By Joan Henson
What if a car park could inspire city dwellers to express their creativity in public spaces? For John O’Callaghan and Melinda Garcia, co-founders of Idea Bombing Sydney, the space says it all – the first public meeting set up by Idea Bombing, a project to inspire creativity within the community, was held recently in the disused mechanic’s workshop of Kings Cross underground car park.
In the first meeting, six speakers advised 150 locals on how to find city areas that could be improved with creativity, and shared their strategies for attracting support for, and executing grassroots ideas.
To the delight of Mr O’ Callaghan, an urban planner and creator of Trending City – a website for sharing global trends in culture, design and architecture – Sydney City Council supported the event. It was included in the ‘What’s on’ listing on the Council’s website, and Lord Mayor Clover Moore sent out a tweet recommending the event.
“The City of Sydney likes to capture things that aren’t necessarily commercially related, like local residents doing something for the community,” Mr O’ Callaghan said after the event. “I feel that there’s space for an event like ours to be supported by Council but not to be branded by Council.”
“It comes down to a domain for discussion, like the ancient Greek agora where people would sit around and discuss society. It’s part of the human condition that space can either inhibit or encourage discussion. The modern world is not so good at providing environments for discussion.”
The disused mechanics’ workshop is now a gallery space established by Alaska Projects, a local artist-run initiative. Melinda Garcia, who is Digital Learning Coordinator at the Australian Museum of Contemporary Art and a board member of Alaska Projects, says that the workshop was chosen because it represents, and is conducive to, innovative thinking.
“You wouldn’t expect an art gallery to be in an underground car park. When talking about creativity, you have to walk the walk, and talk the talk, so using an unconventional space is totally creative.”
Presentations on art, food, architecture, wine, and ideas, were preceded and followed by locals writing their concepts on the Ideas Wall, a wall-turned-blackboard, and pitching their ideas to speakers and one another. The wall was blanketed with ideas, some scrawled over others, or expanded with the input of strangers.
Giving pedestrian-only spaces priority over roads, providing hackerspaces (technical labs) at public libraries, and holding pop-up camping events were just some of the bombed ideas.
Presenters Alexandra Iljadica and Joanna Baker, from the Youth Food Movement – an international network launched in Australia in 2011 – spoke about their mission to build the capacity of youth to deal with the issue of food security and make healthy eating decisions. They explained how local activities that are fun provide a vehicle whereby otherwise complicated and often boring subjects can be explored.
“To raise awareness about the aging farming population in Australia, we turned a food warehouse in the middle of Sydney into a pedal-powered pop-up movie cinema, where we screened a documentary, had a panel discussion, and really got all sorts of conversation and ideas flowing,” Ms Baker said.
To promote sustainable food production, Youth Food encourages young people to grow their own food.
“The average age of the Australian farmer is 60 and we all eat three times a day. If you’re 60 and the majority of the workforce is going to retire in the next five to 10 years, what on earth are we going to eat?” Ms Iljadica asked. “No people are really going into agriculture, so what ideas can we generate?”
Emilya Colliver, founder of Art Pharmacy, is motivated by the lack of inclusivity in the art world, from the inability of talented local artists to gain exposure in big galleries to the lack of public access to expertly critiqued, reasonably priced, fine art. Art Pharmacy, an online art gallery and host of pop-up art shows, gives artists a platform to showcase their works online with individual artist profiles, and makes art more affordable to the public by selling it online and by setting lower commission rates than Sydney galleries.
“I started oil painting at Bondi Arts School and met these amazing artists, and they didn’t have an outlet. The big galleries wouldn’t take them up. So I ended up starting an online art gallery, and I got them all online. It was all for free,” she said during her presentation.
She suggested that collaboration is the best way to bring ideas to fruition, to work with people in the same neighbourhood and think creatively.
“For my next pop-up, I put an advertisement out and said, ‘I need some help please’, and I just sat around asking people what they think.”
