Researching Vernacular Creativity in Wollongong

Since 2008, Andrew Warren's PhD research for CAMRA has investigated grassroots, everyday or 'vernacular' forms of cultural and creative practice in Wollongong - including custom car design, surfboard shaping and Indigenous Hip Hop - and their social, cultural, and economic contributions to the region.  Here, he writes about his research journey so far.

Shaping Wollongong's Identity

Wollongong has a proud industrial heritage, with longstanding ties to steel making and coal mining, where Port Kembla has expanded to become one of Australia's busiest and most important harbours. The region is also renowned for its proximity to stunning natural amenity, and is flanked by the Royal National Park to the north, Tasman Sea to the east and Illawarra escarpment to the west. Indeed Wollongong has a unique Geography.

Having lived in the area all my life, I began this PhD with an 'insiders' view of Wollongong, overtly aware of the inadequate documentation of the city's vibrant cultural life. So, using existing contacts within the local community, drawing on help from local council planners and community groups - all the while galvanising new social networks as I went along - I have been able to draw out three unique cultural and creative case studies, involving a diverse spectrum of participants. These are activities which have not traditionally been thought about as 'cultural assets' for Wollongong, but for which I will argue make not only important contributions to the city's economy, but also to the making of Wollongong as a region itself. These activities are as much a part of Wollongong's identity as coal mining and steelmaking.

Custom Car Design

Left: A Honda CRX from Unanderra. Right: A Chevrolet at the The American Muscle Car Club of Australia, Towradgi Beach (photos: Andrew Warren)

Young people and hotted up cars have long been aligned with moral panics surrounding street racing and hoon behaviour; depicted as all round reckless and dangerous drivers. Wollongong has long been recognised as an area with a strong custom or modified car scene, hosting a number of popular car festivals, including Rev Fest and the American Muscle Car Club of Australia's annual show. Rather than typecast young car enthusiasts in the region as hoons, my research has examines the creative work, which goes into designing, fabricating and completing a custom show car. It has especially focused on a group of fifteen young enthusiasts, involved in exhibiting their cars at various show n shines, car club meets and auto salon shows. Not always held in the city, these participants take their cars to shows in Sydney, Newcastle, even interstate into Melbourne and Brisbane. Using in depth, ethnographic research methods over a twelve month period I have been able to reveal how these car lovers create their stunning vehicles; how they draw on their own skills, and combine these with the technical abilities from local automotive businesses, who cater to the custom demand. From my analysis, I have shown how the local automotive industry supports over 650 local jobs, with many workshops relying on the custom scene for sustaining their business. The average participant in my research spent $14,400 on customising their car, in addition to the amount originally paid for their vehicle. Many explained how they had yet to complete their vehicles either, planning still more work.

Left: In the spray painting booth for a custom job, Dapto. Right: The interior of a Ford Mustang at the American Muscle Car Club of Australia, Towradgi Beach. (Photos: Andrew Warren)

Within these stories, lies the importance of the Wollongong region for custom car design, where participants are able to draw on the extensive knowledge and expertise of local automotive workers, whom they form strong bonds of emotional trust with. These emotional bonds help produce unique and impressive vehicles. Perhaps documenting this scene can illuminate its importance to both local youth and Wollongong area itself. Another emerging scene with the region, also involving young people is hip hop music; which follows a similarly misunderstood narrative to that of the car enthusiast.

Wollongong's Custom Car Geography

Custom Car Map

Indigenous Hip Hop

My hip hop research has chosen to focus specifically on local Indigenous artists. There has been much written within academia about hip hop recently and many important contributions to understanding the significance of the music for identity formation and the upholding of social bonds have been made. Having said that, no in depth ethnographic work has fixed on the creative side of this contemporary form of music.

