Photographer: Annika Kafcaloudis

If Necessity is the mother of invention, then Creativity is her partner.

As we creep slowly but surely into a new era, us humans are learning to adapt and thrive in new landscapes, working conditions and climates. Many of us diligently and urgently looking for ways to slow the warming of the planet and as we do, we are starting to identify flaws in our outdated, voracious habits of consuming and producing. More and more evidence mounts and points to the very real proof that the two issues of climate change and the over consumption of single-use, throwaway materials are inextricably linked.

One of the obvious ways to break, or at least slow the consumption>obsolescence>trash>trap is by repurposing, reclaiming, and thinking creatively about waste and other natural by-products, otherwise thought of as obsolete, inert or useless.

Thrift and opportunity have always been core values for myself and generations of my family members – you could say that it’s in my DNA. Descending from a long line of Lutheran stonemasons, seamstresses, farmers and poor folk who arrived with little more than a handful of seeds and the clothes on their backs and had to invest all their belief in make-do and cando (and God) in order to survive and thrive. After five generations of making something from nothing, we all seem to still make a living from re-shaping what we can get our hands on. These days I wear my love of op-shopping and foraging proudly as a badge of ethical and creative living, a life skill of sorts. It has long been noted that opportunistic, creative thinkers often have a knack of taking one woman’s trash and not only being able to see it as another woman’s treasure, but to make it into new, functioning treasure that may even have a higher resale value or purpose.

As a species, we are not alone in this new revolution of circular thinking or thrifty invention. Many other species have learnt and are in the process of learning to be opportunistic and creative in the face of scarcity or adversity. In some cases, they are even thriving.

The White Storks of Spain have altogether stopped their exhausting tradition of migration each year as they slowly realise that they can eat the introduced crayfish in local waters and supplement the rest of their diet with human scraps they can scavenge easily from the local tip. Why travel across the world in increasingly inhospitable climate conditions when there is a tasty resource at your doorstep? Similarly, the highly intelligent and successful Racoon has not only adapted to our human garbage as a food source, but has realised that they no longer need to find a hollow log to make their nest, when they can find a pre-made, water-tight roof cavity or shed to shack up in. This sees them thriving in urban, high-density areas with little to no ‘natural’ food sources. Just like us humans, being bold and willing to take risks as well as being brilliant, helps in their plight too.

Studies show that some animals are even using our trash to protect themselves from disease. The common house sparrow has been observed in New Zealand collecting cigarette butts and scattering them throughout their nests as a way of warding off parasitic mites. The waste nicotine stubs, by-products of our human vice, are now acting as a form of pest control for the tiny birds.

The humble Dung Beetle is perhaps the king of all animal opportunists, who has learnt over thousands of years, to work with found waste materials. After the male diligently amasses a large ball of another large creature’s dung, the female lays her eggs inside it, creating a ready-made food source for their young when they hatch. It’s ingenious, but it’s not always easy. The ball of dung is often hard to find and laborious to collect, it’s also bloody heavy – sometimes 50 times their own weight. Furthermore, in order to protect it from being stolen by other hungry dung beetles they need to keep the ball on the move, rolling the ball continuously until the eggs inside it hatch. So basically, these little creative battlers not only eat and live in poo, but they also literally spend their lives pushing shit uphill.

Narelle White_233. 1221_CRAFTVIC_070.jpg
Photographer: Annika Kafcaloudis

Perhaps as creatives our job is to be more like these opportunistic creatures and understand that as part of nature we must work with what others have discarded. Carving news ways of rethinking materials and re-purposing our multitude of waste products is not always an easy or straightforward path. It requires vision, determination and positivity in the face of failure, uncertainty and doubt.

Take for example the radical work of Melbourne fashion designer turned bacterial cellulose bio fabricator, Alexi Freeman. After spending years as a designer in the fashion industry and witnessing the dismally wasteful processes and practices of fabric production, he has spent the last couple of years asking the question – ‘To what extent does my practice change when design meets science?’ The answer seems to be that it changes irrevocably. Just by asking a question, we can start to imagine a better way. At some point the Sparrows must have noticed that the cigarette butts were keeping the mites away. The storks must have noticed that crayfish is delicious. Were these adaptations serendipitous or by design? Whether or not Alexi can actually turn some mouldy blueberries into a workable fabric yet is not really the point – the fact that he is determined to try and is asking the question through experimentation with new biomaterials is the step we all need to be taking. Trial and error, experimentation and hard work seems to be something these opportunistic inventors and adapters all have in common. As revolutionaries they are tireless. Everything has potential.

Melbourne artist/designer/inventor Jessie French of ‘Other Matter’ has her eye on just that. A new way of making matter or material. She also sees the possibilities of a post-petrochemical world. I believe we all want to see that, but are we all really looking? Through experimenting with other materials, like algae, she explores the potential of closed-loop systems of (re)use and conscious consumption and interaction with objects. All her works are compostable. How many of us can claim that?

As artists, craftspeople, and designers we all know how to think and rethink material. To push our boundaries and stretch our non-existent budgets. We often think laterally within our chosen traditions and processes. As consumers we are becoming more aware of what these new ways of thinking look like in the products we spend our money on. As we approach this new age of material consumption, perhaps we need to really consider where we can take opportunities to become inventors, risk takers and visionaries. What kind of closed-loop do we want to live in? If necessity is the mother of invention, then perhaps creativity is her partner.

Tai Snaith, 2022

Tai Snaith is an Australian artist and writer with a broad and generous practice ranging from painting and ceramics to curating, conducting conversations and broadcasting.

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