Monthly Archives: March 2013

#emptyshops #revolutionaryarts

The final keynote of the 2013 Creating Spaces Conference was delivered by the endearing and refreshing Mr Dan Thompson, artist/writer and starter of many things including Revolutionary Arts, Empty Shops and the #riotcleanup and #wewillgather.

Dan once went to the local music shop to buy a CD for his wife and accidentally bought the whole shop while he was there. It didn’t work out, but that’s the point. Life is about trying and failing and trying again (as Samuel Beckett said).

The keynote actually begins with Dan’s own real life roots and a photograph of the house he grew up in (and his father still lives in), in Worthing, UK. Dan shares his first experience of reclaiming spaces and invigorating community spirit with the plot of land near the house. The plot of land was fenced off (by council?) and quickly became a dumping ground and blight on the block. Dan rang the council to ask them to clean it up and was told – “No, we don’t know who the items there belong to or where they came from (and therefore who’s responsibility it is)”. So Dan said “Can I clean it up?” – “Oh no, we don’t know who the items belong to, you might be stealing.” Face palm. Giggles all round from our listening conference gaggle.

Dan – “Fuck that, I’m going to do it anyway,” so he did and others in the neighbourhood saw him cleaning up and lent a hand.

This is where I start to get an inkling that Dan is about to join my #professionalcrush list as a top #troublemaker and the rest of his keynote does not disappoint.

Dan’s keynote covered off on a range of the fab and super inspiring projects he has both deliberately and accidentally initiated, the most relevant to Creating Spaces being the Empty Shops Network and #wewillgather, although I was interested in all of his work. I was also secretly thrilled that yet again, my new professional crush is from a theatre/performing arts background (as were the Gap Filler duo).

Dan’s sharing was framed by this quote from 60s activist Peter Coyote:

A man’s vision is his responsibility. If you have an idea, make it happen; find the brothers and sisters; find the resources and do it. Your personal autonomy and power expose the shallowness of endless theorising and debate. Visions become real by being acted out, and once real serve as endless inspiration and free food for the public imagination.

The Empty Shops network is essentially a similar idea to that of Renew Newcastle, helping people to reduce, reuse and recycle empty shops and other spaces in towns and cities across the UK. The Empty Shops website follows what the Bank of Ideas calls a copyleft policy by providing a wide range of resources on their website free to use.

Since 2008, Empty Shops is a national network of people using empty shops. In the UK approximately 15% of shops are empty and it’s mostly due to supermarkets that sell everything.

“Thanks for sending us Westfield, that’s worked out really well.” Dan Thompson

There is also a very strong online economy with approximately 10% of purchases completed on line.

Empty Shops inspired a range of mini projects such as We Are Bedford. Bedford had 100% vacancy in the high street (traditional main street). The We Are Bedford project took on all the shops and ran a festival. There is now 100% occupancy. Like Renew, Empty Shops projects operate on the idea that bringing the shops to life will bring people back to these centres and subsequently attract commercial tenants (or transition creative projects into creative tenants).

Dan also called for the room (and those playing at home) to get involved with Empty Shop Day on the fourth of May (Star Wars Day!) by posting photos of empty shops on the flickr page.

Empty Shops is a project from Dan’s organisation Revolutionary Arts.

Although not directly related to Renew, #riotcleanup has a strong philosophical link (with a lot in common again with Gap Filler) and is an interesting story in and of itself.

England actually has a long history of riot and revolt. Dan listed off quite an impressive list of riots and rebellions. Minus the very real blood, death and destruction, on one level the abstract idea of standing up absolutely and completely for what you believe in feels quite inspiring.

As many would know London was overtaken by a number of huge riots in 2011, which started in response to a young man who was shot by police. Dan is a prolific twitter user and logging on, his feed was flooded with people talking about barricading their doors and many fleeing because the violence was so bad.

This was a very different kind of riot, it wasn’t targeted at barons or lords in the vein of England’s tradition of rioting. This was violence that largely damaged every day people. People that run shops aren’t rich and often everything they have is tied into those premises.

