TEZA 2013, Transmission

#5 Respondent: Ali Bramwell – Love and criticality

Sophie Jerram and Mark Amery emailed me just over a week ago and invited me to observe and respond in writing. The first thing I did was read “On the birth of TEZA” by Richard Meros. Analytically I found the text to be full of unconscious essentialisms and somewhat ideologically breathless. I wondered if this would mean that those qualities would be present in the event itself.

For various personal reasons I wasn’t able to attend the whole event period, which would have been my preference, so I did my best to feel my way into the zeitgeist of the event via TEZA Transmissions. Because other responders have spoken variously about the meta concerns around the project – about specific projects and the incredible atmosphere of warmth – I’ve decided to focus on recording some of the discursive and communicative moments.

I was present for three of the Creative Summit evening meetings and each had their distinct atmosphere and function. It is often overlooked how group chemistry alters a conversational dynamic, but this process was clear. The conversations, presided over by the very able and mature facilitation skills of Richard Bartlett, with the TEZA crew and their increasing familial bond and a core group of local producers – surprisingly, consistently loyal participants (with all the time and energy commitment that requires) – were punctuated by the different perspectives of various visiting experts (who often didn’t stay very long onsite). In the last meeting on Sunday Mark Amery spoke about how for him there were two parallel processes going on all week, one that was intellectual and the other emotional. I’m not sure that these two things are ever entirely separable and nor is it necessary to do so, however this observation opens a key area of dialogue that occurred.

The Creative Summit on Friday evening was interrogating the notion of Occupation. There was little actual facilitated discussion as the time was used in slightly longer presentations from the five guest speakers. However, there was value in the histories presented, and the points raised were picked up in pockets of individual conversation afterwards, in and around the lightworks over a last cup of tea. The value of the presentations was also in the way they framed some shared discursive territory for a much richer discussion that occured the following evening.

Tim Barlow spoke about the ethics, theoretical concerns and negotiations underpinning how the physical architecture of the TEZA site was developed in relationship to honouring previous histories and local kaupapa. While introducing their project Kaihaukai, a facilitation of the re-occupation of Ngai Tahu spaces due to be staged the following day, Simon Kaan and Ron Bull Jnr each skillfully picked up and responded to several threads Barlow raised. They discussed Marae architectures as warm and living social structures built from what is already existant, and of an inherent connectivity built through shared stories and histories wider than definitions based on traceable geneologies. Richard Bartlett spoke about the history of the Occupation movement (including international protest movements named in other ways) and spoke with quietly persuasive passion and conviction about his own transformative experience shifting from observer to active participant. He spoke in terms of re-emerging realities, positing alternatives by example, gentleness and optimism in the face of monolithic and resistant forces.

The final presentation of the evening was a thoughtfully structured presentation by Barnaby Bennett, framed as “Loving your Transitional Monsters”. Bennett positioned TEZA as the most recent iteration of a two year old history of transitional projects in Christchurch, although his focus was largely on examining the meta dynamics between the governmental modes of radical restructuring and a generally more conservative (with a small c) ameliorative mode used by the very large range of temporary occupations and community expressions. Bennett made a provocative and interesting observation that the contemporary art community in Christchurch was failing to adapt and were collectively showing signs of professional malaise or even irrelevence in the face of the post-quake environment, a point that he then retreated from, unwilling or perhaps not yet able to elaborate a partly formed thought and commit to any concrete criticism of specific examples and excusing himself (somewhat disingenuously) as a non-art expert. It is a conversation that would have been productive to pursue.

Saturday was packed full, because of simultaneous activity happening at the mall and in Victoria Square in the CBD. I found myself split. My desire to visit Kaihaukai won out and the practicalities of busing into town robbed me of more than an hour and mean’t that I entirely missed The Freeville Project launch at New Brighton market – which was anecdotally an inspiring and moving event. I regret that. I do not however regret the time spent on the river bank with a gently self organising group all contributing in their own comfort zones to the (unpermitted) reclaimation of Ngai Tahu spaces. Kaan and Bull’s vision for mutual exchange was fully realised in an unforced way: beautifully prepared South Island kai moana for creative labour and or a donation of non perishable goods destined for a New Brighton food bank.

