Thursday, December 14, 2017

Nuking the Kaipara

The South Kaipara Peninsula is, I now realise, a provisional, unstable piece of New Zealand. Made from sand dunes, undulating sandy loam and clay, the peninsula separates the Kaipara harbour, with its warm shallow waters and mangrove archipelagos, from the ultramarine sprawl of the Tasman Sea. Cook called the peninsula a 'desert coast'. When Hongi Hika led his army south through the Kaipara to Tamaki Makaurau in the 1820s hapu of Ngati Whatua and Te Roroa fled before him, trusting dunes and winds to conceal their villages and gardens.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Pakeha colonists planted millions of radiata on the peninsula. Dunes retreated behind the green wall. Enough grass to feed sheep and deer grew on the conquered territory.

In the twentieth century a series of fantasies were projected onto the peninsula. In the sixties the Holyoake government proposed building a nuclear power station at Mosquito Bay, near the northern end of the isthmus and the lower jaw of the Kaipara harbour. The station’s pumps would be fed the water that flowed in and out of the harbour; Australian uranium would glow in its reactor.

The nuclear fantasy was abandoned, but in the nineties a series of politicians and scientists imagined a tidal power station at the harbour heads. Opinion pieces and position papers were published, but the project was stymied by environmentalists and fishermen.

The Kaipara Air Weapons Range is a more successful fantasy. It occupies the northernmost stretch of Muriwai beach, on the west coast of the peninsula, and is strewn with the remnants of munitions. New Zealand’s air force lost its jet fighters more than a decade ago, but massive Orions still fly low over Muriwai, dropping bombs onto their bloated shadows, and sappers detonate their own explosions from hides in the dunes and tussock. 
The explosions can be heard in Auckland, where they have been mistaken for terrorist attacks, and for the audio effects of film crews at work in the Waitakeres. For the crews of the Orions, Muriwai’s dunes and lupins become the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan; the fairmounts and datsuns that boy racers dump at the tideline become the black husks of some ISIS or Al Qaeda convoy.

I have been talking about the South Kaipara Peninsula because it is the setting, and perhaps also the explanation, for a violent and enigmatic work of conceptual art. Last month I visited the peninsula in search of something I knew could not exist. I was driven by a friend, who does not want to be named, in a citroen whose rear windows had been covered in black masking tape, as a precaution against a disaster we knew was impossible. The day was warm, but I wore a balaclava; my friend relied on a keffiyeh to cover her nostrils, tongue, lips. You could say that we were playing parts, and that, through our actions, we were endowing a fantasy, an unpleasant proposition, with a semblance of life. 
Eight days before we boarded the citroen and drove from Auckland to Helensville, the river town at the southern end of the peninsula, I had received a book – it was less a book, in fact, than a set of documents, each brusquely truncated – by an organisation, or an individual, that called itself, him or herself, Artists for a Non Governmental Arms Programme: ANGAP, for short.

The documents arrived by e mail, in pdf format, but they seemed to belong, aesthetically, to the era before the internet, before digital communication, before high-resolution rendering. They appeared to have been spread out repeatedly on a failing photocopier, then scanned, then mixed randomly. Their texts had faded; their images had crumbled into cryptic blocks of dots, crosses, columns. 

The documents had titles that suggested they were the work of an impersonal body, pursuing a meticulous, even pedantic, strategy. There was a ‘Report on Progress’, a ‘Bulletin of Caveats’, a ‘Note on Vision’. But the voice of the texts was urgent, almost hysterical. The voice preferred repetitive assertion to argument or narrative. This passage, which I have taken from a document called ‘The Question is finally one of Word and Deed: proposal for an electromagnetic pulse’, could stand for a dozen others:
For too long in these islands!/ we are artists living after the death of art/ revolutionaries after the death of revolution/ O KILL KILL KILL THOSE WHO ADVERTISE YOU OUT/ Modernism was not a movement: modernism was a prelapsarian paradise/ once it was possible to imagine a new world/ Malevich dropped new colours from his biplane/ The Paris Communards made art/ Now the proletariat has become a mental peasantry, fed on cow mulch, fed on Tokien’s sickly sweet semen, images of feudal content/ New Zealand is Middle Earth/ Our artists are sentimental artisans, molesting the looms of their computer screens

ANGAP’s texts reek of frustration. They complain that, at some unspecified moment in the late twentieth century, the promises of both avant-garde art and revolutionary politics expired. The visionary modernist artist became the sly, self-parodying postmodernist; the revolutionary socialist became a Blairite careerist. 

