Category | People

Freerange collaborations

Here are a few projects we’ve been working with or supporting lately.

Songs for Christchurch

We’ve been working closely with artists around the world, including 2 grammy award winning artists, for around 18 months on this project. Launching later this year, we’ve just started a fundraising project to raise some funds to support the release.  Pledgeme site. 

The Children of Parihaka

In 2009, a group of Taranaki children were taken on a bus trip to visit the places their ancestors, passive resistors from Parihaka in the 1880s, were imprisoned and forced to labour in. Places like Addington Jail in Christchurch and various buildings and roads they worked on in Dunedin. Along the way, they were welcomed at local marae by descendants of local Maori who supported the prisoners at the time. It was an emotional journey, documented by Joseph’s camera and the children themselves. The narration is by the children, from their writing, poetry, song and art, expressed in a workshop after the journey.

 

Lurujarri Dreaming

This collaborative documentary will be a vehicle for the Goolarabooloo people to share their culture, history and vision for reconciliation with a wide national and international audience via broadcast, film festivals and online platforms. The Goolarabooloo are currently threatened by the prospect of a massive LNG refinery on their land, which threatens their sacred Songline, the Lurujarri Heritage Trail and there ability to carry out traditional cultural practices. The soundtrack will be composed by the renowned Deadly Award winning Broome indigenous musicians- the Pigram Brothers.

Lurujarri Dreaming Trailer from Bernadette Trench-Thiedeman on Vimeo.

 

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Heartbreak, despair and life lessons in earthquake town: Discovering we don’t actually have absolute rights to ‘our’ land and homes.

In 1942 my grandparents Elsie and Jack Locke moved to Christchurch with their young son Don, and bought a run down workers cottage. This was 392 Oxford Terrace, on the banks of the Avon River, in a community that came to be known as the Avon Loop. At first they were unimpressed with what must have been a damp, dark and small four-roomed house, until they looked back at the river from what was to become Elsie’s study. The river and its banks held much promise; so there they stayed and had three more children. The youngest was my mother who was born in the cottage itself, a rarity in the early 1950’s.

Years later, in the 1980’s my mother settled with my Dad to have us three kids further down stream towards the ocean. We made weekly trips back and forth between that home and the Avon Loop. Ten doors down on Oxford Terrace lives my Dad’s mother, our Grannie, Janet. We spent years along this stretch of the river with our cousins, popping in and out of the cottages, running along the riverbank, swinging in the branches of the willow trees, and revelling in the nurturing attention of our grandparents and the Avon Loop community at gatherings and festivals on the riverbank.

In recent years the Avon Loop has consisted of approximately eighty houses and numerous units in council flats. It has had a long-standing history of strong community resilience. The area started out as neighbourhood of workers houses in the late 1800’s, and became an area for young families in the 1940’s, when my family’s connection to the place began. In the mid 1970’s, a hotel in the Loop threatened to take over much of the community in its proposed expansion, prompting a coordinated community resistance. This heralded the birth of the Avon Loop Protection Association, now known as the Avon Loop Planning Association (ALPA). ALPA won, ensuring that all future developments needed to consult with the community. Furthermore, ALPA created a strong bond between all the residents, young and old, who shared the common aspiration of a connected and responsive community, where all voices and opinions could be heard. A place for the people who took care of the location that supported them, the river itself. ALPA settled into its role as the kaitiaki, the guardians of the river. My grandparents started a recycling scheme, planted the riverbank with natives and instigated the creation of a community cottage and children’s playgroup with ALPA.

However, since September the 4th 2010, anyone connected to Christchurch has had their lives changed forever. Due to two devastating earthquakes and all the smaller ones in between huge parts of Christchurch have been damaged beyond repair. The Avon Loop community was badly damaged, and this time the people have had no power or control over the fate of the community. No means to take part in the subsequent decisions made by the Government regarding the ongoing occupation of the Loop or what will become of the area in the future.

Nearly two years on from that cool spring morning in September 2010, I am sharing my story of the change and loss my family has suffered and continues experience as a result of the earthquakes. The home us kids grew up in out in the suburb of Burwood, a mudbrick house built by family, has crumbled and must be rebuilt. And we are also in the process of losing our family home, our cottage in the Loop, to land zoning and bureaucracy.

The undamaged cottage in which my parents currently live, is a beautifully built house, completed just after the February 2011 earthquake, using the materials from the original cottage that stood on the same site at 392 Oxford Terrace. The new cottage looks the same as the old one from the riverbank, and looks out onto the broken and dying magnolia trees my grandparent’s ashes are buried under. It is nestled among many others, half fallen down, demolished or abandoned. The cottage survived the earthquakes in one piece brilliantly, however the Loop has been red zoned as the riverbank is badly damaged and the land the houses sit on has sunk. The Government is unwilling to fix the riverbank, and insurance companies will no longer cover individual residences because of the new flood risk to the houses. This means all the houses will eventually have to go, whether the houses themselves are sound or not. Our parents have to leave their undamaged, year old home, as does our 92 year old Grannie who lives around the corner. She was on track to live out her days in her home with the support of my parents, however she will now be shifted to a retirement home.

