Who stole the Southern Cross? A cautionary tale for public art

Howard Freeman mural at end of Southern Cross station shopping mall

The best way to appreciate Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station is to close your eyes. Echoing calls for ‘Traralgon’, ‘Mildura’ and ‘Warrnambool’ conjure the image of a monumental rail hub in the southern capital of a great southern land. But open your eyes and you are in a very different world. In this ubiquitous brand-scape, every conceivable surface is covered by advertising clamouring for attention—hanging from the ceiling, around pillars, carpeting the floor, moving up escalator rails… How could this happen? And what future does it beckon for art in the public domain?

There were high hopes. In announcing the new name for the old Spencer Street Station in 2001, Premier Steve Bracks invoked the Southern Cross as a symbol for many shared stories—not only multiculturalism and federation, but also ‘democracy and freedom because it flew over the Eureka Stockade’. But there is not a Southern Cross to be seen in finally emerged. Despite being a public transport facility, the government has little control over the look of the station. Instead, the station follows the interests of a Private Public Partnership, involving the superannuation body Industry Funds Management, under the management of a private company, Southern Cross Pty Ltd.

There actually had been funds set aside for public art, but these were taken up by the relocation of the mural originally commissioned from the ‘state artist’ Harold Freedman in 1978. The mural depicts the history of transport in the first 100 years of Victoria and is now visible at the end of the extensive shopping mall, far away from the actual station. There are no plans for any public art reflecting the station’s new identity.

So what? The public has a better transport facility, and a bright new shopping mall as a bonus. Yet the story of public transport in Melbourne this century has been dominated by dysfunction, particularly violence against vulnerable minorities. The ultimate message of developments like Southern Cross is that the world is constituted by individual desires, rather than common interest.

It’s easy to forget that things could be otherwise. In 1978, the Victorian Government initiated the Transporting Art project, which commissioned 40 painted trams from artists over 15 years. City streets were adorned with mobile works by artists including Howard Arkley, Trevor Nichols, Gareth Sampson, Alex Danko, John Nixon and Les Kossatz. The program was initiated in the renaissance of public art under Rupert Hamer, which also saw the establishment of the Victorian Arts Centre, ACCA, Sculpture Triennial and Meat Market Craft Centre.

This ambitious period of cultural programming and infrastructure culminated in Federation Square. By 2001, Victoria’s public transport had been privatised, but the energies awakened by the painted trams resurfaced in a campaign of resistance by sacked conductors. Through performances like the Full Monty outside the GPO, conductors turned cultural activists argued for a restoration of human contact in public life.

Allied with this campaign, the Tramjatra project, led by Mick Douglas, established a solidarity between Calcutta’s endangered tram system and Melbourne’s transport resistance. For Douglas, Tramjatra was an expression of ‘globalisation from below’: the tram was a site of popular culture to counter homogenisation of urban life produced through advertising. Its most visible manifestation was a garish loud Karachi tram that trundled Melbourne’s city circle during the 2006 Commonwealth Games.

Apart from these renegade projects, the privatisation of Victoria’s public transport has undermined possibilities for public art. As profit-based companies, the new operators have capitalised on their exposure to the city’s mobile population with saturation advertising campaigns. This is exacerbated by the Adshel structures through Australia that offer shelter in exchange for product promotion. In Melbourne, there have been some proposals to commission artists to adorn the new tram ‘superstops’, but the problems associated with introduction of electronic ticketing have meant the government is reluctant to be seen diverting its energies on non-essential activities.

There have been some private and local initiatives. For 20 years, Melbourne’s first Artists Run Initiative, Platform continues its program for commuters passing by through Degraves Street subway coming and going from Flinders Street Station. In 2005, the Committee for Melbourne initiated Moving Galleries, modelled on projects in London and New York, which features work by poets and artists in train carriages. In 2007 they produced 1440 posters to travel on 40 trains. This is better than nothing, but it is a relatively minor presence.

There is more activity beyond the CBD. Under VicUrban’s public art strategy, Dandenong City has introduced a broad program that seeks to connect its varied populations. The Sleeper Project with curated by Ian Haig features work by RMIT Media Department alumni. Video are displayed on LCD screens on station platforms, including redundant ticket booths. This include scenes of a indigenous plans (Dominic Redfern), banality of train experience (Tawale Solote), fortune telling (Martine Corompt), a budgie-human hybrid (Zoe Scoglio) and conversations between strangers (Cassandra Tyler).

Pedestrian arteries such as under and overpasses are now adorned with eye-kidnapping images. Anu Patel, an Indian artist now living in England, produced a design for the Noble Park underpass that offers a metaphoric connection between people with a flamboyant river design. Viachroma by Rowena Martinich covers the glass overpass at Dandenong Station with splashes of iridescent paint that illuminate with different angles of the light during the day.

But such developments face a particular challenge now that public imagery now has to swim in a sea infested by predatory messages. How to break through? One particularly incisive project from Dandenong entailed turning a defunct bus depot into a series of discrete works of art. Robbie Rowlands’ contribution was to make a series of cuts through the floor to peel back its surface. The effect is similar to the sculptural work by Nicholas Jones who wields a scalpel to expose the inner tissue of books. These seeming destructive acts open up a dimension of materiality beyond the spectacle.

So how can we cut through the advertising? Given the capital at stake, it may seem hard to imagine state and local governments holding back the tide of advertising. But elsewhere under the Southern Cross, one city has radically reversed the trend. In 2006, São Paulo adopted the ‘Clean City Law’ which prohibited all outdoor advertising. Suddenly, the biggest city in the southern hemisphere removed more than 8,000 billboard sites, stripped the buses and discovered the reality behind the glossy image.

