Nomadic art – we like it

As you know, here at Bluethumb we only sell 2D art – it’s not easy to ship an installation or a work of performance art! But that doesn’t mean we don’t love other art forms.

Fee Plumley is a self-described nomadic geek artist driving her (currently very hot) big red bus around the vast country of Australia. She keeps track of her adventures at and we had a chat with her recently to see what makes her tick.

Red Bus

Fee lives in this bus. It’s pretty great.

 What were you thinking when you decided to live in a bus? (Were you crazy?) How did inspiration strike?

Considering the heat right now, yes: extremely crazy! I moved around a lot as a kid and found in older life whenever I was in one place for too long I would get itchy feet. I’ve always loved character vehicles and had my first van back in 2005 (although it was only for five weeks driving from Auckland to the bottom of New Zealand’s south island and back up again). That kickstarted a daydream which never left me – buy my own van, do a mechanics course so I could keep it on the road, use my (now very rusty) theatre set and prop-making skills to renovate it into my ideal living space, and then take off. Sadly I didn’t do so well with my second van – it was bought from a very wet part of the UK and was a total rust-bucket; it didn’t last long enough for me to properly renovate, although we had a few fun trips together before she conked out completely.

I guess that urge never went away. When I moved to Australia I hired a few vans for little road-trips whenever work-breaks allowed and then when I knew I was applying for Permanent Residency here decided I should just go for it. I had no debts, no mortgage, no kids, no responsibilities that tied me down anywhere and figured that probably doesn’t come as an opportunity many times in life so I should jump at it while I could. I haven’t regretted a single moment of it, though it’s certainly been the most challenging thing I’ve ever undertaken.

There’s another more practical, creative and socio-political reasoning behind all this too. An artist’s life is hard to sustain in any economic climate, least of all this one. I’ve largely earned a living by facilitating other peoples’ creative practice but I realised it was time for me to return to – or newly establish – my own. It’s pretty hard to be able to afford to live in a nice apartment and have the time to learn/practice/fail and produce work. Living in a bus significantly reduces my living costs because I don’t have to pay rent. It also increases my connection to the land by literally exploring more of it and utilising the sun to power my electrical needs. This in turn helps me to live more off-grid, free from traditional social commitments like the 9-5 day job and someone else’s rules or schedules. I’m free, I enjoy open technologies, ecological sustainability and – insofar as it still exists – the human right to common land. I call reallybigroadtrip a project but it’s not a short-term thing; it’s a life choice and also a statement about focusing on what really matters in this short life we have.

 Tell us about Nomads in Residence.

I have been working in media arts for nearly 18 years now. In that time I have built up an incredible international network of artists, technologists, researchers… you name it. They’re all very inspiring and I wanted to find a way to spend more time with them. I love Australia dearly and I wanted those from overseas to come and see why (sneakily hoping this would encourage them to move here too) and I wanted those who already live here to introduce me to their favourite places/communities. It’s also nice to have company on your road-trips sometimes, so I created the Nomads in Residence strand as a way to bring all that together.

My Nomads are basically special guests who come with me for parts of the trip. They tell me where they want to go, who they want to meet, what they want to get out of it and roughly when they might be available. I then try to match them to activities I already have scheduled or plan and fundraise for specific ones that match their needs. Sometimes random strangers contact me asking if they can be Nomads too, which I’ll try to do but it’s a pretty big list already, and resources are scant!

So far my Nomads have been Sayraphim Lothian (an Australian public artist who practices ‘random acts of guerilla kindness’), Kate Chapman (a US geographer and technologist from the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team) and Edwin van Ouwerkerk Moria (a developer from Holland specialising in mobile platforms). Over the next year I’m working with Alex Kelly (an artist/producer/director/activist based in Alice Springs and Melbourne) on a project that will see us travelling in and out of the APY Lands and the Coorong. Other than that there are various conversations going on for future guests, so watch this space!

Who have you met since you started your reallybigroadtrip who’s blown your mind in an I’m-so-glad-this-person-exists kind of way?

It sounds cheesy, but quite honestly: all of them. I adore each of my Nomads, have met experimental artists at festivals, inspirational speakers at conferences, had rich conversations across social media and even random strangers on streets who have all made me proud of the human race. I’m very very spoiled to have the opportunity to meet the amount and diversity of people that I do. It’s quite humbling.

Red bus in Canberra

Fee’s bus (called “Home, James”) at “magic hour” for #hAbitAt at Canberra’s Centennial Birthday.

Recently I had the chance (thanks to a Professional Development Grant from ArtsSA) to travel back up to the Northern Hemisphere again. I visited Ars Electronica in Austria where I hung out with Horst Hörtner and the guys behind Spaxels (a swarm of quadcopters fitted with LEDs which form pixelated images and animations in the sky) and met Skylar Tibbits (who takes the 3D printing stuff I’ve been playing with to a whole new level with 4D and self-assembly), amongst many other wondrous things. While in the Northern Hemisphere I was also an artist at the Nomadic Village, a phenomenal gathering of creative nomads lead by ‘The Mayor’ Captain Klaus and ‘The Mayoress’ Tina Horvath. Each gathering takes place in a different location supported by local hosts who assist Klaus and the team to create a temporary village from nowhere for two weeks with an array of different artists. That was truly spectacular, and something I hope to host in Australia some time in the future.