At night there aren’t many lights on, a few here and there in between patches of darkness. It really does feel like coping with imminent death, as more and more households leave the Loop, finding new strong houses and communities elsewhere. This community in which I grew up in with my family, is in the process of dying. Gone are the dreams of living in a supportive, vibrant and happy community, within walking and biking distance of the city centre, living by the river and enjoying family so nearby.  Coping with this situation is very difficult, every day is different. Some days I am angry, others peaceful and accepting. It is an unknown, and no doubt long process we are all moving through together. I am still in shock and disbelief at it all, and sometimes I wonder when I will move on to the ‘next stage of grief’, to get closer to acceptance and healing. I don’t know how these things work, I’ve never felt grief like this before.

There is nothing we can do, lest we pump all of our money into a court battle with the Government we would inevitably lose. Since the second, most damaging and deadly February earthquake, the National Government established an authoritarian department called the ‘Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority’, CERA. It is headed by MP Gerry Brownlee, and has effectively taken over the Christchurch City Council’s ability to lead the city’s direction in the future. CERA has a mammoth task co-ordinating a city wide replan, rebuild and repair job, and makes it harder for itself by shutting out affected residents. They are excluding residents and alI the ideas, opinions and experience they have to offer, as well as many professional experts in areas such as design and architecture. Why they have made it impossible for public input is questionable, and as they rarely release any information, technical or otherwise we are left to feel shut out, shut down, disregarded, suspicious and disempowered.

Our family has been learning the hard way that we do not really own land and houses, just the rights to them. The Crown virtually owns New Zealand, which I argue was mostly stolen from Maori. Anyhow, the Crown, enabled by the Government can forcibly remove the rights you have to your land in such events as these. We could think of ourselves as lucky as they are buying out the entire Avon Loop along with many insurance companies, so we do not leave empty handed, if not very short changed, but I cannot consider us lucky. In fact I am fearful. I am scared that as we come back to the Loop less and less, our memories will fade. Each day I have spent there, and spend there now, walking around the riverbank and cottages, I see places that remind me of my grand parents and other memories with family. The community causes me to think daily of my connection to the land and the people on it. I am worried about what will happen when we don’t have this land. I am deeply saddened and frustrated that my daughter will not visit the Loop very often, and will have much less physical reminders of her family roots. She will not remember the time that we were here at all, as she is just two years old. I have taken all of this for granted my whole life, and now I see that not many people have grown up with such a home base.

What is certain is that next April 2013, our family will move out of the Loop, but what will become of the undamaged cottage remains to be seen. Will the Christchurch City Council be convinced to buy it as a park visitor centre? Can it be shifted to another location, or will it be deconstructed within two years of being built, reduced again to a pile of wood as the original cottage was only three years ago.

I currently feel very angry and deeply sad about our predicament, however I know that we will find a new family base somewhere when the time is right. I also know that I will be stronger for this experience, once the wounds begin to heal, and that there are many life lessons we are in the process of learning. I am not sure what they are exactly yet as I feel we are still in the midst of it all. But one thing that is for certain, which comforts me to no end, is that Nana and Grandad will forever remain in the earth on the riverbank, and for this reason alone we are forever bound to the Avon Loop, whatever may come of it in the future. It is sure that machinery will eventually dig up their resting places in order to restore the fragile, collapsed riverbank, or turn it all into a park. However, we will always return to be with our parents and grandparents, with Elsie and Jack Locke, no matter what the uncertain future holds for the river, its banks and the land the houses once stood on in the Loop. They are in the earth and a part of me, therefore I am in the earth and it is me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Online Organising – Harnessing People Power

Anyone who occasionally glances at a computer or even a news report these days will no doubt have come into contact with the phenomenon called “online organising”.  The term is a relatively crude one which encapsulates everything from a facebook petition campaign started by a 13 year old to see their favourite band play in their town to an efficiently organised multi-national advocacy campaign targeting the United Nations by international groups such as ‘Avaaz’.  Like it or not ‘online organising’ is fast becoming a vital piece of democratic infrastructure for the 21st century.    A new wave of organisations has emerged in over last decade in an attempt to harness and co-ordinate this power for real change offered by new technology.  However, the community behind such movements are their real source of power and the more such organisations can do to engage communities, the more effective they are in achieving their goals.

The fact that there is a proliferation of such online organisation worldwide really indicates a strong desire among citizens to increase their engagement with traditional democratic structures.  We find ourselves in 2012 in a moment of political turmoil, across the world citizens have challenged entrenched power, inequality and the erosion of their standards of living. These events have inspired a hunger for more meaningful opportunities for citizen engagement and a thirst for open, dynamic, and truly progressive politics in 2012.  Effective online organising has helped Barak Obama to the US presidency in 2008 and assisted with the organisation of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements in 2011.  The widespread sympathy to the many online movements around the world indicates that there is at present a serious disconnection between the will of the masses and the actions of the Government and corporations.   Such a disconnection suggests an endemic lack of citizen involvement in decision making which effects us – a key tenet of the concept of democracy as originally conceived.

