To reckon with the complex experience of social work means reckoning with its force as both support and constraint. What a pleasure; what a pain. Whether imagined in our ambivalent relation to kinship systems or our ambivalent relation to social institutions, all of these affects seem destined to accompany the choreography of the supporting act. But navigating that ambivalence seems necessary to perform our connection to the future now of people whom we may never know. Navigating that ambivalence on both intimate and public scales structures both the force and the provisionality of the promises we make to intimates and to strangers.
New Brighton Mall was a happening place in the 1960s. It was the Saturday trading, the unique allowance for this block of shops to open on a few sacred weekend hours, that drew crowds from all around Christchurch. With the introduction of Saturday and then Sunday trading to the rest of New Zealand from the 1980s, the New Brighton Mall retail activity sharply declined and the area has since struggled to maintain its former vibrancy. Situating the Temporary Economic Zone Aotearoa (TEZA) project in the heart of this derelict shopping precinct thereby invokes a history of commercial exchange as the lure for people to come together, highlighting our traditional reliance on consumption as the means to create a sense of community.
TEZA occupies a patch of land in the middle of New Brighton Mall, adjacent to the Work and Income New Zealand office, a range of small businesses and empty shops. Various other organisations utilise this previously vacant lot for their activities and the setting is an alternative community hub of sorts. For this one week, Letting Space have claimed it as a small zone of respite from the financial systems that typically underpin society, facilitating a range of artist projects that endeavor to encompass and integrate other factors influential to an economy, such as happiness, indigenous knowledge or environmental concerns.
The first evening discussion, ‘Optimism without a permit’, failed to articulate much other than that this was a room of committed optimists, and I suppose was a warm up rather than setting of tone for the week. Hope is a beautiful thing, yet unless it is grounded in focused action, critical reflection and addressed to the issues at hand, a Pollyanna attitude is not necessarily constructive.
In contrast to this, the individual artist responses to the TEZA provocation have each developed specific projects with groups in New Brighton. For example, Tim J Veling and David Cook are working with Freeville School to create a new photographic mural; Kerry Ann Lee is putting together a zine; Phil Dadson is establishing a bicycle choir; Kim Paton is building a website for information on waste forecasting; and Mark Harvey is encouraging participants to make spontaneous interventions in the daily activities of strangers on the street. Given the nature of their works, the artists all face the particular difficulties of finding, creating or working with a new community, and must tackle the usual challenges for relational projects that demand flexibility in authorship, a collaborative outcome, and considerable energy to negotiate and engage with people. There is an openness and personal commitment to these small communities though, and as they develop the projects are following a series of threads that reflect the diversity of interests and individuals. The weather has put a dampener on activities, the rain and chill discouraging casual hanging out, but this hasn’t affected the spirits of those involved and there is considerable warmth inside the TEZA tent.
The debate that has arisen on Facebook seems focused on who can, is or should be associated with TEZA, revealing a disjunction between insiders and outsiders, intimates and strangers in relation to this event. Curated by Letting Space, the selection of community engagement projects were accompanied by an open invitation to the public, albeit with a specific focus in mind. However, simply dropping into the TEZA site, either physically or online, is not an especially fruitful way to experience any of the works or the project as a whole. Observing is not enough here, yet to participate requires slowing down – potentially frustrating for those accustomed to a certain way of encountering and spending time with contemporary art, and confusing for those who aren’t.
Instead of an easily digested moment, what TEZA seems to have successfully achieved is meaningful engagement with local organisations like Renew New Brighton and the Positive Directions Trust, acting to provide support, visibility, connection and recognition within a new context. A number of young men from PDT attended the Tuesday lunchtime speaking session, as well as the Labour Party MP Shane Jones. In addition to this, Metiria Turei and some Green party folk were on site in the afternoon, obviously expecting to find either good photo opportunities or a sympathetic audience.
Letting Space are known for their ability to work across disparate institutions and publics, embracing both social activism and visual arts to create projects that rethink how contemporary art can operate in relation to community. The appearance of these political representatives suggests that TEZA has here navigated institutional structures in a way that enabled their concept to be considered seriously beyond the frame of art, as both support and constraint.
With so much still in process, I’m looking forward to seeing the culmination of projects, relationships and talks at the end of the week – potentially a new kind of Saturday trading in action.
 Shannon Jackson, Social Works: performing art, supporting publics, Routledge: New York, 2011, p. 247.