Gradon Diprose made a comment on his Transmission that anticipated one of the strongly emergent threads of discussion that developed in the summit on Saturday evening: how the languages of funding work to create institutional disparities of value for community focussed projects as opposed to Proper Art (irony alert). Warren Feeney opened with some reflections on the theoretical histories that contribute to the persistently un-useful duality of High Art versus Populism. In the process he nearly made himself the physical embodiment of a vague Straw Man representative of the Intellectually-Defensive-Elitist-High-Art-Canon-Funding-Hogging-Bastards, attracting passionate rebuttals to things that he neither said nor intended. A trigger phrase for me in particular was the definition of populism as generating short-term pleasure and gratification without challenging the audience, something that is often poorly generically and uncritically conflated with participatory practices (nevertheless a conflation that Feeney did not make). His contribution was valuable and necessary, providing an engaged and educated perspective on local funding structures and their evolving rationales that would have otherwise have been missing.

The discussion was frequently heated with a passion and exhaustion underpinning much of what was said, perhaps inevitable nearing the end of a week requiring an unsustainable amount of attentiveness and emotional/ intellectual/practical output from all of the facilitators; a micro example of the normal professional realities for community producers. It is well known phenomena that burnout of key individuals is the plague of all community groups across the board, threatening the continuity of all long-term projects. The current National government’s unsustainable leveraging of volunteer labour and charitable groups to pick up the slack in community care in a more general sense is, or in my view should be, part of the broader contextual conversation.

Richard Bartlett,with a light but effective hand and a stroke of brilliance turned the conversation. It was threatening to become a producers’ lament fest at the inherent unfairness of suits (aka: THEM) who consistently fail to understand the value of their altruistic sacrifice and potentially unwarranted cars (cars without warrants being a placeholder for financial insufficiency that already has a unacknowledged blindspot, assuming as it does that people have cars). He turned it back to the core value system of the project as a whole: the New Brighton community. All of the locals (defined as people who resided or invested time into New Brighton) present spoke in turn, introducing their various roles, investments, losses and experiences in their community. The humility, honesty, indomitability and quiet fortitude expressed was genuinely a humbling and moving experience.

During this entire conversation a drummers’ circle had occupied Te Ao Marama nearby, so the intensity of the conversation was against a soundtrack and backdrop of a handover that was already in progress, foreshadowing the moment of TEZA leaving and the New Brighton creative quarter reverting to its next iteration.

Sunday was a gentler affair. In the morning the artists were quieter and spent and the mood reflective. Bags were already packed and departure times discussed while the new BBQ was assembled for the launch of Kerry Anne Lee and Kim Lowe’s epic labour producing Alternating Currents: New Brighton, self-described as an open-sourced collaborative zine. Lee didnt sleep the night before. Impressively none of this showed when she addressed the packed tent of people who arrived. Another example of the hidden and often debilitating donation of labour in community projects.

The last creative summit “Putting the New in New Brighton” completed the handover process. There were very few present who did not speak. The conversation was occasionally tearful and often moving, but also concrete. By explicit design the presenters were all local producers. While I was not present at the beginning of the project, I’m willing to suggest that it was a conversation that would not have been possible at the beginning of the week. The room was full of the active cultural producers of New Brighton, those with institutional affiliations and those without, and everyone now knew each others names. This fact alone speaks to the range that TEZA accomplished in its goal to be effective and establish a genuine reach, as an human expression of lasting warmth and as a project with both agency and critical traction.

