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).

Saturday, May 25, 2013

faith and media

A few weeks ago, I finished reading Bob Briner's book Roaring Lambs. It's been on my 'to read' list since I first became aware of it some 15 years ago. It was published in 1993 and can be considered a seminal work in regard to Christian cultural engagement, one which encouraged Christians to leave the citadel and become involved in the 'secular' world of cultural production. I feel the book is of its time; it still has some things to say, I think, but it left me feeling uneasy, blinking at some of the rhetoric, and examining how my own thinking has changed over the years.

I drafted this piece a number of weeks ago, but let it sit. I'm not a big fan of critiquing what other people believe. And in Briner's case, he made a significant contribution to Christian cultural development, so I feel a little reticent about a critique here too. My last critique was spring-boarded by something that Madeleine L'Engle wrote about chaos, and I felt a bit guilty, because overall her book Walking on Water is beautiful. On the other hand, I believe that Christian writing and thinking on culture is now rich enough to bear critique. And anyway, this stuff is worth discussing... who knows, maybe in a couple of years I'll have changed my mind about some things, or maybe not.  It's all ultimately borne out of a personal process of sorting through culture, theology, orthodoxy, personal experience and personal inclinations. There's no stasis in that process.

In Roaring Lambs, Brimar's thesis is framed around the concept of a battle for the hearts and minds of the (American) population. He paints a vision of Christians infiltrating the worlds of film, TV, music, art etc - making an incursion, having a deliberate agenda and strategy to influence the media towards Christian values (whatever those might be defined as). Thus, although he wonderfully steers Christians away from the negativity and (he says) pointlessness of boycotts and continual complaining, he still adheres to the idea that Christians are somehow under siege; that we are in some kind of cultural battle.

But if this is a 'conflict', then what is the 'other side' doing? I'm sure there may be lobby groups and interested parties (who have ideas that differ from Christian values) who are hoping to influence media towards communicating certain notions, but on the whole, the industry is not like that. I don't think that it's naive to say that, on the whole, the media industry is simply creating product and material to provide to the individual. We could categorise this material in three ways. At 'top' level, producers are aiming to create 'art' - that is, material that seeks to express and investigate the human condition. Also at 'top' level is the idea of providing material that might expand a viewer's understanding of the world. Next level 'down', producers are seeking to create 'entertainment' - that is, material simply for the viewer's enjoyment and diversion - material that will accentuate certain emotions in the viewer in accordance with the viewer's wishes. Then on the next level down again, producers are simply creating 'content' - that is, material to feed the media machine - doesn't really matter what - just push it through and get it out there - better to have something on the screen than nothing. In reality, these levels are not firm categories - a lot of material will exhibit the characteristics of more than one.

I'm not saying this makes media somehow morally neutral - morals and values are communicated in and through all these types of material, but I am saying that the motives of its producers are not, by and large, the intentional propagation of a particular moral agenda. In other words, the material is not intentionally 'evangelistic'.* They are simply producing material out of their own experience and personalities, and out of (and for) the cultural milieu in which they find themselves, catering for the desires of the audience.

We, as Christians, can envisage the whole thing as some kind of battle, but the imagined 'other side' (ie those in the secular world who don't embrace the Christian faith) do not. They are, by and large, just getting on with doing their jobs.

The problem, for me, is that a fixed motivating agenda always seems to create art or media that comes across as somehow not genuine. When the agenda (no matter what that agenda may be) is the creator's primary motive, the art of storytelling, the nuances of reality, and believability, almost always seem to suffer. The medium begins to function simply as bait on the hook. I'm sure Brimer would agree with me on this to a degree - he would argue for the highest quality material. But nonetheless, still this nagging thought that if an art or media is primarily agenda-driven, at some point it will reveal itself as disingenuous, the viewer will smell a rat, see it for what it perhaps really is - propaganda - and turn off.

In my art (or whatever creative output I'm involved with) I want any 'Christian content' to be utterly natural. If elements of the Christian faith are sitting in the subtext of the piece, they are there simply because they form part of the personality of the artist. My beliefs will inevitably inform the way I see the world (everyone has worldview). I hope that the viewer finds the subtext compelling or even attractive (of course I do - all artists do), but have I created the piece with the aim of converting the viewer to a message that I've intentionally woven into the subtext? No. I know from early, well-intentioned, experience that when I've tried to do that, the artistry always suffered and the piece always came out somehow dishonest.

