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A NEW HYPERMEDIAL SPACE

Sally Blundell writes on the first iteration of the Transitional Economic Zone of Aotearoa

Think of the Vatican, says performance artist Mark Harvey. Two dozen primary school children stare blankly from the mat in a classroom at Freeville Primary School in New Brighton, Christchurch. He brings the subject closer to home. Imagine a group within a larger group. It has its own rules. It does not have to abide by the regulations of the larger group. The children nod. They understand fairness. They recognise its absence.

Harvey is in the classroom to introduce his project Productive Bodies and stage a collaboration with The Freeville Project, a photographic venture by artists Tim J. Veling and David Cook in collaboration with pupils from Freeville School, one of several schools in Christchurch about to be merged out of existence, and Ilam School of Fine Arts. Veling and Cook documented the school’s buildings and playing fields, and invited children to imagine with pen and crayon a future beyond the immediate prospect of piled rubble. The result, collaged over the school-scapes, is a joyous panoply of bouncy castles, shark pits, zombie houses, petting zoos and ice cream shops. It’s a bold and optimistic series of panorama, indicative of a vital sense of agency in a school and suburb battered by two decades of economic decline, three years of earthquakes and ongoing bureaucratic zoning and insurance inertia. 

Freeville Project and Productive Bodies were but two of a dozen or so projects that were part of the week-long TEZA (Transitional Economic Zone of Aotearoa) 2013 public art programme, curated by Mark Amery and Sophie Jerram of Wellington’s public arts programme Letting Space and involving more than 25 artists. (Making final counts with TEZA is tricky – commissioned projects welcomed collaborations, the initial core of artists welcomed others to work with them, and the TEZA site also opened itself up to projects and participants joining in as the week progressed.) It was an occupation, a transitional exchange system, an equitable, sustainable and culturally responsive alternative to Special Economic Zones.

Which is where the Vatican analogy comes in.

Special Economic Zones are geographical regions developed specifically to boost exports, attract foreign investment and provide jobs through the relaxation or non-enforcement of national laws related to taxes, quotas, import and export duties, environmental protection and labour regulations. Like the Vatican, they enact their own legislation, not for the protection of the Holy See but for the protection of the rights of large multinational corporations able to roam the planet for the cheapest and least restrictive ‘economies’ for their ‘investments’.

It is a bitter trade off. Governments, usually of developing countries, back the measures in a bid to secure more foreign investment, more opportunities for export-oriented industries, more revenue and more jobs. Large multinational corporations enjoy higher profits as trading commitments are minimised and production costs reduced. Bearing the cost, however are the local communities. While some international buyers insist on safe working conditions and reasonable wages the International Labour Organisation warns that too many Special Economic Zones continue to be hampered by “low wages, poor working conditions and underdeveloped labour relations systems to minimise production costs”.1

Can the temporary occupation of a site by artists establish a different type of economic zone, one in which the nature of exchange is tilted in favour of the local community and where success is measured through the act of giving rather than taking?  How can a group of artists work meaningfully in a specific place as outside agents with local communities?

The idea for the Transitional Economic Zone of Aotearoa took root in Istanbul in 2011 at the International Symposium on Electronic Arts (ISEA) summit. There, says Jerram, engagement on a cultural level was minimal. The travelling artists barely touched the sides of the local community. What would it be like, she and others thought to create a place for artists with a shared tikanga – not taking energy but giving it?

Few roads lead to Brighton

The main arterial routes leading to this seaside suburb are buckled and raw. Access is unpredictable. Since the earthquake of February 2011 about half the suburb has been red-zoned, leaving whole streets of vacated houses awaiting demolition.

Here, in an existing but under-used vacant site called the Creative Quarter in New Brighton Mall, squeezed between the Work and Income New Zealand offices and an abandoned finance operation and awash with self-sown alyssum, tyre-rimmed gardens and a gallery of street art TEZA bloomed for a week.

A square white tent became a hub for food, workshops, discussions and planning. A counter on the roadside informed passers-by what was going on. Activities and conversations spilled out on to the street. People hung around to see what would happen next or pitched in as needed.

Members of the Positive Directions Trust, a local initiative of hi-vis jacketed men entrusted with keeping order in the streets, helped artists Tim Barlow and Te Urutahi Waikerepuru erect Te Ao Marama (The World of Light), a large teepee-shaped structure covered with a translucent bioplastic and harakeke fibre, serving as an illuminated anchor to the TEZA site. Constructed over the week it took many forms, at one point on its side reminiscent of an eel-trap or Hinaki as would have been used in the nearby Ōtākaro/Avon River.