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6 thoughts on “#5 Respondent: Ali Bramwell – Love and criticality

  1. HI Ali – great to see so much interest in your response on Facebook. Just here, I’m curious about resolving the question you pose at the start of your piece – that the event might contain “unconscious essentialisms and (would be) somewhat ideologically breathless.” Was it? Did it? Given we’re so close to the event as we were to talking to Richard Meros when he wrote the essay it’s really hard to tell. I’m keen to know I’m also wondering if you can identify what you mean by “unconscious essentialisms?” Thanks in advance Sophie

    • Ali Bramwell says:

      What did I mean by unconscious essentialisms… essentialist positions may be adopted tactically, they may be incompletely examined foundational starting points, or they may be contributing to foundational thinking that is so fundamental a normative assumption for the speaker that the position has become in effect invisible to them. The same way we are usually not analytically conscious of gravity or breathing.

      Yes, in relation to TEZA as it actually existed (as opposed to TEZA as it was imagined) it is an unresolved question. I need time to consider it more fully, I too have become too close to it. My normative assumptions are part of the whole also now. But I think nevertheless its an important thing to consider carefully. As a question it could be considered provocative, or it could be considered hopeful. I think it is both of these things because its a question that can only be tackled together, ie through continued conversation as a wider group of peers.

      I think it inevitable that the answer would be yes TEZA carried a mass of assumptions of that kind, for individual actors within it. One person speaking will show the scaffolding of their thinking in a way that may be questioned, unless those baselines are shared by the listeners. But here is where diversity of perspective is key. I am generally optimistic about our ability to question each other. I was not always optimistic, in a moment to moment sense, about our ability to question each other during TEZA, but this was a shifting social chemistry that needed a time commitment because the longer I stayed the more likely I was to find moments where this dynamic was usefully functional, or so it appeared to me.

      The structure of my text, as an attempt to present some of the specifics of discussion had, positions taken and statements made is my partial contribution to the answer. What was suppressed? What was uncritically accepted? What was the shared ideological territory and was it sound?

  2. This is great stuff Ali in terms of looking back and thinking ahead. I’m interested in how we can explore discussion structures further that allow us to ‘question each other’ and be more critical, with love. I was pleased by what was constantly opened up by the discussions, and its great to see that lead to discussion after the fact, but its interesting to consider how these fora might be further guided.
    I think we put Richard Meros in an unenviable position as solo rather than collective advance guard chronicler. I applaud his guts. Whilst he wasn’t with us during the week he – like others who were there has had to stick the neck up above the parapet and take one for the group. I think we all did this in some way.
    We published the piece because it remains full of strong observations on the kaupapa and unique make-up of the group that demonstrate how it has evolved over a substantial period of time. To me, to be clear, the essentialisms are TEZAs rather than Meros’s. He acted as chronicler.
    Our wish to assert a position and tent peg out an area ahead of activity – and I think we were all aware of the flaws and problematic that come with that. We would have been safer not to – but I’m not sure thats as interesting a route.

    • Ali Bramwell says:

      I also acknowledge what I see as a ‘writing to find out’ kind of exploratory and questioning quality in Meros text, so your comment about this being a record and perhaps synthesis of an ongoing group discussion is an important one when reading it. I agree that it shows some thoughtful self reflexivity, key process and ethical questions are opened by it. As such it would be a waste of those generative starting points if we didn’t now revisit, with a view to further testing some possible best practice scenarios.

      I did consider engaging more directly with the text in the space above but ultimately decided not to, only indicated in a general way that may be some things there we should talk more about. At that moment of committing myself (putting my own head up for shooting), I felt that that starting to be concrete about what was being generated in the project itself was a more productive strategy to move the conversation onwards. ie a methodology of thinking about the praxis in a concrete and specific way while also re-evaluating the motivations and tactics of engagement. Flaws are inevitable, its what you do next that defines the ongoing legacy of those flaws. (Acknowledging nod to Tim Barlow and the legitimacy/legacy conversation that he started, another important conversation).

