Blog Archives: admin

Paradise

Paradise has been on the ol’ brain lately. Although it always is in some way, swinging slowly and wildly between “wow, where am I” to “wow, I want to go there” to “wow, the world is an amazing place, just look at this!” I have however been forced to think in a more focused way for a collaboration with NY writer Elizabeth Rush, and our collection of photos/a book called Paradise is What We Do (now on exhibit at Proteus Gowanus gallery in Brooklyn if you’re in the area). We have been going back and forth with our titles and the introductory essay. The process inspired a bit of a personal retrograde into my MA thesis on a Marianne Moore poem called Black Earth.

Moore was a modernist, pal of Pound and Eliot et al. She may or may not have ever had a lover in her life. She lived with her Puritan mother. She was a major collector of ‘trivia’. She had a wicked way with words. Reading one of her poems can be a bit like trying to find yourself out of a maze in a dream. The more you try to make sense of it the harder it is to find your way.

Black Earth is written in the voice of an elephant, an elephant who rolls around in the dirt (as they do) and loves the way the mud is encrusted on it’s skin (as they would, natural sunscreen amongst other things). The elephant questions the spiritual reasoning of a ‘fallen’ earth and an elsewhere after-life paradise. “The elephant is? / Black earth preceded by a tendril?” The tendril, a question mark, an elephant trunk, a shoot of new growth. Without going too far into the poem (have a read of it below, it’s beautiful, Moore knows her natural world well, every creature, species, thing, she mentions is worth a closer look), basically it is a round about, carefully thought out, way of asking, what if paradise is right here? right now? Maybe all it takes is perspective.

In the Paradise is What We Do book, Rush and I have put together a series of photographs taken with half-frame cameras (two photos on one frame). Each frame is titled after what happened in between the two photos, the bit that you can’t see and which is signified by a big fat black line. The photos are taken from all over the world, on all sorts of adventures, but the titles are mostly internal and/or relatively mundane. The point is, paradise isn’t a place, it’s how you choose to be in any old place, any old obscure absurd imperfect place. There isn’t really a point, just seeing and hearing and being there. The simplest things can somehow be the hardest things to do, especially when the lynch pin to our collective identity as a species is our capacity for ‘reason’, which we feel we have to legitimise whenever we can.

Black Earth
By Marianne Moore
Openly, yes,
With the naturalness
Of the hippopotamus or the alligator
When it climbs out on the bank to experience the

Sun, I do these
Things which I do, which please
No one but myself. Now I breath and now I am sub-
Merged; the blemishes stand up and shout when the object

In view was a
Renaissance; shall I say
The contrary? The sediment of the river which
Encrusts my joints, makes me very gray but I am used

To it, it may
Remain there; do away
With it and I am myself done away with, for the
Patina of circumstance can but enrich what was

There to begin
With. This elephant skin
Which I inhabit, fibered over like the shell of
The coco-nut, this piece of black glass through which no light

Can filter—cut
Into checkers by rut
Upon rut of unpreventable experience—
It is a manual for the peanut-tongued and the

Hairy toed. Black
But beautiful, my back
Is full of the history of power. Of power? What
Is powerful and what is not? My soul shall never

Be cut into
By a wooden spear; through-
Out childhood to the present time, the unity of
Life and death has been expressed by the circumference

Described by my
Trunk; nevertheless, I
Perceive feats of strength to be inexplicable after
All; and I am on my guard; external poise, it

Has its centre
Well nurtured—we know
Where—in pride, but spiritual poise, it has its centre where ?
My ears are sensitized to more than the sound of

The wind. I see
And I hear, unlike the
Wandlike body of which one hears so much, which was made
To see and not to see; to hear and not to hear,

That tree trunk without
Roots, accustomed to shout
Its own thoughts to itself like a shell, maintained intact
By who knows what strange pressure of the atmosphere; that

Spiritual
Brother to the coral
Plant, absorbed into which, the equable sapphire light
Becomes a nebulous green. The I of each is to

The I of each,
A kind of fretful speech
Which sets a limit on itself; the elephant is?
Black earth preceded by a tendril? It is to that

Phenomenon
The above formation,
Translucent like the atmosphere—a cortex merely—
That on which darts cannot strike decisively the first

Time, a substance
Needful as an instance
Of the indestructibility of matter; it
Has looked at the electricity and at the earth-

Quake and is still
Here; the name means thick. Will
Depth be depth, thick skin be thick, to one who can see no
Beautiful element of unreason under it?