From day one rehearsals began for Phil Dadson’s Bicycle Choir, a sound-based reclamation of a public commons involving artists and local residents singing, on bikes through the local streets. It was a collective gesture, noisy and defiant, a physical remapping and re-energising of a suburb still caught in economic and geographic limbo. 

Hinatore, by Kura Puke and Stuart Foster comprised a fine after-dark constellation of sound-carrying LEDs. On approaching the lights viewers/participants could tune into recordings of local histories, enigmatic sounds and Māori stories. The tiny glow worm-like lights conveyed a sense of enchantment, the audio a close, intimate conversation. Visible late at night at the end of TEZA the duo with collaborators also trialled sound-carrying laser lights across the suburb, New Brighton Pier and Port Hills.

The Freeville School project resulted in two exposed walls further down the mall covered in large photographic collages of school pupils and their dreams for Brighton (Veling’s mother once taught at the school, Cook’s grandfather was a GP here – such connections, like Dadson’s sound map, are important). The selection of the site was important – local organisation New Brighton Project wants to make use of it in the future, and the wall-to-wall gallery of young people served as a vital reclamation of public space in their suburb.

Harvey’s Productive Promises, a series of group projects, comprised small, often impromptu gestures of celebration and generosity: a gift of a paper-spinning top, a shared umbrella in the rain, a skipping game, a rubbish removal working bee, a street march declaring “We Love New Brighton”. At Freeville Harvey worked with the students to stage a Thank You March around the streets circling their school. No sales pitch, no political point-scoring, no expected return. Work doesn’t have to produce money, he says. It can produce happiness.

Closer to the shore the mobile and miniscule Picture House – an A-frame billboard painted by Miranda Parkes and converted into a cinema for two by Heather Haywood and Tessa Peach – presented a series of short films (curated by circuit.org.nz), embracing the ethos of the transitional (Picture House was previously sited around various former cinema sites in Christchurch) and the power of small. Further along the shore, a tall structure made almost entirely of beams of light, AIO by Te Urutahi and Kiwi Henare, shone into the night-time sky.

Kerry Ann Lee with Kim Lowe produced a zine, Alternating Currents, conducting workshops and interviewing locals about what they liked about – and hoped for – Brighton. The publication was compiled over a week, again tapping a well of optimism in a suburb neglected by civic leaders and struggling with a recent history of population flight and disinvestment.

In the city, on the historically important banks of Ōtākaro/Avon River, Simon Kaan and other Ngai Tahu artists presented Kaihaukai, acknowledging and reinstating the importance of this site as a mahinga kai (food and resource gathering place) and kainga nohoanga (village settlement) to early Waitaha, Ngati Mamoe and, later, Ngāi Tahu. Like the other works in TEZA it was a work about exchange, this time through food.

Kaihaukai had links to the work of Kim Paton. Less visible but created over the week and months preceding TEZA, Kim Paton launched a blog during the week, Deadweight Loss[i]. Following on from her Letting Space project Free Store it aligned with one of the week’s discussion threads and ethical strands across the projects, ‘Nature Knows No Waste’. Paton has done extensive research and related work into waste forecasting, particularly in relation to the exchange systems for food, and the blog continues to present ‘economics for human beings’ through contributions by Paton and guest writers.  

Thinking of New Ways of Being

In each iteration, in each small, social, open-ended activity, TEZA worked to provide a platform for local voices and participation, privileging the local through physical and face-to-face interactions; working within the curatorial framework to encourage a level of community participation that remained unscripted and negotiable; encouraging, as Massey University academic Nicholas Holm wrote in his discussion on philosopher Jacques Rancière, the “thinking of new worlds, new possible politics, new ways of being”.2

Within the tent on the TEZA site Richard Bartlett from Loomio co-operative presided over a series of discussions led by selected artists and Letting Space curators, and involving local Christchurch initiatives such as FESTA, Gap Filler, Rekindle, Renew Brighton and the New Brighton Timebank. Entitled a Creative Summit, the talks were themed but self-directed, giving the opportunity for artists to explain their work and for others to question and consider. On the first day Auckland artist Margaret Lewis led a group wrapping timber rods in coloured wool for a small fence. The talk carried on, motivated by the action. Soon people were wrapping bottles, plaiting wool. Optimism doesn’t need a permit, says Lewis, even though output often does. This was the theme of an evening discussion that followed with invited guests.

