TEZA 2015, Transmission

Response #4: Murdoch Stephens

Image: Jung Shim Krefft

I am friends with more Transitional Economic Zone of Aotearoa (TEZA) participants than not. A day in the life was more catching up with old pals than digesting new ones. It feels rude to not nod their way, but there are just so many of them to list here. This reflection is not going to be about what happened in the space on that day, but more about the atmosphere surrounding TEZA, especially in the other, air-conditioned, climate controlled parts of Porirua.

I joked with the TEZA crew on Tuesday about my scathing/scything critique-to-come. But I have no blade to apply to this project. As with a number of contemporary thinkers I want to liberate ‘criticality’ from the idea of casting judgment. Being critical might imply negativity but doing critique is a whole other thing.

Doing critique is woven into the way Mark, Sophie and the Letting Space crew have constructed TEZA. These people are not dupes who we can deploy our critique against, as if flicking on a light and welcoming them to some new understanding. Those involved with TEZA are the first to ask the critical questions: who is the art work for? What’s the role of class, race and space within the project? The TEZA crew have embarked on this project not in spite of these difficult questions but because of them: they want to participate in these discussions and don’t mind being the flint on which others’ critical knives are sharpened.

TRANSITIONAL

Out of some space. Around the corner. Over the seam. Nibbling at the edges. To something more like home.

Climate change is the big big big transition. A super-wicked problem. You think that wearing sunscreen in summer is a drag? Wait for this new mess: floods, hurricanes, storms. Water tables a-risin’.

I’m not a collapsitarian. I think we’ll mostly all survive. It’ll be one catastrophe after another. Always transitioning. No apocalypse. Crisis, crisis, softly, softly, slowly, slowly. Water tables a-risin’.

Retail spaces are being gutted and this is not going to change. Our city landscapes are fundamentally changing and there are going to be plenty of losers. These losers will be those who don’t understand the new sensitivities of the economic zones of our urban centres. We saw it in the 1980s with the expansion of the mall – every product was available in one place. The Warehouse did to small NZ retailers as Walmart did to the Mom & Pop stores of America.

The big businesses – the Warehouses and Walmarts – have survived the transition to the digital age. But only just. They offer their wares online, but it may be too little too late. TradeMe and other nimble online retailers from abroad have captured significant market shares. Online sales will expand and expand, the big box stores wont last.

When I read Reuben Friend’s analysis of the shop and business owners of Porirua’s wariness of TEZA, I read of a group of people who could feel the steady decline in the value of their assets, who had no idea about what they could do to halt it. In times like that – as the boat is sinking – we cling onto what ever seems the most stable. For those with a stake in retail property this stable thing is a phantom: the idea that the ‘downturn’ is temporary. That all it takes is a little extra effort from real estate agents and vacant commercial spaces will be filled with long-term tenants.

We’ve seen this in Wellington too, where retail is on the way out and service organisations are taking over. If a new store is to open in the CBD odds are that it’ll be there to provide food or drink.

I’ve been involved in running a community art space in central Wellington for three and a half years, in a space that all that time has remained open to be rented. Commercial clients who come in and want to rent the space almost exclusively want to set up a café or some sort of restaurant. With earthquake strengthening due, there has only been one really serious inquiry in all the years of our occupation. It is in spaces like this that the TEZA crew have honed what it means to produce good city atmospheres.

ECONOMIC

Retailers hate the Porirua climate. They want to welcome shoppers, not have them harried by wind and rain. They want doors wide open. But they don’t want leaves blowing in.

They have seen the big boxes offering total climate control. But now virtual, www space outsources the climate control. Shop from the comfort of your own home. A rainy weekend is optimal the perfect time for online sales. Sunday evening is the optimal end time for the TradeMe Auction.

TEZA emerged as a concept in 2012 based on a parody of the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) where the laws of a country are limited in a prescribed area so that business may thrive. The most formal SEZs tend to be manufacturing zones near export hubs where taxes aren’t paid and unions aren’t welcome. But there are many other forms of less formal SEZs – consider the Duty Free section of the airport, where consumers pay no tax on tobacco and alcohol.

ZONE

Porirua has North City. It is where the people are. There are scents – baking bread, perfume and disinfectant – and there is soft lighting. There’s no wind and you can park free for 240 minutes. They’re tender guests: no gang patches, no skateboarding, no photography and no list of these laws – if you don’t know how to behave you’re not welcome. It is the perfect site for those who play by unspoken rules.

Few come out onto the bricks of Cobham Court where the Porirua City Council have tried to make the atmosphere lighter by taking away the canopies. Now it is lighter but also windy. It would be safer to take the car.

Once upon a time there were city-states; fortifications. These became nation-states, built on wonky unity work (some islands are exceptions) and blurry boundaries. In each of these types of states there have been different exclusions, different ways to protect the common air. If climate change does indeed make an enemy of the atmosphere, then new fortifications will be needed. North City is a model of this kind of climate control.

But TEZA is nothing at all like a SEZ. It is a parody of those sites of privilege and exclusivity. TEZA is more like the Temporary Autonomous Zones (TAZ) chronicled in Hakim Bey’s book T.A.Z. where he offers a history of ‘pirate utopias’ – small, temporary enclaves that attempt to claim and use a space for a small period of time. As Bey writes, “The TAZ is like an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it”.

For TEZA there’s no such feeling of being about to be crushed: access to the empty, shopping spaces has been negotiated for a limited period of time; the liberation in question is a gift from those who own the buildings; the guerrilla operation is the benign promise of Art.

Some shop owners understand that they are in the business of creating atmospheres – they welcome attempts to lively up the space. But others are like those libertarians who want nothing to do with collective living, imagining their responsibility ends at the front door.

TEZA does not have the technology or resources of North City. Would it be better for it? Or is there something necessarily windswept and wastrel about the project?

of AOTEAROA

By count of open doors to the atmosphere TEZA wins out over the enclosed, planned space of North City. I couldn’t even find my way out of North City – exits are bad for business, threatening to atmospheres of contentment.

If North City is the air-conditioned, domesticated future city-state then TEZA has set up in the wastelands of those banished from the city. Not everyone fits into the curated pseudo-commons of the mall.

Outside the mall are buildings that are depreciating in value. I counted five ‘dollar shops’ though a few were closed, signs left up like omens warning of quicksand: GOOD 2 U, CATCH A BARGAIN, DA DEALS, THE MIGHTY $ SHOP, 123 MART. There are some food stores, some barbers, Instant Finance.

It might not seem like a big deal to walk to these dim hutches outside North City, to navigate the wind and sun. But know that those inside North City do not want it. There are few exits – quite literally – to the North City. We can take the escalator up and down, we can walk around the building’s gentle curves. But search for an exit and you’ll soon find yourself lost. The building whispers, “why leave, why leave?” It is right: the atmosphere inside is just right.

Soft, seductive, sleepy: “Blessed are the sleepy ones for they shall soon drop off”.

When I do find the exit, I’m on the opposite side of where I thought I was. I walk down car ramps, traverse empty streets, am once more aware of the elements on my skin. Cruel exile! Oh to be back in the food court.

Well, we of the thick skin might be of the mind to say ‘its not so bad outside’ but most of the population are a long way from wanting a life that is not so bad. North City doesn’t advertise that. They advertise the best of all possible worlds.

We’re becoming accustomed to curated atmospheres. Sloterdijk asks us to think of the rules of the human zoo. Climate control will be the applied science of the 21st century. Domestication and house training await.

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