Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The God Who is There: in discourse with Schaeffer

It’s been a while for this old blog. Well, I recently read the late 1960s book (with a long lifespan and strong influence) by Francis Schaeffer, The God Who is There.

I often write reviews for the books I read, but with this one I started writing… and writing. A few thousand words later, it was too long for my usual posting venue, Goodreads. So here we are.

More than just a personal explosion of thoughts, I hope its a contemplatively critical point of view and that there’s some interesting stuff in here.


It was the 1960s, and the west was in a massive state of upheaval – everything in philosophy, art, theology and popular culture was under question and the ground was shifting. Postmodernity was coming down the line and Francis Schaeffer took it on himself to oppose the zeitgeist.

Intelligent Christian young people throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s were entering academic institutions and finding themselves in a very different world to that offered by the shelter of the presuppositions they enjoyed within the walls of the church.

Into that space of discombobulation came Schaeffer’s The God Who is There.

The book gave the gift of an intelligent response. That’s a very reassuring thing when facing a tide of confusing information that seems to be undermining your personal status quo. It provides a kind of raft, or even maybe an island, in the flux and flow. Schaeffer’s intelligence and strength of conviction provided a place of that kind, a position to inhabit. As a figurehead, people could even trust that Schaeffer was taking care of matters on the cut and thrust academic frontlines, and rest in that thought. No matter your belief system, it’s always nice to know you have intellectuals in your corner.

A key premise of the book is that culture and society is changed by a chain of influences that begins with philosophy, then into art, then into pop culture, then into society in general, then into theology, then (I suppose) into the church. The basis of this premise is never argued in the book – it is simply put forward as the way things are. In this schema, philosophers hold great power as progenitors and creators of cultural paradigms, rather than as (say) prophets of a new zeitgeist… i.e. they are creators more than they are observers or seers. They create the zeitgeist – they don’t just describe it.

A second key premise is the existence of something called the ‘line of despair’. I’m not sure of the methodology by which this is defined – again, it is simply put forward as the way things are. But as I understand it, it is some kind of tipping point whereby the paradigm shifts from the safety of a presupposition of a core dualistic rationality into some other space. This other space is adamantly described by Schaeffer as ‘despair’.

These two presuppositions combine in the opening thesis of the book: philosophers (via a chain of influences) have taken our entire culture and society below the line of despair. And the person most responsible for this shift (thanks to the chain of influences) – Schaeffer’s bogeyman – is 19th century Christian philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard. He wreaked this havoc, says Schaeffer, via his concept of the ‘leap of faith’.


A defence of Kierkegaard, if I may…

Kierkegaard, by his own design, attempted to play a role similar to a biblical prophet within his culture, and like any prophetic figure (or would-be prophetic figure) it’s important to take the original context into account. Kierkegaard was speaking into a 19th century Danish context. His ideas aren’t limited to that context, but that context forms part of the picture of what he’s driving at. His particular bugbear was with the way ‘Christianity’ had become a cultural phenomenon of mere middle-class respectability. For him this wasn’t true Christianity.

Because he was seeking to combat this respectability, he emphasised aspects of faith that undermined that citadel. One move was to highlight the ‘absurdity’ of Christianity, including such propositions as the idea that a 1st century AD Palestinian Jewish carpenter was God incarnate. This was not to make a mockery of Christianity but to point out, through this kind of example, that true Christianity requires a risk, and rationality will not mitigate this risk. That risk is a leap, and true Christianity requires that the individual take this leap. The core propositions of Christianity can not be taken merely as raw rational ‘facts’ or comfortable middle-class truisms. True Christianity is an existential proposition requiring something of the individual that goes beyond rationality. Rationality isn’t extinct – it just isn’t sufficient for making the final all-in move.

That’s how I understand Kierkegaard’s leap of faith, as it pertains to epistemology in the context of Christianity. His writing is very open to interpretation and, not only that, but he wrote under various pseudonyms that allowed him to try out various philosophical points of view. (It’s important to read the writings he penned under his own name to get at what he saw as the ‘truest things’ he held to.)

Another angle on the leap of faith that I love is this one from Clare Carlisle’s book, Kierkegaard: A guide for the perplexed:

‘Kierkegaard … uses both characters and metaphors to show the movements of existence. One of his most famous metaphors is the “leap of faith” (actually Kierkegaard does not use this phrase, but he uses the metaphor of a dancer’s leap to illustrate the movement of religious faith). This metaphor expresses the way in which faith is a “double movement”: it goes up towards God, but it also comes down to earth, and this shows that faith is not a withdrawal from the world but a way of living in the world through a relationship to God.’