ECPIndigenous hip hop group ECP performing at Windang (photo: Andrew Warren)

Thus my work has focused on how hip hop is being produced and consumed by Indigenous youth, and what this may mean for the future of Australian and Indigenous hip hop. Most of the fifteen participants interviewed and observed during my research became involved in rapping or deejaying to self express. Rapping, dancing or deejaying assisted them to negotiate wider social problems faced at school or home. Along the way well recognised hip hoppers from the wider Indigenous community played a mentoring role in assisting musical participation. The Wollongong region is also integral to this music making, where raps speak of love for country and culture.

Corey WebsterCorey Webster performing at Windang (photo: Andrew Warren)

From initial flirtations, a number of young rappers then begun to perform their music locally, even receiving small payments for their gigging. These experiences had crystallised aspiration for professional careers in music, however unlikely that may have been. This work challenges discursive assumptions often portrayed in the media about young Indigenous people as idle and lacking ambition. In many cases, participants had been praised by audience members after performances for their slick rhyming skills, and funky beat making. However, performances were limited to Indigenous events, with patron discourses acting to determine 'proper Indigenous' performance from 'other 'forms of expression (see Van Toorn, 1990). This work, with great help from my good mate Rob Evitt - also an amateur Indigenous rapper himself- is ongoing, but demonstrates the obstacles facing young Indigenous performers in the region.

Cultural Sites of Performance for Illawarra's Indigneous Youth

The map below shows the different cultural sites of performance for the rap group Yuin Soldiers.

Hip Hop Map

The Yuin Soldiers are also involved in 'Traditional' Aboriginal dancing, which they perform for schools, community festivals, reconciliation weeks, government parties and other ceremonies. These are represented by green place mar - 25 in total.

The blue place marks, for which there are only 11 - condierably less - represent hip hop performances. Of course, this is not to suggest that dancing wasn't performed at the hip hop performance, but that the main purpose of the show was hip hop and not 'traditional' . The map suggests that there wre less opportunities to perform hip hop across the region, despite the group trying hard to galvanise support (using online network like MySpace, etc) and get access

Surfboard shaping and the custom surfboard industry

As someone who identifies as a fanatical surfer, I have long been a member of Wollongong's surfing community. This is a large community; with the region undoubtedly one of the worlds' best surfing regions, having a variety of quality breaks, with somewhere 'working' in almost all conditions (tide levels, swell and wind directions). More broadly, surfing is a culture, which has been commodified into a multibillion dollar per year industry with more than 2 million surfers in Australia alone. Like hip hop, scholarly and popular work on surfing has grown enormously, since surfing became part of popular culture (instigated with the release of the film Gidget in 1959). Less publicised in these literatures has been the surfboard making industry. This surprised me. Wollongong as a surfing region is also home to a number of iconic hand shapers - a declining number of artists who hand make, mostly custom designed surfboards -so I thought this would be a great case study to investigate.

Sanding a boardBay for setting glassed boards
Left: At Skipp Surfboards which opened in 1963. Yasu sanding a custom shortboard.
Right: John Skipp showing the cabinets where glassed surfboards are left to cure. (photos: Andrew Warren)

Beginning with guided tours through four local businesses - directly employing some 28 workers- my research has uncovered an industry at a production crossroads. With increasing fabrication occurring via the use of computer guided shaping machines, hand shaping is a dwindling art. Each of the four businesses explains tensions surrounding surfboard manufacturing, where there remains a strong local demand for customised surfboards. The stories from participant's shows how wider industry domination (oligopoly) by firms like Billabong and Quiksilver has ironically acted to help maintain locally focused markets, as much as encroach upon them. Yet, there is ongoing concern surrounding the importation of cheaper, lower quality, machined surfboards flooding into the region, and anxiety around what this will mean for hand shaping in Wollongong? Further, the 'older' profile of hand shapers in the region also raises questions for my thesis surrounding the future creative succession of this ancient form of surfboard making, skills first pioneered by Hawaiian royal Ali'I nearly three thousand years ago.

Custom Surf_3Andrew Warren Surfing
Left: Mick Carabine finishing off the glassing on a longboard. (Photo: Andrew Warren) Right: Andrew Warren Surfing