Exhibition Essays

Trust Us

April 2017

Something for Something: The TUCAT Telethon (via An Evening of Sociodrama)

Ruby Joy Eade

Late last year on a still Thursday evening, I found myself up several flights of stairs, in a carpeted meeting room in the CBD.  To my left sat a soft-faced older woman with statement shoes, to my right a nervous looking middle-aged man in shorts and a tee. I had come to this unfamiliar room with its stacking chairs and rubber plants and sweet looking strangers for An Evening of Sociodrama.

Sociodrama?

Callum said—

“it’s kinda like dramatised group therapy (??)”

Google said—

“a method by which a group of individuals select and spontaneously enact a specific social situation common to their experience.”1

Even though this evening of ‘dramatised group therapy’ sounded like it could be close to torture, I decided to go. So, there I was, ready to role-play for three hours with a room full of strangers. Everyone smiled small smiles at each other, but the room was thick with tension.

*

Another night. Another set of stairs. I found myself in a space at once familiar and unfamiliar. I have been here countless times and knew what to expect. Photos or videos, sometimes paintings. Tiny or large sculptures. No one is there, or everyone is there, little cups filled with wine in hand.

Today, far from either of those formalities, swathes of bright fabric emerged from unpacked suitcases, costumes and props were scattered around the room, odd objects lay everywhere—including, but not limited to, a devil costume for a dog, a rubber pig, and a pair of oversized sequined telephones. Hanging on the wall were paper masks of Ann Shelton, Melanie Oliver, Tao Wells and other significant contributors to the Enjoy Public Art Gallery, their eyeholes violently hacked out. Several large objects sat in the centre of the room. In another situation they could be sculptures, but here they were obstacles. For dogs. Four people sat on stools, their mouths stuffed to bursting point with grapes.

*

Two nights. Months apart. Seemingly so different in purpose, attendants and aesthetic. Yet the more I think back to the two evenings, the more they mingle in my mind as a connected pair of events. Each bringing together (in small rooms) groups of people, ready to give small pieces of themselves, of experience, skills, art, to explore and perform social structures and actions that seem invisible, inevitable. In both, reality and performance were blurred—participants attempted to navigate common experiences with a sense of play, trying to find meaning out of chaos.

THE SCENARIO 

When beginning a sociodrama, the group or the practitioner usually starts with a scenario, based on common experiences between the participants. This could be an interaction, a conflict or a situation.2

On Friday, February 17, the artist collective Riff Raff (comprised of Li-Ming Hu and Special Guest Founding Member Daphne Simons) hosted the climax of their summer residency at Enjoy. Recent graduates, they had begun to work together in mid-2016, founding the eponymous semi-imaginary Artist Run Initiative within another Auckland-based ARI, Glovebox.3 Part performance, part public programme Riff Raff: are we there yet? was a combination of useful and innovative events, parodies of artist talks, discussions, and conversations (and at least one eating competition).

For their three weeks in Wellington, the pair continued their format of parodying art-world spaces and structures by heading straight to the top, establishing New Zealand’s newest contemporary art trust. And running a live-streamed Telethon.  

Our established national art trusts are private collections with big public names. Their aspirations and collection strategies vary, but their ambitions to save art for the good of the public is often the same. Sir James Wallace’s Wallace Art Trust aims to provide ‘the wider public with an inimitable cultural and historical resource of contemporary New Zealand art.’4 Another Sir (Fletcher of construction fame) has spent decades amassing a collection not only to ‘adorn the walls’ of his Global Headquarters, his trust is also creating ‘a unique record of the whole history of New Zealand art’.5 The Chartwell Trust are architects of one of New Zealand’s most comprehensive and well regarded independent contemporary art collections, held under the custodianship of the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. Chartwell seeks to ‘promote enquiry and understandings about the significance of contemporary visual arts practice and process.’6

