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.