The public. What do they want and where are they going? If they’re walking down Mason’s Lane, the concrete alleyway and stairwell that links the Terrace with Lambton Quay, they’re probably going to a meeting, or to lunch, or to pick up a skirt from the drycleaner. The north end of Wellington’s CBD—the Railway Station, the Beehive, the High Court, the Terrace—is the domain of the suits, specifically civil servants in suits, those who stitch together the business of government, tend to their keyboards, and shuffle papers around board tables.
In 2015, Wellington City Council renovated Mason’s Lane. This was part of a project where alleys and lanes across the city were repaved, painted, and dotted with plants in those ubiquitous geometric containers. In the Council’s lingo, they were hoping to “develop walkability”, which means, I guess, make the city nicer to walk around. Wellington is following a contemporary urban design trend, as cities across the world wrest themselves away from the hegemony of cars and emphasise the places where pedestrians take precedence. Many of these projects exemplify the late-capitalist drift of developed cities, from being places where people made stuff, to places where people eat stuff. In the case of Wellington’s Eva Street upgrade, the alleyway used to be the place where workers accessed the Hannah’s Shoe Factory, a sawmill, and a timber yard. Now, people can buy salted caramel cookies and drink beer at an American-styled “dive bar”. However, in its decoration and design, Eva Street idealises and references the site’s industrial history, illustrating the middle class’s sustained appetite for someone else’s past. Exposed brick walls. Practical linen aprons. $20 cocktails served in glass jars. Working class chic.
Similarly, Mason’s Lane retains its industrial history in its name: Mr William Mason was an early British settler who ran a blacksmith’s shop at the back of the alleyway. The lane is still predominantly utilitarian though, a quick way of descending from the Terrace down to Lambton Quay. The Council had the good idea of giving its busy citizens a reason to pause and, when the lane was refreshed, they installed a screen for the display of video art, and partnered with CIRCUIT to coordinate a regularly changing programme of video works. For nine months the screen is programmed with pre-existing works by Wellington-based artists, while a call for proposals awards three artists $500 each annually to each create a new work specifically for the site.
In 2017 the three commissions were awarded to Matilda Fraser, Ana Iti and recently arrived French film-maker Guillaume Cailleau. Programmed from November-January, they screened as a consecutive series. They were all completely different from each other in tone, subject, aesthetic, and formal construction—you’ll read in the following paragraphs that they resisted any attempt I made to link them together. And this is exactly as it should be, because the public the screen speaks to are similarly heterogeneous and contradictory.
The Eight Hours Plan (2017), Matilda Fraser’s recent video work, acknowledges the histories of labour, capital, and changing urban design that lie within the lane’s site. Fraser celebrates Samuel Parnell, the founder of the eight-hour working day and, in her work, links a memorial and ode to him with images of twenty-first century office life: a keyboard and mouse, filing cabinets, and the commuters’ motorway between Wellington and the Hutt Valley. The video was reminder, to those workers rushing past the screen, of a moment when the familiar structure of the contemporary workday (as extolled in the song Fraser displays: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for play, and eight for sleep excel”) was not a given. The idea of limiting the number of hours a person could legally give to an employer, was, in fact, revolutionary, and a hard won right.
In Mason’s Lane, The Eight Hours Plan played to an audience who were trooping up and down the stairs whilst often looking at their phones. As such, Fraser’s video also pointed to a moment when digital technologies puncture the clear delineation between work and leisure that Parnell championed. Whereas ten years ago Mason’s Screen would have been demanded attention by being the sole screen in its vicinity, now it is simply one screen amongst multiple, portable screens, carried around in people’s pockets. Our current public sphere is one in which people are frequently somewhere else, somewhere digital. People send emails while walking to lunch; join conference calls on the train; and edit memos in bed before they turn off the light. In the context of the public Mason’s Lane site, Fraser’s work asked: Where should work begin and end? How will workers’ rights be protected in the future? Do we need a new Samuel Parnell for our present moment of Uber, zero-hour contracts, and the so-called precariat?
