TEZA is, at first glance, not necessarily the easiest thing to describe. It reminds me somewhat of the Festival in Charles Stross’ Singularity Sky: an anarchic, nomadic civilisation of uploaded minds cum an alien godlike information plague. One that, originally intended to repair galactic information networks, drifts from world to world and, in return for information, even stories (it announces itself to an oppressed colony deliberately kept by its patrons in a feudal state by dropping cell phones and asking to be “entertained”), can literally give you whatever you want, resulting in total social, economic and political disruption. The Festival also contained within it (in stored form) a species that has evolved into a niche as critics providing commentary. A defence system of automated Bouncers. The chaotically dangerous Fringe which uses the planet itself as an artistic medium and thinks nothing of inducing a solar flare to paint an aurora.
TEZA though of course is far from omnipotent, lacks the scary elements, and is considerably more sensitive to its place in its host community of New Brighton – a beach-side suburb in quake-battered Christchurch East, which even before the ground intervened seemed caught in a downward economic spiral having once been a major commercial centre in the 1970s and early 1980s.
The intention seems to be to use artistic strategies to engage with the local community – creating a temporary special zone with its own rules of interaction and transaction. Like the Freetown of Christiana in Copenhagen more so than quarantined economic laboratory Hong Kong is to the People’s Republic of China. The vibe is optimism, sharing on all levels, provocative and perhaps a wee bit utopian. The theoretical structure might be loosely described as Ironic Pragmatist a la Richard Rorty in that no one is out to solve the world’s problems or even offer band aids. Rather, the intention is to provoke some thought about possible outside-the-box strategies for getting there, and the role of the arts in disrupting the received assumptions and hidebound socio-economic systems.
Interestingly TEZA also coincides with a feverishly contested by-election in Christchurch East, and so there are plenty of pollies roaming around kissing babies and pressing the flesh. One can only hope that some of the optimism, enthusiasm and lateral thinking may rub off on them. Fingers crossed – even the ACT rep paused briefly.
My TEZA tour of duty began Wednesday afternoon, by bus. For the more central suburbs, New Brighton is a bit of an unknown quantity – “here be dragons” and all that, which is a shame because it’s actually very nice and not at all the Zombie Apocalypse of popular imagination. I arrived part way through a very stimulating discussion about art, media, communication, fanzines and identity facilitated by design lecturer/ zine queen Kerry Anne Lee and local printmaker Kim Lowe. The evening culminated in a really amazing and informative presentation/discussion about nature, waste and recycling by a number of specialist businesses and community groups like Our Daily Waste, Rad Bikes, and the new Brighton Community Garden. This was an eye-opener, finding out that some of the things we do under the impression that we are helping the environment are in fact not sustainable and mostly feel-good, but perhaps leading to a more enlightened approach in general.
In and around this were opportunities to watch Steve Carr’s short film Burnout in the mobile and miniscule Picture House – an A-frame billboard converted into a cinema for two by Heather Heywood and Tessa Peach – and a wonderful nocturnal artwork, Hinatore by Kura Puke and Stuart Foster where glow worm-like trailing strands of LEDs encoded in their natural frequency various enigmatic soundtracks to be picked by on headphones. It was magical.
The Thursday was even more intense, starting at 10am with an impromptu visit by Central New Brighton school for a Thank You Protest. It was the opposite of a protest complaining about something, and vaguely more in keeping with a Haight-Ashbury lovebombing ethos of thanks. It was such an incredibly sweet, warm fuzzy march up to New Brighton Pier and Library, better than Prozac, and repeated a little later when I travelled with Mark Amery, Mark Harvey and Tim J Veling to Freeville School for another Thank You Protest. The engagement was fantastic, more like a Wiggles concert than an arts project – but overshadowing the fun was the knowledge that the unique and progressive Freeville was one of the schools targeted for closure by Hekia Parata. In both cases the kids made their own signs announcing all of the things they loved and were grateful about New Brighton.
In and around lunch was another set of presentations, this time on social art and the “performance of democracy” by academic Graydon Diprose, and artists Heather Hayward and Tessa Peach, Richard Bartlett and Audrey Baldwin. I enjoyed Hayward and Peach, and Baldwins’s presentations – Heather and Tessa’s very much about social space interventions and relational aesthetics whereas Audrey’s inspired by more old school Abramovic-esque body/performance art applied to contemporary Christchurch situations like post-quake life, anti-rape culture protests and female sexuality.
Diprose’s thesis regarding the subjectivities of ‘work’ post the so-called ‘neoliberal consensus’ was very interesting, but I am not sure I agree with the premise that there is such a thing as a monolithic ‘neoliberal consensus’ in the first place, any more than I believed Francis Fukuyama was right about the triumph of capitalism. For one thing the political Left remains more or less Keynesian – interventionist even when donning the trappings of Third Way Blair/Clintonite neoliberal lite, which especially needs to be taken into account in an MMP system like ours. We are also beholden to countries like Saudi Arabia and China which are actually highly interventionist. Another factor is the ascendance of identity politics across the political spectrum (much like holy war replaced cold war). It also seems to me that the time banks and interventionist art groups he talks about as subverting neoliberal capitalism in some ways are inherently dependent on neoliberal capitalism for their raison d’etre in the first place and certainly for their autonomy, so it becomes quite difficult to understand them as independent of the system the operate in and respond to. I’m being painfully reductive – I really need to read the thesis to get a full understanding.
I would have liked to have heard more about Bartlett’s involvement in Loomio – group decision-making software, an anarchist’s Facebook, but there was a bit of a random hijacking of the conversation which is par for the course.
In and around this, the truly wonderful rooster Phil Dadson perambulated around being Phil Dadson. A preeminent New Zealand sound artist, protean Dadson’s involvement took many forms, whether leading his bicycle choir around the New Brighton Mall, or popping up unexpectedly to deliver what sounded like Tibetan chants or Mongolian throat singing. The man is a national treasure.
The fantastic Mark Harvey was leading interactive collaborative performance pieces out in the street, and Thursday also saw the generous donation of a crane that lifted up the enormous tepee of Te o Marama – ‘The World of Light’, a collaboration between the inimitable Tim Barlow of Wellington and the formidable Te Urutahi Waikerepuru of Taranaki. The gigantic cone of cane struts and bioplastic and harakeke fibre skin acts as the omphalos/sacred navel of the TEZA site, anchoring it in place.
Kerry Ann Lee and Kim Lowe hosted another discussion about representation of identity in the media and methods the community can become their own media, which was a really empowering part of the day.
My evening concluded with another creative summit talk on how we value work, artistic practice as work, and ourselves. It included great projects like GapFiller and the New Brighton time bank. Time banks were a new concept to be – basically member-run labour exchanges that measure by time rather than labour. It was during this part of the evening that I started feeling a little uncomfortable. Here we were in New Brighton, one of the lowest rungs of Christchurch’s economic ladder, and it seemed to me that the issues and philosophies being discussed very much came out of a well-meaning, but relatively comfortable and middle class educated worldview with access to systems and knowledge that the folks outside the tent did not – poverty fetishism is always a risk. That’s not to undermine an important and worthwhile discussion, but I did question the relevance to the context of our host community. That’s just a minor cavil, and yet one that all such projects should be conscious of.
Can art/artists save the world? I don’t know and I doubt it, but they will contribute to that saving by opening minds and hearts and changing worldviews – no artist has ever been afraid of a blank sheet of paper. Events like TEZA are really important way of doing that. Goodwill should be considered a sustainable, renewable resource, and one rather suspects that TEZA was doing a better job of outreach than many of the politicians out there.