For 18 magical days, Vivid Sydney transforms the city into a playground of light installations, musical acts, and over 100 creative industry events. Behind Vivid Ideas is Jess Scully – a woman who is seriously nailing life. As festival director, she brings together innovative minds from across the globe to identify trends and inspire ideas. Once the editor of YEN, Empty Magazine, and SummerWinter, she’s also played key roles in projects like the Qantas Spirit of Youth Awards. As if that wasn’t enough, she’s also writing a book on how cities can create sustainable creative economies. Not only is she exceedingly inspiring, capable, and hardworking, but we found out that she’s also a total sweetheart.
For anyone who doesn’t know, what is Vivid Ideas?
Vivid Ideas is the creative industries component of Vivid Sydney. So it’s a couple of things – it’s a celebration of creativity and people who are making a career and a business out of creativity as well. I think that’s probably the difference between us and one of our events this year like Semi-Permanent, which I totally love and I’m a big, huge fan of everything they’ve done. There’s a lot of really fantastic events that are about inspiration and looking at people’s work and I think they’re really important.
I think it’s really great to see people’s work and have them explain where they’re coming from. We kind of do that, but really what we’re focused on is the work that you do behind the work. So it’s kind of looking at what are the opportunities that you can take advantage of for the next year? What are the big trends in creativity? What are the new tools you can use? Where can you go to get help, or investment, or funding, or support? So we’re not just about celebrating creativity but also finding ways to support creativity. So I guess we’re about the mechanics of it.
On the weekends we have a lot of events that are really focused on emerging creatives and on professional development for students, but also people who might be working a day job and who have yet to totally make a transition, or they’re running something concurrently and they’re considering making it full-time, running a creative business, or having a creative career. So on the weekend we have those kinds of events and we have some more entertainment-y kind of events, but during the day, during the week, there’s more kind of industry focused, industry-specific events. Then at night time we have the more cross-disciplinary sessions. I came up with this idea of the ‘Ten Commandments’ events, basically [because] things change so fast in the creative fields like in terms of how we create, how we communicate, what we consume, where we spend our time, all of these sorts of things, it’s almost like we need an update every year to go “Okay, this is what matters for this year.”
I guess the point of it is that you come here, you’re inspired by the music, you’re inspired by the lights – it’s a beautiful backdrop, but you do business. You work out how to improve your career or you find a way to connect with your heroes, or people who inspire you, that sort of stuff.
What have been some of the biggest obstacles in organising this year’s festival?
That’s hard. The thing that’s hardest is communicating with an audience and building up an audience. And selling tickets is also hard – getting bums in seats. I kind of see it as a symptom of a great problem: that there’s actually so much going on in Sydney at the moment. Vivid starts with the Sydney Writers’ Festival, which has 400 events, packed program. During our event there’s also Reportage for photography, there’s Mumbrella for marketing, there’s Semi-Permanent, there’s CeBIT for technology, there’s the Australian International Design Festival, we have Sydney Film Festival starting halfway through next week, and ISEA (the International Symposium on Electronic Art) which is also part of our program. We’re highly over-stimulated, so getting people’s attention in the lead up to Vivid and converting their interest into ticket sales, that’s a challenge.
The other thing that’s a big challenge, and you guys probably come across this, is that the people that we have are famous to a few, but very famous to a few. So we’ve got this event happening on Thursday night with two biomedical animators, they’re both originally American but one works in Melbourne now, and the guy’s won an Emmy and a BAFTA, he’s won a MacArthur Fellowship ‘Genius Grant’, he worked with Björk, he worked at Pixar, he’s amazing. But if I say “Drew Berry”, none, or very few of us, know who that is. But then of course as soon as the CSIRO put a post up about it, the event sold out. So our challenge is ‘famous to a few’. Johnny Cupcakes for example. I didn’t know who Johnny Cupcakes was six months ago but the thing that I have to do is I have to connect to people who know way more about their niches than I do. Luckily I know Eddie Zammit, so I’ll go “Hey Eddie, who’s amazing?” and he’ll say “Johnny Cupcakes” and he turns out to be right. Or I’ll meet someone from the scientific field and we’ll have a conversation about cancer cells and animation and eventually that will turn into a whole thing.
Do you think it’s necessary to move abroad, like so many Australian creatives eventually do, in order to be successful?
Gosh! That is a good question and that’s really hard. I mean it’s something I’ve struggled with personally as well, everybody does. I can’t even count how many of my friends are doing that, have done that, will do that.
No. I don’t think it’s necessary. Maybe sometimes. But there are really brilliant people making amazing work here. Something I also find, because I’m really fortunate in that I get to travel a lot, there’s Australians running everything everywhere. When we do go, people really respect Australians internationally because we do everything. We don’t have these massive teams. You just have to figure out how to get shit done. So you’ll be at Finland Design Festival or whatever and there’ll be an Australian who’s project managing it. We’re great in that capacity. And so I think you do see Australians going overseas to get that experience. But I don’t think it’s necessary in order to make good work.