The law against outdoor advertising was enacted by a conservative mayor in order to combat the rampant expansion of illegal hoardings. As you might imagine, the legislation was denounced by the advertising industry. Some raise the spectre of old communist East Berlin as an example of how drab life can be without advertising in the streets. But the ‘clean city’ has proved a hit with Paulistas. The city’s retailers have adopted alternative strategies, including colour-coding that add to the environment, rather than distract from it. The vacuum has been quickly filled by a vibrant new street art. The distinctive ‘straight tag’ calligraphy of pichação (dirty scrawl) has recently been recognised in an exhibition at the Cartier Foundation in Paris. As local design writer Adelia Borges says, ‘For São Paulo it is a wonderful thing. The city can speak!’

We urgently need to weave a fabric on which strangers can relate together. It may be a new medium, like screens that accept text messages from passengers. Or even something, old—a state artist for the 21st century who can lend their skill and creativity to craft an enduring image of the many cultures that come to form a city. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, ‘If you board the wrong train, it’s no use running along the corridor in the other direction.’ It’s time to change trains.

Kevin Murray is Adjunct Professor at RMIT University and an independent writer and curator (www.kitezh.com). This article was originally published in Artlink issue Art in the Public Arena Vol 30 no 3.

2010

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Contemporary jewellery in Australia and New Zealand

Contemporary Jewellery in Australia and New Zealand is a book project with New Zealand writer Damian Skinner

Jewellery has a unique role to play in representing place. With the heritage of craft techniques and their own individual imaginations, jewellers are able to transform the world around them into wearable ornament. Thanks to their jewellers, it is possible for Australians and New Zealanders to display a complex and engaged relationship to place.

The aim of this book is to both provide an archive of information about recent history in facts and images, and engage jewellery in a broader argument about sense of place.

This book will recount the development of the contemporary jewellery scene in Australia and New Zealand from the 1960s. The two scenes run alongside each other, at times parallel, other times crossing and sometimes divergent. Both scenes can be read as attempts to make sense of what it is to live on the other side of the world to the cultural centres. In this quest, they have both been influenced by German modernism, particularly with visits from Hermann Junger and Otto Künzli. While in New Zealand the language of local materials has been much contested as a means of Pakeha expression, in Australia there has been a divergent tension between the immediacy of found materials and the excess of ornament.

Sangam – Australia-India Design Platform

1. A Platform for Creative Partnership

The Australia-India Design Platform is a three-year program of parallel forums, workshops and pilot study. It aims to build a common understanding between Australia and India about how designers and artisans might work productively together. This platform is a step towards the development of a Code of Practice for Creative Collaborations, which will create new opportunities for designers and craftspersons by supporting the ethical and storied value of cultural products.

This Platform will be built on mutual respect, frank discussion, creative play and a focus on long-term outcomes for both designers and artisans.

2. Aims: Sharing ideas and skills

  • To create new opportunities for designers and artisans
  • To consolidate existing experience about Australia-India partnerships
  • To develop innovative strategies for cultural sustainability
  • To find a contemporary understanding between Australia and India, village and city
  • To contribute to the development of the Code of Practice for Creative Collaborations

3. Program

a. Map a consensus through the life-cycle of product development

b. Pilot study

To test out the consensus with a particular traditional craft:

  • Residency for Australian designer
  • ARC Linkage research evaluating its progress

c. Case studies

To share knowledge gained by those who have experience working in both countries:

  • Online profiles
  • Online discussion forum

4. Partnerships

  • Academic partner: Ethical Design Laboratory
  • Industry partners: Australian Craft and Design Centres, including Craft Australia and Craft Victoria; National Association of the Visual Arts; Arts Law
  • International partners: Icograda, World Craft Council
  • Indian Partners: Craft Revival Trust, Jindal Global Law School, National Institute of Design, Craft Council of India, Delhi Arts Residency
  • The Code of Practice for Creative Collaborations will be administered by the New Traditions Foundation

This project is currently open to partnerships with organisations that are engaged with product development. There is also interest in potential partners who are interested in providing venues for discussion, both real and online.

For more information, please visit www.sangamproject.net. For a philosophical context for this, please visit www.thetwohandsproject.net.

The Low and High Road in Australian Jewellery

Humble beginnings

Jewellery has played a role in Australia’s emergence as a nation. Inspired by the Arts & Crafts Movement, Australian flora began to appear in brooches and centrepieces. But much of this was still made in England. Until the 1960s, the Australian jeweller was mostly a tradesman equipped with technical knowledge and skill in manipulating metal and setting stones. These resources were used to fulfil commissions for relatively timeless standards such as the engagement ring. It was only in the 1960s that jewellery schools like that of RMIT began to encourage jewellers to consider the possibility of creating their own designs. The shift towards greater autonomy came partly through the intervention of European jewellers who migrated to Australia.

The influence of migrant jewellers was particularly strong in the 1970s. In Melbourne, Wolf Wennrich, an ex-student of Friedrich Becker, encouraged students to think of themselves as artists, using the medium of jewellery to express their inner visions. About the same time in Sydney, the Danish designer Helge Larsen established the Jewellery and Silversmithing Department of Sydney College of the Arts where jewellery was positioned as an art form alongside others, such as sculpture. It was here that Margaret West was able to develop such a powerful poetic practice evoking the resonance of such base materials as pebble and lead.

