Cause to visit
Emma Ng, Ioana Gordon-Smith, Local Time
An interview with Local Time’s Danny Butt (via Skype), Alex Monteith and Jon Bywater.
Carried out by Ioana Gordon-Smith and Emma Ng for ‘The Asia-Pacific Century’, Thursday 14 July, 2016, Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland.
Emma Ng: Thanks for meeting with us! We really appreciate it, and it’s a shame you guys can’t be with us for the noho but we’re so glad you could take part this way. Maybe I should start by telling you a bit about how this project came about?
Ioana and I had had a lot of conversations around the framing of ‘the Asia-Pacific’ when we were in Brisbane at the end of last year for APT [the Asia-Pacific Triennial]. I also went on the Asia NZ Curators’ Tour last year, and that trip really just made me more interested in the local context—the New Zealand context—for Asian immigration and the way that New Zealand might situate itself as an important part of the Asia-Pacific. Going to Brisbane, it was interesting to see how Brisbane positions itself as a nexus of the Asia-Pacific. Ioana’s been involved in a project in Hawaii, which is also kind of situating itself as an important city [for the Asia-Pacific]. But they all have these quite different interpretations of what that [conception of the Asia-Pacific] might be.
I think the thing that really pushed this into project form was looking at the Stats NZ projections for New Zealand’s demographics and how they’ll change over the next few years. Seeing how collectively Māori, Asian, and Pacific populations are going to rise to be over 50% of the total population presents, I think, an important shift in the way that we conceive of New Zealand’s make up—and that's an opportunity to examine the relationships between those groups. Because I think that there are a lot of really strong historical links (some positive, some negative), not just in New Zealand but through the Pacific Islands, between those groups of diaspora populations. And then thinking about the ways that as immigrants we take up responsibility to the Treaty—so the project really came about as an opportunity to think about these things. And then Ioana and I had had these conversations, so it was quite a natural fit—her being part Samoan, me being Chinese—to argue for our own inclusion, in a way, through this project… Which I think is sort of the underlying agenda that we’re asking all the contributors to take up, alongside us.
So we were interested in inviting you guys because you have quite a conscious positioning as a bicultural collective. Is that something that was on your minds explicitly when you formed? Did you come together quite naturally through shared conversations?
Alex Monteith: [laughs] I think Danny and Jon being the longstanding members, and me being the most recent addition, [they] could probably start into that.
EN: Oh, so it hasn’t always been four?
AM: No, it grew over time.
Jon Bywater: Yes and yes, I guess. Because thinking about the bicultural situation was already part of the shared conversations, so the story that I can tell a very quick version of now, is that Natalie, Danny and I had been working together on things that included a symposium called ‘Cultural Provocation’ in 2003 and that was an event that needed to square up to what it meant to talk about it here and to make a safe space for Māori activists to contribute in. We tried to do that by staging part of the event in a marae context and so that’s an example of a pre-Local Time activity that was really defined by trying to solve that problem, and bring it into not really an art world context directly but an academic context. So I guess we already connected on that in various ways, and by the time Alex is involved after we have a name—and it’s exactly this interest in place and how to work through it aesthetically and intellectually that makes us all fit together.
EN: I did notice that you repeatedly say, you know, we ‘became named as a collective’ in this/at this time, so there’s that sense of kind of shifting….
AM: … evolving. Yeah because it did have informal… Natalie and I had been working on some things and then Danny and Jon had been working on some things at work, and so it was some kind of sense of shared values and then I think we found it got formalised sort of where I came in.
JB: We often also remark that we’re all immigrants—the non-Māori three of us... Well Danny’s now a…
AM: ...what is he?
AM: [to Danny] what are you now?