Read More →

Journalism?

New Zealand Herald Columnist Deborah Hill Cone triumphed US billionaire Julian Roberston and the Teach for America programme he backs through one of his charitable foundations in her recent column. Hill Cone says that Robertson is set to bring the re-named American programme Teach for All to New Zealand. This is not the case and misinformation may have come from New Zealand Herald reporter Audrey Young’s interview with Robertson while she was in New York trailing Prime Minister John Key.

Young stated the Robertson Foundation, his charitable vehicle, were planning to set up a version of Teach for America in New Zealand – Teach for All. This is not the case Teach First New Zealand have confirmed with the PPTA that Teach for All will not be coming to New Zealand. The charitable vehicle Aotearoa Foundation is one of Julian Robertson’s many foundations. Robertson has little direct involvement with it and the foundation did not know he had an interview with Audrey Young, thus the information he gave about Teach for All coming to New Zealand was incorrect. Teach First New Zealand have also confirmed that the woman who established Teach for America and developed a “rock star-type reputation”, Wendy Kopp would not be coming to New Zealand.

The proposed Teach First New Zealand is a collaboration with Auckland University’s Faculty of Education. If approved it would recruit a new group of teachers to work in hard-to-staff low decile secondary schools for two years. Graeme Aitken, Dean of Education at the University of Education told the PPTA the scheme proposes an initial six-week residential summer intensive for top graduates. The scheme is not closely modeled on Teach for America but draws closely from the Teach First Britain scheme which has the backing of a university.

When the PPTA were asked by Deborah Hill Cone about its position on her volunteering in her daughter’s school we replied that we had no issue with this as a qualified teacher would be supervising. Hill Cone claimed the PPTA were against members of the community “chipping in” to help schools. This is simply incorrect. PPTA president Robin Duff said it was problematic when unqualified members of the community started teaching in a core capacity, full-time as this would see a return to the 1960s and 70s when there was no policy to have trained and qualified teachers.

Hill Cone misquoted and stripped the context out of PPTA’s response with little regard to the consequences, she revealed a blatant disinterest in understanding the factual details that lie behind Teach First New Zealand and failed to make contact with them to clarify how they intend to operate their programme if approved.
She dismissed the PPTA’s attempt to help her understand and clarify that Teach for All is not coming to New Zealand.
She failed to mention that PPTA work alongside Teach First New Zealand and that we’ve commissioned a literature review to find out what is working well nationwide with similar schemes and what is failing countries.

The New Zealand Herald have conceded that they made a mistake and have agreed to publish a correction and give the PPTA space in the paper to state its position accurately.

Read More →

Reserve the Basin

Dear residents of Wellington.

I know these things are a pest, but I really don’t want a flyover to walk/bike under on my way to town. I think it would be depressing. Better options are around, and NZTA will consider them if enough of the public say that’s what they want. So please send a letter to info@witi.co.nz. (Before Friday, 26 August 2011) Here’s a proforma;

Re: Cobham Drive to Buckle Street Transport Improvements – Community Engagement – July to August 2011

Dear NZTA,

I support neither of the proposals currently put forward for public consultation by the NZTA for improvements to the Basin Reserve area. I would like the options for consultation to be broadened to include the NZTA report’s Option F and Architecture Centre’s Option X.

Regards,

……

For more information about Option F;
http://www.nzta.govt.nz/projects/basin-reserve/docs/basin-reserve-options-report.pdf

For more information about Option X;
http://architecture.org.nz/2011/07/21/the-public-needs-a-real-choice-option-x/

http://architecture.org.nz/2011/07/22/option-x-plus

The Architecture Centre is leading the campaign for option x.  This is the important stuff that cities are made of, have your say.

“The NZTA have proposed options for redeveloping the roading of the Basin Reserve.  But these are not really options. They are two schemes for flyovers which have very little difference.  We believe that the scheme/s proposed by NZTA exclude the public from making a real choice.