The opening of Australian jewellery to the world continued in the 1970s, with range of distinguished visitors including Arline Fisch, David Poston, Claus Bury, David Watkins and Wendy Ramshaw. Of particular significance was the visit in 1982 of the Munich professor and ex-student of Franz Rickert, Hermann Junger. Junger’s extensive three-month tour enabled him to have personal contact through workshops and social activities with most of the contemporary jewellery scene in Australia. As a primitivist, Junger was intensely interested in the direct engagement of the world, not beholden to received notions of preciousness. This aesthetic resonated greatly with the emerging Australian scene.

One immediate effect of Junger’s visit was to strengthen the link between Australia and Germany, principally through Munich and Melbourne. Australian students began to travel to study as part of the Munich Academy and Junger’s successor Otto Kunzli made many subsequent visits to Australia. In 1995, Gallery Funaki opened as a gallery in Melbourne that would operate as a southern showcase for the European jewellery world that was centred in Munich.

More broadly in Australia, Junger’s visit reinforced the challenge in jewellery here of connecting with the world at hand. This was reflected in two particular themes—nature and the body. In the case of nature, there was an avoidance of literal representation, such as the gumnut, which might be confused with cheap tourist souvenirs. As we will see, there was instead an attempt to capture in jewellery a more phenomenological engagement with environment. Through events such as the 1980 touring exhibition Objects to Human Scale, the body was identified as the domain proper to jewellery—what distinguished it as an art form. As the gallery wall was to painting, so the human body was to jewellery. The artistic impulse remained the same.

Meanwhile, state galleries and museums developed strong collections of contemporary Australian jewellery thanks to generous funding and government subsidies. Thanks to generous support of the Australia Council, and the work of organisations like Craft Australia, the relatively young Australian jewellery scene was able to engage with more established scenes in Europe and the USA. In 1984, Helge Larsen organised the exhibition Cross Currents, with jewellers from Australia, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands, each selected by key figures from their own countries. As this toured these countries, it presented a story of Australian jewellery in dialogue with the wider world in the north. As Larsen concluded in the catalogue, Australian jewellery offered ‘a freedom from traditional values.’

This quest for freedom was not foreign to contemporary jewellery. In contemporary jewellery, this poor aesthetic is most evident in the turn against the legacy of precious metals and stone. In their place, jewellers embrace materials considered either profane to jewellery heritage like plastic or inherently worthless such as rubbish. Ralph Turner’s 1982 exhibition Jewellery Redefined laid down the battle lines between the traditionalists and moderns. Peter Fuller responded, ‘I never thought I would live to see the day when it became necessary to say diamonds are a better friend to a girl – or boy come to that – than used cinema tickets.’[1]

Ripples of this continued to be felt through contemporary jewellery, such as the contest that emerged between two Dutch jewellers in 1985, when Robert Smit reintroduced gold into the jewellery repertoire, to the dismay of Gijs Bakker. This stimulated a contest between craft and design within jewellery—the traditional skills of the craftspersons opposed to the conceptual creativity of the designer.

Preciousness is highly contested in Australian jewellery. The modernist approach seeks to find ways of dignifying the ordinary world. This low road contrasts with the less-travelled high road which embraces the rich aesthetic in the use of precious materials and homage to tradition. The low road takes us back to where we began, while the high road leads us ever on.

The Low Road

Back to the bush

In recent times, Australian jewellery has played an important role in this quest to understand our immediate natural world. Marian Hosking was one of the first Australian jewellers to spend a considerable time in Germany. Between 1971 and 1973 she studied at Fachhochschule für Gestaltung in Pforzheim. Ironically, the experience of being surrounded by the jewellery traditions of Europe made Hosking even more determined to find her own path as an Australian. There are many obvious symbols available to someone like Hosking. Australia abounds with unique forms, such as gum leaves and kangaroos. The danger of pursuing these graphic symbols is that the jewellery becomes simply a vehicle for hackneyed visual icons. This doesn’t reflect the creative challenge of finding meaning in the material itself. In dedicating herself only to silver, Hosking was able to concentrate on the language of the metal. Rather than a singular form, Hosking is interested in the texture of nature, its striations and rhythms of movement. While her work can embrace the singular majesty of the giant Errinunga Shining Gum tree, it also draws from the humble suburban flora such as angophora shrub. Hosking’s silver jewellery brings nature a little closer to our world.

Conventional jewellery privileges the stone as the dominant element—the clasp is relatively secondary to the precious material it contains. During her career, Carlier Makigawa has elevated the background function of jewellery as a form of containment. She eschewed metals such as gold and silver in order to incorporate found materials, which to her were more indicative of place. A pebble gleaned from the ground during a walk could speak more to one’s location than minerals extracted from mines in distant places. Inspired by Japanese culture, Makigawa found a way of using a heavily lacquered papier mâche to create forms that had the appearance of metal yet were light enough to fit easily on the body. In her later work where cage-like silver structures framed empty space, the jewellery became more purely about the container. Makigawa’s architectural approach uses jewellery to create unique interior spaces.

South Australia has a small but deeply embedded jewellery culture. The JamFactory Craft & Design Centre has helped nurture metalsmithing skills over three generations. From this soil, Grey Street Workshop emerged in 1985 as a collective to support local creative jewellery practice. It quickly established a core focus for jewellery as a language for our immediate material world. For fellow members Sue Lorraine, Catherine Truman, Lesley Mathews this world was the body, particularly the folds of human anatomy. For Julie Blyfield, however, it was the material environment of the city that engaged her, especially in urban archaeology. She was initially fascinated by lost objects charged with memory. This evolved into an interest in nature, specifically South Australian flora. Like Marian Hosking, Blyfield chose not to illustrate nature literally. Instead she attempts to give expression to the phenomenological dimension of nature in its visual and tactile textures. Blyfield’s work offers a Braille-like engagement with the world. In the pimply surfaces of her work, we witness how the process of making taps out a rhythm of nature. This is the more experiential kind of nature that a postcard fails to represent.