JB: … flown the coop…
Danny Butt: … Repatriated but only sort of – I’ve never lived in Victoria before – but the nation question… I always remember that Aotearoa was part of New South Wales in the mid 19th century, not long before my ancestors arrived there. But I think it’s also important that subtending Local Time’s professional activities is the reality that we have been gathering since 2001 every year out on Natalie’s whānau land out at Tikapa, which is another sort of centre of the Asia-Pacific in a certain way, and it is because we will be there for an event that we can’t attend the noho. You look out from the mouth of the Waiapu river in a kind of direct line to Hawaiki from there. Influenced by Epeli Hau’ofa’s concept of the Pacific as a great “sea of islands” rather than a set of small territories, that’s another experience of the Pacific from the site where Local Time kinda comes from. That practice formalises into actually doing projects relates to our work, as Jon says, as academics—doing the Cultural Provocation conference and then the Cultural Futures conference at Hoani Waititi [marae] after that. Then being asked by Te Miringa Hohaia at Parihaka to assist with bringing art into the Parihaka Peace Festival was really the main reason that we sort of had to begin to call ourselves something and not just ‘people’, not just friends and colleagues...
JB: … hanging out in the summer!
DB: So I guess Alex is our newest member, but not by very far. Alex and I first met in Northern Ireland in 2005 when I was on a residency there, but she’d been working with Natalie quite a bit and working with Jon at Elam. If we did our first formal Local Time project at Parihaka in 2007, Alex was on board very soon after because her work and interests connect to very similar issues about land and politics. Alex?
AM: Yeah well that’s true, and I mean, it’s an interesting dimension how those concerns and thematics sustain us in all sorts of informal arrangements of the group, Local Time. So we have our named collective, and we kind of perform Local Time across a range of academic situations. We really in our hearts, prefer to be working in the land, where the people are who we’re engaging with community-wise. So that often means quite high energy levels for the projects. We’ve done a number of things now at Parihaka—small things and big things. We were back there at SCANZ in 2009, making a range of... Local Time made an action there, sort of intervened a way into the SCANZ residency and made sure that we held a conversation with Te Miringa [Hohaia] onsite at Parihaka where the Peace Festival was held—and just shared food and reflected on what it meant to be in that area as guests, because there’s lots of international and non-Taranaki people in that event. So that was sort of our thought process, and we also had some individual projects running there—Natalie and I both. Natalie was doing research and I was making ‘Red Sessions’. So it’s got a really nice informal and formal amalgamation. And I think—going back to what Jon said about us being immigrants—sometimes people have observed or we might have felt (and it’s not a big part of our thinking process but) there’s something about entering into uncomfortable discourses around what it means to be a visitor in a place that you aren’t from. Some people have said it might be easier if you are an immigrant. Or they’ve reflected on Local Time—the fact that we are immigrants and not Pākehā, not three and four generations of settler descendents, might be a dynamic that sometimes means we aren’t carrying the immediate benefits of family land inheritances and things personally yet. But we have other privileges due to other relationships to that settler history: legacy effects and the way the institution might be set up, for example. We think about it, but lots of other things we were thinking about too. But it might be something to throw out there, because you brought it up, or Jon brought it up.
DB: There are some interesting things about just the unconscious of the nation state. The nation is is something that’s Other to yourself but it’s part of your formation - in psychoanalytic terms, it has this relation not unlike the mother or family, where it forms you but you can’t actually consciously grapple with it because it’s so big and what has constructed your whole way of thinking. So I think this white migrant displacement definitely has something to do with it for the three of us who are not Māori. Australia’s not that different from New Zealand in terms of being a white settler colony and a lot of discourses are very similar, but then the actual experience of growing up in that is really different as well. The other thing to me is that New Zealand as a settler nation, like Australia, has so much of its mythology about the land and so in art history we’re kind of grappling with that all the time, what it means to be of that territory. The experience of just working in an indigenous context and having to think the land differently shifts how you think about these classic settler questions of identity in relationship to art, or culture in relationship to art. These are all questions that I think are in some ways easier for migrant Pākehā to think [through] in Aotearoa than they are in Europe or in many parts of the U.S., for example. So I’ve sort of sensed a connection with in Jon and Alex in Local Time where we’re not connected in a relationship to this specific indigenous context by birth, which has ironically allowed us to grapple perhaps more easily with the most aesthetically and intellectually interesting elements of what Aotearoa New Zealand might be.