The contrast to free market ideals, wiped clean as they are of all historical or cultural context was sharp. Where Special Economic Zones facilitate fluid, often short-term relationships between commercial enterprises and “economies” to allow for the easy transition of big business from one low-cost zone to another, TEZA engaged in small scale, local interactions in which inter-human relations are both the medium and the outcome.

Where Special Economic Zones privilege the demands of a homogenous global marketplace, TEZA incorporated manifestations of indigineity, giving space and recognition to local character and mana whenua, so ascribing to Michel de Certeau’s definition of the artist as a “tenant of culture.”3 TEZA’s occupation began with an official welcome at Rapaki marae then a powhiri at New Brighton. Throughout the week Māori tikanga was followed: food was blessed, visitors welcomed, the mana of those living there was honoured.

Where Special Economic Zones are construed to implement a system of exchange based on low costs and high profitability (buy low/sell high), TEZA presented an alternative system of exchange that prioritises creativity, ideas, hope and human relationships over and far above financial gain.

The goal of relational aesthetics, defined by French curator and writer Nicolas Bourriaud as a “set of tasks carried out beside or beneath the real economic system” is pertinent here. The role of art, Bourriaud writes is not to form imaginary and utopian realities but to present, to enact “ways of living and models of action”, to inhabit the world “in a better way”.4 Bourriaud’s notion of relational aesthetics advocates an art form that privileges not its mercantile value nor even its semantic value, but its interstice value, a Marxist term describing systems of trade that bypass the capitalist economic context. These are free spaces, not just interludes in the normal rhythm of everyday life but a re-reckoning of how that rhythm might change.

Public art is usually something chosen somewhere else. It lands in communities, justified by a mass of research and curatorial and artistic expertise for the assumed benefit of an unwitting, at best ‘consulted’ community. TEZA modelled the reverse, realising works that engaged with – and were shaped by – the local community, challenging the global homogenisation of artistic practice and the reification of the finished object with a reconnection to specific, local human experience. There are similarities here to performance and post-object art from the 1970s in which artists were seen as affective labourers, agents for change working outside the white box.

What Does Success Look Like?

The open-endedness of TEZA’s approach impacted on its delivery and its criteria for success. While TEZA acknowledges the support of Creative New Zealand, Renew New Brighton, Chartwell Trust, Canterbury Community Trust, Massey University, University of Auckland, Life in Vacant Spaces, The Physics Room and others, it relied on a level of community engagement and reciprocity, a small but affective wave of celebration, in order to enact or even suggest the possibility of change.

In pursuing that goal this small slither of land in central New Brighton became a hypermedial space, an in-between place ascribing to Harvard University’s Homi Bhabha description of liminal spaces as “in-between the designations of identity”.5 It is here, outside more established boundaries, that collective experiences of place, cultural difference and group identity can be re-examined and re-defined.

Clearly this wasn’t just selected artists arriving in Brighton to ‘do good’. Christchurch, its eastern suburbs in particular has heard such motivations before (TEZA coincided with the Christchurch East by-election – candidates from all parties descended on the mall and, unwittingly perhaps, the TEZA hub, handing out promises, attending TEZA discussions and becoming audience to Harvey’s Thank You Marches and Dadson’s Bicycle Choir). Those of us in Christchurch are used to transitional projects, vitally important interventions raising spirits and re-energising abandoned corners of the city. But the activities associated with the TEZA ‘occupation’ were couched in a wider framework of discussion and experimentation through the shared experience of artistic endeavour and the creation of a new platform for talking, sharing food, learning and exploring the possibilities of place. It became a place of negotiation, confronting and acknowledging difference and finding new strength or hope within those differences

Can a small group of artists, described by critic Andrew Paul Wood as “an anarchic, nomadic civilisation of uploaded minds”6 impact on a community already dealing with a complex array of geographic, social and economic issues?

The success of TEZA, says Jerram should be judged primarily by the quality and degree of engagement with the local community. This criterion is an interrogation of process, rather than a critique of a completed object or outcome. In her evaluation of relational/social art practice UK art writer, Claire Bishop suggests that such projects can appear patronising to the “beneficiaries” – but at no point did TEZA imply a known remedy for New Brighton’s ailments or even suggest that such an outcome was required.

What these art “laboratories”, “construction sites” and “factories” spawn for the viewer, Bishop goes on to say is often unclear. Relational art works undoubtedly succeed in establishing inter-subjective encounters “in which meaning is elaborated collectively… rather than in the privatised space of individual consumption” but the installations/performances, she argues “rely too heavily on context and viewer engagement”. The “fact of doing” is more important than the what or how of that doing, even though the quality of these relationships are not called into question.7

Arts commentator Warren Feeney followed that line of thought, writing that a challenge to community-based art is that “the kind of skill in making and complexity of thought that generally typifies serious art is traded off against community goodwill.”