Currently the Basin is a mess.  From a multi-modal perspective (pedestrian, cyclist, car) the Basin is not a safe place.  Aesthetically it is a dog.  The inward facing cricket ground alienates its surroundings.  Recent building has reneged on its public responsibilities, creating some of the worst public street faces of architecture in Wellington.

We have no doubt that something needs to be done, but the choices to be made are at least on two levels.

1) Should the remediation work to improve the urban design of the Basin assume traffic levels will increase or not? and how should it respond to consequent changes in local conditions?  Data from the NZTA website suggest traffic levels have been plateauing for quite some time.

2) Should the remediation work use a tunnel or a flyover?

We think grade separation is critical to ensure better safety to all road users, and to help achieve speed consistency of motor vehicles, which will reduce emissions and noise pollution.  Both tunnels and flyovers have their problems for designers.  The scale of such infrastructure must respect the scale of the urban or suburban fabric it sits within.  Both can cause issues of severance or undesirable residual spaces.  We recognise that the NZTA images of the flyovers presented to the public do not reflect the potential design quality of the flyover structures, as these are yet to be properly designed.

Both flyovers and tunnel entrances can be poetic, elegant, and inspiring design.  Both will cost money to get the design right, and to guarantee that Wellingtonians end up with a Basin Reserve that we are proud of.”

Read More →

A Capitalist Disaster: The Disaster Capitalism complex at work in Christchurch

American writer and activist Naomi Klein coined the phrase “disaster capitalism” in the wake of the Bush Administration’s response to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans. This term became mainstream when her book ‘The Shock Doctrine’ was published in 2007 and went on to become a No.1 best seller and later a feature length documentary. However, far from the accepted media view of an incompetent Government response, Klein’s theory is that this was merely an example of a growing worldwide trend involving the highly competent and undemocratic transfer of Public wealth and resources to private hands in post-disaster situations. It is hard to read this book without immediately drawing parallels with the current situation in Christchurch where a lack of real democracy and public debate around the reconstruction effort is apparent. However, as Klein thankfully points out in the final chapter of her worrying book there are alternatives to this top-down Neo-liberal economics approach to reconstruction which involve democracy through community level initiatives and participation in the process.

Disaster Capitalism

The theory of the rise of disaster capitalism is essentially that the neo-liberal global economic system seizes on disasters as prime opportunities to circumvent democracy and demand wholesale privatization of public assets without government interference so that even disaster responses are now conducted by and for the benefit of private contractors and industry.

In New Orleans post Katrina rather than help local people rebuild their lives the Government marginalized them and forced them to move, often out of the state entirely.  Poor African American neighborhoods and solidly built housing projects undamaged by the waters were demolished and replaced with condominiums and replicas of white suburbia. Public Schools were replaced with private ones to which local communities could not afford to send their children. New malls were built where houses had stood on profitable real estate and leased to multi-nationals. In the places where there were no real estate opportunities, properties were simply left to fester like ghost towns.

The chapter of the Shock Doctrine on the post Katrina nightmare states:

“The images from New Orleans showed that this was the general belief – that disasters are a kind of time out from cut-throat capitalism, when we all pull together and the state switches into higher gear – had already been abandoned, and with no public debate.”[i]

The main elements of this new approach to post disaster re-construction are that it involves a large scale transfer of Public Wealth to private hands and a lack of democracy or public involvement in decision making.  This was seen drastically in Sri Lanka after the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 where the Government effectively grabbed all land within 100 metres of the coastline from local subsistence fishing communities in the name of safety only to promptly sell it off to multi-national tourism developers to build resorts.  In addition, billions of dollars of aid money from the largest fundraising effort the world has ever seen was siphoned into these tourist developments and corrupt politicians coffers so that little of it actually assisted the affected people for whom it was raised.  For more on this, see the Documentary “From Dust” by Dhruy Dhawan [ii]

Relevance to Christchurch?

