Action stations: Experiments in contemporary art

by Mark Amery / 28 February, 2013
Artists are becoming key public players in experimenting with different ways society might operate.
Artist Martha Rosler amidst her Garage Sale installation at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo/Scott Rudd

Late last year, Te Papa bought for the national art collection documentation about a cabbage patch planted on the corner of Wellington’s Manners and Willis streets in 1978. If you need an official marker that contemporary art’s role as a politicised community-change agent is now centre-stage, these old cabbages could be it.

Naturally, there was more to artist Barry Thomas’s Vacant Lot of Cabbages than it says on the label. As with the much later Occupy movement, when Thomas and friends cut through a perimeter fence, delivered a truckload of topsoil, planted 180 cabbages, installed objects and staged a festival, they were taking the city into their own hands. They created public community space out of a vacant private section.

Ever greater numbers of artists are doing planting projects, increasing the public commons and collaborating with communities, industries and businesses, well beyond the confines of the gallery.

It’s not that such work hasn’t been happening sporadically in the interim, it’s that in this postmodern climate it’s jostling with other media for middle of the frame. Artists are understandably tired of work being judged on its economic value or the size of the object, in a world too full of objects and in which we face severe environmental and social issues.

This is art that deals with the complexities of life. It is a movement, I predict, that will see artists this century recognised as key public players in experimenting with different ways society might operate.

University galleries have been scurrying to provide an art-history context. Over the summer, Victoria University’s Adam Art Gallery exhibited the Wellington Media Collective’s design work from 1979-99, which provides a story of the political, community and cultural undercurrents of the period.

The exhibition was accompanied by a commission from current politicised art publishers White Fungus, which reacts to a statement by John Key that children are “the consumers of the future”, and a seminal 1975 photographic and text work by Martha Rosler. Last year, Rosler staged a “meta-monumental” garage sale in the foyer of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It recalled a jumble sale held by David Mealing at Auckland Art Gallery in 1975.

Art as community action is a key plank of this month’s Auckland Arts Festival. Two visual arts projects bear this out: Tiffany Singh’s Fly Me Up to Where You Are and the group project Rosebank. In theatre, Auckland Theatre Company’s Dominion Road Stories sees the company venture well outside the black box to create works with neighbourhoods down that long strip, everywhere from bus stops to a bowling club.

A few right and left turns down the road brings you to Avondale’s Rosebank Rd. It’s an industrial area crossing an estuary-bound isthmus that has seen better days. Rosebank involves 22 artists, designers or collectives working with community groups and local businesses to create site-specific artworks.

The project is embedded in the community through a memorandum of understanding between curator Marcus Williams’s employer, Unitec, and the Rosebank Business Association. Like other polytechnics, Unitec is aligning itself more with its immediate surroundings, looking for students to work with industry.

What is dubbed in America “creative placemaking” has had a huge boom worldwide in the past 10 years. With it come questions: how might the social effect and audience for such work be calculated? How can artists be truly engaged with communities rather than appear like choppered-in visitors with a corral of artsy friends, there for a brief meander and a few free drinks? Williams has worked on a number of these projects and is well aware of the challenges.

“I’m trying to use art, which in a way is a common language, as a way of increasing conversations. Because a lot of the artists are collaborating with companies, and the companies employ people, and those people have families, I’m really hopeful it does engage the community to a significant degree.”

Projects include architects and high school students working with Rosebank School children and the Avondale Community Gardeners group to build an edible garden and sculpture responding to the area’s horticultural history. Brit Bunkley has taken a freeze-dried Avondale spider (huntsman) from Auckland Museum and made 3D printed reproductions with a Rosebank company, to be installed in a shipping container – which is what brought the spider to our shores. Other art projects explore the tension between industry and the area’s precious ecology.

Video still of Fly Me Up to Where You Are

Williams says the Rosebank businesses are increasingly open and supportive. “Croxley, one of the oldest companies in New Zealand, is allowing an artist [ Julieanna Preston] to make a line of mud through their factory, without blinking an eyelid. None of that ‘is it art?’ stuff … [Rosebank Rd] itself is ugly. It’s a tilt-slab wilderness where you have to dig around to find the estuarine boundaries and the prehistoric fossil areas on the mudflats – it’s actually an amazing peninsula.”

Tiffany Singh’s temporary works are a riot of Asian-influenced colour and material that involve intense community participation. As she did at last year’s Biennale of Sydney, she becomes composer and conductor of large-scale exchanges that ask people to consider their well-being.

The rainbow-colours saturation of her work might lead some to judge it lightweight, yet as with Barry Thomas’s work, this neglects its social nuances. Singh has been working with Auckland school students, helping them to produce a series of flags, reminiscent of Tibetan prayer flags, that express their hopes and dreams.

“To me, the artwork is being in the classroom with the kids making hopes and dreams sheets. The flags are the outcome rather than the artwork itself. Telling these kids they can be an agent for change, have dreams and have authorship is huge.

“The project has been a lot sadder than I expected,” she adds. “Their projections are very close: about their realities today and real-world adult issues, rather than them being able to dream of future possibilities. I had kids eight years old asking me, ‘What’s a hope, Miss?’ There’s been a lot of, ‘I want to be safe and warm’ and ‘I want to help Mum and Dad with rent.’ I’m not sure when I was eight I knew what rent was. We’re cheating them of their childhood space of potential, of reaching for the stars.”

So wouldn’t Singh be better off being a teacher? Isn’t good education the answer rather than good art?

“My hopes and dreams for this project are that my process gets picked up into the curriculum. As a tool, as an objective- setting framework and [with] what it tells the teacher about the kid, it has huge potential.

“They have all these emotions inside and need to know creative ways to express them. This is such an important part of education.

“At the moment, we have a government that isn’t really giving a lot of attention to the creative industries. Our school system is moving towards an Eastern school system, which is bizarre for me. This process is giving these kids a space in which they’re not being marked. These sheets are something they know their parents aren’t going to read. It gives them a space to be honest in.”

FLY ME UP TO WHERE YOU ARE, Tiffany Singh, Aotea Square and Artstation, March 6-24; ROSEBANK, multiple venues, Avondale, March 6-24. Both as part of the Auckland Arts Festival. Featured on RNZ National’s Spectrum, Sunday, 12.15pm.
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