The Interview: 

‘Belonging’ with Jess Cook 107’s Managing Director

Words Fay Edwards

‘Belonging’. It’s something I most strongly associate as being an academic concept studied during the dreary years of high school. But it’s a feeling that’s popped up throughout life, tracking me through years of uni, work, love and friendship. It’s something I feel in certain places too – the kitchen at home, the dirt track down to our favourite beach, the shearing shed at the top of the hill. Smells also – dust and eucalyptus, sheep wool and manure. Belonging then, is something to do with people and places, with all the smells, sights and sounds that come with them.

It seemed timely then, that on the morning of my interview about ‘Placemaking’ with Jess Cook, I sat down to read the ‘belonging’ issue of Dumbo Feather. Immediately I was drawn to Nathan Scolaros reflection that “belonging is about encountering the self within an ecosystem”. How true. That feeling of uncurling, unfurling, in the presence of people you trust, or in places that feel like home.

A bit like 107 Projects – a place where Jess Cook found freedom.

Fay: Jess, can you tell me a bit about your road to 107 Projects? How did you land here?

Jess: I did my internship back in 2003, before it was known as 107 Projects – and I’ve never left! I came with a Bachelor of Creative Arts, so started off programming theatre. And now… I’m the Managing Director [insert Darth Vader Accent].

Ah ok! What does that actually mean?

Apparently, it means I can never sit still and I’m always finding more work for other people to do. My skill set is really a reflection of the fact that university taught me some stuff but learning on the job has been my primary teacher.

So what brought you to 107 Projects in the first place? 

I got a call from a friend asking if I wanted to join 107 Projects (back when it was a different space in Surry Hills) while I was down performing at the Melbourne Comedy Festival. At the time I was feeling totally disgusted with the way that people in the industry were changing their focus from the art and the characters to marketing a product. And I’ve always thought that if you make a great
product, the marketing will take care of itself.
So yeah, I decided that I didn’t want to be part of theatre anymore and took up my friends offer to get involved in 107 Projects. And when I started at 107 Projects…I found freedom. We weren’t doing it to pursue profit, and as creatives we weren’t put into a box. I was given license to be creative in whatever way felt right.

But the space in Surry Hills ended up getting shut down because we didn’t comply with any of the regulations…we had an unlicensed bar, carried people in wheelchairs upstairs…it was completely illegal! So when we found this building in Redfern we set ourselves a mission to make sure we could never get shut down again. And that’s the journey I’ve been on ever since.

Sounds like you might know more about the planning system than I do!

Well, basically I’ve come to understand planning through this building. It’s been an ongoing battle to fit this space into the planning system – our philosophy and our programming are so often ignored or misunderstood. It’s hard to translate what we do here into a technical document.
But now that you’ve been through this process once, do you think it would be easier to do it again?
It would be impossible to recreate what we’ve done here. For starters, we’re a charity and our largest philanthropists are our founding members – I would love to do the maths to figure out how much we’ve collectively contributed. 107 Projects has always been a labour of love and I wouldn’t expect anyone to do what we did to get here.
A new place would be a completely different challenge. It all depends on the context. Things like the location and the purpose of the space are really important to consider.

Are you frustrated that you can’t just replicate 107 Projects?

Jess: I’m frustrated because I just wish people understood our story a bit better. Because I think from the outside it looks easy, or that we’re really well funded. I want to get better at telling the real story that everyone at 107 Projects is doing it for the greater good.
And the thing about being a charity is that we are obliged to stay true to our purpose. Over the last nine years of operating a very public space, our purpose and our philosophy haven’t changed. We’ve realised that one of the things we do really well is to connect people to each other and to place. It’s just that creativity is our glue. It’s fundamentally about creating a framework for humans to come together.
I also think that when you talk about replicating 107 Projects, you need to be aware that just because you have a recipe and you follow the steps exactly, doesn’t mean you’ll bake the perfect cake. You need a little bit of magic – that secret ingredient.

So…if you can’t follow a recipe, what are some of the essential ingredients?

Jess: Creative freedom would be one. Being ethical. And being true to what your purpose is – doing what you say you’ll do is hard work, but it’s important.
And another thing is to really listen to the building and the people around and within it. You need to be able to absorb and respond to this to create a ‘place’.
You can’t just ‘cookie cut’ great places. Ultimately, it’s about thinking and feeling your way – you can’t tell a building or a space what to do or how to be.

And what’s the secret ingredient for 107 Projects? 

It comes down to our philosophy and our purpose. One of our key motivations is to truly engage with our community. Everybody is welcome – and if you can be yourself while respecting others – well then we can coexist. This philosophy is at our core – it’s almost like our Plan of Management.

Another thing that makes 107 Projects special is that we’re not only thinkers, but we’re also the doers. The reason we’re great thinkers is because we’re also the operators. Our decisions are made with consideration for the tiniest, most annoying details. Down to things like figuring out who will welcome people who arrive late to a show, and where they can be seated without disturbing everyone else.

At 107 Projects we’re experts in this very niche arts and cultural realm, but we’re not commodifying it. We’re not taking away from the community by doing what we’re doing.

Ultimately, I’d say ‘Placemaking’ is about connecting people with each other and giving them collective, shared ownership over a space. And I think I’ve said it a thousand times, but I’ll say it again – it’s about respect.

Thank you Jess! Before we end, what’s coming up next? What are you most excited about?

I’m excited about creating more spaces for people to be themselves.

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