Image: Gabrielle McKone
If an art falls on a community, and nobody recognises it, is it still an art?
Art or Community Service
Reflecting back on my childhood, it pains me now to say that I am from ‘South Auckland’. Not because of any shame or middle-class desire to distant myself from my past, but because it feels like a cliché, as if succeeding in any given industry is somehow more miraculous coming from a certain part of town.
I know that today I am very fortunate to be where I am, happily perched up in my alabaster alcove, my white-walled and glass-encased Director’s office, looking down from my window at the visitors entering our beautiful cultural facility here at Pātaka Art Gallery and Museum in Porirua. That is until this morning, when I heard TV Breakfast show host Paul Henry ask award-winning Titahi Bay opera singer Amelia Berry how she managed to become so successful having come from ‘Porirua’… and once again that same familiar ‘provincial-cringe’ pinches at my side. What is it about labels that makes it so hard to overcome the stigma that accompanies them?
I remember Peter McLeavey, the late legendary Wellington art dealer, speak to me about this once. He recalled a story about two Mongrel Mob members from Porirua who somehow ventured into his Wellington art gallery during the installation of a McCahon exhibition many decades ago. Upon entering the gallery these burly Māori men were instantly taken back, as if somehow repelled from the gallery by an invisible cultural force field. Or perhaps it was more like an economic electric fence, one that delivered culture shocks, striking the heart with a fear of feeling out of place. From this experience McCahon created the infamous ‘Scared, eh boy’ painting, a message that still rings true to me today.
As an insider looking down from my vantage point today, I see a very different cultural dynamic playing out here in Porirua. Today at Pātaka, the wealthy white business men sit comfortably in their suits sipping short blacks, beside a group of leather-bound Blacks happily sipping their flat whites. Boom box wielding youngsters practice their pre-rehearsed freestyle cyphers, shuffling blissfully past John Key’s bodyguards on security detail ahead of the Prime Minister’s breakfast here at Pātaka.
Despite this breaking down of boundaries and barriers, there remains a stubborn, persistent attitude that Porirua is somehow less. Much like ‘South Auckland’, it is not the label ‘Porirua’ that pains me. I’m cool with the label. But I’m more than ready to do away with the baggage and assumptions that accompany it – assumptions that take ‘realistic expectations’ and twist them into a passive aggressive euphemism for ‘knowing your place’.
Porirua is a young, burgeoning city. Close to twenty percent of the community is under the age of twenty-five and our much beloved Mayor and Deputy Mayor are both well under the age of forty. At only fifty years of age, this city is home to the an eclectic mix of culturally and economically diverse communities. Here long-established family homes in Waitangirua and Cannons Creek sit nestled in amongst the newly minted white-cubed subdivisions of Whitby and Grenada North.
While many of the industries upon which this city was founded have long since closed or shifted shop offshore, the new influx of residents and industries beginning to take root here signals a positive revitalisation of the city centre and suburbs. Overall there is a very real sense of a dynamic community with as many strengths as it has problems.
Despite this cultural and economic milieu, the provincial cringe enveloping our locality clings to the label ‘Porirua’ like tissue paper caught in the wash. No matter how many cycles it goes through, the fluff finds a way to linger longer than expected to one’s attire. If you live with the fluff long enough, you learn to pay-it-no-mind.
I’ve been rocking the ‘fluff’ here in Porirua for the past few years, moving between Cannons Creek and Titahi Bay, while earning a living working freelance curatorial projects in Australia and the Pacific Islands. Flying in and out of the Windy City, one of the biggest things that hit me every time I came back home from overseas is the dilapidated state of the Porirua Cobham Court shopping area – an area affectionately referred to as the ‘Canopies’, despite the recent removal of the actual canopies.
