Ten questions with Sophie Jerram, Mark Amery and Amber Clausner


Q1: Tell us about the title — what was so urgent?

SJ: The world was going to end of course! New carbon measures and climate pronouncements had been made around 2006; I personally felt a shift away from the sense of endless rolling summers to a finite number of stable-weather years.

MA: Both Sophie and I had young children at the time. I was a PlayCentre dad. Climate change felt very real but also urgent, a response to how clearly it had come into view the way neoliberalism and globalisation had so neatly disempowered people and got us thinking as consumers rather than as participants in civil life. The system was, and is, creating so much waste, and so the need to work with this waste, make visible and create projects that increasingly saw us connect to our ground and our place, became more urgent as we worked.

Q2: ‘The world is a mess, our economic systems are destructive and exploitive and citizens need to wake up, so a bunch of impassioned artists decided to do something about it.’ Is that a crude but apt encapsulation of what drove the projects documented in this book?

SJ: That’s pretty good. I had a sense that the creativity of art-making needed to be brought closer to the evidence of climate degradation and economic collapse that we could see in the empty shops and streets.

MA: I’m not sure the agitprop of ‘wake up’, as if going along shaking the window panes, is quite right. While politicised, it’s far more playful and rooted in different layers of meaning — as any strong art is. I think it was as much driven by our belief that artists can make complex and powerful work outside the gallery working with people us. I like Joseph Beuys’ concept of social sculpture. Rather than waking up people, it involved people to make the work at every turn. For me it was very driven by exploring new ways for people to work together because I think ultimately that’s the weaving that needs to happen to enable change — rather than yelling at people!

Q3: Why was it important to capture them all, going right back to 2010?

SJ: They grew like a tree — branch upon branch — not in isolation. To leave one out would be to sever a limb.

MA: Also important for us was to connect the 2010s to the changes of the late 1980s and 1990s, and the work we commissioned with Urban Dream Brokerage in Wellington in the last several years. Connecting this art to time as a continuum and a cycle.

Q4: You were there for all of them. What’s one that has really stayed in your mind, and why?

SJ: The Transitional Economic Zone of Aotearoa 2013 in New Brighton, Christchurch, was our most ambitious and audacious — involving multiple communities, in a forlorn city. It felt like we approximated alternative world-building at scale.

MA: Screening Murray Hewitt’s remarkable drone film above the aquifer under the Hutt Valley with community performances at significant sites at night up and down the river. Video art, performance and storytelling coming together.

Q5: Most crazy moment of these many urgent moments?

SJ: Erupt Festival — jumping in the readymade geothermal spa in the middle of Taupō’s main street. And going with D.A.N.C.E Art Club to the eerie cold night of Mangakino. These projects were engaging with remote (and not art-savvy) communities.

MA: The gift from an Italian deli importer of an enormous palette of panettone and chocolate to the Free Store, which saw visitors on the last day dipping fresh bread into a chocolate fountain and leaving the store with a cake under one arm and huge smiles on their faces.

Q6: Most moving?

SJ: Jason Muir for TEZA 2015 working for free haircuts with several adult clients who had never had a haircut in their lives.

MA: Meeting the recent young Asian immigrant children who slowly came and engaged with the Suburban Floral Association and its plant cuttings in the square at the base of their new Newmarket apartment-block home.

Q7: Looking back on them now, did they move the needle?

 SJ: They shifted my sense, at least, of what was and what was not possible in art-making. They built confidence in the makers. I hope we’ve emboldened new generations of artists and non-artists to create possible worlds.

MA: On reflection I think art moves in very personal ways. It gives people agency, so the effects can be difficult to see as big shifts, except with a longer lens than we yet have. I’d hope that people reading this book recognise how like a lot of good art these projects captured their moment and empowered social movement alongside other social activity. I think the art crystallises and helps the spread as an agent.

Q8: Does it matter whether they did or didn’t?

SJ: We all want to think our work and lives matter. But if it doesn’t shift the needle, at least we’ve tried. What’s important with this book is that we’re documenting amazing ideas created years before they became mainstream. For example, Free Store is an accepted institution now; discussions about employment and productivity and the UBI have become serious; single-use plastics are practically outlawed . . .

AC: These were local, temporary projects addressing global, long-term problems, so I don’t think it’s a failure if they didn’t ‘move the needle’. Instead, I think we can see the ongoing impact of these projects as ripples; this book being one, the continuation of Urban Dream Brokerage another, the development of the practices of the artists in this book since their Letting Space projects another, the
social, academic, critical conversations that return to these projects yet another, and so on.

Q9: The world still needs project like this?

SJ: Every day.

MA: If nothing else I hope this book passes the torch and inspires communities to realise what an expanded definition of art enables them to do in taking their futures into their own hands.

AC: Absolutely. As more and more power rests in the hands of the few, an important role of artists, creatives and critical thinkers is to facilitate and cultivate public imagination in engaging and agency-producing ways. It is essential that we have temporary projects like these to try out these new ways, to experiment, to get feedback, to see how they morph and transform when in the public domain. This is what product entrepreneurs do all of the time! Why not have this for modes of being, exchanging, caring and valuing, too?

Q10: Proud to have been part of it?

SJ: Without a doubt. The more I look at this body from afar (I’m currently in an international conference on commons-making) the more astounded I am about the commitment to experimenting with intervention in the streets and collaborating with new communities.

MA: I’d been so inspired by independent arts producers in the 1990s in Aotearoa. I feel proud that with producer Helen Kirlew Smith and Sophie we endured on so little and supported so many artists for so long — and, as Pip Adam wrote, I felt over time we grew and connected more with the whenua. The work has only just begun!

AC: It has been a dream to work with Mark, Sophie and Pip Adam to bring this book together. It feels increasingly urgent to remind ourselves and others of the power we hold — that imagining different ways of being is vital to our survival, and that putting these ideas into action requires collectively pushing up against the increasingly tightening constraints placed on us.