

At the end some 50 projects were worked on together, creating a diverse range of purposively repurposed “experimental souvenirs” infused by place, time and story.  A charity is seeing money from activities like an exhibition and publication put back into waste recovery, setting a replicable example of responsibility.

It could occur next in similar fashion somewhere in South America. Where probably isn’t the point. The point for Paul was this: “For me right now I can’t think of a better way to use design”.


Tamara Dean also offered SPWGTN a change of pace and another personal journey, over a lifetime.

In a care-filled portfolio of photography Tamara began by recollecting a scene in an abandoned citta in Italy, coupled with this great sentence: “I was making my way around Europe fire twirling at the time”.

This was a segue to highlighting the impact of her motley band of friends on the style that emerged in her photography. People on the edges.

In her subsequent career she has practised both photo-journalism and photo-documentary, jumping from newspapers to gallery walls. The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) provided a hotbed of learning, where Tamara gained skills that “did not at all come naturally as well as to hone the skills that did”.

Of these acquired skills the most challenging was directing. Walking into a situation and being asked by the person about to become the subject of a photo this question: “What do you want me to do?”.  Getting to grips with this discipline of setting up shots made sense to Tamara when she saw it was something akin to portraiture.

As related at SPWGTN her most incredible assignment for the SMH – one that would be very rare and complicated now by current requirements to also be a videographer – was a six-week assignment in Bali timed around the ongoing aftermath of the Bali bombings of 2002.

Balanced with her work in the media , where heartfelt images could be edited within an inch of their life, was a parallel membership of the Australian photography collective Oculi. Tamara described the process of putting up new work to be judged as addictive.  Indeed her frequent entreaty at SPWGTN was to commend the fundamental worth of being part of a collective to anyone in a creative field, adding “if you can’t find a forum or sense of community create one”.

SPWGTN heard how Tamara’s body of work has transitioned and how becoming a mother in 2005 turned her technique on its head. She recounted how early motherhood was both a shock and a difficulty, prompting her to de-romanticise motherhood and its encumbent loss of identity.

She shifted to “diarising shoots” and into conceptual work that calls on months of planning ahead of tiny windows of actual photography. This taught Tamara a different type of patience, one determined in different circumstances by weather, in others by access to sites within a certain radius, yet all still based on the basics of respect for your subjects, lighting conditions, and a good eye, and with process signifying as much as the outcomes.

The pace she follows now is set by galleries and residencies and photographic series with core themes of our relationship to nature (without having to travel the world), and  titles such as Ritualism, This too Shall Pass, Only Human. It’s a path influenced by Mary Ellen Mark, Sally Mann and Carol Jerrems (an Australian photographer, 1949–1980, known for documenting the counter-culture spirit of Melbourne in the 1970s).

At the same time Tamara has embraced Instagram, and her stated lack of snobbery about photography also meant she was happy that any photos she might leave Wellington with would be those taken on her phone.

Tamara rounded off her eminently curated presentation – often commenting on the relevance of gender and culture – with her most recent series, The Edge, a reflection on the absence of structured rites of passage through instigating moments such as the image (see above, left) of young adults poised on the edge of ‘jumping off’ as photographed in the “optimal light” 15 minutes after the sun has set.

Head over to Palaver Media for part 2 and part 3 of this retrospect.

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