To explore the metaphor further, it’s a grounded leap. Not a vague floaty leap or a plunge off a cliff. That being the case, Schaeffer needn’t have been so worried about Kierkegaard per se. Nonetheless, Schaeffer’s on-going issue is the move beyond rationality, and he continues to hold Kierkegaard in the dock.

Two things about this: Firstly, the real problem may be not what Kierkegaard said but what others did with elements of Kierkegaardian thought. If later Existentialists declared the end of rationality, with a move into an entirely arbitrary and chaotic universe, that is no fault of Kierkegaard’s. It’s problematic to hold a thinker responsible for what subsequent thinkers and interpreters do with his or her work. (As a side note, by the way, if we are to play that game (and I’m going to play a variation of it later on), I think it could be argued that a figure like Kierkegaard the philosopher and would-be ‘reformer’ could not have existed without Schaeffer’s beloved Reformation.)

Secondly, it’s beyond me to understand how Schaeffer can angle towards the idea that Christianity and life can be contained within rationality. The above example to wit. How one could arrive at the carpenter-man-incarnate-God phenomenon via purely rational means defies my imagination. And to claim to be doing so, it seems to me, is to risk making an idol of rationality.

In the first part of the second half of the book, Schaeffer makes a series of ‘biblical’ and/or ‘historical’ Christian propositions that he believes will provide meaning to individuals and culture and bring them back up above the line of despair. I have no particular quibble with these for what they are – it’s a solid summary of post-Reformation orthodoxy (which he calls ‘historic Christianity’), and I think the first of these (from which the other propositions flow) – that a transcendent-personal God is  – is not beyond the realms of reason. But even though that might be a reasonable proposition, it still requires the individual to take an existential leap of faith, or undergo some kind of felt personal experience that compels that leap, for their life to interweave with that proposition. 

Other propositions – such as the Bible being the word of God – also require a leap. There are reasons why this proposition about the Bible might be so, but none of them allow the proposition to be established as definitive fact. Highly compelling for some perhaps, but definitive, no. The proposition requires a response, and that response is the leap of faith.

Schaeffer very briefly admits later in the book that rationality by itself isn’t enough, and opposes ‘naked rationalism’, but still maintains his very high ideals of rationality (including a fierce position against mysticism). He reinforces the idea that everything should be grounded in a sense of the rational. Perhaps, if he had allowed himself to, he may have had more recourse to the metaphor of Kierkegaard’s grounded leap than he realised. In other writings, he admits that there is useful stuff in Kierkegaard, though he never sways from his line of despair construct and Kierkegaard’s role in it.

Those are my thoughts on Schaeffer’s relationship with Kierkegaard. But The God Who is There is much more than a riposte against Kierkegaard. It is first and foremost a work of apologetics, and I wonder about the legacy of that.

An apologetic discourse

Schaeffer, to his credit, was a man who engaged – he got into conversation with all kinds of people (artists, philosophers, plumbers), and he had a profound effect on thousands of young people via intelligent discourse. But, if his writings are anything to go by, the dynamic of these conversations assumed a form in which he appropriates the high ground and speaks downwards – didactic conversation with the ulterior motive of seeking to overcome the object’s point of view. This approach is borne out by the stories recorded in the book about times when he trumped other people’s philosophies and beliefs. That, you might say, is exactly what ‘evangelism’ is (no matter what system of belief you’re pushing), but whatever else it might be, it’s not a conversation with an equal power dynamic. Humility is at risk.

The book follows the model of classical evangelical discourse: generate a keen awareness of need (step one) and then provide a solution (step two). It is, therefore, largely a guide on how to mine out the tensions and inconsistencies in a non-Christian’s belief system so as to destabilise them in preparation for hearing the gospel. You’re meant to push them intellectually to the ‘logical conclusion’ of their beliefs (as if each belief system has just one logical conclusion) so as to demonstrate the unsustainable nature of that belief and the inconsistencies required of an individual to inhabit that space. (By ‘logical conclusion’, I think you could just as easily say ‘extreme version’ of the particular belief.) This leads to a useful ontological (existential) destabilisation in the apologetic object (i.e. the person you are preaching to). That’s a high stakes game – you’re playing with the individual’s mental and emotional well-being. But it’s justified, in Schaeffer’s theology and by his own claim, if you are doing it in a bid to rescue the individual from eternal hellfire. Talk about taking philosophies to their logical conclusion.

All this, I suppose, with the supposition by Schaeffer that there are no tensions in Christian belief (back to Kierkegaard for the contra) and no ‘logical conclusion(s)’ of some aspects of Christian belief(s), in all their wide varieties, that might lead somewhere detrimental (arguably the one about hellfire mentioned above, for example). Reformed theology certainly isn’t immune from this. I’m not sure who the arbiter of definitive ‘logical conclusion’ is, but apparently singular logical conclusions exist out there. Possible outcomes? Sure. One inevitable outcome? Not so sure… spoken (like many other things in this review, I acknowledge) like a true postmodern.

