PART 1 – OCTOBER 2014
Nothing is. It is always becoming.
Second and third persons can also be first persons. And third and second.
What I take from this is that when things are approached as a field of engagement, in which a multiplicity of forces are interacting, there is at least openness to working towards a state of acceptance of how things are. Just then. But this is a skill, this way of seeing without manipulation; without resistance to the sensation of experiencing untreated strangeness.
Acceptance is deepest where it widens, said the love poem. The reverse is true of a body of water. I admired how that poem, some poems, seem to be composed over long periods of time. Built up line by line as moments occur, showing that our ability to experience, although assaulted, has not been destroyed.
Participation makes a home, and is the key to happiness.
Here we are again, setting up structures in which we give ourselves permission to act differently. Despite the assault of any present.
In time I will see things a little differently.
This is a title of a series of works by Fiona Jack that included showing historical photographs of the Auckland suburb of Pakuranga in 1910, when the area was not yet developed, at Te Tuhi in Pakuranga. Last year she documented two trees, in a work baldly (aiming for a sense of self-evidence, perhaps) called The Trees. These trees are the last remnants of the market gardens that used to be in Avondale’s Rosebank Road before it was developed into a light industrial area. A community group fought for them to remain standing, but the ground around them will be concreted over. They will be obscured from view, completely surrounded by industrial buildings. Their leaves will thin and it will slowly wind down as an organism.
A lightbulb creates an environment by its mere presence.
This is the title of a work by Fiona that diagrammatically presents the structures of ownership of New Zealand’s print-media organs. It is written in letters that are joined as if sewn by women deep into the night as the menfolk were at sea, or at war – where were the menfolk? – possessed with a desire to add what strength they have for some common good.
A quarter of New Zealand children live in poverty.
It is election time here and this is what a billboard is reminding me. I am also mindful that property prices have gone up 270% and wages only 1 %. It is not easy to live here as a normal person. What may be a pittance to a higher income earner means the difference between eating and not eating to most.
God transforms, says a church sign I pass on the way to university.
Fiona photographed each port worker who went on strike in the year before last and made them into individual textless posters and pasted them up around town. A group formed, something intensified and its density increased. Power was exerted. Risks were taken. Strikebreakers were employed, the port was fined, there were some concessions, and the dispute was never resolved.
I am describing some of Fiona’s projects as a way of pointing out that the body of work she has produced for Fresh Gallery in Otara is the present of a practice that involves such observation, and indexes something fleeting. There is also the direct repurposing of forms of presentation, and the desire to meditate on change and social cost.
The world turns, reality wobbles, the social body changes, phones autocorrect.
Fiona might make a billboard, a photomural, a poster run, a book, flags, textbook-style illustrations, or, in this case, a volume of banners. And when she does so, the armature of communication carries something different in its emotional or ethical register.
Human necks have evolved in proportion to our commitment to noticing.
If you are stuck in your work, write from the present.
I like to think of this kind of work as a form of social cartography. Looking at infrastructure and urban development, its forms, its armature, its historicising. And modernity’s incessant memorialising. “The historical sense dates from only yesterday,” said Flaubert in 1860, “and is perhaps the nineteenth century’s greatest achievement.”
The living do the seeing for all those who have passed and are still to come.
Fiona’s exhibition in Otara, The Heraldry of Presence, is composed entirely of banners, some made anew by the artist, some recreated, and some borrowed. When she talked to me about it she showed me a book called Banner Bright, a history of trade union banners. It is from this book that her title is drawn. It is a phrase used without much emphasis in the original text.
The book’s title is taken from the start of a modern hymn:
We are marching on, with shield and banner bright;
we will work for God and battle for the right:
we will praise His Name, rejoicing in His might,
and we’ll work till Jesus calls
It was written at a time, the book, that is, when the writer could say with greater confidence that “The working classes against all odds have established a presence”. Here, however, trade unions are kicked dogs. Fifteen percent membership at best, and to be effective, 75% is required.
Fiona and I discussed visiting the Trades Hall in Melbourne, where stone stairs have been worn down by many feet and a massive blue vinyl banner hangs in the foyer that says, 8 OURS WORK / 8 HOURS RECREATION/ 8 HOURS REST. My mind goes to a billboard I saw for toothpaste that said WORKS 12 HOURS A DAY. LIKE YOU DO. Or a telephone company campaign that muttered, horrifically, NEVER STOP STARTING. The horror is in the promotion of a state of disorientation.