Do you have a particular kind of art that you prefer? What gets you the most excited?

Well I’d usually say ‘digital art’; the kind that brings the artist, the technology, the artwork and the audience/participant together in one connection. But recently since returning to my own practice I’ve remembered that it’s the connection between people that excites me the most; the technology is merely a tool like any other artist’s material. I’ve been doing a ‘Practice Based Research in the Arts’ course to allow myself to return to a different way of thinking – of learning instead of servicing. In the course one of the lecturers talked about ‘relational art’ where the artist (or their work) is a catalyst to social engagement, for example: inviting people to engage in conversation and then turning that shared experience into an artwork. The new work I’m doing (and to some extent the work I used to do as a Creative Producer with my old company the-phone-book Limited) is about that relationship, with or without the technology (although I’m a technoevangelist by nature so I’m a serious nerd too).

Would you ever go back to a “normal” life of paying rent and working in a job? Or have you well and truly found your (mobile) home?

I know that some people like to put things in boxes, but I really don’t believe in the concept of ‘normal’. What is considered normal for one person is completely bizarre to another; it’s that diversity which makes life interesting (a view that makes me very unpopular with conservative-types, hah). I also don’t really see the point of making such concrete decisions in life if you don’t have to. At this time in my life I want nothing more than to live a nomadic existence with my beautiful shell on my back, staying put or road-tripping as the mood or project takes me. At some point in the future maybe I’ll change my mind, sure, but I don’t think I’ll need to know that either way for a long time yet.

In terms of jobs, I still work; I have to earn a living to pay for fuel, materials, internet access, food etc – I’m not as fully off-grid yet as I’d like to be. It’s just that my work now is less service-driven and certainly doesn’t require me to be in an office, which I love. I’ve been freelance most of my life; if you like, this has always been my kind of ‘normal’.

 What’s next on your list of projects and journeys?

Right now I’m working on two projects for next year that I have had some funding for plus a few ideas I have rolling around in various stages of discussion/realisation (there are always too many ideas). There are regular bus-related things to consider like her maintenance and ongoing renovations (in this case I desperately need new insulation, tinted windows and an annexe or I’m going to melt in this heat).  And I’m also getting more into research around nomadic creative cultures. But mainly I’m relishing the opportunity to enjoy the new life I’ve built, with all the changes that has entailed. I’m busier than ever in some ways, but a lot more relaxed about it. Oh and I recently bought myself a set of roller skates so I can learn how to use a whole different type of wheels and (hopefully) try out for Roller Derby!

We notice that ArtsSA have supported your project. Have you found that you’ve had a lot of support from the arts community?

The ArtsSA support is for a project I’m doing next year called ‘Open Source Homes’. I’ll be making a temporary home for myself and the bus in Adelaide city and inviting people to share what makes ‘home’ for them through a series of gatherings. I’ve also had a grant from Country Arts SA toward the APY Lands/Coorong project I mentioned before with Alex Kelly.

Aside from those I have had a huge – astonishing – amount of support from all sides. I couch-surfed for about 18months while I was getting this new life together and I ran a crowdfunding campaign for my bus last year. I’d tried traditional funding but that’s always in short supply; besides my desire to change my life and live in a bus wasn’t the typical funding proposal so I don’t think they knew where to put me. So my colleagues persuaded me to try going out to the crowd. I managed to raise about $27k in pledges so I could buy a bus and do the first stages of modifications.

To be honest the campaign should never have worked – typical success stories are from famous people or pre-sales of products or events. But thanks to a lot of extremely supportive friends and colleagues (and a few rather useful tweets from Amanda Palmer, Neil Gaiman and Hugh Jackman) my campaign went viral and charged through to its goal raising an astonishing $12k in the last 24hours. It’s truly humbling to know that so many people believed in me and wanted to see this dream come true, I’l always be thankful for the kindness of friends and strangers.

Where can people find your projects and your bus at the moment?

I’ve been doing a lot of national (and some international – without the bus, obviously) travel in the last year, including Canberra, Noosa, Sydney, Melbourne, Austria, France and Italy (it’s been pretty full-on!). For the next year or so I’ll be based in and around South Australia with a possible Nullabor trip over to WA at the end of the year. But buslife is all about change, so who knows what else might crop up.

Since I move around so much it’s best to follow me online (like the proper little technoevangelist that I am). I tweet under @feesable, have a facebook page under reallybigroadtrip and my blog is

How can art lovers support your work?

Well last year I would have said “pledge to my campaign” of course. If you like the idea of me not melting in this crazy heat you can donate toward the next stages of bus renovations via my website. Other than that I’m not selling any work specifically, that’s not really the kind of thing I do – at least not at the moment. But I have recently turned a friend’s book into an eBook and I’m thinking of offering that as a service to writers and artists who aren’t so confident with the digital world; if that sounds like you then message me and we can discuss options.

Red bus washed

Fee lovingly washing her home. Like I said, it’s a pretty great bus.

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