Jonathan Kneebone: “Sydney has become a really good friend.”

Jonathan Kneebone: “Sydney has become a really good friend.”

JK (Jonathan Kneebone) is the co-founder of highly respected art and directing collective The Glue Society, which has exhibited at Art Basel Miami, PULSE Art Fair and Art & About Sydney. He is known as a creative pioneer who continuously inspires creators to do better and create bigger, although the grounded UK–born creative would never say so himself. Since relocating to Sydney in 1995, JK and The Glue Society have created high profile work that masterfully walks a delicate line of art and commerce. Their projects span across mediums including experiential and activations, entertainment, commercial direction, art exhibitions and installations. We sat down with JK in the harbor city to chat about the influence of life on new continents, his top spots in Sydney and calling the city a good mate.

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On seeking your independence

I was born in Luton which is about 30 miles north of London. It’s not particularly famous for anything other than having an airport. This makes it sound all luxury and lovely, but it’s actually where all the budget airlines fly from. The town is also very industrial with Vauxhall cars and Bedford trucks. But where your original home is, is something you either use to drive you forward or react against to find inspiration. I’m in the react against camp. I was always interested in the number of people at places like the BBC or in advertising who have come from religious, conventional or restrictive backgrounds. There’s an element of rebellion that arises when you’re trying to find your own voice, trying to move beyond the parameters you’re brought up with. So as a Catholic from Luton, I was desperate to be independent and get as far away from it as I could. And I’m not embarrassed about where I came from, I’m proud of it: it’s grounding. 

On moving to the other side of the world

For university I went as far away as I could within the boundaries of England — I went to York. Then I had the opportunity to go to the other side of the world. Luton and Sydney are polar opposites, and not opposites just in terms of place and beauty, but in terms of environment, from cold to hot, grey to colorful. There’s a massive contrast. For a lot of creative people, there’s this desire to experience what’s different, and respond, react, grow, fight or adapt to it. When I was about six my teacher said there were as many sheep in Australia as there are people in England, and I’ve always been affected by that weird stat. It opened my eyes to the idea that Australia is a country that has wide open spaces. Then I was working in a team and my creative partner was looking for an environment that was less stressful. We were interviewed by Neil Lawrence who was forming the powerhouse of Young & Rubicam in Sydney at the time. My art director got to go somewhere less stressful and I got to enjoy what I thought was going to be few years in Sydney. It’s turned into nearly 30 and counting. 

On what the move taught you

It became a lot more than just a few fun years in Sydney for me. I found I had been playing by the rules in London: there’s a game, processes and solid structures in the advertising industry. There were steps to be taken and paths to go down. It was hard for me to imagine my own path in London. Sydney made me realise I could find my own voice. It felt like I had an opportunity to discover what I was capable of, individually, and on my own terms. In Australia there were less rules and fewer traditions, people didn’t mind if you rebelled against them. It was eye opening. If you’re half confident you’ve got an idea that is different or new, Sydney will give you the other half in support. 

Since he was a kid, Jonathan Kneebone was captivated by Australia’s vastness. Now, having called the country home for close to three decades, he takes constant stock of Sydney’s natural bounty, from the expansive harbor, to the beauty of the bush and the accessibility of the city’s beaches. Images courtesy Jonathan Kneebone.

On Sydney’s creative culture

I wouldn’t say Sydney gives you the inspiration, but I’d say it gives you the support. You’re surrounded by encouragement. Not ‘Why would you want to do that?’ Or ‘Well, that’s not going to work’. There is tremendous culture and creativity in the UK, and I’m sure if I’d stayed, I would have found my voice. But at the time, in the mid ’90s, I didn’t have much confidence. You have to be a lot braver to break the rules in the UK, than perhaps you do here in Sydney, and I think you can just have a go here. If it doesn’t work, no one’s going to say you failed. Sydney is generally an encouraging place, everyone likes to support new things. Whether that’s culture, arts, young dancers or young chefs. People get given a go here, and can really quickly become what they’re capable of. There’s an appetite for the new.

If you’re half confident you’ve got an idea that is different or new, Sydney will give you the other half in support. 

