TEZA 2013

On the Birth of TEZA – Richard Meros

The concept of TEZA began for independent public art producers Letting Space in 2011 on a trip to ISEA, Istanbul. Discussion ensued around the pervasiveness of the ‘international artist’ working as a dislocated figure disconnected from local communities.  In 2012 an approach was made to create TEZA in the desert of New Mexico for ISEA 2012.   TEZA didn’t eventuate in that instance, but a number of the artists have continued on the journey, and some produced their works in New Mexico independently.   Always intended as a structure that could move between locations, TEZA has finally found its first iteration in Christchurch.

In this essay written in 2012 ahead of the planned New Mexican installation, unpublished until now, writer Richard Meros explores some of the TEZA concepts. Concepts which still largely underpin the Transitional Economic Zone of Aotearoa today.

Sophie Jerram and Mark Amery

Entrance to Clark Special Economic Zone, Philippines

Entrance to Clark Special Economic Zone


R K Meros

The Transitional Economic Zone of Aotearoa (TEZA) was initially proposed as an art project aimed at the International Symposium on Electronic Arts (ISEA) summit in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2012.

The project was a response to the lack of interaction with local communities at ISEA in Istanbul in 2011. Flying in and flying out of the conference, the conference offered little recognition or engagement with the particular Eurasian land bridge on which it was held. Despite the variety of international contributions, or perhaps because of the focus on it, the conference felt like another stepping-stone on the path to placelessness and homogenization. To some of the participants at ISEA 2011, the feeling was that art was just as de-spatialised as the economic activities in Special Economic Zones (SEZ).

The artists that coalesce around TEZA want to find a way to have art bring something of value to the people where ISEA symposiums are held. For Albuquerque that value would be crafted around an intersection between art and the indigenous practices of both Aotearoa/New Zealand and the people of the New Mexican pueblos.

Framing this collective of artists as TEZA is meant to be a parody of the Special Economic Zone. Part of the parody is a joke about the ability of people from Aotearoa (New Zealand) to exploit on a global scale. ‘Not us,’ we’d joke, ‘not the number eight wire bumpkin from the back-paddock of the Pacific!’ The joke might be that Aotearoa is a post-colonial society and has had so much experience with the destructive side of colonization that we’d be the last on board with the colonialist/imperialist role of the SEZs.

Although TEZA was not able to fully participate in the 2012 Albuquerque summit, the ground work for a future project based in Christchurch and then Sydney has been laid. Producing these projects closer to home will solve some of the logistical challenges of TEZA, while also fundamentally changing the dynamics of who the traditional or indigenous peoples are that TEZA seeks to engage with. On the one hand there might be an ease of dealing with the Ngai Tahu iwi of Õtatahi there is perhaps more at stake with an attempt at working with the indigenous of a place called home. With Sydney there are also pre-existing thoughts on what New Zealanders might be trying to do when taking an indigenous peoples seriously.

But before getting into the specifics of TEZA it is necessary to know a little more about the Special Economic Zones. From the arts community it is easy enough to come at SEZs with the same sort of mortified moralizing that any good liberal uses to approach deregulated capitalism. There will be plenty of time to judge SEZs. But let us first describe the reasons for the space that is the Special Economic Zone and the projects built on these lands.


The Special Economic Zones

A Special Economic Zone (SEZ) is a space within a nation that is dedicated to the theology of global capitalism. Think of it like the state of the Vatican City in Rome. The Vatican is to the Italian ideology of Catholicism as the special economic zone is to worldwide ideology of global capitalism. Each zone is surrounded on all sides by a nation, and this nation suffuses the zone with it’s culture, but the zone operates under it’s own legislative conditions.

The legislative conditions that are particular to SEZs address one or more inadequacies of the host nation. These inadequacies are generally that the larger state has too much bureaucratic red tape, an unstable fiscal regime or the absence of a suitable infrastructure. Tax breaks, relaxed laws and other inducements encourage multi-national companies (MNCs) to base themselves in these zones.

The host government hopes the MNCs will provide jobs, infrastructure and stability where it once was not. Broadly, the SEZ is to create a culture of employment and employability. The tribal or collectivist identity of the worker is reformed in the SEZ into that of a vigorous individualist. The masses of humanity are reshaped into rational economic actors.