It’s all done with the best intentions, of course, because the evangeliser wants to give the gift of peace, meaning and reconciliation with self and God. I don’t say that cynically – that is genuinely the heartfelt desire. But the methodology, and presuppositions of the methodology, is I think problematic (to put it mildly).

The triggering of an existential crisis as an apologetical strategy. It’s a different mode, but the same basic premise as the hellfire preaching of previous eras. So for all Schaeffer’s talk about rationality and the use of a type of rationality in his argument, in the end he’s relying on emotion – this enhanced state of discombobulation – to spark a movement in his apologetical object (i.e. the individual being evangelised)… to prompt an: existential leap. That leap is how the individual escapes the crisis situation they find themselves in. It’s a human mechanism that we all employ no matter what our underlying belief systems are, to gain a tenable space in which to live.

An impact on culture

The cultural legacy of this book is also something worth considering. It’s clear that Schaeffer saw the 1960s cultural climate as being inherently dangerous and that figures within it were deliberate in their dangerous initiatives. The artist Marcel Duchamp ‘will seek to destroy you from within yourself’ (p35). Regarding the viewing of a particular art exhibition in Amsterdam in 1965, ‘though the girl could not perhaps analyse what she saw, yet surely she would be more ready to say “Yes” [to sex, I assume, from the context] by the time she came out’ (p36). In the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album ‘the words, the syntax, the music, and the unity of the way the individual songs are arranged, form a unity of infiltration’ (p43).  

While Schaeffer himself did engage (in a perhaps tightly controlled, risk adverse and ulterior way), and even urged evangelicals to properly understand the culture and not to adopt a ‘citadel mentality’, the unfortunate legacy (following here his own chain of influence model) of his painting of the evils, darkness and danger of contemporary culture has, in practice, a fear-based outcome that fed or feeds into the culture wars, and perhaps the church becoming ever-more disconnected from the rest of society.

When Schaeffer encourages us to understand the culture, it’s not so we can participate in it, or even mine it for gold. It’s so we can learn how best to criticise it, repudiate it and fight against it.

The book was wildly popular and the backcover blurb of the edition I have (printed sometime after Schaeffer’s death in 1984) begins with: ‘The landmark book that changed us all’. By ‘us all’, I assume they mean evangelicals. A highly defensive, ‘them and us’ point of view within the reformed/evangelical/fundamentalist milieu that sees danger everywhere instead of gifts is, I think, part of the legacy of the book. We saw it recently when Christians freaked out about Marxism and critical theory around the BLM movement.

The sad thing about this is that it deprives Christianity of the potential benefits of new insights that might be gained from genuine conversation and cuts it off from the culture that surrounds it. As controversial as it may sound, Marxism and critical theory, for example, have some excellent insights to share – especially with regard to power dynamics and oppression, which can dovetail with the teachings of Jesus. But – equally as sad – a shutting down of genuine conversation also deprives other modes of thinking from gaining insights from Christianity.

On a personal note, in attacking Kierkegaard and also mysticism (as he does later on), Schaeffer is attacking two threads that have helped bring my own faith to life in the postmodern context that we inhabit. Contrary to his argument, I believe that they have helped keep me from despair (or companioned me when I’ve experienced despair), rather than pushed me below the line.

I struggle with the innate pessimism in Schaeffer’s readings of creative fields. This is also true of Schaeffer’s friend H R Rookmaaker, author of the ominously titled, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture. Their interpretations often lack generosity, love and grace, and therefore also lack an essence of redemption. For example, in Schaeffer’s reading of Dali (pp66-68), instead of celebrating an awakening in Dali’s work to a sacramental presence in the world, he simply provides theological criticism and put-down. And in his reading of Henry Miller  (pp74-77), he fails to celebrate Miller’s discovery of a divine creative source in the world, instead denying Miller the use of biblical language to describe his discoveries. It seems stingy.

Fortunately, today there are Christian thinkers who do genuinely engage. They don’t throw their hands up in horror at postmodernity and wish for a different world – they understand that postmodernity is simply where we’re at. That’s how N T Wright can express the idea (while still remaining within the scope of orthodoxy) that every generation must work out what Christianity means in their generation. It’s also how James K A Smith can write a book called Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism and glean some wonderful gifts from postmodern theorists, or Daniel Siedell can write a book called God in the Gallery and make something marvellous, immersed as he is in the art world.

