Monday, October 24, 2011

The Meaning of John Key

With apologies.

Lancaster Park, 1981 (via)

At the time of the Springbok Tour of 1981 John Key was in his last year of his Bachelor of Commerce degree at Canterbury University, yet if you ask him now whether he was pro or against the tour, he will reply that he doesn’t remember. Of course nobody believes that, reasoning that even a fence-sitter – of which there must have been some – would recall taking that particular stance in one of the defining moments in the country’s social and political history, all the more so if he was attending university at the time. Therefore it has been widely assumed that this is a calculated lie, regarded by Key and his advisors as preferable to stating what his position was at the time and risk alienating a sector of the electorate.

Of the two options, I think the possibility that the Prime Minister may wish to hide having been anti tour is the more chilling, but the speculation distracts us from the larger and more significant issue of why Key would want to dissemble at all. Why is the erasure of this personal political past, of the very idea that he might have been political at all as a young man, matter so much to his image?

The subtitle of Nicky Hager’s important book on the 2005 election, at the time when Key was Don Brash’s deputy, is ‘a study in the politics of deception’. Since Key has taken over the Tory leadership, he has steered the party into a new phase that would be best described as ‘the politics of amnesia’.

It is tempting to read The Hollow Men as the prologue to the term as opposition leader and then the Prime Ministership of John Key. Hager suggests as much in the book’s epilogue, when he reminds us that one of the party’s principal financiers, businessman Rod Deane, had drawn from his conversation with Key the reassurance that the party under Brash and Key would resume the aggressive pursuit of radical economic reform from which the Tories had strayed for far too long [1]. Alister Barry’s film adaptation of the book, which premiered four months before the 2008 election, wryly notes that no sooner had Key declared that he would break from the campaign style and the manipulation engaged in by his predecessor that he travelled to Australia to renew the commission of consultants Crosby/Textor. The strong implication here is that we should distrust Key’s professed centrism, and be mindful of how long Brash had succeeded in projecting a moderate, compassionate image while privately reassuring his backers that once in power he would be anything but a moderate. However while Hager’s book was so instrumental in revealing Brash’s true politics – the politics that he’s now pursuing in a much more transparent fashion as leader of ACT – it has failed to taint Key by association, no matter how substantive and prominent that association was.

This alone tells us that Key was very successful at making a decisive break with his documented past following the leadership coup. And so while there are commentators who contend that he has a ‘heart of darkness’ (Sue Bradford) or that he is no more a moderate than his predecessor (Gordon Campbell), there are others for whom he is a genuine centrist intent on reorienting the party towards small ‘n’ national politics (Colin James [2]), or who maintain that he has no secret agenda simply because he has no agenda at all (Brian Easton). Granted, you could argue that the politics of these commentators is in turn fairly well-documented, and rather predictive of the above results, but that just means that the evidence is not yet clear enough to prove persuasive outside of partisan lines and across discursive domains.

To trace the politics of amnesia at work, we may begin looking at Key’s website,, and find it includes an archive of 142 speeches at the time of writing, beginning with the first one he delivered as leader  of the party and none from the previous tenure as deputy or from his time as a backbencher. In that first speech, Key proposed a vision for the party that was strongly linked to his personal story:
You may know that before entering politics I had a career in international finance. That career was sufficiently successful that from time to time the media likes to question me about what I might be “worth”.

Such questions imply that in the totality of my life, my investments are the most important assets I have accrued. How wrong that is.

As a husband and father, the things I value most in life are not anything you'll see listed on the Stock Exchange.

I think all New Zealanders would agree that the security, happiness and welfare of their family, which is also dependent on the security and welfare of their community and country, is the most precious thing to them.

This vision, which would be more fully articulated in the ‘Kiwi way’ speech delivered two months later at the Burnside Rugby Clubrooms in Christchurch (the location that replaced Brash’s Orewa), included the following commitment:
I have said before that I believe in the welfare state and that I will never turn my back on it.
This is how Key in early 2007 heavily qualified his critique of a system that sometimes trapped its beneficiaries instead of helping them (the highly corrosive but always effective phrase ‘welfare dependency’). Now not only could one counter that, when he was Brash’s deputy, Key regularly trotted out the accusation that Labour was ‘soft on welfare’, but in 2002, having just entered Parliament, he was immediately counted amongst the party’s hardliners, stating for the record his belief that there were women on the DPB who,
for want of a better term, [have been] breeding for a business.[3]
Resetting the political clock at the time when he assumed the leadership has helped Key to inoculate himself – to use the phrase so dear to Brash’s strategy team – with regard to the area that has been and will continue to be the crucial battleground of his Prime Ministership, and a key indicator of a politician's neoliberal quotient.