In response to the violence and damage, Dan tweeted – Tomorrow we need to work out how to help the independent retailers. Dan thought he could rustle up 50 people to help those local shops to clean up. He asked people on twitter to take a dustpan and broom and go and help their local clean up. 12,000 people volunteered on the first day and #riotcleanup was born.

The most interesting thing about this ‘project’ is that no one was actually in charge, it wasn’t an organisation or a formal project with anyone telling you what to do. It was an idea and a movement started almost accidentally. People asked Dan “Can you organise something in Hackney?” and Dan would reply “Yes, YOU can, what time will you be there?”. They’d say 10 o’clock and so Dan would tweet #riotcleanup Hackney 10 o’clock and then 300 people would turn up in Hackney at 10 o’clock and manage themselves and each other.

#wewillgather is a similar principle that’s followed on from #riotcleanup to encourage people to organise small scale coming together and fixing/clean up in their communities in a more general sense. It’s about using social media to get people together to do a job that needs doing.

“People want to do things, but they needed someone to give them permission,” Dan Thompson

Rather than place making, Dan’s ethos is about ‘place shaking’. Place making is a formal and structured process. Place shaking is instead, informal, agile, frugal and about making networks. Place shaking begins place making.

As Dan spoke, the hairs on my arms stood up as I felt like he was putting a language to something embedded in my idea of community and care. Thanks Dan!

Named as one of GQ’s 100 most influential men in Britain last year, Dan comes across as humble, authentic, endearing and the best kind of doer and left the keynote with these rules:

  • Everything starts with a conversation
  • Explore, get lost, and find out what makes a place interesting ( find the little details off the beaten track).
  • Reclaim spaces for public use
  • Create collaborations and friendly networks, not organisations
  • Test, prototype and try it together

and invited each of us to be the trim tab on a rudder. The smallest tilt can turn us all in a new direction. And his tip for maintaining energy? Lots of jelly sweets.

You can read more about Dan’s work here.  He’s also the author of “Pop Up Business for Dummies“.

War Stories and Pechu Kucha Creating Spaces

The official Creating Spaces Conference sessions today were followed with an optional ‘War Stories’ at the pub detailing some of the hairier moments of space activation, I can’t share them but suffice to say – most involved toilets! Knowing how to unblock a toilet is definitely a handy skill and always have towels and gloves handy. This advice applies to life outside of Renew projects too I’d say.

To cap off the day, we were treated to an absolutely divine dinner at the Newcastle Museum, which is a fabulous space I wish I’d taken photos of!

Dinner and conversation were followed by a series of Pecha Kucha presentations by conference delegates. Pecha Kucha is a presentation methodology where presenters each have 20 slides and only 20 seconds to speak to each slide. Short, sharp and shiny, it encourages presenters to really elevator pitch their ideas.

Our Pecha Kucha included:

An old Ambulance station revamp in Nambour from Adam. Read about it here.

Penrith City Council’s Magnetic Places project, creating community places. Read more here.

Group D Creative Collective and the amazing light fish. Meet them here.

Arthive and Street Art Walking from Simone. Arthive here and SAW here.

The Feastonart Gallery in Orbost. Their (rather under used) facebook here.

Art Pharmacy – your affordable art fix (I ❤ this). Read about them here, follow them on twitter here.

And a mini taster from tomorrow’s opening keynote Dan Thompson. More about him tomorrow, but he wrote a book ‘Pop Up Business for Dummies’ which I am now rather keen to check out.

Is it bed time yet?

The Perfect Match – Projects and Spaces to Renew

This was another session that I won’t go into much detail about except to say that the presenters Lara Torr (Co-Founded Renew Adelaide), Marnie Jackson (General Manager Renew Newcastle) and Coralie Winn (Director Gap Filler, one of the newest to join my #professionalcrush list) shared some anecdotal advice around matching empty spaces and potential projects/enterprises. All three presenters were warm, welcoming and offered useful advice.

I was right up the back this time, so sadly no photos of the powerpoints or presenters either!

