Search

PO Box 2 Blackball

Paul Maunder's blog

Jeanette Fitzsimons

I hear of her death while driving into town and feel the shock of grief. We were hardly close but she’d come to Maydays, there’d been the occasional encounter at activist gatherings, some email exchanges, that was all. But grief because she was a woman of great integrity. She knew nothing of opportunism, narcissism, ambition…nor was there any new age performance. She was simply focused on the environment and social justice. There was some memory of the pioneer woman in her bearing. No one could doubt her wisdom, her history, her integrity. She was resolute she was firm, yet she could laugh. She helped create a movement.

In a time of decay and fragmentation, a time when the centre does not hold, there is grief at the loss of these qualities.

She will be missed.

But at a time of mourning, it is good to renew hope. So listen, if you will, to a native American woman who has a similar spirit: https://www.alternativeradio.org/radio-show/podcast/

The movement continues.

Imagery

Delving into Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire I was struck by the intensity of controversy over images in the early church. Used to the ornately decorated European cathedral, we can forget the asceticism of the early church (to be repeated by the early Protestants). Painted or sculptured images of God, Christ, Mary or the saints, or depictions of the dramas of Christianity were forbidden and seen as succumbing to the heathen superstition and idolatry of tribal peoples. The cross was the only image allowed. A similar banning of imagery occurs in Islam. And there is a point to this. Not having a photographic image of Christ or Mary or the disciples or Mohamed, how does one paint a true likeness? It is necessarily made up and subjective.

But there was a counter argument: that such images were necessary to attract the more primitive and the simple minded folk. As well, images of Christ, Mary, saints and martyrs held huge emotional power, for example before battles when life might be lost. The depiction of the dead and the sacred does serve a real human need, with suspension of disbelief easily achieved.

My thoughts turned to the contemporary world and the cacophony of images and their association with the gods of commerce and consumerism. After looking after a couple of children for a month, I was glad to see the end of the endless supply of kids’ films, many of which are over the top in terms of stimulation. I’ve long wanted a ban on tourists taking photos. The emotional power of the commercial image has returned us to the idolising of the fetish. And without the mediation of the natural working world of the peasant.

In turn I wondered whether, in order to tackle the climate crisis, we need to return to a spiritual aesthetic asceticism, this time in order to acknowledge and respect the power and complexity of the natural systems; that a crucifixion has taken place which shouldn’t be imaged, but told as a simple story: we were gifted a planet and we crucified it. A single image could become the visual descriptor, together with testaments and songs.

Perhaps that degree of focus is required?

Milestones

I turned 75 on Saturday. It seems a significant number, like 60, 65 and 70. What used to be a decade becomes 5 year lots. Eventually, I presume, it gets down to 1 year.

The day coincided with the book launch of West Coast Plays, plays I’ve written for the Kiwi/Possum Company over the last ten years and a book for which Carol Dawber has written a splendid introduction, putting the work in the context of other community theatre which has taken place on the Coast since its founding. I also snuck in the launch of a novella I’d recently had published, Peace and Goodness, a story centering on the 1862 wreck of the Lord Worsley on the Taranaki Coast during the land wars.

Wendy Barrow’s second hand bookshop, Red Books provided the venue and as friends and strangers gathered, it was a lovely occasion. I was struck by the vibrancy of the conversation, interspersed with the launching speeches, songs and poems. The bookshop, with its discerning selection of books, has a historical resonance, being the same building that Peter Hooper established Walden Books in the 1960s. A good bookshop, like a good theatre, becomes a salon, a gathering place, a place of dialogue, a rare thing these days; and a launching is mana for the writer as it makes personal the exchange of the book (that considered conversation) between writer and reader.

The evening gave me much needed sustenance. At my age, one’s peers are often dying or, like old cars, seriously crapping out. There are the awful degenerative diseases waiting in the wings or entering centre stage, there is the inevitable feeling of growing irrelevancy, of taking up space and of being a burden to children. Thank God for the pension. There is no sight more painful than the old person begging.

Other than cards, one of them hand made by Caroline, I received a bed of nails from Te Whaea (I’d asked for one). Shakti they’re called and after some pain, the experience provides a feeling of levitation.

