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"What do you give up when you're not questioning it?"

Essays

Andrew Clifford on Dugal McKinnon's Popular Archeology

Giovanni Tiso on Tao Wells' The Beneficiary's Office

Heather Galbraith on Kim Paton's Free Store

Richard Meros on Bronwyn Holloway Smith's Pioneer City 

Martin Pattrick on Colin Hodson's The Market Testament

Hannah Zwartz on Suburban Floral Association's Shopfront

Emma Willis on Mark Harvey's Productive Bodies

Mark Amery on Dance Art Club and radio

Cathy Aronson on Julian Priest's Free of Charge 

Sally Blundell on the Transitional Economic Zone of Aotearoa 2013

Kerryn Pollock on Projected Fields

Reuben Friend and others on the Transitional Economic Zone of Aotearoa 2015

 

Facing the Same Barriers

 

Cathy Aronson on Julian Priest’s Letting Space installation Free of Charge at Auckland outdoor festival Splore 2012


LOVE TO QUEUE (NOT)

There was no way of knowing how long it would take. Rudimentary maths – counting the number of vehicles in front, left and right, multiplied by how often one cleared the queue - proved wrong every minute the car’s wheels dug deeper into the same grassy spot.

The problem remained. How do you fit five queues into one festival ticketing point? An equation for a far greater mind than mine; a mind with only muddled memory palaces - of wasted high school science lessons to theorise and hypothesise with - providing no solution at all.

As the big black clouds loomed and the distant thunder rumbled, visions of Julian Priest’s  ‘security check’ science-art installation we expected to experience at the ticketing point helped maintain the desired ‘chilled festival vibe’ whilst fighting a growing urgency to make camp before an imminent downpour, and Erykah Badu.  

 After stewing and queuing for ever-and-a-playlist, your eyes and mind wander to neighbouring festival-goers, each car window a cliched blur of seasoned festival travels: the car-swapping younglings, downing drinks before the security checks, one desperately trying to buy a ticket; the chilled musos jamming in the van, with no urgency at all; the tightly wound suits, counting the clock; the loved-up honeymooners; the young couple already checking on the babysitter; the families being fed, watered, toileted and entertained.


Despite different journeys to reach the desired destination, we all land in the car lanes facing the same barriers to achieve a combined aim. As we slowly inched closer to the finish line, it became apparent however that the science-art installation - to remove pent up negative energy and become grounded - was not to be found. 

All that greeted us was a security car check and a few people sitting in a tent, doing their best to process the crowds and provide required festival e-money wristbands.

Never intended as the final resting place for the artwork, the festival entry had been considered as an initial introduction to Free of Charge, before being bed in at a site by the beach, at which Splore is set. Although it may have made for an accurate reading of pent-up energy - real-world stress on entry - the ‘holy thunder and lightning’ conditions were not the best for Julian Priest’s plan with Free of Charge to set up a grounding rod.

However the questioning, while queuing, had begun. Is there a ‘queuing science’ behind all this? Why is it so hard to leave the daily stress behind and cross the mystical border into magical festival land?

 

PROCESSED TO PROCEED
 

 Strange happenings take hold when facing the last barrier to your desired destination. Offering yourself up to be tagged and processed in the herd, your natural guards, body and verbal language oblige to ‘cease and desist’ to please the security guard - your new buddy, mate, bro. You’ll willingly, patiently explain why ‘the apple is not a bomb’.

With limited questioning you’ll ‘let-it-go’ when so close to your desired mission of ‘letting go’ for your holiday. A strange urge to ‘please to deceive’ sets in, even if you have nothing to hide.

Dressed in their crisp white shirts, black cargo-shorts and Ray Ban aviator-style sunglasses, the mock security guards at Free of Charge reassuringly briefly answered questions as you handed over your shoes and objects, and stepped barefoot onto some airport-grade carpet, whilst queuing to go through what looked like a security scanner.

Positioned en-route between different festival zones, whilst the opt-in nature of the queue for Free of Charge was different to ‘real queue pressure’, the loss of control felt similar. In a festival environment, giving up the few smalls tethering you to the real world - whether it’s an iphone or a trusty lip gloss - takes on the same importance as a car-load, or suitcase, of belongings.

Not wanting to be the prick who holds up the queue, or who ruins the vibe by questioning the thoroughness of the friendly security guards, you can only watch as those perfect festival sandals (meticulously selected for their style, comfort and all-weather grip) join the tray of footwear on the roller table, and trust it will be waiting for you on the other side.

Free of Charge artist Julian Priest calls this automatically accepting the socially constructed authority of the infrastructure.