Criticality is a moot point here. In terms of social engagement some passers-by did not want an origami spinning top. Some did not want to join in the thank you protests. Some, encountered in a local café, were suspicious of the Morrell shoes and intellectual discussions.

But where TEZA succeeded was in opening up a new hypermedial space between the parameters of a top-down orchestration of a programme of events, and the practices of a community well able to identify its own needs and opportunities. This is where the core idea of exchange is so important – far more important than the idea of a ‘viewer’ which, in relation to TEZA may or may not exist. While giving by itself implies an unequal relationship between the benefactor and the recipient, the enactment of discussions, workshops and events requires an equal degree of looking, listening and engagement, and the recognition, perhaps unexpected of a specific social economic system in which things are already happening. And in New Brighton local initiatives were already well underway. Local street artist Pops had implemented a massive mural operation. A community garden and Timebank are in action, and Renew Brighton, New Brighton Project and the New Brighton Business Association are in full flight. The vital role of the PDT guys within the functioning of this small community is already recognised .

Establishing a ‘zone’ with due regard for such enterprises may have presented curatorial challenges – who defines the parameters of public discussions and open-ended collaborative  projects? Who determines success? Who owns the discussions? Yet in confronting these issues TEZA opened up new conversations and the expectation of a new sense of agency for and within the community. As Bartlett said in launching the Creative Summit, Anyone affected by a decision should have a say in it. Art is democracy in action.”

Over the week an increasing number of people attended these open meetings. The best discussions were those that passed the metaphorical talking stick to as many local participants as visiting artists. The last creative summit, ‘Putting the New in New Brighton’ served as a handing-over process. The presenters were all local producers. The room was full. The idea that something had been sparked by these experimental, often festive forms of art-making and unscripted encounters was palpable.

If TEZA is to be considered in terms of process, it was apparent that throughout its week-long occupation, two processes were happening at once. The TEZA website hosted an outpouring of analysis, discussion, reviews and documentation. On the streets of New Brighton children drew, passers-by told their stories, people skipped, local artists talked about their practices, a giggly young woman with too much to drink joined in an evening celebration of AIO. Both processes staked a place, a time, an event in memory.

How do you gauge the success of such processes?

For Rancière politics occurs when the disavowed “radical equality” of all speaking beings interrupts the normal flow of things. Was TEZA political? No one stormed the offices of CERA (the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority) or EQC. No one laid siege to the demo crews. But in giving expression to a shared and equal capacity for creativity, festivity and a belief in the potential for change implicit in new artistic practice, these participatory processes and collaborations did achieve a sense of “radical equality”. Connections were made with and, more importantly perhaps between, local artists and initiatives. At the last meeting Brighton Up and Coming was launched, unscripted and with no apparent knowledge by TEZA organisers. At that same meeting Veling advised TEZA artists to be careful. We come in with energy and vigour, he said then leave. “Echoes of conversation need to continue”.

They do.

Just weeks after the Letting Space people rolled up their tent, Brighton artist Kim Lowe issued an email inquiry to those who attended TEZA to see if anyone wanted to get together “to make some things and ... carry on with some TEZA-like discussion/projects”. The answer was yes.

In one of the creative summit discussions London-born street art guru Pops quoted anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” TEZA endorsed that possibility through art. In trialling systems of cultural exchange that provided a free platform for the expression of voice and creativity it fulfilled its intentions. The conversations, the echoes, have not dissipated.

Sally Blundell is a freelance journalist and writer in Christchurch. She has edited a collection of essays on New Zealand art (Look This Way: New Zealand Writers on New Zealand Artists, AUP) and written widely on free and fair trade. 

 

1. ILO, “Export processing zones growing steadily”, September 1998

2. Nicholas Holm, “The Distribution of the Nonsensical and the Political Aesthetics of Humour”, Transformations, 19, 2011

3. Owen Daily, The Pilgrim’s Companion, Pilgrim Mapping Project, Hungary, 2012

4. Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics. Dijon: Les presses du réel, 2002

5. Bhabha, Homi K. “Border Lives: The Art of the Present”, The Location of Culture. London ; New York: Routledge, 1994

6. teza.org.nz

7. Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics”, October, 2004

 


[i] www.deadweightloss.org.nz