About Chris Gibson

Chris Gibson is Professor in Human Geography and Director of the Global Challenges Program at the University of Wollongong, and Editor of Australian Geographer. Follow Chris Gibson on Twitter @profcgibson

Uncovering new urban insights at the precarious interface of creative industries and manufacturing

Late last year the good news came through that the Australian Research Council had funded an application that included two AUSCCER geographers – Andrew Warren, and myself – along with our colleagues Carl Grodach (QUT), Justin O’Connor, and Xin Gu (Monash). Entitled Urban Cultural Policy and the Changing Dynamics of Cultural Production, the goal of the project is to undertake comparative international case study research around the changing dynamics of the creative economy, particularly the emergent relationships with a complex urban manufacturing sector.

Carrington Road, Marrickville, Sydney

Towards the creative economy v2.0?

Policy makers have in recent years turned to the creative industries for potential future urban growth and investment, city marketing and employment generation. The creative economy has been positioned as a central part of a knowledge economy defined by advanced services, information technologies, innovation, and a workforce high in human capital. The creative economy, it is argued, drives consumption, attracts mobile knowledge workers, and improves the city image. Cities around the world have spent considerable sums of money to develop arts precincts, flagship cultural destinations, and other cultural amenities. While the consumption-based approach has generated a few success stories, the reality is that this has had limited impact on cultural production. Further, many argue that this approach has contributed to the displacement of preexisting residents and businesses, including many cultural producers themselves.

At the same time, as part of a broader innovation agenda, cities on the leading edge of urban cultural policy are seeking ways to reconnect cultural industries with material manufacture and craft-based production. Mature urban cultural policy is just beginning to consider how to link the cultural industries with other sectors in novel ways that revitalise manufacturing and tap into new opportunities for the development and expansion of a wide range of cultural and craft industries – generating jobs while avoiding the pitfalls of gentrification.

There is a renewed public and policy interest in ‘making things’, encompassing additive manufacturing, bespoke making, and craft-based production. Opportunities abound to pursue urban economic development strategies that build upon, rather than eschew, industrial, migrant and working-class skills and legacies. Cities that foster and deepen relationships between creative industries and urban manufacturing industries, especially in distinctive precincts where the two sectors often organically co-locate, stimulate local jobs and enterprise formation.

Our project’s goals

To that end, our research project considers the performance of Australian cities against counterparts in the United States, UK, China and Germany, on their efforts to foster and deepen the creative industries/manufacturing interface through spatial planning and policy.

The researchers on this project are: examining the production relationships between cultural industries and urban manufacturing; determining how changing industry, urban development, land use change, technological, and policy dynamics affect cultural production; and identifying lessons for Australian cities to develop new policies around cultural production and manufacturing.

Our first activity for the project was conducting a critical review of existing literature on the creative industries-manufacturing interface, summarising key issues identified and establishing an agenda or future policy development. That review was recently published in the international journal, City, Culture and Society. (If you are interested in reading this, but cannot access the paper due to a paywall, please make contact via email). Related to this, we are currently identifying and analysing specific city-scale policy initiatives from around the world, from which Australian cities could learn. A prominent example is the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center in New York City.

Field work commences

Our second activity is an extensive phase of empirical field work, both in Australia and in cities in North America, Europe and Asia. This field work involves identifying which creative industries and manufacturing enterprises co-locate spatially, and why. As well we are examining what kinds of policy mechanisms are being developed around the world to foster this evolving interface, and their on-the-ground effects.

Sydney is one of the Australian cities included in the study. The Sydney case study we selected in our original grant application was the inner-west suburb of Marrickville and, in particular, two precincts that have both strong industrial histories, with clusters of niche manufacturing activity, and distinctive, growing creative industry concentrations.

Field work began recently at one of these precincts: Carrington Road, Marrickville. In the past few years, Carrington Road has evolved a distinctive mix of creative enterprises and manufacturing firms. In part this is because of its industrial land use zoning, suitable mix of flexible industrial facilities with things like high ceilings, truck access and rigging beams, and generally affordable rent. 

Carrington Road, Marrickville

Craig Lyons, fresh from completing his Masters by Research on the informal urban creative economy at the University of Sydney, has joined the team and hit the pavements with me last week to conduct an initial audit, and preliminary interviews.

We started by documenting all the enterprises present in the precinct. Then, we chose a representative sample across creative industries and manufacturing sectors, and subsequently began interviewing them for information on specific themes, including: employment; locational choices; duration of operation; functional linkages across the city and to other sectors of the economy; and sensitivity to property market fluctuations.