ANGAP quotes Mark Fisher’s complaint that, in the twenty-first century, the future has been ‘cancelled’, so that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than a post-capitalist world. (After obituarising the future in a series of pellucid essays, Fisher killed himself at the beginning of 2017.)

And yet politics and art have, according to ANGAP, come together in contemporary New Zealand, in the service of a new national myth:

Today peace is our state religion. OUR SOUTH STINKS PEACE! Art galleries throughout Pig Island commemorated the 30th anniversary of our nuclear-free policy. Mayors give out peace awards, the way doctors in asylums hand their inmates tranquilisers. Doves flutter on public murals…

This state of affairs might not seem like something to complain about. For ANGAP, though, the ‘cult of pacifism’ is a ‘calculated denial’ of New Zealand’s history, as well as its present:

New Zealand is founded on blood/ the land was taken from Maori with blood, not axes or muskets or blankets/ young men were blood sacrifices at Gallipoli and El Alamein/ Trucks loaded with cattle and sheep (YOU FOLLOW THEM WITH YOUR BLOODSHOT EYE) roll through the Waikato and Horowhenua towards animal Dachaus/ New Zealand troops rampage across the world disguised as peacekeepers/ Willie Apiata slew scores of Afghans in the name of peace/ PEACE IS THE FINAL, MOST EXTREME FORM OF WARFARE

Despite the occasional left-wing flourish, there is a strong hint of Futurism – shrill, steely Italian Futurism, not the more eccentric, ruritarian Russian variety – in ANGAP’s prose. Like Marinetti and other accomplices of Italian fascism, ANGAP associates artistic and technological potency, and is in danger of aestheticizing war:

Art is magic or it is nothing. Wyndham Lewis wrote poems with a machine gun. Art matters when an artist wields a pistol or a depth charge. An artist with a paintbrush is an artist disarmed. An artist disarmed is a dead artist. A dead artist is fertiliser, for a municipal rose garden. McCahon Angus Hotere Apple: the bright blind eyes of flowering camellias.

A document called ‘Where we come from is where we are going’, includes a blurry photograph of young men and women offering clenched fist salutes. A red beret teeters on a blonde Afro; a Stalinesque moustache droops lugubriously; a Kalashnikov decorates a flag pinned to a roll-down door. Is the image a glimpse of ANGAP’s members? Of precursors? The document both celebrates and mocks revolutionary politics and modernist art:

They took the field in an alphabet’s soup of organisations: SAL, WCL, MLF…Revolution was an art. The artist was the vanguard of the vanguard. Now the struggle has been lost. It must begin at the point where contradictions gather. All power grows from the barrel of a test tube, Comrade Miaow wrote.

My friend had warned that she might not talk much during our drive to the South Kaipara. As we drive up the peninsula from Helensville, towards the massed rockets of the radiata forest, the silence in the citroen became steadily more uncomfortable. After studying ANGAP’s documents I had decided that I needed to visit the site – the approximate site, at least – of the group’s first ‘weapons test’. 

In an unusually terse document, ANGAP had taken responsibility for ‘detonating a low-grade nuclear device’ on ‘the margins of the Kaipara Air Weapons Range’. By doing so, the group claimed to have ‘reminded New Zealanders of their blood inheritance’ and ‘reasserted the importance of the artist’. The document was illustrated by a black and white photograph, which showed row upon row of pine trees laid low. I recognised the photograph: it had been taken in 1927 by Soviet scientist Leonid Kulik, during an expedition to Tunguska, a remote section of Siberia where a meteor had exploded nineteen years earlier, levelling an entire forest. 
My silent friend parked the citroen beside a large signboard that warned we were about to enter the unfenced air weapons range. Bombs of various shapes and sizes were illustrated on the board, like the toxic fungi that populate Siberian forests. It was late afternoon, and as we walked towards the pines the sky was suddenly sealed by steel-grey clouds. My friend knew the peninsula; as a child she had explored its craters and dunes while her drunk uncles excavated toheroa from wet sand. I walked behind her, obedient as a dog. The pines were surprisingly thick, and the light that worked its way through them seemed old and tired, like the images in ANGAP’s documents. Dead needles muted our steps.