Serious questions. I should add, however, that this work is pretty funny. Towards the end, Fraser films a kitsch glittery banner that is strung up in the corner of an dowdy office (complete with a fire extinguisher and a clock showing 5:05pm), and emblazoned with the statement, IT’S NEVER TOO LATE TO QUIT. At one point, the banner sags, and one side falls down. Work can be boring. Filing cabinets are boring. Spread sheets are boring. Fraser pokes fun at the idea of the “noble toil” of the office worker, as espoused in the quaintly grandiose song about Parnell.
Video art displayed in public space has its own set of challenges. Mason’s Screen is well set up with thick glass and good speakers, but Mason’s Lane, by its very nature, is a thoroughfare, not somewhere people are encouraged to stop and look and think; it isn’t a square, or a courtyard, or a place with benches and shelter from the weather. The screen is located at a bend in the stairwell; if you linger too long, you can get in the way of the busy groups who scurry up and down.
One way to respond to the transience of the screen’s audience is to create a non-linear film that can be encountered at any stage, as in Guillaume Cailleau’s Funktionslust (2017), which screened at Mason’s Lane at the end of 2017. Resplendent in an array of bright colours, the work is long—forty-three minutes—and unfolds as a dreamy invocation of New Zealand’s fauna and flora: tuatara, ferns, weta, and tightly curled ponga. The accompanying soundtrack is a rich recording of birdsong, the occasional plane, and, sometimes, the muffled voice of the cameraman and the thud of recording equipment, which gave the sense that you were seeing the recording of a wayward zoologist; David Attenborough meets Len Lye.
Images in Funktionslust stutter and repeat. At one point, it even rewinds itself, referencing its own wandering, open-ended construction. On Mason’s Screen, you could walk by and catch a glimpse of a blue weta foraging in the undergrowth, or yellow ants scuttling across the screen. The ants reflect the workers bustling up and down the lane’s stairwell, and this familiar metaphor could be critique or simply comment. ‘Funkstionlust’ is a German word for ‘the joy of doing what we are designed to do’, which suggests that the ant comparison is a celebration of productivity and industry: go civil servants, go!
If Cailleau’s approach was to create a video work that attracted through a luscious soundtrack and visuals, Ana Iti’s (Te Rarawa) approach in her work, All the way to Te Rerenga Wairua (2017), was interrogative. The short video work is deceptively simple: a series of sentences appear on screen, against a neutral background. It opens with the question: Does the spirit intrinsically know what direction to travel to get to Hawaiki? Or Heaven?. I love the idea of a person rushing to a budget meeting on a Wednesday morning and being confronted with this question. They may have been certain that they were going to the Treasury building, but will their soul know which way to go, when the time comes?
Following on from Iti’s provocative opening, the work questions what form selfhood takes in the digital era, and how a person might be remembered after death. The work’s reference points are eclectic: Thanatos, the Greek God of death; ancestry.com; and Papamoa; are all woven in. Iti uses both the time between the words appearing and the subtle fading in and out of the background as a kind of additional punctuation for the short paragraph that appears on screen; the gradually modulating background subsumes the white words until they are completely illegible. This seems to suggest Iti has a slight distrust of the statements that she presents in such a neutral, ordered manner. Another video work by Iti that was recently written about for CIRCUIT by Simon Palenski and exhibited at The Physics Room, Treasures left by our ancestors (2016), similarly shows Iti’s critical take on inherited systems of knowledge. In this case, it is the dioramas of pre-European Māori life exhibited at the Canterbury Museum. In All the way to Te Rerenga Wairua, a statement is no sooner made than it is eaten up. Iti shows that information can be quickly overcome, easy prey to Photoshop, Snapchat, and other digital erosions.
The meaning of static, sculptural public art changes over time, as the world changes around it. For example, I’m wondering how the upcoming America’s Cup in Auckland, with its attendant construction and infrastructure, will inflect Michael Parekowhai’s public sculpture, The Lighthouse (2017), on Queen’s Wharf. However, it’s important too, to have public art that is nimble, mouthy, and directly responsive to the political, environmental, and social exigencies of our times. Mason’s Screen, because it changes every month, can be timely and direct in a way that other public art can’t be—I’m thinking, for example, of Matilda Fraser’s evocation of Samuel Parnell in The Eight Hours Plan screening in January, as the civil service returned to the office after the holidays—making it a welcome addition to this grey concrete alleyway in Wellington’s government district.