No precedent – The case for originality

December 3, 2019

“Show me somewhere this has been done before”.

“Tell me how it’s worked for someone else”.

“Get me some data from some place that’s done something like this”.

We live in a time, and perhaps place when before doing anything, looking for a precedent has become the norm. We rely on data from other ventures and initiatives to inform decisions about our own.

Within a logical, rationalist paradigm it seems to make sense. If it’s worked before somewhere else, we can make it work again here – right?

Well, not entirely. In the work of cultural placemaking – bringing meaning to place – our role is to find and express original stories of place in distinctive ways. And to do that we need to see beyond the data.

Data can only tell us the result of something that has happened somewhere else, it cannot provide us with the creative inspiration for the thing that happened to produce those results. In fact, it can have the reverse effect; overreliance on data can kill our imaginative capacity.

While the use of precedent can usefully inform our decision-making process, when we let it dominate, we risk an entropic drift to flat-out replication. So, because they’ve worked well in Sydney, suddenly every city wants to have its own Sculpture by the Sea or Vivid. The desire to replicate those events overlooks their evolution as specific, place-based responses to local conditions that won’t necessarily translate to another host environment. The wish to lift something developed in one place and remake it in another is a reductionist view that fails to take into account the complex interplay of elements that made it successful in its original form.

Vivid Festival, Sydney AUS

Replication is a lazy cliché that destroys the power of imagination and the possibility of originality. This risk-averse way of thinking has become a societal malaise, stifling innovation and originality. As true industry leaders know, you can’t conceive and create anything truly new if you’re always seeking precedent.

When applied in urban development, replication weakens our cities and places by slowly depleting their characters in a process of gradual homogenisation. But why? While they’re being offered same-same, people demonstrate time and time again that they want the opposite: bespoke, place -based responses that express their individual character.

Instead of trying to replicate one-another, each city and development within it will do better by creating its own unique and distinctive response to place and opportunity.

As an example of what I mean, imagine for a moment we’re heading up the Derwent river to visit David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). The purpose-built ferry’s unexpected club like interior is consistent with the discordant note MONA’s two ferries strike on Hobart’s genteel waterfront in their distinctive camouflage paint.

The unorthodox approach starts even before the physical experience of the ferries. Playing on the old joke, online booking offers Tasmanians their museum entry for free ‘if they can identify as such (yes, yes, second head etc., etc.).’

David Walsh goes there. He is the contemporary rebel Australians imagine themselves to be. In a conformist nation, lying to itself about its anti-establishment heart, Walsh actually has and uses one.

Instead of the usual white gallery building, Walsh and his team have burrowed underground, carving their galleries straight out of Jurassic sandstone, slashed through with steel gantries, so that the space becomes an elemental artwork in itself.

The Void, Matt Newman, MONA

MONA’s curation defies traditional organised approaches. It’s idiosyncratic – designed to disorient so that visitors may find themselves lost, immersed in the experience.

By refusing to pander to expectation, MONA inspires confidence in its visitors. Without the conventions of traditional art galleries, visitors are free to experience the museum as they choose, empowered to trust their own instincts.

Walsh’s mission to break with convention has worked. Defying its remote location, MONA became instantly desirable. Last year it drew 350,000 visitors from across the world, more than ten times Walsh’s original forecast. They stay inside MONA for six times longer than museum averages (perhaps because they really do get lost).

Walsh and the crack team working with him didn’t follow precedent – they created their own. Their example shows the rewards that follow courage of conviction, independence of thought, imaginative originality, the distinctiveness of difference. MONA works precisely because it’s not like anywhere else.

To be clear, precedents and data can beautiful. David Walsh sent people to study museums around the world (they discarded almost everything they saw, but the exercise still had a value in demonstrating what MONA didn’t want).

Our approach is to use precedent and data judiciously and to counterbalance them with the original thinking that is integral to art practice. Instead of using precedent and data in a way that leads to replication we use them to inspire our clients in their own creation of something as powerfully original as the examples we’re evaluating with them.

When we do things in an original way – strive to set our own precedent – we feel better about ourselves, create unique stories of place that make our cities more diverse and interesting – and leave a powerful legacy for future generations.

And dare I say…..there’s a precedent for that.

– Mark McClelland