As some of the examples they spoke about could potentially be identified, I won’t go into detail, other than to share some of the key points I took away from the session:

  • Be ready to launch your space/project/idea yesterday!
  • Use a telephone, don’t rely on email. Get to know people and what makes them tick.
  • Be polite
  • Trust your instincts, but get insights from others as well

I will fully admit, I did get a bit sidetracked reading the National Cultural Policy and the twitterverse reactions during this session – there’s a handy storify capturing some of those reactions here (with thanks to Hayley Ward). You can read Minister Crean’s launch speech here and download the policy PDF here.

Apparently Minister Crean will be joining us for lunch at Creating Spaces tomorrow too, anyone want to say hi?

Necessary Evils when Creating Spaces

There’s really not too much to say about this session, other than what a great team Renew Newcastle have surrounded themselves with!

This session was predominantly delivered by Kris Leck (Senior Project Manager of APP Corporation and Director of Renew Newcastle) and Roderick Smith (Chair of Renew Newcastle and Principal of Evescourt Legal) who ran us through the basic overview of compliance, WHS, contracts and the little things to look out for with some input from the lovely Marnie Jackson (Renew Newcastle General Manager).

Obviously their session was an overview for people to dip their toes into and anyone considering launching a Renew inspired project/initiative should seek dedicated legal advice on all these issues. Not to mention recruiting passionate people with construction and legal backgrounds for the board!

I will post a few photos of their powerpoints with some key thoughts when my other device is recharged.

Update – I’m told that the boy’s powerpoints will be available on the Renew Australia website soon, I will link them here for you when they are up.

Filling the Gap (in my heART)

Another day of the Creating Spaces Conference here in Newcastle.

We were treated to a keynote from the most endearing duo, Ryan Reynolds and Coralie Winn. They are adorable, not to mention kick ass on all sorts of levels (new #professionalcrush), I thoroughly enjoyed both the content and their energy as presenters.

The duo were talking about Gap Filler, a moving and inspiring project from the devastated city of Christchurch. This is a city that’s been in a state of emergency, then a city stuck on waiting mode and now a city in recovery. They showed some heart wrenching images of both the initial devastation caused by the earthquakes and then the large ‘gaps’ in their city once the damage started to be cleared away.

Unlike Renew Newcastle and it’s spin offs, Gap Filler is an action based project – what I mean by this is that the project itself is initiating and driving the reactivation of spaces rather than taking on a brokerage role in the way the Renew movement does. You can see why I enjoyed it, yes?

I love Renew and I think it’s an exciting and interesting model, but I’m interested in placemaking and activation as a direct creative myself (in partnership with others) so I was really excited to see the particular dynamic and legacy thus far of Gap Filler.

It’s also interesting to note that neither Coralie or Ryan are originally from NZ, coming from Adelaide and the US respectively, they’ve clearly made Christchurch their home and there is a deep attachment and respect which many in the room today visibly and audibly responded to (there were tears).

Coralie introduced us to the context of Gap Filler’s work by taking us through the earthquakes starting in 2010, although she was quick to point out that there were issues before the earthquakes hit as well – Thanks Westfield Shopping Centre.

After the quake, I lost my job. So I had time – Coralie Winn

Gap Filler is all about filling gaps both literally and metaphorically. The gaps left by demolished buildings and the gaps in urban design, use of public space and the gaps between us as human beings.

It’s bloody terrible to use a highly technical term. (referring to the literal gaps in the city which once were full of buildings and other activity) – Coralie Winn

A public park on private land was one of the first Gap Filler projects. On an empty slate (which housed a building prior to the quakes), the project set up seating, a band space, poets performance and all manner of other fun.

People loved it and wanted more. The exact same thing actually located to a different space. Gap Filler decided to do something different though because they didn’t want to get trapped in other people’s expectations and because the staffing of this particular style of space posed problems.

I won’t list for you all the projects they outlined as you can take your time leisurely exploring their website where they will say it much better than I will anyway. Gap Filler doesn’t just talk to ‘cool artsy stuff’, it talks also to our human need to connect and the power of people and places in healing. An opportunity to invite the local super heroes to dance – like this.

Coralie and Ryan both talked very openly about how exhausting projects of this nature can be, and the fine line between what others expect of Gap Filler and what Gap Filler expects. They also talked about how the act of visibly doing something was so important for their community and how this inspired deeper agency from others around them. This to me echoes many of Marcus Westbury’s points on just starting something, just trying and that failing is A-ok.

