What Are We Worth?
When I was a kid my parents used to take me on Christian beach missions. We’d show up in a small beach town, pitch our tents and try and evangelise to all the holidaying families through rock music, puppet shows and bible crafts. When I first got to the TEZA site I was faintly reminded of these missions – from the tents to the New Brighton beach, to the desire expressed in many of the TEZA projects of connecting with local people. The art writer, Claire Bishop[i] has been relatively critical of some social/relational art, suggesting that in certain circumstances the artist or curator can come across a little like a patronizing cultural elitist fueled by the self-belief that their particular project is a worthwhile intervention in a certain community. So in other words – they can act a bit like a Christian evangelist.
In reflecting on these kinds of criticisms a friend and I have been having ongoing discussions about how we should think through the effects of social art practices. Not in an aesthetic art school sense (because neither of us have a fine arts background), but more in a social usefulness kind of way. We have been wondering about how you understand, or even try and trace the effects of participatory social art projects like TEZA that blur conventional distinctions between ‘art’ and ‘community’. But the very nature of most social art projects (including those of TEZA) often makes this tricky. Unless you are doing constant, tedious surveys of participants and the ‘community’, how would you ever know? And increasingly I wonder whether such questions around effect and impact reflect two other interrelated issues. Firstly, the wider audit and evaluation culture enshrined through neoliberal discourses tied up with funding criteria. And secondly, whether these questions are actually more about justifying our own anxieties around the usefulness of this kind of work in wider society.
On the Letting Space Facebook page there have been questions and discussions asking for clarification around what TEZA actually is, and what it is trying to do. There have been concerns raised that TEZA is locating itself in a community already stretched from the recent earthquakes, in a suburb suffering from two decades of socio-economic decline and dis-investment. I’m not really sure how to address these complex ethical and material questions in such a limited word count. So instead in what follows I focus on some interactions I participated in which illustrate what I believe to be the strengths of some of TEZA’s projects.
During a session on Thursday evening, artist Kerry Ann Lee held a discussion on ‘how to make art and media together’. Kerry Ann’s project for TEZA involves creating a Zine using a mixed methods qualitative research approach with local New Brighton people and others. She posed a number of questions in her session – but what interested me most was her question about what people wanted for New Brighton. One woman suggested that even having such a conversation was difficult. Yet people talked about a whole range of issues, from generational disputes between different New Brighton community groups, rebuilding issues associated with new flood planning restrictions (linked to climate change predictions), to what to do with grey silt in one’s backyard. One person mentioned a radio host who had suggested ‘putting a bomb under New Brighton’. This woman described how she ended up engaging with the radio station over this and they have asked her in for an interview. Like people, places also get demonised and hated on, yet here was a space where people were expressing their commitment to New Brighton and telling a different story. What struck me about this conversation were the ways in which people talked about the need for a new place story for New Brighton that exceeded anything too specific or fixed. A place story that went beyond the historical narrative of consumption and weekend shopping and exceeded the somewhat classed nature of east Christchurch versus west. For some in the session it seemed important to just state: ‘New Brighton will never go away’. Or in other words, we will endure and not be annihilated.
In another session entitled ‘what are you worth?’ a range of artists including Mark Harvey, Ryan Reynolds and Kerry Ann Lee spoke relatively personally about the ways more dominant societal discourses devalue their labour as artists and how they negotiate this. This session provoked discussion around how certain forms of labour are valued more than others and how alternative exchange systems like time banks can work in practice.
Unlike more formal political processes and conventional community meetings which tend to prioritise achieving measurable outcomes or actions, most of what I participated in at TEZA was not really about creating products or outcomes (although some projects definitely produced specific art-objects). Rather, the projects appeared to be as much about the process as anything. The process of being in a certain place with others, listening to artists talk about their work, and hearing about people’s hopes for, and frustrations about the places they value. Given the current political climate in Christchurch and wider Aotearoa New Zealand which has been characterized by a distinct lack of listening from politicians, I would suggest that these listening spaces facilitated through TEZA are perhaps more significant than they might first appear.
As a cultural geographer it was fascinating to see some of my discipline’s key concerns around identity and place playing out through Kerry Ann’s project and others. Yet I was also somewhat uneasy, knowing that for some New Brighton people still living in quake damaged homes and battling EQC for payouts, such discussions might seem insubstantial. However I am also mindful that the need to reflect on one’s frustrations, losses and hopes and to have these witnessed by others, can also be incredibly important. The democratic spaces I participated in and observed at TEZA were so much more open-ended than any of the beach missions I went on as a kid. And for this reason I would suggest that many of the projects managed to avoid the evangelistic overtones that writers like Claire Bishop are so critical of.
[i] Bishop, C. (2004) ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’, October 110, Fall, pp. 51-79.