EN: So do you view your projects here as your primary activities? How do you go about choosing which international projects you’ve taken up? How did you come to be involved with those?
JB: Well I guess Local Time is sort of a secondary thing for all of us, in a way that’s important to how it works. So that’s one part of the question answered quite simply I think. How do we choose? Well, I’ll repeat the joke about [following] surf breaks…
JB: Clearly, well explicitly for me, and probably for all of us, there is an interest in how far what Danny’s talking about (about the way that an experience here might open up your way of thinking about all of these questions) can be… it’s not just about practically navigating the local but about speaking to an international conversation about colonised landscapes and culture and value and things, in a completely general way. So there’s an interesting challenge for the practice: how far does our problematic continue to operate in an interesting way when you take it away from places like our campsite and places where we have strong connections to the locals? So yeah, maybe the riskiest stuff we’ve done has been wandering off into Australia and hoping that our sense of the land and history can get us somewhere with—in the case of Footscray—the indigenous population. I mean, Victoria, cautiously I guess, but opportunistically too—India is the furtherest away we’ve worked and we didn’t rely on any sense of connection with [the] indigenous there, we were relying on a local invitation.
EN: I suppose it’s sort of a test of your own construction of identity isn’t it? When you go into a very different context—and there’s so many layers of that going on with you guys because you’ve got your individual practices, and then as a collective, and then when you’re going outside of New Zealand, it’s like a whole other kind of unspoken collective that you sort of bring with you.
AM: I think I should maybe add in there that when we’re considering the international context, that step often doesn’t... it often doesn’t interest us unless it can build on a conversation we have up and running, and that’s to do with some sense of obligation to a continued conversation that has kinda the way we’ve got our ethics, or try to have, our ethics rolling. And I think, say with Footscray, for me that was a major conceptual leap to be on the continent of Australia and be on country there. So we started with questions that related to things we did know from here, about camping and inhabitation and what it mean to be a guest and entering being on country. And that meant we had to have a relationship with Uncle Larry, in that case, to start that process of guidance. So we’re always interested in host-guest ethics and relationships and obligations. We had that here in the Waiariki Spring project, that Bernard Makoare kind of raised, that really nice quote that we often refer back to now… What is it Danny? Or prompt me Jon?...
… “There’s only two kinds of people: those who are from a place and those who have the cause to visit a place”. And so in that case, we’re interested in the indigenous kind of textures in a question of Footscray, we retreat to our areas where we know we can learn more in the conversation we’re interested in. And consider making that step. Primarily we like to explore it here in New Zealand because even when you change tribal areas in New Zealand, your obligations around what the host and guest is change dramatically from geography to geography, place to place, marae to marae, community to community. So anywhere in New Zealand you have to deal with that. I had a bit of another thought there…
DB: … Yeah for me, it’s kind of the experience of some concepts that are learned in that culture, like whānau for one: thinking about not just a kind of European biological sense of what a kinship relation is, but one which is based on values as well, and based on practice—whanaungatanga. As Alex is talking about, I guess the question of protocol and how protocol in any indigenous context is different from location to location, across what seem to be (from a kind of colonial mindset) imperceptible gaps. If you look at it from the other side, [when] you go from one marae to the next marae, you have to learn again how things are done and what marae protocol is. And I think for white people like myself, it’s a humbling experience and one which for me, trying to work out how to learn… it’s not mine to appropriate and it’s not ours to appropriate as learning but it is a relationship between protocols that I think in Local Time we try to learn from collectively as a kind of methodology, and try and support each other to work through different kinds of protocols in the right way. And that is a learning that extends to non-indigenous environments as well. Even though the genesis of many of our questions has come out of an encounter with Te Ao Māori, there is something about the way we work that does translate to Delhi and the large city environment there as well. Obviously there we were dealing with something that was also a former British colony. But there’s also a way we’ve developed of working together and looking out for each other and looking out with each other to try and notice how protocols are working and how they can be opened up, and I think that’s a big part of what the collective is. A kind of collective way of looking or seeing that Local Time’s developed, that’s noticeably different than us seeing individually.