Uncovering hidden gems

Although field work has only recently commenced, it is already clear that this part of Sydney houses an otherwise unheralded cluster of creative industries and manufacturing firms, with impressive diversity, and history.

The largest holding in the Carrington Road precinct is the former General Motors-Holden car plant, which originally opened in 1926. The last remaining Holden plant from this period, this complex has retained its industrial character, now housing scores of manufacturing businesses and creative enterprises, from jewellery makers and clothing designers, to photographers, ceramicists, t-shirt screen-printers, embroiderers, cabinet-makers and architectural leather installation experts (a specialism we didn’t previously know existed). An avenue we aim to explore in more depth in the months ahead is how the changing morphology of the precinct itself mirrors changes in the nature of industrial work over the past 90 years.

Inside Sydney’s leading theatre, film and event prop making supplier, Carrington Road, Marrickville

In addition, we have discovered unique clusters of inter-related enterprises in the theatre, props, stage design and support sectors; niche publishing; food processing and artisanal food production; photography; studio hire (incl. photography, music, theatre rehearsal spaces); fine woodwork/carpentry and architectural installations; events management and related production (incl. bespoke installations, t-shirt screen-printing for the festivals and concert markets); clothing and jewellery design and small-scale making.

Urban redevelopment pressures and uncertainties

Adding to the intrigue is that the very same Carrington Road precinct we have identified for its potential as Sydney’s premiere creative industries-manufacturing interface, is slated for re-zoning, and re-development, as part of the NSW Government’s planned Sydenham-Bankstown metro rail line renewal scheme. The scheme purports to ‘promote urban renewal and development’ through Sydney’s middle-ring industrial suburbs, while ‘also protecting neighbourhood character and heritage’. Whether current plans for the Carrington Road precinct to be rezoned to enable high-rise residential apartment developments fit with this description, is debatable. In years to come much of the precinct may be subject the same real estate pressures that have seen Sydney lose creative industries and enterprises sensitive to rent rises, and that need access to good, functional industrial spaces.

We will be consolidating our findings into an interim report, that we will share with the NSW Government and relevant local council planners and community groups, as well as analysing the data for academic papers, and for future policy recommendations. A new dedicated website for the project is also up and running, where you can stay tuned and learn more as the local and international field work progresses.

Chris Gibson is Professor of Human Geography with AUSCCER and the Director of Global Challenges Program – a strategic interdisciplinary research initiative at UOW. You can follow him on twitter @profcgibson. 

Making space for writing: geography and research writing

Royal Geographical Society, London

30th August – 3rd September 2016

Call for Papers

Making space for writing: geography and research writing

Sponsored by the Higher Education Research Group of the RGS-IBG

Session Organisers: Rae Dufty-Jones (Western Sydney University) and Chris Gibson (University of Wollongong)

Continue reading

What makes a good academic book?

I’ve just finished reading Tess Lea‘s new book on Darwin. It’s a wonderful, if unusual book: equal parts local history and postcolonial critique, exposé and confessional. On its back cover, the book is categorised as ‘travel/memoir’. It is those things, but also much more. There are tender touches and moments of quiet reflection, where one can almost feel the sand of Casuarina Beach in one’s feet. And there are moments of sheer horror: Aboriginal massacres; children caught in violent cyclones, their bodies torn apart by flying bits of corrugated iron; gang rapes perpetrated on local teenagers by American soldiers. The book has all the contradictions, fraught memories, traumas and emotions that come with the genre of autobiographical account, and that encapsulate Darwin, the city. The writing is crisp, fleet, sharp and yet also welcoming and warm. I wholeheartedly recommend it.


Beyond the specific content of the book, reading Darwin got me thinking about a bunch of things related to the practices of authoring of books, to academic labour, and to the choices we academics make when we write. Such things have been on my mind lately, having had a book out earlier this year with Andrew Warren that sought to catalyse an audience beyond the academy, and growing out of on-going conversations with colleagues Lesley Head and Noel Castree about possible future book projects.

What constitutes ‘impact’ for books written by academics? The last book in a crossover/popular nonfiction series (in which each Australian capital city is narrated by a qualified ‘insider’ expert), Darwin looks and feels very different to what we might expect academics to write. There’s ‘field work’ in there, evidenced in interview quotes and the like, but Tess never makes a claim in the text that this is a research monograph. The empirical imperative lurks in the wings rather than being thrust in the reader’s face. Neither is Darwin a calculated exercise in ‘thought leadership’ – that growing genre of short-term op-ed writing that publishers seem to favour. Will academics read and cite Darwin as per other kinds of research output? The book is reasonably short too, small in hand, just right for carry-on baggage. This one will be on sale in airport bookstores, for sure. A different and perhaps more incisive form of public impact?