Synthetic cannabis hit the area hard a few years ago and the outside mall shopping area took a major dive. Begging for spare change to feed addictions became common place and many shops folded with the decline in cashed-up clientele. We now have a reef of washed up ‘vacant’ stores that ooze with a palpable sense of disheartening dereliction. Visually and emotionally it weighs heavy on the hearts and minds of our community, becoming one of the major points of contention in the neighbourhood over recent years.
The centre is now undergoing a major redevelopment project which local business owners are hoping will encourage higher profile stores and clientele back into the city centre. The assumed aim of this activity is to create an area where the more metropolitan-minded individual will feel more suited to come and partake in some retail therapy, to enjoy a nice coffee or craft beer or two, and enjoy a meal within a boutique-style village atmosphere.
Much like the McCahon situation at McLeavey’s, hopes and anxieties run high on both sides of the economic fence – particularly with the area currently resembling a construction site, suspending store owner anxieties in a state of trepidation around their futures and the future of the area.
In the midst of this maelstrom a stranger strolled into town. Riding abreast their award-winning reputation for complex and innovative urban art projects, this sophisticated stranger strode into the city centre with a gusto that took much of the community by surprise. Letting Space (with their Urban Dream Brokerage service) have brought with them their much-admired philosophy of ‘social-agency’ and ‘anything-can-be-an-art’. In doing so they have managed to stir up some difficult conversations that many stakeholders are either too polite or too politic to discuss on public record.
For the past month I have been absolutely fixated on these outsiders. These lovely Pākehā outsiders, working their magic in and on our community.
I’ve been a fan of Letting Space since first visiting Tao Wells’ Beneficiary’s Office in Wellington, only to be greeted with a sign reading ‘Off to play golf’. The Porirua iteration of the TEZA project, Transitional Economic Zone of Aotearoa, has been a much welcomed, albeit often confusing, chance for our community to come together to talk about our favourite subject, ourselves. Much like a close friend who is too close to your situation, sometimes a friendly stranger is just what is needed to provide some perspective.
Initially claiming the abandoned old McDonald’s building in Cobham Court as their home-base, a building rich in symbolic resonance of a once thriving community centre, an interesting development occurred whereby the intersections between art audiences and community service providers overlapped. Social agency through art and community activation is not a new proposition for art-insiders, however the concept of art-community collaboration fell awkwardly on our community like a club-footed three-legged race. The concept of an art space with no traditionally recognisable ‘art’ took some explanation, with many people calling me directly at my office at Pātaka for a quiet word to explain exactly how this whole Urban Dream Brokerage ‘art-thingie’ actually works.
During the launch of the Porirua Urban Dream Brokerage at Old McD’s, as it is nostalgically known in the community, I witnessed a great turn out from our community. A mix of artists and social agitators, all gathered under the umbrella of TEZA to help make positive change in our community. As great as this sight was, for me there was a real sense that the overarching project was lost on most of those in attendance. Many people I spoke with didn’t understand how this project constituted art. Old chestnut expectations of ‘paintings’ on walls, ‘sculptures’ and weaving loomed large in the minds of those in attendance, many of whom pulled me aside, asking me to explain the project to them. As the conversations revolved around the room it became abundantly clear that most of the people who attended this event were from social service providers, those well-intentioned members of our community offering food, clothing, shelter and financial assistance under the umbrella of charities, social welfare groups and government assistance agencies – with a sprinkling of artists and activists in the mix.
Watching these events unfold, the underlying issue for me initially revolved around a question of whether the community actually recognised this project as an ‘art’, or more simply another avenue for the already abundant social service providers in our community to set up yet another outlet in the city centre.
Most of these groups were known to me through various avenues in my life, mostly outside of the art world, and my initial reaction following the launch was that these groups perceived this project merely as a free rental space, a place where gambling addiction groups, food distribution agents and other well-meaning providers could meet for free to work in the community. I still largely believe this to be true, particularly after an urgent request for more ‘obvious art’ for display purposes appeared in my email-inbox, suggesting a quick response was needed to calm stakeholder and community confusion about exactly where the ‘art’ was.