AM: I think too, when you think of some things that connect through the projects, we’ve had quite consistent engagement with fundamental questions about the history of water and how various chapters of people might lay claim to it or develop social practices around something fundamental like that. So we’ve tended to, if we’re moving out of our community area, then we might have looked to those things because we have that background and experience of questions in Te Ao Māori applied to the question of those old springs. And we have that experience of that practice, and so we can take that forward, tentatively maybe, when we’re looking at other places. We tend to gravitate; so there’s something we have an understanding of already, practice here, when we’re in a totally new proposition I suppose—we sort of retreat a little bit into those, you know when we’re looking at some orientation in the new place. And Delhi was pretty far out there when it came to questions of water. We did pop the manhole cover off the well at Sarai—at their sort of premises—just to sort of orientate. It’s sort of an orientation. Because Delhi is having that situation where all the urbanisation is resulting in groundwater being sucked up and it’s changing the stability of the city and the relationship to resources and claims to resources—[it] gives us something to think about. We didn’t make a project about it, we just sort of processed it, but…
EN: … a sort of mobile grounding...
AM: Yeah yeah yeah! Some people go to a coffee shop, but we tend to as well, or we might go to a surf break! But we tend to gravitate toward something to do with water. And we did that in Footscray too, with Uncle Larry. Where he took us through some of the ancestral places you would inhabit or stay or camp when you were travelling that geography. And it wasn’t too far from where we had chosen to camp, guided by the Footscray inviters that had us on their front lawn. And we got squirted with secret… We got squirted with sprinklers that we didn’t know were there, because they come up out of the grass to maintain the settler-introduced grasses! And that kind of blew Danny’s tent up in the middle of the night… and Uncle Larry’s! And then he was like “oh the actual campground is just around the corner” and it was all dry! Anyway…
EN: The water finds you! Yeah, there’s a real fluidity in your practice I think, between being the host and being the guest. Do you think that’s a position you can kind of hold at the same time in certain situations?
AM: Footscray might be a good example of something that was oscillating like that, eh? Would you say?
JB: Yeah, I mean Danny wrote something really good about this recently…
AM: [to Danny Skyping in through a laptop] We’ll turn you on, Danny!
DB: Well I guess you know, the relation of tangata whenua / manuhiri is a formulation we continue to experience and unpack, as people not necessarily brought up within that way of thinking. In my limited experience of it, when you’re welcomed onto marae you are welcomed on as a visitor but then, after the formalities are done that night, you’re in the kitchen with everyone else, helping host everyone who’s there and to come. So I think for me it’s specifically not an experience that hybridises, it’s very useful to see those two actions as being opposite, but they can occur in the same place or you [can] be aware of both of those roles simultaneously. In Western psychoanalysis you might talk about death drives or negative forces that live with positive forces in the same individual. Learning to host is also inextricably bound to learning how to be hosted and with Local Time, it’s just a continual process of trying to understand how to offer hospitality when we don’t necessarily have a right to offer hospitality. Or we may not be authorised, and then you wonder, what would constitute authorisation? To be the person who says ‘yes, okay I’m here and I can host you, welcome,’ when it is not your land. I think this maybe speaks to some of the larger questions about migration and movement of peoples in nation-states that you gestured toward in your framing of the project. That’s really the question. To me, when I arrived in NZ with my Australian passport, I wasn’t being welcomed by Tangata Whenua, I was being welcomed by the Pākehā New Zealand government. What authorises that? Well, that’s a really horrible kind of history that we want to try to undo in lots of ways.