Gap Filler has also been working with ‘assisted’ projects as well to support others to make great things happen. They get hundreds of requests a year, it’s nice to be popular but with a small team and limited funding they can only manage so much. They’ve also been working with a number of stakeholders to develop Life In Vacant Spaces, another initiative which aligns more directly with the brokerage style of Renew. I couldn’t find any online links so I’m assuming this is still in the planning stages as their online presence is very solid.

A repeated motif of the Creating Spaces Conference has been the reality that many (if not all) of these amazing projects and activities struggled to fit into existing funding models. Gap Filler is no exception with many of their projects being (initially) largely self funded, although they now have some financial support related to earthquake recovery.

The last and perhaps most important thought I’ll leave you with is this:

We want spaces for producers, not just consumers. Spaces that welcome creators of content. – Coralie Winn

I’m excited about that too. I don’t need a hundred seat theatre, or a climate controlled gallery. I just need time.

Gap Filler reminded me I need to demand that of myself.

And of course, I’d love you to come and play with me.

You can also find Gap Filler on facebook and twitter as well as their website.

The beginnings of renewal…

Creating Spaces Conference, Newcastle March 12-14

The opening keynote from Marcus Westbury (Founder of Renew Newcastle and all around trouble maker/over achiever) and the first two panel sessions today covered very similar themes so I’m actually going to lump them into the one blog post so I can actually get some sleep tonight and hopefully not just make it by the skin of my teeth tomorrow after sleeping through my alarm (true story).

So, how do make a city work for people who have ideas but no money?

Renew Newcastle and it’s spin offs including umbrella Renew Australia (Newcastle came first) are essentially permanent structures for enabling temporary things. Operating on the idea that initiative and experimentation (not just capital) are the key to revitalisation, Renew projects broker an agreement with creative projects and land owners to occupy what would be otherwise empty real estate. Occupation is of a temporary nature with the view to projects testing their ideas and activating the space to encourage commercial tenants (including the projects themselves if they discover they are viable). On the surface, it’s a win-win situation for all parties involved. However there are of course barriers, the largest of which seems to be as always, fear (sigh). The morning’s sessions touched on addressing these issues and working proactively with owners and other stakeholders to address the reality that things can and do fail – and that failure can even be a desirable part of the process.

In Marcus’ opening keynote he touched on the growing popularity of DIY and the spike in home based creative businesses and use of online tools such as etsy. It’s worth noting that 70% of Australian etsy sales are to international buyers. Marcus also managed to slip in that he started the This Is Not Art (TINA) festival, as if we weren’t impressed enough.

The keynote also covered off on some of Newcastle’s history to provide deeper context, although the experience of shopping malls killing the main street and the decline of past industry is something I think almost anyone from a regional place in Australia can relate to.

For those who need a good cry, you can also visit ‘Deadmalls’ which Marcus described as ‘ruin porn’ of shopping centres that are empty or never finished. I had a peek and the content is US, but still worth a wander.

(note: Dan Thompson in his key note also referred to ‘ruin porn’ and mentioned Detroit as the pinnacle. You can google further info but it really is devastating. Libraries and schools have been completely abandoned – intact and including all their books!)

Invest in hope.

Some of my take away thoughts from the keynote:

  • Creation is growing much faster than consumption.
  • Demands for places of creativity, creation and interaction are growing but are not well served.
  • Create a dynamic of starting things – not of preserving them. There is power in doing.
  • If you tell people to come back with their idea – you just failed initiative (my note – this is where I think existing funding models fail creative projects)
  • It’s about software of the place not the hardware
  • The transformative process, rather than the art or the capital
  • Risk doesn’t exist in a vacuum, don’t believe the people who try and tell you it does. Risk should be measured against the actual likelihood
  • A sense of things happening can be self perpetuating (in the same way a sense of nothing happening creates a negative feedback loop)

The first panel of the day was then very much a follow on and digging down into all of these things with Tim Horton (Architect and other super impressive things like this) and Marcus again. Tim kicked things off by running through the work and findings of the Integrated Design Commission set up in 2010, including handing out the report summary. Which I will read and then comment on like the good girl I am. The key information to take away according to Tim though is the idea of a 10:1 return on investment, which is pretty darn impressive especially when you compare that to dollar figures invested in the range of events brought to places like Adelaide.