Sunday, we had a working bee to put a new roof on the museum and I spent the day in the company of Mike, Lance and Tane. This was a complex task usually performed by the suppliers – at a cost we couldn’t afford – but these blokes are highly skilled. There is no greater pleasure than being a labourer for the highly skilled worker. Dave and a visitor mate came over and watched for a time, like kaumatua. Maori, holding the wisdom of the pre-capitalist society, have a place for the old; on the marae telling and retelling the stories. What better task to perform?

After dinner at Te Whaea’s and a touch of the precious piece of pounamu, Te Kura o Waitaiki, gifted by the marae to the women’s group formed around the art of the karanga, I spent the evening reading a New York Times bestseller. The competent writer had spent much time analyzing the market and structures that sell, hot topics etc. The result was banal. Soon there will be computer written books generated by algorithms. Like watching television, they will pass the time, on cruise ships, aeroplanes and in rest homes.

On Friday, after buying a new exercise book in which to keep notes, I had written a new ‘mission statement’: With the climate crisis, the inequality crisis, the cultural crisis and the dominion of corporate power, new structures are required – people to people, co-operative, sustainable. Meanwhile it is essential to speak truth to power, without compromise.

There’s a feeling of autumn in the air; slightly chilly mornings, with the sun taking a little longer to heat the day. The kereru remain, the wild goats are happy, a few more tourists pass through. It looks like a good blackberry season.

Arts funding for the regions

Just before Xmas I received a phone call from a  Creative NZ worker. She announced in a consoling voice that I would be feeling upset because our application for  funding assistance ($3000) toward the running of the Blackball Readers and Writers Festival had been unsuccessful. I listened as she murmured condolences: ‘Not a good way to end the week …’ etc.; even wondered whether she was reading from a script.

But I hadn’t expected success – in applying I’d simply made a routine gesture. Unlike the city festivals which attract thousands to listen to celebrities legislate grand themes for substantial fees, where the budgets are considerable, where organisers are paid, where excellence and the special vision become consumer items and the spectacle is achieved, our festival involves an encounter between fifty people at the local school. We’re celebrating the local and the regional – we’re telling another story, which can easily go unnoticed. Yet people do enjoy coming and if we’d got our three thousand, it would have been stress free and everyone involved would have self exploited a little less.

I must admit that a few years ago, after I applied for a grant from CNZ to tour a large-cast Brechtian-style play on the transition economy around the West Coast region and  the application was rejected, and I then saw that in that round, twice as much as I had applied for had been awarded for the opening party of the Dunedin Fringe Festival, I did pen a few critical words to CNZ, which brought down the director of funding for a conversation. It seemed that CNZ was embarrassed that none of its budget outside the Creative Communities scheme was going to the regions. She was keen to do something about it and would report back. I am pleased that there is now some progress.

Yet I am skeptical. The email (which was passed on to me) announcing the scheme, went out to some local organisations on the Coast, mainly the venue managers and the schools,  promised to ‘connect you with potential arts organisations who can tour to the West Coast’; and furthermore was keen ‘for you to work collaboratively in presenting work’. What we have here expressed is a desire to open up the regional market to the touring, urban-based professionals. Not a bad thing but not particularly useful for the regional artist.

The official outline is more sophisticated:   ‘In partnership with communities’ – but who’s the other partner? ‘Develop quality arts by and within local and regional communities’? Who will be the protagonist? The scheme? CNZ wants some financial input from Councils or local corporates, but Councils on the Coast are already stretched because of infrastructural demands and corporates of substance are few and far between and usually committed to worthy schemes such as rescue helicopters. And ‘increase engagement (attendance and/or participation)’ is fine, but attendance is easier to measure. Opening up the regional market will tend to dominate.

Surely, what CNZ should be looking to primarily assist is regionally-based professional artists working with their communities in a structured manner, which usually means that the content is suggested by the community, that there is a reciprocal relationship, that the project will have a greater purpose than to be merely entertainment, and that creativity is considered a universal gift.

