The Politics of Creative Arts Action

By Professor Tony Fry

The contemporary world faces an array of inter-connected daunting challenges - geopolitical, enviro-climatic, economic-developmental. While science and technology address many of them, their agenda is only half the story. The other half implies that in dealing with these challenges, a major cultural transformation of the modes of worldly occupation of our species is required – this immediately and in coming decades and centuries.

. . . creative practices are fundamentally political. For instance, in bringing things into existence in the world, Design can make human and biophysical conditions either better or worse. Thus design is ethically always ‘on the line’.

The Launceston-based but globally engaged ‘The Studio at the Edge of the World’ (www.thestudioattheedgeoftheworld.com) exists to make a contribution to meeting these challenges. In so doing it recognises that creative practices are fundamentally political. For instance, in bringing things into existence in the world, Design can make human and biophysical conditions either better or worse. Thus design is ethically always ‘on the line’.  Obviously this is a wider understanding of the political than just focussing on political ideologies, parties, and formal political processes.

The Studio practices its politics by combining transdisciplinary creative practices, education and overtly political projects. For example:  dealing with design and architecture education in the post-conflict environment of Colombia, which involves new curricula for new roles like the citizen designer and social architect; exploring how design can contribute to the world-wide crisis in refugee and interment camps and prisons; conceptualise new design and planning practices that can help prefigure the impact of sea level rises in the Pearl River of China and Nile Deltas and in so doing disseminate new knowledge.

Supporting this kind of work is working and designing with (in contrast to working for) universities and communities in the locations of the problem. Also part of the Studio practice is researching, and writing on, related problems of these areas of work, like the deepening geographic, cultural, and psychological condition of ‘unsettlement’, rapid urbanisation and informal settlement, and counter-conflict strategies in an age of asymmetrical warfare.

The learning events the Studio has conducted in Tasmania, in partnership with the Creative Exchange Institute, University of Tasmania, have been supported mostly by postgraduates, early and established career educators and practitioners, from the UK (University of Brighton, Goldsmith College), Egypt (German University in Cairo, UNDP Egypt), Colombia, New Zealand, Latvia, Hong Kong (Hong Kong Polytechnic University), USA (Harvard, New School NY, School of the Art Institute Chicago) as well as from many states of Australia.

Another major feature of the Studio centres on a critique of architecture and design education which educates for the present rather the future. Rather than prioritising industry and labour market needs, with social and environmentally sustainable design at the margins, the Studio acknowledges that in order to engage the unfolding complexity of future challenges, the creative practitioner of the future needs to have far more developed critical and analytical capabilities, high level research skills and a much broader and refined imagination.

The studio is not conventionally organised. It works with its global associates on some projects, its projects are about process not product and are kept open after the initially engaged task is completed. So for example, work on camps and prisons done in the Learning event of early 2017 will feed into a project on social architecture in the City of Ibague in Colombia in mid 2018 that will focus on the adaptive social use and retrofit of a historic abandoned prison. This approach very much centres on learning from where the problem is located. Another project based in Egypt provides another example. Often foreign educators are hired to bring ‘advanced’ design knowledge to further economic development, yet when applied, this can have disastrous consequences such as when generic solutions – for buildings, infrastructure, transport or waste management – displace more sustainable local practices. The Studio at the Edge of the World is current collaborating with the small number of Egyptian design educators who are aware of this dilemma, and are developing ways to understand, valorise, improve and adapt local sustainable practices, while integrating this knowledge into student learning.

Another major feature of the Studio centres on a critique of architecture and design education which educates for the present rather the future. Rather than prioritising industry and labour market needs, with social and environmentally sustainable design at the margins, the Studio acknowledges that in order to engage the unfolding complexity of future challenges, the creative practitioner of the future needs to have far more developed critical and analytical capabilities, high level research skills and a much broader and refined imagination. All these characteristics are brought to project initiation and leadership. The Studio at the Edge of the World is especially interested in increasing its partner relations with education institutions to facilitate this kind of activity still further.


Tony Fry is a design theorist, educator, writer and award-winning practitioner. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Creative Exchange Institute, University of Tasmania; Visiting Professor, University of Ibague, Colombia; and, Visiting Professor Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Tony has held many other visiting positions including at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago, the University of Cincinnati, and Goldsmith College, University of London. Tony has presented lectures at institutions in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, the Americas as well in Australia. He is the author of twelve books – his latest: Remaking Cities, was published by Bloomsbury in August 2017.