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Cutting Edge Thinking, Endless Possibilities

13 Jun 2024

A year-long creative journey for a newly built collaborative community in Northland has opened a wealth of new opportunities and instilled a boosted sense of confidence.

Thinking big starts small.

And finding your creative fire starts with one spark.

For a number of creatively minded Northland residents, a 12-month envelopment into an innovative project has knocked down barriers - geographical, mental and virtual - to change their reality.

The creative collective of Dr Maggie Buxton, Jarred Taylor and Kim Newall have used their passion for unlocking creative vision across disciplines to present a number of boundary-pushing projects as part of AwhiWorld.

Among their most ambitious endeavours is the Awhi Incubator project which, from May 2023 through to May 2024, provided free coaching mentoring and training for selected cross-disciplinary practitioners and creative technologists who live in Te Tai Tokorau. Supported by the Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture and Heritage (MCH) Innovation Fund, the aim has been to raise the profile of the innovative Northland art scene and connect to national and international networks.

With events like BIOS and the Alternative Reality Gardening (ARG) symposium and publication - both digital and physical - it's already been a highly fruitful journey for most. 

Photo: Nabulen Photography.

The process hasn't just benefitted the Incubator participants, it's supported hundreds of people through additional open labs, events and workshops over the year - backed up by an ethos of using local products and suppliers where possible to put money back into the regional economy.

It came to a climax last month with the ARG lab 24 (17-25 May) - a trans-disciplinary collection of exhibitions, events, performances, workshops and talks exploring diverse perspectives on 'place' - where what is considered real and true is reimagined across alternative realities and parallel worlds.

Experience takes flight

The year-long creative kaleidoscope came at the perfect time for many participants -among them, entrenched multidisciplinary artist Sharyne Lewis, who has been combining fine and performing arts since 1998.

Her time as part of the Awhi Incubator saw her present her work Portals to Venus - utilising her Calla Lilly digital dance drawings as choreographic scores to bring together digital dance, drawings, dance notational symbols, choreography interactive video projection and live dance - and has struck up an opportunity to be part of this month's ISEA (International Symposium on Electronic Art) conference in Brisbane.

Sharyne Lewis performing Portals to Venus. Photo: Nabulen Photography.

Lewis reveals "Well, initially I misread the Awhi Incubator application and I thought it was for three months and then I found out it was for 12 months. That was actually a blessing in disguise because three months wouldn't been enough time to evolve anything.

"It meant that I was able to network with other people in the community who were working with creative technologies. As a multidisciplinary artist, once you leave art school it's hard to access a lot of the technology that you might need to continue to make art in the same way. 

"I feel like becoming involved in the Awhi Incubator has given me a better skill base to level up my knowledge - for example using AI to create music or using the ISADORA (projection mapping) program which I'm learning."

With her impending trip to Brisbane and already having her work shared across the globe virtually thanks to BIOS and other Awhi Incubator opportunities, Lewis feels like her practice is taking flight metaphorically as well as literally.

"It's quite easy to get stuck at a community or regional level as an artist when you don't have the support behind you. That's something that I think the Incubator has really assisted with, not only reaching a regional level or national level, but also reaching international audience and that's something that's amazing for me. 

"It's never happened before and I've been an artist for over 20 years."

Confidence booster

That sense of excitement also rings true with Liam Martyn Astbury, a multidisciplinary digital artist who relocated to Aotearoa from the UK 16 years ago.

Liam Martyn Astbury. Photo: Nabulen Photography.

He uses his photography, videography, graphic design and animation skills in his art practice which is deeply influenced by his connections with animals -  a bond he attributes to his journey with autism.

"From the moment I read the information about the project,  I wanted to be part of it," Astbury enthuses.  

"I felt really supported by the mentorship I got throughout the project, especially when there were ups and downs - I was always shown a way forward at my own pace. When I wanted to learn a new skill, I was always encouraged to do the groundwork first and ask questions second.  This has given me the confidence to work stuff out for myself."

His Incubator project - Neo Botanica - brought his love of animals together with a window into the reality of gardening in the future, creating cat-related house plants in 2158 using a quirky mix of art and science for ARG Lab 24.

"It gave me the opportunity to further explore my creativity. I have learnt many new skills that have enhanced my art practice and enabled me to bring my ideas to life. Having access to cutting-edge digital tools and innovative methods has shown me what is possible. 

"Being part of the ARG Lab 2024 has upskilled and supported me to keep building on my art practice, making it stronger for the future. I have had the opportunity to put the skills I have learnt into practice.”

Changing mindsets

Dr Candace Loy was another looking to find a way to bring her many passions together.

Growing up in Singapore enjoying art and science - with BSc honours focused on brain and spinal cord injury and a PhD in growing NZ native marine species like shellfish seaweed - Loy found herself living on the Tūtūkākā Coast wondering what her next step would be.

She explains "Before the Incubator, I felt like I had so many ideas...unfinished projects. 

Dr Candace Loy. Photo: Charm Hauraki Photography.

