FORM Project Managers Rebecca Clarkson and Rhianna Pezzaniti spoke with Samuel J. Cox about “building a state of creativity.”

In April this year, FORM’s Festival of Urban Art and Ideas- titled ‘PUBLIC’- will return, extending to include The Goods Shed, PUBLIC Platform and PUBLIC Campus. We spoke with Project Managers Rebecca Clarkson and Rhianna Pezzaniti about FORM’s mission to continue “building a state of creativity.”

A later incarnation of Craft West, once the peak body in the state for craft practitioners (‘craft’ meaning 3-D artwork of any medium… not knitting), FORM “uses creativity as a lens to examine, and develop innovative solutions to, city-wide challenges. These aren’t necessarily things that are ‘wrong’ with society, but things that simply exist because we are humans living in a city. These challenges include social housing problems, boring, poorly designed public spaces and under utilized areas that have very strong stories that we want to disrupt. It can even just be about engaging more people with culture, creativity and design thinking,” Clarkson says.

Copy of A Image, Form 4, Bewley Shaylor

The independent, non-profit arts organisation is based out of a Murray Street head-office with a staff of twenty, and satellite bodies in the Pilbara and Northam. Established in 1968, a series of intangible, behind-the-scenes successes have been recently complemented by FORM bursting into the public consciousness with the launch of its multi-year festival PUBLIC in 2014.

Managed by Pezzaniti, the festival is responsible for the highly visible, brightly coloured large scale murals that have enlivened over one hundred and forty specific walls or sites in Western Australia. It has also impacted sixteen communities – from Victoria Park to Leederville, Northam to South Headland. She and her team select and contract artists, work with the different site locations and arrange council approvals and permissions.

“PUBLIC looks at how we can use creativity for a public good. Taking art to the street to encourage broader audiences, and examining how to use the artistic process and creative thinking to tackle some challenges the city has faced,” Pezzaniti says.   

Clarkson is part of the management team of Platform, a ‘social experiment’ and new addition to the PUBLIC program in its third year. From April 1-3, to coincide with The Goods Shed opening, Claremont’s Bayview Terrace area will host pop-up place activation and installation prototypes.

“Just as we’ve used street murals as an engagement tool for non-traditional arts audiences, Platform is about using digital and three-dimensional installations in the same way. We’ve openly invited anyone familiar with design-thinking and place making to come forward and activate the public realm. We’ve also targeted design houses around Perth and particular organisations that we’d like to see submissions from,” Clarkson says. “The teams that make it through the selection process will receive seed funding to assist in the production and fabrication costs of their installation prototype.”

Copy of A Image, Form 3, Bewley Shaylor

Western Australia’s first ever prototyping festival, across two days, PUBLIC Platform is about providing a ‘big bang’ to launch The Goods Shed. Envisaged as a hub for commissions, exhibitions and installations, for artist and thinker residencies, the new Claremont facility is a response to the lack of cultural resources and the decreasing participation in cultural activities in the area. It is also seen as the answer to the questions raised at PUBLIC 2015’s symposium – “are we livable? are we engaging? do we keep people here?” Pezzaniti suggests “there’s a need to liven up some of the underutilized places and spaces in Claremont, so it seemed like a good place to test out these new ideas.”

Platform was conceived because of what Clarkson and Pezzaniti describe as reticence to citizen-led intervention in Perth. “We want to remove the red tape and the bureaucracy that stops people playing around with public space, and encourage and demonstrate how people can take responsibility for the places they live in. We’re giving people access to one of the last heritage remnants in Perth, and asking ‘what would you do about it?’ Not, what would the local council or state government do about it, but what would you do about it?” challenges Clarkson.