There are other valid possibilities: for community-based events or exhibitions of merit to travel within the region or across regions or to the urban areas. There could be professional development opportunities regionally and perhaps an opportunity to honour the regional artist, for example, through retrospectives. There could be symposia giving locals the opportunity to work alongside artists from outside the region. Another issue is obtaining informed critique in the regions.

And who has been consulted. I certainly wasn’t.  Nor I suspect, were other artists practising within the regions. And if we are looking at regional arts development, the first step on the Coast would be to bring the local players together in order to develop a regional arts infrastructure and create a body or bodies who might meaningfully apply to such a scheme or become a significant partner. That wouldn’t be an easy task, for the local players are a complex mix of council funded, commercial or community venues, private, co-operative (and one public) galleries, amateur artists and groups, professional and semi-professional artists and groups, co-ops, trusts and so on; but it would be worthwhile. In fact, what we really need is something akin to the old Regional Arts Councils with their funding for regional touring, regional arts development workshops and other opportunities, as well as their ability to build a regional knowledge base. If you really want to tour to small places you have to know that X will put up some posters, that the rural mail deliverer is willing to place a flier in mail boxes if asked by the right person and so on.

Part of the problem here is a loss of institutional memory. The Dunedin group, Talking Heads, for example, did years of exemplary work telling regional stories and touring within the Otago region.  Ditto for us, Kiwi/Possum Productions. And then there is the whole business of arts in education. Footnote used to have a wonderful programme for schools, with a performance followed by a workshop for kids interested. Kahurangi the same. Te Rakau took shows developed by youth at risk around the schools… All disappeared because for some extraordinary reason funding for this sort of work stopped. Finally, there will always be an infrastructural problem with regional arts organisations – even having a hui on the Coast is an expensive proposition because of distance issues.

And the money? 1.12% of the CNZ budget to provide for 2.7 million people, 58% of the population. What would a meaningful budget be, without regions competing one with the other? From a local point of view, $3 a head of population would provide a fund of $98,000 for West Coast arts each year. Amazing things could then happen. I would suspect that a similar $3 a head in other areas (Southland and Taranaki would each get around $300,000) would provide for meaningful arts development. These sums in the city context are trivial, in the regions they are substantial. Cost of such a scheme: $8.3 million, 18% of CNZ’s budget. 58% of the population would get 18% of the funding  – and that would be okay, we realise our limitations when it comes to mounting an exhibition of butter boxes at the Venice biannale.

As far as I know, the arts council has never been reviewed or its work analysed objectively. Rachel Barrowman’s book, A Popular Vision covered the vision of the left for the arts during the pre-Arts Council period of 1930-1950, Michael Volkerling wrote a report for the Arts Council, Cultural Research in NZ in 1976, Jenny Keats wrote another report,  Know Your Audience in 2000 and there has been the occasional Chairperson’s comment of substance, for example, Elizabeth Kerr in the 2005 publication, On Arts 33.

There is good reason for the absence, for any such studies come to the conclusion that, in the words of English writer, Jonathan Lewis, ’Public funding of the arts represents the redistribution of wealth from the working class to subsidise middle class entertainment and middle class aesthetics.’[i]  We can include geography in this paradigm. To put it succinctly, the Invercargill cleaner buying a weekly Lucky Dip is subsidising the Auckland lawyer attending the opening of the latest ATC production. Best to keep this a secret and if it threatens to leak out, mystify it with notions of artistic vision and excellence, nationalism, creative industries, postmodern diversity and so on.

But the scheme has been formulated and announced. Can I suggest that CNZ run hui in each region bringing arts players together, as a first step in what used to be called community cultural development. These could well be run along open agenda lines, the aim being to cut across parochial survival and to begin to plan a regional strategy in line with what the scheme is suggesting.

Ultimately, in this era of climate emergency, there’s a big story to be told in the regions, in order to avoid the split between city and region as has happened in the US, to move past fundamentalist extractive or conservation positions, to foster dialogue and to create new images. And what we’re learning down here is that iwi are central to that story.