We may regard with equal suspicion his very strong protestations that no John Key-led government would include Roger Douglas as a Minister
We are going to do the best things for New Zealanders, but we’re not going to be held hostage running a radical right-wing agenda. It’s not why I came into politics, it’s not what I’m campaigning for, it’s not what I stand for, and I’ll be buggered if I’m going to go out there and run a policy agenda which is moderate, considerate and pragmatic, and then turn around and try to sell New Zealanders down the river. [4]
against his links to the cynical politicking of his former leader and his willingness to promise Brash a cabinet position should National win the next election and ACT be returned to Parliament. Clearly the issue here is that Roger Douglas is associated in the minds of the electorate with the decade of New Right reforms in New Zealand in a way that Don Brash isn’t – possibly because of the latter’s administrative/technical as opposed to political role – and the association is still considered toxic. Hence Key’s insistence that he is not interested in ideology, but in what works, and that ‘the National Party is about tomorrow, and what we can achieve’, and not about ‘blaming things from twenty years ago’ [5]. And so too perhaps his refusal to answer the less charged question of where he stood on the Springbok Tour is motivated by the fear of being drawn into a discussion of that decade and what was to follow.

The problem of the politics of amnesia, it must be clear, is larger than John Key, and reflects a complicated and ambiguous relationship with neoliberal reforms in the country as a whole, a failure to properly engage with the political issues that remain open, wound-like. On this count I think the conventional wisdom used to explain the rise of John Key and National’s easy road to victory in 2008 ought to be reversed: the issue is not that people got tired of Labour, but rather that Labour’s narrative itself was exhausted. Just how exhausted was highlighted in the campaign when Annette King criticised National’s youth policies as if she was a member of the opposition and not in charge of that very portfolio, and when put on the defensive blamed a raft of social statistics on the benefit cuts under Ruth Richardson, fifteen years earlier [6]. This kind of profoundly disconnected statement only served to confirm that Labour had never really meant to reverse or rethink the fundamental planks of Rogernomics. After three terms, it was clear that the party’s policies couldn’t match the rhetoric of change that had framed its 1999 election victory.

Clark’s metaphor of the New Zealand economy as a cork bobbing in the ocean, later mirrored by Key’s mantra that we can’t stand on the beach and push back the tide of the global recession, had become shorthand for the much larger and far less justifiable claim that there is no big ‘p’ politics, just good or bad administration, and therefore the supreme virtue of a politician is competence – which Clark possessed in abundance – as opposed to the capacity to produce meaningful and lasting change. But the voters hadn’t forgotten (and Māori voters especially so) that Labour had promised them something else.

(The politics of amnesia came even more starkly to the fore in the disastrous election of Phil Goff as Labour leader after the election. Whatever Goff’s merits and skills, whatever his seniority, that decision meant that Labour would have the worst possible person in charge of breaking the neoliberal consensus, should they have opted to do so – a person who had been implicated with, and had never apologised for, the very reforms that Key is supposedly conspiring to relaunch behind the nation’s back.)

Key and his strategy team read the situation very well, and made sure they would project competence as well as making the claim that the party’s policies were forward-looking – under the ‘ambitious for New Zealand’ slogan – for the benefit not of the politicised voter but rather of the soft, disengaged centre, in the well-founded hope that it might itself be forgetful enough to buy this claim. As late as 2010, two years into his first term, it was perhaps these citizens that Key was addressing when, in wishing them Merry Christmas in a recorded message for Radio New Zealand, he introduced himself as follows:
Hallo, it's John Key, the Prime Minister of New Zealand.
There he is, in a nutshell: a man who sees himself as the Prime Minister of the people who may not be quite sure who the Prime Minister is, or in which country they live.


The question of whether Key has steered National in a moderate liberal direction or is gunning for a second round of radical economic reform over the next three years can properly be answered not by listening to the speeches and the prepared statements but by keeping a close eye on the workings of government and of the party machine. It is the work of political reporters, investigative journalists, unions, advocacy groups and anybody in a position to tell when there is a mismatch between rhetoric and substance in one or more of the government’s policies, or to spot a contradictory connection. When Bruce Jesson complained that New Zealand is a hollow society, I think he might have meant that we don’t have too many people on this kind of case, and that they’re easily isolated and neutralised.