Australian jewellers found through metal a particularly tactile language for reflecting nature. Rather than the sweeping horizons of landscape painting, forms like brooches provided a venue for a more intimate experience with the world.

Downtown

The strength of the Australian jewellery movement lies particularly in its collective structures. In 1980, Workshop 3000 was established in Melbourne as a means of sharing equipment for recent jewellery graduates. It quickly became a creative force in its own right and was eventually led by Susan Cohn. Cohn developed a sequence of highly focused projects that used aspects of modern urban life to invent new jewellery forms. This included her stylised Briefcase of 1987 and series of technology-inspired jewellery for the 1989 exhibition And does it work?

But creating precious ornaments from the profane world of the street is just one dimension of Cohn’s practice. Her capacity to transform the world into jewellery operates in the social sphere as well. Through the use of a rigorous modernist aesthetic, intelligent marketing and personal networking, Cohn has been able to use her jewellery to constitute a particular class. Her iconic forms—the mesh ear rings and donut bracelets—have come to serve as markers of identity for the design elite associated with ‘Melbourne black’. The 2003 exhibition Black Intentions used these social circles directly to realise the final work.

But as with all of Cohn’s work, there are hidden complexities in this arrangement. Cohn occupies a unique position as a designer who embraces craft values. Similarly she provides a way for the cosmopolitan elite in Melbourne to identity with their particular place at the bottom of the world. What is the material that she has chosen as currency for this elite group? For many years, Cohn’s ley material has been aluminium—a strangely humble industrial substance for an urban elite.

Does this betray Cohn’s Australian egalitarian sensibility? There is obvious resistance to a nationalist reading of Cohn’s work. In her 1991 keynote lecture for the Jewellers and Metalsmith’s Group of Australia conference at the Sydney Opera House, she criticised attempts to read Australian jewellery as a reflection of national identity.

If you are someone working in New York or Amsterdam you are not trying to incorporate eagles or turkeys or windmills to locate your work authentically in its national context. The matter of national identity doesn’t even come up. You are a designer/craftsperson/artist/goldsmith, full stop.

Certainly, it would be a mistake to reduce jewellery to some crude tourist motifs. Contemporary Australian jewellery resists this strongly. You will be hard-pressed to find any opal in jewellery galleries—that’s just for tourists. It can still be argued that artists like Cohn are inflected by an egalitarian tenor, which has an Australian base. Yet the broader project she chooses to express this is the contemporary jewellery movement.

The work of Roseanne Bartley provides a deft complement to Cohn’s. Whereas Cohn uses design to create new ornaments for the city, Bartley employs the medium of jewellery to elevate what is left behind in the process of urban consumption. The New Zealand-born jeweller established her presence in the Australian scene with a series of works incorporating parts of obsolete typewriters. Keyboard letters were housed in silver as brooches. Strikers were later joined together to form elegant necklaces. She has followed this with a series on surface archaeology, setting the ultimate challenge of transforming worthless materials like discarded ice-cream sticks into necklaces and brooches.

Like Cohn, Bartley’s work has been placed in a relational context. Bartley takes a more conceptual interest in the way jewellery reflects social groupings. The 2007 exhibition Solutions for Better Living curated by Kate Rhodes brought Bartley and Cohn together in the broader context of user-defined jewellery.

The Australian urban jewellers defiantly embraced the immediate world around them. The jeweller Linda Hughes has found ways of more directly incorporating street signage into jewellery. They are not beholden to a traditional notion of jewellery as the medium of rare materials. For them, jewellery is a way of elevating the everyday.

When opportunity arises…

Sally Marsland is one of the Australians who travelled to Munich, where she studied at the Academy of Fine Arts. She is an experimental artist interested in how jewellery can be employed as a language for the poetry of everyday objects. Marsland’s early work for the exhibition Pursued Realities (1994) included vitrines filled with objects found at the back of friends’ cupboards. Her signature series, Almost Black (2000), included a deliberately eclectic assortment of objects that were brought together solely in the process of being dyed black. Marsland’s exhibition Why Are You Like This and Not Like That? (Gallery Funaki, 2004) included objects partly sourced from an opportunity shop that were all altered in some way—painted, dissected, lathed or cast. As Marian Hosking does for nature, Marsland uncovers a phenomenological layer to things that exists independently of their use or history.

Another Australian jeweller to make the journey to Germany, Helen Britton, has also gathered inspiration from the contents of opportunity shops. She has drawn extensively from outmoded jewellery in a process she calls ‘re-manufacture’. Her recently Lauscha project using German glass-blowers finds a way of incorporating otherwise kitsch ornament into contemporary jewellery. These kinds of collaborations challenge the disdain that is normally associated with popularist kitsch.

Anna Davern has established a strong body of work that draws nostalgically from the world of lost objects. In recent years, she has made jewellery from biscuit tins, sourced in opp shops. Davern counters their kitsch quite literally by physically extracting figures from the Australian scenes. In others, she cuts out kangaroo shapes from the generic imagery on the tin. Davern confronts the same demon of graphic literalness as other jewellers; her escape is to recover its materiality through the detritus of consumption.

