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Transformative Practice and Open Gestures

Common Ground Public Art Festival: Groundwater 2017

Bruce E. Phillips

The willow trees blur and the rocks morph as I glance fleetingly at the river from my car window. The Hutt River near Wellington appears little more than a passive channel that divides State Highway 2 from suburbia. But what do I know. I have never lived in its vicinity. I have never walked along its banks or floated on its surface. Nor have I ever pondered about its existence. My perception of the river has been entirely mediated through the window of a vehicle hurtling down the road.

For someone with a more specialised understanding, like a hydrogeologist, the Hutt River is the visible veneer of an immense cyclic distribution system of water, earth, biological life and human infrastructures.[1] A historian or kaitiaki could add further insight, explaining that the Hutt River has numerous names including Te Awakairangi, Te Wai o Orutu and Heretaunga — names that reflect the changing Māori presence in the area due to war and colonisation.

The vast gap in perception, between my naivety and someone with an expert understanding, is symptomatic of how modernity and urbanisation have ideologically and physically separated many of our population from the natural environment. As the ecological implications of our modern lives catch up with us it is becoming increasingly important to understand these vast environmental systems.

This is the main motivation that drove Groundwater, the theme of the 2017 edition of the Common Ground Hutt Public Art Festival. It utilised the fast evolving discipline of contemporary art to help the public engage with, better understand and value the region’s waterways, above and underground. Hutt City Council initiated Common Ground in 2015, and to curate this second iteration they invited the organisation Letting Space, who took on the challenge of uniting artists, communities, iwi, schools, scientists, and public officials.

Letting Space chose to focus on commissioning five main works by artists, with a further nine projects coming from an open public call. These linked together through a hub created by Letting Space. 76 events took place over eight days in late February to early March 2017. All drew on various aspects of scientific method, baskets of indigenous knowledge and social history to highlight ecological problems effecting fresh water.

While nobly motivated, Common Ground’s ambitious aim and busy programme automatically raises many questions: is the curatorial approach of the temporal ‘parachute’ type event the best platform from which to achieve quality public engagement? Can art truly be an effective tool for increasing public awareness of other disciplines? Doesn’t this reduce art to having a didactic role by being an aesthetic hand puppet for scientists? Or, alternatively, if an artwork is largely poetic and abstract, confounding rather than clearly communicating, will it fail to create socio-political change? These questions are at the heart of many debates that have raged within the art world about the ethics of curatorial practice and socially-engaged art.

This essay aims to address these longstanding questions that inadvertently taunt the curatorial conceit of Common Ground and also the artworks that were so earnestly created with the desire to enable social change.

Unscripted and negotiable

I rest under the arms of a great tree that drinks from the nearby Waiwhetu stream. As I sit here a calm but solemn voice talks to me from above. It is the voice of local kaumatua Teri Puketapu and it accompanies an intriguing video work by artist Johanna Mechen.

Puketapu begins his whaikorero by drawing a parallel between the Māori concept of mauri and atoms before going on to discuss the history of the people, the Waiwhetu stream and the aquifer that they once drank from prior to being forced to connect to the town water supply. He states that the stream was once a great source of kai for local Māori, abundant with eels, freshwater crayfish, mussels and watercress, but now it is a fettered watercourse that has a sad history of pollution.

Mechen’s imagery contributes abstract contemplation as Puketapu speaks — mist clinging to the bush in nearby hills, nebulous light refracting off the stream, moisture seeping through sand and footage of water being tested and dated in a laboratory environment. Puketapu clarifies that the iwi is required to regularly test the purification standards of their one remaining artesian bore that taps into the Waiwhetu aquifer. He explains further that there are two types of water in Māoridom, Wai Maori the life-giving water and Waimate, spiritless water. It is a great sadness that what was once a sacred life-giving stream is now dead water.

Puketapu’s words and Mechen’s imagery swirl around my mind as I leave the video to participate in an associated performance as part of Wai-rua, Wairua — a walking tour of the stream by artists Angela Kilford and Aliyah Winter. The artists led me and about fifteen other visitors through a type of ecological whakapapa of the stream. They share a chart that illustrates ecological systems mixed with Māori mythologies to show how humans are tethered to the environment in a complex non-hierarchical way.