I say that there is not much to be gained by studying John Key’s speeches, but I did it anyway. Over the course of the last few weeks I endeavoured to either listen to or read everything that Key has said into a microphone since becoming an MP and that is available for consumption, as well as a lot of what has been said and written about him. Other than the fact that I might have watched Citizen Kane a couple of times too many, I’m not sure what I was hoping to demonstrate by doing that: I can certainly say that I don’t feel especially enlightened about John Key the man or John Key the politician, and that I didn’t glimpse a grand design, sinister or otherwise. His celebrated charm remains profoundly mysterious to me, although I have a feeling that he may have stretched things too far in the last few weeks. While the leader’s feminine side crafted on the mags such as the current Australian Women’s Weekly remains a thing to behold, his blokeish image, so carefully cultivated with the help of the likes of Tony Veitch and Paul Henry, may have reached an endpoint last night when he posed as one of the boys in the All Blacks' locker room

Image from this set. h/t: Richard Pamatatau

or, more extraordinarily, had a photo of himself raising the Webb Ellis trophy included on the National Party’s website.

Image clipped from on 24/10/2011

Key’s playing a dangerous game here, and he may have misread the sensitivities of the public for once: the average joker / non-politician needs to practice his modesty very carefully, and be sure not to overreach.

But as to the far more substantive issue of what Key’s politics are and where its roots lie, hence where the battlelines will be drawn over the next several years, I found nothing of note. Okay, perhaps one thing. It’s in the ‘state of the nation’ speech delivered in January of this year, in a passage in which Key talks about the origins of New Zealand’s economic troubles and offers some uncharacteristic historical perspective – albeit in order to talk up the task faced by his government and therefore magnify its achievements. In the copy of the speech released to the media, the sentence I want to highlight reads as follows:
New Zealand's economic imbalances have built up over several decades, so it will take more than a year or two to fix them.
Whereas in the speech as it was delivered (at the 9m15s mark) he said this:
New Zealand's economic imbalances have built up over nearly two decades, so it will take more than a year or two to fix them.
That there is a discrepancy at all suggests that there was a discussion over this, and therefore that the difference between several decades and nearly two decades was perceived by Key’s strategists as having political connotations. I agree with them. Several decades is vague and fairly meaningless. Nearly two decades, said at the beginning of 2011, places the mark in the first term of the Bolger government, and most likely at the end of it, in 1993. Not 1999, when Labour returned to power. Not 1996, when National remained in power but was saddled with Winston Peters after the first election under MMP. 1993: between two terms of National, Key’s own party of birth, governing alone. And the only thing that changed in 1993 is that Ruth Richardson got the sack, marking the symbolic end of the New Zealand experiment, or rather the end of its forward motion: for the laboratory has remained there ever since, aseptic, untouched, montionless, in the form of benefit levels that just won’t rise, public service philosophies that just won’t change, public companies operating like businesses and always in a state of readiness for privatisation.

This is the same Ruth Richardson, a friend and former Minister of the Crown, that Don Brash felt that he had to meet in secret while he was leader of the National Party. And perhaps it’s the literary critic in me talking, but I think I might have spotted her making a small but symbolic appearance in that speech at the beginning of a new election year, as a harbinger of things to come.

Offline references:
[1] Nicky Hager, The Hollow Men:  A study in the politics of deception (Wellington: Craig Potton, 2006), p. 277.
[2] Colin James, 'The Purpose Of Power'. New Zealand Management, 01 July 2009, p. 20.
[3] Anthony Hubbard, Ruth Laugesen, ‘Which Way Bill?’. Sunday Star-Times, 25 August 2002, p. C1.
[4] Checkpoint, National Radio, 20 March 2008.
[5] Morning Report, National Radio, 30 January 2008.
[5] Ibid.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

'Reality Is Broken': on the death of Steve Jobs

The youth Narcissus mistook his own reflection in the water for another person. This extension of himself by mirror numbed his perceptions until he became the servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image. The nymph Echo tried to win his love with fragments of his own speech, but in vain. He was numb. He had adapted to his extension of himself and had become a closed system.

(Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, ‘The Gadget Lover’)

And then it hits you: you’re having a conversation with your phone.

(Lex, The Apple Podcast, 7 October 2011)

The single most predictable thing that happened in the hours following Steve Jobs’ death was that Twitter crashed. Three years ago, it was enough for him to speak to halt the service, but in 2011 a product launch is no longer a guarantee. Like most of us, Jobs was at his most newsworthy in death, and that’s what it took. I think it’s worth reflecting on this circumstance, because – as the service improves and the global communication platforms become more robust – it may well be the last time that any single person’s death causes a systemic breakdown.

Twitter was around when Michael Jackson died, but not when Lady Diana died, and then briefly this last October 5th it was uninvented again and it was minutes before people could resume expressing their feelings or echoing the words used by others, as they had been doing to the tune of 10,000 tweets per second at peak time before the disruption. During that time the internet had become a mourners’ book, like the ones available at funerals, and briefly the book was closed, as if to say, there are just too many words.

