Warren Feeney – 11 December, 2013
What were the successes of TEZA's week in New Brighton? It generated positive social activity (meetings, conversations, collective action and collaborative art works), into a vital community space, drawing attention to the ‘usefulness' of an area of New Brighton still regarded as out of action.
Richard Bartlett, Tim Barlow, David Cook, Phil Dadson, Stuart Foster, Mark Harvey, Simon Kaan, Kerry Ann Lee, Kim Paton, Kura Puke, Tim J. Veling, Te Urutahi Waikerepuru, Ron Bull Jnr, Priscilla Cowie, Heather Hayward, Kiwi Henare, Kim Lowe, Nathan Pohio, Te Huirangi Waikerepuru and Kayla Ward
24 November - 1 December 2013
Why does it seem as though the arts are assuming greater public ambitions to connect with the wider community, making numerous assertions that creativity is central to the wellbeing of the country’s population and even capable of generating social change? In March 2013, curator Mark Amery observed that the highlight of the Auckland Arts Festival resided in its Pacific arts programme which reflected something of the identity of the city’s communities. In August, curator of Pacific art Ema Tavola echoed these sentiment at the Pacific Arts Association 11th International Symposium in Vancouver. Her commitment to the arts in Auckland and Manukau was founded upon her desire to ‘affect change and contribute to the social development of Pacific people.’
More recently, the Auckland Art Gallery’s Freedom Farmers: New Zealand Artists Growing Ideas, has positioned the country’s artists as local ‘leaders,’ and the Christchurch Art Gallery held a successful fundraising campaign to acquire Michael Parekowhai’s On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, describing it as a work that symbolised the ‘resilience and strength of the people of Christchurch.’ Ironically, the attention accorded to art as an agent for wider social and community engagement gains prominence as paintings by New Zealand artists continue to increase in financial prestige. In November, Art + Object achieved a record price of almost $230,000 for a work by Patrick Hanly and a painting by Bill Hammond auctioned at Webbs reached close to $330,000.
In the last week of November in Christchurch the belief in art as an agent for social change assumed centre stage through TEZA (the Transitional Economic Zone of Aotearoa), a seven day public arts project in the suburb of New Brighton. TEZA represents an ambitious agenda based on community focussed-arts projects, curated by Wellington-based Mark Amery and Sophie Jerram, possibly best known for the series of public interventions/arts projects that have made up Letting Space since 2010. TEZA is clearly concerned with art as a catalyst for well being and social democracy. Amery and Jerram are proposing that the ‘economic systems by which we are governed needs to change, and we are part of that change.’
In terms of the degree of reflection and criticism that the art community has tended to direct towards itself in New Zealand, TEZA is relatively high in provocation. It demands that the basis on which art has been cultivated and contexturalised through the community needs to change. Such intentions raise important questions about the status of the art object as product, whether perceived as public art gallery trophy or auction house commodity. Amery and Jerram direct their interests to alternative measures to value the arts and community; meaningful communication between individuals and groups, well being, happiness and biculturalism.
If decisions about public art - which artworks are chosen for community consumption and where they should be places - is usually made by a select group of people for the assumed benefit of the community, then TEZA argues the process should be reversed. TEZA aims to instigate public art through artists meeting with communities, listening, talking and responding through the realisation of works that articulates community needs. In doing so, it argues in favour of the experiences and knowledge of all communities, challenging a global homogenization of the arts and its potential for art to become increasing disconnected from authentic human experience.
It is impossible not to make connections between TEZA‘s agenda and performance and post object art from the 1970s - art situated beyond the constraints of the art gallery, the denying of the supremacy of the art object and a shift of attention to the arts as an agent for changes in thinking and acting. Such beliefs were fundamental to the work of artists like Bruce Barber, Phil Dadson, Di Ffrench and Nick Spill.
So it seemed more than appropriate that, as a contributing artist to TEZA, Dadson brought together New Brighton residents and artists for Bicycle Choir, pitching harmonies and cycling in and around the seaside shopping precinct, once the hub of Saturday shopping in Canterbury. Bicycle Choir represented an economy of means in an arts project centred upon community participation, generating joy and happiness. Its optimism and irrationality suggested that Dadson and TEZA could be on to something. Strange alien sounds that seemed so right in a virtually abandoned and ruined shopping precinct, disclosed that whatever its state may be, New Brighton mall was still a place for community activity.
TEZA was certainly prepared to make the necessary effort to build relationships with the residents of New Brighton. Performance artist Mark Harvey facilitated a series of group projects. Harvey’s Productive Promises provided practical measures to raise spirits and confidence, including the removal of rubbish accumulating on vacant lots in the mall through a working bee, shifting it from private sites to public space for council staff to collect. In response to requests from residents, Harvey also coordinated a street march declaring ‘We Love New Brighton,’ manifesting the feelings of residents experiencing a sense of ongoing neglect from civic leaders for a suburb in which earthquake damage and liquefaction has seen significant population flight and the Red zoning of suburbs like Bexley.