The hymn’s refrain provides a rousing, hair-raising outro – voices of men, women, adults and children, and simple harmonies, gendered counterpoint – full of an elated hope and sense of purpose and massed volition that surely must reach the ears of a Higher Power, whether that is a god or social justice or the conscience of the group:
We are marching onward, singing as we go,
to the promised land where living waters flow;
come and join our ranks as pilgrims here below,
come and work till Jesus calls.
Banners can be carried by a crowd, or can be hung in a meeting room as part of the ongoing life of groups or fellowships. (I remember spelling one out to myself at Sunday school – O-B-E-Y – and was repelled by it when it emerged as I recognised the word. I don’t remember returning.) But whatever their purpose – interior/ exterior, protest / affirmation – by making many banners and putting them into the same space, Fiona is altering the volume and presence of a form that is usually in a supporting role to a crowd.
Song becomes cacophony.
Fiona’s Port Workers posters, she explains, serve to witness each individual as an ordinary, hardworking person – a gesture that countered the anti-union message that they formed a singular, gang-like entity. It is so messed up that the very strength of a union - in a gathering of volitions – is the very thing the media would demonise.
It has certainly been a strategic project to dissemble unionism. Tactics are the actions of the tenant.
Banners can be disquieting or celebratory.
A banner, at a basic level, indicates the formation of a crowd, and a crowd suggests numbers of people that are too many to be a comfortable thing. It is not manageable. A crowd is something that is big enough to make it hard to count it quickly, or at all, like a group of sparrows feeding. A group speaks of a collective and therefore a higher purpose; of a constituency or fellowship or conscience that is large enough to have power by virtue of its sheer force of volition.
Wanting to be is to become.
Fiona reported that community groups she approached with an offer to make a useful banner readily took ownership of the form, and had very clear ideas, already formed, about what should and should not be on a banner. Toe Pacific Wardens, for example, were unanimous that there should be nationalistic symbols on the banner, representing the four constituent island nations – Tonga, Samoa, the Cook Islands and Niue.
A banner expresses the core business of a group, and indicates what are outside issues.
Fires and forests are symbols for crowds, among others, according to Canetti in his marvellous book, Crowds and Power. They indicate ignition and proliferation. But, in some ways, both crowds and banners seem like they are from another, more hopeful, more empowered, less confused, less distracted era.
I think the crux of Canetti’s argument, if it is fair to call something so dense and poetic an argument, is this: “It is only in a crowd that man can become free of this fear of being touched. That is the only situation in which the fear changes into its opposite.” He goes on: “The most important occurrence within the crowd is the discharge. Before this the crowd does not actually exist: it is the discharge that creates it. This is the moment when all who belong to the crowd get rid of their differences and feel equal.”
He is at pains to point out that this sensation, this illusion, of equality passes.
Disillusionment is a challenge based in reality, and is so draining, but it is option whether this hole-in-the-bucket feeling becomes a controlling principle. For example, in the early 1990s there was a fait accompli 500% increase in student fees. At the same time, an interest-incurring student loan scheme was introduced. This occurred within the same timeframe as the introduction of the Employment Contracts Act which crippled union membership, and weekend rates for part-time work. Benefit rates were also dropped, consciously, below the breadline for single parents, the employed and the sick.
To complain about the fees increase, a street protest was organised by the University of Canterbury Students’ Union. It was a medium-sized protest and seemed ineffectual, as if it was known and accepted that the horse had already bolted. There was a press photograph of the crowd marching with placard and banners, one of which said, “Free James Brown”. James Brown had been arrested on domestic violence, drugs and weapons charges at the time. Toe strains of being the hardest-working were apparent. Looking at that photo, it seemed as if I was experiencing some sort of foreclosure that had not been stated. Toe population moved on, doing the best they could, with no resistance to these massive changes and meaning. Had this kind of protest or other revolutionary processes become-extinct? Had banners, testament to particular forms of self-organising, been altered in their function and signification? Had they become museum objects – or the subject of parades – and now able to be studied because they are extinct?
We can become the first person in a narrative at any point.
A pervasive sense of hopelessness is the precursor of all forms of self-abandonment, individual or collective.
