"If we’re serious about creating an exciting city with a difference, to move away from the monoculture of before, then we need to invest in diversity."
Some thoughts presented at a Christchurch arts forum this week. The speakers were asked to provide a three-minute response to the question: "what makes an art-full city?":
I made a list. We need a plan – a well-researched plan towards an exciting, progressive city. We need a thorough mapping of what is, what could be and what is required to bridge the two. Most importantly this plan should shift the onus from quantity (door-clickers and bums-on-seats) to a vision of quality – encouraging the pushing of boundaries and risk-taking. This comprehensive, adaptive plan will present a new vision for the arts as the primary driver of the city’s new identity. It needs to be in place for the council's Long-Term-Plan next year. It’s not only this city that needs it – Timaru, Ashburton, Methven, Hanmer, Waipara and Kaikoura know now, more than ever, we need Christchurch to be a humming, distinctive gateway to the region. And this needs to start with the most distinctive gateway in the city – the Arts Centre! It seems crazy that after all the work and cost of its extraordinary restoration, the Arts Centre appears to languish behind the Performing Arts Precinct (PAP) and even the Metro Sports as a priority arts project. The most distinctive place in the city needs to be supported to facilitate the kind of activity that can differentiate the city. This means investing in workshops and studios where a diversity of artists can create AND present new work. As part of the investment in fostering local artists to thrive, there needs to be a rethink of festivals around this activity – that is, festivals based around local talent, thereby moving away from the old provincial model of buying in expensive national and international acts. This means multiple projects could be developed over longer periods of time, around different themes/provocations. And if based around inspirational sites such as the Arts Centre, they can be multi-sited (including unconventional spaces in-between brought to life through light, sound and interaction) and integrated with markets and hospitality. A year-long calendar of events spreading out from creative engine-rooms such as the Arts Centre, along Worcester Boulevard to the river, to the park, to the Square and beyond. Artist residencies can attract excellent artists to come and work WITH local artists and organizations towards new work that engages with the time and place. If the merging of the CDC (Canterbury Development Corporation), Canterbury Tourism and Council Events is about making this “an edgy city with a difference”, then the council needs to understand that such a vibe doesn’t just materialize out of thin air. There needs to be a wider-ranging strategy put in place that has at its core the fostering of (investment in) local artists. The PAP, as currently proposed, does NOT help at all in this regard, especially if the plan is to build a new black box theatre for presentation and move the Court from its current successful site and build it, not one, but two new theatres. Both ideas mean that interdisciplinary arts organisations such as Free Theatre and The Auricle will continue to struggle for survival – and wonderful projects such as this (The Black Rider) simply will not happen. If we’re serious about creating an exciting city with a difference, to move away from the monoculture of before, then we need to invest in diversity.
And this is my picture.
As noted in our 'about' section, The Wooster Group is a kindred spirit of Free Theatre. No surprise, then, that a number of things Elizabeth LeCompte says in this article seem terribly familiar...
No one gives us money. We don’t make art that can be invested in. It goes away, and we’re political in a way that’s a problem.
Christchurch theatre advertised in The Press recently. It feels like nothing much has changed since Peter Falkenberg wrote the article below... in 1984.
If you want to find out about the cultural life of a town, one of the quickest ways is to go to its theatre performances. There you find the most direct expression of the consciousness of the social elite of a community. The choice of plays, the way they are performed, the expectations of the audience, its reaction to the performance: all these can facilitate a subtle and differentiated understanding of the taste of a town, at least for an observer that expects from a theatre performance more than just a good night out.
Every Ubu Night is different but this one this week takes another unusual turn. We've commenced a project that considers the current state of New Zealand using Hamlet as a core text:
Something is rotten in the state of New Zealand. But we don’t quite know what it is or what to do about it, or if we can do anything at all. We have lost our identity and lost control of our destiny. The only way left to act is as a puppet or a clown – like Hamlet. Someone once said “people don’t want much, just someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for” – this now sounds like the voice of a ghost from a different place and a different time. But maybe this voice, the voice of Norman Kirk, will urge us to act again. For Hamlet, to be or not to be means to accept the world the way it is or to kill himself. We ask ourselves how not to be Hamlet. How to “act”?