Following the reincarnation of Old McD’s as a site, the events that followed subsequently failed to really excited the community. Still half confused about the project in general, most of the comments I heard from the wider community were that they had noticed some people shuffling around that still half-empty, still rundown, construction-site-of-a-building. There was an exhibition of a Korean artist in residence and a wearable art show and inhabitation by Te Wananga o Aotearoa, but these too failed to convince the stakeholders and old McD’s closed its doors to Letting Space. There was to be no more TEZing McDonalds.
Currently, the construction taking place in Cobham Court has raised serious concerns from store owners worried that these interruptions will discourage clientele from visiting the area during the Christmas season. Furthermore, there are concerns that the community art activities taking place in some of the newly established TEZA venues are adding to the unrefined, construction-like feel of the area. As great as artist run spaces are, and as great as it is to have people bringing these once vacant spaces back to life, the retailers here desire higher-profile stores to be operating in the area to encourage more business. The community needs the business too, to provide jobs and draw rate payments into the community.
Having spent the past few weeks coming in and out of the various TEZA projects hosted within other now recently-re-inhabited stores, such as Kerry Ann Lee’s project, Porirua People’s Library, Stronger Pacific Families, the Porirua Arts Council, Sharemart and others, a new question has come to mind. Regardless of whether a community actually understands the conceptual premise of a relational/community-activation type project, does that take anything away from the success of the overall project?
The question I now ask is, what measures of success should be applied to this project?
Unlike Wellington, with its skyscrapers and bustling city center, small retailers here in the suburbs make a huge impact on the surrounding areas. If we were to measure the success of TEZA Porirua in terms of individual art projects, then I would have to say that Letting Space have brokered some quaint little projects that have activated small pockets of our community in a pleasant, albeit possibly fleeting, manner. If we were to measure in terms of activation of the wider city centre then the measurements becomes somewhat more complex, ranging from positive reactions from those who are happy just to see the stores re-occupied, through to less-than-impressed store owners who perceive these activations as merely free-loading hippies (I’m not sure whether the concept of ‘hipster’ has quite dawned on our local horizons just yet) getting free rent in run-down stores without generating any real revenue for the centre.
If however, we measured the success of this project in terms of the critical dialogue and self-analysis that the overall project has elicited in our community, then I could not think of any other medium through which such conversations could be better facilitated.
TEZA Porirua has been a subversively powerful force in the community, a stealthy sleeper-project, distilled in plain-view of the community, germinating slowly, a solution brewing questions as it matures.
In the same way that people who make assumptions about Porirua do not quite ‘get it’, similarly just because a community doesn’t quite ‘get’ the concept of an art project, does not mean that it is not a success. While each of these groups are focused on their individual projects, and similarly stakeholders being equally focused on their key economic performance indicators, the real art here is that of Sophie, Mark and the Letting Space team. This is their art. Social agency through community activation and empowerment.
I think we have to stop thinking about Letting Space as curators or art agents, and legitimately consider the Urban Dream Brokerage itself as an art. They have activated our community in a way that no one else could or would have. It is these agitations and the discussions they provoke that make this project so amazing, complex and indeed timely. It has formed a forum through which we can gather and filter our collective thoughts.
At the time of completing this text, I have been again been whisked away to Australia, working on yet another arts project in Meanjin Brisbane, and I was unfortunately unable to attend the recent Kava Club opening with TEZA in another space facilitated by Letting Space’s Urban Dream Brokerage. But even here, three hours flight away from Porirua, I have bumped into a group of Wellingtonians participating in the saVAage Klub project at the Queensland Art Gallery Gallery of Modern Art.
As they mention to me that they were disappointed to miss the Kava Club in Porirua I start to feel lighter, as if some more of the provincial ‘fluff’ had fallen off of my attire, smiling a big smile from South Auckland to Porirua, all the way across to Australia.
Ngā mihi Letting Space. Ngā mihi aroha. Nāku noa nei, Reuben