What risks do we make when we write books? Darwin is a gutsy book in many ways. It names names and white-ants many of the cherished myths of Northern Territory life. It presumably will ruffle feathers in what is still a small, one-university town.

It’s also a book that almost delightfully ignores metric-driven imperatives for academics to produce the ‘right’ kind of research outputs. For it blends erudition and personal stories, in transparent and accessible prose, with no footnotes or strings of citations. It combines local oral history with insights from entomology, planning, anthropology. Boxing this book into a Field-of-Research (FoR) code for research assessment purposes would entirely miss the point of what gives this book its quality and distinction. It’s a labour of love, the culmination of years of scholarly reflection and lived experience, the story of a place, well told, in all its complexity.

blue notesReading Darwin got me thinking too about other books by academics, recently read, that stand as exemplars outside the normative frames of the research monograph: Matt Matsuda’s grand and sweeping Pacific WorldsBenjamin Cawthra’s Blue Notes in Black and White, an engrossing excavation of masculinity and race politics in the history of jazz photography, as well as Community: Building Modern Australia, a visual treat of mid-twentieth century neighbourhood architecture brought together by a team including my friends and collaborators Kate Darian-Smith and David Nichols. All of these must have involved some risky choices and negotiations made by the authors – the inclusion or exclusion of provoking opinions or difficult material or quotes from troubling interviews, the workload decisions, the scholarly journal articles that didn’t get written by the authors so that they had time to write these books.

Why, ultimately, should we write books? Writing books takes a huge amount of labour, and precious time, working in a higher education landscape that, as Kate Bowles has been recently arguing, exhibits scant regard for creeping workloads and questions of the human cost of overwork. That same higher education system grants us less and less time in which to read books, too. Why go to all the effort, if things like journal article citations, grant income and ERA research excellence scores drive the means by which our scarce writing labour is valued? What Darwin and the other examples above affirm to me is the value of writing books for deeper underlying reasons: to document complexity in a longer and less formulaic format than the scholarly journal article, to shift the written record, to craft and to capture one’s passions or personal politics in considered form, to aspire to timelessness. To tell a good story.

What standout books written by academics have you read in 2014?

Rethinking redundancy: necessity, excess and uncertain futures

Call for Papers, Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting, Chicago, 21-25 April 2015


Chantel Carr (University of Wollongong) cac900@uowmail.edu.au

Chris Gibson (University of Wollongong) cgibson@uow.edu.au

Redundancy is often expressed as a singular event that speaks to our deepest fears and emotions about our own necessity. It conjures the anxieties we carry through our working and social lives, of becoming surplus or unnecessary to future plans. Experiences of workplace redundancy and accompanying precariousness have multiplied in recent years, across an increasingly diverse set of workplaces affected by deregulation and shifts in labor process. Yet redundancy increasingly encircles us in other, more silent ways. For an increasingly diverse set of commodities, from smartphones to washing machines, future redundancy is assumed, and obsolescence a key principle of product design that enrols consumers materially within high throughput systems of provision. In aerospace engineering, systems are often designed in duplicate or even triplicate, in case crucial components fail. In programming, redundant code lies dormant, either never executed or having no external effect until failure occurs. These examples point to different ways in which excess or surplus might be planned, to be invoked when something goes wrong – when crisis is encountered. At this point, such “redundant” systems, processes or devices are deployed to ensure that insufficiencies are addressed and interruption is minimised  Such alternative framings extend and amplify notions of redundancy. They complicate our conceptions of necessity, surplus and value, and require that we pay attention to redundancy as calculative rather than happenstance, and as a process that occurs over time, rather than a singular event. Continue reading

How do rural communities cope with drought? Exploring the role of festivals and events

Festivals and events are frequently staged to reinvigorate community and stimulate economic development – especially in rural and remote places suffering from general decline. In such circumstances festivals and events contribute far more beyond their singular purpose as an agricultural show or a music concert, promoting regional development and community cohesion. Over the past few years researchers here at AUSCCER have been documenting these sorts of contributions, on a large project funded by the Australian Research Council. A free, downloadable summary report of our project’s findings is available here.


A selfie taken in June this year, at the Gulgong Races, NSW

As we continue to sift through our findings, we have also realised how important festivals and events are to rural communities suffering from conditions of extreme environmental stress. Continue reading

Bulli Beach rip current experiments – volunteers needed!