This lack of democracy and public debate has been a hallmark of every level of the New Zealand Government’s Reconstruction efforts in Christchurch after the recent seismic disasters. The Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act 2010 was rushed through parliament in a whirlwind three days without proper scrutiny and effectively gave the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) led by Minister Gerry Brownlee the authority to effectively do anything they like and requires no public consultation, environmental safeguards or other features of legislation respectful of democratic process.[iii] As the herald reported this Law “gives CERA specific powers to get information from any source, to requisition and build on land and to carry out demolitions. It can also take over local authorities if they are not working effectively on recovery work.”[iv]

A concern about the CERA approach is that there has been little discussion or public debate about what will be done with the valuable land in the uninhabitable residential Red Zone after it has been purchased. The Government has announced a buyout package for such affected residential land which is essentially a take it or leave it offer for residents who are prohibited from rebuilding on that land.[v] It seems there is overwhelming public support for turning the land around the badly liquefied Avon river and the Iconic Cathedral into public parks and wetlands for the benefit of the city.[vi] However CERA appears evasive on this issue and a growing suspicion is that the land may well end up as prime waterfront private property built on expensively remediated land.

A local community group ‘Action for Christchurch East’ have commented on the need for a cohesive response in an interesting blog post:

“The mistake we made since September was to assume that business and suited politicians are the best equipped people to deal with natural disasters. The government and decision makers have deliberately segmented the communities’ response. We are encouraged to deal with issues individually and are left hoping that our phone messages are responded to – think back to the community briefings where we were told to line up and deal with our issues “separately”, what a missed opportunity for the community to get organised! Groups that have created a collective response and have shown real promise are now being gagged and trodden on.”[vii]

This lack of democratic process or community involvement in Christchurch is allowing for the situation where private contractors are making huge public gains while taxpayers and private individuals all over the country are paying.  Stories are emerging of overbilling, unsatisfactory work and contractors effectively manipulating the system for their personal gain.  Fletchers Construction, a large Auckland based nationwide construction firm with powerful ties to many of the largest New Zealand companies and strong political connections was awarded a Multimillion dollar contract to rebuild the city amid allegations of conflict of interest in the tender process.  The now familiar approach seen in Iraq and New Orleans of companies sub contracting and sub–sub contracting out this work means that the local people actually doing the work get paid little and have little resources to do an effective and quick job while CEOs and shareholders make a tidy profit.  This approach does not create jobs for the worst affected local people and makes them reliant on insubstantial Government handouts.

The Government if elected for a second term will attempt to use the cost of rebuilding to justify speeding up the already planned privatisation of state assets and services further directing public reconstruction money into the private sector. On top of this Taxpayers are now funding $1 billion bailout of AMI Insurance who cannot pay out to insured people.  Increasingly it seems that a select few in the corporate sector will benefit from or have any say in the rebuilding of Christchurch while the working and middle classes will suffer big losses in the areas of living standards, employment, labour standards, public education, and social welfare.

The alternatives

The positive message to come from the awareness of the disaster capitalism complex is to stand up for your community, take power and exercise democracy by being involved in the process and in public debate.   We should not simply sit idly by and watch as our wealth and resources are handed over to corporate interests for individual gain. After Hurricane Katrina a number of communities simply defied the bulldozers and the laws and organized themselves to reoccupy and rebuild their own houses or public schools with little or no outside assistance. Similarly, in Thailand despite attempts by the Government to impose a law similar to the Sri Lankan one, many communities simply stepped over the barriers and started rebuilding their houses without waiting for permission or assistance. The resilience of these communities has led to them surviving as living entities whilst many others around them have not.

 

Worker self-management is a form of direct economics or democratic workplace decision-making in which workers manage their factories or farms as co-operatives.  Salaries are usually more equal and production, division of labour and other decisions are made democratically.   After the Mid 1990s financial collapse in Argentina this approach was used effectively by many local workers who occupied their defunct and bankrupt factories previously owned by wealthy elites and recommenced production with the support of and for the benefit of the community. This story is the subject of a documentary “La Toma” (The Take)[viii] also made by Naomi Klein and her husband Avi lewis.  Interestingly, the Spanish verb ‘recuperar’ used to describe these occupations means not only “to take back” but also “to put back into good condition”. When Police attempted to evict some of these locked in workers the local communities formed a human shield around the factories to prevent it until they eventually won the right to continue.