The low road seems to be spiralling into itself. For some, it returns us to the natural world harboured in suburban backyards. For others, it directs us to the quotidian world of the street at our front door. And there are those who find a way into their basement filled with a hoard of leftover things. But what of that other road, leading somewhere beyond…

The high road

In contrast to the realism that characterises such a strong thread of Australian jewellery, there is a remarkable minority of artists who embrace the speculative. Particularly notable is Robert Baines. As Susan Cohn managed to combine design and craft, so Baines has been able to follow a career as an artist while at the same time adhering closely to the ethic of making. However, in contrast to Cohn, Baines draws inspiration from the past traditions of his craft, goldsmithing.

While other jewellers were seeking to dispel illusions about Australia, Baines was pursuing those very fantasies. His 1982 international show Misteri Antipoidei featured indigenous materials like mulga wood and granite. The continuing antipodean adventure of Adventures of the ARCHEGOS in 1992 most directly referenced the deep traditions of jewellery. As he wrote for the catalogue,

Archaeological investigation allows insights into the visual language of the ancient goldsmith with correlation of material process and expressions of eternality. These precepts are available to the contemporary goldsmith for restatement as a personal affirmation in the present context.

This restatement was conveyed powerfully in the 1997 exhibition, The Intervention of Red. Here Baines reached back into the archive of jewellery form and technique, with reference to the crown jewels. For Baines, the object is to find a way of manifesting this ancient art form in the present. One technique is the use of the colour red, which he introduces through otherwise profane elements such as the Coca Cola can and reflector lights. More recently he has used red as a way of signalling his authorship in works whose virtuosity of historical reconstruction might cause them to be seen as literal historic artefacts from a lost world. In the case of the 2006 series, Java-la-Grande, this is the speculative Portuguese colonisation of Australia. In these ways, Baines comes close to the other baroque mind of the south, Jorge Luis Borges.

Despite the way Baines cleaves to the sumptuous nature of jewellery as a reflection of wealth and prestige, he leavens his work with demotic culture, filled with celebrities and brands. Behind it all is the artificer, concocting forms that can realise the impenetrable mysteries of our world.

There are echoes of Baines’ approach in a number of other Australian jewellers. Stephen Gallagher is drawn to the elaborate style of Elizabethan jewellery, yet uses contemporary materials such as polymers to replicate their effects. Pierre Cavalan engages with classical themes such as the seven deadly sins, though he illustrates these with found elements. Their work strongly contrasts with the realism of most others, yet still in their use of seemingly worthless materials they continue the story of contemporary jewellery as a triumph of imagination over inherited wealth.

The lonely high road leads to mysterious worlds in other times and places. Yet despite this difference, it is hardly a yellow brick road. The ascending macadam is still made of the common materials that have paved the way below.

Conclusion

The pull of the contemporary jewellery scene resists any singular narrative about national style. In many senses, it is a world of its own.

Despite this, we find a story emerging from Australia that seeks to reflect what it is to make jewellery at the bottom of the world. There are two paths. There are those who seek a modernist path to invent a new jewellery that draws from the elements distinctly at hand in Australia, whether from rural or urban or suburban environments. And there are those who seek to recover lost secrets of jewellery tradition in the very artificialities of contemporary life.

These two paths go far beyond Australia. They weave a way across the South. Next door, in New Zealand, there is the attempt to invent a new tradition with local materials and techniques, while a few take the speculative turn. And we are seeing new paths beginning to emerge elsewhere in the antipodes, particularly in South Africa and Chile.

There are some significant Australian jewellers we have not located on these two paths. The much lauded Mari Funaki has developed a distinctive personal aesthetic that resists localisation. Others are at the early stage of their journey, like Christopher Earl Milbourne, whose baroque quotation indicates an upward trajectory. Any narrative contextualisation of jewellery need to be understood as a provisional framing rather than an expression of national essence.

As contemporary jewellery weaves its path around the world, it continues to grow as a project for finding ourselves anew. We can feel part of a conversation that is growing throughout the world. But that doesn’t stop us knowing where we are.

With this ring… in poverty or wealth.

Reference: ‘The low and the high road in Australian jewellery’  ed Robert Baines, The Treasure Room – Australia Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing (2010)


[1] Peter Fuller ‘Modern jewellery’, in Images of God: The Consolations of Lost Illusions London: Chatto & Windus, 1985 (orig. 1983)

Do you want ethics with that? New platforms for designing trust

Keynote for ConnectED Conference, University of New South Wales June 2010

My apologies first. This is not an academic paper. I won’t bring you an exciting new theory or methodology. What I hope to offer you is an emerging context for design. As the Beninese philosopher Paulin Hountondji says, ‘culture is not only a heritage, it is a project.’ The project in this case is to find a platform for ethical design that is more than window dressing, but offers real possibility for collaboration between the two halves of the world. To be successful, this project will need design educators to prepare students for the opportunities ahead.

So let me lay out the problem.

Which chocolate do you choose?

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Let’s start with a familiar dilemma. You’re having a dinner party tonight. You decide it would be nice to offer your guests some chocolate with coffee after dinner. At the supermarket, you find there are two shelves of chocolates. The bottom shelf promises exotic flavours and organic ingredients. It guarantees to please the taste-buds of your dear friends. But the upper shelf tells a different story. These are Fair Trade chocolates, which may not taste better, but offer a better deal for the people who produced them. Which do you choose?

Increasingly, people are choosing Fair Trade. Why? It could be because they are noble minded and genuinely like to improve the lot of mankind. Yes, that would be nice, but we know human foibles too well these days. Perhaps they are aware of the global inequity. But our inner cynic suggests that rather than confront it by donating large amounts of excess cash, they prefer the easy way out—to assuage their conscience while indulging their appetites at the same time. Alternatively, perhaps they are more concerned to impress their guests. Nowadays, there’s kudos in being seen to support a social cause, whether it’s indigenous welfare or global poverty. Inserting some Fair Trade chocolate after dinner is a subtle way of making the right impression.