Feel like a break at the beach with some research involved? Eureka Prize winner Dr Rob Brander (‘Dr Rip’!) of The University of New South Wales is running some experiments on rip currents at Bulli Beach from Feb 4-8 and 11-15. He needs lots of volunteers to help out by putting GPS drifters in the rips and, if you are a good swimmer, jumping in rips with GPS on to test out various escape strategies. Don’t worry, there will be lifeguards at the beach at all times! It’s been done at several beaches already and is an important and fun experiment. Experiments usually run for about 3-4 hours each day. You can help out for a day, two days or the whole week(s). Food is provided and if you’re not a local, accommodation as well. Please contact Rob at rbrander@unsw.edu.au if you’d like to help out. For more information on Rob’s award-winning program on surf safety and community awareness check out www.scienceofthesurf.com.


All washed up: have surf megabrands forgotten their roots?

Yesterday’s announcement that iconic brand Rip Curl plans to sell-up raises the question: just what has happened to Australia’s iconic surf brands?

It has been well publicised that the big three surf labels – Rip Curl, Quiksilver and Billabong – have experienced shrinking sales and expanding debts. Suburban consumers have turned away from expensive surf-branded apparel. Coupled with the rise of online shopping, doubts are growing about the future viability of corporatised surf brands

Read the full article by Andrew Warren and Chris Gibson at The Conversation

Contest/ed Scenes and Spaces: Exposing Cultural Infrastructures

Call For Papers Association of American Geographers (AAG) Annual Meeting 2013, Los Angeles April 9-13th

Session Title: Contest/ed Scenes and Spaces: Exposing Cultural Infrastructures

Session organisers: Chris Gibson (University of Wollongong) and Lizzie Richardson (Durham University).

The dominance of a particular figuring of the ‘cultural and creative economy’ (Landry and Bianchini, 1995, Landry, 2000; Florida, 2002) has recently been undermined by interventions that seek to relocate and revalue creativity. Such interventions attend to a variety of marginal and vernacular forms of creative practice that have been underplayed or overlooked in previous scholarship. An emphasis on the contributions of cultural and creative industries to urban and regional development has also stifled engagement with other, more critical threads of theoretical and political thought in geography. This session seeks to contribute to this work by positioning creativity in forms of performance, such as music, theatre and spoken word, and by exploring such performances in heterodox material spaces. Rather than isolating creativity as an individual talent, the aim is to explore how and with what implications practices of cultural production involve collective or distributed agency, and claims over space (as political, as performative). To reclaim creativity from the neoliberal agenda of economic growth and urban regeneration, the session is looking for contributions that expose the hidden cultural infrastructures supporting and/or limiting particular performance scenes. This values performative possibilities but also highlights the challenges of the fragility of such material creative networks. How do contest/ed scenes operate in dis/connection with more stable cultural institutions? What kinds of relational or liminal spaces of cultural production are necessary to exceed easy or conventional categorisation – and might this undermine more permanent claims for political/politicised spaces of cultural infrastructure? Decentring creativity, what is the potential in creative spaces for new forms of sociality, conviviality and politics? In contrast to its positioning as a neutral driver for economic growth, we want to examine how creativity is contested and how contest occurs through creativity.

We seek contributions on but not limited to:

  • Hidden spaces cultural production
  • Successful/failed cultural infrastructure
  • Theorisations of creativity that intersect with critical threads in postcolonial, radical, feminist and queer thought
  • Mixed or multiple forms of creative practice/space
  • Making and delineating scenes through material practices
  • Intersections between institutional and non-institutional performance

Please send a 250 word abstract to Chris (cgibson@uow.edu.au) and Lizzie (e.c.i.richardson@durham.ac.uk) by Friday 28th September, 2012.

Successful submissions will be contacted by Friday 5th October 2012 and will be expected to register and submit their abstracts online at the AAG website by October 24th 2012. Please note that a range of registration fees will apply and must be paid before the submission of abstracts.

Wood fires in the suburbs: affordability, a retro trip, or reconnecting with nature?

It is winter here in Australia, and at our place we have started lighting fires to keep warm.

I live in inner-city Sydney, in a reasonably densely populated but still decidedly suburban part of the city with small land parcels, and archetypal Australian varieties of Victorian and Edwardian terraces. Homes in our neighbourhood were built a century ago or more, with double-brick cavity walls, front verandahs and high ceilings.

