This week on ‘This Australian Life’

Categories Scratched, Thoughts

I grew up in Australia in the late seventies and early eighties, so it was natural for me to think that someone else's culture was more valid than mine: The TV shows we saw were mostly imported; The local content was news or soap or procedural cop dramas; Australian children's television was always solid, but as kids we were already given the sense that things that were made for us were of less consequence than things created for adults; And shows for adults that had a sense of quality came from the US and UK.

Is that how you remember it? It's definitely the way we, as a culture, talk about it—especially when we have the inevitable "Why can't we produce good comedies" discussion we love to have.

To believe that requires excluding the comedies like Auntie Jack, which led to Norman Gunston, without which we would have never had Let the Blood Run Free or The Games.

There were also the Kennedy-Miller mini-series, the way for which was paved by Crawfords productions, which eventually led to Simpson-Le Mesurier productions and the excellent Good Guys Bad Guys in the early nineties.

Australia is a giant country with a relatively small population. Our two most populous cities (only the second smallest distance between two capital cities in Australia), are almost as far apart as Paris and Berlin. We feel isolated from each other as well as the rest of the world, and as a result there is an insecurity in our actions.

Recently a friend told me he wanted to start a podcast festival in Melbourne. His intention was to invite Marc Maron and John Hodgman, and their presence would encourage other big names to come.

He never mentioned an Australian podcast he would like to invite.

So, why do we look externally for validation?

When I went to my first Webstock conference (realistically one of the best-run events I've ever had the pleasure of attending), I was disappointed that a New Zealand-run event didn't have any antipodean speakers.

I thought about this for a bit. Should we blame the organisers? (They are lovely people and work very hard.) Maybe they had evidence to show that local people weren't a big enough draw card. That's definitely what other attendees had suggested to me.

If this is what attendees think, based on just attendee-to-attendee discussions, then it's probably true enough market research.

But this problem doesn't happen with other countries or cultures. The aforementioned US and UK both host plenty of web-design conferences that draw huge crowds.

Do we just accept out cultural cringe and live with it, or do we fight against it?

This is a design problem. This is a problem of getting people to accept something they unconsciously reject. Its a problem of changing minds and behaviour.

But is it a problem worth solving? What are the costs associated with building antipodean pride?

There is a very real possibility that we fear realising our already perceived irrelevance—that, despite everything we have already given the world (wifi, bionic ear, ova freezing techniques), we still never think we'll be listened to when we talk. And there's nothing worse than an irrelevant body pretending it has validity. How embarrassing!

There is, however, the contrary position. If we are supportive of our own work and push ourselves to produce better products, then maybe it won't matter what others think. Maybe we will develop a confidence to be content with our own attention.

This is not about local design for local people. It's about holding our own work to an international standard, supporting it when it reaches that level and encouraging efforts to surpass it.

We can only do that one step at a time. It's going to be tough, too, but relevance is demanded, not requested, and that takes grit.

This post was originally published in the Floate Design Partners blog


  • Lee
    22 May 2014

    Great piece, and it’s something I’ve been arguing for a while. We’re in a terrible position, culturally speaking. We have 10% the population of the US, but we can’t even make 10% of the art they make, because we have something the US doesn’t have: a stream of superior, polished content coming in from places like the US and the UK. We don’t stand a chance.

    It’s not totally hopeless: we still make great films in the form of Balibo, Animal Kingdom, Hail, 52 Tuesdays, The Babadook, The Goddess of 1967, and the occasional great TV show, and a fair amount of great music and books — music and literature being two artforms that don’t require a lot of money for equipment and personnel before you begin — but there’s no momentum to this greatness. They’re just blips in the landscape. It’s like we hit reset before each one and hope for the best.

    I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s just how it is. It’s interesting being in this position, so long as it doesn’t lead to a creative lethargy. And given how many Australians consider themselves artists in one form or another, I’d say there’s hope, even if it’s not backed by a financial success.

  • Lachlan
    13 October 2014

    Remember when Australian content had larger mandated quotas? I guess we should be able to stand on our own and for the most part we can (often with less support and lower budgets), but if no one is going to buy your work, the risks in creating it become that much greater. A strong Government broadcaster led to the Aunty Jack show – can you imagine a commercial network picking up something like that today(?!) D-Gen, Frontline, The Castle … We regularly punch above our weight despite our surroundings. Grit is all very well, but I’d agree that the main problem is the cringe that has developed as a result of being “girt”, and it extends from the top down – even our political leaders devalue homegrown science, art and debate, and look overseas for direction and reassurance. It’s a tough habit to break, but Australia needs to stop basing its self-worth on the approval of other countries.

  • Bill
    14 October 2014

    Lachlan you are so right. Canada had this problem – if you think it’s tough for us imagine having the 300 pound gorilla right next door – and they resolved it by using quotas. I think we have genuinely talented artists of all kinds but they have to be provided with some basis for living. It was done for a while with music and the results were great. The media companies will carry on like two-bob watches of course but the issue is our Australian identity.

    I think it’s worth the argument.

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