Tim also gave a nod the Adelaide Thinkers in Residence Program, which I am a rather fan of. I was lucky enough to work with previous Thinker in Residence Dr Genevieve Bell as part of an Office for Youth Action Team exploring ICT use in connecting regional communities – read our report here and Genevieve’s report here if you’re interested, you can see the min clip we shared when we presented the report by clicking the ‘Riverland’ tab at the top of this blog.

All of these conversations are about more than just how we activate space though, they’re about how do cities (or regional areas) transition to what they were to what they are? This is something I’m particularly interested in when thinking about the Riverland, we so often here the nostalgia and catch cries of ‘the place is dying/a hole’ etc, but the comparisons we’re using to the functions of these places in the 80’s and 90’s just aren’t relevant. Places are different now (across the nation) and traditional retail in particular is undergoing a HUGE shift.

So where does that leave us?

Grappling with the idea of trying. Of failing. Of risking. Of possibly tipping me over the edge into being a professional trouble maker. Thanks guys.

I was particularly interested in some of the points Marcus and Tim made in regards to how the creative enterprises which have been part of the Renew movement don’t neatly fit into business development paradigms or the arts. Which naturally led me to think about Fifth Quarter and how I’m shaping my creative/business future. For those outside South Australia, Fifth Quarter is a new initiative supporting emerging South Australian Artists  to develop sustainable arts business and step off the funding treadmill. It’s only just launched this year and I’ve been invited on the journey as an inaugural participant with the disjointed mess of things I’m doing. Fifth Quarter is so new, that even those running it and funding it don’t really know what it is or how it will function but that’s part of what’s exciting and the outcomes may well feed into this discussion around business/arts and where creative enterprise fits.

Online, the barriers to entry are low. When you step into the ‘real’ world, the barriers to entry become a cliff – Marcus Westbury.

I’ve just realised I was wrong. I can’t fit everything from 3 sessions into one blog and it’s already 12.45am. I will return to untangle some of the mess I’ve made tomorrow……(including photos to save you from these ugly blocks of text). Hang tight.

The Big and Small of Creative Innovation (or how not to facilitate a panel session)

I’m spending the next couple of days here in sunny Newcastle on the NSW coast attending the Creating Spaces Conference to get the full low down on Renew Newcastle and it’s spin offs across the country.

After a 5am start, 3 hours drive, flights Adelaide-Melbourne-Newcastle, and a tour of some of the Renew Projects, quick (delicious dinner) I arrived at the first panel session, you guessed it, entitled ‘The Big and Small of Creative Innovation’.

An impressive panel line up including Marcus Westbury (co-founder of Renew Newcastle and man of many things), Tim Horton (Board Member of the Australian Design Alliance and the Integrated Design Commission), Dr Ianto Ware (founder of Format and former CEO of Renew Adelaide, currently Live Music Coordinator of Sounds Australia), Chloe Beevers (Project Manager, Arts and Culture Local Government NSW) and Gaye Hart (Chair of Regional Development Australia Hunter).

Sadly the impressive panel was let down by a less than impressive facilitator, who having some interesting insights himself, would have been better on the panel rather than facilitating. I’ve attended far too many panel sessions in the last little while, where the facilitator has asked closed questions, made too many direct comments and all in all not really facilitated the panelists stretching their thinking muscles and bringing the audience along for the ride. It was rather aptly summed up in the closing moments of the panel, where a wiser and more vocal woman than me commented that it would have been nice to hear less of the facilitator and more of the audience engaging with the panelists.