 

There are many stories of hope and resilience as groups in Christchurch are finding ways to navigate through the bureaucratic nightmare and get on with the task of rebuilding.Gap Filler’ is one initiative started in response to the Christchurch earthquakes which aims to temporarily activate vacant sites within Christchurch with creative projects, to make for a more interesting, dynamic and vibrant city.[ix] Veteran New Zealand Human Rights and Social Justice Activist John Minto stated in his article ‘Anarchy to the rescue in Chch’  “It’s useful for some to remember that anarchy doesn’t mean ‘chaos’ it means ‘without government’. The Christchurch anarchists are showing the will and organisation to help keep their communities going while the resources of the government appear focused elsewhere.”[x]

For more detailed accounts of this from people on the ground in Christchurch check out the upcoming special edition of Freerange: ‘Chur Chur: Stories from the Christchurch earthquake.’

I’m not attempting to incite a riot or suggesting people storm the ‘red zone’ as neither are entirely safe or productive, however if we are able to work together as a collective force then the recuperation of our economy for the benefit of our communities is entirely possible.  As Klein puts it we are rebuilding our cities and our economy “not from scratch but from scraps.”  By this she means that anything left behind by the successive waves of natural and capitalist destruction can be salvaged and recycled into use in this new form of community led economic development. Participating in decision making and ensuring accountability in matters affecting our communities is necessary for achieving this. Investing time, money and energy into local level industry and initiatives has the potential to replace what has been lost and to build a truly local economy and a more livable environment from the ground up.

 

 

 

 


[i] Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine Penguin Books 2007, p.408

[x] John Minto, Anarchy to the rescue in Chch, 27 February, 2011 http://thestandard.org.nz/anarchy-to-the-rescue-in-chch/

 

 

 

Read More →

Flotille

Flottille (detail) from Etienne Cliquet on Vimeo.

Read More →

Lovely Lyttelton

I thought this video sits nicely in the theme of our next release Chur Chur: Stories from the Christchurch earthquake When I visited Chch after the earthquake in February my parent’s neighbour said to me one day “I’ve realised that even though you can always rely on your family and friends, sometimes your neighbours are the people you need the most”. True true. This is a beautiful video.

Love in a Little Town from James Muir on Vimeo.

Read More →

tricky transport

Local elections are famed for managing to spur even fewer voters than the big one every four years. Nonetheless, the election of Celia Wade Brown to the position of Mayor in 2010 was a significant gesture from the citizens of Wellington. Wade Brown shares a hairstyle but little else with departing Mayor Prendergast, who, rightly or wrongly, was judged by many pro-Celia voters  as erring too often on the side of business, and not the sustainable kind. Wade-Brown is a dedicated Greenie, a believer in better public transport, “vibrant communities” and economic well-being. A freeranger in spirit.

It seems strange, therefore, that under her watch, Wellington is likely to face the unpleasant situation of choosing between a variety of stupid propositions to improve traffic flow around the Basin/Mt Vic/Airport corridor. Next month we will get to ‘choose’ between a flyover that follows the curves of the Basin Reserve, or one which diverges slightly before joining up with the Mount Victoria Tunnel. A flyover in a city of 195,000 people, a city whose central can be crossed from one end to the other on foot in about an hour.

Public opposition to the flyover, and various other proposals including a second Mt Victoria Tunnel and a four lane road to the airport, was reportedly at 78% in 2008. There is little evidence that the public has changed it’s mind since. It feels particularly perverse given the current Mayor’s dedication to cycling, her preferred mode of transport even when heading to her own press conferences. We can afford to create a second tunnel, but there isn’t a cycling lane from Newtown to the City? We are used to myopic policy concerning climate change related issues in this country, but ‘better’ roading is nowhere near as connected to our economic performance as agriculture. Who are they trying to please?

Mostly, this seems to be another example this government’s backward approach to forward thinking in transport. As Rod Oram pointed out in a  Sunday Star Times weekend column, the government has gone to extreme lengths to undermine Auckland Council’s plans to extend railways in the central city, claiming that existing road, parking, and bus infrastructure can easily expand without hiccups until 2040. The Council and it’s consultants reckon that “an Auckland population of 2.2 million would result in another 500,000 vehicles if we stick to our existing road-dominant investment in transport”. No one knows where those cars would go.

None of this is exactly surprising. The central government was diagnose a long time ago with an inability to calculate the difference between long and short term gain. As these plans are rolled out piece by piece across different parts of the country it’s difficult to unite various affected groups under a concerted effort.