AM: Danny, just to return to a small example of your meta-meditation there in a way, at Footscray, even the order of that oscillation became quite interesting to reflect back on: if you are bringing some Te Ao Māori values into an international context – coming on country, the first time for me in that area at all – then Uncle Larry is there as part of that and is on the ground, he’s from there. But we also, in order to enter a conversation, thought to share food so we took the best of everything that we could have there. Good fish and different things. But that was happening before we had had our official welcome to country and the smoke ceremony, because the community centre has set that up for the day after and we happened to be there the day before, and then staying the night as part of our proposition on camping. And just the fact that we hadn’t been welcomed on country and hadn’t gone through that smoke ceremony meant that, actually then, Uncle Larry needed to take care of us because we were exposed spiritually until that was undertaken. I think that maybe there is something that’s a little example of things that maybe perhaps could have had a more perfect order and that the art world proposes certain amalgams of travel that might not be in perfect synchronicity with the local customs. But you try to find your way through and you have your intentions and you’re taking the best of everything you have – this sort of thing – and it kind of goes together. I’m not sure if I’m articulating that sequence in the clearest terms but there is something about your intentions, and your ways and manners, and things you’ve learnt that we try to take from one place to another, or bring it back to a New Zealand context: from one tribal area to another. There’s something that happens once you start meeting with other people and it meets another system (about the flow of that timing), but in the end you come out of all of that flow with either connections or not—and meaningful connections with people or not.
DB: It’s about going in not expecting to be right. There are always different layers to local governance that keep unfolding themselves, authority is a political situation, not a settled process. Alex’s comment makes sense to me as “we enter a new space trying to understand what it would be like to be welcoming people like us, and trying to make that as easy as possible, but then knowing that we don’t actually know.”
JB: Simple facts like it was not Uncle Larry’s idea that we should go there. We were invited, but not by him. I guess one of these principles that you were talking about Alex is being aware that turning up somewhere creates work for somebody, so when you’re making decisions about where to go, the way that hosting and being a guest interrelated at least involves crucially turning up with some Duty Free and some lunch. [laughter] You may not be claiming to host in any developed sense of the term: it’s the packet-of-biscuits rule that we all know from any kind of research.
EN: Which is what you were sort of getting at, Alex, with your gestures of intention.
AM: They may not be the perfect match for what is the process and protocol there, insofar as how much you can find out about that if you aren’t belonging to those people.
JB: There’s a sort of provisional-ness or something that goes with adopting the role. It’s what Danny was saying about not assuming that you’re going to be right. There’s a way of offering that isn’t like “we’re here and we have to give you this! We’ve got [to have] some lunch together”. Like the water thing, there are some things that cut through a little bit. People tend to be appreciative of something to eat, or able to relate to the question of water as an issue in the contemporary world, so there are things that don’t make too much demand on your host.
DB: I think a question about resource use is important as well, with the understanding that there’s not just the ideal of welcome, but there’s a practicality of welcome as well. For me, that’s been a continual learning experience in the indigenous setting of what infrastructure is actually required to host and who supports that infrastructure, and what’s the political economy of it. I think that’s a really important factor.
I think in terms of the protocol, if you’re an outsider, the more that you know, or the more that you think you know, the less attention you’re paying to what is actually happening. So there’s a sort of double-bind where we have a certain amount of collective experience of working in different ways that enables us to get more literate at reading what’s going on, or what might be going on. At the same time, that increasingly allows us to not have to go and research everything about a place. The work in Rarotonga was quite a good example where, yes, we had certain kind of idea about what kinds of things we can do there structurally, but we can also actually just go to a place and start sensing what’s there and start talking to people and start working, particularly if we have local guides and relationships and work out of their life, rather than trying to bring in ready-made, missionary-style concepts into it.
AM: And that’s the thing about Rarotonga, Danny, when you think about Ani O’Neill being the person there who we were working with, but there’s also that shared architecture of other values. Like she’s deeply interested in and invested in the conversation going on in Rarotonga that’s to do with ecology. So, even if I myself am not Rarotongan and no one in the group is Rarotongan, you have these shared backgrounds, like an art background and then those shared values do do something. Jon was just talking about cutting through, or making the connections between people sort of exist when you have a back history, in maybe activism around those issues, and what it means in a contemporary sense for five or six or seven competing parties to be laying claim to water as a resource or naming territory in Māori, English and, I dunno, new school tourism or whatever — that was Waitemata I had in mind, not to confuse you with Rarotonga — something about that arrangement kinda allows a hereness and a thereness to happen.
EN: It is really kind of about having a really strong, robust construction of your own values but bringing that in a way that’s flexible enough to negotiate whatever disruptions you might encounter—in that sense of “encounter” in a very literal way.