We might yet look back with a twinge of nostalgia to the time when our technologies could still exclaim ‘Enough of this!’, but in the meantime the story is the book itself, that extraordinary extension of people’s capacity to share in grief, to memorialise in one of two lines of text, or in pictures – and not the prepared-in-advance or hastily composed long-form pieces that actually engaged with Jobs’ life and work. Somewhere between the petulant sycophancy of Stephen Fry and the inflammatory obituary penned by Richard Stallman one might find many useful evaluations of the contribution and legacy of this great industrialist, but far more poignant and meaningful was the tide of emotional response, the outpouring of affection that was already wholly contained in those hashtags: thank you Steve, iSad, RIP Steve Jobs.

The tweet that I found most arresting was also the one that best highlighted how the underlying communication infrastructure that enabled this outpouring – and that is often represented and perceived as a virtual construct – consists in fact of a whole lot of hardware, and how its reach is the reach of global capital itself.

This is not just an extraordinarily succinct formulation of commodity fetishism, but also a quasi-political statement: by touching the concrete object of global consumer desire, a group of geographically dispersed individuals declares itself a nation. (Which may just help explain why the peculiar pride of ownership of Apple products often matches the rhetoric of patriotism.) However just as striking, just as sharp have been the statements in pictures that counterbalance this material connection with an immaterial, spiritual one. The best-known of these is the brilliant design created by Hong Kong student Jonathan Mak two months ago, when Jobs stood down as CEO of Apple, but I’m rather more fond of the one below – a portrait of Steve Jobs made with the tweets carrying the #thankyousteve hashtag, in descending order of popularity.

If you think that this image captures a very contemporary, of-this-moment zeitgeist, I invite you to consider the following portrait of Lenin, made in 1922 using the first six paragraphs of the Constitution for the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic that he had written in 1918.

What is being rendered in both of these examples spanning nearly a century is the quintessentially iconic: an image made of words, therefore so much more than a semblance. A face that carries its own meanings, that produces meaning. At this level of representation, it makes little sense to debate the actual merits and life’s work of Steve Jobs (or, indeed, Lenin): the figure stands for something much larger. It stands for a set of ideas.

In the case of Jobs, the set of ideas in question is the digital revolution in its last four or five iterations, from the first personal computer to the smart phone and the tablet, and including the internet in spite of the fact that neither he nor his company had a direct hand in inventing it. (Indeed in all of these areas Jobs’ actual contribution is likely to be somewhat overstated, but it doesn’t matter because he has become a shared and universally accepted symbol, much more so than the arguably just-as-influential Jonathan Ive, or, perhaps more to the point, the also recently deceased Dennis Ritchie.) However, while the scope of the association is very broad, its nature is more specific, and refers particularly to the marriage of form and function and the relationship between commerce, technology and the liberal arts. Or, more specifically still, to the marketability of these ideas, in the form of the emotional response that they produce.

The well-adjusted, ca. 1977

Think of the genius of the ‘Think Different’ slogan (subtext: ‘by all purchasing identical and largely uncustomizable products’), or the barely literate but equally as effective ‘Insanely great’ qualifier, shorthand for the perfectly-pitched hype that surrounds every new Apple release. Consider also the peculiar habit of users who also happen to be artists to share the authorship of their work with their Apple-branded machines.

The simple explanation for this phenomenon is that creative people are more likely to appreciate the value of a well-designed working environment, but the emotional investment/attachment often seems of a rather incommensurate order. In this respect I was struck by something that William Gibson wrote immediately after the news broke.

I love the historical detail in this tweet, which got me thinking about how Gibson himself wrote Neuromancer in 1983, famously on a typewriter, but of course with the benefit of hindsight we can say quite definitively that the Apple II didn’t automate writing at all, and neither has any subsequent personal computer or portable device (unless you include autocorrect, which by all accounts has a singular capacity to automate the making of mistakes). This is not by the by: if the well-designed machine really makes us more creative, then can we say that the world produces better music or better novels now than it did before Steve Jobs went and changed everything? And if we can’t say that, then is the virtue of the well-designed machine merely to improve the experience of creating, fulfilling the role that used to belong to the Moleskine-type notebook, or the Remington typewriter, or the excellent quill – or any other tool that creative types could affect a superior appreciation for?