The project commenced as a personal response to the current political situation and originally I'd imagined it as a solo performance:
A performance that plays between Hamlet and my own experiences. I am Hamlet, or wanting to play Hamlet, identifying with his questions over whether to act, how to act in relation to the murder of his father. My father once said to me that the loss of his business in 1987 after borrowing heavily on the advice of the then Labour government, killed him. It certainty had a profound effect on my family and how I came to view the world. This view was further affected by experiences such as the demise of the Fortex plant I worked at in the mid 90s and the brutal and unrelenting attack on my department at the University of Canterbury through the 2000s – both consequences of the social and economic reforms of 1984 that radically changed New Zealand. Running alongside these events, intertwining with them has been my experience in Free Theatre, propelled towards the possibility that “the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscious of the King”. Not a didactic theatre, but an idea of theatre as a liminal space wherein our political and social reality may be confronted and questioned, the first step towards change. Hamlet is not set apart from this reality; he forces himself to confront the truth that his own action, and inaction, may be the very source and affirmation of his uncle’s power. Or that he himself may just as easily be a Claudius, a Fortinbras or an Ubu. And so he is constantly confronted with his dilemma and attempt to escape – to be or not to be – fighting himself in perpetual crisis, constantly returning to his own certainty of his father’s murder, the causes for it, and therefore his only real option is to play the clown.
We decided however, following Peter's suggestion, that a better way to undertake this exploration was to develop a bicultural view with two Hamlets exploring different perspectives of our time and place. Aaron Hapuku and I are using our distinct biographies to explore 'How not to be Hamlet', that is, to go beyond what seem like Hamlet's only choices to either accept the world as it is or commit suicide; rather we're exploring how to act. This is a difficult question but has taken on even greater urgency this year with Brexit and Trump. It feels like one of the most important acts in these "end times" is to take the time to think, to question and to consider new alternatives.
If the last century was about theory in action (e.g. communism) with disastrous consequences, now is the time to think again, returning to what might be the best of the Enlightenment project and reconsidering ideas afresh in the current context. The problem is that when anyone questions capitalism and liberal democracy the classic response is, "Well, what do you want, communism? That didn't work out so well did it?". Francis Fukuyama's famous term 'the end of history' to describe what he saw as the ultimate victory of liberal democracy and capitalism over all other forms, is very much the ideological perspective of our times when alternatives cannot even be imagined despite the natural, political and economic environment crumbling around us. As the likes of Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou argue, now is precisely the time to be thinking of alternatives, to be provoking the dialogue that shatters the view that there are no alternatives. Thinking and generating dialogue are the most important acts - and here the theatre can play a vital role. It can provide a way to step back, a space to really look at what is happening, to question it with others. This is the action that is needed today.
It may appear that one cannot act today, that all we can really do is just state things. But in a situation like today's, to state what is can be much stronger than calls to action, which are as a rule just so many excuses NOT to do anything. Let me quote Alain Badiou's provocative thesis: 'It is better to do nothing than to contribute to the invention of formal ways of rendering visible that which Empire already recognizes as existent'. Better to do nothing than to engage in localized acts whose ultimate function is to make the system run more smoothly (acts like providing space for the multitude of new subjectivities, etc.). The threat today is not passivity, but pseudo-activity, the urge to be 'active', to 'participate', to mask the Nothingness of what goes on. People intervene all the time, 'do something', while academics participate in meaningless 'debates', and so on, and the truly difficult thing is to step back, to withdraw from all this. Those in power often prefer even a 'critical' participation, an exchange of whatever kind, to silence - just in order to engage us in a 'dialogue', to make sure our ominous passivity is broken.
As our current Prime Minister (Uncle Claudius?) decides to call it a day, it is a good time to be thinking about what is considered good governance. As outside observers such as the Guardian and even as some of his own supporters have noted, Key spent the time telling us he was "doing all sorts of stuff", which amounted to very little in making the country better and a lot in allowing commercial interests full reign to exploit our natural resources. While he played the clown, mincing up down the catwalk, peeing in the shower, holding pointless flag referendums and pulling ponytails, he successfully distracted 'middle New Zealand' from the damage that was being inflicted on our social and natural environment.
How should we act? When Hamlet is forced into action at the end he simply perpetuates a mindless circle of violence. Our aim, through theatre, is to explore how not to be Hamlet and to actually work towards meaningful change. Perhaps by starting with a remembrance of Kirk's simple aspiration for New Zealanders: “people don’t want much, just someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for”.
“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...
Image from Nico, Sphinx of Ice at the Media Club (2008)
It is hard to escape the fact that in this culture and this city in particular there is serious opposition to critical thinking, questioning and analysis. Rather than seeing critical thought as a necessary agent in the pursuit of a healthy and free society - and the arts in particular playing a leading role in critically analysing our time and place - questioning and thinking is fiercely dismissed as "negative" and unnecessarily antagonistic.