"I've had lots of small illustration projects and little stories that I wanted to tie up. I came in thinking that I was going to learn technology to bring these to life. 

"But along each step of the way, I was encouraged to just let it go and enjoy what I was learning, including staying open to what I was interacting with—the opportunities that I had to learn about 3D printing, using recycled plastics and new biomaterials, the bio-leather workshop, projection mapping, and just stepping in and experiencing all these new technologies that I hadn't had access to before.

"Somehow, it turned into me thinking about my specific experiences and trying to distil how I could bring them together and combine them with the new things I was learning. So it became about creating something new instead of finishing off what I felt like I never finished. 

"This Incubator was really the first time I sat down and put together my past interests and what had led me here. I found that the common thread in what I had done was always about growing different things together."

Unlocking collaboration

The Ahwi Incubuator's big driver was to show those in what can be a geographically isolated area the importance - and pleasure - of finding others to share your creative outlet with.

As well as those within the project combing, AwhiWorld engaged in significant collaborations locally alongside a diverse range of organisations as well as building strong international networks with multiple other projects in Australia, Europe and South East Asia.

Loy details "I love learning new things, so I was trying to find a way of bringing my knowledge together - learning new technology, getting inspiration from lots of other people from diverse backgrounds and just trying to see what I could come up with.

AhiWorld-Promo_byNabulen-56 (1).jpg
AwhiWorld's Dr Maggie Buxton and Kim Newall. Photo: Nabulen Photography.

"Having a chat with Maggie and learning about what (the Incubator) was, it felt very much like finally having a little base, a little foundation to rest on. Before that, you felt like you were constantly trying to tie things together, and you couldn't quite fit somewhere. 

"That's quite a universal feeling, right? Everyone has such different interests, so learning that it was okay to have interests and skills in many different areas and to try to pull something together—that was the crux of what this whole incubator was about. It just felt like I had somewhere where I could just breathe for a moment."

The collaboration component was crucial for Lewis to combine her performing and visual arts practice.

"In performing arts, it's very difficult to work alone. You need other people - (even) just for the operations for lights or operations behind the scenes. It's very difficult to do as one person so in terms of collaboration, it's allowed me to network in the Northland community and meet like-minded people, whereas before I was working pretty much on my own and feeling a little bit lost."

Sharyne Lewis. Photo: Nabulen Photography.

Astbury adds "I now have a deeper understanding of the benefits of collaborating with others. Working alone is very different from working with other artists - collaboration provides the feedback that I need to improve my art-making abilities. 

"I get to see different ideas and views on things when working with others. I am much better at communicating now, both listening and getting my views across.  

"Being part of an art community is really special. I feel a great sense of achievement -all the hard work I have put into the project made my final exhibition a success.  I felt supported and that helped me to achieve the outcomes that I am really proud of."

New doors

With the project now concluding its 12-month run, it's allowed time to reflect as well as elevate excitement about what lies ahead. 

Participants are now starting new businesses - or adding additional revenue streams to their existing ones - presenting at national and international conferences and finding success in gaining grants for new work.

The Incubator experience has been a transformational one for Loy.

While revisiting her academic inclinations in a creative context - it led to a pivotal career shift towards neuroscience as an MRI technologist.

"I'm currently going through a phase of a lot of study, which I'm loving. It's quite challenging but fascinating.

"Being in the incubator has made me tune my radar to be more open to technology. Even though MRIs have been around for 50 years, just going, 'I can include cool things, cool tech into my creative practice and in my daily life and in my work and in my job.'

"Here I am, about to start my traineeship in July because of the Incubator.

I'm excited. I wish there were more hours in the day."

Lewis notes "I am really hoping to collaborate with other artists and produce a larger version of my pilot performance I've just done, The Portals to Venus, and part of that will be working live with musicians, using AI music or other dancers that work in a multimedia context or other people that work with multimedia imagery. 

"The other thing that I'd really love to work towards is being involved in a collaboration and getting an artist residency somewhere. It's nice to be acknowledged in your own backyard.

Liam Martyn Astbury. Photo: Nabulen Photography.

"Kim, Maggie and Jarred are wonderful people to work with and hugely supportive - I love how cutting-edge they are in terms of where they're pitching things in the world and that's a really exciting development."

Astbury is ready to embrace whatever comes next. 

"Over the past year, Awhi Incubator has built a supportive art community and I will continue to be part of it.  I have a lot of ideas in my visual diary to look into.  With the guidance of my art mentor Megan Dickinson, I learned that when an idea comes to me I need to acknowledge it by making notes in my visual diary, so I remember all these great ideas! I would like to apply for funding to continue growing my skills and look into being part of the Whangārei Fringe Festival 2024.

"My creativity has bloomed and so has my personal well-being.  It was so great that everyone enjoyed my exhibition and encouraged me to keep going with my art practice. They were all wondering and asking me what I am going to do next!" 

Written in partnership with AwhiWorld - find out more about ARG Lab 24 and the Awhi Incubator here.