No, that’s not quite it. I think that one is still at a loss to explain gadget love – or the love of the well-designed machine – solely on rational grounds or by invoking the word 'fetishism', and without resorting to any of the terms used by McLuhan. For all his contempt for Apple’s critics, Stephen Fry is unwittingly illuminating on this point.
I don’t want to be characterised as an incurable unthinking Apple “fanboi” – but I cannot fight the instinct that makes my hand always reach for the pocket with the iPhone in it when I have a Windows 7, a Blackberry and an Android just as available in other pockets. I have in the past set myself the task of using only an Android for two weeks, or only a Windows 7 phone or only a Blackberry and while it can be done (obviously) I am less content, more frustrated and crucially as far as I am concerned, less productive as a result.
Ours is the culture in which a person making an ostensibly rational case for the merits of one particular brand of machines over the others will think nothing of letting it slip that he carries four smartphones on his person, or that he routinely tries to go without one or more of them for sets periods of time – because it won’t seem strange. And it won’t seem strange because in our culture there is no such thing as using too much technology, and no sense that the judgment of a person who carries four smartphones might be in any way affected by this behaviour. In fact, we hold that nobody is better equipped to judge on the merits of a technology, of technology itself, than the enthusiastic early-adopting gadget-lover who will readily boast of carrying four smartphones on his person.

In this culture of ours Apple’s products – through no great fault of Jobs’ other than being exceptionally good at what he did – are the prime example of tools whose culture-enhancing value is implicit and does not warrant critical examination. We were reminded of this in New Zealand recently when a polemic erupted after a high-decile school made iPads compulsory for its students: many complained about the costs involved; none inquired about the rationale of introducing iPads in schools in the first place. The president of the Principals Association stated in fact matter-of-factly that eventually every student in the country will have to use one, at which point the state would have to bear some of the cost for elementary reasons of equity.

And if all schoolchildren are to be equipped with tablet computers, what about preschoolers? Shifting the definition of early-adopter are the digitally-born. Unlike the millions who ‘thanked Steve’ in the last two weeks, their lives won’t be changed: they will come into a world already changed. Kevin Kelly writes:
Another friend had a barely-speaking toddler take over his iPad. She could paint and handle complicated tasks on apps with ease and grace almost before she could walk. It is now sort of her iPad. One day he printed out a high resolution image on photo paper and left it on the coffee table. He noticed his toddler come up to up and try to unpinch the photo to make it larger, like you do on an iPad. She tried it a few times, without success, and looked over to him and said "broken."
It doesn’t matter that I don’t believe for a moment that this story is true. What matters is that we live in a culture in which somebody came up with it and somebody else repeated it in order to invite us to draw the moral that to deny the young gadget-lover access to his machines means to shatter his reality.

The baby in the picture is clearly looking into a pond (an iPond?), but in the infant version of the Narcissus myth there would be no wooing nymph, and no danger of mistaking that reflection on the translucent surface for anything other than an Other.

It comes down again to that emotional response. Look more closely at the portrait of Steve Jobs I offered earlier, and you’ll see that it is made of tens of thousands of declarations of affection, remembrances left by people who were touched by technology (‘I never loved a computer, until you’) and whom technology enabled to express these feelings socially. The temptation – as in the case of other famous deaths – is to declare all or most of this affection misplaced, to point to the fact that others should be thanked besides Steve Jobs, possibly instead of him. And that’s fine. But know this: that that love, narcissistic as it most certainly is, is also a key index of our times.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Occupy Wellington

Six months in the life of the city. From the night of January 4, 1978, when a cabbage patch appeared out of nowhere in the vacant lot at the corner of Manners and Willis, until the month of June, when the area that had become known as ‘the Roxy’ was farewelled with a week-long party, and the works for the construction of the two-storey arcade that would replace it commenced. Six months that began with a nocturnal intervention by young artist Barry Thomas, who planted his cabbages not for sustenance but to use that blank urban space as a canvas. ‘I just want to say something, and instead of doing a painting that hangs in some institution, that’s my painting on the ground,’ he told the Evening Post some days later, adding: ‘I know I could be prosecuted, but I hope [property owner Anthony Konstanich] won’t. The work’s so harmless – I’m not a radical or anything, and I don’t want to go to jail.’

Thomas might have had other reasons beside the desire not to be arrested for describing his artwork, entitled ‘Vacant Lot Of Cabbages’, as a harmless, non-radical act, misdirection being the most obvious one. The medium he had chosen – compost and cabbage seedlings – was hardly likely to warrant jail time after all, and the piece cannily but nonetheless gently invited the passer-by to reflect on alternative uses of the land, as opposed to inciting a take-over by violent means. But there was genius in that seemingly timid opening, too, for it didn’t foreclose the meanings that the lot – now that it had been successfully trespassed – could take on if others cared to add to that impromptu art-show.

And add to it they did. First came the top half of a tricycle, painted in fluorescent pink by George Rose, hung on a wall at six metres of height and tethered to the cabbage patch by means of a trail of paint; then an IBM 7330 magnetic tape unit, which was deposited next to the patch and ‘plugged’ into it; then a scarecrow-waiter with a cabbage for a head; then a living room suite complete with sofa, armchairs and a television set; then a grave with the ‘corpse’ only half-buried. And this just in the first two weeks. During this time the absentee site owner, Mr Konstanich, went from cheerful to irritated, first wishing Mr Thomas a bumper crop, then lamenting that all of the intrusions and dumping of stuff on the property would hinder his efforts to develop it and put it to proper use.

