Interview: Yianni Hill looks back at The Australia Project

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Published:  June 4, 2013
Heath Killen
Interview: Yianni Hill looks back at The Australia Project

G’day luv! Crikey! She’ll be right mate! Oi! Oi! Oi! Let’s throw another shrimp on the barbie! This is the world’s impression of Australians today. But how many of us believe in these stereotypes? How many of us have asked the questions, Who are we? What are we doing here? Where are we going? Do we even belong here?

These are some of the questions posed by Yianni Hill (along with Chris Edser and Scott Heinrich) for The Australia Project, which sought to engage Australian creatives and the general public in a national debate regarding the current status of contemporary Australian culture. Through a series of exhibitions, presentations, and lectures featuring contributions from the likes of Ghostpatrol, Geoff Hocking, The Glue Society, Eugenia Tsimiklis, and Peter Russell-Clarke, the project aimed to critically explore and redefine clichéd national stereotypes in the hope of revealing unique and personal perspectives on Australia today.

Three years on, Hill reflects on the outcomes of the project and what he learnt about Australia, identity, and design along the way.

Inkahoots — "The line in Advance Australia Fair welcoming refugees and immigrants is the only part of the national anthem that makes any sense."

What does the word identity mean to you?
Identity resonates for me most when we talk about it in relation to people and place. I see it as an attempt to define who we are, where we belong and how we fit into a broader context. It is a means to try and understand the sum of many unique characteristics and experiences. It allows us to highlight the things that differentiate us, but also recognise the links and commonalities that bind us together.

Defining identity becomes more difficult when the number of unique qualities increase – as we shift from defining the identity of an individual to that of a group or society for instance – the challenge becomes increasingly more complex. By trying to find characteristics which speak for all, there is often a risk of oversimplification. This can lead to the exclusion of the most unique despite the important contribution diversity can make to the whole.

Paul Garbett — "This piece is a simple reminder that, besides the indigenous people of this land, we were all newcomers here at some point."

It’s a word that is used a great deal in design. Do you think that it’s one that the industry truly understands and interprets effectively?
An understanding of identity plays a fundamental role in design. As communicators, designers have a responsibility to be able to interpret complex ideas and reinterpret them into forms that their audience will understand. Throughout this process the designer must work with individuals and organisations and have an understanding of how their clients relate to the broader community. The designer must become familiar with and gain insight into often unfamiliar industries and communicate messages to a diversity of audiences. It is no easy task and perhaps why we see design firms become specialists at working with certain industry sectors or in quite specific areas of design.

When judging the success of a piece of design as outsiders – whether we are looking at the overall outcome or how effective it is at interpreting identity – we are often passing judgement without a thorough understanding of the brief, the strategy and the challenges that had to be negotiated during the design process. The role of a designer is not an easy one and therefore it is no surprise that outcomes are achieved with varying degrees of success, but I think we often see fantastic examples where designers develop solutions that are highly original, relevant, engage their audience, communicate complex ideas with intelligence and demonstrate a great understanding of identity.

Nick Lewis — "Who cares whether a potential NEW Australian knows what the damn national flower is or what the altruistic definition of mateship is? I'm Australian and I couldn't give a Jatz Cracker."

Where do we find the unique qualities of regional and personal identity for in an increasingly complex and fragmented world?
I think we find the unique qualities in similar places as we always have done – in the origins, experiences and behaviours of people and their relationship with the society and places they interact with. As the world fractures and brings different cultures in close contact with one another, we are not only seeing similarities develop between people that never existed before, but we are also witnessing an even greater diversity within our societies. The identifiable qualities still exist, but these shifts make it increasingly more challenging to understand, interpret and ultimately define the identity of modern societies.

Andrew Ashton — " The legend of colonial anti hero Ned Kelly is called upon in this poster. Kelly stoically peers out of a crude and barren world of “the sale” and invites to the viewer to discover and materialise Australian culture and identity."

What was the primary motivation for The Australia Project?
The Australia Project came about when founders, Chris Edser, Scott Heinrich and myself found ourselves living back in Adelaide. The three of us had all spent time working at Fabrica, United Colors of Benetton’s communication research centre based in northern Italy. We knew we wanted to develop a project together, and after throwing some ideas around, we discovered that trying to understand the contemporary Australian identity appealed to all of us.

