Mitchell Oakley Smith, on curating Semi Permanent Middle East

Meet creative director and author Mitchell Oakley Smith. Last April he joined the Sydney-based festival of creativity and design Semi Permanent. At Semi Permanent, Oakley Smith leads curation across all of their festivals, and work as creative director on projects through their SP Brand Studio for clients including Audi, Google, Sea Forest and more. Ahead of Semi Permanent Middle East, which runs at Manarat al Saadiyat in Abu Dhabi on 14, 15 and 16 October. We asked Mitchell about curating this dynamic festival remotely, and what to expect of Semi Permanent's first Middle East gathering.

Semi Permanent Middle East takes place in Abu Dhabi, can you share how you landed in this particular city? 

Abu Dhabi has a population under 1.5 million people, and yet it’s really been growing as an art and cultural destination, particularly since the Louvre opened a few years back, and with the planned opening of the Guggenheim next year. I speak for the whole team at Semi Permanent when I say that we always want to keep learning; curating events in Australia is easy for us because we’re so familiar with the creative landscape, but approaching it for a city that’s fairly foreign to us is both a challenge and an opportunity.

This is the first edition you've curated a Semi Permanent event. How do you approach curating a three-day design and creativity festival?

Actually, I curated our Sydney event, slated for August, but due to a surge in Covid cases in Australia, that event sadly had to be cancelled. So the Middle East program is the first to come to life - even though, because of the border closures down under, I can’t be there myself. But in terms of the approach, I find it’s really about finding that balance between regional and international talent. On the one hand, you want to bring the local audience artists and experiences and speakers that they’ve not had contact with before, but then on the other, you don’t want to ignore all of the incredible talent that exists in the region. If we can uplift local talent by programming them alongside and in a complementary way to those flying in from the US or Europe or elsewhere, and so in a way that feels really cohesive, then I see that as a successful approach.

You are not allowed to travel! How does your team, handles the logistics on site? Do you work with a local team?

Our director Murray Bell is on the ground in Abu Dhabi (via a special travel exemption), joined by some of the Semi Permanent team that is based in Europe and our event production partners in the region.

This is Semi Permanent’s first in-person festival after the pandemic on a new location what can we expect?

Well, it’s unlike any Semi Permanent events we’ve ever done before. That’s partly because of the Covid restrictions - for example, we can’t have thousands of people in the venue - but also from a desire to reimagine what our festival looks like. Semi Permanent has traditionally run in a conference format, but this time it’s really dynamic. There are still talks, but they’re broken up throughout the day so that guests can enjoy a host of other experiences. We’ve got the first-ever international pop-up of Lower East Side restaurant and bar The Flower Shop; at La Rosa, an immersive art experience, Aaron Rose has brought together an incredible range of artists including Kim Gordon, Cali Thornhill-Dewitt, Raymon Pettibon, Barry McGee, Johanna Jackson and Kenny Scharf; Refik Anadol’s showcasing an epic ten-by-ten metre installation; Mark Ronson’s performing a DJ set… so it’s a conference-meets-exhibition-meets-retail store-meets-concert-meets-so many other things.

Photo: Hussain AlMoosawi
Photo: Hussain AlMoosawi
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Photo: Ismail Zaidy
Ismail Zaidy
Photo: Ryan McGinley

What is the overarching theme at Semi Permanent Middle East?

Our theme for the year is ‘Bridges’, and whatever that means to the various creative talent involved in our events. A connection between two disparate places; a physical structure; a means for travel and communication. It feels apt after the isolation we’ve all felt this past year and a half.

How do you go about selecting speakers? And figuring out who is the right fit for this event and your specific audience?

It’s really about who has a good story to tell. Do they have a recent project - a book or an exhibition or other body of work - that they can talk about? Is there an approach or creative process really interesting? And, above all, what can they offer that the whole audience can take away? Even if they’re, say, an architect or a graphic designer talking specifically about their projects that might be worlds away from what you, as an audience member, does on a day-to-day basis, is there still something that you can learn and apply to your own world?

If attendees leave having learned something, made a connection, feel creatively energised, well then that’s a job well done.
— Mitchell Oakley Smith
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Photo: Refik Anadol

You are based in Sydney. How is curating a festival that is roughly 12000km away different than curating for a local event?  

Not that different, really. The process is much the same, and no matter where our festivals are we always have talent involved from around the world, so that feels normal to us. There are, of course, cultural considerations for working in different markets, as well as education and awareness about what Semi Permanent is, but that makes it interesting, too.

As this is your second edition of curating Semi Permanent. What is the most challenging part of curating this event? What’s the best part?

We’ve got over 30 creatives speaking on the program, and that doesn’t take into account all of the artists and brands that are exhibiting, so we’re talking upwards of 50 talent that are involved in this single event. To build a program of that breadth takes considerable time — conversations have to start months and months out — and doing it in the middle of a pandemic, when rules are changing on an almost daily basis and travel is restricted, has been no easy task. But on the other side of that, being able to pull off this event, and with such a sterling lineup (Mark Ronson! Daniel Arsham! Kim Gordon!) gives us a real sense of achievement.

What do you want your audience to take home after a Semi Permanent visit?

We always want the audience to book a ticket because somebody they love is on the program, but to leave having been completely inspired by somebody they’d never heard of before. If attendees leave having learned something, made a connection, feel creatively energised, well then that’s a job well done.


Fast 5

1. Your favourite channel right now:

Evan Ross Katz for everything pop culture.

2. What is the best life advice (or lesson learned in business) you ever received:

Stop caring so much about everything.

3. Best destination you go to for inspiration:

My home library. All creative projects start with going through art books.

4. The app you can’t live without?

Right now, the Covid certificate and check-in app. But otherwise, Spotify.

5. Book we should all read?

I just finished Insomniac City by Bill Hayes and loved it.

Semi Permanet Middle East 2021

14 — 16 October 2021
Manarat Al Saadiyat and W Abu Dhabi
Tickets: From 200AED

Semi Permanent's profile on Neon Moiré

Images courtesy of Semi Permanent and mentioned artist.

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