What do you give up when you’re not questioning it?

 

MONEY MONEY MONEY

While you didn’t have to hand over your wallet to enter Free of Charge, the festival wristband, doubling as an electronic money chip, was the one item you couldn’t remove. Entering a machine designed to balance your charge to zero - it was reasonable to ask if it would magically, electronically zero your e-money balance too?

Other than buying food, drinks, market wares or merchandise, the cloth festival band secured to your wrist - with a small rectangle plastic processing chip in the middle - was easily forgotten. It was a handy-dandy-device which, with strategically timed top-ups, ensured you didn’t need to worry about carrying around your wallet, forgetting, losing or breaking your eftpos/debit/credit card. 

To the uninitiated first time e-money wristband festival goers, or just those fond of cash, tethering yourself to a central-monetary cashless-transaction-system was an unsettling experience. Its place in the worldwide order inevitably surfaced in musings around the hay bales at tent city.

The real questioning came when you were at risk of losing your money. In the hustle and bustle of the crowds, the well-trained bartenders telling you how much money you had before your purchase, and showing you the hand-held scanner screen read-out afterwards, provided reassurance.

 “Will this scanner effect my e-money?”  “No, not at all.” The Free of Charge security guard’s matter-of-fact reassurance was enough information to proceed.

Julian Priest comments that some people thought money was going to be taken off them even though an LED panel on the top of his machine stated ‘Free of Charge’.

LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION

In the rich petri-dish environment of a festival, real world norms change.  Stilt walkers, painted bodies, mimes, bird people and illuminated aliens blend in with the constant music to the rhythm of their individual and collective soundtracks. It is here where the norms of our everyday lives seem out of place - like this piece of security apparatus dropped onto the border of the foreshore.

Making the mission from tent city down the dusty gravel regional park road to the beach was like a rite of passage into festival land, with only the robotic herding of the relentless crowd and hypnotic pulse of the distant music to keep you going. 

Just as your internal calm is about to boil over from the heat on your shoulders, the burn in your legs and the dust in every orifice, your senses are rewarded with the glorious vision of a pristine aqua-green beach, nestled in the friendly frame of Pohutakawa.

A new world greets you at the end of your journey. The natural beauty of Tapapakanga Regional Park is filled with an explosion of energy, people and music: a utopia away from the dystopia, where you can imagine staying forever.  Where you can dance in the sea, join the crowds at the music tents, connect with like-minded-souls at workshops or just find a quiet spot in the sand under a tree.

The festival architecture seemed set up to draw the crowds to the hay-covered dance floor in the middle - the main stage shouted out to the swimmers and yachts in the sea on the left, and the hordes in the fenced-in bar on the hill to the right. Beyond them the rows of markets and flags beckoned you to the north orange clay cliffs where you could find yourself on a trail of art, join a workshop, tie a prayer flag to a tree and even get married.

Those who instead ventured south, beyond the main stage, past the backstage security fencing and media pen, had either found the slightly less frequented portaloos, were heading to see a DJ at the Hooha Hut (a bar and venue), the art installation Portavilion and the yoga, swimming hole and other ‘de-charging’ activities available at the farthest reaches of the festival. Some were just taken there by the currents.

 

It was on this flat coastal path on the grass verge of the foreshore that the Free of Charge apparatus was dropped into the festival. The rectangle metal frame, when not ‘activated’, played off the regional park/tourism NZ natural masterpiece frame elsewhere, and framed the silhouette of the Coromandel Peninsula in the distance.

When brought to life by security guards and queues the artist’s installation loomed larger and commanded more attention. To the extent where some festival goers assumed - scarily willing to participate – that the work was a mandatory screening process before entry to the Hooha Hut bar.

This was a play on the abstractness of borders as arbitrary defining lines. We queued to cross the border at no charge.

For frequent fliers, especially on stopovers, it’s often only a few different faces and procedures at border patrol that remind you that you’ve crossed into another country. It's otherwise a blur of duty free malls and lounges with an array of food, juices and liquor.

Julian Priest and curators Letting Space were interested in the social and political relationships embedded in this beach festival location, especially in a country like New Zealand without land borders. Here water is our border.

 

PROGRAMMED TO DECEIVE

Despite constantly connecting ourselves to electricity in some form, via devices like cellphones and computers, the thought of inserting your right hand on a metal plate and left bare foot on metal plate (especially if dripping from a dip in the sea) seemed like the perfect recipe for an electric shock. This is what we had to be prepared to do entering Free of Charge.

Half looking forward to the process of becoming grounded, and half wanting to prove how chilled you already are, with a few deep breaths you’re ready to find out, and publicly reveal to anyone watching what your ‘charge’ is.