Telethons are the frantic variety shows of the 80s and 90s that raised money for charities—children’s cancer, cyclone victims, ambulances and the like. Celebrities and the everyman would rub shoulders, performing, dancing and singing in an egalitarian push for support, raising one million, two million and, at their peak in New Zealand, five million for the St. John Ambulance.7

Riff Raff’s Trust Us Contemporary Art Trust (TUCAT) Telethon was not raising funds, but artworks for the artists’ recently founded, ‘informal’ trust. The aim of this trust was to amass a ‘stupendously diverse collection of contemporary art’8 which subsequently would then be offered to none other than The Chartwell Trust (or, failing this, be archived and cared for by TUCAT).9 Disseminated in a call for entries style approach, the only guidelines were age (less than 5 years old—contemporary) and size (less than 600mm3—a pragmatic preparation for the future). 

Alongside the call for artworks, if you had a skill you could share with the world in under 20 minutes, then TUCAT wanted to hear from you. To throw a successful telethon you also need entertainment. From quiz masters to poetry readings, a ‘folding a fitted sheet’ demonstration (useful, if you missed it you can access it on Enjoy’s Vimeo) 10 and a doggy obstacle course, the curated selection of events spanned the useful and informative, from twisted game shows to art-word parodies. Like the telethons of yesteryear, the Trust Us Telethon made do with the skills and ideas of the local community, alongside Skyped in support from Auckland.

In an impressive piece of scheduling, the duo put together no less than 42 acts, making up 12 hours of non-stop entertainment.

THE ACTION

“Give value to the chaotic part of the performance: chaos will remain chaos unless actors and spectators have found a way to find a meaning in it”.11

On the night, arriving in the middle of TUCAT's How Many Grapes? competition, I had that same feeling as I did arriving at the Sociodrama night. Anxiety and anticipation. I had spent the day at work, one eye on the live stream, one eye on my admin report, itching to participate—the experience of watching seemed a shadow of actually being there. 

One event ended and another begun, there was barely time to stop. People arriving and performing. Riff Raff were emceeing, smoothed voiced, violently chopping between the two cameras and pre-recorded segments. Even with all the scheduling, chaos still reigned.

Amidst the mess of people and cameras and props, the collection was taking shape. Difficult to distinguish from everything around them, artworks were casually installed as they came through the door—popped on a plinth, scattered on the floor, knocked up on the wall, often somewhat precariously. Artists were dragged onto camera to give quick fire responses to their donated works. When multiple works from the same artists arrived, audiences watching online or in the gallery were given a vote—which one should we take?

This democratic and rapid process of acquisition defined the TUCAT collection strategy. Opposed to the exclusivity of conventional collections, with committees and processes aplenty, TUCAT promoted themselves as egalitarian—We’re open! Anyone can donate! No artwork turned away (as long as it fits the size dimensions). Would artworks flood through the doors? Even with the coveted potential of joining The Chartwell Collection, this didn’t appear to be the case.

There are many things that distinguish TUCAT from other contemporary art trusts. For one thing, a lack of money, power and influence, the things that most emerging artists (the target audience of the TUCAT art drive) do not have, and often desire. When an artwork is acquired by an esteemed collection, there is not just a monetary exchange, but also this one of status and influence. The artists in question are then able to use the support and belief of this institution to influence others, proving their value.

Alongside this is the exchange of paperwork, the theatre of formalities, exchanging signatures, ticking, filing, etc. This action, not only necessary for a legal paper-trail, is a symbol of seriousness, a ceremonial agreement of understanding. Each party offers something, and gets something back in return. A mutual agreement. Something for something. Quid pro quo.

For all their passion and energy, all TUCAT seemed to be offering back was the invitation to Trust Us… 

SHARING AND INTEGRATION

Knowing how to process a re-incactment also requires some skill, as group members tend towards being analytical and subtly judgemental.

The final part of a sociodrama is the sharing and integration. Exploring the actions you undertook and looking afresh at how it made you feel. 

