Monday, October 10, 2011

Occupy Wellington

Six months in the life of the city. From the night of January 4, 1978, when a cabbage patch appeared out of nowhere in the vacant lot at the corner of Manners and Willis, until the month of June, when the area that had become known as ‘the Roxy’ was farewelled with a week-long party, and the works for the construction of the two-storey arcade that would replace it commenced. Six months that began with a nocturnal intervention by young artist Barry Thomas, who planted his cabbages not for sustenance but to use that blank urban space as a canvas. ‘I just want to say something, and instead of doing a painting that hangs in some institution, that’s my painting on the ground,’ he told the Evening Post some days later, adding: ‘I know I could be prosecuted, but I hope [property owner Anthony Konstanich] won’t. The work’s so harmless – I’m not a radical or anything, and I don’t want to go to jail.’

Thomas might have had other reasons beside the desire not to be arrested for describing his artwork, entitled ‘Vacant Lot Of Cabbages’, as a harmless, non-radical act, misdirection being the most obvious one. The medium he had chosen – compost and cabbage seedlings – was hardly likely to warrant jail time after all, and the piece cannily but nonetheless gently invited the passer-by to reflect on alternative uses of the land, as opposed to inciting a take-over by violent means. But there was genius in that seemingly timid opening, too, for it didn’t foreclose the meanings that the lot – now that it had been successfully trespassed – could take on if others cared to add to that impromptu art-show.

And add to it they did. First came the top half of a tricycle, painted in fluorescent pink by George Rose, hung on a wall at six metres of height and tethered to the cabbage patch by means of a trail of paint; then an IBM 7330 magnetic tape unit, which was deposited next to the patch and ‘plugged’ into it; then a scarecrow-waiter with a cabbage for a head; then a living room suite complete with sofa, armchairs and a television set; then a grave with the ‘corpse’ only half-buried. And this just in the first two weeks. During this time the absentee site owner, Mr Konstanich, went from cheerful to irritated, first wishing Mr Thomas a bumper crop, then lamenting that all of the intrusions and dumping of stuff on the property would hinder his efforts to develop it and put it to proper use.

On this point, some necessary context, in the form of the two years that elapsed from the demolition of the Roxy Theatre and the Duke of Edinburgh Hotel to the planting of the cabbages, and a string of newspaper articles and council queries and owner reassurances on the always seemingly imminent future of that empty space in the heart of the business district, at once an eyesore and a source of anxiety for the economic well-being of the city. The Tinakori branch of the Values Party had repeatedly petitioned the City Council to allow them to establish a temporary park on the site, only to be told that this would necessitate the owner’s authorisation, which wasn’t forthcoming. And so what it took to break the stalemate was an act of trespassing defused by humour, an artist’s statement calculated to buy time.

Six months is how much time it bought: six months during which a delimited section of the city remained open to intervention and reinvention. Some citizens might have been puzzled by some of the hardware that appeared next to the patch, but by all accounts they continued to look after the cabbages, and it was the cabbages themselves that dictated how long the show would run, for it would have been senseless to let them wilt.

Reports indicate that by harvesting time the Roxy had gone mainstream, attracting sponsorships and money from the Central Regional Arts Council, and helping the Commission for the Environment in turn to ‘promote public interest in trees’. To this end a ‘tree house’ cottage on wheels designed by architect Ian Athfield was built, initially drawn by Clydesdale horses from Rutherford House to the Roxy site, and later taken by Arbor Promotions on a tour of the North Island to sell native trees (or so it was planned). By this stage Mr Konstanich also appeared to have realised that the activities weren’t going to hurt his chances to profit from the property.

None of this however is to detract from the project, which is remembered by many people who lived through it as an important moment in the political and artistic life of the city. Of Thomas’ piece itself, Chris Trotter has written that it was ‘a conceptual artistic statement against the life-negating conservatism of the Muldoon years’, while Ian Wedde celebrated it as a 'work about ecology' that was also 'about public attitudes to art'; but what grew around the cabbage patch – chiefly in the forms of opportunities for expression – seems to have been just as important, and included more overt political speeches and works a papier-mâché pig with Muldoon’s face and the lines ‘Media Media expose the pig / Time to stop dancing to his jig’ scribbled on the back, installed by a ‘women’s action group’.

Then work started on the new building, erasing every trace of all that work. Art and political activism are accustomed to dealing with their own precarity, but the issues raised in relation to the Cabbage Patch are in some respects unique and, I think, significant from the point of view of current practice.

First of all, there is the question of how to preserve the memory of the work: where is the archive, where are the curators that will ensure that information about events projects such as this one are available to scholars, reporters, artists and activists? The documentation concerning the Cabbage Patch is not kept at Te Papa (it may be worth speculating as to why) or by any of Wellington’s universities, and for this post I have relied almost exclusively on Barry Thomas’ own archive and recollections. But personal networks and the efforts of individuals aren’t enough: sites of institutional memory are fundamental to preserve the genealogy of socio-political criticism and activism. There is a very plausible genealogy here, one that connects the movement against the extension of the motorway through Thorndon to the one against the Inner City bypass through Te Aro, but also the Springbok Tour protests and the Cuba Street Carnival, and the cabbage patch is likely linked in some way to all of them. Just as significant are the severed connections, for instance between the Cabbage Patch and Tao Wells’ Beneficiary’s Office – two works with much in common but sealed off from one another due to the lack of access to past local practice as a meaningful resource.

Then there is the implicit but no less stark contrast with the art that actively robs us of our memory.

Meet Regan Gentry’s Subject to Change, a work ‘commissioned by Wellington Sculpture Trust to commemorate the Wellington Inner City Bypass Project’ and ‘sponsored by NZ Transport Agency and Wellington City Council’ (as per the plaque; the emphasis is mine). This spit in the face of the wishes of the community, caught by Gentry in mid-air, is without doubt Wellington’s most galling publicly funded sculpture, and arguably the product of the same mindset that oversees the lack of institutional memory I have just described. A piece that is disdainful of its public, that instructs it to forget, to ‘get over’ the loss of heritage, paid for by the people who took a literal bulldozer to said heritage, representing both the death of irony and an utterly perverse use of the art form. We’d do well to remind ourselves that it is not all that Wellington is, and that the city has been the very opposite of that.

This Saturday something is going to happen and the people who are going to make it happen will lay claim to the phrase ‘occupy Wellington’. My strong reservations towards the ‘we are the 99%’ rhetoric notwithstanding, I look forward to finding out what form the local movement will take, if it takes shape at all. But none of the foregoing is intended as a lesson from the city’s past that ought to be heeded, nor as a sort of nostalgic exemplar: more as a hopefully not wholly untimely reminder that Wellington has a history of acts of trespassing, and of using art to engage the wider public and to pose political questions. This knowledge may be about to become useful again.

With many thanks to Barry Thomas for the conversations and giving me access to his archives, from which all of the images except for the penultimate one are taken. The Ian Wedde reference is from ‘Art’s Dirty Washing’, a review of the When Art Hits the Headlines show published in The Evening Post on January 20, 1988.

Last week's post is a part one, of sorts, of this one.