Then again, we are called to be a counter culture. We must critique the culture. Christianity was a counter culture at its inception and has often functioned that way – a different way of being, a prophetic imagination (a la Walter Brueggemann). There is emptiness and despair present in the world (and I noticed it more so while reading a particular graphic novel alongside Schaeffer). But all is not meaningless chaos (inside and outside the church) – love abides, there is a Presence… on such things Christianity insists, despite whatever the odds may be. The possibility of hope in every context. So Schaeffer gives us that challenge, and the gift of critical thinking, and it is well-heeded so long as we come at it with openness, humility and love. And in that context, sometimes the leap of faith to which Schaeffer seemed so adverse will be necessary. It just is.

As serendipity would have it, at the same time as I was reading Schaeffer, I was also reading Henri Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer. Published three years apart, both books try to diagnose what ails (late 1960s / early 1970s) ‘contemporary man’. Nouwen notices that contemporary man is seeking transcendence in one of two primary ways: mysticism and revolution.

Unlike Schaeffer, who doesn’t address revolution and treats mysticism as anathema, Nouwen enters into those two fields, sits with them in a humble, empathetic and non-alarmist way and proposes that, rather than shooting them down, mysticism and revolution can flourish and come together in rather a marvellous way in Christianity. Jürgen Moltmann performs a similar move in his writings.

This is the creative approach – employing a prophetic imagination, which does not clang shut and bolt the doors, but opens up. Rather than setting up a separate world, Nouwen enters into the heart of the world and does his work there – an incarnational move.

Schaeffer and me

I think this long review was a conversation I needed to have with a powerful force from my formative years. Although this was the first time I’ve read this book for myself, Schaeffer’s thinking was a powerful influence in the evangelical and Reformed worlds I was educated in. In a way, this has been the 15-year-old in me, making the response I wish I could have made back then. 

As for my university years in the late 1990s, although my background of having a Reformed Christian high school education helped provide me with the gift of critical thinking, I’m glad I didn’t read Schaeffer at that time. Instead, I developed a strategy of noticing gold in critical theory, postmodernism, modern poetry and contemporary art. I’m glad I didn’t set up a defensive position against it, as I might have done under the influence of Schaeffer. Even when I read Rookmaaker’s Modern Art and the Death of a Culture something didn’t sit right. With Schaeffer lurking in the philosophical background of my upbringing and education, it’s no wonder, by the way, that I felt a thrilling sense of being a bit of a rebel when I first became intrigued by Kierkegaard.

Barth, Tillich, Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, Rahner, Macquarrie – all important names in 20th century theology, and all get a bad rap from Schaeffer for their ‘dangerous’, or at least misguided, theologies. It’s clear that, in the great tradition of Reformed theology, Schaeffer feels he has a handle on definitive Truth, that his theology is the one that got it right. But many of these names are ones that I’m interested in, with compelling ideas to contribute. (By chance, Tillich is next on my reading list.) 

My approach is to have orthodoxy as an anchor point and then approach these thinkers with genuine curiosity and generosity. Despite all my critiques, it’s something I’ve tried to do with this very book (for example, I really liked Schaeffer’s sections on ‘truth and spirituality’ and ‘the God behind truth’ in which he agrees, without noticing it, with aspects of Kierkegaard and Karl Barth, and gives a passing nod to the study of semantics (semiotics) – a favourite pastime of postmodernism). Glean the gifts and feel free to disagree, while keeping an open hand. It’s less defensive, and it’s creatively interesting and generative. It’s the same with art and culture.

Fifty years after Schaeffer wrote his book, and the tide of the 1960s cultural shift has passed through, this is what’s become of us. This, I think, is what the Christian in postmodernity does. Where, for example, Schaeffer posits a battle between theism and pantheism, a third term has emerged: panentheism (i.e. the idea that the presence of God is around and through everything, but not that everything is God). Where Schaeffer posits a battle between the rational and irrational, the third term transrational has emerged, suggesting that there a mode of knowing beyond the rational and irrational duality. I’m not sure that Schaeffer would have liked it, and there are still those of his ilk fighting the battle, but I think we are basically ok. Christianity – working out faith in context with trembling – is always going to be some kind of negotiation, if not struggle, but we’ve not yet sunken into despair. The Spirit is still at work.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

video experiment

An experimental video I did for the LBC. I wanted to play around with the concept of a 'static' video, where the camera doesn't move for an extended period.

Originally the idea was to use this as a back drop for the live performance of the LBC piece bypass/impasse. But I used other footage for that in the end.

The video is pretty meditative ... the only real editing happens around the halfway mark.

Shot on the Kaiaua foreshore, Firth of Thames, New Zealand on a GoPro Hero2.

Experiment in static landscape video from andrew killick on Vimeo.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Pride and Refuse: the installation (Transitions 2014)

In the first weekend of November 2014, the Lower Bar Collective (LBC) put on a three-day event at the Silo Park (Silo 6) in Auckland's Wynyard Quarter. This involved inviting other sound / experimental artists and visual artists to utilise the silo space. Other than providing the video content for the LBC performances (as usual), I also installed a piece in one of the silos called 'Pride and Refuse'.