It has been suggested, in continental philosophy, that there has been a breakdown in societal epistemes ( or, following Foucault, the historical a priori that grounds knowledge and its discourses). Human know-how, or a sense of knowing-how, has been slowly eroded to the point that no one knows what to do, or what to think, or how to act.
One of the banners Fiona has made for this show repeats the word ‘tiresome’ over and over again in a cursive script. It has been appropriated from a child’s workbook Fiona found in Taranaki. A child had been given the task or repeating certain words to develop her hand, and she had, in an apparent act of self-love, made a space for her own feelings in this labour.
The loneliness of the project is sometimes met by human strike, and collectivity.
Irony emphasises the conflictual situation.
In the early 1960s, Henri Lefebvre wrote that ironists appear “in periods of great disturbance, turmoil and uncertainty ( … ) when the future hangs on important decisions ( … ) and men [and women] of action are unreservedly committed to the struggle. This is when the ironist withdraws within himself, only temporarily. It is his way of taking stock and recouping his strength.”
He and she scan the horizon and try to weigh the present.
One of the banners is a remake of one involved in a nineteenth-century English miners’ strike. It cried in anguish, with no irony, “What shall a man do when a capitalist cannot employ him?” Shown in South Auckland, this banner reaches through time to the experience of workers in South Auckland who lost jobs as production of goods shifted offshore.
Emancipatory acts of faith are only acts of faith in the absence of visible security or outcomes.
Fiona has remade banners relating to the Polynesian Panthers (ALL POWER TO THE PEOPLE and SAY NO TO RACISM) and British rent strikes (THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE IS LAW). The latter is taken from a photograph of a crowd of women protesting rent gouging during WWl, one of whom was Fiona’s great-grand aunt, the Scottish activist, Helen Crawfurd.
An activist in the Red Clydeside movement, Crawfurd was involved in political actions towards women’s suffrage, the temperance movement, pacifism and tenants’ rights. Working alongside Emily Pankhurst and Mary Barbour, she was often imprisoned and committed to hunger strikes. She became a communist and was once invited to Russia by Lenin.
Fiona also arranged to borrow banners from Auckland Action Against Poverty, and from groups protesting the decline in state housing, particularly the Tamaki Housing Collective, and from the Otara Mangere Youth Group whose WE SAY NO banner demonstrates their critical stance on the rampant licensing of bottle stores in the area. Chris McBride of the Wellington Media Collective also agreed to remake a banner originally made for the Springbok tour protests.
Fiona has also made banners for groups operating in present time Otara, such as the Pacific Wardens, as already mentioned, and Otara Beach – a fish supplier at the weekend market. Another has been made for Sistema Aotearoa, a group arising out of partnership between the Ministry for Culture and Heritage and the Auckland Philharmonia.
Sistema operates to a model developed in Venezuela and runs a high-achieving orchestra with nearly 200 local children from age six. Their organisational purpose is clear and their practice is rigorous:
The basic premise of Sistema Aotearoa – social development, community and a holistic approach - is the foundation of the programme. The children are immersed in a collective teaching process from the beginning, exposing them immediately to group dynamics, cooperative behaviour and peer learning. Children from different backgrounds and abilities are encouraged to work together, which increases children’s respect, understanding, and empathy for each other. Participation is open access, free for all students, and instruments are supplied.
Emphasis is placed on developing a supportive community. Teachers and students alike are invested in both personal and community success, creating a place where children feel safe and challenged. Parents/ carers working together with Sistema Aotearoa achieve a common goal that is a more positive, aspirational future for their children.
Sistema graduates leave with a sense of capability, endurance and resilience, confident about taking on challenges. A deep sense of value, of being loved and appreciated, and a trust for group process and cooperation, enables them to feel that excellence is within their grasp. In the supportive context of the Sistema Aotearoa approach children have the freedom to develop the life skills of responsibility, respect and co-operation.
Fiona herself has a background in orchestra performance and spent time observing the group. They run a very tight ship, and the student to staff ratio is small. It is clear that something is instilled via music, responsibility and discipline that is more than this. As an exercise, the children were asked to shout out a word that shows what Sistema is to them, and the words were telling:
USING SISTEMA MANNERS
I PLAY PHENOMENAL CELLO
THINKING ABOUT OTHERS
RESPECT THE ENVIRONMENT
Speech drawn into singing and movement is an orientation practice.
