An Interview with Marcus Westbury: author activist and accidental urbanist.
Readers above a certain age might know Marcus Westbury from presenting the ABC1 television series Not Quite Art, or perhaps from directing the cultural program of the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games, or the 2004 and 2006 Next Wave festivals, or for his role in founding the Free Play computer game conference, or from his Renew Australia project which works to revitalise towns in recession.
If you are below a certain age, then you should know that he’s indirectly responsible for the ginger-beer hangover you are probably still nursing from the Newcastle Young Writers Festival (NYWF) this weekend. In 1998 Westbury and friends founded the This is Not Art (TINA) Festival in Newcastle to try and inject some life back into the abandoned main street of his hometown, and it has since grown to incorporate many weird and innovative arts initiatives, the closest of which, to out hearts, is of course, NYWF.
In September 2013, he started a Pozible campaign to crowd-fund a book about his approach to creating art and opportunity out of urban decay, and as they say in Newie, he
sh*t it in, was successful.
A little under two years later, Creating Cities was published, and has enjoyed two weeks at #1 in it’s category on Amazon US, nearly sold out its first print run, and is finding its way to readers around the world.
We spoke to Westbury about founding TINA, making something out of nothing, crowd funding a book, and avoiding 900 people for two years while you write said book.
Let’s start before the beginning. If I’m not mistaken, your very first crack at urban renewal was starting the TINA Festival and NYWF, which is to this day a vital avenue for early career artists and arts managers. Can you tell me a bit about how it came to be?
Actually my first crack at it was a little bit before that: the short lived Newcastle Fringe Festival. For that we got hold of about a dozen empty shops and converted them into galleries for an event called "The Art Crawl" (it was basically a pub crawl of free wine and art openings) and it was sort of a disaster as a lot of the shops weren't exactly managed well but it taught me a lot about how not to go about borrowing empty shops.
But yes, NYWF which morphed into TINA is probably the most enduring of those early projects. It grew out of a bunch of different things that were going on at the time. It began from a desire to connect up a whole bunch of people—who I'd met and found interesting in my travels—with each other. It sort of grew out of the ashes of the dead fringe festival and another project I'd worked on in Sydney called LOUD. In the first year about a hundred people from around Australia came to Newcastle for it and I thought that was amazing. A year later that grew to about a thousand mainly on word of mouth and it gradually grew and found its identity in the first five years that I ran it.
Did you ever see it becoming a permanent fixture of Newcastle, let alone the artistic landscape in this country?
It is amazing it's still there. I don't think I ever really thought beyond the next year. In those early years even next year was a bit of stretch -- we were all volunteers and the whole thing was done on almost nothing. Today it's pretty incredible to see it turning 18 and still having the same cultural vitality somehow baked into its DNA.
This line from your book seems a good précis of your thesis: ‘What grips me is how places enable or thwart people with initiative.’ How does one get around thwarted initiative?
Yes. I think that's the question of the book in a nutshell: "What happens when someone wants to do something here?" Why do they or why don't they? How do you make it so that more people who want to do something actually do it. That's the question that led me to Renew and I think it's a question that more places should be asking of themselves. I think all cities and communities should aspire to make themselves places where people can shape them through their actions -- particularly people without access to capital, connections, power and privilege.
You’ve been getting some traction in North America. Do you think it’s hit a nerve there?
I think a lot US communities are in a similar if not worse state than Newcastle was -- that hollowed out inner city problem is actually quite unusual in Australia (although you do see it in many country towns) but it's very common in the US and there are dead high streets all across the UK. I think -- or at least hope -- that the book is relevant to other communities with similar challenges.
Do you think your model of urban renewal developed in an Australian steel town is applicable across the world?
I'm not sure the model is directly transferable. But I think the thinking behind it is. I said from the very beginning I wanted to write a "why to" book not a "how to" book. By unpacking the problems I was trying to solve hopefully it brings other people into the thinking which isn't always understood from simply looking at the process or the outcomes.
That may lead to a "Renew" type model but it won't always. I do go back to the basic idea that the first thing any community should try and do is make sure it is providing opportunities for the talent that is there to do the things they want to do. If you're not doing that then I think every other debate about renewal and revitalisation is missing the single most important (and cheapest) thing you can possibly do. That won't always be through a Renew project but sometimes it will be and we have developed some very practical tools to make that easier.
You forged a career in arts because you saw opportunity in a town that had fallen on hard times. Right now, for a lot of young people who want to become writers or otherwise work in the arts, the future looks tenuous, even grim. Do you have any advice for aspirational artists, or those who want to bring arts to their communities?
I am not sure it is looking any more or less tenuous than it ever has been and I'm not particularly sure I’ve ever had a proper career in the arts either -- it's more of series of project based zig zags from thing that interested me to next thing that interested me. My advice to anyone is to do the things that you are interested in and eventually you become the person that is good at them. Which is a good, if not always lucrative, place to be.