 

 

[i] J. Lewis, Art, Culture and Enterprise: The politics of art and the cultural industries, Routledge, London; New York, 1990, p.21

Normality

With towns destroyed, a billion wildlife casualties, a European sized country burnt out and people huddled on beaches as at Dunkirk, the Australian bush fires are maybe the first catastrophic climate event, more dramatic than the slow dying of a coral reef or the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Camping in the countryside south of Motueka, the red afternoon sun seemed like a primitive omen conjured by a witch doctor or pantheistic god.

Faced with this event, the concept of normality disappeared and I was struck by the realisation that despite this disappearance, people will nevertheless, determinedly hold onto the normal.

I was with family at a folk festival, a pleasant and gentle way to see in the new year; people singing around the campfire sort of thing, folk music having been resurrected as part of the sixties’ rebellion against commercialisation, mass production etc. – instead, the pure voice of Joan Baez singing of Mary Hamilton. There was a bush poets session with the recitation of amusing doggerel which sometimes approached the ballad. All very pleasant, but there was an elephant in the room. Could we acknowledge it? Two of us did, feeling like spoil sports.

Kids roll down the bank/ The young man from Rarotonga/Sings of love/The white tent throbs with age/The sky is clear, time is still/The tui is not in danger/White tuft of once was/ Once was/ Dust settles/On modern man.

And that is the issue. To acknowledge a coming apocalyptic age is difficult and everyone, as in a war, seeks normality, even though there is the knowledge that normality is no longer possible.

Except in the ads. The ads become a comfort, for everyone in the ads is happy. All is well. All you need to do is buy this or that and life will be wonderful. Consumption is the answer. We are suddenly at the heart of the matter and at the heart of our inability to make the necessary decisions and make the necessary uncomfortable changes and face up to the realisation that capitalism doesn’t fit the bill. To put it simply, in Aussie, the fire was consuming consumption and the sun was glowing red. Nevertheless, the cruise ship beckons, the new sofa, the new television, the new car, the shampoo, the bathroom cleaner… producing smiling faces and bonny families  All will be well as we hang onto a normality which no longer exists.

The French philosopher, Badiou, believed that a big event can give direction to the complex and diverse evolving multiplicities that make up modern society. I suspect this is not the case for the climate event, which instead, reduces the multiplicities to a singularity: destruction.

The folk music continued: Mary Hamilton went to the tower, we laughed at a funny song about the kiwi bloke and his shed, applauded a skilled performer on the penny whistle, munched a pie in Murchison on the way back. Normality. The Aussie PM pitches to tourists – it’s still okay to visit our natural wonderland, people stitch leg bandages for kangaroos, celebrities donate money, the ads continue…

Normality.

bushfire

Photo: BBC.com

Tragedy

We hear the word ‘tragedy’ an awful lot, for it is used to describe most sudden traumatic deaths, from traffic accidents to mine explosions to house fires to tourist disasters such as the recent White Island event.

As a dramatist I can become irritated at the loose use of the word, which, for me, is most valuably associated with a form of drama ‘of elevated theme and diction with unhappy ending’ to quote the Oxford English Dictionary. Yet the OED gives a second meaning: ‘sad event, calamity, serious accident or crime.’ This then, is how the word is generally used and my irritation smacks of snobbery.

I’m faced with a choice: accept the endless, almost daily tragedies, or see if there’s some connection between the two definitions – can the theatre form which comes from the Graeco-Christian tradition, tell us something about the more general use of the word and vice versa?

According to Raymond Williams, who wrote a very good book on the subject, the drama tradition of tragedy began in the theatre of Ancient Greece when three masked characters separated out from the chorus in order to enact ‘the grievous stories of particular ruling families’ as they encountered the vicissitudes of fate and the judgements of the gods. The stories were both myth and a form of history. In the last century the story of the Kennedy family, for a period, had this quality.

010618-17-Greek-Tragedy-Literature

In the Medieval period the tragic story became more about an individual turning aside from contemplation of God and jumping onto the wheel of fortune and being struck down by ‘sin, misgovernance, pride and cruelty’. We have moved from the Kennedys to the Trumps.

Medieval tragedy

Shakespeare explored the tension between the two spaces.

