“I think to make art is to make a break. And to make a cut. There’s a cut in the continuity of being, in the continuity of survival."
'Art' bashed around Christchurch as fixed, safe, and averting distraction... A chance to escape reality, promoted as a way to hide away from your everyday life. A means of climbing the social ladder... and being reminded of your station... Is this art, or the death of it? From the initial artistic impulse to engage somehow with place and people, by questioning both, to a decision to be loved at all costs by affirming that "everything is going to be alright", just like every other advertisement for insurance, electricity, rest homes, washing powder or underwear... It seemed strange that the Christchurch Art Gallery were so determined to avoid any sense of irony in the purchase and placement of British artist Martin's Creed's neon sign brightly proclaiming the phrase above. Perhaps it reflects the fear here of actually owning the political dimensions of the art experience - to be the "nail in the tyre", the banana skin persistently tripping up the seemingly inevitable or the inescapably 'normal', the unstoppable freight train of ideology, the destructive status quo. Mladen Dolar suggests that to make art is "to make a break". Unfortunately, the terror of "Daliisawanker2233" in the online comments section bemoaning the irrelevance of art when roads and houses still need to be fixed, lead the big, subsidised arts organisations to seek out distractions or explain their outputs as such - non-offensive, colourful wallpaper to cover up the tracks and cheer everyone up. This includes purchasing the works of international (well, British) art stars that offer "reflection" for the poor locals - "but Chch can now say it has a Gormley AND a Creed - we're on the map Jack". But it's difficult to go along with this when investment in nurturing a more nuanced, diverse local culture is neglected. What we need is persistent artists forever exploring the breaks, the cracks and this requires an engagement with the actual place/time - i.e. a politics, and this does not preclude the outsider - far from it - Banksy is Banksy because context peaks his/her interest. But local artists especially should be as important as drain-layers, construction workers, doctors and urban planners to building the city. Unfortunately we also have many people running around calling themselves artists as if paying fees for a course made them so - a destination and status, already arrived at rather than an unknown, forever being reached for and perhaps embodied only for brief, wonderful moments. It is hard to argue that art has an essential role because more often than not what is produced falls into the wallpaper category and genuine, essential, criticism is fobbed off - note the determined divide between theory and practice in Canterbury University's arts faculty...
The definition of a madman is a king who thinks that he’s a king. And you have this madness among artists who believe that they are artists. This is psychosis, in a certain sense, if you really think that you are what you are. You really think that you are an artist. This is the end of art, I think.
A performance by Ross McCormack at the Isaac Theatre Royal... a local dancer that has worked with outstanding international companies who decides that to develop as an artist he needs to return to NZ. It sounds, in the best sense, like pioneers such as Wright and Parmenter. But the work, for all it's impressive technical display, lacks a sense of purpose and meaning beyond showcase - it's lack of a politics may have helped justify its funding as a work of art - it is simple entertainment and distraction. An interesting design coupled with some wonderful physical images are the beginning of something that require further development - but this is sadly denied artists in NZ as tour-makers look for product that they can "sell to the provinces", thinking that all eager Joan and reluctant John from Nelson and Wanaka want is circus tricks and hits - do they really? The result is that a work with extraordinary potential is pushed out undercooked. This is especially apparent in the colonial love-letter that is the ITR - always wanting (and restored) to be like "home" with a programme chocka full of popular international musicals and tribute shows. McCormack's work I imagine is better suited to an intimate space to engage with audience as if they are part of it - much like the operating theatres of old... Allusions to Frankenstein, Pinocchio, Copelia, are superficial, but it would be wonderful fodder for further work, perhaps in conversation with fellow local artists also exploring similar ground. This is the perfect city for such exploration. And this is the perfect time. But there needs to be a plan to strategically invest, foster and grow laboratories that pursue more than teeth-whitening, formulaic, distractions...
An article I wrote on the proposed Performing Arts Precinct (PAP) in Christchurch recently appeared in the Playmarket Annual Journal. The article considers the PAP in the context of NZ theatre, arguing that theatre is not taken seriously here as art.
I've been asked to write for Playmarket before, principally to write an "alternative view" to the usual regional round-up for theatre that is featured each year. I've always declined because I feel these brief write-ups cannot represent, and actually misrepresent, what is going on in a city with regards to theatre - they only add to a sense of paucity when it comes to discussions around contemporary theatre in this country. I realise also that as a working theatre-maker my 'review' would be written-off as unfairly biased. I also say that while I sometimes used to attend the free dress rehearsals at the Court Theatre, I rarely see anything there now unless there is a friend involved or the makers aim to do something different from the usual.
I did offer though, a year ago, to write an article that rather than simply cataloging what has taken place over the year would be a future perspective of theatre in the context of an extraordinary city like Christchurch - what might a city that takes every opportunity to declare itself a 21st-century-city-in-the-making, tell us in regards to the arts and theatre in particular in the making of such a city of the future?
The editor was keen for this and so I wrote an outline. It was initially accepted but the Playmarket director asked that I consider some of the plays represented by his organisation that had played at the Court Theatre over the year. I did so by reviewing the reviewer's comments of the plays on the list. That article is featured here (and on our 'writings' page along with the other articles mentioned in this post). It was turned down as a "review" that year but I was asked to write an article for the next year.
Meanwhile, playwright Victor Rodger suggested I should find another place to publish this original. He felt it tied in with a debate that had been simmering around the country and had blown up with a Press reviewer's comments on The White Guitar during the 2015 Christchurch Arts Festival. Rodger had written an article for E-Tangata on diversity in NZ arts and had been sent my article by a mutual friend, Tanya Muagututi'a of Pacific Underground.
As we were discussing this, a "vision document" was released in February 2016 for the proposed Performing Arts Precinct (PAP), a key anchor project for the government's rebuild of the city. I wrote something in response that showed what could have been with the Arts Circus and its demise within the bureaucratic, neo-liberal swamp of post-quake Chch.
Having been involved in theatre-making in the city since the 90s and having taken an especially proactive approach to city-planning and community engagement since the earthquakes, I've oscillated between hope and depression as new ideas have seemed possible like never before and yet old-school, conservative Christchurch thinking has eventually bludgeoned it's way to supremacy. In this way - the worst possible way - the arts reflect the politics of the city over the last five years. The perfect example of this is the proposed Performing Arts Precinct, how it came to be and it's continued sucking up of oxygen at the expense, it nows seems, of the Arts Centre. An article on this, taken from the document mentioned above, featured in The Press.
I always hold out hope for change - and work towards that end by making theatre - making art - with people who believe the same. Why else would you be stupid enough to work in avant-garde theatre in Christchurch, New Zealand? I truly have believed that Christchurch could be different, could be an alternative city. I still do. But it's harder to see it...