On St Georges Terrace there is an office that is divided not by wooden partitions but by open art-deco windows, and flowerpots tumbling with vines. Painters and staff from a not-for-profit lean over them to discuss an upcoming art auction.
In an Osborne Park building – past piles of dismantled electronics and LED lights – sculptors consult with engineers about the technicalities of a large-scale prop they’re constructing for an experimental music gig.
And across the way in East Perth, in a neon-splashed warehouse, there’s a long wooden table around which artists, food producers and entrepreneurs break bread in more ways than one.
Gone are the days of the solo artist, crafting in confinement (and perhaps even squalor). Now, Perth’s streets are lined with slick multi-purpose offices and eclectic warehouses set up with the intent of bringing people of different disciplines together for collaboration and innovation.
Says Nic Brunsdon, co-founder of space-sharing initiative Spacemarket, they’re just what Perth needs.
“We need that density, that collaborative spirit,” he says. “Because Perth is so sprawled – it’s so loose, the suburbs just stretch on forever – if you’re not working with groups it can be really isolating and hard to have that great interactive bounce.”
Once you start looking for collaborations, you can’t stop seeing them. For example, Nic – an architect – teamed up with urbanist Beth George to launch Spacemarket. To realise their purpose of pairing empty spaces with ‘useful’ people, they enlisted some hands-on help from some big guns, including city councils and mining company Sirona Capital. The results were MANY, the conversion of the cavernous old Fremantle Myer into a bustling artisan marketplace, and MOANA, a contemporary artist-run gallery. Both ventures have led to much cross-pollination and joint ventures between the participating creative types.
Entrepreneur Danielle Mason recently returned after 11 years in San Francisco. When she left Perth, it wasn’t with the fondest of memories: the city was “parochial,” and, either by stubborn council laws or small-town gossip, quick to shut down new ideas. But when she came back, she saw a great change – a vibrant city bustling with California-like collaborations. “It was everything that I dreamed of for Perth,” she says.
“I think this generation of people is able to think outside the box and not scared to make a change. There’s a fierce young upsurge that I can see, and I think it’s all through social networking, through this generation of people being open and able to see what’s going on in other countries.”
Danielle has since created the Urban Coe-Op, a colourful warehouse where artists, producers and social entrepreneurs can mingle and create. “There’s a mix of the young and old, it’s just this hip, chill place, and that’s what California’s all about,” she says. “It cuts down on costs, too. It’s cooperative sharing, it’s really smart economy.”
That’s an attitude shared by Brodie McCulloch, founder of co-working venue Spacecubed, where a network of individuals and organisations takes advantage of events, meeting rooms and collaboration opportunities to launch big ideas. Though not strictly for creatives, Spacecubed has collaborated on creative projects like a silent art auction for the Wilderness Society, and counts fashion designers and artists among its members.
“Being here, you have designers next to developers, next to not-for-profit managers next to governments,” he says. “The idea is that if they don’t do something then the person sitting next to them might know something.”
Simone Pileggi, the director of White Elephant Arts, knows a thing or two about this concept. At their Dianella-based warehouse, visual and performance artists reside alongside dancers, filmmakers, fashion designers and more.
“[Collaboration] creates support, a space for people to exchange ideas, and motivate each other through creative lulls,” she says. “It also gives people the ability to learn new skills and perspectives.”
She thinks the internet and new technologies have been major players in driving the process. “Access to social media, creative websites, groups, and forums has provided a platform to display art works en masse,” she says.
“A lot of people are less intimidated to ‘exhibit’ online… I think this immense connection to art everywhere is a major contributor to artists being open to, and excited by, the possibilities that come with fusing diverse artists and skills.”
The Community, a ten-year-old collective of music producers, lyricists and artists, offers this sort of platform for musicians. According to Ashley Hosken, one of the original founders (who has collaborated with artists like Felicity Groom), “having the network there really helps. For us, if someone has a new album, we can give them advice and help them make it a reality – where are you going to mix? Where are you going to market it? How are you going to design it? And we promote the album. It’s a lot about collaboration.”
In the last few years, he’s noticed the trend for collectives growing, something he credits to Perth’s open nature. “In Perth, I think there’s naturally a very inclusive community anyway, there’s communities within communities. You don’t see that dog-eat-dog vibe, people are really supportive,” he says. “There’s a real accessibility to the art here. It’s not elitist, it’s something people feel like they could be part of.”
He also imagines Perth’s isolation has helped people to forge these creative connections. “You go to Melbourne, there’s something on every night of the week, Monday to Sunday,” he says. “In Perth, people have a lot of creative time.”
Brodie, who spent years in Seattle, attributes the growth of collectives to a reversal of the creative brain drain, and rocketing levels of immigration.
“There’s a lot of people moving back from overseas, with people wanting to raise families here,” he says. “They’ve got this world experience and they want to see Perth move forward.
“Secondly, there’s also a lot of immigration. There’s a lot of research that shows immigrants bring entrepreneurship, new ideas, new approaches.”
Nic spent eight years in Melbourne and a few in the Middle East. He agrees with Brodie. “There’s
a lot of people from this generation who have lived in Melbourne or Sydney or London or New York, they’ve seen these things and they’re not going to settle for less,” he says. “Now is the right time, we want to have a sense of ownership and creation.”
Plus, with new technologies allowing more and more people to work remotely, some artists simply crave the interaction these spaces confer. Skot MacDonald can relate. As the co-founder of The Perth Artifactory – a “hackerspace”, or communal place for artists, musicians, engineers and IT that allows members to do everything from staging experimental music shows to erecting giant props – he says the communal aspect offsets the dangers of working in a vacuum. “I’m a work-at-home IT person, so I like to hang out with my peers and play with dangerous tools,” he says. “It’s psychologically hard to just keep going, working from home.”
Nic concurs. “You can go pretty crazy pretty quickly working on your own,” he says. “Working collaboratively kills narcissistic tendencies. When you start to share your ideas you’re challenged purely by articulating them to develop them or critique them, instead of just spouting bullshit.”
Even for full-time office workers, the cost-saving capacity of collectives offers something special – a creative playground of sorts they might otherwise not have access to. Just look at the The Artifactory, which boasts a recording studio, a stage, laser cutters, and stacks of electronic apparatus. “There’s definitely cost benefits, there’s no way I could afford a 400sqm warehouse in Perth on my own,” says Skot. “We band together to afford all the tools of our dreams, basically.”
Still, it’s not all easy. When asked if there are any drawbacks to working collaboratively, Skot offers readily: “The politics.”
“You’ve got to have good management structures,” Nic adds. “You need to know what you’re supposed to do and when, otherwise these things can turn into talkfests.”
So are the infamously mercurial temperaments of artists better suited to solitary work? Michael Grau doesn’t think so. A member of the Soup Collective, a cooperative of visual artists, architects, industrial designers and more, he believes the new wave of collaboration is more rewarding than the traditional way of working by contractual style briefs. “People who need briefs are really craving certainty in an uncertain world, so they have some way to go,” he says. “Instead, those that are comfortable with uncertainty are more open to collaboration and work better collaboratively. The truly great go one step further and introduce levels of uncertainty to make the process and product outstanding.”
What about the notion of the rise of collaboration being a departure from the idea of the lone artist? Nic scoffs. “That’s absolute bullshit, that doesn’t exist,” he says. “You can’t be the stereotypical starving artist waiting in the corner for your genius to be found, or waiting for someone to shine a light on you.
“Collaboration is about coming together and creating a community where you’re offering these lost pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
“In Perth, there’s a real sense that we’re all in this together.”