We as responsible citizens of democratic nations must use all the tools available to us to ensure that our collective voice is heard and this connection between our desires and the actions of our leaders is re-established. The traditional tools with which progressive individuals and movements have attempted to impact society in the past have been political parties, trade unions and NGOs.  However, political parties’ are losing members and relevance at alarming rates – for example in Australia online organisation Getup.org claims over 500’000 members which makes it a larger political force than either of the major political parties while Avaaz with over 10 million members is the largest NGO in the world.  Trade Unions in Western nations have been in crisis for years after the affects of globalisation and competitiveness have to weakened labour laws and decreased their power.  Most traditional NGO’s are issue specific and generally use a large chunk of their budget (often sourced from Government or corporations) on maintaining the organisation and justifying its relevance.  Some notable exceptions are emerging with Greenpeace and 350.org effectively using online organising tools to mobilise the masses and source funding for actions in their areas of interest.

In contrast to most traditional organisations tools, the key aspects of the new generation of online organisations are that they are multi-issue based, nimble, flexible, people powered and most importantly independent.   These organisations allow activists and ordinary people to come together and share knowledge and to assist to directly decide and fund the operations of the organisation.  The best online organisations and movements are essentially acting as a rallying point for citizens who aspire to a society which values social justice, economic fairness and environmental sustainability. They are Independent and democratic, and co-ordinate both ‘online’ and ‘offline’ action to hold governments and business to account. The fact that such organisations are decentralised and independent of Government and political funding means that they are highly independent and responsive to their members’ collective voices rather than those of external funders or governments.

These organisations effectively enable tens or hundreds of of thousands of citizens to pool their efforts to create progressive change in politics, business and society by providing honest information and strategic leadership.  The underlying assumption is that the majority of citizens wish to be more engaged in democracy, but face three major constraints: With busy work and family lives, they don’t have much time to give, with so many problems, they don’t know where to begin, with so many different interest groups and points of view, they don’t know who to trust.  The benefits of online organizing is that is can provide citizens with a way to effect change that will require only a small time commitment, focus energy by targeting the worst problems in the with effective ways to impact them at moments of great opportunity and can earn the trust of its members by not being manipulative or only presenting one side of the story.

Successful online organisations

Arguably, the most successful organisations so far have been those following the ‘New Organizing model’ which started in 1998 with MoveOn in the USA and soon spread to Australia with GetUp! Launching in 2005.  In 2006 the first truly Global online organisation ‘Avaaz’ launched  internationally and now has over 10 million members.  In 2009 38 Degrees launched in the UK    and there are currently well advanced plans underway for launching such organisations in NZ, India, Canada, France and Ireland.

MoveOn www.moveon.org

Since its founding in 1998, MoveOn has mobilised more than 12 million people to affect political change. Over 10 years MoveOn volunteers have organised more than 100,000 local events and contributed over US$200,000,000 to fund various progressive campaigns. In 2008, MoveOn members endorsed Barack Obama in the Democratic Primary, raised over $58,000,000 for his campaign, recruited over 933,000 volunteers, and registered over 225,000 voters to help secure his historic nomination and ultimate victory.

GetUp www.getup.org.au

In 2005, the MoveOn model spread to Australia. GetUp launched at a time when the conservative party of Prime Minister John Howard had gained control of both houses of Parliament for the first time in decades. Within two years, GetUp had grown to over 230,000 members. It ran the largest independent electoral campaign in Australian history, helping return balance to the Senate and sweeping a progressive government into power in Canberra for the first time in a generation. Since the 2007 elections, GetUp members have successfully pushed Australia’s largest bank to drop financing for an environmentally disastrous new pulp mill, put serious reconciliation with the indigenous population at the centre of national debate, and developed a ‘People’s Agenda’ to hold the government accountable to progressive priorities.

38degrees 38degrees.org.uk

38 Degrees launched in the UK in 2009 and now has over 800,000 members working together for change. 38 Degrees members use a variety of different tactics to bring about change, like signing petitions, emailing and phoning MPs and donating to fund newspaper ads about campaigns. Among other achievements, 38 Degrees has helped to stop the government’s plans to privatise ancient national forests, and encouraged the government to sign up to the EU Directive on Human Trafficking

Avaaz www.avaaz.org

Avaaz launched in 2006 with the aim of using the new online model to empower people across the world as global citizens. Since launching, Avaaz has grown by an average of over 20,000 new members a week, with over 10 million members now spanning all 192 countries. When the Burmese Junta launched a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy monks protesting in Rangoon, Avaaz members leapt into action. Massive global pressure squeezed the Junta’s few viable international relationships and forced them to scale back the violence. Avaaz raised over $2.4 million online to help Burma rebuild the democracy movement, and to support monk-led aid efforts to help victims of the cyclone that devastated the Irrawaddy Delta.