AM: “Encounter” is a good point because the projects Local Time works on, they are involving often people’s invitation to a place on a day, type of scenario, actually lots of stuff changes along the way. Danny mentioned logistics and you are constantly re-interpreting logistics through that thought-life. It’s really just not the kind of practice that envisions an end product and applies it to people and so it’s processing through change and input as it gathers its community around or people who actually want to join the conversation.
DB: An important thing for me is in the three years before Local Time was formed, I did quite a bit of writing about issues of colonisation, settler culture, biculturalism, multiculturalism, etcetera and I guess it just became clearer to me that there are really big things to deal with by yourself and how could you even begin to deal with these kinds of questions by yourself. Being a white guy, it’s not really my role to do that, and I’m going to need support if I’m going to engage those questions effectively because my own point of view has too many blindnesses. That’s what’s important about Local Time to me, it’s that shared experience that we have and also the history of navigating all those different situations. Our practice has, I feel, a lot of internal rigour to it when we’re together. The four of us all have our own little bugbears about things that get very...
JB: … We check one another...
DB: … that we get at each other about. We don’t get very much done very quickly but it does mean that when we do do things, they’re often not right, but they have been through an internal process. And it’s that process of orientation that to me what is important about the work.
EN: I think that’s really nice for us to hear because this project that we’ve got going is kind of formless at the moment, and very much at a stage where we’re evaluating what’s happening and what’s around us, and we’re hoping to form a little bit of a network of people who are there to be vigorous for each other or provide support for individual projects.
IGS: Even just co-curating has created something of that dynamic, where you can test out an idea and put it out [there] to see if it sounds stupid.
EN: That’s what I think a space like Enjoy is good for. It’s an empty, reasonably safe space where you can kind of test out those things, so it’s good to be able to use it for something like this.
IGS: Even this conversation like this has a nice feedback loop. Because when people talk about that guest-host relationship, I often position myself between rather than as both, so it’s nice to think of Local Time’s understanding as an alternative way of thinking about trying not to be in a fixed position, because I find that being between often leaves you quite paralysed because you don’t have the protocols or you don’t know the right things to do. So I think even this conversation is going to feed back into how we think about our own roles as curators and our own thinking about immigration and the movement of people and how they might be able to find a way or some kind of guidance for how to act in a new land and still feel some kind of belonging.
EN: Yeah, it’s about moving past that sense of paralysis right?
EN: Paralysis that induced by historical guilt or that sort of thing, so it’s quite interesting that you bring up your own backgrounds as immigrants and whether that sort of helps you dive into the conversation at a different point.
DB: Related to some of your questions about what the Asia-Pacific is, so much is just embedded in ways of thinking about identity and that way being articulated out into massive global regions. When you’re trying to think about those things individually, it is really difficult because we’re all in-between these massive forces that move us around and construct us. One of the things that’s been most important about working in a broadly Pacific context has been learning to think a way out of a Pākehā mode of identity that is all about the individual and you having to identify yourself as one thing or another thing. The process of whakapapa as I understand it is about you connecting to many things and we’re all connected and it’s about how you articulate it and how you act upon it that’s important: who your body connects with rather than what your body is. There are competing things going on and we’re just living in middle of them. That’s the real gift travelling to Aotearoa gave to me, particularly when I compare the Australian context that I’ve been working in for the last couple of years, where far fewer white Australians have that experience of being inside a space that is not their own and working through a different protocol. They don’t have a different way of thinking about identity outside of the European sense of individual identity.
EN: I was reading something the other day about Australia, which was saying that despite Australia having had a multicultural strategy [at Government level], Pākehā attitudes towards Asian migrants in New Zealand might actually much better than white Australian attitudes towards Asian immigrants—and discussing whether or not is it because in part the Māori struggle for an independent identity has actually contributed to that sense of “being from somewhere” [even] in your own country in a way that makes you more hospitable to certain groups.