The genesis for the 'Pride and Refuse' piece came about a number of years ago after reading Pensées by Blaise Pascal, and in particular the following quote, describing the paradoxical nature of humankind:
“Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depository of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error; the pride and refuse of the universe.” 
From there, the concept was matched with an aesthetic idea I had been playing with, doodling humanesque outline figures. I was interested in picture clusters and so decided to create a cluster in which these figures appeared against various impressive skies. These skies were eventually photographed from our balcony in Brookfield over several months and combined with the existing figures that had been drawn sometime earlier. The result can be seen here.

By this time I had reached a place where I felt like I had a enough work I was happy with to begin putting out exhibition proposals to several galleries. I constructed a proposal for a Safe Little World exhibition, consisting of four large clusters of small photographs, some with graphic interventions (I call these images photo/graphic).

This resulted in my first showing at Draw Inc in Hamilton, though just one of the four pieces was shown. The proposal was declined by another gallery (Blue Oyster in Dunedin), but came back with constructive criticism. The advice was to focus the conceptual frame of my proposed exhibition.

This was fair critique. Although the four pieces in the proposal were linked by my general safe little world concept, they didn't tell one particular story as a group of works.

Within the wider safe little world idea, conceptually I was most interested in the 'Pride and Refuse' cluster, and knew it had an aesthetic and conceptual link to another of my pieces - one named 'Falling / Rising', a cluster of nine photographs I had taken of a white cloth dummy in mid-flight (here).

I had been wanting to try out other media, so I decided to flesh out the pride and refuse concept and make the connection between the 'Pride and Refuse' cluster and the 'Falling / Rising' cluster more explicit by the addition of 15 cloth dummies to be suspended from the ceiling in a cloud (one dummy for each of outline figures in the 'Pride and Refuse' cluster, and modeled on the dummy that appeared in the 'Falling / Rising' cluster) and 15 adhesive vinyl outline figures, of similar dimensions to the cloth dummies, to be applied to the floor. This would give me an installation consisting of four elements (the two existing framed clusters plus the two new elements) - and possibly five with the addition of an ambient soundtrack provided by the LBC. I made a proposal based on this new installation idea to a gallery in Wellington, which was declined.


Since performing in the silos for the Auckland Fringe Festival in early 2013, the gentlemen of the LBC had fallen in love with the space and entertained the idea of staging our own event in there.

The idea was conceived to invite other sound artists and visual artists into the space for a weekend. The Auckland City Council approved our plans and gave us use of the space.

The silos are configured in an interconnected set of six (hence 'Silo 6'), and offer a unique acoustic space and industrial setting. It was the perfect opportunity for me to utilise the 'Pride and Refuse' installation in one of the silos.

With this project greenlit, I now got underway (for the first time) with actualising the elements of the installation.

Prior to this, I had already been thinking, without any particular opportunity being confirmed, of getting the pieces made so that the installation was at least out of my head and into a more concrete form. I had already asked my father-in-law, René, (a wizard at constructing things with a sewing machine) if he would be prepared to make the cloth dummies, and had obtained quotes from signwriters for making the adhesive vinyl outline figures.

Using the original cloth dummy (the hero of the 'Falling / Rising' cluster), René now made a pattern and got to work on 15 new dummies. The vinyl adhesive figures were taken care of (beautifully and very generously) by Benefitz in Auckland. Meanwhile, I had the 24 photographic images printed for the two clusters and then framed them up.

The Installation

The elements were completed and duly assembled. Anna, my wife, was unwell at the time but I thought I'd still manage to complete the installation with a daytrip to Auckland. In the event, she was too unwell for me to go away for that long, and it looked like the project was going to stumble near the last hurdle.

The collective kicked into action, and LBC members Mal, Matt and Rob went above and beyond to make it happen. In the midst of all the chaos of the other organisational aspects of the Transitions event, Mal (in particular), with help from fellow exhibiting artist Kristin, spent several hours installing the piece after it was sent to Auckland on over-night courier. This was no mean feat considering the piece had never been installed before. A few relatively minor technical challenges presented themselves and were solved, via Mal's initiative, my detailed written instructions and a few phonecalls between us.

Utilising one of the silo spaces, the two photo/graphic framed clusters were hung on the concrete walls (using 3M Command Adhesive strips). The 15 dummies were suspended in the centre of the space by fishing line from the existing hopper structure, and the vinyl adhesive figures were applied to the floor.

At some point in the afternoon of the installation, I started receiving cell pics of the installation in situ. It's a strange feeling never to have seen and experienced the installation in person, but it was a pretty amazing feeling to receive those pictures.