In the long term, the host nation wants to go beyond the low-wage labour of the SEZ. In the best-case scenario, the low-paid labourers from SEZs gain experience and turn into desirable workers who are skilled enough to work in high-tech, high-value manufacturing. Along with this up-skilling comes an increase in wages. This is where Taiwan is always pointed out as the exemplar. The original MNCs leave, but they are replaced either by MNCs or local companies headed by the employees up-skilled in the low-wage jobs. The years of sweatshop labour, if all of the manufacturing work in this area might come under that term, are seen by those who propose SEZs as a sort of apprenticeship in manufaturing.

The dream is that the government is then able to sustain itself on the tax base from these new industries. At this point, the SEZs are no longer needed. The country is to have reformed itself,  created infrastructure, a skilled workforce and fiscal stability.

This is the ideology of our global capitalism. It is an internationalist ideology and this can be seen in the desertion of industry from the West and into China, and from there to the next low-wage countries such as Bangladesh. There is a remarkable glint in the eye of the neo-liberal economists and politicians who genuinely believe that they have found this road to Eden. To those caught up in the logic of free-market economics, there is no escape and why would anyone want an alternative when the payoff is prosperity?

The neo-liberals want the whole country to embrace the dictums of the SEZs. That’s what they suggest. Instead of the SEZ being dismantled, those in love with the concepts of free-markets want the whole country to become one giant SEZ. They see this as a gift of progress and liberation from a history of tin-pot despots, oligarchs or warlords.

These economists have a reason for every failure of a country to become the utopic, high-wage zone that they have prophesised. The reason often relies on the racial or ethnic backwardness of the people involved rather than the repulsiveness of the dehumanized labour on offer. The neo-liberal economists, like all half-shod theologists, have an answer for ever complication. And that is all they want. They want to have an unfalsifiable answer to every possible question asked.

These economists have produced a remarkable system of explanations. And the problem is not that they’re wrong, but that their system of explanations is impossible to prove wrong. Their system of explanation deny the complexity of the variant world lives, not to mention the role of power in political economy, and always squarely lump the blame for failure on the shoulders of the individual (two parts laziness, they huff, and one part endemic stupidity) and never, ever accounts for systemic issues.

In short, the SEZ is a utopic experiment for the neo-liberal economist. And utopias are necessarily pragmatic projects. Pragmatism requires the dismissal of complexities that cannot be programmed out of existence in the short to medium term. As such, a number of complexities are left out of the picture.

It is to the complexities that we’ll now turn.

TEZA in Albuquerque

What are the complexities that TEZA address when they raise a knowing eyebrow at the SEZs? The complexities are based around the people who live in the space where  international art symposiums are held. As such, the site in question should be considered: the Albuquerque region of New Mexico.

The aim of drawing out these complexities is not to resolve them into a backslapping unity. It is the SEZ, not TEZA, that needs to erase complexity as the overseers of these zones seek to homogenise a space into a workplace and a people into a labour force. The complexities that will be discussed are not ‘bad’ or limiting issues that need to be eradicated. The reverse is true. At their base, these tensions are what constitute the identity of TEZA.

TEZA’s project was to create a relationship with a local pueblo (indigenous tribe or village) in the next ISEA location. This relationship was to be non-commercial, at least in terms of money – time being a less tangible measurement of worth. The reason for a focus on non-commercial relations was an eagerness within TEZA to share a project unmediated by the cash exchange culture that has become a hallmark of the conference circuit.

In terms of trade, what TEZA was offering might best be considered to be a barter. TEZA, as representatives of the arts, was in the less attractive position. They would offer the pueblo a panoply of what artists have always offered: enlivenment, entertainment, visions of a different future. TEZA were also the instigators of the exchange. In turn, TEZA would request the pueblo to offer a canopy for TEZA, lending them space and a regional connection that had not been present in prior symposiums.

But while a written contract provides trust for a fiduciary relationship, there is no such option for the kind of good-faith exchange proposed by TEZA. Instead, TEZA would have to build a relationship of trust to the pueblo through establishing credibility via two likely channels: their professional status as artists, as measured by their participation in ISEA, and their indigenous affiliations in New Zealand, through several artists position as tangatu whenua.


The indigenous side of TEZA

Indigeneity is established through birth and trust is established through the inheritance of the particular indigenous group’s past behaviours. TEZA attempts to form trust based on the shared indigenous values between the people of the New Mexican pueblo and the Māori artists involved in TEZA.

Quite simple, TEZA is saying ‘you are indigenous, we are indigenous. You can trust us.’

But is TEZA indigenous? Is it legitimately Māori?

Some of the artists from TEZA are Māori, but some are also Pakeha. So perhaps it is best to look at how TEZA conducts itself to see if their practices side more with the Pakeha or the Māori.