On this point, some necessary context, in the form of the two years that elapsed from the demolition of the Roxy Theatre and the Duke of Edinburgh Hotel to the planting of the cabbages, and a string of newspaper articles and council queries and owner reassurances on the always seemingly imminent future of that empty space in the heart of the business district, at once an eyesore and a source of anxiety for the economic well-being of the city. The Tinakori branch of the Values Party had repeatedly petitioned the City Council to allow them to establish a temporary park on the site, only to be told that this would necessitate the owner’s authorisation, which wasn’t forthcoming. And so what it took to break the stalemate was an act of trespassing defused by humour, an artist’s statement calculated to buy time.

Six months is how much time it bought: six months during which a delimited section of the city remained open to intervention and reinvention. Some citizens might have been puzzled by some of the hardware that appeared next to the patch, but by all accounts they continued to look after the cabbages, and it was the cabbages themselves that dictated how long the show would run, for it would have been senseless to let them wilt.

Reports indicate that by harvesting time the Roxy had gone mainstream, attracting sponsorships and money from the Central Regional Arts Council, and helping the Commission for the Environment in turn to ‘promote public interest in trees’. To this end a ‘tree house’ cottage on wheels designed by architect Ian Athfield was built, initially drawn by Clydesdale horses from Rutherford House to the Roxy site, and later taken by Arbor Promotions on a tour of the North Island to sell native trees (or so it was planned). By this stage Mr Konstanich also appeared to have realised that the activities weren’t going to hurt his chances to profit from the property.

None of this however is to detract from the project, which is remembered by many people who lived through it as an important moment in the political and artistic life of the city. Of Thomas’ piece itself, Chris Trotter has written that it was ‘a conceptual artistic statement against the life-negating conservatism of the Muldoon years’, while Ian Wedde celebrated it as a 'work about ecology' that was also 'about public attitudes to art'; but what grew around the cabbage patch – chiefly in the forms of opportunities for expression – seems to have been just as important, and included more overt political speeches and works a papier-mâché pig with Muldoon’s face and the lines ‘Media Media expose the pig / Time to stop dancing to his jig’ scribbled on the back, installed by a ‘women’s action group’.

Then work started on the new building, erasing every trace of all that work. Art and political activism are accustomed to dealing with their own precarity, but the issues raised in relation to the Cabbage Patch are in some respects unique and, I think, significant from the point of view of current practice.

First of all, there is the question of how to preserve the memory of the work: where is the archive, where are the curators that will ensure that information about events projects such as this one are available to scholars, reporters, artists and activists? The documentation concerning the Cabbage Patch is not kept at Te Papa (it may be worth speculating as to why) or by any of Wellington’s universities, and for this post I have relied almost exclusively on Barry Thomas’ own archive and recollections. But personal networks and the efforts of individuals aren’t enough: sites of institutional memory are fundamental to preserve the genealogy of socio-political criticism and activism. There is a very plausible genealogy here, one that connects the movement against the extension of the motorway through Thorndon to the one against the Inner City bypass through Te Aro, but also the Springbok Tour protests and the Cuba Street Carnival, and the cabbage patch is likely linked in some way to all of them. Just as significant are the severed connections, for instance between the Cabbage Patch and Tao Wells’ Beneficiary’s Office – two works with much in common but sealed off from one another due to the lack of access to past local practice as a meaningful resource.

Then there is the implicit but no less stark contrast with the art that actively robs us of our memory.

Meet Regan Gentry’s Subject to Change, a work ‘commissioned by Wellington Sculpture Trust to commemorate the Wellington Inner City Bypass Project’ and ‘sponsored by NZ Transport Agency and Wellington City Council’ (as per the plaque; the emphasis is mine). This spit in the face of the wishes of the community, caught by Gentry in mid-air, is without doubt Wellington’s most galling publicly funded sculpture, and arguably the product of the same mindset that oversees the lack of institutional memory I have just described. A piece that is disdainful of its public, that instructs it to forget, to ‘get over’ the loss of heritage, paid for by the people who took a literal bulldozer to said heritage, representing both the death of irony and an utterly perverse use of the art form. We’d do well to remind ourselves that it is not all that Wellington is, and that the city has been the very opposite of that.

