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Authenticity is currency – join our research project!

I was having coffee with friend Allan Thomas on Hardware Lane last week, and we were talking about place marketing, brand experience and the astro-turfing strategies PR agencies use to create the impression of grass roots or emergent cultural expression.

“Authenticity is currency” said Allan, “We live in a world where transactions are increasingly mediated; where we don’t know what is real or fake, or what we trust.”

So in a world where you can pay your bills, buy your groceries, get a university degree and have a relationship without leaving your house or talking to an actual person – authenticity has value.

Here at Village Well we talk a lot about authentic places. Places with grit and character, places which tell you something about the people that live and work in them. But what do we actually mean when we call a place authentic? What does an authentic place look like? Can you make a place more authentic? And if so, how?

To start to dig a little deeper into this we decided to do a little impromptu research project to see if we could discover out what authenticity looks like – and to see what we shared a common understanding of it. This is how we did it:

1. Buy a loaf of bread (if possible take a photo of the person who sold it to you, and of the bread itself)

2. Within 100 paces of the place where you bought the bread, photograph 5 authentic things

Have a look at our photos – they do start to tell a story about what authentic might look like, and even, how you can ‘do it’. If we were to start to form some ‘rules of authenticity’ they might be something like: make sure everyone is welcome, dogs and all. Allow personalisation, personal expression, billposters and grit. Don’t get too hung up on the place being perfectly clean. Be playful with design. Don’t leave making places to the professionals, let anyone leave their mark.

Do you want to join our research project? We’d love to see what you found, and why you’ve chosen them. Just follow the steps above, email us your photos along with the name and address of where you bought your bread, and your name too. We’ll post your work here on our blog!

Our Research

I went to Highpoint shopping centre in Maribyrnong, and bought my bread in Coles. Finding authentic things within 100 paces in  a shopping centre was a bit of a struggle. These two sisters walked past, laughing and very proud of their matching sunglasses, so I took a snap of them. Traders aren’t allowed to show handwritten signs in Highpoint, so this was the only handwriting in the centre, the shop was closing down, so I can only imagine that they no longer cared. I only took a photo of the flowers because I was starting to get a little desperate (but they are real flowers, not artificial, even if they could never actually grow there). The mismatched gumboots belong to my son, who insists on wearing them, one blue one pink, regardless of the weather, so that was a bit of authentic I brought with me. Lastly I decided that there was something authentic about the display spilling out of the shop onto the walkway – like a traditional market (also against centre rules).

David Naylor went to Barkley Square, another shopping centre, this time in the inner northern suburb of Brunswick. “A dead fish is a dead fish” said David, “It is what it is. It’s authentic by default – there’s no zhushing up a dead fish”. He took photos of people in traditional cultural dress, a doily in a chinese restaurant, signage which was getting a little older and tired (authentic isn’t always pretty). Some custom shelving with colourful spices and more handwriting.

Later I went to Babka on Brunswick street in the inner northern Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy. We included the photo of the women who sold me the bread because Babka is one of those places where the staff are allowed to be themselves, they don’t have to tell everyone to have a nice day – and so when they smile at you there is something authentic about the exchange.

Graffiti art – and even the ordinary graffiti on the bench and the rubbish – again not pretty, but I think that in mainstreets, as long as the place feels loved and cared for, a little bit of mess is good – if it’s too perfect it doesn’t feel quite right. Also the sky, trees, leaves and of course, one of the best things about mainstreets is that they’re truly public – everyone is welcome there, even dogs.

Ainsley Milton went to the mainstreet of the waterfront western suburb of Williamstown. She was spoilt for choice – dogs again, a community bbq, a man selling the Big Issue with a great handmade sign, a ‘what’s on’ display overcrowded with colourful bill posters in the local laundomat (when did cafes get too cool to put this stuff on their walls?). Fantastic retro kitchenmaid display, we decided that the older something is, the more likely it is to feel authentic. And finally, a community noticeboard (not one of those ones locked in a glass display) showing the usual combination of garage sales, lost pets and local gigs.

Philippa Abbott bought her bread on High St in the inner northern suburb of Northcote. More bill posters of gigs, fresh flower display on the footpath, an artwork for locking your bike to, and of course the classic Westgarth Cinema.

Jo Skladzien got her bread in the inner western suburb of Yarraville. More handwriting, and live music! The best shop in the world (in my opinion), which takes allowing your wares to spill out in the street to a whole new level. Bikes, grit and the classic Sun Cinema and some great signage (whatever a National Sausage King is, it looks very official).

Sunny Haynes bought her bread on the main street of Kyneton, a town in the Macedon Ranges less than 100km from Melbourne. She included the park because they decided to paint their benches a bright wattle yellow (instead of heritage green), a fabulous window display, an I heart KY badge, an impromptu art installation she found in a local park, Ganim’s lovely chalkboard and the warm blankets they offer their customers, and a nice detail on an historical postbox. When did buildings and postboxes and telegraph poles stop being playful? When did small scale decoration in public space become ‘bad taste’? Around the 1930s I guess when the world become Modern, and sadly, stayed that way.

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