Works did trickle in, hitting 62 by the end of the night. I donated a work too. My anxiety around the collection and the artworks and the why and the what was quickly drowned out by the ability to don an Ann Shelton mask and ribbon dance. 

By midnight, there were five viewers. I’m pretty sure one of them was my work computer left running. 

I hung up my mask, and left the gallery. As the euphoria wore off, the laughter and the wine and the memories fading—questions returned. Amongst the playfulness and theatre of the event were some real consequences, artworks and artists. What did we learn, if anything? What was the purpose of the whole event? This exercise of endurance, comms, and event management, had ended suddenly. The stream, removed by Youtube the following day for using copyrighted music in the final dance number—blame Whitney’s lawyers—was gone. For the time being,12 the 12 hours were inaccessible and fading away.

Other things faded too. Or simply disappeared. My donation, a small stack of reproducible posters is in the hands of Riff Raff now. The contents of the gallery, after a few weeks on show, were packed up and shipped to Auckland. Where are they now? Kept in boxes, stacked in the garage? Or (however unlikely) on their way to the Chartwell Collection, to be stored in the depths of Auckland Art Gallery? Will the collection fall back into the same (failed) structures as others, flack the same criticisms, figuratively ‘collecting dust,’13 artworks joining the ranks of the undocumented, the quietly deaccessioned? Or, will the TUCAT escape these criticisms, responding with the same fluidity and improvisation that guided them through their residency? Will the collection remain those 62 works, a time capsule of those weeks in February? Or will the open source collection continue to grow?

As for the collection strategy, it could have been too much for many artist’s egos—when it comes down to it, perhaps we just want to feel more wanted, more individual, like the relationship was more reciprocal. Was the looseness of TUCAT’s approach too radical, or simply looking past the needs of the artists they were pitching to? The direct juxtaposition of Enjoy's long-running Christmas fundraiser Buy Enjoy and the TUCAT Telethon could be seen as unfortunate timing, but was also a coincidence that brings into relief many of the frustrations around free labour that recur within the arts conversation. During gallery fundraisers, artists are typically invited (providing that much needed sense of importance) to donate works, which are then sold off, the proceeds going towards supporting the gallery’s running and programme. In this context, the TUCAT drive felt like a bit of a double dip and the purpose more ambiguous. I found myself thinking, how many free works do you want? And what, really, are you going to do with them?

Donor fatigue is setting in. The demise of the national telethon, according to Media commentator Aline Sandilands, can be put down to precisely this: “We are not as generous as we used to be and we are a lot more cynical about where the money goes because we have heard so many terrible stories. When Telethons started in 1975 New Zealand was much more trusting and innocent.”14

But then again, perhaps, a utopian return to the time when trust and innocence allowed us to be generous and sincere is what sits at the core of Riff Raff’s project. Perhaps my questioning and unease comes from a place of distrust rooted in the interactions, conflicts and situations I find myself in as I navigate my own professional and personal anxieties, with an equal apathy and dependence on the institutions that could influence my career. Perhaps an action of trust, and a jump into uncertainty is what is needed to disrupt a cycle of actions based on power, money and status. Perhaps all we need is some stairs, a room, some time to interact, play out fantasies and fears. A place to fail.

I walked into the sociodrama expecting to experience some kind of profound connection with my fellow citizens. The reality of course, was messier. Not born performers our ‘real’ selves got in the way of our ‘roles’. It was confusing and unclear what was real and what wasn’t. But far from this being detrimental to the process, like TUCAT, the telethon, the collection, these entanglements—where performance and reality meet—become the catalysts for questions, the way back into examining the tangible consequences of an action. The places where TUCAT was ambiguous and unsure, where the sincere actions and real artworks became part of the theatre of improvisation, parody and play—these intersections are where I find the most meaning, where I feel like I got something back, even if it was just another question.