Criticisms

Online orgainsing have not been immune to criticism with many commentators simply writing them off as promoting ‘clictivism’ or ‘slacktivism’, meaning that they do not really engage people but simply detract from real action.  In its simplest form this is true, as simple online petitions as run on facebook and many online petition sites arguable have very little effect outside of awareness raising.  Such approaches are more of an online communications tool than real organising tool.  In his article Engagement Ladders: Building Supporter Power, Steve Andersen describes this core difference between online communications and online organising as moving a supporter toward bigger goals and ideally toward unlocking their greater potential.

Probably the most coherent criticism of online organising has come from Malcolm Gladwell in the article Small Change – Why the revolution will not be tweeted which poses interesting questions for the future direction of such organising.  In examining the grassroots tactics that have historically triggered major political change, Gladwell concludes that online organizing has no role in facilitating comparable activism today. He argues, all Internet-enabled activism only “makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.”

However Ben Brandzel of Citizen Engagement Lab (CEL), offers an excellent deconstruction of Gladwell’s arguments in the article “What Malcolm Gladwell Missed About Online Organizing and Creating Big Change”  Brandzel points out that Gladwell suffers a serious misunderstanding of how people actually use online tools and confusion about the theory of change behind the historical tactics as well as their modern equivalents. According to Brandzel this article misses the facts that social media tools allow people to communicate and collaborate with entire networks of close friends much faster than ever before.  He also states that by making it possible for just about anyone to receive and broadcast information about personal choices, social media makes our personal networks a far more focused and powerful source of power and courage than ever before.

The future of online Organising

Brandzel does agree that the phenomenon Gladwell and Anderson describe is a real, growing and serious problem and that while the Internet is great at enabling action through information-sharing, it is quite poor at pushing people to do anything they do not want to do.  Brandzel states that a ‘service’ oriented approach to such organising, can greatly increase member buy-in and enable leaders to engage in far more ambitious planning than would otherwise be possible.  In this approach, campaign guidance emerges from membership through carefully measured response metrics and formal input channels.  Taj James and Marilen Manilov also state in their article Movement Building and Deep Change: A Call to Mobilize Strong and Weak Ties that while social media platforms offer new ways of engaging and sharing organisational, national or global stories, they are no substitute for face-to-face engagement and community building.

A growing number of motivated organisations and individuals are starting to treat engagement as a science and really getting serious about finding ways to engage citizens both online and offline. For example groups like the New Organizing Institute (NOI) and Citizen Engagement Laboratory (CEL) now offer a range of excellent trainings, evolving curricula and project incubation resources. NOI, for instance, convenes an annual “Roots Camp” where practitioners honestly share results and refine strategy.

People all over the world are realising that the democratic systems we have inherited are not necessarily built to solve our problems and that change will have to come from either a dramatic reform of this system or from outside the system altogether.  The reason these fundamental flaws in our democratic systems are unlikely to be corrected in the short term is that our elected officials are reluctant to legislate to essentially limit their control and relevance in the modern political sphere.  By decentralising power over everyday decision making, we as citizens would gain more democracy but the traditional political complex would lose all relevance and is naturally doing everything in its power to prevent such decentralisation.  However, withstanding a complete global technological meltdown or serious limitation of online freedoms, online organizing appears to be set to play a huge part in the re-growth of citizen involvement in politics and society.  The key matter to be kept in mind as we move forward is that the technology enabling such movements is simply a tool or a means to an end and that the real power behind such movements is the people themselves.

Further reading on online organising available here:

http://www.echoditto.com/blog/looking-what-works-best-online-organizing-reads-2010

 

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Letter from Kenya (four)

*Esther washes all the clothes on Saturdays. “I don’t have help come in, so Saturday is the only day that I can wash everything.” Almost immediately she retracks the “everything” and explains that the heavy clothes are washed on Saturdays, but the other clothes, the “light clothing”, is washed during the week – “a bit every day”.

Assuming that she does not have a washing machine (I have yet to see a machine in even the middle-class homes), I try to calculate in my mind how long it must take her to wash the clothes and bedding for a family of three, by hand.

Everything is scrubbed with brushes, and many of the women who come in as housekeepers scrub too hard and ruin the clothes; this is why she prefers to wash everything herself. Esther has a 23 year-old daughter and shows me a photo of her on her smart phone. She tells me that she is finishing her studies, but she requires her to wash her own clothes. The loads are getting lighter, but I am still having a hard time calculating the hours it must take.

When I arrive at her house for the first time, it is a Sunday evening – after church. We enter the metal main door of the building and make our way up the dimly lit concrete stairs. Turning left at the first landing, I am greeted with, at least, one woman per doorway scrubbing and dunking, scrubbing and dunking, scrubbing and dunking. Clothes are hung on thin rope strung between walkways. A lulling chatter fills the hallway, accompanying the scrub-dunk rhythm kept by the same busy ladies.

The socialization built into the lives of Nairobians keeps me bewildered. I have been conditioned to segregate, categorize, and compartmentalize, making time for everything through strategic decision.

*Name changed for privacy.