Whether you subscribe to the idealistic or cynical reading, ethics is becoming an increasingly important element in consumption. In this paper, I’d like to trace one particular ethical theme as it emerged from colonisation and examine where it might be leading in the future.

Global justice is ‘so 80s’

The very positive story of globalisation as opening societies and markets to international exchange has also unlocked the negative story of obvious inequity in the distribution of resources. This is the story of the ‘other half’—how the North discovered the great potential for wealth in the South and developed strategies for acquiring and keeping it.

As a lucky country, the efforts of colonisers in Australia were rewarded with rich mines and fertile farms, particularly for sheep and cattle. But not everyone was so fortunate. It was the role of missionaries to help those ‘unlucky ones’ dispossessed from their land for the sake of national prosperity. They were not there to stop the march to progress, but as Daisy Bates expressed it, to ‘smooth the pillow of the dying race’. The principle theme here is pity for the inevitable victims of progress.

Since then we’ve become a little more ambivalent about Western civilisation. Indigenous peoples are seen to represent not only an inevitable casualty of our greed, but also a common humanity. It was the Beatle, George Harrison, who in 1971 initiated the alliance between popular music and global suffering with A Concert for Bangladesh, to help victims of the Bangladesh Liberation War. The story of popular charity reached a peak in the mid-eighties, with Bob Geldof’s Band-Aid concerts to aid famine relief in Ethiopia and Michael Jackson’s We are the World, the fasted selling single of all time, dedicated to raising money for Africa.

While noble in its time, such popular gestures seem naive in retrospect. They were big on symbolism and camaraderie, but the link to practical gains was never clear. In retrospect, we might call them, ‘feel good exercises.’

The 21st century heralded a realism in popular mass philanthropy. In 2005, the Make Poverty History campaign, led by celebrities like Bono, targeted the G8 Summit in Gleneagles with a mass campaign involving concerts and silicone awareness bracelets. It was focused on specific systemic reforms, such as the cancellation of debt to third world countries.

While commendable in its realism, such campaigns are vulnerable to the criticism that they imply an image of a passive South that requires the intervention of the all-powerful North. One unfortunate side-effect of such an asymmetrical arrangement is a ‘compassion fatigue’. Our spirits sink at yet another image of starving children with bloated bellies.

Recently, we have seen an attempt to counter the ‘do-gooder’ appeal of philanthropy by making it sexy. The issue of Vanity Fair that Bono edited contained positive stories about a creative and optimistic Africa. And there are now many fashion companies that are marketing their third world roots, such as Juno, a company in New York that places Kenyan fabrics on the cat walk. But this path is inherently unsustainable, as the very feature of fashion is its temporary nature. As Oscar Wilde said, ‘Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.’

With such changes in the nature of popular philanthropy, it is easy to reduce it to the fashions of the day. While we might be pleased that celebrities find it fashionable to align themselves with the fight against poverty in Africa, we know that fashion is cyclical and there will be an inevitable reaction against this in time. Oxfam have sensed this danger and countered with a new campaign that makes a virtue of 80s retro embarrassment, saying ‘giving never goes out of fashion.’ While fashion offers a way out from the smugness of global ‘do-gooders’, it is a particularly fickle conduit for exchange between North and South.

Where does design fit into this? During the history of this popular philanthropy, the world of design tended to be identified with the world of excess. The designer world was one of luxury and splendour available to only a few. But this changed in the mid-2000s. This turn-around for design reached its mea culpa moment with the confession in 2007 of Philippe Starke on the TED video site.

Design has a new global sense of responsibility. In 2007, entrepreneur Paul Polak founded Design for the other 90%, which became a touring exhibition starting at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum. He argued that, ‘The majority of the world’s designers focus all their efforts on developing products and services exclusively for the richest 10% of the world’s customers. Nothing less than a revolution in design is needed to reach the other 90%.’ Design for the other 90% resonates with the Make Poverty History campaign in two ways. First, it re-directs focus of our energies away from personal wealth-making to global justice. Second, it looks for practical solutions rather than symbolic gestures. But as with global philanthropy, this movement is vulnerable to the criticism that it reproduces an essentially unequal world of passive South and creative North.

New platforms

So how do we get ourselves out of this cycle? The solution, in one way, is quite simple, but also breathtakingly complex. The missing piece in this is the voice of the person who is the subject of this attention—the Global South. Has anyone asked them what they want? It’s widely recognised that the global balance is changing and that nations once silenced by poverty are now leading players on the world stage, such as China, India and Brazil. A great challenge for our time is to find a platform on which we can develop North-South dialogue. Such a platform should not just be a conduit for Western aid, but it should also be a reciprocal medium for exchange.

While celebrities have been putting Africa in the spotlight, on the sidelines there are less glamorous but arguably more effective conduits for development. These are alternative economic and value systems that attempt to factor in more than just market values for consumers. They seek to include also the experience of the producers themselves.

Fair Trade

During the 20th century, the Fair Trade movement has evolved quietly in suburbs and villages to provide consumers with a brand that assures them they are supporting the interests of third world producers. Rather than a mere gesture of support, Fair Trade attempts to embed itself in the economic system and so align consumption with philanthropy.