It was also a massive privilege to be exhibiting alongside the other visual artists that we had invited into the space for the Transitions event: Belinda Griffiths, Beau Cotton, Arthur Amon and Kristin Herman.

Following are a number of images that document the piece:

The last three images were shot by, and are courtesy of, funkypancake.

Although the fifth element of the original concept (an LBC audio soundtrack) wasn't part of this installation per se, over the course of the weekend the piece was immersed in incidental sound provided by the various musicians and artists who performed. Actually this is probably the aspect that I most regret missing out on - experiencing in person those various sounds enveloping and adding layers, by proximity, to my artwork.

Three evocative pieces of media that relate to this sonic context emerged from the weekend. The first is an image of Colin Wood playing his saxophone in my space. The second is of the act DJ Popular Music using my space for part of their dance performance. The third is a video shot by funkypancake of the LBC's opening performance. The video features my cloth dummies in the opening minutes and also gives some idea of the silo space in general. The music is a piece called 'Nana'.



Art emerges from community. A number of people made this possible out of the amazing kindness of their hearts. Malcolm Dunn, Rob Morgan and Matt Findlay of the LBC for making the installation happen even though I couldn't be there in person. René Sjardin for patterning, stitching and stuffing. Aidan and Simon of Benefitz (a superb printing company in Auckland) for the adhesive vinyl figures. All the people who donated to the PledgeMe campaign I ran back in 2011 that enabled me to buy all the frames for the clusters (and Harrison Frames who gave me a great price at the time). Anna, my wife, for putting up with my ramblings and thoughts-in-process, and giving me a free hand to create the artwork.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

another Lower Bar Collective event

Another Lower Bar Collective (and Safe Little World) event coming up...

Other than providing the visuals to accompany the music of the LBC (and designing the above poster), I'm doing an installation for the event called 'Pride and Refuse'. This installation has been sitting in concept stage for more than a couple of years, so it's pretty cool to be able to finally exhibit the thing.

My father-in-law has finished work on 15 cloth dummies, I've framed 24 little photographic prints, the 15 adhesive vinyl outline men arrived from the printers today ... it's all go.

Event info:

Name: (Lower Bar Collective Presents) Transitions

Date: Friday 31 October – Sunday 2 November. 6 – 10 pm Friday. 11 am – 10.45 pm Saturday. 11 am – 3 pm Sunday.

Location: Silo Six, Silo Park, Wynyard Quarter.

Blurb: The Lower Bar Collective presents Transitions, experimental music and art installations. For one weekend, the Auckland-based collective takes over the silo space, inviting fellow sound and visual artists to present their material in that unique acoustic and aesthetic environment.

Sound artists: Lower Bar Collective; Colin Woods; Paul Buckton; Panhandlers; Baby Took My Dingo; Terracotta Cat; Reverbaphon; Ben Lawrence; Kraus; DJ Popular Music; Saturnian Noise

Installation artists: Belinda Griffiths; Beau Cotton; Kristin Herman; Arthur Amon; Peace Myth; Safe Little World (Andrew Killick).

A diverse array of music and sound performances (from ambient to experimental) take place continuously over the three-day programme, with the installations concurrently open for viewing. Entry is free.

Further details: and

Sunday, October 19, 2014

safe little world in cambodia

The Safe Little World concept was always grounded in the context of a quiet suburban backwater in New Zealand, and I've always wondered what would happen to it in a different situation - one with less comfort and a different culture. As things transpired, I had the opportunity to test that question on a recent trip to Cambodia.

The contrast between Tauranga and Phnom Penh in many ways couldn't be more stark. With this shift out of a comfort zone, the comfort of western suburbia which is inherent in the Safe Little World concept was immediately destabilised and then thrown into a light that exaggerated just how obvious our western expectations of comfort are. The sarcastic phrase "first world problems" is probably the most apt way to describe this in a nutshell. But the Safe Little World concept has also always embodied a paradox. The paradox is that our safe worlds have the potential to come under threat - and Cambodia's history and our experience of it as visitors definitely bore that out (encapsulated, for example, in a visit to S-21).

Other than a critique of our western sense of a safe little world in the context of a developing nation, it could be interesting to see if the underlying concept of a safe little world was found wherever we go. The question is, is it a fundamentally human drive, no matter where humans find themselves, to try to create a safe haven? The short answer is yes. This drive may embody itself slightly differently and have unique cultural manifestations, but ultimately this is a very human trait.

No matter how much, or how little, you give a person; no matter the threats, upheavals or fragility, humans seek to create a space for themselves.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

once upon a time...

Once upon a time, before there were nasty apps and automatic one-touch filters, mankind wrestled interesting visual effects from his images by lengthy processes of hands-on experimentation.

Yesterday, while digging through my photography drawer, I came across some old b&w photography lens filters and my old Waltex magnifier.