In order to make good money?
Yeah, in some cases yeah. It really depends on the field. One of our big challenges is the fact that we do have a small market and it depends on what you do. If you’re a musician, if you need to perform in order to make an income, that is normally a case where you do have to develop a bigger audience overseas. If you make some kind of more intangible product that people can consume online then you can probably still be based here and build that audience internationally. I know a lot of people who make amazing work here but it is really hard to make that transition. But again, that’s happening globally – it’s equally difficult. If you look at the culture of internship for example in the US, fortunately we don’t have it to that extent. I’ve worked for free a lot. I still work for free a lot. You kind of go “When does this end? I’ve been doing this for a long time”.
Well we are pretty isolated down here. But do you think there are positives to that as well?
I think it’s kind of like the thing I was saying earlier, where you learn to make do and you learn to do everything. I have friends who work at magazines in the US and there’s like 50 people working on a magazine and you kind of go “Wow. Everyone’s job must be so specific and narrow.” [In Australia] you just figure things out. It really helps us to be independent and learn to do things by ourselves. The thing that’s amazing about Australians is how much we travel, how curious we are about the rest of the world. I’m always surprised by how much I see Australian’s everywhere. And when we do go, we go for real. We go for as long as we can and we see as much as we can. So I think that’s a really positive thing that’s come out of our isolation.
I don’t know if there’s a distinctive Australian aesthetic or a voice but certainly there’s a kind of openness and enthusiasm which I think is really valuable. We had this session yesterday and it was this English guy from San Francisco (so he could get away with saying this), and he said there’s this real smugness that you see in places like New York. I love New York, don’t get me wrong, but people think that it’s an achievement just to be in New York. It’s like well no, it’s not, it’s an address not a degree, sweetie. We don’t have that, if anything we have a bit of an inferiority complex about being from Australia, which is unjustified because you look at musicians who are killing it around the world and there’s Australians. You look at artists that are killing it and there are Australians. I think that humility is really important.
Also being an underdog, being an outsider, not thinking you come from the centre of the universe, that is where good art comes from. That outsider’s perspective is always more interesting than the jock, or the person who’s at the centre of the beautiful, little universe. [You’re not blurred by] this perception that you already know what’s going on. It helps to not think you are living in the coolest place, doing the coolest thing, knowing all the coolest people, because where do you go from there? There’s no challenges, no critique, no critical eye. And luckily, as Australians are like the bastard children of America and England, we got some of the English self-doubt along with the brashness of Americans.
Vivid is full of inspiring women like Felicity Stewart, Ruby Pseudo, Ariel Hyatt, Sally Hill, and of course yourself. As a female in this industry, it’s really inspiring to see women like you doing the things that you are. Do you have any tips?
Shit. You know, no one’s ever actually asked me that. Yeah I’m completely with you on that, I’m really conscious of it. A lot’s changed but a lot hasn’t. I always want to book the best talent for everything, but I also know that with women it’s a really funny thing, and I had this big discussion with one of the curators of TED about this, you’ll ask ten men and they’ll say yes, you ask ten women and eight of them will say no. There’s this reluctance to put yourself forward as an expert.
We are quite underrepresented at times at these kinds of events.
Yeah and I don’t know if they’re not being asked or if they’re saying no. So I would say if I had advice for women, it’s to say yes. Don’t be afraid to position yourself as an expert if you’re asked to do something. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. It’s really funny, I do get primarily men emailing saying “Put me in your program! I’m amazing! Look at how good I am!”, and women never really put themselves forward that way. That’s a challenge. I guess there’s things that I’ve learnt through my own stupid mistakes that I make all the time; I made one yesterday. I was talking to some really fancy CEO guys and they were like “Oh you seem very relaxed,” and I was like “Yeah, well I’m wearing quite a lot of makeup.” I thought later maybe I shouldn’t have said that. Maybe I’m just feminising it and going “I’m a woman!”.
It’s a really, really tough question because I think women are making great work in every field, but they’re not as visible. I think we’re also taught to not be as self-centred. We’re taught that relationships are super-important. We’re really lucky that for a lot of us friendship networks are super-important. Not that it’s not for dudes, but I think chicks probably spend more time talking and emailing each other where dudes might be more like “No, my priority is me, my priority is my career”. I’m trying to be more like a dude, I think it’s fun.
That’s the funny thing about Vivid, the entire team is female. The entire team! And TED, there’s probably three men in a team of I can’t even tell you how many people. Women are running this shit. We are running it. But that’s not being represented, we’re not as vocal about it, we’re not as visible. I should blog, you should blog, everyone should blog. Who has time to blog? But men make time. I think we all need to be more American: we need to get better at self-promotion, and we need to get better at having that confidence in our work, putting our work out there, saying yes to doing things, all that sort of stuff.
Vivid Sydney runs until June 10th. Check out the full program here.