So, should Christians be involved in the arts and media? Of course, why not? Everybody else is. But I don't think we should envisage ourselves as some kind of special agent infiltrating enemy territory - as if we are involved in some kind of cultural 'jihad'. Being involved in the media and arts should be a question of innate personal passion rather than agenda. It's about telling honest stories. For the Christian, their honest story will inevitably touch on aspects of the Christian faith (implicitly or explicitly). But be aware that as soon as art has the aim of converting or influencing everyone towards the artist's beliefs (whatever those beliefs happen to be), it runs the risk of being perceived as what it most likely is - not art but propaganda.

Salt and light have no agenda; their efficacy, any benefit that the world may obtain from them, comes through simply being what they are. Art and media by Christians should be art and media created by real people who have a natural inclination towards creating art and media (an inclination, shall we say, which would be there whether they were Christians or not), being truthful about how life is and their experience of it, operating out of their talents and abilities, honestly being involved as everyday members of society. Investigate human existence and let faith weave itself naturally through your investigation and life as it is wont to do, but don't envisage it as a tasty morsel to wrap around a hook.    


* The massive exception to this is, of course, advertising.

Monday, April 01, 2013

truth, art, ugliness, cosmos and chaos

I'm currently reading 'Walking on Water' by Madeleine L'Engle and I took exception to a beautifully rendered and attractive idea that she expresses early in her book. Perhaps the rest of the book will explore the nuances and paradoxes a little more, but the proposal she makes at the outset, I think, needs discussion.

... all art is cosmos, cosmos found within chaos. At least all Christian art (by which I mean all true art...) is cosmos in chaos. There's some modern art, in all disciplines, which is not; some artists look at the world around them and see chaos, and instead of discovering cosmos, they reproduce chaos, on canvas, in music, in words. As far as I can see, the reproduction of chaos is neither art, nor is it Christian. 

But is she right? We agree and disagree. There was a tendency in Christian art theory of the 20th century to set up a dualism between chaos/ugliness and truth/Christian/beauty. A key mover in this was H.R. Rookmaaker. The title of his famous work sort of sums it up: "Modern Art and the Death of a Culture". Historically speaking, it's a reactionary movement (as many cultural, philosophical and artistic movements are). Faced with an influx of modern art which dealt with the unsettling, the confrontational, the unattractive and the chaotic, Christian thinkers responded with an art theory that set truth and beauty in opposition to the nihilistic tendencies of 20th century culture.

And as a believer, you know my heart responds to that idea. The Christian faith is about bringing light to darkness, truth to lies, beauty to ugliness, life to death, existence to non-existence, meaning to meaninglessness. And as an 'artist', my heart responds to the idea of making cosmos out of chaos - and I think, mainly speaking, my artistic intentions are along those lines.

But art should tell all three sides of the story.

I'll state my thesis: chaos and ugliness are not the opposite of truth. Therefore an art which describes chaos and ugliness is not inherently untruthful and not inherently anti-Christian. And it is certainly not inherently 'non-art'.

If one were to describe the world around us - or the world inside us - as it currently stands - one would need to make reference to chaos and ugliness. All this is subjective, of course, but an honest look at things will reveal that the universe (and our experience of the universe) is a dark, cold place (both literally and metaphorically). Nihilism is understandable. Chaos is a fitting representation of an aspect of our existence. Sometimes ugliness is the best way to describe a situation. So chaos and ugliness are true.

I'm not sure which artists L'Engle had in mind when she attempted to argue for the existence of a non-art, but let's say Jackson Pollock, for example, is not inherently untrue and not inherently anti-Christian just because he utilises and represents chaos. A picture in a World Press Photo exhibition of a corpse with its face missing is not untrue and not inherently anti-Christian just because it's ugly. Like it or not, there is an accuracy here about the way the world is and about our experience of the world.