How to make images 1 & 2: First, take a red lens filter (darkens sky in b&w photography, lightens skin tones, but not in colour photography). Look out your front windows on a rainy day. Point your digital camera at the view through the red filter. Take photo. Second, take a green lens filter (lightens foliage in b&w photography, but not in colour photography). Repeat.

How to make images 3 & 4: First get in your car (or your brother's car) and drive all the way to Whanganui. Drive up the Whanganui River road to the settlement of Jerusalem (where James K Baxter used to live). Stop and get out in the pouring rain. Wander onto the covenant grounds. Take photo with your Russian-manufactured Lomo analogue film camera (which you bought on ebay from the Ukraine) of statue of Mary looking heavenward into the overcast sky. Shoot it onto slide film. Go home and have slides developed. Over ten years later, rediscover your Waltex magnifier. Get out your old 35mm slides and select photo of Mary. In one hand, hold the magnifier and slide together. With the other hand press the lens of your digital camera up to the magnifier view-finder. Take pictures.

Tips for image 3: embrace the dust spots - they look like stars.

Tips for image 4: achieve the green tint by pointing the magnifier, slide and camera at the green foliage outside your kitchen window.

 (Click em to see em larger.) 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

stations of the cross 2014

Another little Stations of the Cross exhibition at church this year. This time I'm doing Station XIII - 'Jesus is taken down from the cross'.

My concept came from noticing the red leaves that were falling from a tree in our backyard. In the northern hemisphere, Easter coincides with Spring, which fits the resurrection motif rather nicely - new life emerging from the dead earth. But in the southern hemisphere, Easter occurs in Autumn, seasonally fitting with the death and falling motif. So fallen leaves were a material that was close at hand for this piece.

Death and resurrection are woven into the fabric of nature. Nature pays tribute to the death and resurrection of its Creator.

Trees have long been associated with the cross and Christ is often said to have been hung on a 'tree' (the tree being a metaphor for the wooden cross, relating to the Old Testament statement, 'cursed is he who is hung upon a tree').

So my piece is of a bare tree, having shed its 'life', its leaves which turn red in the process of dying and falling - a metaphor of Christ dying on the cross - where they lay scattered on the ground. I then gathered them up off the dirty ground and placed them in a pure white bowl as a kind of offering, in a way that relates to Christ's body being poured out as an offering and being gathered up for burial. The picture of the bare tree and its offering of shed blood-red leaves appear together in the station.

My 2012 and 2013 stations are here and here.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Thursday, October 03, 2013

On Sailing

Early this week I watched an interview with Dean Barker on Campbell Live. Over the last few weeks, you could have caught me in front of the TV at 8.00am most mornings watching the America's Cup racing, and you would have assumed that I was a bit of a fan, and I would have agreed. You would have caught me yelling abuse at Oracle, when they forced Team NZ into 'irons' before the start of one of the races and then claimed two penalties when Team NZ had no option but to touch boats. You would have seen my mood darkened a little for the rest of the day on losing days. You would have seen me relishing the American commentators' mispronunciation of Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill's last name - accidentally separating out the last syllable and thereby making the distinct syllables too obvious. Spit Hill. Things like that betray the fact that I was quite caught up in the drama of the event.

But as I sat watching the Barker interview the other night, I was struck by just how deep my feelings ran. They tapped into something more deeply cultural and a part of my life than I realised.

There are a couple of things. The first is about this Dean Barker fellow. He is a man who embodies a number of New Zealand cultural ideals. He is another in the vein of a handful of New Zealand national heroes such as Ed Hilary and Peter Blake. We can't place him in their league just yet, but he embodies a number of the characteristics that we New Zealanders admire. Humble, loyal, dedicated, determined, passionate in a way that speaks through action rather than words.  And, like the best of our heroes, he engaged a challenge that was made all the more difficult by the odds and by the modest resources at hand. By the nature of our size in the world, our national psyche is drawn to David and Goliath scenarios.

The second awareness I was struck by was how much sailing is part of me. Growing up in Auckland, and spending holidays in the Hauraki Gulf, the sea and boats were a normal part of my life. My father was a passionate sailor in those days - I'm not sure where his love of sailing sprung from, but he served his compulsory military service in the navy. On one occasion he was summonsed to the bridge - mistakenly, it turned out. A ranking officer had asked to see 'Killick' and the messenger, apparently unaware that it's naval tradition to call a Leading Seaman 'Killick', instead fetched my father, a lowly teenager wondering why on earth his presence had been commanded. The nickname comes from the fact that a Leading Seaman's insignia is an anchor, and 'killick' is an old word for 'anchor'.