One group of concerned citizens, however, have eschewed the standard action plan and have resorted to some pretty Trickster-ish behaviour in order to draw attention to the idiocy of these plans. The Economic Illiteracy Group, who attribute most terrible decision making to stupidity not conspiracy, have taken it upon themselves to educate our elected officials, chiefly by supplying handy calculators and My First Jumbo Book of Numbers. The nine councilors who forced a meeting behind Mayor Wade Browns back to support the roading project received maths books and calculators which, it was hoped, would help them to understand basic cost-benefit analyses and to learn “what that pesky `negative’ sign means”. The letter also warns that “it’s never good to look like a dick in public. So avoid making stupid statements about how roads are an investment in the future or how they create jobs, because all the people who’ve already read the book and mastered the calculator will think you’re a moron.”  Ian McKinnon called the anonymous letters “an attack on the democratic process”, a somewhat hyperbolic representation of a process involving a mere 44% of the local population.

Sometimes the best way of speaking truth to power is to make fun of it. It might not be mature, it might not always provoke the intended reaction, but it can get people talking.

an image of the flyover by the campaign prepared by the save the basin reserve campaign.

Read More →

Inside the redzone

Post-quake Christchurch

Pictures and story by Kate Shuttleworth

The ground still shudders in Christchurch – there’s an underlying feeling of constant movement and instability. I had a taste of the frayed nerves that Cantabrians feel daily when I woke for a quake measuring 5.1. It jolted me upright in bed at 3am.  By the time it had registered, and I was sitting up in bed trying to decide whether jumping out of bed was warranted, it had stopped. The adrenaline and fright left me awake. The 3am startling left me lying in bed fighting to get some rest before the  start of the day – this has been the reality for some people for months.

Christchurch field officer Ian Hamill has been working solidly for the past few months trying to retrieve PPTA equipment from its office in Latimer View House on Gloucester Street within the red zone. The organisation of this brief entry into the fourth floor office space has been long and arduous for Ian. The building is red-stickered, meaning it is unsafe to enter as it stands – this does not mean automatic demolition although some owners are being given 24-hours notice that a building is going to be demolished and few are given the chance to recover possessions. The PPTA have been fortunate to gain access to the building. Two landlords and two paid engineers accompanied the PPTA’s team of four onto the site.

Mychael Stevenson, Peter Cooke, Ian Hamill and myself (Kate Shuttleworth) had an early start at the Civil Defence outpost next to the Christchurch City Art Gallery. We had a security check and photo IDs were made in order to gain access into the strictly guarded cordon last week. Driving into the red zone is what I’d imagine driving into a war zone to be like. Parts of buildings are shattered with no apparent logic – debris litters the central streets. The Christchurch cathedral has been left a shell, totally lacking in its former presence. A safety briefing outside the the former Christchurch PPTA branch office building gave us the information we needed to safely enter. A generator had been secured to allow lighting up the stair well to the fourth floor.

 

While it seemed dangerous and daunting at first the job needed to be done and engineers assured us they would be there in case of an emergency.
A generator was secured and allowed the stairwell to be lit, we’d expected it to be pitch black and had donned our headlamps in preparation for this.
The engineers worked with the building owners to remove a panel of glass on the floor  allowing access to a scissor lift to take office equipment to a truck on ground level.
The office was in a total state of chaos – littered with paper up to half a metre thick in places. Filing cabinet drawers had flown out and were strewn and buckled – their contents thrown  in all directions. Pot plants had been hurled across the room and furniture and electronics were strewn on the floor. Computers, phones, and drawers were nowhere near their places of origin. Some staff who’d been inside the building during the February earthquake did not want to go near the building as they’d been traumatized by the event. They’d given a list of personal items for us to look for – most of these were found. They included, an undamaged pair of glasses thrown across the reception area; family photographs; artwork; a samurai sword, shrapnel from the Western Front in World War I and some tins of apple tea.

We worked solidly to try and retrieve members files. If you can imagine files scattered everyone with their contents all over the place. We tried to retrieve as many files as possible but closed and very old files had to be abandoned due to lack of time.
Peter Cooke worked non-stop to secure as much electronic equipment as possible. I photographed events while clearing the reception and Rae James’ office space. Three hours later after lots of clearing, lifting and sorting we were finished and all  felt it had been a excellent team effort where we’d retrieved as much as was practically possible

 

 

Read More →

FR3: The Trickster out now!

