Kalay Maistry: I’m Kalay Maistry and welcome to Engineering Reimagined.
Humanity depends on engineering to help solve the wicked problems our world faces.
In this podcast series we explore how, like engineers, people from all walks of life are reimagining the future and their leadership roles in it. What can we learn from our guests’ compelling and inspiring stories to help us shape and
design a better future and reimagine engineering?
In 1889, the Eiffel Tower took pride of place in central Paris to mark the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. Designed by a structural engineer, it has come to symbolise the liberty, equality and fraternity of France, and attracts more visitors than any other paid tourist attraction in the world.
Almost 100 years later, Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, a 120-foot long unfinished plate of rust-covered steel, was erected in Manhattan. Polarising supporters, who viewed it as an important sculptural work, and critics, who perceived it as ugly, it was removed, never to be publicly displayed again.
Throughout history, public art has played a vital role in communicating our culture and heritage, as well as representing our future. It has united nations, like the Eiffel Tower, and has been the cause of dissent and disunity, like Tilted Arc. Either way, public art creates a conversation and adds a deeper meaning to our lives.
So, why does public art often take a back seat in modern design, and does it have a more significant role to play? And how can engineers contribute to a greater focus on art in design to communicate ideas and add meaning to our lives?
Our two guests today are Matthew Tobin, Founder and Director of Urban Art Projects – a global leader in public art and architectural design solutions – and Veronica Nolan, Design to Innovate Partner at global engineering and infrastructure advisory company, Aurecon.
Matt Tobin’s Urban Art Projects collaborates with artists, architects, designers and developers to bring uncommon creativity to the public realm. Matt, with his brother, Daniel, founded the company in Brisbane, Australia, in 1993, as a creative studio and workshop. Twenty-six years later Urban Art Projects is championing great artists and curating and designing public art experiences in cities across the world.
As the Design to Innovate Partner at Aurecon, Veronica Nolan collaborates with clients to address complex issues and co-design the future. Her work in strategic planning and experience design is infused by design thinking and artistic enquiry and is the basis of her current doctoral research into how the arts are being engaged in businesses to enrich and transform people’s experiences.
Veronica and Matt are taking us on a journey to explore the value of public art in our lives, and what role engineers can play in helping it to become a reality. How do art and engineering work together to memoralise the past, communicate our present and shape our future? Let’s find out….
Veronica: Hi Matt, and welcome to our podcast.
Matt: Hi, thanks for inviting me.
Veronica: I understand you've just returned from New York where you've got one of your key offices now.
Matt: Yes. I go there regularly. We started a design studio in New York about four to five years ago, and we most recently purchased a foundry there to replicate our manufacturing capability that we have in Australia and Shanghai. It's a business very similar to ours, so the same culture. New York's a different type of art market than us, they cast in bronze, aluminium, stainless steel, iron, silver and gold. In fact, they cast the Academy Awards, which is interesting. So, we can be proud to say we now cast the Academy Awards. But the culture is all about quality of craftsmanship. There's a very long history of staff and their families working for this one business, and above all, preserving the artists’ creative intent is what the business is all about; and that primarily is what has attracted us so much to that business.
Veronica: Wonderful. So that's a long way from where you started back in 1993 in a shed, I believe, with your brother Dan.
Matt: Yes. It seems a world away, but 25 years goes fairly quickly, and it's just been an organic process from a small business to a larger one.
Veronica: So I'm interested to know then what inspired you to take up a life in public art in the first place?
Matt: Daniel went to art college before me, and I saw how much fun he was having so I followed him the year later. But while at art college, we did an apprenticeship at a small bronze casting foundry. And I suppose that gave us a little doorway into the world of creative elements for public spaces and the public realm, and a preliminary understanding of how those elements changed the way in which people interacted in public spaces or move through public spaces. We were interested in art outside the gallery space.
The other part of the art world at the time, for instance, if you went to the Queensland Art Gallery, was like visiting a church. You had to speak in whispers, you had to wear a button-down shirt. It was all very reverential when you visited, when you looked at art, and that didn't sit well with us. When you go to GOMA today, there's kids running through, there's a lot of talking and chatter and it's a celebration of art rather than a reverential respectful process of viewing art.
Veronica: And it seems to me it's more about engaging people in interaction as opposed to revering?
Matt: Yes. And I think in days gone by art was about that experience, even the idea of theatre. In Shakespeare's time, they threw tomatoes at the actors and it was an interaction between the audience, and somehow as time went on we turned all those processes into an audience that stands back and performers or an art process that's revered.