A graduate of environmental science and sustainable development, Pezzaniti found her start with FORM as an intern studying cities and innovation. Clarkson, who has a background in local government, started around the same period. “I spent some time working with the City of Fremantle and the City of Melbourne. Both councils have done great work activating spaces and building cities that feel very organic when they are actually designed solutions. Through this, I’ve been aware of FORM’s work for 8 or 9 years, and really believe this organisation has been a game changer for Perth. We wouldn’t be where we are today as a city without their efforts, especially the work in 2008 – 2010. We’ve had a hand in the refurbishments of the Perth airport, the huge developments around town and in the changes to WA’s liquor licensing laws – all small things that add up to create a city where there is so much more going on.”

In 2000, current Director Lynda Dorrington came on board and led the team in a new direction. Pezzaniti observes, “We’ve become an organisation that is not just about visual arts any more. We’ve widened our scope and morphed into a beast that also looks at community development, urban planning and design and placemaking.”

Clarkson concurs. “While I only became directly involved with FORM 3 years ago, I think there were 2 big programs that really changed our direction and how we defined creativity. The Designing Futures Program (2001), which looked at creating a really strong design industry in Perth, and Creative Capital, where people like Charles Landry, Al Gore and Richard Florida were brought over for ‘Thought Leadership’- extended thinker and residence programs. These people were working in the spaces of cities and city building, and asked ‘what can you do to make this place the best it can be?’”

“The way we work is very different to other organisations. Our hugely diverse team includes anthropologists, writers, community developers, artists, scientists and designers. We’re like a Matrix, because we can very quickly form cross-disciplinary teams to implement and manage new opportunities.”

Claiming an entrepreneurial approach to sourcing funding, Clarkson says FORM is only 5% government funded, “which is very unusual for a peak body and state based organisation. We derive some income through public art consultancy, working with property developers and state government to conceive and build public art commissions.” The rest comes from major partners, mainly BHP Billiton, donors and crowd-funding.

Rather than investing solely in West Australian talent, the organisation is responsible for bringing droves of international artists to Perth. In its first year, fifty artists painted forty walls and buildings in WA. In its second, FORM facilitated the transformation of another seventy walls in neighbourhoods across the state. Local artists, such as Perth hero Stormie Mills and the now Melbourne based Timothy Rollin, had the opportunity to work alongside international heavyweights, including the Belgian ROA and the Argentinian Jaz. Investing in this soft infrastructure has formed networks that allows practitioners to expand their reach.

“The intention of PUBLIC’s mural program was that it would professionalize the industry, and that has really happened. We’re constantly contacted by people wanting their own walls transformed. There’s more opportunities for artists because of programs like ours pushing the boundaries and normalising the practice,” says Clarkson.

A Form, Image - Bewley Shaylor

Pezzaniti hopes to one-day lure the artists Blu and Escif to the festival because the beauty of their work is partnered with “some very significant opinions and meanings that would challenge Perth,” while she’s eying up the old Mines and Petroleum building at the end of Adelaide Terrace and the big Western Power building on Wellington Street as future sites.

With the estimated attendance in 2015 at 45-50,000 punters, and two accolades at the Design Institute of Australia WA Design Awards, the state-wide project has encouraged audiences in Perth inner city, urban neighbourhoods and wider WA regions to engage with and question their familiar surroundings in new ways.

While 2016 marks a reduction in the scale of their programming, the organisation is going for more depth. The large scale murals will be concentrated at Curtin University (at least UWA has Subway and Boost – thanks Liberty!), and there will be fewer artists participating, though Pezzaniti promises big name artists. In contrast to the prominent 2015 Symposium, this year it’ll be scaled-down, with fewer speakers at events staged across the year to “extend the conversation,” Clarkson says.

Focused upon and deeply rooted in Perth, there is no intention to look East beyond getting its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art studio, Spinifex Hill, represented to “really open the market for those artists. We are a uniquely West Australian organisation and know the conditions best here. There’s still much more work to be done,” the project managers conclude.

Words by Samuel J Cox

PUBLIC 2016 Festival of Urban Art and Ideas runs April 1-10 at venues across Bentley and Claremont, across Curtin University for ‘PUBLIC Campus’ and in the Wheatbelt for the transformation of more yet-to-be-announced silos.