“You’ll have a low charge, you live at the beach,” I was assured.

Sure enough, it was negative 5. But what does that mean? Am I negatively charged?

Like many experiences your worldview, state of mind, scientific understanding (or lack of) and perceptions can define your interpretation of reality. Whilst some were suspicious of the scanner, others were simply curious and wanted an explanation of the mechanism or science lesson on how your body stores electrostatic electricity.

To the paranoid or analytical mind, the scanner was recording information. A group of teens wondered if it was a pregnancy tester.

Like the e-money on your wrist, ‘the man’ now not only knew your spending habits but how much charge you had. Whilst they might not personally identify you, you were now a statistic (myself, part of the “40 per cent” negatively charged) that might turn up in marketing information. Somehow surely they’d target you with energy drink advertising.

To many a festival-goer however, it was simply more fun frivolities to get inventive with. Stage-diving the roller table, trying to fit a beach ball through the scanner, taking bets and drinks on who would be the highest charged person in a group.

In whatever state they arrived, as soon as they stood on the metal plate waiting to be de-charged, it opened up the chance for short, rich conversations to be had with the artist and Letting Space, who were the instructors and ‘security guards’.

For some it took on a deeper meaning. They were not just unburdening themselves of a little bit of static electricity, they wanted to unburden a bad energy or experience and let it be released into the earth. It provided permission to be grounded – physically and psychologically.

Julian Priest’s unassuming manner made him approachable. Once the first silly question or assumption was met with understanding and explanation it was easier to ask or assume even stupider things. His openness was an invitation to challenge his knowledge and question whether this ‘thing’ really worked.

In this way Julian sees the work as a pretext for conversation. “Normally you can’t just go up to people in street and start talking directly, you can’t jump into a conversation without some kind of formal reason for doing it.”

 

FREE OF CHARGE

Standing in the Free of Charge structure there was no way of knowing what difference it would make. Hand on metal plate, divided by bare feet on metal plate (right big toe on big black plastic button insulator isolated from the ground) connected to a scientific sensitive voltmeter, multiplied by static ‘apple bombs’ (clothes, exposed hair, stashed phone in your pocket) provided plenty of hypothesis (grounded, healed, de-charged) but no solution at all.

As Julian explains, we all carry static electricity. Normally, if connected to a voltmeter any charge on the surface of the skin dissipates instantly, without a reading.  You can have a high voltage stored on the surface of your skin, but the amount of energy that’s stored is miniscule – so when it flows as a current it dissipates very fast if you try and measure with a normal multi-meter.

Julian sourced his electrometer measurement device from a US company that builds them for silicon chip plants - to make sure employees don’t have any static electricity on their body that damages the equipment.

Once your static electricity was measured, with your right big toe you pressed a plastic button so the static electricity stored on your body flowed down a wire into the earth. The button was connected to a grounding rod buried in the earth - just like the third pin on any electrical plug is connected to the ground, so if there is an electrical fault the current will flow to the ground. 

It doesn’t set your charge to zero but it equalises you with the world around you – lets the charge flow to the ground so you’re at the same charge as the earth – or the difference between you and the earth is zero. You are balanced.

 

 

RETURNING

Returning to the scene of Splore a year later, to reacquaint myself with the surroundings and hopefully harness the vibe, was like returning to a childhood playground and viewing it through adult eyes: the hills seemed smaller, the grass verges were overgrown, there were no colourful flags or festival goers. At first I felt deflated; the energy had changed. The constant hum of people and music was replaced with the sea lapping on the foreshore.

While trying to maintain a chilled summer holiday mode, thoughts of work and the year to come started to creep in. There was no festival to look forward to or device to ground me, so instead of wallowing on the edges, I dived into the sea.

Staring out into the Firth of Thames, lingering negative thoughts washed away with each new wave. I still didn’t know if there was any science behind it, or how to calculate the perfect formula. All I knew was I felt at one with the earth and the possibilities appeared as endless as the ocean. I could stay here forever.

“I can’t control the soul flowing in me...ohweee” 
Erykah Badu, 'Apple Tree'

 

Free of Charge was commissioned by Splore and Letting Space with support from Creative New Zealand 

This essay is available to be shared via Creative Commons as follows: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/

Cathy Aronson is a multimedia journalist, editor of creative community website The Big Idea and online editor for her local newspaper Local Matters. She’s also a seasoned Splorite. With a decade of festival travels behind her she describes herself as "clichéd blur of once was youngling, chilled muso, tightly wound suit, honeymooner, young couple and family festival-goer”.