A journal about the Wellington premiere of Productive Bodies by Sophie Oxenbridge, Sophie Jerram and Mark Amery.
“There is joy in work,” Henry Ford famously said, but for many New Zealanders, the double-whammy of New Zealand’s post-Rogernomics ‘rogering’ and a global recession, means there simply is no work. So does ‘not employed’ equal ‘no joy’ for the hundreds of civil servants recently made redundant in Wellington, for the many more who are unemployed, between jobs, or those who choose a life as artists?
Imagine a project that created more energy than it drew on; a series of exchanges between people that broke social mores and instilled joy; a work that challenged the behaviour of public codes of conduct and recognised those who have been recently told they are part of the job-hunting queue. This was Productive Bodies.
During the last week of the NZ Festival in March, Letting Space – in association with City Gallery Wellington- made a provocative, playful work led by performance artist, Mark Harvey. They took to the streets to explore what it means to work, to be gainfully employed, to be ‘productive bodies’, and to tie up so much of our self-worth with what we ‘do’. Harvey’s past performances have drawn on both his visual arts and contemporary dance background, using humour and bodily constructions to point to the idiocy of some of the beliefs we hold dear, particularly the idea that being employed is anything other than an arbitrary state.
After a series of morning workshops in City Gallery, groups of ‘the unemployed’, students and artists, wandered the streets of Wellington in various degrees of “absurd productiveness” and tested out our freedom of movement in a variety of public spaces.
The first day of performance (click on the link for images) began with rearranging chairs into efficient rows at Clarks Cafe, before welcoming and congratulating people on visiting ‘our public library’. Security soon told the group to stop photographing in the building.
Purposefully nodding and making eye contact with all, the group made their way through the streets to the foyer of New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which is shedding staff in a major restructure. The group read staff poetry, held lifts, opened doors and thanked people, engaging them in conversation. The group’s arrival had been tipped off (link to security guards) and the Dominion Post wrote about the work the next day.
Elsewhere in the CBD the group provided feedback on handshakers’ hand grip and temperature, pedestrian barriers on crossings, handed out schedules of public broadcasting and, the productive piece de resistance, carried people across a dangerously narrow section of Lambton Quay.
On Tuesday, rubbish bins were cleaned, more hands were shaken and the embattled Public service broadcaster TVNZ 7 got a boost with several copies of its weekly schedule being handed out and discussed with passers-by.
By Wednesday the group had grown to 25 with additions from Massey fine arts students. Every day, the Productive Bodies shared lunch prepared by Heather Johnston, around the big City Gallery boardroom table. The group trialled movement in the gallery: gallery visitors were offered protective shields and there was exploration of what would make them feel more comfortable in the gallery The public were welcomed at the entrance to both City Gallery and Te Papa, with numbers swelled at Te Papa by school children.
In a lunchtime panel discussion Nobel prize nominee, academic Marilyn Waring reminded an Arts Festival Club audience why she was a crucial player in NZ political history, generously offering her best solutions to how we could re-value economic wellbeing and productivity. She did so in conjunction with a strong advocate of the General Universal Wage, economist Susan Guthrie and artist Mark Harvey, all discussing how we treat productivity. Audio/video of this discussion can be heard/seen here online.
Thursday, the performance returned its energy to the government district of Wellington. A healing circle appeared in the foyer of the Ministry of Health, and many public servants were applauded moving back and forward between The Terrace and Lambton Quay. At Creative New Zealand, the Arts Council, Productive Bodies asked how they could best be of help as a way of thanking them for their support. Dishes were cleared and water was poured.
On the final day, Friday, the group was joined by Michael, a German tourist who had encountered the group at City gallery. He was asked what would make him comfortable. “Having my friends here,” was his reply, and by the end of the day he had some new ones.
The performance headed for parliament, with the group offering compliments to the public along the way. A tunnel of confidence was created for parliamentary staff going into Bowen House, and applause given to security staff. At Parliament the group undertook trust exercises, made body arrangements on the steps, brought water for gardeners, and offered security staff sun shields. Activity for the day finished with waiata (Maori song) 'E Aroha' at the reception of the soon-to-be-folded Ministry of Science and Innovation and a rigorous game of line tag on the pavement outside. The group celebrated with a picnic in Civic Square outside City Gallery.
At 5pm Tao Wells, on the invitation of Mark Harvey, provided a response to the work at Enjoy Gallery (viewable online). Wells talk spoke positively of Productive Bodies' ‘love’ and situated it as being ineffective against the ‘dump truck that would come along shortly after the streets had been cleaned’. The greater part of his address and discussion centred around Mark’s position as a government funded academic, and the wider need for people in such positions to be overtly representing their universities as agents of free thought.
Productive Bodies worked as a unique, transformative ‘social sculpture’ challenging all who were touched by it to examine their own ideas about work and self-worth. The smiles on people’s faces in the documentation say it all – Productive Bodies created small moments of magic and joy for people and, hopefully through its numerous small group gestures, kernels for people to feel more empowered about making personal change.
Check out what some of the brave and wonderful performers have contributed in writing, here.