220px-HamletSkullHCSealous

But with the arrival of the bourgeoisie, the tragic story, writes Williams, becomes more about an individual retaining dignity through a time of suffering caused by moral error, with redemption being possible if that moral error is corrected. Here we could use as an example, the Royal Family and the Diana episode, with a new kind of action, including the idea of poetic justice and the need to restore ethical order and unity after an individual is destroyed. We see the same structure of feeling when people overcome addiction.

18th century

With the late 19th  and 20th  centuries we find a tragic mode which is more opaque, for in this mode, suffering is rooted in the ‘nature’ of man. Suffering is, in fact, normal, evil is all powerful and fate is blind. Ordinary people can do each other the greatest injury because of the ‘cruel and indifferent but also immensely fertile law of nature and life.’ In this world view, nature is all powerful and civilisation is a lie. This is revealed in the turgid tales of the court page but also the horror of the death camps. Faced with this, resignation is the order of the day.

But we are also in the tragic realm of the climate crisis where dissolution and chaos is not an individual or even family fate but an event on a planetary scale with the above belief system leading to the tragic action (or inaction) of denial, with everything reduced to the accidents of blind fate and the only position to take being one of resignation.

In this situation a new tragic story has to be told in order to confront the ‘grievous disorder’ and to find resolution. Enter Greta Thunberg and the climate justice kids, who link the suffering of ordinary people in the developing world and of indigenous people everywhere, to the need for human agency(acknowledging what scientific knowledge is telling us and acting accordingly) and ethical renewal.

SchoolStrike4ClimateIt It is the grandest of tragic tasks and one in which myth and history or myth as history, are key, which is why their small actions resonate so loudly.

greta

Christmas narratives

When I worked with Sue Bradford and the Auckland Unemployed Workers’ Rights Movement in the in 1990s on a play which told the story of the Rogernomics era from the point of view of the unemployed, we called the piece, Telling the Other Story. The concept of telling alternative narratives has become, since then, increasingly potent.

As the COP25 climate conference threatens to become bogged down at the official level, important stories are emerging: the corporate takeover via sponsorship, the farce of the carbon market, the holding onto power by the north (including Australia), the refusal to consider climate justice at the economic level thus condemning developing countries to becoming survival economies, the anger and creativity of the young climate activists and the prescient voice of Greta Thunberg and the growing centrality of the indigenous voice. Revolutionary change hovers.

Within this is the yet-to-be-forged narrative of a just transition. Here on the Coast it is beginning to happen and it feels vital in order to avoid the urban-regional political split characteristic of the US. Faced with two fundamentalist viewpoints: the extractivist who wants business as usual and the conservationist wanting to preserve at all cost, it is necessary to historicise both viewpoints; to explode the myth of a golden extractivist age on the one hand, but also to introduce the historical trajectory of the conservation come environmental come environmental justice movements on the other. To these have to be added iwi history and process. From this the narrative of a just transition begins to be spoken, then written. Unsurprisingly, the iwi story, focusing on sustainable use of the earth for purposes of survival,  begins to be central.

There has been considerable debate via opinion columns in the local newspaper, pieces which have challenged populist tendencies, critiqued generalist government policies, taken a closer look at market ‘planning’ and finding it obtuse and clumsy, identifying some remaining colonialist structures, unpacked the social construct of ‘wilderness’ by separating the strands of biodiversity, recreation and the aesthetic so that arguments are not conflated, questioned the power and influence of national, urban-based lobby groups and unpacked the class element of tourism. It’s not an easy process, with inevitable falling outs.

Above all, from these narratives, there comes to be a new questioning of capitalism, whether the problems we’re facing either globally or locally, can be solved within free market structures. There is an interesting movement in Europe calling itself the people2people movement, which rejects both the market and the state as frameworks.

The problem in forging this new narrative is the constraint of time, for it has to be written within a couple of decades. Meanwhile, yesterday, I was a member of a community choir singing Christmas carols at the dementia unit. It was both touching and curiously resonant.

Pleasure and Pain

I’ve been reading an old book (one of those with a blank cover and the title embossed on the spine) on the history of economic thought. Interesting and boring at the same time – a perfect night cap.

In tribal times economics didn’t require a thought system. You fed and clothed the family and bartered any surplus. The writer saw the old testament prophets, and we can include the Maori prophets, arising when the tribal system was threatened by autocratic empires.