A series of recent incidents along these lines bring to mind an essay Peter Falkenberg wrote that considered the aversion to critical reflection as having a distinct variety in the New Zealand context. The essay was published in a 2007 book on New Zealand theatre: Performing Aotearoa: New Zealand theatre and drama in an age of transition. Peter's essay begins with the premise that New Zealand theatre holds an idealised mirror up to it's audience in keeping with the classic kiwi question to visitors: "So what do you think of New Zealand?", which is asked with the expectation of confirmation that this country is indeed Godzone. A reviewer of the book (and long-time Wellington theatre critic) thought the article was the most provocative of the book's offerings but disagreed with the opening premise: "Aren't we now a little bit more self-aware and self-confident than we were in the 1950s when I first heard of this habit?" That was ten years ago and still today you hear that question asked and regularly hear from visitors how they made the mistake of answering the ubiquitous question critically. Increasingly in this town, you hear the question followed up with (or replaced by) "And what do you think of Christchurch?" Clearly, the expectation here is that the tourist has come via recommendations from Lonely Planet or some other describing Christchurch as a must-see destination as "a creative city in transition".
But surely, an "innovative", "bold", "edgy" city - as a recent council strategy proposes Christchurch should be - becomes so by questioning itself, continuously asking "Whaddarya?" without expecting a stock-standard response, a plethora of critical, perhaps contradictory, responses. This is how a city might develop a distinct identity and the example for Christchurch is very clear - a city with a long history of artists that reflected critically on the city and country via literature, visual, art, film and music. As the most conservative of the arts in New Zealand, theatre is an interesting case, which is why Peter's article, even after ten years, is worth another read.
Our week-long KidsFest programme in The Gym this year, has worked in and around the Frankenstein set. Commedia dell'arte, Mauricio Kagel-inspired creation of instruments from everyday objects, Laban, Boalian mirror games, a field trip to the Canterbury Museum Antarctic section for inspiration, puppet-making with recycled materials, creating immersive environments with soundscapes and lighting. It's been an inspiring week!
I came to the Frankenstein performance last night, and I just want to say thank you so much, we really enjoyed it. Your performances always leave me feeling like I have been jump started back into real life again. I took my partner who has recently emigrated here from Japan and she said it was the first time since she arrived that she felt like she was in a proper cultural city again. Thanks for everything, keep up the great work. We are looking forward to your future projects.
[I] wanted to let you guys know that I saw your show tonight and thought it was incredible, the dedication and commitment from every performer was so essential and you all beautifully manipulated the energy of the audience. Left with a lot to talk about - on our drive home we discussed souls and the limitations of our physical bodies, where science has (and will) lead us, the nature of performing. And also about how polished it was in general (absolutely loved the sampled texts incl. the obscure and brief passages from Shelley's diaries etc) -- you managed to capture the ethereal essence of Shelley's tradition whilst forging a new experiential aesthetic. Totally loved and was moved by it, congratulations to all!
[I] think of it as a tribute to the enduring relevance of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, with text sourced from Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Janet Frame and references to modern horror films. It comments on our modern obsession with image and challenges whether perfection is something we should strive for or whether by striving for perfection we turn ourselves into 'monsters'. Well...that was my interpretation of it anyway. It's the best piece of theatre I've seen in ages! And very, very creepy and disturbing. I like creepy and disturbing.
Thanks so much for having us last night, what a treat! It really is a whole other world in there, so great to experience something transformative like that. It's been ages. All the best for an excellent season. Please pass on our thanks to the whole cast and crew. It's a great show.
The dramatic theatre's spectator says: Yes, I have felt like that too – Just like me - it’s only natural – it’ll never change – the sufferings of this man appal me, because they are inescapable – that’s great art; it all seems the most obvious thing in the world – I weep when they weep, I laugh when they laugh.
Theatre of Cruelty means a theatre difficult and cruel for myself first of all. And, on the level of performance, it is not the cruelty we can exercise upon each other by hacking at each other’s bodies, carving up our personal anatomies, or, like Assyrian emperors, sending parcels of human ears, noses, or neatly detached nostrils through the mail, but the much more terrible and necessary cruelty which things can exercise against us. We are not free. And the sky can still fall on our heads. And the theatre has been created to teach us that first of all.
Productions images (courtesy of Marine Aubert and Damia Prat), reviews and articles can be found on the main Frankenstein page.
Free Theatre ChCh
Free Theatre Christchurch. Intermittent blogging. Thoughts. Enjoy.