*Update: The facilitator was on today (13th March 2013) as well and obviously took last night’s feedback on board by staying true to the facilitator role

Having said that, there were some incredibly insightful comments from the floor and the panelists themselves, which overall I feel can be summed up with the following:

There is the beginning of a movement that understands cities are in transitition. Really vision should set the rules, not rules set the vision. – Tim Horton

I learned by being terrible and failing (at being in a punk band). I will fail at more things in the future.  – Dr Ianto Ware

What is the price of failure? If it’s high, a small number of people can attempt to try. What is the price of entry? If you need a large amount of capital then 90% don’t have access to try. We want to try lots of things. We learn by doing, we don’t learn by excluding. How do you invest in things that might not work? – Marcus Westbury

Collaboration is how we get things done. Be a broker in terms of connecting people in the community (talking about the role of local government) – Chloe Beevers

Uncertainty is an actual, real thing. I don’t actually know what might work. We support a whole range of things and the small percent that work reflect very well on me. – Marcus Westbury

All of the panelists spoke well and passionately about their work, however I was a little disappointed to see the panelists agree on everything.  I didn’t expect (or want) a shouting match by any means, but I felt that the panelists were all so well matched and on the same side of the issue, that there was little opportunity to dig deeper and really unpack any of the issues. I would’ve liked to have seen some of these ‘regulatory baddies’ on the panel, the ‘no-people’, or even just someone like my taxi driver from this morning who couldn’t really see the point and would provide a counterpoint and question to the discussion.

The reality is, we’re all going out into communities that don’t always understand what we’re doing and why, and in some cases can be downright hostile, it would have been nice to see a different point of view on a panel of this nature – or at least a new angle.

I’ll leave you with this photo of my ‘haul’ of goodies until tomorrow


A big (little) (fun) tour

After the required registrations here at the first day of the Creating Spaces Conference in Newcastle, the delegates were split into two groups and treated to a little walking tour of some of the currently operating (and ‘graduated’ – more on this later) Renew Newcastle initiatives.

Since Renew Newcastle began back in 2008 (the heartchild of the ever fabulous Marcus Westbury), the initiative has activated somewhere in the vicinity of 52, what would have been otherwise empty buildings with over 100 projects/creatives businesses/other wonderfulness.


We all know I’m a sucker for cuteness. For oddness. For creative and interesting (intimidating) people so it’s no surprise to hear me say I loved the tour and all the little spaces and people we said hi to.  I’m also coming into this whole conference predisposed to love it all, having avidly watched Renew Newcastle develop from afar on the interwebs after hearing Marcus speak at a completely different conference, on a completely different topic back in 2004 and being so impressed that I’ve shamelessly stalked him virtually on a professional level to keep an eye on the interesting things he gets up to (and to steal his good ideas wherever possible).

Regular readers may also know how neatly my own vision for empty spaces and in particular regional activation and place making dovetails with the Renew Ethos – now under the umbrella of national initiative Renew Australia, so I’m quite stoked to be spending the next few days here unpicking some of the deeper complexities and challenges (many if my negative nelly taxi driver’s commentary is anything to go by).

Anywhoo… back to the tour. The tour today included some of the current Renew babies as well as projects/people referred to as ‘graduates’. Graduates refer to projects/people who now have a commercial lease on a space, which is obviously the ideal outcome for all and it was really heartening to hear from these projects.

In no particular order, my two favourites were:

Strip of a Lifetime

I don’t even know how to describe what they do, but I loved their little space. I loved the detail of the shelves made out of drawers, the wall of analogue TV’s from the ‘Funeral for a Friend’ exhibition, the stack of suitcases and string of fairy lights across the ceiling. The business hires out vintage photobooth’s and a range of quirky vintage items. Check them out on facebook here and here’s some terrible iPad photos.



Studio Melt

Studio Melt is a retail shop and workspace for two Novocastrian jewellers and a proud ‘graduate’. Ange, one of Studio Melt’s driver’s worked for 8 years from home while her children were young and then once they went to school found ‘it was just me and my lawn mower and quite sad really.’ The Renew model was an opportunity to test the market and set the space up slowly (not needing to have a large capital outlay). Studio Melt now sells work by other artists on consignment and their main display cases are on wheels so they can wheel them out the way and set up workshops on a regular basis. Find them here.


The others were all inspiring (and many of them just my taste of quirky too) including Make Space, Curve Gallery, Beep Bicycle Bells, Alie Jane and a peek through the closed doors of Nook.

Now to get into the gritty, how to side of how these empty spaces have turned into creative hubs, viable businesses and vibrant spaces. Stay tuned or follow the twitter stream #CreatingSpaces