At Freerange, tricksters and their many guises intrigue us. From the ancient Greek Odysseus to Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, we grew up on stories of subversive characters that sprinkle chaos into our ordered society.

Click here to see learn more about our latest and best issue.

 

 

 


 

Read More →

Presence

Presence: the fact or condition of being present

I’ve been thinking about presence quite a lot lately, for two purposes that are interconnected but from quite different perspectives; one psychological and philosophical and one in regards to performance. So I thought I would attempt to nut that out a little in words…

I have been seeing a psychologist about issues I have with anxiety, something that comes and goes in my life and which is occurring often at the moment. Anxiety is generally triggered for me by uncertainty, and much to my dismay I have learnt that I’m calmer when my life has a routine, so being a freelance puppeteer and sometimes not knowing where the money for my next rent payment is going to come from isn’t ideal… My psychologist has introduced me to the psychological theory of mindfulness, which uses techniques with roots in Buddhist meditation. There are many aspects to it, but a focus on ‘the present’ and ‘being present’ has piqued my interest in a way that connects elements of my art practice with my mental health.

A good definition I found is from Jon Kabat-Zinn who is an authority on how to use mindfulness techniques to address clinical psychological issues. He says that mindfulness is: “Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”. For my own purposes mindfulness has been about trying to pay more attention and engage more fully with the present rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. It is about observing what is going on in my mind and body, noting my thoughts and feelings as they happen but not trying to change them. I have been meditating as a one way to learn how to be mindful. At this stage I’m simply sitting for 10 minutes in the mornings and observing my breath going in and out, noting how it feels and what happens in my body as I breathe. Also noticing when my mind wanders and then bringing my focus back on to my breath. It is so simple, and sometimes so difficult! It is hard to be truly present because it is something we don’t do often in life. We spend so much time multi-tasking and letting our minds run away on us, it seems like the moments when we are fully aware of ourselves are few and far between.

And this is where the connection to presence in performance comes in. It is extraordinary how engaging it is to watch someone who is truly present on stage. A big part of being a performing artist training to achieve this state, and the history of this training is something that theatre theorist and director Eugenio Barba has spent much of his career researching. He wrote a book called the Paper Canoe, which talks a lot about the similarities in training between dance and theatre in many different cultures. He coined a term called the ‘pre-expressive state’, which I would call in more simple terms: stage presence. He observed that performers the world over train to be able to be present on stage, and this training always includes a focus on “certain physiological factors – weight, balance, the position of the spinal column, the direction of the eyes in space – produce physical, pre-expressive tensions. These new tensions generate a different quality of energy, they render the body theatrically “decided”, “alive”, “believable” and manifest the performer’s “presence”, or scenic bios, attracting the spectator’s attention “before” any form of message is transmitted. (Odin Teatret)

In his book he gave an example of Japanese Noh theatre performers who learn how to perform with their weight shifted unnaturally to the balls of their feet. The effect of this is that the body is always full of energy and ready to (re)act at any moment, and it makes a performer interesting to watch because as an audience we feel like something is about to happen. You don’t want to take your eyes away in case you miss something. You could say the same about the position a sprinter might take before the gun goes, or a fencer’s light-footed dance before they strike.

For me the close relationship between the training I do as a performer, all those strange and obscure exercises that sometimes seem a little-self indulgent, and the mindfulness techniques I have recently been introduced to has been a revelation. I have gained a stronger understanding of why performing and rehearsing make me feel so good and calm, performance training is often time spent being mindful, being aware of my body and focusing carefully on very specific actions. Just like I do when I’m meditating. Mindfulness and performance both demand that I am truly present, and one of the best things about that is that there isn’t much room for being anxious when I’m focusing on my experience of the present. And the more I think about it the more I see sport in the same light. The best sports players have learnt to put themselves into ‘the zone’, which, just like stage presence, allows them to perform at very high levels. I’m sure that anyone who has played a team sport has experienced those sweet plays where it seems like everyone shares one mind and you barely have to communicate to pass the ball and get it in the goal. I have a hunch now that the euphoria afterwards comes in part from the exercise and in part from spending that time being present and aware.

If you want to read more about mindfulness check out: http://www.thehappinesstrap.com/mindfulness and this video

Read More →
All rights reserved. Freerange Cooperative Ltd. 2014.
Top