Semi Permanent: Phase Two

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"SP is still run by a small/nimble team. Banksy hasn’t emailed in a while. We’re still using Apple computers (with no partnership attached). The word ‘Design’ suddenly got real popular, while we’ve been talking-up how important it is for over a decade."

Murray Bell, Director, Semi Permanent, 2015

My boss Muz wrote that a few years ago for the relaunch of this very website, which brought with it a new era for what we thought Semi Permanent could be. It also remains true some 16 years after the very first Semi Permanent event, one which bought some no-names like Banksy and Shepherd Fairey to Sydney for the first of what would be an extremely lasting relationship with the harbour city.
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Work by Banksy at the very first Semi Permanent, Sydney, 2003. Most of these sheets were thrown in the trash right after this event. The remaining few are housed in a secret location ;)
In that time some things have changed, and some haven’t. For example, Sydney is still the home of Semi Permanent; the city where we started all those years ago, and a city whose design community includes much of who we think will represent us on a global stage in the future.  It's also still an annual event here that brings some of the world’s most ambitious minds to inspire a future we want to live in – this won’t change. What might, however, is our approach on how best to achieve that, and as the curator, that’s something he gets a say in: "I think it's this idea of a value exchange” Bell reflects at the Semi Permanent studio in Redfern, Sydney. “The experience used to be quite one-way, there was a conversation that took place on stage, and someone listened and took something away.”
Those speakers reflected a subconscious bias towards a certain grade of process: figures like Tony Hawk, Oliver Stone, Bjarke Ingels, Ed Templeton and Roman Coppola, all of whom have their own unique story and path to success and idea on what it looks like. But now, the emphasis is less on connecting with the person on stage, and more with the person sitting next to you. That's the intent – whether it be a WiRED design workshop here in Sydney, a Google Tilt Brush exhibition, the world’s biggest portrait project from JR, or a warehouse-sized retrospective of Radiohead collaborator Stanley Donwood's art – is for our community to band together and co-create a better world as one. It's something we do in person here in Sydney, but these ideas can and should be effectively replicated across the globe. 
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Tony Hawk and Corbin Harris, 2014, Sydney
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JR's 'Inside Out Project', Carriageworks, Sydney. Photo: Toby Peet
It’s a reflection of what we know to be the future of design: one that is without origin and ownership, but collaborated upon to achieve the best outcome for a wider variety of person. “That's a fundamental thing for Semi Permanent, that you don't need to be greedy with ideas. You don't need to own an idea from start to finish in order for it to work and for you to feel better about yourself. I feel sincerely better when I have an idea but riff on it with people; where it evolves and takes on a different direction.”
Again, this would reflect the work we’ve watched some of our most recent speakers take on throughout their involvement with us. Take Billy Sorrentino for example, who left his post as Creative Director for WiRED to join Jony Ive’s design team at Apple. Scott Dadich directed the incredible Netflix series Abstract: The Art of Design while opening up his own firm, Godfrey Dadich Partners. David Caon has designed the entire interior of the new QANTAS Dreamliner, and designers for companies like Netflix, Airbnb and Ace Hotel continue to redefine their category experience for a new type of global citizen. "There's a natural filter that already occurs with the people we associate with: from the speakers we program into our event, to the workshops we host, the people we communicate with, the people publishing our books...there's a natural, subconscious filter of people designing systems for a better world."
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Left: Toby and Pete for Lexus Australia.
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Right: Haydenshapes / Jason Woodside Exhibition. Carriageworks, Sydney
So the event is the first thing. The second, which you will begin to see over the next few months, will see us activating our network of professionals, students (and everyone in between) to change the way we design solutions to world’s problems.
As Bell said in his initial letter years ago, the last few years saw the word ‘design’ thrown around a lot. But with this in the background, many designers in our own backyard – like David Caon, Henry Wilson or Hayden Cox for example – made it big while doing things their own way. “The people here I find the most interesting are designing with less attention paid to ego and more to sustainability, which is something to be extremely proud of.” But that’s not to say our design movement exists in its own silo. “There isn’t a problem in Australia that isn’t affecting someone else in the world. When David (Caon) designs something for a plane, that plane then flies to another country and has impact there. When Google designs a VR system in San Francisco, it impacts us here in Sydney. Design is a global thing, but the opportunity is immense…The next generation will look down upon people who focus only on their country."

I think the community as a whole is getting more and more intrigued with this idea of a higher purpose: of talent and ideas serving a greater good and a greater message.

Murray Bell

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Left: Stanley Donwood and Thom Yorke's 'The Panic Office'.
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Right; Google Tilt Brush x James Jean x Sharni Spencer

We’re stuck in this weird rut of thinking we need to work from 9-5, and that we need to work for particular clients to pay for things. But the new generation will call bullshit on that, and that’s going to be really fun and exciting. And for all those things: education, communication, the live experience, just doing good work, Semi Permanent is going to have a role to play. 

Murray Bell

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Stanley Donwood and Thom Yorke's 'The Panic Office', Carriageworks, Sydney
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And of course, as the trends and habits of a generation change, so will we: "There's a new generation of kids who don't want to buy houses or cars; who are more than happy to float around the world and spend their time and effort on jobs and projects they care about, instead of working on campaigns that you might not have a strong connection to. People are beginning to understand the value of their time." And so, Semi Permanents role as a mentor becomes more and more obvious. "There is an opportunity to be this really neutral, complimentary, supportive platform that is your inspiration, business partner, travel companion, networking tool, employer...or the company that can pay you to do what you want to do."
So the question remains, what can the design community do in the meantime to prepare for it all? The first thing Bell was quick to stress is that you don’t owe Semi Permanent anything. “We want to earn people’s attention and their collaboration and their time and the things we are doing and things we are doing more in the future will be honest and great things.”
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Nike on stage at Semi Permanent 2017. Carriageworks, Sydney. Photo: Toby Peet
The second is that we are limited only by the size and ingenuity of our community. Whether by your discipline, workload, or availability, bringing your whole self to the table makes you are a contributor – and that’s a good start: “However your ideas are ingested, you just need to work out which ideas you want to hold on to and which ones you're willing to let go of in the pursuit of a greater idea. If you just dilute things down to their core and how they mean and how it makes you feel, as long as the idea retains that, then that's an idea you can be proud of.”
“Be patient with us. we've got fascinating and exciting ideas that don't exist because there's a natural order to things, but we're coming.”
Semi Permanent will return to its Sydney home in 2018.
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