Art & Design

Semi-Permanent 2014 Sydney: An Interview With Murray Bell

By Jacqui Thompson
28th Feb 2014

Impressive statistics surround this pre-eminent creative conference: 11 cities; 40 events; over 300,000 attendees; 46 exhibitions; 19 books—and all since 2003, when Murray Bell, and co-founder Andrew Johnstone, launched Semi-Permanent.

As a creative platform Semi-Permanent aims to connect, inspire, propel and explore all facets of the design industries. From graphic design, web design, animation, visual effects and product design to photography, film, graffiti, stop motion, and the list goes on. A week-long conference comprising presentations, workshops, exhibitions, and of course parties.

Despite the worldwide success, Murray and Andrew have decided to re-format, re-focus and refine the Semi-Permanent experience. In 2013 the guys drove themselves ragged hosting 10 events around the world, so this year the focus will be one Australian event to be held in Sydney May 22 to 24, followed by smaller events in the second part of the year in the US, Europe and Asia.

Additionally, the new format will be tailored to suit the individual styles of the incredibly varied bill of speakers, a new era for Semi-Permanent. This notable line-up includes television personality Andrew Denton, pro-skateboarder Tony Hawk, artist Mr Brainwash, advertising guru John Jay and photojournalist Ben Lowy. Tickets go on sale March 4, the event will be staged at Carriageworks.

We caught up with Murray Bell to hear more about the new format, the benefits to being a designer in Australia, his thoughts on creative genius and the design boom in the tech industry.

TUL: Can you tell us about the decision to just run Semi-Permanent in Sydney this year?

Murray Bell: We started in 2003, myself and Andrew, and since then added in more events. By 2013 we did 10 events around the world and that's great, but there was a little switch that kicked in our minds that it's not actually about the numbers anymore, it's about creating a better experience for people. 

Instead we're going to do one or two events in each major region of the world, so one in Australia, two in the US (New York and Portland), two in Asia and two in Europe and we're just going to focus our resources and our experience. 

TUL: Can you believe SP has become a worldwide force? 

Murray: You know I started when I was 21, so there was a lot of risk involved committing to the event and we took on board financial contributions from partners. We ran on pure excitement and took the opportunity, and now looking back on itit is fantastic.

It is largely my job to reach out to the speakers and our partners to invite them to get involved, start that conversation. To look back now, and think these conversations led to the people who have been involved. Next event we have Tony Hawk and some of the most inspiring and creative icons around and it's awesome to think we have built this and been all around the world. It is pretty mind blowing. I'm proud of everyone in the SP team.

TUL: Are there particular presentations that have blown you away?

Murray: There have been a few. I think the one we did with Roman Coppola—that whole process was awesome, he was fantastic. Roman is from an incredibly talented family and he took it upon himself to create something special. He invited his father Francis, his mum Eleanor, his cousin, and one of his best mates Jason Schwartzman, and all these other people into the experience and shared that with the people of Sydney. I remember I was on stage talking to him and having two conversations at once. One with him, and then one with people back in LA, he had connected them all in a Google hangout, so I was like running on full energy trying to coordinate it all but enjoy it at the same time. 

Another person who's probably not as recognised but I really connected with was a guy called Glendyn Ivin, a film director. He's a local who directed the 'Puberty Blues' series and he's doing a new film now, but I had a really great union with him off stage and I just thought he's a great soul. 

TUL: What have you found the audience responds most to?

Murray: In this reinvention of Semi-Permanent we've totally shifted towards not only inspiring, but enabling creativity. So we're really working on ways in which you can genuinely learn and take these big experiences and blossom your career, take it to the next level. 

I think this next Sydney event in particular is going to offer opportunities to actually meet people and create connections. We're working hard on doing that and once again it's a by-product of not running ourselves ragged and doing lots of events. There's obviously a lot of events these days and I feel like some people are doing it just for the sake of it . . .

TUL So quality not quantity . . .

Murray: We're picking artists that really cover all the creative genres and at the same time the partners we're working with have to bring something to the table. 

Tony Hawk is giving a talk at the event, not about skateboarding but about skateboard graphics and creating probably one of the most popular computer games ever made. There's going to be a great conversation between him and Corbin Harris, one of his good friends and co-host of the X Games, talking about creating a brand and seeing it through years of ups and downs in the sport.

John Jay, who is a trustee of Wieden + Kennedy, it's probably the largest independent ad agency in the world, and he's been there throughout all their greatest campaigns. So that's pretty much everything, Nike, Old Spice, Oreos—he's going to have a conversation about evolving a business over that time. 

We've got Mr. Brainwash, I mean he's a guy who's been given an opportunity through the film Banksy created and he will talk about how once you get that opportunity, take it and run with it. 

Then Andrew Denton, he's in Antarctica right now and hasn't done any kind of public appearance for years and he's going to talk about creative risk and failure, which is just fucking cool. I mean he's made some awesome shows like 'The Chaser', 'The Gruen Transfer' and he's going to talk about that and putting your heart on the line, actually believing in something and doing it. He's not necessarily a designer himself but he has this beautiful creative mind. 

TUL: You've mentioned being a creative in Australia helps filter things out and offers a different perspective—do you still feel this way?

Murray: I feel somewhere like LA, it's all about who's pumping the most money into a particular project gets the loudest voice, who's got the biggest billboard, who's on talk shows . . . Where in Australia I feel like that's neutralised a bit and we've got the ability to filter the bullshit and actually look upon particular artists in the light they should be. We have the opportunity to observe from a distance and digest.

This is a tangent, but I had a great conversation the other day with a good friend about what it is to become a creative genius, and I think an example is Wes Anderson. I swear he's a creative genius, whether you like his films or not he's created a genre and gone beyond being a great filmmaker. I was out the other night and there was a Wes Anderson-themed birthday party at the pub and I was like woah, I haven't seen a Martin Scorsese-themed party. 

TUL: Australia has always had a creative impact whether it be in film, fashion, art or music . . .

Murray: Yeah there are many great things about being a creative within Australia: our lifestyle and the way we think about the environment and the appreciation we have. We are comfortable travelling 15 hours anywhere, covering distance. 

Again, I was having a conversation the other day about how it's a shame nowadays film processing is so quick. Back in the day, the time it took to actually take a photo, develop it, have it processed or whatever, that was a natural filter for great work. I think there's a lesson that we can take from being here and that's perspective. 

TUL: What do you see as some of the big things happening in creative industries at the moment? 

Murray: It's beyond graphic design, it's product design and it's the experience of design. The tech industry knows how important this is. There was a race for all tech companies to build things and engineer things, now I feel like it's coming back to a place where things need to function and be designed well and not only aesthetically, but they need to complement us as people. 

So I think that the power is coming to design where we have an opportunity to change the world. Whether it be by storytelling or in the abundance of technology. If you're interested in the tech industry then now is the time as a designer, because they're all interested in design. 

TUL: Has being a dad changed things?

Murray: My fiancé and I have both been in the creative industries and that's great, we have the same passions and appreciation for certain things but I think the best thing is coming home. Though Semi-Permanent is a huge part of my life, coming home to my daughter just surpasses everything. It's nice to think there's something bigger than just work. 

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