Sydney is in a warm temperate climatic zone 34 degrees south of the equator. Hot and humid in summer, mild in winter with crisp mornings but pleasantly warm afternoons, most Sydneysiders spend more time and money on ways to cool than to heat their houses. Most inner-city homes were built with only one or two open fireplaces to keep warm. Central heating has never felt warranted in a city that is “cold” only for a few weeks a year. Open fireplaces have been mostly idle since the 1970s, with the advent of cheap gas, electric bar and column heaters (and with grimy memories of coal-fired smog). No longer a viable means to stay warm in winter, Sydney’s century-old open fireplaces and chimneys have instead become ornate “original features” that add to the heritage character (and price) of inner-city terraces.

In search of warmth

My own family has been arguing around possible ways to stay warm without consuming large amounts of electricity, and getting stung by increasing electricity prices. (The relevant state regulatory authority recently announced that electricity prices would rise by an average of 18 percent based on a mix of infrastructure investment costs and the introduction of a nationwide carbon pollution tax.) This was, for our family, a classic sustainability dilemma: with two toddler-aged children suffering this winter’s round of colds and flus, the house really does need to be a bit warmer on the coldest days. But for sustainability and financial reasons we don’t want to turn on our portable, and inefficient, electric column heaters. Installing reverse-cycle air-conditioning is an expensive initial outlay (as is installing solar energy panels), and in any case we’ve spent successive summers resisting air-conditioning on principle – so why give in to needing the very same technology to heat us in winter?

It was then that I remembered that our fireplaces were in full working order when we bought our house three years ago. These homes were originally built with capacity for lighting fires, and we have inherited this vernacular infrastructure. Why not use it?

I convinced the family that we should try lighting fires.

The return of the open fire

Since we started lighting the occasional fire, I have noticed other signals that the inner-city open fireplace is experiencing somewhat of a renaissance.

I took my kids to the local hardware store a fortnight ago. I knew I’d be able to buy open-fire fuel there. Sure enough, they did: there were bags of quasi-coal briquettes produced specifically for open fireplaces, as well as cheap bushwood, and a range of new “eco-log” products made of recycled materials. In fact, there were lots of options. Great piles of fire fuel. Palette after palette of it, surrounded by gaggles of inner-city types reading labels, hauling 20 kg bags of briquettes and boxes of eco-logs onto their trolleys. Waiting in the checkout aisles people spoke of better and worse fuels, the merits of eco-logs versus bushwood, and how to stretch out an open fire and minimise costs. And they also talked about abandoning increasingly unaffordable electric and gas heating.

I’m not sure whether this is a mere retro trip in honour of the romantic log fire, a means of middle-class resistance to state-imposed electricity price hikes, or a genuinely cost-effective alternative for households who are trying to stay warm on limited budgets.

Carbon, connections, contradictions

In the meantime, this prosaic example has made me rethink conversations had recently within AUSCCER. They include:

  • The ambiguities of calculating carbon emissions. Would lighting the occasional open-fire of this sort increase the carbon emissions required to heat our family, compared with electric or gas heaters? In the UK and North America, bloggers have debated this in relation to wood-fired home heaters, and there is far from consensus on the metrics. New recycled eco-log products do seem to significantly reduce emissions, according to research from the Canadian EPA, but the type of wood product burned can mean resulting carbon emissions vary by up to 75 percent. Exactly how this stacks up against electricity used to heat homes is moot, especially if we factor in local power generation systems (coal-fired power plants, by and large, here in Australia) and the temporal dimension. Here in Sydney, we are talking about much more highly variable, and more intermittent, heating practices than in colder climates. This rules out economies of scale and efficiencies gained by thermostat-controlled central heating. At the very least, future research could better model highly variable wood products, frequency of burning practices and carbon emission impacts of alternative energy sources used to heat homes in specific geographical contexts.
  • Dilemmas of decision-making in everyday life: my colleagues Christine Eriksen and Nick Gill have examined the complexities of landowners’ practices in relation to fire risk and preparedness on the rural-urban fringe. They argue that landowners bring “agency to bushfire preparedness in the relationships between everyday procedures, dilemmas, and tradeoffs”. There is a parallel, it seems, with decisions about lighting fires in suburban homes in the city: families operate around daily procedures (and occasionally change them), confront dilemmas, and make tradeoffs – not all of which are ideal.
  • Where are the consequences of our resource consumption patterns felt? Is it better that the pollution impacts of staying warm be felt locally rather than some place else? On the other hand, no-one wants to return to Dickensian scenes of urban smoke haze and coal-grime covered streets. What quantity of localised smoke is tolerable, and is it worse than shifting the pollution impacts onto distant others? The burden of transforming resource and energy use is unevenly carried.
  • The link between health and environment: research by Fay Johnston and David Bowman from UTAS has drawn links between wood fire smoke and increased death rates, exacerbating asthma and other respiratory diseases. Their research was on an entirely different scale (landscape fires and widespread forest burning), but nevertheless there are open debates about health impacts of home fires too.
  • Ought the risk of such problems be measured against other kinds of complexities and materialities? Buying fuel, hauling it home and lighting an open fire makes immediate the materiality of the carbon being burned – as opposed to the distant, disembodied coal-fired power station enrolled when households habitually switch on (or simply leave on all winter) their electric heater. Every time I light a fire, I make an immediate assessment of the material being burned and whether it is worth it. We have open-fire movie nights, eat dinner in front of the fire, move our laptops into this one warm room and work their instead of at cold office desks. Sociality is a clear benefit. We appreciate the fire, its heat, its smell. Perhaps we humans are hard-wired to gather round fires: the hearth as a source of human communality. More prosaically, in our home we are, I would suggest, a touch more conscious of the financial and environmental sacrifices involved. We feel lucky to be toasty warm when the fire is burning, and are reminded of those without such means.
  • Human-nonhuman relations: might the wood fire renaissance be better framed in terms of debates about urban natures and the entangling of non-human others – such as fire – in suburban lounge-rooms? Are urban house fire tragedies more likely? My kids are certainly learning to appreciate the power and danger of fire.
  • Systems of provision: is government likely to have predicted this kind of switch? In some ways switching to wood takes households “off the grid”, but it connects households to other kinds of “grids”. What are the wider economic, infrastructural and resource use implications if everyone switched to this form of heating? How might shifting patterns of demand alter prices for fuel, availability of resources, or exacerbate downstream environmental impacts in unintended ways? Some eco-logs appear to be made from forest industry by-products here in Australia; others from recycled sawdust from Indonesia. Which are more likely to be linked to dubious forestry practices? Other eco-log products are made from coffee-grounds. Does that mean we need to factor in the chain of impacts related to coffee production as well?

Household decisions about resource use are evidently both economic and emotional, social and instinctive. Our choices are not simply determined by rationalist considerations of pros and cons, as if the total balance sheet of environmental and economic considerations were easily knowable and calculable in the midst of everyday decisions. I doubt any of the folk buying eco-logs at my local hardware store had done online research on comparative carbon footprints, but I bet they were acutely conscious of recent hikes in energy prices. The connected household makes ethical decisions within the tangible and knowable parameters of social life, entwined in wider networks and assemblages.

Like so many other everyday consumption choices, something as simple as lighting a fire seems on second thought irrevocably complex. Perhaps our open fire will be little more than a treasured luxury every now and then. Meanwhile across Sydney households are voting with their (cold) feet and revisiting wood fires, whether it’s ideal or not.

Household Sustainability: Challenges and Dilemmas in Everyday Life, is a new book co-written by Chris Gibson, with Carol Farbotko, Lesley Head, Nick Gill and Gordon Waitt, due for release by Edward Elgar in 2013. Chris Gibson can be followed on twitter: @profcgibson



Making things – geographical perspectives

How are things made, and how might this need to change?

Such questions dominated a busy week which saw simultaneous sessions at the Institute of Australian Geographers (IAG) and Royal Geographical Society-Institute of British Geographers (RGS-IBG) conferences on ‘making things’ and ‘craft geographies’, as well as the release of a new essay, “A country that makes things”, written by a team of us at AUSCCER – Andrew WarrenChantel Carr and myself. That essay has just become freely available online in the journal Australian Geographer‘s new “Thinking Space” commentary section.

Here in Australia, such discussions have been prompted by a heated public debate over the future of manufacturing. With a high Australian dollar, fuelled by unprecedented mining exports, manufacturing as well as tourism and retail sectors have been hard hit. Successive closures and cutbacks at Bluescope Steel, here in Wollongong, and in the car, aluminium and apparel industries have triggered a renewed debate about the national importance – or otherwise – of manufacturing.

A question of geography and scale?

In our Australian Geographer essay, we traverse some of the arguments geographers might wish to plug into this debate. One concerns the social, economic and ecological consequences of opaque systems and geographies of global production. Who and what gets screwed when things get made? Where are the impacts of our consumption of ‘things’ felt? We have been inspired by the work of Ian Cook and others seeking to follow things as they get made, distributed and consumed, to uncover otherwise hidden stories. Especially creative is their followthethings.com initiative. It brings together in a shopping parody website the disparate knowledge on what happens around the world when the things you consume get made. Another unrelated, but also terrific, project mapping global consequences of trade in ‘things’ can be viewed here.

