Writing




In a Riot
of Bubbles1


This essay first appeared in the publication Speaking Places: Hamilton 2015. Originally intended as part of a larger public art project curated by Kim Paton, Speaking Places, the publication reflects on the failure of the public art commission it was originally intended for.

March 2016
The Trevi Fountain is a fountain in the Trevi district of Rome. It is 26 metres high and 49 metres wide and stands as the largest Baroque fountain in the city. The central figure of the fountain is Neptune, god of the sea. His body is muscular, inclining to fatness, his face fierce, yet gentlemanly. He rides a shell-shaped chariot that is pulled by two sea horses, each of which is guided by a Triton. One of the horses is calm and obedient, the other one restive, symbolising the fluctuating tone of the sea. To the right of Neptune is a statue representing Salubrity, and to his left—with a toppled vase at her feet—is Abundance.

I arrive late to the designated spot determined by vague impressions posted a long-haul flight away—when you arrive in Rome we could meet at the Trevi Fountain, it will be after 10pm, the lights will be on—I bet it looks great at night.

If it even has lights—I’m not sure, but ‘fountain’ is filed somewhere alongside brightness and prosperity, smoothness and the centre or the beginning or something. The chances of finding a friend around the fountain with all the water and recycling and hopes and obligations of everyone else who has come to see the light is slight. You are hot from bargain flights and history and it’s a terrible plan, you admit, but at least it’s a nice one.

*****

Kim did a really good job chipping away at the fluoro baked bureaucrats, convincing them that art might look some other way. Of course this is hard to translate, but all the same Matt and I were so swept up in chasing signs around town—really trying out this historical guise—that we forgot who had the money. I have a friend who would always says that there’s already someone who does this for real, you know, looking at the artist-designer-as-whatever trying on their best version of really working. The well dressed provocateur, that’s us—colour blocking, trainer wearing, neat hair, phones—enthused by the man at the library with his two pairs of specs and moderate kindness leading us to the centennial section celebrating 100 years of pākehā invasion.

We collected curious design and versions of history that, when translated a few decades forward mostly read as rednecks with real estate. Filtered through the feelgood lens of full spread design, like our one on the inside said, we were looking at ‘furniture’ to furnish that self fulfilling feeling that the lights are on and it looks good from the road. The narrative peddled the creation, celebration and continuation of national identity so seamlessly that it was hard to read ‘our New Zealand’ as anything else but a given. And, contrary to how brand campaigns like this are predominantly understood, it is not free range, it is not organic; it is a rigorously constructed ideological move, often cited as ‘literary nationalism’, but better described as ‘cultural colonisation’.2

The pākehā who ‘discovered’ New Zealand swiftly captured, transcribed and translated the natural and cultural landscape in order to ‘know’ it, and in turn, possess it. By textualizing, formatting and printing New Zealand outside of traditional histories and landscapes, pakeha forged a standardised and thus more manageable edition.3 Our research did not reflect on a time or place proper but on a heavily prescribed cultural agenda written, designed and printed to authenticate both the known and unknown.

*****

New Zealand is an island, you can’t get far before hitting the side. Hamilton sits somewhere in the middle, at the other end of a road to Auckland, scared of the edge, scared of the mighty river sidling it’s way up the thigh of the city. You’d think it were some kind of monster the way everyone faces some other place; flanked by the ass-end of commercial slabs, provincial buildings, homes; all lethargically looking elsewhere for a prop about farming or having neat streets or the war or rugby or whatever it is that helps middle New Zealand sleep at night.

Water is nice, but unlike a fountain—
a river is harder to control.

*****

Exercises in branding often work to displace other histories, especially if the other is a longer one with an itchy hangover. In Hamilton, this process translates with a panicked feeling: it is urgent, layered, traced. We found various examples of stylised emblems drawn from speculation and maybes being thrown at the city. Slapstick yet banal; symbolic yet scrambled. For example, the fountain is an approximation about a whole lot of things, and for Hamilton, pretty much just an outline of something ‘good’. It is a minimal icon with a built-in history; relocated and recoated, apprehended as the optimum way to feel something.

*****

Identity has been making a lot of noise lately, but of course it’s because the most familiar thing remains ‘belonging’ in one way or another. The fountain, that fountain, is still just a fountain; an unending tumbling, a history, search history, failed history; moving, flowing, punctuating that last low-slung kilometer or that square stretching every-which-way toward nothing. The fountain is fixing up the doorway to the civic / civil / civilisation with movement and progress, ambition and promise—all offered up as a sprinkling respite from the horrors of life as a human. But, what can a monument contribute when everyone else is trying to stand up, stand together and stand out, too? Especially when you can hear the echo that the money would be better spent on roads, footpaths or drainage; shoes, socks, chinos, chardonnay; further attempts to tame the wild; trout, sparrows, farms, gorse, all surviving and multiplying; gently seared both sides and settled to rest in a new world photocopied from a good stage or at least the same page of another society just left.