The experience of living in Italy, where we had worked with people from all over the world, heightened our awareness of not only how Australians were viewed by others but also how we, as Australians, viewed ourselves.

Australia is a continent that has experienced rapid change – from having a purely indigenous population to a white majority with British ancestry to becoming increasingly multicultural. As a society we still don’t feel at peace with our past.

We established The Australia Project with an ambition to break down stereotypes that may no longer be relevant and reveal unique and personal perspectives on contemporary Australia. In doing so, we hoped to encourage debate and conversation amongst the Australian community.

For Australia to be an inclusive society, every Australian needs to feel like they belong and an important part of this is ensuring the way we define ourselves is representative of all os us and not just some.

Racket — "As we immerse ourselves in our visually rich cultural history we build the story of where we come from but our iconic palette needs to expand if we want to develop new stories that reflect the way we are changing. Are our stereotypical icons trapping us into a narrow view of who we think we are?"

What were some of the outcomes from it?
We knew from the outset that three guys from Adelaide couldn’t redefine the Australian identity alone, but what we could do was put in place opportunities for other Australians to present their view points. We felt that if we could gather enough different perspectives from a diversity of Australians that we might begin to see different themes emerging of what was relevant.

We established a series of initiatives:

  • Creative Voices, where we invited members of the creative community to submit their view of contemporary Australian culture;
  • Visions, a photographic portrait series where we went out and photographed and spoke with everyday Australians in the street about what Australia meant to them, and;
  • Postcards, where members of the general public could send in their views of what makes them Australian on specially designed blank postcards.

Results are displayed on the Australia Project website, and have been displayed in various Australia Project exhibitions, including at Melbourne’s Federation square and Brisbane’s South Bank.

Yianni Hill — "As we look forwards, to an inevitable time where we no longer carry the Queen in our pockets, we must not only recognise the atrocities of those that came before us, but work to ensure the breakdown of lingering prejudice and inequality. Only then do we stand a chance of defining an indentity we can all share."

Was there anything that you discovered while working on the project that surprised you, or that challenged some of your preconceptions?
We started the project with a preconceived belief that long standing stereotypes weren’t necessarily relevant in contemporary Australia. Fortunately, in the most part, we found that contributors agreed with this notion and our approach seemed to resonate with people. We had not anticipated the level of support we would receive, particularly from the creative community and it was obvious that we had not been alone in thinking about the status of Australian culture. We really had no idea that the project would be greeted with such enthusiasm and spark the level of debate which it did right from the outset.

Before we started we knew it was a topic which all Australians would be able to relate to, but the project’s success required the creative community to embrace it. The Australia Project provides people a platform to present their views about Australia where their thoughts become part of a wider body of work. The collective presentation of view points reinforces and strengthens the individual perspectives.

We were fortunate in the beginning that the majority of creatives we approached immediately agreed to participate and the members of the general community who we involved were equally enthusiastic.

Pandarosa — "As immigrants who were born outside of Australia & who's mother tongue isn't English, we have always been intrigued, amused & entertained by the 'colloquialism' language of our relocated home. We believe that in many ways this approach towards communication & expression of ideas best describes our attitudes & lifestyle as a people, not only on a discourse level, but also as a representation of the multicultural melting pot that we are."

Have any of your beliefs or opinions on identity and design changed since then?
I think rather than having changed, my beliefs have been reinforced. Individuals and groups of people will always feel compelled to understand their identity and where they fit into their society. Social constructs, now more than ever, are in a constant state of change, becoming increasingly complex. As we move into the future the Australian identity will continue to evolve. What will be interesting to see is whether our national stereotypes will be able to keep pace. I think it is easy for people to hold on to the familiarity of stereotypes. It’s much harder to develop new perspectives and have them replace preconceived ideas. As designers, with the skill set that we have, we play an important role in helping keep topics of social importance at the forefront of national discussion.

This article was first published in Desktop #293 — Who Are You?

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