      As soon as you say anything at all in writing (as all writers know full well) you leave your words lying on the table for others to react respond and argue. This is a good thing. I see it as always a compliment if somebody does take the time to read and think and respond, especially when they have something constructive to add rather than creating a cloud of congratulatory agreement (a point Tao Wells made online that I strongly agree with). and yes, absolutely with love. This is the spirit with which I engage with other peoples words. Im interested because it matters.

  3. Tim Barlow says:

    I appreciated meeting Ali Bramwell during TEZA, what a strong mind and great thoughts!
    I’m still reading the Ali comments, and I see them as the best of the week.
    I see the flaws and tactics of engagement as critical to how I spent my time in New Brighton.
    I attempted to engage with the PDT boys and the Creative Quartive site, over a couple of weeks!

    I think I can give total respect to Ali and I’m still trying to get back to earth in the Nui!

    Tim

  4. Tim Barlow says:

    I also think there is a great deal more to process about TEZA that hasn’t been discussed. Perhaps this will unfold over the next few weeks and months.

    One aspect I would like to raise is I didn’t set out solely to raise a lot of problems. That horrible over-used art word ‘problematising’, as if there is something intrinsically beneficial in ‘complicating’ our relationships with others. This also reveals the disconnect that often arises from art discourse and the practice it attempts to discuss.

    I see the inherent complications raised by ‘dropping in’ to work with a temporary created community as a problem to address at the start of the project and then seek to address. This is not to say the problems have been surmounted or resolved by the end of the project, how could they be? But I do think it is important from my perspective to initially create some criteria from the outset about the ‘tactics of engagement’ that can be potentially addressed during the course of engagement.

    So for me I addressed two key problems:
    could the TEZA site re-create, or even rebuild, the vision of the Creative quarter site. The Creative Quarter was already a ‘complicated’ site in the community. It was a focal point for local issues as public parks/sites often become.(and here I paraphrase local comments) Glue-sniffers and youth drinkers used the site at nights, it was an eyesore that looked like shit, it had fallen into disrepair, it was at the end of its life-cycle about to move to a new site, it was the centre of a spectacular revival in community mural projects in New Brighton, and so on.

    So after conversations with Renew Brighton, New Brighton project, PDT and others involved in creating the vision for the Creative quarter, we (Te Urutahi, Kura, Bec, Phil, Letting Space and I) tried to design a site sympathetic to the original vision. So Te Ao Marama replaced the stolen marquee over the stage. The meeting room and host marquees, even temporarily, became the two last structures that had been planned for the site yet never built as funding didn’t eventuate. I also tried to be sympathetic to the ‘glue-sniffers’, I re-walled the existing gazebo to provide privacy where I saw it was necessary. I will leave it up to others to determine if a temporary realisation of community visions and imagination is a worthy pursuit, but I think TEZA successfully achieved the re-creation of the Creative Quarter..

    The second criteria I established was to engage meaningfully with a community partner to build the site. Renew Brighton and PDT (Positive Directions Trust) were the partners. Admittedly ,this is a politically frought zone to work in. So much so, as has often been observed in recent years, that due to negative criticality artists just avoid working with other people, groups etc. To sum this up it is assumed that if an artist works outside their garret they will be exploiting someone/group. This is another debate, but Universities and their ethics committees are as responsible for this line of reasoning as are ego-centric artists. I approached this problem by making sure the PDT boys were being paid for their work, and some of them embraced the extra hours pay, attempting to provide creative projects for PDT to engage with (the design of the entranceway and gazebo) and perhaps most importantly a genuine enjoyment on my own behalf in the learning, fun and conversations we had in building the site. With the conversations I had with the PDT boys they derived as much satisfaction and meaningful engagement with various communities as I did.

    I think it is important for artists who undertake these kind of projects to be clear on their criteria and politics of engagement with communities. This is not something to be ‘problematised’ or ‘complicated’ at the critical end, but something to be worked through the process of the engagement.

    Tim

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