JB: It might be synthesising too far, but the difference between thinking of yourself as in-between guest and host and oscillating between them is a little bit about this question of taking responsibility for even being a guest, instead of [being] a passive guest. Biculturalism, exactly, in the way that it is a starting point against racism against any identity, is the same kind of active stance that “takes that seriously” as an immigrant. It isn’t just about taking the Māori world seriously, it’s about [taking an] “oh I’m not just vaguely in-between” position. As I say, I’m maybe over-reaching.
EN: In my personal view, being an immigrant minority within New Zealand, it is tempting to shirk responsibility in a sense, not being Pākehā. I worked in the shop at Te Papa for quite awhile, and they have quite a strong emphasis on Biculturalism as a founding value. And while I worked there, I always just interpreted biculturalism to mean [a relationship between] Māori/Tangata Whenua, and then everyone else, and I thought, “oh yeah, I’m part of that”. It wasn’t until I left the institution that I realised that a lot of people view it as a Pākehā-Māori dichotomy. That was an eye-opening moment for me. In a sense, we’re kind of suggesting with this project that we return to that view of accepting that [as a child of immigration] you’re here by way of the Crown, which is what you were saying earlier.
DB: Biculturalism is such a big word, and multiculturalism is such a big word. One of the things that Spivak talks about a lot is that it’s important to understand that “culture” is a European term and that there are equivalent terms in other languages, but they’re not the same as “culture”. Culture in the western sense covers everything that you’re talking about, from questions of sovereignty and the very foundation of the nation right through to very intimate kinds of practices about thinking about cultural safety and how you care for the unwell and the health system. So “culture” gets asked to do a lot of work.
As a question—and I guess that’s where maybe one way to think about the Asia-Pacific that to me is quite interesting, would be, what are Pacific formulations of the word “culture”? If you are working within Pacific languages, or Māori, or non-European languages, what is the term “culture”, what does it mean? And then I think you get into much more interesting kinds of practices. Is “Tikanga” the same as “culture” or not? That’s just an unsolvable question (obviously it’s not the same)—but by asking that question you’re getting into some more specific issues about the relationship. Approaching the question of biculturalism in a bicultural way would actually generate this kind of movement that would get you somewhere.
EN: I think we’ve been finding that it’s very easy to fall into [using] these phrases as shorthand for other things that we want to be more specific about. Ioana’s been looking at different uses of the phrase “Asia-Pacific” over the last… [to Ioana:] how many years?
IGS: The 50s, 60s is the earliest I can find evidence of the term being used. And what’s been surprising is I think when we started this project, the “Asia-Pacific” is a term I was interested in because I feel like more and more galleries and art institutions are trying to use it to bolster their positioning within a more international art field. It’s fascinating to see all the Northern Hemisphere uses of the term as an expansionist tool that legitimises entry into Asian affairs. It wasn’t until recently that we came to this realisation that we’ve taken this expansionist term and kind of inverted it to try to talk about domestic politics rather than international politics and what that means to use it in that way.
JB: Is it an American military strategic term? That’s my guess, I meant to look it up this morning.
IGS: Yeah, because they can claim that they’re part of the Pacific, and if they’re part of the Asia-Pacific, then they have a role in Asia as well, is one of the main things.
JB: And then an economic strategic channel, because I was thinking about the APT and there are pretty clear ties between economic policy in Australia and the soft diplomatic value of a Biennial event or Triennial event that looks in the direction of the money they’re hoping will [be] invest[ed] in them.
DB: I think the Asia New Zealand Foundation is an example. Asia New Zealand was called Asia 2000 when it started and was very much a business-oriented entity, I guess it’s tried to soften some of that branding a little bit. You look at the constitution of the board when it kicked off and it’s these old white business dudes looking to do business, you know? Slowly, along the way, it appears that culture is a part of doing business and I think this connects back into a lot of work of people like Charles Esche talking about the nation-state’s funding of art always being connected to these geopolitical agendas. Esche was saying when he last talked in Melbourne that in his view after the collapse of the USSR in the late 1980s, there is essentially no justification for cultural funding in the West, and that everything that we still have in terms of arts councils and such like is in decline, just hanging on to smaller and smaller pots of money. Basically, the nation-state is no longer interested in culture because it’s no longer used to achieve this geopolitical objective. I think that’s a really interesting ruined term – “Asia-Pacific” – it’s obviously no longer able to reorganise geography through those military means through the way that it once did, but now it’s up for grabs. We could all orientate ourselves to the question of Asia-Pacific in different ways...