The most common and widely engaged artform in our society is music, so let's look there for a moment. One of the finest and most accurate representations of the 21st century western human condition is the creative output of Radiohead (and the work of Thom Yorke in general). I've read books and essays written by Christians that attempt to imbue this music with Christian 'truthiness' - almost as if they are trying to impose redemption on it to make it true and admissible. There's no need. It is what it is. A fine and accurate portrayal. The music of Burial is another body of work that I think falls in that category. There is dissonance, things set off kilter, static. This stuff is true.

So that's, I think, where the notion of the dualism between chaos/ugliness and truth/Christian/beauty in the realm of art falls down.

All that being said, back to my statement of earlier: art should tell all three sides of the story. Let's look at them. And, as we're used to dualisms - at least we used to be - back in the 20th century - let's begin with the obvious two...

- The universe is a dark, cold place. If we are to accurately describe the world, as I've argued above, we're going to need to describe it as dark and cold. And there are artists who do this with astonishing and unsettling accuracy. So much so that I often choose not to look. It's true.

- The world is sunshine and flowers. Narnia is set to rights. The sun glitters off a placid ocean as you and your loved one sprint across a wide-open field. You cry with love and joy the first time you see your newborn child. Is it true? Some strands of art and human expression would seem to say not. But I'm here to tell you it is. It's true.

If both these aspects of the universe are true, then there will be somewhere where they come into contact... the third side of the story.

- The reality of human existence. Allow me to mention Radiohead and Burial again in an attempt to describe what I mean... amongst the darkness, distraction, paranoia and unbalance, strains of melody and snippets of beauty float to the surface and dissipate. The third side of the story is that the universe and the world is a dark, sunshine, cold, floral place, and we encounter ugliness and chaos here, and snatch hold of beauty and security there.

Personally I find this middle space the most interesting one - it's where tension and paradox is found.

To be true, art should tell all three sides of the story. Given the vast areas that each side of the story represents, I think it is unreasonable to expect any one artist to accurately explore and represent all three sides. But art, as a whole, can. Art can, and should, explore chaos. Art can, and should, explore cosmos. And art can, and should, explore the space where the two collide.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

stations of the cross 2013

Stations of the Cross time again. This year I did a video for Station 14: Jesus is laid in the Tomb. Stylistically, I followed on from the work I've been doing with the Lower Bar Collective and, in fact, used an LBC track (Northern Lights) as the music.

The video utilised footage from the estuary near our house which I shot on my GoPro - the camera suspended from a leash that I dangled from a boardwalk over the water. I wanted to use the biblical immersion/baptism/burial metaphor. To that end, I grabbed appropriate scripture fragments from throughout the Bible and recombined them into a kind of poem. I then overlaid these lines on the underwater footage.

Here it is now...

Sunday, March 10, 2013

at fringe auckland

Creatively, of late, my energy has been focused on and consumed by working as a member of the Lower Bar Collective - providing the (video) visuals and graphic design for our post-rock based project.

Recently we performed at the Fringe festival in Auckland, firstly at the Whammy Bar (22/2/13), and secondly (pictured above) in the old silos at Auckland's SiloPark (1-3/3/13). At the SiloPark we did seven performances in three days. We got quite a lot of positive feedback from strangers - which is always encouraging and makes the creative process feel that much more worthwhile. Personally, for us as a collective, the silo performances provided a space for something that was extremely creatively exciting. Good times.

Aside from graphic design (for posters, a lathe-cut 12" EP and CDs), my contribution was ten videos to accompany the ten pieces composed by the other guys. These videos were a mixture of things consisting of archival footage, original photography/artwork, original footage (shot on my GoPro camera) and randomised video noise generated by a video synthesizer. For the performances, we used two projectors - one projecting onto the wall just above the musicians, and the other projecting right up into the ceiling space of the silo.

A further contribution was the use of snippets of several of my poems, played as sound samples at various times throughout the performance.

The photos above show the band performing the piece 'Infinitesima' (accompanied by an underwater video shot on the GoPro) and the projection onto the silo ceiling for the piece 'Ends in Tears' (accompanied by photographs from my Safe Little World piece 'Pride & Refuse').

More performances to come, I'm sure.  