 

Nicole Rademacher is a currently in Nairobi, Kenya until the beginning of May doing research and documentation for her current project investigating domestic ritual (made possible by the North Carolina Arts Council, USA and many private donars/patrons).

official website • Nicole’ blogfollow her project on Facebook

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Letter from Kenya (three)

In Nairobi, you can make time stand still. I’m contemplating the stationary second hand on the watch of the woman next to me. She quietly stares at the people who are not frozen; the men with wide gaits moving swiftly, and the women passing us less hurriedly in pairs or groups of three unassumingly chatting in their dress suits and heels. They will all most certainly get to their homes before we do, but our existence has been suspended on the #40 Citi Hoppa bus to Ngumo.

I am surprised that I don’t hear Hot 105 pumping through the speakers promoting “1 second can win you 1,000 bob” (Kenyan slang for Kenyan schilling). Instead my attention is shaken from the motionless second hand by the jangle of coins in the conductor’s hand. I look up and he tells me, “40 bob” in little more than a whisper. Despite the cosmopolitan hustle and bustle, the capital city can be quite taciturn using gesture to communicate. He collects our fares and passes me 2 tickets separated by a perforation.

As I hand her her ticket, I steal a glance at my neighbor’s watch, but the second hand is stubborn; the bus driver turns off the engine and activates the parking break. The woman across the aisle sighs as she turns the page in her book about the habits of being efficient. The man in front of her relaxes further into his seat as a breeze cuts through the bus bringing with it the exhaust from the other cars and buses in the parking lot that is sometimes Valley Road.

I close my eyes so as to attune my ears to the murmur of a conversation behind me, hoping to glean a detail or two about their lives.

 

Nicole Rademacher is a currently in Nairobi, Kenya until the beginning of May doing research and documentation for her current project investigating domestic ritual (made possible by the North Carolina Arts Council, USA and many private donars/patrons).

official website • Nicole’ blog • follow her project on Facebook

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Letter from Kenya (two)

*Wanjiru doesn’t like to cook, but she has been cooking her whole life, she tells me bluntly as she picks through the red mung bean (a bean that I will become very accustomed to during my time here as it appears at many meals). I am surprised that she doesn’t like cooking, only because cooking to me is a joy; it’s a hobby of mine. I ask about her hobbies. She doesn’t have any. After finishing sorting the usable from the not-usable, she proceeds to the kitchen to wash and strain them.

While her English is perfect, the dialect here takes some getting used to for me. When asked her favorite meat, Wanjiru promptly responds “leaver“. I give her a confused look and wonder if she told me in Swahili, certain food is commonly known in its Swahili name rather than in English.

She proceeds to spell it, L-I-V-

– Ahhhh, I say before she can finish, Liver! I repeat, as if correcting her. Am I correcting her?

I’m immediately ashamed for having said it in that fashion, but try to disguise it by asking her, Beef or pork?

With a scornful look she says, Beef! Not pork, and she gives me a disdainful grimace while shaking her head.

After washing and straining she lets the beans soak overnight, but says that she will have to get up at 6 am in order to cook them – she doesn’t normally cook on Sundays, it’s sabbath. Curiously I ask her about her plan for Sunday.

Usually, I go to church from 10:30 am to 1pm, she explains.

It’s not that Wanjiru isn’t forthcoming with information, but she simply doesn’t tell me much unless I explicitly ask her. So, I pry further: Do you come home after church?

No, she tells me that afterwards she either goes and visits with her mother or visits a friend, who owns a salon in Kibera.

That’s enough, she says almost already exhausted, That’s enough.

*Name changed for privacy.

Nicole Rademacher is a currently in Nairobi, Kenya until the beginning of May doing research and documentation for her current project investigating domestic ritual (made possible by the North Carolina Arts Council, USA and many private donars/patrons).

official website • Nicole’ blog • follow her project on Facebook

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Letter from Kenya (one)

From the house where I am staying *George, my guide for the day and now-coworker, and I took the #40 bus to the center and then took a Matatu. I’m a bit leery to take the Matatu, mainly because I don’t know if I will feel ready to take one on my own next time. A Matatu is a van (seats about 15) that is a mode of public transportation. All public transportation in Nairobi has fluctuating prices but the day before Morrison, my other guide/co-worker, told me that because I am white they may decide to charge me more. Maybe when I can defend myself in Swahili I will feel more confident with the idea of taking a Matatu by myself.