More structured in its delivery, the University of Canterbury’s Place in Time’s Freeville Project was a collaborative undertaking between Tim Veling and David Cook, involving school students from Freeville School, and Bayley Corfeld, Hannah Watkinson and David Draper. This project considered how the Freeville School’s location might appear, many years from now. Freeville School is to be abandoned in 2016, with classes and staff integrated into North New Brighton and Central New Brighton schools. Veling provided students with basic tuition in photography and composition, documenting the school’s buildings and playing fields, and enlarging the images and cutting and pasting drawings of how they imagined a future for the site, into their work. These were displayed over two adjacent walls in New Brighton mall, acting as installation, public work of art and checker-board response by numerous individuals to events in their community. Coordinated through Veling, an artist and photographer versed in community-centred exhibitions, the Freeville Project put forward a convincing argument for successful collaborations between the arts and the local neighbourhood. It maintained a credible degree of wonder and enchantment, making visible a sense of optimism, loss and memory. Like Dadson, Veling’s ability to deliver successful outcomes on numerous levels for both residents and the arts made TEZA, an idea worth taking seriously.
Some residents however, didn’t agree that art was something that was necessarily relevant to their lives - too serious for its own good, pretentious and certainly not for the locals. Such opinions emerged at one evening discussions between artists and residents. Yet, Amery and Jerram appeared to anticipate such responses, even providing the opportunity for such conversations. TEZA felt like an arts project that was not afraid to admit that it had an agenda that was an ever evolving work in progress - in the act of continually discovering how to deliver its aspirations.
What were the successes of TEZA‘s week in New Brighton? It generated positive social activity (meetings, conversations, collective action and collaborative art works), into a vital community space, drawing attention to the ‘usefulness’ of an area of New Brighton still regarded as out of action.
Such outcomes were always going to depend on the skills and knowledge Amery and Jerram brought to this project and the particular experiences of artists like Harvey, Veling and Dadson. Did it matter that a number of projects appeared to lack the ‘finish’ or refinement of the kind of artworks that make it into traditional gallery spaces? Not if one of TEZA‘s outcomes is to shift attention away from the venue of the gallery and into the community with a concern to address social and political change - within such a context, the cultivation of the object tended to become less significant that the outcomes it generated
Yet, isn’t this too frequently one of those reoccurring challenges with community-based art? That the kind of skill in making and complexity of thought that generally typifies serious art is traded off against the goodwill felt by all for the wider community? Isn’t serious art essentially about a quality of ideas, and the revelation of complex and often opened-ended questions and ideologies? Community arts projects tend to work best when attention is centred upon giving primacy to the expression of an idea through some form of collective action rather than via the skilful crafting of an object - one rich in the possibility of ideas.
And just because a community may hold a shared belief does not necessarily mean that it is a sound principle. It was disappointing to hear one New Brighton resident state that TEZA seemed like the next stage on from the Occupy Christchurch movement in 2010. Didn’t Occupy Christchurch vanish because it involved inhabiting a site without strategy or outcomes? The observation that TEZA might be the next step in the occupation of public spaces, revealed little awareness of its comprehensive ambitions for serious art and the wider community, or an understanding that advocacy and action for social change can also be successfully realised through less public displays of activity. For example; through cumulative and more discrete long-term strategies.
In expressing such concerns, TEZA‘s agenda as successor to performance and post-object practice also needs to be questioned. Is the Transitional Economic Zone of Aotearoa‘s call for action and community engagement an agenda a little too closely aligned with the attitudes of seventies counter-culture protest? TEZA appears to demarcate much of its position from an historical cultural framework, and in doing so, identifies perceived limitations that it maintains still exist in the arts. In particular, the predominant role occupied by galleries and the perceived gap between such institutions and the public. In reality, over the past twenty years, other models of beneficial relationships between the arts and wider community have emerged, locally and globally, that also argue for a quality of life and the empowerment of the individual.
For example: Melbourne curator Kevin Murray’s focus upon object-based arts practice in Australasia, Asia, India and South America, provides an alternative and complementary paradigm to TEZA’s propositions through the practice of contemporary jewellery. Murray has facilitated and curated numerous exhibitions and arts projects with artists and craftspeople, encouraging a shift away from the use of limited precious materials for jewellery and objects. These have included; Australian jeweller Mark Verwerk spinning plastic bags to create material for rings, South African artist, Beverly Price using magazines and found metals, Queensland jeweller, Roseanne Bartly transforming found ice cream sticks into necklaces and New Zealand artist Renee Bevan, employing old CD’s as materials for jewellery.
All represent an international movement within contemporary craft practice that is environmentally sound, (recovering and assigning value to discarded objects), and shifts attention from precious materials to precious ideas about the artist as maker of precious objects, also highlighting the question of how we measure quality in our lives. Equally, numerous artists and object makers support and cultivate the communities that often sustains their work. Working in Rwanda, German artist Martina Dempf sources woven grass components for her jewellery from Rwandan women, also championing their practice to market their own work. In all such actions, and in the notion of objects for adornment, as gifts or protective charms, such artists cultivate beneficial and supportive community relationships at numerous levels; the use of recycled materials, the collaborative processes of design and making, and the affordability and accompanying accessibility of their practice to the wider public.
Murray describes this shift as sustaining the dream of a common wealth, one that benefits the ‘precious wealth of the common.’ It is a description of the kind of outcomes that TEZA shares, yet critical to Murray’s curatorial practice is the authority and integrity of the art object - one that retains its place within an arts infrastructure that also encompasses the gallery networks.
TEZA’s agenda may currently be too closely founded upon what it does not advocate for: The status accorded to the art object, the white cube space of the gallery, and perceptions about the elitist nature of the arts and its failure to connect meaningfully with the public. I like the premise of TEZA as a work in progress, initiating projects and testing how best to deliver an admirable agenda for the arts. I would trust however, that its generosity for community engagement also encompasses existing arts infrastructure, and the ways in which they often equally, build successful relationships with communities.