As I gaze at the chart, I find it indecipherable to my Pākeha mind and I am embarrassingly made very aware of my lack of knowledge of the area, of Te Atiawa’s history and my comprehension of Māori concepts in general. I am an outsider to this site and to the people that live here. I have dropped into to this place for an art event and I will probably never return. I am the cliché of the privileged middle-class art educated professional, parachuting in on a foreign context to feel like I am contributing to some good or, at worse, to be cathartically affected by other people’s misfortune.

This problem of the parachute art projects has been thoroughly debated, particularly in relation to the biennial fervour that arose in the 1990s. We could classify this type of practice as being in sync with global capitalism that demands, as the geographer Doreen Massey claims, a type of space-time compression of international perspectives and contemporaneousness.[2] In temporary public art events the temporal involvement of drop-in curators or artists has many risks because it is local people and their histories, cultures and valuable social networks that can sometimes be taken advantage of.

In curating a number of temporary public art events, Letting Space inherently summon these common pitfalls of local politics, space-time compression and internationalisation that compromise all temporary public art events to some degree. Yet they maintained their focus by building in various aspects of multidisciplinary collaboration and opting to work on sincere local connections.

This strategic curatorial approach grew from Letting Space’s TEZA project taking place in New Brighton Christchurch (2013) and later in Porirua (2015). TEZA, an acronym for Transitional Economic Zone of Aotearoa, aimed to establish an alternate temporal space that emphasised the social economy of giving rather than taking through a shared kaupapa between artists and communities. This methodology emerged from quality time spent meeting with locals and by using those conversations to identify what the visiting artists could contribute. Letting Space also invited engagement by creating discursive events that encouraged many voices to be heard through, as the writer Sally Blundell describes, “face-to-face interactions . . . that remained unscripted and negotiable”.

TEZA saw Letting Space directly want to explore the notion of ‘parachuting in’, of otherness, exploring how a group of artists from elsewhere could explore collectively how they could be of use. Common Ground was not designed this way. Yes, similar to TEZA, all of the invited artists selected for Common Ground are formally educated practitioners who maintain careers that navigate participating in the specialised discourse of the contemporary art world and maintaining a meaningful connection to those outside of it. But the TEZA artists came from other cities, whereas the Common Ground artists are all based in Wellington or the Hutt region. And while some may view this choice as parochial it has considerable advantage. Since the artists were already somewhat familiar with the area, Letting Space could ensure that the artworks could gain a certain degree of competence in response to place by tapping into already established community relationships while also satisfying the space-time compressed framework that such temporary events inevitably require.

 

That is not to say that the artists and Letting Space were infallible. In an email artist Johanna Mechen explains to me that despite living right next to the Waiwhetu stream she acknowledges that there was great discomfort for her to tell a:

“story which is not mine to tell . . . the Te Atiawa Tribal Council may have been OK with my film as they saw it, but they are not totally comfortable with me telling aspects of their story (around water, land and loss) . . . [because] it is so painful, and not all here agree on how it should be told. Which was why Teri was clear that he did not speak for his whole community.”

This complication of representation and the privilege of authorship speak volumes about the complexities of what is commonly referred to as ‘community’ — a label that infers harmonious consistency but is in fact made of vibrant inner contentions that require constant negotiation.

 

Other aspects of Common Ground’s curatorial framework also sort to address the complexity of community and how it intersects with local ecology. Most notable was the open call for additional projects, providing an opportunity for further diversification beyond the potential biases of the curators. As did the series of public discussions that brought together invited panelists which included artists, scientists, ecologists, community workers, educators and many others who, rather than being given a pedestal were asked to sit within a large circle together with the audience. The audience members were encouraged to introduce themselves and contribute as much as those invited.