We take the #46 to Mathare Valley. Once we get our feet on the ground George announces it, “Mathare Valley Slum”. We walk a bit further down the road to a building. He wants to show me a view of the entire slum. I find it unsettling that he continually uses that word. Perhaps it is because I am used to it being used in a derogatory manner, when really it is simply used to described sub-standard living, to describe the place. We walk behind the building and on the steps there are three children. The older sister is putting cornrows in the younger girl’s hair. The little boy looks up at me, Hello, he says in English. Hi, I respond. Fine thank you, he replies. I’m a bit confused why he said that. Later I find out that what I have been taught as “hi/hello” in Swahili (habari) functions as a greeting and also asks “how are you?”. George thinks that behind the building will be a good spot for a comprehensive view of Mathare Valley, but then quickly realizes that where we were before was much better. We climb back up the steps and the little boy runs after us. I vaguely hear him say something, but I can’t make it out. George points and says, This is all Mathare Valley. Over there too? I ask – even though I know the answer, but it is obvious that George is proud of his home and that it is immense. Kenyans all seem to deceive their age, but it is clear that George is quite young, perhaps the same age as the other youth in the program. He is proud and happy to share his home with me. I feel very welcomed, and want to demonstrate my appreciation of his time and openess.

We return to one of the entrances to the slum, close to where we de-boarded the Matatu. George opens and goes through a wooden doorway; I follow. It opens up to an open grassy area. About ten feet after the door is a shack made with scrap metal corrugated sheeting. Inside are about seven young people – well, at this point they are all young men -two in a pair, a group of three talking quitely in Swahili, and two are sitting on their own texting. I go around to greet them. I am a bit unsure about my barely existent Swahili. I say “hi” to the first young gentleman, in English. Then tells me his name, and we shake hands. In my self-conscious state I forget to return the greeting not telling him my name but simply moving on to the next person. Though I correct my mistake with the second young man and say, I’m Nicole. By the third student, I’ve gathered my confidence and greet him with “Habari” and follow up with “I’m Nicole”.

Some of the handshakes are long, I just smile and continue shaking until they let go. George steps out for a moment and the students become more animated. Several ask my name again and where I am from – which is confusing to explain. Because I mention that I live in Chile last – after stating that I am American – they stick with Chile, maybe this is because there aren’t usually volunteers from Latin America. One young man knows Chile well – a big soccer fan – in fact he knows about Chile because he loves the Argentinean team. Later on, in confidence, he tells me that he really doesn’t like Messi, the Argentinean soccer player, but in spite of that he’s a big fan. They ask about the weather in Chile; “It’s in the south. Is it summer there?” one young man asks. I tell them that when I left it was 35 degrees Celsius – they all nod their heads, agreeing that yes indeed it is summer in Chile.

More students start trickling in, and each one greets me first, since I am strategically placed right next to the door – total accident, but it served me well. They then make their way around to all of their peers. Some receive more exciting and/or complex handshakes than others. After they have greeted everyone, they take their seats and chat with their friends in Swahili. I try to make out words, but on day 2, this is difficult. One girl sits alone, not because she doesn’t have friends, but because she is waiting for someone, a boy in particular. I realize this later – once the session is over – when everyone leaves the meeting room to socialize outside. I really want to talk to her because during the debate (more on that in a moment), she tried to participate several times, but the boys tended to drown her out. After the session, when I saw her intensely engaged in conversation with said boy, coyly digging her shoe into the ground, it became clear why she had been waiting on that bench before we started. There will be time to get to know her. I didn’t interrupt that conversation, only observed quietly from nearby.

The debate, activity for the day’s session, was lively. George asked them to think of a topic. A few sex-war topics were thrown out, then a girl said “traditional lifestyle is better than modern”. The students count off 1-2-1-2 to make the teams of pro v. con.

I was well impressed with the young adults – their knowledge of current affairs, history, the environment … There was no preparation – they separated into groups and then started with points and counter points. They discussed pollution, transportation, life expectancy, medical advances, politics … obviously there was no fact checker, but that made it that much more impressive. Additionally it was all in English – I know that Swahili is more comfortable for them: there was one lapse into Swahili.

After the session quite a few of the students came up and introduced themselves to me. So bright and expressive. I have recently been told that they have a lot of footage – documentary of the program – that they want to edit into finished videos, but no one knows how to edit.

Let’s see if I can help change that.

Currently, I am Artist-in-Residence at Maji Mazuri and also volunteering in their Youth Media Program in Mathare Valley, the second largest slum in East Africa. The goal of the program is to help the youth improve the quality of their lives by working with each other, and with counselors, to acquire skills. The program is also designed to provide a conducive environment within which youths can grow and develop into responsible adults. Within this program a “media” program is in current development, where the students (aged 16 – 27) can gain soft and hard skills related to media (i.e. blogging, website design, video production…). February 6, 2012 – my second day in Kenya – was my first visit to a program that I will be closely working with for the next few months.

Maji Mazuri was founded by Dr. Wanjuki Kironyo in1984. She still currently serves as its director. I met her on Monday, after this first visit, and shared these thoughts with her. She said, Thank you. And it was at that moment that it truly became clear to me that it is because of her and her work – additionally, everyone here on the ground, donors, past and future volunteers …, but it was her vision that started this – that I can say this about these young men and women. I feel very honored to be a part of this. I can only hope that I will be able to contribute at least as much as I will gain from this experience.

*I’ve changed all names except my own for their privacy.

Nicole Rademacher is a currently in Nairobi, Kenya until the beginning of May doing research and documentation for her current project investigating domestic ritual (made possible by the North Carolina Arts Council, USA and many private donars/patrons).

official website • Nicole’ blog • follow her project on Facebook

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Architects and their childhoods

The constructive influence of childhood on an architect’s design philosophy.

