With 27 speakers over a 10 hour event, Semi Permanent Aotearoa showed just how much New Zealand’s creative industry has to offer our economic and social rebuild.
It’s a rare thing having 1,000 people in the same room at the same time in 2020. It’s even rarer to have 27 of a country’s most prestigious and talented designers and artists taking the same stage in one day.
But such is the fortune of New Zealand that Semi Permanent was able to go ahead in Auckland in mid-November, showcasing the extraordinary economic and cultural potential of the creative industry in a year that has chilled the sector to its bones.
Semi Permanent has always been a big deal – a preeminent celebration of the success of New Zealand’s artists and designers and why they’re worth investing in. But because of the impact of Covid-19, and the emphasis it’s placed on rebuilding better and smarter, this year’s event carried extra weight. It was free for the first time and organised by Alt Group, Special Group and Auckland Tourism, Events & Economic Development (ATEED).
Dean Poole, co-founder of Alt Group, said Semi Permanent 2020 was specifically crafted to represent the full dazzling spectrum of the industry and its current position at the vanguard of a new and improved economy.
“The goal with that lineup, first and foremost was to represent the diversity of practitioners and creative industries as well as businesses.
“Our hope was to stimulate pathways into the creative industries in the sense of careers, ranging from film and TV all the way through to fashion and product design.”
While the event was naturally influenced by the pandemic, Ben Corban of Alt Group said it was all part of New Zealand’s decades-long plan to lift the creative sector to the economic level of the primary industries.
“We’re a country focused on primary industries; we’re a farming nation and fishing and forestry nation and all those kinds of things,” Corban said. “But the creative sector is growing significantly globally. And it’s a real opportunity for a country like ours that’s considering economic diversification in a meaningful way.
“Globally it contributes about 3% to GDP, and in countries like the UK the value is about NZ$200 billion, which is actually the value of our entire economy.”
Held at Aotea Centre, Semi Permanent’s diverse lineup certainly showed the extraordinary influence the creative sector had on every aspect of New Zealand’s economy, from art galleries and start-ups to giant NZX listed multi-national companies.
Among the ranks were fashion designer Kiri Nathan, artist Lisa Reihana, video game developer Dean Hall and GM of industrial design at Fisher & Paykel Appliances Mike Jensen, each showing their latest work and providing their own take on what it means to ply their unique trade in New Zealand.
While the nuances of their craft and words were all unique, the speakers seemed to have one sentiment in common: this country has a wealth of talent and was on the cusp of something big.
Iconic kiwi designer Kate Sylvester recounted her brand’s origins and growth through New Zealand fashion’s golden age in the 1990s, which emerged from the economic upheaval of the decade before.
“What we have learned in all this time is that recessions can have an upside. When you have mass unemployment and mass business closures it actually creates opportunity. If people can’t find jobs, creatives start creating.
“The city [Auckland] was a cauldron of creatives… there was a flurry of clothing brands: World, Karen Walker, Nicholas Blanchet and of course, us. We all started up out of nowhere with nothing.”
Because of the ethical and environmental-focused changes in the global industry, Sylvester said New Zealand fashion’s golden age was having something of a renaissance – grounded in commitments to human rights and sustainability, rather than at the expense of them.
“The fashion industry is going through a reckoning … but luckily we’re an industry receptive to change. We’re finally learning to cooperate in order to address our challenges and nurture out craft back into our process.
“But what really excites me is the new generation of creatives … New Zealand now feels like the 90s are brewing again – another cauldron of creativity is starting to bubble. But for these new creatives, sustainability and diversity are not optional extras. They’re an intrinsic part of their design DNA and that’s the future.”
Although the event featured numerous speakers from across business and tech, there was a distinctive altruistic and artistic ethos to each session, far removed from you might expect at a business leader’s summit. Money and profit were not the focus. This was a day celebrating creativity for the sake of people and the environment.
The focus on social outcomes was emphasised by Pam Ford, GM of economic development at ATEED, who said the creative industry in Auckland was already a massive employer but was poised to grow with the right investment.
“The creative industries in Auckland account for 51% of New Zealand’s creative sector,” she said.
“More than that, it really adds to our cultural and creative capital. And it employs 53,000 people. We call it an advanced industry because it employs highly skilled people who generate more wages. And that’s particularly important in Auckland when we’re looking to address our young and Māori and Pasifika populations. We want to enable those young people into the highly paid jobs you can get in the creative industries.”
Perhaps one of the most significant themes of the event was incidentally reflected in the line-up itself: the extraordinary value and success of New Zealand’s returning diaspora. A number of Semi Permanent speakers had recently returned from high-profile roles overseas, and their stories and ideas gave an exciting snapshot of what might be possible with the addition of this creative capital.
Jamie McLellan, head of design at Allbirds in San Francisco spoke of his work with the footwear brand (co-founded by fellow New Zealander Tim Brown) and the campaign to create quality, low carbon products out of merino wool and tree fibres.
“We’ve been duped into thinking synthetics are superior, but they’re not,” he said.
“Natural materials offer real hope in the fight against climate change. Everything we do at Allbirds is anchored to the idea of driving carbon out of the industry.”
McLellan also spoke about the company’s investment in regenerative agricultural methods that sequester carbon back into the soil. Regenerative agriculture is another globally booming industry with enormous environmental and economic potential in New Zealand. Its backing by Allbirds was another example of the unique cross-pollination happening between industries – in this case, fashion and agriculture – with a common sustainable goal in mind.
Another speaker and recent returnee was industrial designer Danny Coster who spent 20 years working at Apple. A core member of Sir Jonathan Ive’s team, Coster contributed to the design direction for a wide range of iconic Apple products, including the original iMac and several iterations of iPhone and iPad.
Now living in Taranaki, Coster spoke earnestly of how creativity and human progress is most effectively nurtured through shared experienced and responsibility to the community.
“We’re here to listen and learn, be part of the community, and support the idea of New Zealand being a magnetic brand, the potential for global change and an innovation hub with these types of people, all contributing and to be in a relationship with community, land and sea.”
However, it wasn’t all just rosy celebration of New Zealand’s progress and creative success. Auckland artist Jessica Hansell, better known as Coco Solid, delivered a candid and confrontational speech in which she critiqued New Zealand’s frequent self-gratification, which tended to overlook our abysmal social inequality.
“What I can’t connect with is this false sense of utopia, this synthetic paradise that we literally sell, sometimes to one and other… This is a paradise for who?
“I’m not just a creative. I’m a Māori woman. And sometimes I stand in these spaces in visceral shock because for wāhine like me, from backgrounds like me, artists and advocates like me, this paradise is quite literally a fucking lottery.”
Continuing with her powerful oratory, Hansell condemned the cultural appropriation within the creative industry and the “gentrification” of the psyche and voice of indigenous peoples, which she said was a continuation of colonisation and white supremacy. She closed the day urging a “permanent state of unlearning, interrogation and voluntary relinquishing of status and power” and praised the arts as rongoā, or medicine.
But it was her final sentence which truly captured the essence and vitality of the creative process, something that had been emanated by every single speaker and performer throughout the day.
“Creative thinkers – they doctor the energy, the wairua. Artists are the frequency clarifiers, the mood modulators, the permission givers, simultaneously the visionists and the revisionists. Thanks for listening to me and the multitude of ancestors that I’m comprised of.”
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