JB: … Trans-Pacific...
EN: I think we were also interested in the idea that as these regional labels get bigger and bigger – “Pacific”, “Asia-Pacific” – what that means in terms of shifting the way you think about being indigenous to a region, and what that does to your sense of feeling like you are “from here”.
IGS: Definitely. I was at an artist talk recently where the artist said that there are two indigenous groups in New Zealand; there are Maori and then there are Pacific peoples, which I thought was interesting as those framing devices do shift that idea of the authority by which you can be a host or be a guest. I think those wider terms are important because they do denote some sense of where you sit in that relationship and by what authority you can speak or act.
EN: I guess that’s the fun of speculating is that you can put a word out there and see what it does.
DB: I think it’s a very live question as well because a lot of my involvement in Asia-Pacific discourses through the early 2000s, doing a lot of work in technology and development projects and internet governance with United Nations agencies for them the frame of Asia-Pacific reaches all the way out to Afghanistan and Iran. Yet in that West Coast U.S. spatial framing—it doesn’t usually reach that far. I guess why I was thinking about that is it does appear just from what you were talking about Ioana: that the question of indigenous rights and the ability to speak about that in an international way is something that is quite new in this whole discussion and has been fostered through institutions like UN agencies, which are not necessarily working to any specific indigenous protocol but have become a space that nation states have opened up, under which the idea of a sort of trans- or an international indigeneity can be thought about as an ‘other’ to colonisation and neo-colonisation. So that question is very live, a very powerful organising force for action as well, and not simply something that is tied to being an indigenous person in a particular place but towards an affiliation with the rights of indigenous people in a broader sense.
JB: when was the declaration published, does anyone know? The Declaration of Indigenous Rights? That’s quite recent isn’t it? Oh well.
EN: We’ll Google it later...
IGS: … As soon as we walk out.
[We did Google it later, and it was signed in 2007. NZ voted against the Declaration, along with Australia, Canada and the United States.]
JB: The Paris Climate action is a good example of people mobilising under that collective indigeneity.
DB: The permanent forum; I think there’s also the late 1980s, early 1990s, there’s the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. That is the beginning of – again, thinking about your title, The Asia-Pacific Century — to me there is something that is quite interesting just generationally. Taking Esche’s suggestion that the end of the 1980s beginning of the 1990s marks a really clear cut off point in how Western culture has organised itself and so many discourses really do start to change at that time and the role of the state changes. In New Zealand, that’s the time of neo-liberalism starting to emerge. In terms of what you’re doing with the project, it’s quite timely to maybe reflect upon a new kind of geo-spatial formation, a new set of cultural responses. I think for people of my generation – I was born in 1971 – I grew up to become a teenager in a world that still kind of thought in the old way. I think that for people younger than myself, born in the 80s and later, it’s a different world. There’s a new way of thinking those questions and they remain to be thought. I don’t think biculturalism and multiculturalism is the frame, because the state is no longer entitled to manage culture. There’s a whole new set of dynamics that need to be re-thought and re-put together to understand how these different histories that we’re connected to can be understood. I think your project is really exciting.
EN: Thank you.
IGS: It feels big!
EN: It feels nice to finally talk to artists, to other people about it, because we’ve been talking [to each other] for so long and you get more abstract and more abstract, and you kind of want to go the other way. It’s really good to finally have other people’s input. We’ll see where it goes.
DB: If we weren’t going to be in Tikapa that weekend, it would have been wonderful to be there. All I would say is, with Local Time, I never thought when we started doing events together that the conversation was going to continue for over a decade, but it has. I just think it’s important to have these kinds of events where people can come together to talk about the things in a real way in the moment. There are a lot of conversations that need to happen, and they will resonate in the future as well, but it has to start with coming together.