Is it possible to understand the relevance of childhood experience in relation to the development of an architect’s design and professional philosophy? The creation of Architecture is often attributed to a set of skills learnt during a formal program of education and the philosophy of an architect is often attributed to their schooling or apprenticeship; whether it is with another architect or within a particular architectural environment.  However, the development of an architect’s professional philosophy potentially begins much earlier with an image, an emotion or an experience from childhood. The accumulation of these experiences, be they architectural, social or environmental, forms the basis of what Malcolm Quantrill calls a person’s “environmental memory”.

The experiences of architecture that occur during childhood are often associated with the way in which a person senses a place and, as a result of this, much has been written about phenomenology and memory in relation to the formation of design theory. It is phenomenological experience that first starts to educate, shape and inform a designer while they are a child. Scholars argue that these childhood memories and images heavily influence the architectural direction taken in later life and will often inform the basis of a person’s professional philosophy: an architect may recall them to try to recreate a place that evoked an emotion or sense of place.

German philosopher Martin Heidegger writes that phenomenology reveals our experience in a context and our more basic way of relating to some things is in a practical manner.   The experience of architecture as a child is phenomenological as our knowledge of the world is limited and so we experience a building or an environment in isolation. The experiences of childhood are stored as images, memories and atmospheres. Steven Holl, American architect and theorist, states that the experiences of childhood are the beginning point of the development of a pre-theoretical ground for architectural knowledge, inferring that the images and experiences the architect is exposed to as a child become the basis for an architect’s professional philosophy.

British architect and theorist Malcolm Quantrill, in his 1987 text The Environmental Memory, discusses the significance of these images a person stores and suggests that childhood is the starting point for the development of what he terms an “environmental memory”.  The significance of childhood manifests itself in the formation of an architect’s “environmental memory”; memory begins in our first room, we climb into it on our first stair, we nourish it with views from our first window. Images of these beginnings of consciousness are the basis for our dreams and aspirations…environmental memory begins in our first house, our first field, our first street and library. [i]

Individual architects have been discussed with regard to the way in which their childhood experiences have shaped their architecture in a way which recalls Quantrill’s ‘environmental memory’. Australian architectural critic and author Philip Drew records that for architect Glenn Murcutt, it was the similarities between the landscape of the Upper Watut and the Maria River at Crescent Head which awakened slumbering memories from his childhood and thereby contributed a powerful tropical character to the Marie Short house.

Glenn Murcutt is an Australian architect who is internationally renowned for his environmentally sensitive designs which have a distinctively Australian character. Immediately after his birth to the age of five, Murcutt lived in the coastal area of the Morobe district of Papua New Guinea, which in the 1930’s was both primitive and somewhat dangerous. Murcutt talks of the environment of his childhood:

[I] grew up in the highlands of New Guinea on the Upper Watut River. The lower end of the highlands, a very wild place with huge grasslands of Kuni grass, huge rainforests. […] We lived amongst the Kuka Kuka people, now known as the Manyamia people. […] at that time, fearsome people. And they actually attacked – now, at the time, we thought this was just terrible – and they killed”[ii]

This environment of his childhood is depicted in Arthur Murcutt’s photograph of Murcutt’s childhood home in Papua New Guinea, Figure 1.

Figure 1: Arthur Murcutt’s house on the Upper Watut, N.G., January 1936

Murcutt attributes his approach to architecture and his association with nature to his childhood in Papua New Guinea and Australia.[iii] Murcutt often refers to ideas similar to Quantrill’s concept of the “environmental memory” throughout his design processes, attributing his sensitivity towards the site and environment to his childhood education of place. Murcutt talks about the experiences, observations and lessons taken from the environment during his childhood as being with him for the rest of his life, and how this understanding of place has guided him in the design of his architecture.[iv]

The significance of Papua New Guinea is explained by American architect and academic Steven Holl as he explores the idea that sense perception is the basis for knowledge.[v] The degree of influence Papua New Guinea has had on Murcutt can not be measured in numerical terms, however it must be thought of as part of his basic understanding of space and architecture.

When looking at Murcutt’s varying projects it is not uncommon to wonder about the similarities between a Murcutt house and the Australian vernacular, however Murcutt rejects that this “provides any sort of formal model for his homes” which opens the discussion of the inspiration and design of many of his buildings.[vi] It is Philip Drew who draws the parallel between the Papua New Guinean long houses and Murcutt’s designs.[vii] He suggests that Murcutt has inherited the “striking combination of primitive and cultivated or refined qualities in the same building” from the buildings of his childhood. These similarities are obvious in the depiction of the long houses in Figure 2 and the Marie Short house, Figure 3.[viii]