One important factor in favour of TEZA establishing its credibility as indigenous is their principles of engagement which suggest that they will follow the Māori tikanga, or protocols, at their proposed encampment. Examples offered of thesetypes of behaviours include the blessing of food, and of welcoming visitors as a group.

But what might these protocols look like at a level that might make the indigenous part of TEZA seem trustworthy to the New Mexican pueblo? Is it enough to eat right? What would a tikanga of Māori organisation look like at a strategic or societal level that can be contrasted with the protocols of a SEZ?

At the level of organization there are a number of  protocols of Māori Business that speak to the issue of trust. First, Māori businesses have to deal with the multiple and collective ownership of resources.  Second, beneficiaries of the iwi recognise the central role of inheritance as a source of wealth. Lastly, turangawaewae, or standing place, determines the authority of the speaker to have his or her say.

An overt stating of these tikanga of Māori business is absent from TEZA’s main outline, though they are not necessarily missing from their actual practice. TEZA is certainly a collective. They have come together less out of an an inherited right, than out of a commitment to the arts. And given that the place of speaking is to be an international arts symposium, the turangawaewae of TEZA is taken more from prestige in an art community than in the indigenous community. That’s not to suggest that members of TEZA don’t have sufficient standing to speak, but that the validity of their vocie at ISEA is determined more by their point of standing as artists.

TEZA is not singularly interested in indigenous communities. Instead, members of TEZA have coalesced around another identity: that of the artist. A select number of TEZA’s members could use their position as indigenous to New Zealand to approach the pueblo in kind. But to really secure a collaborative relationship based on trust, the value of the exchange needs to be shown. This value would be based on TEZA’s ability to make a convincing case for the worth of the artistic endeavour that it had planned for ISEA.

Alt Currents promo1

The offer of art from TEZA

What can TEZA offer the pueblo?


But what is Art?

“Good grief! If you have to ask, then I’m not telling.”

Sorry. I mean, what is ‘art’?

“That’s better, but you’re still not getting an answer.”

TEZA’s use of the art world establishes trust through an appeal to the generation of new ideas and their future value. Or if you wish, and I paraphrase Duchamp, it is love. In it’s simplest expression. Or maybe it is beauty. Art is in the eye of the beholder? Why not?

“Because it is a bloody lie!”

Many of the TEZA artists attempt to establish trust by playing on the idea of a different future or a reframing of the present. This appeal is not particularly directed at the indigenous of New Mexico, but at a general humanity. This is the promise of art to the New Mexican audience: it is a promise of self-creation; of agency.

“They’d be mad to accept it.”

Both artist groups and indigenous groups from TEZA are seeking to form bonds of trust across an international community. But can these two groups function together? Both have made appeals to values that cannot be strictly measured in terms of money. But how can trust be established across such a divide in space?

“They can’t. The hippies tried it in the 60s; tried to go back to the land and  set up communes amongst the pueblo in New Mexico. They just raised local property prices and pissed off the people they wanted to be a part of.”

Perhaps TEZA’s attempt at establishing trust faces too many barriers. The temporariness of the exhibit and the thousands of kilometers of distance between New Zealand and New Mexico might make people suspicious about the idea of the interaction at TEZA leading to trust and a long-term relationship. But are long term relationships really the only possible positive result of relationships of trust?

“Say what?”

Is it possible to form bonds of trust in the short term that are not based on deception or economic exchange and which have positive outcomes?

“Sounds hifalutin. Why not look at what actually happened with this TEZA group? I mean, did the pueblos actually agree to participate. What’s with all this skirting around the edges?”

At the beginning of the project, there was a sense in TEZA that the groups in New Mexico were overwhelmed by those wishing to interact with them as the indigenous. That is to say, the first contact from TEZA was ignored.

Groups who are overwhelmed often resort to the market to make decisions for them. People that can be trusted are the ones who will front up with cash for our services. For a New Zealander the weariness of an indigenous group to great every offer of cultural ‘exchange’ with glee is easy to understand when we spot the plethora of requests on local iwi to provide welcomes to visitors.

Some valid points need to be addressed: how should the pueblo differentiate TEZAs claim to wanting mutual exchange from a group that simply wishes to appropriate the cultural value of indigeneity? Why shouldn’t indigenous groups everywhere, burnt by years of imperialism, be suspicious of a group that claims to be interested in mutual exchange? Why shouldn’t they demand American Express as the quickest route to accessing the legitimacy of their services?