This Saturday something is going to happen and the people who are going to make it happen will lay claim to the phrase ‘occupy Wellington’. My strong reservations towards the ‘we are the 99%’ rhetoric notwithstanding, I look forward to finding out what form the local movement will take, if it takes shape at all. But none of the foregoing is intended as a lesson from the city’s past that ought to be heeded, nor as a sort of nostalgic exemplar: more as a hopefully not wholly untimely reminder that Wellington has a history of acts of trespassing, and of using art to engage the wider public and to pose political questions. This knowledge may be about to become useful again.

With many thanks to Barry Thomas for the conversations and giving me access to his archives, from which all of the images except for the penultimate one are taken. The Ian Wedde reference is from ‘Art’s Dirty Washing’, a review of the When Art Hits the Headlines show published in The Evening Post on January 20, 1988.

Last week's post is a part one, of sorts, of this one.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Field of Miracles

They had gone nearly half-way towards Pinocchio’s home, when the fox suddenly stopped and said, “Would you like to double your fortune?”
“How do you mean?”
“Would you like to multiply those miserable five gold pieces into a hundred, a thousand, two thousand times?”
“Who wouldn’t! But how?”
“That’s very easy. But instead of going home, you must come with us.”

(Carlo Collodi, Pinocchio)

There are a number of remarkable things about last week’s BBC News 24 interview with trader Alessio Rastani, but his claims that Goldman Sachs rules the world, or that we should brace for the worst and that within 12 months the savings of millions of people worldwide will vanish are not amongst them. Those parts are about as newsworthy – possibly less so – as any one of the items in the ticker that scrolled at the bottom of the screen throughout the three-and-a-half minute interview: say, the fact that Queens Park Rangers manager Neil Warnock was disgusted at the manner of Armand Traore’s dismissal in the previous Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Aston Villa. That the news service saw fit to inform of us of those other things at the same time is in fact enough to suggest that the content of Rastani’s carefully rehearsed opinion was not very important. What mattered was the theatre. And as a piece of news theatre, Rastani’s performance was quite extraordinary.

First of all, there is the question of how he got the part in the first place. One week, nearly two million views on YouTube, a CNN interview and dozens of articles later, we still don’t know if Rastani is in fact even a financial trader. Forbes' Emily Lambert phoned him and tried to sniff him out with a series of telling questions, then posted the resulting interview without comment or judgment, leaving it up to her readers to sort it out. In a similarly non-committal move, CNN downgraded him from ‘independent trader’ (the BBC title) to ‘amateur trader’. Clearly the expectation that major news organisations might be able to establish the credentials of their interview subjects is entirely unreasonable. For the record, I’m leaning towards ‘not a trader’. Certainly not in the sense of a professional, full-time trader with extensive knowledge of the industry and how the major firms operate – this much he freely admits. He may be a guy who dabbles, possibly not even that. So even the best-case scenario begs the question of why the BBC addressed a work-from-home part-time trader on the Eurozone troubles and the future of the global economy as if he were some kind of oracle.

For that was the truly remarkable part: when Rastani declared that the Greek rescue package would fail and that the stock market was finished, the BBC newsroom staff on duty took him at his word and reacted with genuine dismay. ‘If you could see the people around me,’ squeaked Martine Croxall, the interviewer, ‘jaws have collectively dropped at what you just said.’ Clearly Rastani was there to inform the BBC and its viewers, and not be questioned about his judgment. And since he was an authority, it made perfect sense for Croxall to ask him, with more than a hint of desperation in her voice: ‘Can you pin down exactly what would make investors happy?’

So it has come to this: the most prestigious state broadcaster in the world asking an investor who has just admitted to looking at the immiseration of millions as an opportunity to make money what it is that will make him happy, with the unequivocal implication that if only we knew what it was, we’d do it. Please, we beg of you: just tell us.

The chapters in Collodi’s Pinocchio that are most often left out or abridged in modern versions and adaptations are the ones centred around the Field of Miracles. This is the invention of two con-artists, the fox and the cat, who wish to lay their hands on the five gold sequins that Pinocchio received from the Fire-eater, and that he is planning to use to purchase a coat for his father and a school primer for himself. The fox explains:
You must know that in Dupeland there is a sacred field called the Field of Miracles. You dig a little hole in this field, and you put in it, let’s say, a gold piece. Then you cover it with earth, water it from the spring with two buckets of water, sprinkle two pinches of salt over it, and go quietly to bed. During the night the gold pieces will grow and blossom; and the next morning, when you get up and go back to the field, what do you find? You find a marvellous tree, laden with as many gold pieces as an ear of corn has grains at harvest-time.

Now if you’re not familiar with Collodi’s original, you might guess that the scenario will develop more or less as follows:

Pinocchio believes the story, and goes to bury his precious gold coins. The fox and the cat figure out the spot, either by spying on him or some other stratagem, and steal the money as soon as he has left. When he returns the next day to look for the money-bearing tree, the coins are gone.