I think public art or public realm is a great space where creativity is forced to acknowledge the audience and it's forced to fight with a cacophony of other elements in the space to have its voice heard with this passing audience that might not necessarily have time to stop and consider it or interact with it, but might also pause to think about what that object might be doing in the space and what it's saying.
Veronica: How does the public art do that, how does it have its voice and attract people?
Matt: Public art is very diverse, and we think about it more broadly. A great juggler can be like a public artwork in the public realm. But if you think about public art more traditionally as objects that are designed for the public realm, they do different things. Sometimes they celebrate our culture, sometimes they reflect on our history or memorialise the past, and sometimes they imagine our future. If you think about the most well-known public artworks in the world, so the Statue of Liberty, that was a gift to the city of New York, it wasn't a commission. But France gave this statue, against what's happening today, to reflect freedom, and that became a worldwide symbol of America's belief around the freedom of people.
Then there's other discovery artworks that communicate to a much more local audience. There was a cast bronze dog in Melbourne Square. When it went through its first renovation this little dog was removed and the public was up in arms because it was their favourite little sculpture. People would pat it as they went past it on the way to work; they all had a name for it, and the team around the redevelopment of the square started to talk about not when the square would be completed, but when the dog would be returned to the square.
Veronica: I'm interested in the place that art plays in our individual lives as humans. It's beyond entertainment or an added-on feature, isn't it?
Matt: We all connect with different things. There's a famous boar, it’s like a big wild pig in Florence. It's been there for a hundred years and its nose is highly polished and for some reason it's good luck to touch it on the nose.
And I sat and watched the people going past and there's this old Italian woman with shopping bags who, without even looking, crossed the street, touched it on the nose and kept walking. It’s like she'd done that every day of her life, for however long she'd lived there.
Veronica: When we talk about human-centric design, it seems to me that perhaps that's where art has a strong presence.
Matt: I'd agree with that. I think art is part of a suite of elements you need to make a space attractive to people to either visit or pass through or hopefully to retain them in that space for a length of time. If you want people to inhabit a space and you're designing for that space, some of it's practical, you need some furniture there to sit on. You need some trees for shade; you need to create a space that feels nice. You might need a coffee shop, so they grab a coffee and sit down. But art layers over a sense of culture and story. And I think the art allows people to talk about a space and reflect on the space and talk about themselves.
Veronica: So it's a platform for conversation.
Matt: I think a thought and conversation and consideration and debate.
Veronica: I'm aware that UAP can be considered a leader in art-led innovation. How would you describe art-led innovation?
Matt: We don't really describe it as art-led innovation. We sort of think innovation is innovation across the board. So, for instance, in our workshop at the moment, some of our staff and some artists we work with are using virtual reality to pattern make and sculpt their work. So instead of sculpting their work out of clay for instance, they're sculpting their work in virtual space. So, in a way it's innovative technology, but it's allowing an artist to exploit that. So, I would say innovation is something that people with a type of thought process or desire to challenge, engage with. And I'm not sure what we would call it – art-led innovation or design-led innovation.
Veronica: So you think we're distinguishing between art and design in a way that doesn't make a lot of sense?
Matt: I think that's breaking down. I think we have designers who are considered artists; we have architects who are considered artists. We have artists that crossover into architecture. I think as we move forward, those definitions between artist, designer, architect, creator of any sort becomes more about the idea, and the idea is valuable, not so necessarily the label on how you create that.
Veronica: What do you think is the relationship between art and engineering?
Matt: I think certainly in the public art realm, the dynamic is often for the artist to try and stretch the engineer to soften, stretch the rules a bit to ensure the artwork remains beautiful or slender or sophisticated. Sometimes the engineering process needs to be much more dynamic where you test the engineering strength by making prototypes instead of looking at the maths. Because the maths is always going to say that art work suddenly has to be 10 millimetre thicker and six foot wider at the base, and that may not be good for the creative outcome.
But then at other times the engineers are the ones who stretch the artists and give them a framework that they could not have imagined was possible for their artwork, whether it's a suspension methodology, or just a completely different way of working. So, I think when you've got a good engineer and a good artist together, some amazing outcomes can be pulled out.
Veronica: What do you think differentiates art and engineering?
Matt: So, to me, art if it's good tells a story and speaks to your heart, and to me, engineering is about the most practical, pragmatic way to solve a structural problem. So that could be because I'm an artist saying that, I'm not an engineer and I'm sure an engineer would be quite articulate in defending a deeper meaning. But I think art is often all about communication from person to person. Engineering is often a pragmatic problem-solving device that can sometimes be a beautiful artwork in itself – a wonderful bridge for instance. But it is problem-solving to start with, a different way of coming to a problem, to solve a problem.
