“We’d never actually run an event,” says Andrew Johnstone, co-founder, along with Murray Bell, of Semi-Permanent design festival. “But we felt the design community in Australia was lacking, so we did our first one in 2003 and it went down really well. We’ve been going ever since.”
Hiding behind Johnstone’s relaxed modesty is an Australian design institution. For years now, Semi-Permanent has been the most anticipated couple of days in the creative calendar. It’s not uncommon for design, publishing and advertising departments across the country to empty out and head for Sydney for a few days over the festival. This is because it doesn’t aim to merely occupy people or transfer knowledge, but to challenge and inspire them. “There’s a hell of a lot of crappy stuff out there, so if we can inspire people to create better work, and therefore make the world slightly better in that sense, then I think we’re doing a decent job,” says Johnstone.
Semi-Permanent has become a vital fixture precisely because it explores successful pursuits from the point of view of creation. “I think when we first started there was a definite sense, for me at least, that the events already out there were very business related. They were all about the financial aspects of being a creative,” notes Johnstone. “We’ve always loved the art and design and creative worlds for the pure sense and joy of creation, rather than, ‘Oh, I can make money from this,’ or, ‘Oh, I’ve done work for a big client.’”
Twelve years ago, the internet’s vast potential for visual communication was being flaunted and embraced as design became increasingly entwined with the online space. Semi-Permanent offered a way to get offline and remind participants that design is still an enriching, real-life experience. “It’s like the difference between listening to a band on your iPhone and seeing them live in concert,” says Johnstone. “There’s really something quite lovely and inspirational about seeing our speakers in person, and getting a real sense of their personality. It is about celebrating design and bringing that live experience back into it.”
Being online is a necessary malady for most design industries, but that highlights how much more important it is to disengage from a screen and restore real-life creative compulsions. That human element is not restricted to merely observing speakers and participating in workshops. As Johnstone says, “It’s also about the person you might be sitting next to, or who you might strike up a conversation with. We’ve had many, many examples of people who’ve gotten jobs just because they happened to sit next to someone and started a chat, or they’ve even changed industries because of things they’ve heard or people they’ve met at Semi-Permanent. I know it’s clichéd to say this, but it does make it all worth while once you get that kind of feedback from people.”
Johnstone claims selecting highlights from the many speakers over the course of the event is always difficult, but it won’t surprise anyone who’s looked at the bill what he’s looking forward to this year. Mr. Brainwash, the burgeoning artist profiled in Banksy’s Exit Through The Gift Shop cuts a controversial figure – it remains unclear whether his art is an elaborate hoax. “I think some people’s misconceptions and pre-conceptions about him may not be right,” hints Johnstone. “We’re simply saying, ‘Come see for yourself.’ I’m personally really interested in seeing his presentation. I think it’s probably going to be quite a crazy one.”
In this way Semi-Permanent offers an opportunity to form or change and opinion. “About 50 per cent of the audience will come and probably think they don’t like him, but by the end of it they’ll love him. The other 50 per cent? Who knows?”
Then, of course, there is Tony Hawk. “He is more than just skateboarding, which we all forget,” Johnstone says. “He’s an entrepreneur, he’s also quite a philanthropist and he’s iconic in many ways, not just as this legendary skateboarder.”
“It’s going to be him as a businessman, as an entrepreneur and more. And how he’s kept that brand alive, which is a pretty fascinating story for a creative industry.”
Semi-Permanent runs from May 22 to 24 at Sydney’s Carriageworks. Tickets are available here.
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