Jess Scully is an advocate for the creative economy and the role of cities in a fair future. She is the Deputy Lord Mayor of Sydney; previously, Jess curated projects including Vivid Ideas and TEDxSydney, worked as a public art curator, policy advisor and magazine editor. Her first book, Glimpses of Utopia, is published by Pantera Press.
How are you looking after yourself during this time?
I’m trying to get outside into the sun every day. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but it’s surprisingly easy to be stuck indoors on calls and Zooms and Skypes, and you can watch the sun rise and set through the window without feeling it on your face. I’m lucky enough to be home with my wonderful 10-month-old daughter Elinor and husband Pat, and while Pat and I are juggling work, we do try to have picnic lunches as often as we can, and to give Eli a chance to play outside as much as possible. Right now, we’re appreciating parks, the sun, and just being outdoors when we can as our form of self-care.
Can you speak a little about your creative process while writing?
I started with a few key areas I wanted to address – politics, finance, work and cities – in a big sketch book which I sketched ideas around, listing all the people and ideas that came to mind immediately, and then I kept on gathering these over the course of months. As I spoke to each of the people on my list, I found myself adding more people and more topics. The web I was spinning just got bigger and bigger, as I realised I needed to explain more and dive deeper into other topics (like tax and the care economy, and the public sphere of discourse, for example) to tell a comprehensive story. For me, the writing and researching process was so driven by personal conversations with people modelling change, and every conversation led to another person whose work opened up more of the world for me. It’s something I’ve always experienced in my creative working life; it’s always propelled forward and enriched by connecting with people, and often, those conversations took me in unexpected directions or sparked revelations for me.
Has the pandemic changed the way you approach your art/writing? Are you creating or absorbing, or both?
I found myself diving into reframing and refocusing the book to include the pandemic, as I was lucky that we hadn’t yet gone to print. The recommendations and ideas in the book didn’t have to change, but what did change was that suddenly here was a moment when all kinds of ideas that might have been considered radical were suddenly on the table – and the urgency of the need for change was made more real by this historical moment. So really, I found myself writing more than ever before during that first phase of the lockdown! I’m hoping I’ll get to do a bit more absorbing now…
What are the most important literary and non-literary forces that shape your writing?
I think the worlds of activism and social movements have been the biggest influence on me, with their urgency and focus on social justice, as well as the work of journalists who aren’t afraid to take a stance on the issues they report on. I studied journalism but never thought I’d be any good pretending to be an objective, impartial observer!
Which artists are you most intrigued by at this current point in time?
I love artists who use institutions and systems as their mediums – Joseph Beuys called it ‘social sculpture’ – who see their role as modelling the kind of world we could have, and play with real estate, the internet monoliths and the market, and other structures that shape the choices we have in our lives. I’m thinking of collectives like UK’s Assemble who work with communities to reclaim land ownership and redesign space for affordable housing, artist Theaster Gates who builds creative and social infrastructure for communities who have been hollowed out and left behind, and Paolo Cirio who uses the tools of hacker culture to speak back to the outsized power of the internet giants who dominate our online lives. I also love artists like Shilpa Gupta who stand up to the memory of the world, documenting injustice and lyrically turning news and history into unforgettable emotional experiences.
And, lastly, on a lighter note, what’s your favourite book-to-TV / book-to-film adaptation? Or is there a book you’d like to see adapted into a TV show / film?
I’d actually love to see a book called Moneyland by Oliver Bullough adapted into a TV doco – it’s a dizzying tour through the lavish lifestyles arising from the vast wealth that has been pillaged by the super wealthy around the world, thanks to tax dodging and secrecy havens. I think it would be eye-opening and a gripping story!