“Whoar! Sounds like we need a deus ex machine to solve this one. Where is He, the god from the skies, to solve this entangled plot?”

It was this overwhelming of the formal channels for interaction that led to a third identity to come to the fore in TEZA. The emergence of gender as a node of communication allowed the establishing of trusts from a position of marginality and across informal indigenous structures.


The Women of TEZA

To establish the TEZA host for the ISEA symposium in New Mexico, communications did not go through formal channels. The actual relationships were built through an informality that evaded the patriarchal indigenous structures. The formal networks were eschewed because while the indigenous organisations may be marked as marginal in relationship to the non-indigenous, they are still saturated with requests from many within the dominant culture to use their credibility for some symbolic ends.

So while the official hierarchy ignored the original contact, it was through informal contact with  women on the margins of the indigenous organisations that a relationship of trust began.

The conflict between gender and indigenous culture is not new to New Zealanders. Gender and indigenous practice has created many headlines in New Zealand, particularly in relations to the objection by Titewhai Harawira to Helen Clark speaking on the marae as outside of protocol. Men are the traditional orators and occupy the first rows any set of meetings and, as with Pakeha, men also dominate Māori organizational hierarchies. While women are responsible for welcoming guests onto the marae, they are also responsible for providing the food and so are generally sequestered in the kitchen.

Planning sessions with five women across numerous locations in two countries co-ordinated a plan for ISEA in New Mexico. Solid relations of trust and plans for the operation of the two week symposium were established. TEZA reached the point where more official sanctioning would be needed, but where there was an advocate in New Mexico that would likely enable this to take place.

It is yet to be seen how the relationships between women and indigenous organisations will hold up when put into practice. Will the formal male relationships take over once the bonds of trust are formalised into actual agreements? Will the men ride in carrying the TEZA flag and be assumed to have been behind the project all along? Will gender divisions at the organizational level become manifest in any of the artistic activities on site?

In the end these questions were never answered. They petered out as funding for the New Mexico ISEA became too difficult to find. Instead, TEZA is set to operate in closer to home: Christchurch and/or Sydney. At these sites, perhaps formal channels will prove more fruitful, and women will be able to organise along official lines from the beginning.



The Special Economic Zones of the world plow on. They homogenize space, drop in the seeds of capital, and bloom green with profit. These relatively small zones, near trade routes, may seem bustling and eager, but this activity is tightly controlled and avoids any meaning beyond quantifiable gains. The only conflict on the ground in a SEZ is that of how much can be produced , of what quality, in what amount of time. To play the role of the farmer, you need the cash to get them magic seeds.

As a conclusion, a sort of intermission entertainment while we wait for TEZA to return in Christchurch of Sydney, lets look at the place of the three identities drawn on by TEZA and how they fare in the landscape of the SEZ.

What is the place in SEZs for the indigenous?  If we take the concept of turangawaewae literally, then the SEZ is an impossible place of quicksand or shuddering earthquakes or simple unsustainability. The land on which the SEZ functions has been wiped of all historical context and presented as 100% pure.  onto which the new infrastructure and fiscal regime can be built.

And women? How do women fare in SEZs? Some might imagine these zones are masculine places of industry and mateship, a sort of New Frontierland where women are either prostitutes, the prim wife of the Governor, or one of the plucky few who play with the men. But in terms of sweatshops and factories, today women play as important a role as men. In fact, many sweatshops (used as a synonym for the range of industrial activities which occurs in SEZs, not just fabric manufacturing) intentionally hire young women so that foremen can more easily physically intimidate them. These practices are clearly shown in Micha Peled’s award-winning documentary China Blue. Women play a central role within SEZs. They are the most desirable proletariat.

Art might be the most contentious of omissions from SEZs. How far can we stretch the definition of art to include the practices of SEZs?

“You’re seriously asking if sweatshop labour is performance art?”

Art is open to all aspects of life including homogeneity, mechanical reproduction, routine and monotony. But can anyone really argue that SEZs hold any hope for art? Or is there something to art that demands an agency unfound in the SEZ? This is just the question which TEZA will seek to answer as it pairs art to the indigenous, and people to a place.

Richard Meros is a New Zealand-based writer. His most recent book Easy Whistle Solo was released by Lawrence & Gibson in 2012. His next book, Dating Westerners: tips for the new rich of the developing world is due in early 2014. Find out more at http://www.richardmeros.com




One thought on “On the Birth of TEZA – Richard Meros

  1. Pingback: #5 Respondent: Ali Bramwell – Love and criticality | TEZA 2013

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