This approach resembles curator Mary Jane Jacob’s notion of “generous and open gestures” that respect and seek out the knowledge of the audience. In the process the audience completes the meaning of the artist’s labour. She explains:

“Audiences in collaboration, through their involvement and participation in art, benefit from the artist’s gift and make use of their own innate gifts as they tap the creativity embodied in the work of art in order to locate the gift within themselves . . . It is not the viewer’s demographic profile (non-art educated, lower income, whatever we might have in mind as ‘other’) that makes art public. The publicness of art lies ready to be activated in the work itself. This publicness is realized when circumstances allow us to give ourselves to the work.”[3]

 

A politics of art and a poetics of politics

The afternoon light chimes through a rabble of water-filled bottles and jars. They are labelled with marker pen and assembled in rows — each vessel waiting their turn to be processed in Julian Priest’s work Citizen Water Map Lab.

Driven by a desire to demystify the scientific method, Priest’s lab encouraged urban exploration, by asking locals to seek out their nearby streams, that often resemble a concrete drain or culvert rather than a pristine rocky river bed. Once in the lab, visitors were also encouraged to put on a plastic lab coat and help Priest test for levels of E. coli and turbidity.

Being able to engage and educate the public in ecological concerns has become a crucial tool for scientists at a time when they feel increasingly sidelined by politicians and popular consciousness. This is despite the fact that fresh water is a particularly hot topic globally, as sea levels rise and threaten to diminish the already small percentage of drinkable water on the planet. In New Zealand, the pollution of fresh water has been fervently investigated with accusations leveled at the dairy industry, urban runoff, and industrial pollution. The unprecedented commercial access to artesian water supplies has also been a hot topic. As has debate surrounding the rights of Māori to own and govern tangible and intangible natural resources.

These issues have been in discussion for many years, but in 2017 they seem to be reaching a political tipping point as the country prepares for national elections. And within all of this hype many people, myself included, remain detached from waterways and lack the understanding of the natural world that would enable us to become interested enough to engage.

In this sense Priests’ lab is established not to experiment on local water but to experiment on local intellects. It is in this lab that waterways become transformed in the participant’s mind from a subjective entity that is talked about to an objective one that is part of their physical reality. As Priest comments “Water stops being part of our world – we get abstracted from it.”  Citizen Water Map Lab encourages embodied knowledge and heightened awareness of the inert urban and fragile natural environments.

Some might be quick to label artworks such as Priest’s as indistinguishable from a scientific pedagogical agenda. Indeed, despite the clear necessity to increase public awareness, the utilisation of art by other disciplines and political movements is a contentious topic. It strikes to the heart of what art and the artist’s role is within society. Art critic and curator Nato Thompson explains that this debate stems from an irreconcilable polarity between the didactic and ambiguous:

“Work that is too deeply locked into a language of aesthetics is dismissive as too referential, too elusive, and too inaccessible to a general audience by those whose primary concerns are activism, while art that is prescriptive is too clichéd and banal for audiences whose primary concerns are art.”[4]

It could be surmised that the more captivating works of art locate a point of resistance between the didactic and ambiguous. As the theorist Jacques Rancière writes: “The problem is therefore not to set each back in its own place, but to maintain the very tension by which a politics of art and a poetics of politics tend towards each other”.[5]

A compelling example of this was Gabby O’Connor’s work Drawing Water: Low Lying. Using coloured rope, this large-scale drawing traces the water levels of historic, recent and predicted future floods of the Hutt River. Ever since the land was cleared of its forests in the mid nineteenth century the Hutt Valley has been prone to significant floods and due to this stopbanks were built as early as 1898 to protect properties. O’Connor’s drawing scrawls at 1:1 scale across one of these vast stopbanks.

 

I stand on the drawing’s highest mark and marvel. At this flood line the river would have swelled at least five metres higher and fifty metres wider than its current level.

Yet this site-specific drawing is more than just data visualisation at actual scale. The work is the result of a collaborative workshop established by O’Connor, scientists and a local school that provided an opportunity for the children to learn about the river’s flood history.  The children’s rope lines meander, scribble and dance along the grass. The artist’s rope lines pace, scribe and survey the bank’s contours. I consider this inter-generational mark making exercise and I try to imagine the challenges that these children will inherit as the sea levels rise and as the extreme weather increases due to climate change.

I also try to envisage encountering this colourful tangle of red, blue and yellow rope without any of this knowledge. There is no key given so that others can interpret the finished mapping or the fact that it is the result of an educational exercise. The data has been intentionally withdrawn to encourage speculation and contemplation. This ambiguity creates a dualism in the work. It is at once an artwork created with political purpose with a specific meaning to those involved and yet for others remains a deliberately ambiguous and whimsical gesture.