A second argument concerns the agency of those who make things – of specific industry sectors, of workers – amidst ‘global’ economic forces. As geographers, we are suspicious of arguments that rest on assumptions about the way power is exercised as hierarchy of scales. Part of the problem of contemplating the future of manufacturing is when all power is assumed to invisible global market forces, while workers, and even whole nations, are depicted as powerless. Janelle Cornwell‘s research with worker cooperatives for instance demonstrates how powerlessness can be challenged and assumed hierarchies of geographical scale can be inverted.

Boards and boots – crafting in the contemporary economy

Bob McTavish marking out a custom hand-shaped surfboard, Byron Bay (Photo: Andrew Warren)

Andrew Warren‘s work on the surfboard industry provides another vivid counter-illustration: as he outlines in a recent AUSCCER Discussion Paper, surfboard-making is a form of manufacturing by hand that has survived despite intense competition from cheap labour locations. The key is how this ‘industry’ is embedded in highly social subcultures where loyalty and collaboration rule. It is a precarious industry, but the present uncertainty afflicting the surfboard industry is as much a product of dynamics internal to that industry than to the high dollar. Such dynamics include rapid technological change and replacement of hand-based crafting skills in some workshops; an ageing workforce with poor industry succession planning; and a rapidly changing retail environment involving e-commerce and fierce battles for visibility and presence in surfing megastores.

Nevertheless, surfboard-makers do exercise agency over the terms and scope of their work, and hard-earned crafting skills are central to this. But capacities to shape the terrain of work are constrained, contingent and evolving.

An unexpected connection has emerged between Andrew’s work with surfboard-making and my own research with Naomi Riggs on custom bootmaking in the United States. Similarly afflicted by competition from cheap mass-produced imports and poorly understood, the century-old industry – responsible for America’s iconic cowboy boots – nevertheless survives in the hands and minds of highly-skilled craftspeople. Both the surfboard and bootmaking industries rely on renewed legitimacy granted by their status as ‘creative’ industries – where consumers know, meet and even socialise with those who make the things consumed.

Handcrafting boots, El Paso, Texas (Photo: Chris Gibson)

Papers in the ‘craft geographies’ session at RGS-IBG (organised by Nicola Thomas and Doreen Jakob from Exeter) this week especially explored the historical dimensions of crafting things. Is the problem of how things get made confined to the neoliberal present? What insights and opportunities arise from deeper historical interrogation of creativity, crafting and regulation of the means of production? Their work retrieves historical geographies of guilds in the UK and elsewhere and asks critical questions of the political intent of craftivism. Is the point of crafting to privilege skill rather than a more distributive means of production? How have the nature and purpose of craft guilds changed over time? They argue for more historical and geographical sensitivity to analysis of how things get made. See Nicola’s project and blog for more on connecting crafting with communities.

More than manufacturing, what kind of economy do we want?

A particular interest within AUSCCER is in rethinking the manner in which the economy is being imagined and engineered – especially in the midst of global debt crisis, and in Australia in the middle of the so-called mining boom. Timothy Mitchell talks of the economy not as an entity, but as a ‘project’, orchestrated by vested interests (experts, inventors, capitalists). Once switched onto this logic, it becomes clearer to see that we are in the midst of discourse and policy wars over the constitution of the global economy, over Europe’s future, and even the supposedly resilient Australian economy.

Making things lurks in this debate. In contrast to the high-risk, volatile world of debt and ‘invisible’ financial instruments, material commodities are tangible, useful, enduring. Yet here and elsewhere, the tabloid assumption is that an economy dependent on manufacturing equals economic doom. In contrast to the assumption that manufacturing is moribund, there is evidence to suggest that manufacturing is in fact thriving – in Australia even with high dollar competition. Manufacturing output has quadrupled since the mid-1950s and Australia has one of the most efficient and productive manufacturing sectors in the world. This is hardly the picture portrayed by the federal government (and the opposition) when they suggest that Australia must abandon manufacturing and transition to the knowledge economy. And as recently discussed in an analysis piece for theconversation.edu.au, that liveliness in manufacturing occurs mostly at the scale of small businesses who employ less than 10 people. Again, this is a long way from the image of vast factories of low-paid workers sewing underpants or screwing on toothpaste lids.

