Why Australia needs a new cultural narrative

Frank Bethel and Carl Ratcliff
By Frank Bethel and Carl Ratcliff | 18 November 2022
Carl Ratcliff and Frank Bethel

Frank Bethel and Carl Ratcliff have uncovered the new cultural narrative emerging in Australia, inspiring a differentiating form of Australian creativity.


Both of your authors have worked for a long time – longer than perhaps we’d care to remember – in advertising and marketing strategy. Each of us has, over time, developed an enthusiasm for genuinely creative expression (however it might manifest) and a curiosity for the culture that surrounds creativity's output.

We set out to explore the different “cultural narratives” around creativity, in Australia and the UK. And, having conducted in-depth research over the course of the last 12 months would propose a reframing of the Australian cultural narrative around the idea of Karrik Spirit, our definition of a differentiating Australian form of creativity.

To us, at least, the idea of Karrik Spirit feels timely and warrants an enthusiastic share with other like minds.

From survival to comfortably numb

Historically, Australian culture has its roots in survival, living tough on the land, and being resilient and resourceful.  The grit of Ned Kelly is learned across a thousand primary school classrooms before any other more ancient history. Indeed, his ingenuity remains on view, still, in the brutal practicability of The Hills Hoist, Cochlear and Afterpay, even. Inventions that are pragmatic, first and foremost.

While Australia still enjoys this nostalgic link to ingenuity and resourcefulness, the reality is we’ve been living the opposite - living in a time of abundance, not scarcity, uninterrupted over the last 50 years.

Running from the 1970s to the 2020s, it’s clear that Australia has gone from being a place for people to flee to a place the rest of the world wishes to holiday in, to live even. From ten-pound-poms to a bucket-list, lifestyle superpower – now manifested in myriad ways, from Australian Wine, The Sydney Olympics in 2000, Neighbours (RIP), the World’s Most Liveable Cities, Avocado-on-Toast, Coffee (as it should be) to Brand Bondi, all held together by a mining boom like no other. In many respects, the latest Tourism Australia global campaign symbolises the crowning achievement of all these things.

A reputation forbeing Comfortably Non-experimental may well be apt, in a time of abundance, but times change, and many of us now realise that the quintessential outdoor life for Australia of old, has shifted, profoundly.

An era of resource-fail

Over the last few years, it’s evident that Australia has entered an era of resourcefail:

2020’s bushfires, more and more floods, the world’s longest lockdown during COVID-19, then inflation, mortgage rate rises, a housing shortage and a stuttering economy overall, hot one moment, cold the next, all threaten the thing Australia has prioritised more than anything else in recent decades - its lifestyle.

And for this new wave, we suggest that an attitude of Comfortably Non- Experimental is not the answer.

In the words of our new prime minister, “Creativity and imagination are two of Australia’s most valuable natural resources”.

Given such, now is the time for a fresh cultural narrative in respect of our creativity. Labelling it – branding it - will help it flourish and propagate as a platform for new ideas and growth, for all of us. Indeed, all great creative movements possess a unique brand and equity, from Bauhaus to Brutalism, from Punk to Pop Art.

A new creative narrative is necessary

A decade ago, the word Karrikin was written into the English dictionary for the first time. Scientists at Western Australian University had identified fertilizing molecules in bushfire smoke, whose sole function was to reseed scorched scrubland and forest with new growth. Karrikin is derived from the Western Australian Noongar Tribe word, Karrik, meaning smoke.

Karrik is a metaphor or ‘brand’, if you will, that we have chosen, with express permission, to identify a new wave of creativity we are witnessing, after the unique cultural pressure Australia has experienced during the last 3-5 years. 

Karrik Spirit

In our view, Karrik Spirt is a new Australian creativity in its prime, emerging from freshly set economic tension and climate insecurity – a scorched, new normal, in effect.

Karrik challenges Comfortably Non-Experimental, the lackadaisical relationship Australians have been accused of having with creativity’s flair and its philistine assumption that creativity is a distraction from the task of living.

As we approach the quarter-century mark of this century, we see an elevated resourcefulness at work, in which creativity and utility intertwine. An intentional ingenuity emerges, where workings out are made explicit and absorbed into the widest range of creative expression, from commercial architecture to First Nations modern art.

A Gallery of Karrik

What follows is a very select range of what we have deemed Karrik-fit. Clearly, this is a non-exhaustive sample, but for the purposes of illustration, we have chosen big ideas in which lifestyle, resourcefulness, transmission and new growth combine to offer a forwardness or purpose for Australian creativity.

Karrik is without prejudice, how its spirit manifests is immaterial, as the broad range, below, highlights:

So, for instance, we have chosenLaith Macgregor’s Strange Days at the Adelaide Biennial (2022), in which a giant SOS installation made up of over 1000 plastic bottles, each with its own unique message, from real people writing their own personal castaway message over the course of the pandemic:

Second, and from the world of future cities, is Atlassian’s intended HQ in Central, Sydney planned to open, next year. A natural, wooden iconic structure to live and breathe oxygen – literally – into Sydney’s evolving technology district and main travel hub:

Also, to be built next year is Earth's very own Black Box in Tasmania. It’s intended to outlast humanity, as a witness to geological rather than human time and is conceived by the University of Tasmania, Clemenger BBDO & Glue Society:

Possibly closer to the hearts of some of this publication’s readers is Leo Burnett & Suncorp’s infamous One House To Save Many, heavily endorsed by The Cannes Festival of Creativity this year, or the now infamous We Will Rise exhibition in 2020.

We Will Rise deployed an inspired application for bushfire charcoal: apocalyptic debris turned creative instrument. Imagined, in this instance, by Georgina Pattinson’s bird sculpture – elegant, educating horror if ever there were:

On a different tack, but enduring and educational nevertheless, is Bell Shakespeare’s national school programme, now reverting to life after Covid, spreading the gift of the Bard, for younger generations, to come, or why not shuttle back to Sydney and consider Young Henry’s and UTS’ planned open-source microalgae. An organism that eats up carbon dioxide from the brewing process, whilst belching back oxygen:

The more you use, the more you have

Ultimately, and usefully, Karrik Spirit explores and nudges our potential, rather than exploits the present, to paraphrase behavioural aficionado, Rory Sutherland. In its purest state, Karrik is redolent of the ingenuity of our Resourceful Era, but with a newly set intention-at-scale, that’s transformative and exciting.

To stand on the shoulders of at least one giant, and mainline a little of Maya Angelou’s optimism, ‘You can’t use creativity up. The more you use, the more you have’ and the more useful this Karrik Spirit becomes, as a way of resetting the reputation of creativity In Australia, for the good of all, economy and planet included. And as an antidote to what Nick Bryant has described as a time in which he’s never seen Australians more anxious about the present, or more fearful about the future, given their lifestyle stagnation unprecedented since the end of World War 2.

Frank & Carl are research and planning consultants at Forward Scout & This Is The Day, respectively.


comments powered by Disqus