With feudalism, value was still attached primarily to the land, with the aristocracy wasting their surpluses on luxury items.

But with capitalism arriving on the scene, firstly in the form of bullionism (raping the Americas for gold and silver to add to the state coffers) and then mercantilism (trading companies appointed by the sovereign, holding a monopoly of trade over vast geographic areas), some explanations began to be required, with concepts of utility, value, currency exchange and rules of trade etc. entering the scene.

With the arrival of industrialism and the middle class, both the feudal aristocracy and the merchant class with their monopolies over land and trade had to be supplanted and this was justified by the doctrine of liberalism and free trade. The doctrine is simple and hasn’t changed, except in sophistication. If everyone pursues their self interest, an overall good is achieved. The state has no role to play other than to defend the realm and prevent monopolies arising. If there are no impediments to trade, the system will find an overall equilibrium. Competition will produce a base price for commodities, including labour.

Liberalism, while productive, produces vast inequalities in a society. Along came Marx and the socialist critique, analysing the thorny problem of where profit comes from. Profit comes from unpaid labour, they decided. The worker will work a certain number of hours in order to earn his subsistence, the rest of his hours generate profit for the capitalist, the owner of the means of production. It was an astute and powerful analysis , revolutionary news to the vast majority of the population and had to be countered.

It was dealt with in two ways, firstly by reluctantly accepting some worker representation and some government intervention to provide a welfare safety net, and secondly through an emotionalising of liberalism by seeing work and consumption as motivated by pain and pleasure. Work is painful, consuming is pleasurable. Saving is painful, but increased pleasure will result down the line. Buying a car is painful because it uses a lot of your money, but using the car brings pleasure. Ditto with the mortgage.

Out of this hedonism comes the modern theatre of markets feeling depressed or buoyant, of business and consumer confidence and the continuing castigating of government interference. There is greater sophistication: calculating the relationship of interest rate to investment (lower the interest rate increases investment), division of capital into productive use and investment, the ratio of consumption to savings – the stuff of the daily business report – all of it designed to keep at bay the socialist critique and to justify continuing inequality.

And of course, an ideology based on hedonism hasn’t a hope in hell of tackling the changes required to solve the climate crisis.

pirate

The future

The future

Driving home from rehearsal and listening mindlessly to National Radio I suddenly found myself in the middle of a rather astonishing half hour of women discussing the Brazilian Butt Lift or BBL, a cosmetic operation which reshapes the body into an ‘ideal’ form:  big bum, narrow waist and with breast implants as well, big tits. It seems that African, Afro-American and South American women seek the operation for ‘cultural reasons’. Snapchat and Instagram are the social media villains for spreading the desire for this particular craziness.

Unfamiliar with these apps I spent an hour before bed trying them out. After BBL and a plenitude of before and after photos of bums I tried the Californian fires and had a somewhat terrifying glimpse of the future apocalyptic times – as the planet wreaks revenge. Endless photos of fires were interspersed with prayers, praise for the first responders, information about welfare centres for those forced from their homes or whose homes had been razed, photos of the threatened Ronald Reagan Museum, photos of planes dropping water bombs, instructions about the use of face masks to prevent damage from smoke inhalation, plus ads about whatever – a chaos of information about chaos. The Los Angeles Times digital edition was free for a day, but pleaded for donations.

From there I turned to Greta Thunberg’s progress through North America in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s electric car and her retweeting of images of climate strikes from around the world, resolute fighters of chaos, led by ‘the woman from heaven’, the name the Native Americans have given her. And always in the comments section a hate filled rave: ‘go home bitch’, ‘a rubbish dump of lefties’, ‘yachts have been known to sink’, from bitter and twisted men who I hope don’t have access to weaponry.

NZ seems particularly placid in comparison, apart from a section of the farming sector who seem intent on creating hysteria.

But as things fall apart, the left in the States seems increasingly left. The next morning, having a pee in the museum toilet, I examined the slogan in the 1920s Buffalo Lodge Certificate on the wall: ‘In things certain, unity; in things doubtful, liberty; in all things, charity’.

Not bad really.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