On how you balance art and commerce  

We were very nervous when we first started to say ‘Let’s do some art’. It is the most dangerous thing you could say in advertising, it sounds completely insane. But, we just had to remove the absurdity and stick to the fact that we are artists, we make art, and we happen to do advertising. If individuals in the company had an idea, we’d support it and help make it happen. We’d use some of the funds leftover from commercial jobs, which then created a collective of sorts. We then came up with the idea of making a magazine, because it felt like a great way in the pandemic to build a gallery across a series of pages. What we’ve done is tried to make it function like a piece of art, rather than a magazine about art. Everyone has contributed to it and it’s 100% us as a group. It’s commercial in the sense that we can sell it and it has our name on it, so it’s unlike how most artists behave. But it felt like the right way for us as artists and creative people to behave. So, how can someone in advertising do art? You have to change the premise of that question and acknowledge you’re a creative person who can do both. 

On your relationship with Sydney

Sydney has become home, and it has become a really good friend. It’s an easy place to be friends with. What I mean by that is that you feel a very strong connection with the city. It’s about the people and the place, it’s the support and the security and the confidence it gives you. There’s no sense of anxiety, fear or judgement. Whenever I’ve tried to do something new, whether it be to start a new company, find people to fill half an idea, make a TV show, or launch a magazine, I’ve found people willing to help and participate within the community. Australia — and Sydney — is full of people eager to participate, enthusiastically so. Sydney is like a really great mate. I know it’s weird talking about a place like it’s a person but people have that relationship with the city, it’s a place to have a relationship with.

The art output of The Glue Society has popped up across the world, from ‘Hot with the Chance of a Late Storm’ in Sydney (top) to ‘It Wasn’t Meant to End Like This’ (second) installed for Denmark’s Sculpture by the Sea and ‘What Were We Thinking?’ (fourth) for the London Design Festival. Images courtesy The Glue Society.

On the best way to visit Sydney 

To people who come and visit, I always say, ‘Don’t think of yourself as a tourist, think of yourself as a local’. There isn’t really that much to visit — sure there are great places to go like the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge. But I just think it’s a place to live and to be. Go to a suburb, stay in that suburb and try and feel part of the place. You’re going to get so much more out of that than trying to tick boxes and go to all the right places. Sydney is a terrible place to come as a tourist, but to live in, it’s one of the better places in the world. 

On ‘only in Sydney’ 

The thing that’s true only of Sydney is the idea that you can do a full day’s work and then a full day’s play in the same day. It’s one of the most livable cities with balanced days. It’s incredibly easy to finish work at 6pm, 7pm or 8pm and immediately go and catch up with mates. There’s this duality to life here and everything’s so accessible and immediate. That’s pretty unique and really hard to do elsewhere.

How can someone in advertising do art? Well, you have to change the premise of that question and acknowledge you’re a creative person who can do both.

On the ever-surprising natural beauty 

Sydney has so much natural beauty that you almost forget about it. You get on a boat on the harbor and say, ‘Oh God, we really should do this more often’. Like a goldfish, you’re just constantly going around the different beautiful places, then you forget about them, only to remember there’s a beach within walking distance of where you live, or a park just there, a brilliant restaurant at the top of a tower here, a harbor over there. You’re constantly surprised at how beautiful it is. The city has that ability to constantly surprise and inspire you. 

Top three images: The recently released Glue Society magazine, with works including Life Writing, New Works by
Dead Artists, Precarious Mugs and ExtremelyFlammable Flag. Bottom three images: Where the magic happens. Jonathan and his team at Glue Society work from their warehouse studio located in Sydney’s inner-city suburb of Alexandria. Images courtesy The Glue Society.

On the best way to spend your mornings

I used to live in Tamarama and it’s the perfect place to wake up. Head down to the beach and wander across to the rocky area, swim at Mackenzies, or do the whole walk to Bondi. There’s nothing nicer than the outlook from Tamarama and Bronte beaches, looking back across the ocean pool and standing against the railing to let the waves splash over you. You experience sunrise in a beautiful place, then turn around and the city is there waiting for you. That’s a remarkable way to wake up.