Andrew Warren has been paying close attention to the manner in which the very constitution of the Australian economy is up for grabs: while manufacturing is depicted as fading away, and the tourism industry suffers to air its own set of complaints, the mining industry, through PR campaigns, media ownership strategies and lobbying, has positioned itself as a ‘normal’ and ‘sensible’ driver of economic growth in Australia. Reserve Bank insiders, politicians and economics ‘experts’ writing opinion pieces have all bought into this ‘project’. Op-ed commentators in conservative newspapers persist in arguing that manufacturing is unimportant and tied to a nostalgic vision. All this buttresses the view that manufacturing doesn’t matter, and that instead the ‘mining boom’ is new and natural, a happenstance, good thing.

Instead, in our Australian Geographer piece, we ask: what kind of ‘project’ is this being imagined for the Australian economy, and do we want it? How might the project of the national economy be imagined differently by concentrating on the things we make and consume?

Inside the black-box of industry

Port Kembla Steelworks (Photo: Gordon Waitt)

Chantel Carr‘s PhD work is proving critical in our re-thinking of how, why and to what effect things are are made. Chantel’s background is in design and architecture – and in a previous career she worked at Wollongong’s steelworks. At this week’s IAG conference, she brought a unique perspective, with intimate knowledge of the cultures, capacities and creativities present within manufacturing processes and workplaces. In contrast to assumptions that industrial cities are plagued with the burden of decaying manufacturing cultures and workplaces, what kinds of vernacular capacities and creativities exist within them? Chantel cited examples of cultures of reuse, mending and making taking place within the steelworks (of things such as car battery chargers and barbeque hotplates). Such practices were in part resistances to the demand for hyper-efficient labour, but also simple acts of informal collaboration furnishing people with things they need in life. Creativity and ingenuity were also present among workers who have been dealt the task of making the whole place work with dwindling funding and resources.

What is in part at stake, then, is how industrial cities, workers and sectors are factored into debates as caricatures, with heavy cultural baggage already attached.

Vibrant things

Finally, such discussions have taken on extra resonance against the background of ontological critiques of what constitute ‘things’. In light of Jane Bennett’s work on a political ecology of vibrant matter, what is the agency of things, and how might it factor into human lives (and workplaces)? There is a wider discussion taking place within AUSCCER about the manner in which human-nonhuman relations are recast in light of ecological and political economic critiques of climate change and sustainability imperatives. Leah Gibbs has been central to this. At the IAG conference Leah explored Bennett’s idea of “agentic assemblages” to ask questions of the agency of individual things – haybales, food, fires, grasses, animals – within wider constellations of landscape, actors and senses. At one level this is a philosophical reflection on what ‘makes place’; at another it is a political question of how humans re-position themselves in the world. Such thoughts are captured in Leah’s forthcoming paper in Environment and Planning A, entitled “Bottles, bores and boats: agency of water assemblages in post/colonial inland Australia”. 

If humans are to take climate change seriously, then re-orientating consumption patterns and habits must be part of the equation. So too must be debate about how we make things, using energy, carbon or rare earth minerals, and who gets to consume them in a marketised, profit-orientated system. AUSCCER’s Elyse Stanes also presented at the IAG on ‘things’: in this case, clothes, and how young people shop for them. Elyse’s research explores how and why people shop and how this practice is tied up in social norms, emotions and habits.

How easy is it to imagine alternatives? What kinds of things must we be making to furnish humans with sustenance and quality of life? What are the constraints on consuming things differently imposed by commodity production methods, infrastructure, and a broader economic system that depends on constant retail throughput and spending? Is crafting the answer? Are cultures of sharing things another alternative – and if so, what are the design and production systems that will support this? Or is the deeper, more critical issue one of ownership of the means of production – as vividly illustrated recently in the case of that most important of daily things: newspapers? What are the social justice implications of foregrounding frugality – and must there be room for celebrations of abundance?

All these debates entangle things: material cultural objects of our economy and our daily lives. Far from irrelevant to the future of the economy, making things is a critical practical, political and philosophical issue.

Click here to access the inaugural “Thinking Space” essay in Australian Geographer, on the future of making things – written by Chris Gibson, Chantel Carr and Andrew Warren. 

Many of the people and projects mentioned here can be followed on twitter: Chris Gibson (@profcgibson), Chantel Carr (@lifeofstuff), AndrewWarren (@AWsurf), Leah Gibbs (@LM_Gibbs), Elyse Stanes (@elyserstanes), followthethings.com (@followthethings), Nicola Thomas and Doreen Jakob (@craftgeography)