Fiona spent time visiting community groups in Otara for over a year leading up to the exhibition and she observed an accepted belief that any rehabilitation of a community will happen through a focus on children. Further evidence of this is the large number of new early learning centres springing up in the area.
The Early Learning Network has put a lot of energy into establishing centres in the area in order to give children and families support to practise the kinds of interactions that will help them settle into school better. Their intention is
‘‘To give under five year olds a great start to a bright future.” Five years ago under 25% of the region’s children attended any sort of early learning centre and today it is over 75%.
I am starting to think of parenthood as a kind of unanticipated migrancy. When a first child is born, suddenly, nothing is the same as it was, and the past falls away into a spare present in which there are one or two parents and a child. The only way on is forward, the path is uphill, and the terrain and conditions are bafflingly unfamiliar. All migrants need particular kinds of support, and have painful vulnerabilities and elisions to bear.
One quietly assertive group of smaller flags within this body of banners are those Fiona has made based on children’s drawings she came across outside the office of the town centre manager. These drawings were flags made during a Proudly Otara community day. Adults were also encouraged to write down a response to the question, “What makes you proud to live in Otara?” A frequent answer was, “It’s where I’m from.”
The children’s drawings have been abstracted into flat patches of colour within the soft-bright range of the tivaevae makers’ palette of cotton fabrics. All detail and texture disappear. It reminds me of something Annie Dillard said in her astonishing book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, an attempt to slow time and stretch our abilities to see: “For the newly sighted, vision is pure sensation, unencumbered by meaning.” This ability can be drawn on ( or up) at any time.
I am thinking of a group of children practising to perform music in front of a banner upholding the name of their group. Each child listens intently to the playing of the other children. They have practised separately, with
determination and focus. And now they are together, each guided by the conductor, and they adjust their playing in tempo and pitch to find and follow unison with each other.
They cannot but be continually surprised and amazed at their ability to do so, and an elation envelops them.
Time builds up around them.
I am thinking of an image Fiona has shown me of a group of women, irritating strangers to patriarchal society, carrying a banner on which a longer phrase is written. I only remember the line, FORWARD OUT OF ERROR.
I imagine, in their long skirts, they envied the autonomy men seem to achieve without a sense of conflict, yet beyond this, knew that collectivity is necessary in human life.
Together, material, slow, plural, measured in speech and action.
PART II – AUGUST 2017
For a time I worked for the Salvation Anny in a rehab (not as a soldier, but as a civilian) that is funded by the government, via the local district health board, to provide a certain nun1ber of beds to addicts. One of the Army’s founding principles was that ‘any door is the right door,’ which is a hard position to hold in this age of funder-led decision making, sector-accepted practice norms and
prescriptive referral pathways.
There was a flag hanging on a pole in the foyer as a sort of artifact from the days when the army went out in the world to show presence and to fight for the lost 10% as they called those on the receiving end of industrial patriarchal capitalism. It is burgundy in colour with a dark blue border made in linen. Appliqued on it is a yellow, eight-pointed star, with the words “blood & fire” inside it. As banners go, it seems minimal and obscure. More like record label art, or straight-edge regalia, or literary graphic design than a standard, maybe.
The flag’s simplicity emphasises its materiality. Its plainness makes its structure clear. It is a flag or a banner. It is made carefully from a very hard and beautiful fibre. It is designed to express the conscience of a group. It is designed to contribute to shifting the distribution of power and resources. It was sewn by someone, rather than screenprinted or computer generated; but these days it just sits in the foyer as a marker of the organisation’s more fervent history, but still actively poverty-alleviating present.
Sometimes people stay, and other times they leave, or are asked to leave. They return to the exit address they stated in their pre-admission paperwork, if that was a legitimate address, or even a safe one. Where else they can go is a terrible question as there is no supportive or crisis accommodation for women in the city at present. Even if someone has been abusive or put others at risk, they are still unwell and very vulnerable, and it is getting cold.
Without all the organisational markers, the flag reminds me quietly that all objects, all works, are independent of their makers. They are their own beings, compounds of percepts and affects, just as we are. No more, no less. Objects are instrumentalised, not in essence, by a habit of thought. It is the same with art objects, which are often considered in close relation to their makers, their intentions, their brands in the market, when we could be thinking of them as self-evident creatures, liberated from biography.