I suppose everyone’s just trying as hard as they can to keep it together, remember the right order for what’s important, take a seat, have a snack, eating and seating in the appropriate space designated for the above. The hope was that with our art someone might have lunch in the right spot, but because our art was filled with jibber jabbering, takeaways and throwaways it might be too confusing to have a coffee under. Were we fighting the good fight for art with ‘soul’? Were we fighting the good fight for that which has been overlooked and underrepresented in previous bouts for ‘identity’? Are we fighting no fight and continuing in the process of cultural colonisation?

I later read that Hamilton had decided to install two works of art to commemorate horses who fell over in the war. Poor horse, poor Hamilton. Let’s hope for Salubrity and Abundance. I guess the fear is that we might lose if the loudest voice gives up and lets the cracks fill with weeds—or worse still—lets us have a crack. But, so long as there’s enough reminders of the right way, your way, we’ll have a marker, a winner, identity the size of New Zealand, tumbling, like water, over the smooth lines of... Outdoor seating? The front page?

The miracle of plumbing...
and recycled water.

__

1    ‘In a riot of bubbles, river water is made pure for you’ in The Waikato Times: Hamilton centenary issue, 24 August, 1964.
2    Gibbons, P. 2002. “Cultural Colonization and National Identity”. NEW ZEALAND JOURNAL OF HISTORY. 36: 14.
3   Ibid.


Feel Good Success in the Transitional City


Founded in 2012, Dog Park Art Project Space was an artist-run space located in the industrial area of Waltham, Christchurch. For two years directors Chloe Geoghegan and Ella Sutherland worked with local, national and international practitioners to develop a monthly programme of exhibitions. While the space was initiated at a time when very few arts institutions were in regular operation and the focus of creative projects in the city shifted toward a more transitional approach, Dog Park worked to remain consistent with and connected to other gallery-based organisations outside of Christchurch.

This paper was first presented at the conference Curating Under Pressure, The University of Canterbury(November 2015), in association with the Goethe-Institute. This iteration was published as part of Assay/Essay, publication looking at artist-run spaces in Aotearoa New Zealand.

November 2015

Building with
the Ghost Bitch


This text first appeared in Work-book, a book published on the occasion of the exhibition S/F at The Physics Room. Work-book brings together diverse responses to the idea of temporary structures with the specific intent of promoting critical research and experimental forays between the fields of art, design and architecture.

May 2013
The criminals and the liars and the drunks and the thieves were the same as the good and the moral and the organic and the brave. How strange it was to have all of that difference leveled by just one moment with the ghost bitch. While everybody met their neighbors and we felt real and we felt bigger than life and our bodies and structure and matter, for the very first time we all really wondered about the shape of things to come.

No one could articulate what it would be like until it happened, but what we are experiencing now is the slow seeping sadness of the death of the commons. Routine is manufactured with utmost innovation and novelty yet cohesion is thwarted by the loss of what makes nowhere somewhere; a commonality and consistency that makes a place a place. The novel experience cannot compete with the indeterminate hum of the comings and goings of the city, for it is here, with the in-between and the unseen that the kingdom of belonging lies.

The networks of initiatives being inscribed over the city, while buoyant and hopeful, are beginning to short circuit. The temporary in this case is a voice and nothing more. It is what is distributed over dinner and in the paper and on the waves yet the divide between the voice of the city and the voices in the city is impossibly vast. There is a failure to recognize ourselves in this call as it acts in accordance with what it thinks it should be doing as opposed to what it needs. The transitional may sound bright and balanced but I wonder if we can actually hear it.

Constantly we talk about solutions to these problems but no amount of sparky ideas can fix what lacks. This is because the only solution is time and utilization; it is only through the gentle movement of people eroding space that we will be left with a place to be in. The shape of things to come cannot be demolished or rebuilt or organized or discussed because it is invisible. Of course, the practical issues are far and wide and deep and complicated and governed by all sorts of powers, but all of those leaners in windows and cars and bars and streets are not a product of liner decision-making. What makes nowhere somewhere cannot be decided by community powers, local powers or national powers because it is that which grows in the cracks.

While there may be a lot of people listening in their lounge rooms thinking “what a nice voice it is” if we really listen – is the temporary voice a voice worth listening to? Hopefully, if we think hard enough the problems and the products will align and we will find room in the pool of reality made strange by the voices of the city. But for now, we will continue to live the linear life moving from novelty to novelty, from space to space, all permeated with the heavy resonance of one moment with the ghost bitch.

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