Fair Trade began in 1950 as a program by the Mennonite Church in the United States to further their missionary aims. It eventually shed its religious associations and became a branded product.The first Fair Trade consumer label was launched in 1988 by the Dutch company, Max Havelaar in partnership with a Mexican cooperative. During the mid 2000s, ­­Fair Trade sales of coffee and chocolate increased at a rate of around 50% a year. The advantage of Fair Trade is that it extends a common standard of labour conditions across the entire range of products. But this very standardisation makes it difficult to generalise in the design area, where one size does not fit all.

Chain of Custody

More specific to the design area are codes that relate to materials finding their way into finished products. The Chain of Custody was developed so that when you buy a piece of furniture you can know something about the conditions in which the timber was produced.

The Forestry Stewardship Council, through its accredited organisations, tracks the journey of material across the production process, from the forest to the consumer. It covers problems that may arise in unethical practices, such as illegal harvesting, violation of civil rights, endangering land of biological or cultural value, sourced from natural or genetically modified forest. Certification covers all stages of the process, from forestry, milling, manufacture and sale.

It’s an expensive process, costing around $50,000 plus travel expenses for creditors. But expense is worth it for high-volume companies that can add value through this ethical stamp. While useful in tracking ethics through a supply chain, the Chain of Custody is specific to material worth. It does not apply to intellectual property, which is one of the main components of design value.

World of Good

The World of Good platform sustains a particular set of concepts for reflecting the ethical value of goods. World of Good was founded in 2004 by two business graduates of Indian descent from Berkeley. Priya Haji and Siddharth Sanghvi . With companies such as Disney and Hallmark, they developed mainstream retail product lines for third world artisans. Earlier this year, their brand and related assets were acquired by ebay. Now the World of Good site within ebay offers products made by poor communities around the world.

There are many such online retailers of third world products, but World of Good is distinct in the development of a platform that commodifies trust as a component of the final product. World of Good works with organisations known as Trust Providers, who provide a guarantee that the products they are selling are of genuine philanthropic benefit. These benefits are divided into social and natural. The overall system is known as trustology. An essential component of the trustology is what is known as the ‘goodprint’ that includes details of the product’s positive moral impact. It’s like a food ingredient label, except for ethics.

So with the case of the Cotton Rounded Hill Tribe shoulder bag, the seller has been verified by the Trust Provider known as Empowerment Works. The product’s goodprint includes ‘a cooperative organisation’, ‘produced communally by women in a minority tribal group’ and made ‘from biodegradable materials.’

As a trading platform, ebay enables communication between buyer and seller, as well as a rating system. World of Good has a parallel capacity for dialogue. Each seller has a section on the site where they can communicate with the buyer. However, the basic moral lie of the land is a world of good rich people purchasing goods from grateful poor people. The potential for exchange is quite constrained.

The Two Hands Project

There is a third platform that is currently in development. This is being developed to support an informal dialogue occurring in the world of design. Many designers are now working with traditional communities in product development. The idea is to generate economic growth in a way that does not harm communities, as would be the case with resource extraction or sweatshops. In many cases, traditional crafts have lost their local markets, due to globalisation, and thus have to export their goods if they are to survive. Here designers come providing information about urban markets so that goods can be adapted to fit retail demands.

Take the example of the work by German jeweller designer Martin Dempf. In Rwanda there was a rich tradition of basket-making using papyrus grass involving dynamic designs. With the introduction of plastic bags, baskets were no longer necessary and thus they were no longer being made. The traditional craft was being forgotten. As part of a German development mission, Martina conducted workshops with women to refine the techniques and adjust the designs so that they could be converted into jewellery. Martina was then able to commission finely woven components from the women that she frames in silver. At the same time, the women have developed their own product line of jewellery without silver that they market through a website. Thus a cultural practice make obsolete through globalisation is revived through its transposition into an alternative format for export.

A parallel collaboration is occurring here in Sydney with Koskela designs, who commission Indigenous basket-weavers from Elcho Island to create covers for lampshades that they market for high-end clients. While basket-making is not so endangered as in Rwanda, its production is quite limited to specialist collectors. Koskela enables a bridge between the remote island community and the inner sanctum of corporate Australia.

We know that whenever solutions seem too ideal, it awakens our inner-cynic. While the stories that are associated with such products are generally positive, they don’t bear too close attention. Questions begin to arise. How do the women feel about this process? Is it humiliating to be working the primitive way while their neighbours are off getting an education to be part of the workforce? What was the creative involvement of the women? Was the design created solely by the designer, or was there input from the producers as well?

There is a project currently underway to consider how a stable platform might be developed for both designers and producers. The aim of the Two Hands Project is to open up the question of how the world of design relates to the world of production, art to craft, writing to printing, etc. The main vehicle for this is a Code of Practice for Creative Collaborations, which concerns itself with how a creator and a producer come to an arrangement in working together, and how this is communicated to the consumer. But its realisation extends naturally to a network of designers and communities interested in working together, as well as a forum for discussing critical issues. The Code is intrinsically open-ended, subject to constant review. For instance, there is much discussion at the moment about whether the use machine-tools is a good or bad thing for craft. Views may well change with time, particularly as we understand better the experience of the producer.

The Code itself is based on a UNESCO report, Designers Meet Artisans publication, which sought to present an equitable relationship between the traditional producers and the representatives of urban markets. The first iteration of the Code of Practice is limited to the Asia Pacific region. It will hopefully facilitate the increasing number of partnerships between creative practitioners from Australian urban centres and communities in Indigenous Australia and the Asia Pacific. These creative practitioners include artists, designers and retailers who are taking advantage of the relatively cheap skilled craft labour in countries like Indonesia, India and Vietnam, to produce finely made goods, like the sculptures by Rodney Glick that you might have seen at Cockatoo Island in the Sydney Biennale. There is great potential for both sides in these partnerships. For traditional communities, they have the opportunity to engage their distinct craft skills with the urban experience. Here is potential for the younger generation, otherwise draw inexorably to the cities for their future, to find a means of taking something of their distinct identity with them. And for urban markets, these partnerships offer some relief from the sterile factory processes and connection with traditional values that are important for connections between people and their place.