This balance between the didactic and ambiguous is no easy strategy to pursue by an artist, especially when given a directive of positive public engagement by the Letting Space curators who expressively claim, “to enable social change”.[6]

In saying so, Letting Space have proven an ability to support their artists to tread this fine line so that art can be art while also being useful to society. As critic Mark Hutchinson writes:

“Any politics of art worth its name must have an idea of how art is denied potential: of how economic, ideological and practical factors limit what it is thinkable for art to do and to be. So any politics of art needs some idea of how art transforms itself.”[7]

Negating inhibitions and prohibitions

I am lost. I have found the stream but as soon as it appears from the pristine bush clad hills it disappears underneath light industrial property, a four-lane highway and railway track. This makes it near impossible to find the Inanga Love Park an artwork located on a bend of the Korokoro stream.

By backtracking my steps to the opposite side of the highway I finally find the artwork off to the side of a footpath and underneath the highway overpass. The Inanga Love Park is a collaborative initiative by artist Kedron Parker together with ecologist Paula Warren, artists Bruce McNaught and Bruce Mahalski, and ecological engineer Stu Farrant. It consists of an information display and some restoration of the stream’s banks to aid the life cycle of inanga.

Commonly known as whitebait, inanga are juvenile fish that swim from the sea up streams to spawn amongst the vegetation that flank riverbanks. Prior to the project, the stream’s bank was eroded and occupied by a pile of gravel laced with rubbish and weeds.[8] Despite being only 200 metres from its natural source in the Belmont Reserve, this portion of the Korokoro stream is somewhat of a non-site due to being ignored amid the confusion between government agencies about who is responsible for its guardianship.[9] Through a collaborative effort of landscaping and planting by the Inanga Love Park team, this one part of the Korokoro stream is now more welcoming to inanga to continue their life journey.

 

Layers of overlapped posters, casually pasted to the huge concrete foundation of the highway overpass, inform passers-by of the rich alluvial biological life and human social history of the stream. This poster paste-up brings together stories of the Love whanau, the Korokoro as a body of sacred water and of early colonial settlement with a history of intense industry. Here a lateral mode of thinking, more associated with creativity than the sciences, is encouraged. It invites people to critically connect the dots for themselves.

It is this ability to create a space of active engagement, be that participation or simply critical thinking, that enables Letting Space and the Common Ground artists to resist the issues of the parachute project and the dichotomy of the didactic versus ambiguous.

In doing so, they achieve what Mark Hutchinson classifies as “transformative practice” that assumes a “process of negating inhibitions and prohibitions”[10] which might disable contemporary art from assuming an active rather than passive self-serving role in society. This sentiment is also complementary to Mary Jane Jacob’s notion of “generous and open gestures” that reach out to include and value the public.

 

Further embracing the potentiality of the open gesture is Murray Hewitt’s The Rising Gale, an ambitious video project and series of live screening events. Working with drone operators Hewitt tracked the length of the Hutt aquifer — a vast catchment of underground water spanning from Taita through to Wellington harbour — by filming from a Taita bore site, down the river and out into the harbour to a bore and pumping station on Matiu Somes Island.

Like the radio waves that control these nimble wee aircraft, so too we cannot see with our eyes the great forces of earth and water that lie beneath the river. How profound this is. That so much of our lives are governed by forces beyond our perception. As the drone passes overhead what we can see are trees, flocks of birds, the many streams that feed into the river and, mostly on the fringes of the frame, human infrastructure in the form of houses, paths, bridges, roads, railway lines and car parks. At the camera’s height people are infinitesimal and seem a lot less important.

Live screenings of the film took place at different aquifer bores at Taita, Avalon, a water treatment plant in Petone, the Waterloo railway station (the main bore for Hutt valley water supply) and a riverside spot under the Melling Link Bridge. At each screening Hewitt invited local or locally born performers, musicians, sound artists and writers to perform soundtracks or spoken word to complement the video. Using the footage as the compositional structure, the differing accompaniments fused local energy, knowledge and voice to that which is seen and unseen.

