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A Crisis of Opportunities

Motivation, inspiration and self-contemplation - this year's Semi Permanent conference has messages that will resonate within the creative community for years to come.


This year, Auckland’s annual design conference, Semi Permanent, was different. 

As creative industries grappled with the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic, the most influential creative festival seized the opportunity to focus on the value of the sector and change things up. There were no financial barriers to access, no international speakers and the bar to do something different and memorable was set high, to say the least. 

The tickets were balloted and freely distributed, and for everyone else, there was an opportunity to watch the livestream for free. It identified the discomfort around the ethics of production and design intertwined with our hope for a more democratising future.  

The focus of the day was to inspire a new kind of ‘reboot’ in this not so post-pandemic world, with audiences reverberating and responding to those brave enough to share their highs and lows on the glorious stage of Aotea Centre. 

The lineup was a true heavyweight mix of Aotearoa’s leading changemakers in the world of design, technology, art, architecture, advertising and screen production, and throughout the very packed day we heard from fashion icons Kate Sylvester and Kiri Nathan, Billy Apple, multidisciplinary artist Coco Solid amongst many others. They all asked us to dream, to question and unlock the potentials and possibilities of design and design thinking for our shared sustainable future.

Semi Permanent crowd turned out in their socially distanced droves. Photo: Jinki Cambronero​.

From typography to fashion, contemporary art to virtual worlds, artificial intelligence and appliances - yes, appliances - the human interaction with design is here to stay.

Long before Sylvester engagingly talked about the hopefulness of recession enveloped in the opportunity born out of creativity, Winston Churchill was famously credited saying, “Never let a good crisis go to waste’’. 

Kate Sylvester. Photo: Jinki Cambronero​. 

Personally, I like Kate’s version better. It speaks to the honest journey of the label she and her partner, Wayne Conway, started from humble beginnings almost thirty years ago to the K-Swan we know and love today. It was a pleasure to hear from Sylvester that “sustainability and diversity are not optional”, while simultaneously acknowledging that “the fashion industry is going through a reconning”. 

It set the future-focused tone of Semi Permanent as a place creatives come together to unlock solutions to our collective and individual futures, “pushing concepts to the fore” and to see these creative industries nurture themselves and their craft back into their process. 

Kiri Nathan. Photo: Jinki Cambronero​.

The theme of ethical sustainable, values-driven practice was further extended by fellow fashion designer Kiri Nathan. For this Māori owned and operated business, cultural integrity, real relationships and pathways of support are paramount to “building your own pathway” and “standing in your power”. She warned us that ‘stress can block out creativity’ but also added: “You will not be successful in entrepreneurship if you do not know what work ethic is.” 

Billy Apple. Photo: Jinki Cambronero​.

The nature of the grind and work ethic was truly illuminated by (New Zealand’s greatest living artist) Billy Apple and his A-Z visual storytelling that explored his reputation of being ‘too difficult’, always coming second and his time with Hockney in London and Warhol in New York. “Being number 2, you always have to push, push, push and try harder”, he told the audience while conversing with writer Anthony Byrt. The person that became a brand and a trademark banked it all on “the value of a good idea.” 

I do feel however that the best was saved for last. With no visual aids and just pure storytelling techniques, Coco Solid stole the show by challenging the idea of New Zealand as a paradise and providing evidence that for some individuals and their communities, these “strange and uncertain times” are the only times they have truly felt ‘seen’. 

Coco Solid. Photo: Jinki Cambronero​.

Just like anticipation and foreboding in a Shakespearean play, the mastery of Coco Solid to speak about “me and my cooked perspective” showing up as “part artist, part reminder” of the effects of colonisation and globalisation. 

The message at Semi Permanent was clear. 

Good design can be a tool to help us return to the much-needed space of constraint in search for sustainability while preventing our seduction towards the capitalist consumer-driven market. Prioritizing money and growth over people and planet seems to be the thing of the past and as Billy Apple said, that involves “thinking harder”. 

But for those brave enough to step a bit further, I prescribe Coco Solid’s line of “voluntary relinquishing of status and power and giving up the trap.”


Written by

Dina Jezdic

18 Nov 2020

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