When I was a kid, boats were everywhere. At one count, our family had a total of about eleven or twelve water craft hanging around the house. Dinghies, canoes, windsurfers, yachts - those sorts of things. You wouldn't know from watching the America's Cup today, but sailing wasn't necessarily the domain of the rich (at least when I was kid). There were plenty of 'dungers' on the harbour - every man and his dog had a boat of some sort.  I actually wasn't all that into sailing myself. I was more likely to be working on my colouring-book below deck or wondering why it was better to have a yacht than a launch, given that a launch gets you there much more quickly. Sometimes I was reluctant ballast or, as I got older, put in charge of the headsail (it's pronounced 'headsil') sheet as my father piloted his tan-sailed gaff-rig dory up and down Bon Accord Harbour on Kawau Island. 

But it gets inside you nonetheless. The sea, the wind, the shower of spray, looking up at the top of the mast as it twitches against the clouds - knowing that the ocean and the elements are perhaps too powerful to play with, and that it is only by their goodwill that you are allowed to feel moments of mastery.

In the 1970s, my father's passion for sailing took him to the limits of the sport - ocean racing. Auckland to Noumea. And Fiji on another trip. In accordance with this, the main and insurpassable sporting event in our household was the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race, with names like Peter Blake, Digby Taylor and Grant Dalton. Up at Kawau Island we'd listen to Pete Montgomery commentating on the radio as the boats entered the Hauraki Gulf after days at sea. My father and I climbed up to a high vantage point on the island and saw the leading boat emerge into view. I remember seeing Steinlager (or was it Steinlager II?), in strong wind, powering on towards Auckland harbour - red against the green sea. 

Amongst all of that, and in a similar context, the America's Cup entered our consciousness. Firstly via the successful Australian challenge in 1983. Then in 1987, when I was 10, the New Zealand era commenced. KZ7 losing to (Dirty) Dennis Connor in the challenger series, and then Connor taking it back from the Australians. Then 1988 and the Big Boat - more dirty tricks. By now it's all become part of New Zealand legend. And then in 1995, NZ's Black Magic wins the cup.  There is quite literally rejoicing in the streets. My best mate and I catch the bus and head into Auckland City for the ticker-tape parade to welcome the cup to its new home. Jubilation and, it would seem, one of the greatest things ever to happen to Auckland and New Zealand. It's an experience hard to describe but, as Team NZ passes by on the back of truck, with streamers everywhere I think I get eye-contact with tactician Brad Butterworth and I see there what I take to be the look of a man utterly humbled by being in the midst of the celebration and even somewhat bemused by the fuss.  If ever I'm proud to be a New Zealander, it's at this moment.

There are more ups and downs to the story in the years that follow - more drama, victory, betrayal and disappointment. And as I sit and watch the Dean Barker interview, I  look back and see now that as the modern history of the America's Cup ran parallel to my formative years, it wove its way into my psyche and the essence of my New Zealandness. 

As the interview finishes, I know that it would indeed be a strange thing not to see New Zealand competing, and it would be unfinished business and deeply unsatisfying not to witness Dean Barker one day lift the cup.  

Pictured below... (Top) My father, in the 1970s, somewhere between New Zealand and some Pacific island.  (Bottom) Me, age two and a half, standing in front of the dinghy 'Clive' on Kawau Island.       


Tuesday, October 01, 2013

the continuing adventures of the lower bar collective

It's been a pretty fun year for the LBC - the last three months have been particularly busy - well, relatively-speaking.

Since performing at the Auckland Fringe festival early in the year, we performed for the first time in Tauranga at Major Toms in August.

Then in September we returned to the Audio Foundation in Auckland... roughly 13 months since our debut performance. Was very nice indeed to have Paul Smith (aka Spool, aka Reverbaphon, aka Peace Myth) perform on the same bill - a Scottish architect who makes "off-kilter, non idiomatic music and experimental film. Within the experimental electronica scene he has toured throughout the UK and played alongside artists such as Kieren Hebden (Four Tet), Robin Rimbaud (Scanner), Christopher Horne (Christ / Boards of Canada), Robin Guthrie (Cocteu Twins), Noah Lennox and Josh Dibb (Animal Collective), James Leyland Kirby (VVM) and collaborated with Matt Wand (Stockhausen and Walkman) at the Edinburgh fringe festival."

This month (October) we are scheduled to play in Tauranga again, at Zeus Gallery (kind of coincidentally on the opening night of the Tauranga Arts Festival - we're unofficial). As usual I'll be supplying the imagery for the video projection and controlling that for the performance.

Also this month, we have done a 'Sonic Postcard' for a project running on Audio Foundation's radio station. The Sonic Postcard features a live recording of the Major Toms performance, plus sounds recorded on the Mount beach and a poem I wrote for the purpose. Our postcard will air this Saturday (October 5) here.

Below are images from our Major Toms performance (top two) and the Audio Foundation (bottom).