Throughout your career it seems you’ve often been at odds with bureaucracy and static systems. Recently you’ve become involved with projects for longstanding mainstream organisations. I’m curious, from an organisational standpoint, is it easier to make moves from inside systems? Or does being outside them give you more freedom?
I think it is much easier to be outside systems but perhaps that's just me. The upside of being within those systems is access to a lot of resources but the downside is that is often harder to get anything done. Personally, I don't really thrive within those kinds of environments but I am serial starter of new things and mostly they don't. I think in ideal world I would have the resources but not the burden of those systems but this is very rarely an ideal world so you often trade off one of the other. I think it does depend a little bit on where you are in your life as well -- these days I probably crave a little more stability than I would have needed a decade ago.
I’ve heard that you decided to crowdfund Creating Cities, after realising that your idea needed a longer tail than the three months commercial publishing houses will give a book, and hit your goal of $10,000 in under 24 hours.
I think that's a big part of it. I think the idea is that the book should ideally have a long shelf life and that people will hopefully still find it interesting a few years from now. I think it also has a mix of specialist, niche and general audiences that publishers may not always be in a great position to find. I also just liked the idea of dabbling in crowd funding -- I'd supported a lot of other people's campaigns and it was always something that I was keen to try myself. I think it's proved to be the right model -- the money has kept the wolves from the door, the support that came was great in building my confidence at a time when I wasn't sure what I was doing. The only downside has been that I was a year and a half late with the book so I was avoiding about 900 people.
Did that show of support change your plans around the book? How has the post-pozible world been treating it?
The support slightly changed the plan for the book. I think the earlier idea was to do something more from notes and pieces I had already written. I ended up hiring more and better people to help and I ended up with a better book -- albeit one that took a bit longer than I'd originally imagined.
The reaction has been great. The main downside to publishing independently has been distribution but we've generally found that good bookstores are keen to stock it, the reviews and reaction has been good, we've sold a couple of thousand and we're about to go into the first reprint and we're negotiating with overseas publishers and agents in quite a few different countries. I think it has worked as well as I would have hoped but there are a few lessons learnt along the way that would probably mean I would do it better if I ever did it again.
I learned a few things: not to underestimate how long it will take, the importance of communication with the supporters and the community, and a lot of very boring practical things about editing, typesetting, printing and distribution that I'm not sure I will have much further use for.
It’s safe to call your efforts in crowdfunding your book a success. What did you learn doing it this way? Would you do it differently next time? Would you do it again?
I might do it again. I'm not sure I have another book in me any time soon but I'm tempted to crowd fund another project which may or may not happen later this year or early next. I'm not an author. I'm a guy who wrote a book. Writing is basically an occupational hazard.
Now that the internet has, to some degree, freed commerce form the tyranny of geography, do you think that art and/or commerce will become something a little more fractious and grassroots?
I think they will become relatively more common. I think that's happened already and i think that will happen even more so as technology continues to break down some of the old business models and distribution chains.
At pretty much every step on the way from the crowdfunding to the printing this book has been an exercise in utilising networks, tools and technologies that didn't exist 10 or 15 years ago. There are upsides and downsides to that but on the whole I think it's a net positive.
The Renew approach has attracted criticism from quarters who claim it encourages gentrification. Where do you stand on that idea? And if it does, is that a bad thing?
I find debates about Gentrification to be frustrating as often people tend conflate a whole bunch of different things under one term some of which apply to us but many don't. Broadly, I think it's really important to start with the specific context that you're discussing. That's why it was really important to ground the book in the lived experience of Newcastle. I think a lot of criticisms and concerns come from extrapolating the experiences of other places -- inner city Sydney and Melbourne, or Berlin or Brooklyn or San Francisco that are very unlike Newcastle.
You also have to be really clear about what alternate futures and scenarios you are comparing it against. In 2008 Newcastle was a city with 150 empty buildings in the two main streets, where a lot of places had been empty for a decade and where the major plan forward was to build a shopping centre. Today hundreds of people have started new local projects and businesses. Dozens of them have gone on to take up permanent leases or buy buildings and you have the emergence of local and locally owned economy where the alternate scenarios were emptiness or chain stores. I think that's a good thing on the whole. It's not without its problems but it is a far more desirable outcome than any of the realistic alternatives.
So what does that mean? Are we looking at a dystopian future where we trawl through the ruins of our post-industrial cities looking for found objects to craft into products for our Etsy stores?
That may be the dystopian present in some places!
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about your work and Creating Cities?
Yes. Buy it! (By clicking on the image below)
Marcus Westbury is a broadcaster, writer, media maker and festival director who has been responsible for some of Australia’s more innovative, unconventional and successful cultural projects and events. He has also worked across a range of media as a writer, producer, director and presenter covering fields as diverse as culture, art, media, urban planning, sport and politics. His website is here, and he goes by @unsungsongs on Twitter.
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