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A visit to Dubbo, with CUSP, cars, and a trip to hospital

The week before last I jumped on a plane and took the slightly-less-than-an-hour flight across the Great Dividing Range to land in Dubbo, a city of a little over 30,000 in the central west of New South Wales and famous around the country for the Taronga Western Plains Zoo. My purpose for travel had nothing to do with the zoo (though I did go as a child and have fond memories), but to visit the Western Plains Cultural Centre, a wonderful regional venue who are currently playing host to CUSP: Designing into the Next Decade.

As part of CUSP, I’ve been going around to each touring venue and recording insights from local design figures, capturing their thoughts on the creative program, and hopefully gleaning a little bit of value that the program brings to their area. In Sydney I chatted to Jess Scully while the program was at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, and in Adelaide I spoke to Tim Horton at JamFactory. In Dubbo, WPCC curator Kent Buchanan put me in touch with Mark Nugent, a coachbuilder specialising in vintage and antique car restoration and construction.

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Intrigued, I had to look him up. And one glance through his website got me instantly excited. I know nothing about cars and haven’t otherwise had a great interested in them, but looking at pictures of the sorts of vehicles Mark works on, and chatting to him about how long it takes to make them (almost entirely by hand) had me intrigued.

Shortly after beginning to flesh out possible dates with Mark and WPCC, our Director Steven Pozel mentioned a conversation he had had with Bernadette Fay when he was in Dubbo for the opening. Bernadette works as a Hospital Executive at Dubbo Base Hospital, servicing over 100,000 local people and a major institution in the central west of the state, and is also the President of Base Art Inc. Base Art was created to inform the inclusion of art in the major redevelopment of the hospital, something that has broken ground and will take place in multiple stages over coming years. Base Art is not just about selecting a work to hang on a wall, however, but instead has already affected various design elements.

Bernadette was quite taken with CUSP and the impact it had on her thoughts around design. She was impacted by the process that the designers went through, but it was the Super Critical Mass installation that made her start to think about the dangerous phenomenon of ‘alarm fatigue’, a well-documented issue that sees healthcare professionals desensitised to the noises around them, much as someone in an open plan office might learn to tune out their colleague on the phone. Of course, in a hospital emergency room, that desensitisation can have dire consequences. I was lucky enough to be able to get into the hospital emergency room with an audio recorder to capture some of the beeps and alarms that can be heard on the soundtrack to the video, and when relaying what I could hear to Bernadette, she was amazed that even she, who isn’t in that space full time, was tuning out much of what I was hearing.

Suddenly what looked like a quick fly-in fly-out to Dubbo was shaping up to be something involving a hotel, and so it was decided that if I was going all the way out there, I should go to Mark’s workshop and really find out what was going on. And glad for that I am. Pride of place, right in the middle of the workshop, is a replica body of a very specific BMW 328 spezial, with the original being in a museum somewhere in Europe. Only a handful with this body were ever made, and most of those were destroyed in WWI (the car dates from the beginning of the war), and Mark was commissioned by a client in America to recreate it—all from photographs alone. While on an original chassis (albeit from a slightly different model of the same era), almost all of the drawings, design and construction has been done by Mark in Dubbo. And the photos and video of it simple do not do it justice—it is a breathtaking result of 2.5 years of work, and I only wish I could see it when it is finished.

Up the back of the workshop was an old Bentley that Mark is designing a body for, based on another one-of-a-kind car. The original body for that Bentley was, as Mark said, ‘pretty boring’, so the owner of this chassis asked Mark to come up with something a little more striking. Mark, with the client, has gone for something more flamboyant, more reminiscent of the old French and Italian styles, rather than the more staid British stylings of a classic Bentley. And then off to one side was another Bentley, this one clad in leather and awaiting Mark to start work on the various metal body elements.

So it was indeed an action packed couple of days in Dubbo. A number of walks through the wonderful installation of CUSP in one of their galleries, a trip to the hospital where I was lead through back corridors I would never otherwise have had access to, and a couple of hours in a workshop learning all sorts about beautiful cars and what goes into making them. All of the videos are available in our Video & Audio Gallery, and are individually linked in this article, up in the second paragraph.

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