But that’s not how it goes. After scrounging one last meal off Pinocchio at the Inn of the Red Lobster, the fox and the cat leave the establishment ahead of Pinocchio and go to await him in disguise near the location of the field. But when he shows up with the money, they don’t let him deposit it in the ground, but rather jump out and try to kill him. In one of the book’s many plays with generic convention, the two comical, almost amiable con-artists have turned out to be cold-blooded murderers.

The storyline occupies six whole chapters that are amongst the book’s darkest and most embittered. Having tried to stab Pinocchio in the back only to see their knives shatter against the puppet’s hardwood flesh, the cat and the fox resolve to hang him and leave him to die. Just as he is about to finally slip into unconsciousness, Pinocchio is rescued by the ghost of a blue-haired child and gradually restored to health (in circumstances that are themselves more than a little macabre). On his way back to his father’s, he encounters the fox and the cat – this time sans disguise – who convince him again to ‘sow’ his money, which they then proceed to steal in his absence. Finally Pinocchio makes it back to the city and goes to a magistrate to denounce the theft.
The judge, as he was very much interested in the story, listened to him with goodwill, and was extremely sorry for him. When the puppet had told everything, he stretched out his hand and rang a bell.
At the sound, two mastiffs appeared, dressed like policemen.
The judge pointed to Pinocchio and said, “This poor fellow has been robbed of four gold pieces. Take him to prison immediately.”

An image from the mass arrests of protesters in New York over the weekend. There has been the usual amount of sneering over the Occupy Wall Street movement, the customary uninformed bleating about confused demands and the ideological heterogeneity of the participants – as if the public square (or, in this case, the street) couldn’t be the place that people come to fill, to occupy also with discussion, different agendas and a simple desire to come together, to be there, as a concrete response to the absurdity that the street has come to signify (on this, see Glenn Greenwald, Rortybomb and Matt Stoller, all via Zunguzungu). Perhaps the occupiers are not just there to focus our attention but to figure something out, and let that be their defiance.

The theatre is elsewhere, and draws me again to the image of Alessio Rastani in that BBC studio: behind him, a vista of the City of London projected onto a green screen; around him, an electronic space festooned with attention-diverting crap about what Neil Warnock thinks of Armand Traore’s on-field antics and the rest of the news of the day in the form of headlines, most of which don’t even impress themselves onto memory, but operate rather like a buzz, a noise of pseudo-communication. Rastani himself is the absurd personified: a moderately articulate nobody whom the conventions of news media have turned into an expert – and indeed his mock expertise is the only kind of expertise that is allowed. The BBC would never interview a critic of capitalism on the topic of a financial crisis, except perhaps to balance a panel. But a professional trader is untainted by ideology by definition, so here comes this guy who fools them into thinking he speaks the truth of the market floor, and delivers the killer line – our governments are powerless, Goldman Sachs rules the world – which of course would sound shrill in the mouth of, say, a left-wing academic, but when Alessio Rastani says it, it's the naked truth and it's absolutely terrifying: the con-artist has turned out to be a murderer.

What I am getting at is that there is a darkness at the centre of this story, something other than naked greed or stupidity or criminal collusion, and more like a sardonic laughter somewhere in the heart of the machine. Besides Collodi, the Adam Curtis documentary All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace perhaps captured it best, not least in its quirky, aestheticised excess, which conveyed both more and less than the remarkable clarity of Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job. This is the film that more than any other purports to tell the truth about the financial crisis, to point the finger to the individuals responsible, but is also a piece of theatre masquerading as investigative journalism, all sweeping establishing shots and beautifully composed talking-head vignettes, portentously narrated by the disembodied voice of Matt Damon – elsewhere an amnesiac assassin on the payroll of the CIA, but in real life a trusted voice of the liberal America that is disillusioned with Obama.

The moral of Inside Job, just like the moral of Robert Reich’s very popular video The Truth About the Economy in Two Minutes, is that you can pinpoint the exact moment when capitalism started to go bad, blame individuals for its failures, and, armed with that knowledge, undo the damage. But whether you take two minutes (Reich) or 108 (Ferguson), that is too much clarity, and far too simple a story – one that doesn’t account for how capitalism got to be that way, nor for the repression, the exploitation and the violence that are intrinsic to it. The reality is far murkier, and its everyman is Alessio Rastani: a man without qualities who can stop the news in its tracks and make the newsreader’s canned smile and scripted banter turn into a hollow wail.

Carlo Collodi. Pinocchio. Translated by E. Harden, illustrated by Roberto Innocenti. London: Jonathan Cape, 1988. (On which see also this post.)