After the event Glen Cassidy, co-founder of Cake Wines, explained the importance his brand attaches to the community that supports it. The Cake Wines label, which is the official wine of Tropfest 2013, runs a competition for artists to design its bottle art, gives 25 cents of proceeds from each bottle to two independent radio stations, includes the music of local DJs in its mix tape series, and hosts pop-up bar events.
“People are looking for stories associated with the things they buy,” he says. “They’re looking for other connection points over and above what they’ve seen thus far.”
Businesses are increasingly capitalising on ideas with grassroots foundations. Mr Cassidy says that the technology now exists for grassroots ideas to be more successful outside of their communities.
“Now we have the distribution channels and the tools to create things that we could not have afforded in the past, or had the accessibility to create. Therefore people are out there trying things that they may not have tried five or 10 years ago.”
The Cake Mix Series highlights this point. Garage bands can download music production software over the internet, share their music via file sharing sites, and if they are lucky enough, be part of the Cake Mix series which can be accessed via iTunes.
Reflecting on the event, Stephen Moore, who is Sydney studio leader at urban planning firm Roberts Day, said he was impressed by the way initiatives like Idea Bombing bypass the need for contributors to develop the right contacts or reach a certain stage of professional advancement before being able to contribute among city leaders.
“Sometimes the freshest and brightest ideas come from people who are only starting out but have enthusiasm and passion.”
Mr Moore described how Roberts Day is inspired by the prospect of finding multiple uses for traditional 20th century infrastructure that can contribute to a city’s quality of life.
“We did one project in Western Australia where a major gas pipeline cut through our project and rather than seeing it simply as a gas line and the land sterilised over the top of it, we overlaid a regional bicycle route,” he said.
Jess Nichols, Sydney Awesome Foundation representative, pitched her organisation as a funding option for smaller ideas that are blocked through regular channels. The Awesome Foundation is a global organisation of local city and issue-based branches – like those working towards an open web, and helping to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina – that give $1000 per month to an “awesome” project of their choosing.
Every month 10 trustees invest $100 in a grant, which is given to the creator of the most awesome idea. Hungry Ghost sound walk, where an audio track guides the listener through a gothic play about the history of Surry Hills, was a previous grant recipient. Some Idea Bombers have also received funding in the past: for example, Youth Food Movement for Guerilla Dinner, and John O’Callaghan for Pop-up Ping Pong.
Melinda Garcia, who is also dean of the Sydney Awesome Foundation, says the chapter was chosen to round-up the discussion as its online grant application process and no-strings-attached approach simplify public access to micro-funding.
However, the Awesome Foundation will not be the only funding option that Ms Garcia and her partner will suggest to inventive entrepreneurs seeking a big break.
Crowd-funding is another option that she and Mr O’Callaghan seek to promote, as it can draw broad online support while requesting only small donations.
Ms Garcia says that while the scale of some ideas might prohibit micro-funding, the popularity of the idea might help overcome this.
“It really depends on the kind of idea. There were some ideas that involved major infrastructure, things like turning the monorail into a bike path or a hanging garden that involves the City of Sydney, but it’s an amazing idea and somewhere in the city there is someone who is lobbying for the same thing.”
Ms Garcia and Mr O’ Callaghan want Idea Bombing to run quarterly and use the digital world to develop projects between bombing events.
Josh Eagleton, 24, who attended the event and would like to attend the next one, says it exemplifies the changing times in which we live.
“Social media played a massive part in the creation of it! People are busy these days and time is money. Everyone has opinions on aspects of society and how it is run. Why not utilise social media to share these opinions. It’s a convenient way to put across ideas.”
Jarrah Flanagan, 24, a Fine Arts graduate, says that the use of the car park to highlight the need for creative use of space in Sydney was an effective way to communicate the event’s message.
“A car park would have to be one of the more boring, cancerous urban spaces known to man. Reclaiming this space for creative purposes really highlights what creative individuals and groups need to do in order to make Sydney the kind of cultural city that people travel far and wide to visit.”