On exploring Paddington

Paddington is where I live. I love the simple pleasure of walking around the neighborhood as it feels like it’s been there a long time. There’s always a new opening or an item that will catch your eye and allow you to spend time experiencing something you weren’t expecting, whether it’s a bookstore, or a small gallery with a new show. They’ve also just renovated the Paddington Reservoir. Weirdly it used to be part of a petrol station but they’ve gotten rid of all that and stripped it back. There’s now an almost catacomb-esque vibe, and you can just sit and relax. 

Nearby is Centennial Park, where the scale of the park and the accessibility of it is really surprising. It’s a nice place to have a picnic, even a few drinks and get your feet in the grass and listen to the birds. You can also spot the Sydney Swans training, or maybe even a couple of film stars who might be shooting at Fox Studios. 

Then the Unicorn is a good spot for a schnitty (chicken schnitzel). They’re so proud of their schnitty that you can take your own, and if they can’t beat it, they’ll give you your money back — or something like that. It is pretty good, although I do feel sorry for the chef as that’s probably all he ever gets to cook. If you have a really late night, there’s the Indian Home Diner, where most customers are on a first name basis with the guy who runs it. The great thing is, whoever you are, you get treated like a local, and that’s all you can ask for. 

There’s this duality to life in Sydney, and everything’s so accessible and immediate. That’s pretty unique and really hard to do elsewhere.

On where you want to travel to next

I personally love traveling to places and seeing how everyone else does things, like brushing their teeth or going shopping — just the ordinary differences. I don’t necessarily need to go everywhere in the world, instead I like the idea that I’m uncovering something I hadn’t realised. Even how someone eats their breakfast, or what time is the right time to take a dog for a walk. I also love the idea that you can travel without going anywhere. Someone clever said it, it might even have been Alain de Botton or maybe it was Jamiroquai. But I love the idea of going exploring, without necessarily physically moving. Your mind can take you places to try new things. Working in a collective of people allows you to do that because the conversations you have can take you elsewhere. One of the attractions of the creative business is working with people who have different perspectives, who can unleash something in you that you didn’t think yourself capable of. I love the idea that there’s the opportunity to go exploring now in a different way. So, to try things we’ve never done before and explore other avenues of the brain would be where I’d like to travel to next. 

On a window or an aisle seat

I’m more of a window person. But recently, I have enjoyed the luxury of being able to put my feet into the aisle on a domestic flight. I would say aisle for domestic and window for international. This is really bad to say out loud, but I like to take my shoes and socks off on planes. To the point that I will go to the bathroom barefoot, which no one can quite believe. It’s probably the most dangerous thing — more dangerous than the flight itself. 

On Sydney in one word  

Enthusiastic. It’s full of enthusiasts. What more could you ask for? It has provided enthusiasm to me and has given me the chance to share in an optimistic, positive community. I think it is a place full of enthusiasm.

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Nuggets in this interview

neighborhoods

Tamarama, Sydney

“There's nothing nicer than the outlook from Tamarama, looking back across the ocean pool and standing against the railing to let the waves splash over you.”

–Jonathan Kneebone

neighborhoods

Paddington, Sydney

“I love the simple pleasure of walking around the neighborhood as it just feels like it's been there a long time. There's always something new opening or something that will catch your eye.”

–Jonathan Kneebone

inspiration

Paddington Reservoir Gardens, Sydney

“Weirdly it used to be part of a petrol station but they’ve gotten rid of all that and stripped it back. There’s now an almost catacomb-esque vibe, and you can just sit and relax.”

–Jonathan Kneebone

inspiration

Centennial Park, Sydney

“The scale of the park and the accessibility of it is really surprising. It’s a nice place to have a picnic, even a few drinks and get your feet in the grass and listen to the birds.”

–Jonathan Kneebone

food and drink

The Unicorn Hotel, Sydney

“The Unicorn is a good spot for a schnitty (chicken schnitzel). They're so proud of their schnitty that you can take your own, and if they can't beat it, they'll give you your money back”

–Jonathan Kneebone

food and drink

Indian Home Diner, Sydney

“If you have a really late night, there’s the Indian Home Diner, where most customers are on first name basis with the guy who runs it.”

–Jonathan Kneebone

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