 

As critic Thomasin Sleigh writes, the diversity of performers and their creative responses reminds us that “communities are malleable, slightly incoherent, and . . . can’t be easily categorised by the area in which they live or the landscape that they relate to”.[11]

Hewitt’s dedication to a pluralistic notion of the ‘public’ is also encapsulated within Letting Space’s curatorial structure for Common Ground and echoed in their past projects such as TEZA.

The willow trees blur and the rocks morph as I glance fleetingly at the river from my car window. For me, the Hutt River is no longer a passive landscape to drive by. I now recognise the river through the lens of a rich history, a complicated present and an uncertain future. Common Ground has changed my perception.

And while Common Ground was not without constraints and challenges, it nevertheless created a space within which many forms of engagement were made: from brief moments of easily-grasped information to slow contemplation and long-term commitments — many of these works will continue to unfold. It was these considered levels of engagement that provided a rich base to allow the fulfillment of the event’s motivation — to shift perceptions and unlock new understandings of the human presence within a fragile environment and ecosystem.

 

Images: Dionne Ward (drone image ‘Drawing Water, Low-Lying’ Mick Finn)

Essay commissioned with funding from Creative New Zealand. A second essay by Moira Wairama may be read here. An essay on Murray Hewitt’s The Rising Gale by Thomasin Sleigh may be read at Circuit here.

Still from The Rising Gale Murray Hewitt

Footnotes

Balzer, David. Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2014.

Hutchinson, Mark. “Four Stages of Public Art.” Third Text 16, no. 4 (December 1, 2002): 429–38. doi:10.1080/0952882031000077666.

Jacob, Mary Jane. “Cultural Gifting.” In Bik Van Der Pol With Love From The Kitchen. Rotterdam: NAI010, 2005.

Letting Space. “About Letting Space.” Letting Space. Accessed April 28, 2017. http://www.lettingspace.org.nz/about-letting-space/.

“Korokoro Stream, Sensitive Urban Design and Ecological Restoration.” Common Ground Hub, Centre City Plaza, 49 Queens Drive, Lower Hutt, New Zealand, February 27, 2017. https://soundcloud.com/amery-jerram/korokoro-stream-sensitive-urban-design-and-ecological-restoration.

“What Do Artists Contribute? River and Flood Management, Science and Planning.” Public discussion, Common Ground Hub, Centre City Plaza, 49 Queens Drive, Lower Hutt, New Zealand, 28 February. https://soundcloud.com/letting-space/what-do-artists-contribute-river-and-flood-management-science-and-planning.

Massey, Doreen B. “Global Sense of Place.” In Space, Place, and Gender. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

Priest, Julian, and Letting Space. “Citizen Water Map Lab.” Common Ground: Hutt Public Art Festival, November 14, 2016. http://commongroundfestival.org.nz/portfolio/citizen-water-map-lab/.

Rancière, Jacques. Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. 2nd ed. London/ New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011.

Sleigh, Thomasin. “Murray Hewitt – The Rising Gale, Common Ground Hutt Public Art Festival 25 Feb – 4 March 2017.” CIRCUIT Artist Film and Video Aotearoa New Zealand, April 11, 2017. https://www.circuit.org.nz/blog/murray-hewitt-the-rising-gale-common-ground-hutt-public-art-festival-25-feb-4-march-2017.

Thompson, Nato. Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Twenty-First Century. Melville House, 2015.

[1] Letting Space, “What Do Artists Contribute? River and Flood Management, Science and Planning.”

[2] Massey, “Global Sense of Place.”

[3] Jacob, “Cultural Gifting.”

[4] Thompson, Seeing Power, 35.

[5] Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, 183.

[6] Letting Space, “About Letting Space.”

[7] Hutchinson, “Four Stages of Public Art.”

[8] Ibid.

[9] Letting Space, “Korokoro Stream, Sensitive Urban Design and Ecological Restoration.”

[10] Hutchinson, “Four Stages of Public Art.”

[11] Sleigh, “Murray Hewitt – The Rising Gale, Common Ground Hutt Public Art Festival 25 Feb – 4 March 2017.”