Thursday, March 07, 2013

ralph and me

I had my first real encounter with visual art when I was in my second year of university. When I say "real", I mean of the type that does what art - ideally - will do... send a pang through your gut, flip your soul and set up a buzz at the back of your head. It'll make you feel sick with the best kind of longing. It was at an exhibition* at the Auckland Art Gallery. For this viewer, it was a stroke of curatorial genius as piece after piece revealed itself and stuck deep.

Amongst this revelatory collection, I rounded a corner and there was 'Black Phoenix' (I always remember the title as 'Burnt Phoenix') - a gritty, real, monolith of a piece, the singed wooden prow of a full-sized boat fastened to the wall - a pathway of charcoaled timbers leading towards it. I embraced it as my favourite work of art, and it remains so today. I memorised the artist's name, Ralph Hotere.

Around another corner, and he hits me again. This time it's with 'Black Water' - a collaboration with Bill Culbert. "In the beginning, the earth was without form and void, and the Spirit hovered over the face of the deep." Black Phoenix notwithstanding, Hotere's particular genius manifested itself in part by the use of glossy black - a fruitful, verdant, reflective black. It was the loam out of which all life sprung at creation, and a surface on which you often catch a reflection of yourself. It this case, the glossy black was on an expanse of corrugated iron throwing back the light of multiple neon tubes springing from its surface, standing like sentinels.

In my third year at university, I purchased the book, 'Out the Black Window', and set about writing an essay for my stage 3 New Zealand Literature paper on Hotere's collaborative use of poetry in his art. The essay was well received. It was my first proper success at university and it had such an impact on me that I considered launching onto a path of becoming a career art writer. The idea still sounds attractive.

My brother, a photographer, was working at a Parnell cafe at the time and had struck up a rapport with the photographer Marti Friedlander. Among the stories that get repeated about Friedlander, one of the common ones is about her access to Hotere. Hotere was famously shy, if not reclusive, but he let Friedlander in and she captured the man on film. Over thirty years later, these are still the most significant photos of Hotere.

Somehow (my brother passed it on I think), Marti ended up reading my essay on Ralph. She endorsed the idea of me pursuing an art writing career. This was all very well, but my heart and ambition was absorbed at this time with a different pursuit - I was clothing myself in the full intention of becoming a great New Zealand poet.

I had just completed a fairly angst-ridden, long (booklet length) piece called 'The Birth Place' and somehow hatched the idea that Ralph Hotere might like to read it. I thought he might like its grand themes of birth, death and rebirth, perhaps to feel a kinship in our artforms (you know, of course, that I really hoped that one day a line or two of mine would appear in one of his paintings). There was way too much catharsis in the poem for it to be literarily excellent - it was mostly a splurge - but what did I know? I was 23.

As a favour, Marti gave me Ralph's address (she is absolved, she did it on the strength of one essay, she never read my poetry). I crafted a letter, dropped names (as I have here), pinned it to a copy of my booklet, placed the whole lot in an envelop and sent it with a sense of excited trepidation.   

I never heard back from Ralph. His silence, if he ever got the booklet, was probably the best favour he could have done me. I hope he threw it out. I hope he didn't pop it in a shoebox with an assortment of other ephemera received from sickly admiring fans. I hope it isn't found when someone goes through his papers now that he is gone. Perhaps he turned it into ashes - he always was a great proponent of fire - in his hands the burning of that poem would have become art - a fitting, the best and most wonderful end.

* My memory tells me it was at the exhibition 'Toi Toi Toi'. This exhibition was utterly remarkable, but researching the facts reveals that my mind has created a mythology about it being my first real encounter with visual art and the first place I encountered Hotere's work. Chronology reveals that it wasn't (on either count). But I like the mythologised version better.  

Thursday, February 07, 2013


I recently purchased a GoPro Hero2 camera. Mainly these are designed for adventure / extreme sports but their extreme wide angle lens, waterproofing and HD video make them interesting for art projects. I decided I needed one initially for the Lower Bar Collective project I'm working on. Underwater / seascape footage would work well with experimental / ambient / post-rock.

Yesterday (Waitangi Day here in New Zealand) I went out sailing with my father-in-law and took the camera with me to dangle off the side of the yacht. Between shooting these abstract / textural images, I also shot a more standard clip recording the sailing experience.

The music is 'From the Dust... We Ran to Greet the Dawn' by Hammock.