One of the considerations in such a code is the moral rights of producer. Since the Berne Convention, we have come to accept the moral rights of the creator in areas like attribution. However, the contribution of the producer is left to the whim of the marketing department—with the notable exception of the film industry. This hierarchy is based on the presumption that the contribution of the creator is unique, while its realisation is incidental. This is no doubt the case in many instances, and underpins the process of out-sourcing that has seen manufacturing move to China. But with skills shortages in the West, it is becoming increasingly apparent that craft plays a critical role in creative industries. At a recent UNESCO meeting, the creative director of Lanvin said that he may have to close his haute couture operation because his cutter was retiring and he couldn’t find anyone to replace her. In such cases where skills exercise a critical agency in the design process, it seems better for all that they are accredited and others are encouraged to pursue the honourable backstage crafts.

The Code is designed as a platform for carrying the information of the creative process from the site of production to its consumption. It will contain information about materials, cultural meanings and innovations.

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All good, but perhaps too good. On their own, these elements do little to change the basic lie of the land, where producers labour away making delightful and intriguing objects for the enjoyment of the consumers. Perhaps such a platform can do a little more than provide the ethical consumer with information about their purchase.

Ethics beyond consumption

We see all these platforms developing that provide us with information about the worthiness of the production, but what about consumption? Why does ethical design end at the shop counter?

Along with the customer always being right, it is a taken for granted aspect of our economy that control over goods effectively ceases once the shrink-wrap is broken. We have an ethically made, sustainable product, but what guarantee is there that the consumer will keep to that spirit. Yet clearly one of the great problems in our world is rampant consumption, aided by high product disposability.

One possible answer lies in the legal system, where there exists a particular instrument that seeks to limit the use to which a purchase may be used. The covenant is a constraint exercised on the purchaser. Someone may, for instance, place a covenant on the sale of land so that it be maintained as a wilderness. The West Australian Department of Environment and Conservation provides assistance in those placing perpetual conservation covenants on their land.

A covenant-like system can be found in the area of intellectual property. Through Creative Commons, otherwise copyrighted material is freely available to anyone on the proviso that they use this material only for non-commercial purposes.

There’s an interesting experience applying this principle to jewellery. The Melbourne-based jeweller Vicki Mason has designed a series of brooches that carry a message about communal gardens as a practical step towards Australia becoming a republic. If you see someone wearing one of these, and express admiration for it, then you are likely to be given it. But it will be given to you only if you agree to the same condition, once someone else praises it.

Mason’s project introduces the economy of the gift, whereby an object given to you for free usually entails obligation of reciprocation. Some community projects now entail producing cheap objects to be distributed for free thus creating a sense of obligation in the recipient to give something back, as in the case of the Tsunamika doll produce by Upasana in India.

Luck

But given the sacred precept that the customer is always right, where might be the appeal of the covenant. To explore its potential, there is a project currently underway called Southern Charms which concerns the relatively neglected element of design—luck. To an extent, depending on chance seems the antithesis of the whole design project, yet it is very much an ongoing condition of life.

Traditionally, most jewellery served to either protect the user against misfortunate or ensure good luck for the future. A number of objects survived into the modern era, such as crucifixes. We associate these with superstition. We no longer believe that our fate is controlled by gods, angels or demons. Yet, we still persist in believing in luck. We say ‘good luck with…’

What is this luck? It essentially pertains to a venture where we cannot be sure of the outcome. There are many that we face individually, such as going for a job interview or undergoing cancer treatment. But there are also those that we face collectively, particularly climate change.

The Southern Charms project is about adapting traditional charms to contemporary problems. We are currently in the workshop phase. There have been workshops in Chile concerning responses to earthquake. The Melbourne workshop will deal with the threat of bushfires. The Sydney workshop, occurring this afternoon, has its own particular condition.

In designing for luck, the origins of the object are particularly important—who gave it to you and how it was produced. But its effectiveness also depends on its use. More esoteric objects require a recitation. Chinese charms often need to be place in particular parts of the house. And in most cases they need to be worn to be effective. It’s a fascinating challenge as it seems to go against basic principles of modern design, which aim for durability and adaptability, or smartness. ‘Power objects’ require the intervention of users to be effective. While this might seem a burden, think of the appeal of other household items such as pets and plants, whose very need for our attention is part of their appeal.

Skills for the future design challenge

I’d like to conclude on a note of appeal. In order to realise the potential of a platform like this, particular skills are required. Theoretically, we need an ecological design thinking that can encompass the entire product cycle, including the act of consumption. This will include resources such as Actor Network Theory. Methodologically, we need designers skilled in a creative diplomacy, who can build the trust that is essential to creative partnerships. Much of this can be drawn from the discipline of anthropology, which has learnt the art of patience in reading carefully from a community before jumping to conclusions. And finally, we need students with a curiosity not only about the future but also the past. There is much to be gained in recovering objects that once played such an important part in our lives, like lucky charms, to consider their role and whether can be remade for our urban lifestyles.

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For this purpose, we need designers who aren’t necessarily going to invent magical new objects that drop from the sky. These new designers will be like bridges between two worlds, the North and the South, rich and poor, consumer and producer—two worlds that constitute our increasingly shrinking planet.