Figure 2: PNG Long Houses

This project, the Marie Short House in Crescent Head, NSW clearly articulates Murcutt’s design philosophy and high regard for the Australian environment. The Marie Short  is considered a turning point of Murcutt’s architecture and the beginning of an identity for Australian architecture.[ix] Drew suggests that the Marie Short House “initiated a primitive treatment of form, a Miesian hut” of Australian architecture, this is echoed by Francoise Fromonot who describes the Marie Short House as “cross fertilization between an essentially modernist architecture […] borrowing from vernacular building”.[x]

Figure 3: Marie Short House

The influence of Murcutt’s childhood “environmental memory” can be traced through the site and climate specific building solutions of the Marie Short House. This building responds to the site through the simple use of limited and practical materials in a way that accommodates the natural environment. This attitude towards practicality and minimal decoration is similar to the vernacular long houses of Papua New Guinea, Drew discusses the “new conception of the house, […] a lightweight pavilion lifted off the ground and open along the sides [being …] closely related to a Pacific Island hut or tent”.[xi] These long houses are elevated simple long rectangular huts with steeply pitched saddle back roofs. The roofing and walls are traditionally made from thatched Kunai grasses and more recently corrugated iron. (see Figure 2)

One of the most interesting aspects of the building is its location on the crest of the land far away from the protection of any trees or other natural elements. The building sits exposed and visible to all aspects of the site. It can be argued that Murcutt’s fear of the dark and residual fear of attack lead him to place the building in the location of the site which had the best vantage point. Murcutt describes the Kuka Kuka people of Papua New Guinea snaking through the Kunai grasses, signaling trouble for his family, “it gave me a sense of fear, all my childhood, the evening, the darkness was when it would strike. And that fear lasted a long time”.[xii] Murcutt says it was only recently, when he returned to Papua New Guinea, that his fear was overcome.

Murcutt’s fear is explained by Heidegger who writes about the phenomenology of place and environment being attributed to the experience of a ‘thing’, in this case the feeling of insecurity and fear, exposing itself to a person.[xiii] He suggests that the phenomenological experience of childhood is powerful enough to carry itself throughout life despite the length of time exposure. Pallasmaa writes that there is a central theme in architecture, “the unconscious fear of death, or the fear of the insignificance of life”; this fear is evident in Murcutt’s design as he deliberately places the Marie Short house on the part of the site with the best vantage point.[xiv] These two views rationalize the significance of Murcutt’s childhood fear on his design philosophy.

Murcutt’s childhood is a significant influence on his design Pallasmaa and Heidegger make clear how the events of one’s childhood can have an unconscious impact on a person. One thing to note about Murcutt, the Marie Short house and his design philosophy, is that he does not consciously look to his childhood for inspiration; it is embedded in his being.

The influence of his life in Papua New Guinea, although short in duration, has clearly had a significant impact on Murcutt, partially rejecting Quantrill’s proposition that “[a]n environmental framework is not only one of space and form, it is also one of time: […] the environmental memory depends upon a “time exposure”.[xv] The siting of the Marie Short house is an emotional response to an experience from childhood which has manifested itself in his design philosophy. Murcutt’s use of “environmental memory” does support Quantrill’s theory in respect of the idea that a single “environmental memory” holds something that appeals to emotion, the fear of being attacked; and something that appeals to reason, the siting of the Marie Short house in the position where the chance for survival is highest.[xvi]

For Murcutt there is a strong and direct connection with his childhood, it is an unconscious knowledge of place and architecture which comes through in his design. For Murcutt there is some conscious knowledge of the influence his childhood is having on a specific design project, Pallasmaa concurs with this idea stating that “our actions are neither accidental nor arbitrary; they contain both conscious and subconscious motives”.[xvii]


[i][xv][xvi] Quantrill, 1987. The Environmental Memory

[ii] Murcutt, Glenn 2008. Transcript: Talking Heads, (Australian Broadcasting Company, Aired June 2nd)

[iii][viii][xi] Drew, 1985. Leaves of Iron

[iv][xii] Murcutt, 2008. Transcript: Talking Heads

[v] Holl, 1996. “Pre-theoretical Ground”

[vi] Farrelly, E. M. 1993. Three Houses: Glenn Murcutt

[vii] Of interest is the fact that Murcutt threatened to sue Drew over the misrepresentation of facts in Drew’s Leaves of Iron publication, however as Murcutt had approved the copy nothing eventuated.

[ix][x] Fromonot, 2003. Glenn Murcutt: Buildings and Projects

[xiii] Heidegger, 1993. Building, Dwelling, Thinking

[xiv][xvi] Pallasmaa, 2001. “The Mind of the Environment”

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New Book: 10.98 Seconds Of Wellington Artists

Freerange Press is now selling copies of Lennart Maschmeyer’s fabulous new book 10.98 Seconds of Wellington Artists. 

$NZ50.

Click Here to go the Freerange shop to buy it. 

Over the past two years, German-born photographer Lennart Maschmeyer has been working on a Portrait of Wellington’s thriving art community. The resulting book titled “10.98 seconds of Wellington Artists” is the first work of its kind in Wellington. Its aim is to capture an authentic impression of the people creating and carrying the spirit of the city.

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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?

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