Veronica: Often engineers are referred to as not being very creative. Why do you think that is?
Matt: I think that's because pragmatism is forced upon them. None of us want a building to blow over in a cyclone or collapse in an earthquake. So, most of their decisions need to be pragmatic and with a large degree of safety wrapped around them. But I think the engineers that get the opportunity to work on more design-driven projects can be just as much an artist as an artist is.
Veronica: So there's a strong element of creativity?
Matt: Oh, definitely. I think that creativity goes across a whole range of professions, we just fail to recognize that.
Veronica: What would you say about how an arts education has influenced your career?
Matt: That's a good question. I think my visual arts degree gave me a desire to explore, a desire to think about possibility. It taught me how to paint and mix oil paints and taught me how to life draw, but I think what the visual arts did most for me was made me think broadly, want to explore, want to be challenged.
Veronica: There appears to be a recent resurgence of people talking about STEAM education. So, the sciences, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. How do you think these different domains work together?
Matt: I think they continue to overlap more and more. In the future we'll think about the idea as the most powerfully creative thing we as humans have, and that idea can do fantastic things for society, whether it's the idea of an artist that might put a work in a public space that makes it a wonderful place to be, or it's the idea of a mathematician that describes gravity. I think we're starting to allow people to move between each of those areas, and we are less hung up that you're an artist, you do this, or you're a mathematician, you do that.
In the conversations that are had around STEAM, I think people revert to a safe place where the visual arts are still considered a hobby or something you're not necessarily that serious about. I think it’s a continual battle to reinforce its relevance, and it’s intriguing really because if you go to any museum in the world, what we've retained as humanity is the arts. That's the thing we have recorded and preserved. So as humans, for some reason we've built these huge institutions and we've preserved pottery from 8,000 years ago and bronze from 5,000 years ago. We go to visit it; it tells us about our culture. So, it's strange that we need to remind ourselves that we value creativity, because that evidence is all around us.
Veronica: Out of all the public art projects you've undertaken, do you have a favourite?
Matt: Well, the first one that comes to mind is a job we did with Lena Yarinkura who's an Indigenous artist from Maningrida (in Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory). She makes camp dogs out of sedge grass and she stuffs them, as that is the material that is available to her. These camp dogs are just gorgeous, charming creatures. It's a job that is out at Brisbane airport, the commercial precinct.
But I think what I love about it is the ability for a very traditional Indigenous woman from a remote community in Northern Australia, to be able to communicate that joy about where she lives so seamlessly into an urban environment in an Australian city. That work of hers would work anywhere in the world. It's universal in a completely new medium, in a completely new space.
Most recently on a different scale, a memorial we did with Idris Khan, a London-based artist, is a war memorial for the Middle East. It's a memorial to soldiers who have been killed in wars in the region. When you approach it, the largest pieces are in front of you. And then as you meander through these large tablets that are sort of falling against each other, you get a sense of quiet and you may not know at this stage it's a memorial to fallen soldiers. But there's something dramatic about it and something that makes you feel a little sad.
By the time you've walked through it, you're led by a small water feature to a pavilion. And Idris worked with Bureau Proberts from Brisbane on this pavilion. In the pavilion, there's a glass work by Idris with Middle Eastern poetry, and then there's single tablets on the wall, maybe a thousand tablets, but 200 of them roughly have names on them of the soldiers who have died. It's that sense of, this won't stop. When there's a name to a tablet, it reminds you that a real person died, a real family mourns that person, and there's more to come. These tablets are waiting for the next name of a fallen soldier. So, I think that sort of work is a very powerful way of communicating to people, ‘we respect our soldiers’, but jeez, the tragedy is, are we going to send more to die? That starts powerful conversations about whether we should be doing this, why do we do this?
Somehow it creates an environment that makes you think more deeply about something.
Veronica: You said earlier that you entered the public art realm because you saw how much fun your brother was having at art college. Is that still relevant for you today?
Matt: Definitely, I love my job, well, there's parts of my job like every job that you go, Jesus, I wish I didn't have to do this, but the joy in our job is every day we do something different, or we see our team doing something different. Most of the time what we do is meaningful and adds value to people's lives somewhere. We're not doctors saving lives, but truly what we do adds value to people's lives in a different way, and it's equally as valid.
Veronica: Thank you for your time and your conversation today Matt.
Matt: Thanks very much for inviting me, it's been a pleasure.
Kalay Maistry: We hope you enjoyed this conversation. Don't forget to share this episode on social media and leave a review for us where you’re listening – we want to know what you think! Tell a friend or colleague about us. They can find the podcast by searching ‘Engineering Reimagined’ wherever they listen to podcasts.