Suddenly the ground opened; we stopped at the edge of a pit with walls of red clay. Pine needles cascaded silently over the edge of the pit. At the bottom, six feet or so down, was a lump of twisted metal: the fender of a Ford Escort or Datsun. It reminded me of the mutely writhing figures dug out of Pompeii’s lava fields. A trail of burnt earth, no wider than a rope, connected the pit to the ragged seaside edge of the pine forest. Beyond the trees dunes glowed darkly, the pyramids of some alien civilisation. I could hear the Tasman murmur like a distant motorway. 
I knew the air force only bombed north Muriwai for a few days every year, and I had not heard anything louder than a seagull above the pines. But I was pleased when my friend turned, and started back towards the signboard, the citroen, the road home to Auckland.

ANGAP’s weapons test is a fantasy. ANGAP itself must be, in some sense, a fantasy. But when I entered the site of the group’s fantasies I began to think in new ways about a secluded, apparently bucolic piece of my homeland. I remembered that the pine forest, like a nuclear power plant, is an alien imposition on the Kaipara. I feared the bombs of my own air force, in the way that a Taliban or Viet Cong fighter in a dugout might have done. And I kept adjusting my balaclava, in a hopeless attempt to stop breathing radioactive dust.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Here be dragons

I spent much of today with TV's Heritage Rescue team at Port Chalmers museum, where manacles from local slave ship the Rosalia - mistakenly named the Don Juan by museum staff - are proudly displayed next to a pair of egg cups. Artist Jasmine Togo-Brisby is an Australian South Sea Islander - that is, a descendant of Pacific people brought to Australia as slaves - and after we'd done our interviews at the museum she and I hunted the Rosalia along the shore of Otago harbour, where wrecks rise from the mud at every bend. 

It was a strange journey: my pleasure at finally meeting Jasmine, whose art I have long admired, was mingled with the memory of the instruments of restraint and torture at the museum. 

At Carey's Bay Jasmine and I found a wreck. Two rows of splayed, sharp-ended timbers poked out of the mud. The wreck was at once pathetic and fearsome, like the ribcage of a legendary dragon.

I'm flying back to New Zealand's humid zone tomorrow. Heritage Rescue are taking a Xmas break, then filming more episodes at more struggling museums in the New Year. They are a great team of scholars, renovators, and educators; I hope they can help the volunteers at Port Chalmers. 

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

A case of paranoia?

Last week one of New Zealand's wealthiest men told an audience of company directors that the copy of the Treaty of Waitangi on display at Te Papa is a fraud, and warned that white Kiwis are about to lose all their rights, as Maori create an apartheid state. The Spinoff asked me to write about the strange conspiracy theories that have taken over Sir William Gallagher's brain.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Looking for vampires

In New Zealand, vampires are a source of entertainment, but in Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, they are the cause of real terror. At the Scoop Review of Books I've asked what's behind the reports of vampire murders in Vila, and wondered why a traditional, vampire-like character from the kastom of northern Vanuatu been adopted as an emblem by occultists and goths around the world. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

Garrett's latest target

Did you know that the indigenous peoples of the Pacific are prisoners of a violent and tribalist mindset, that all Tongans and Samoans hate each other, and that almost any Tongan is liable to go berserk after imbibing even a modest amount of alcohol?

I didn't either, until I'd read the opinion piece that David Garrett, ex-MP and convicted identity thief and bar room brawler, published last week at Kiwiblog, the site that seems to have become an antipodean version of Breitbart. Garrett had been upset by the rowdy celebrations of Tongans after one of their recent World Cup rugby league wins, and by post-match scraps between a few Friendly Islanders and Samoans.

The discussion thread under Garrett's piece is filled with fusty stereotypes and with jibes against Pacific Islanders in general, and Tongans in particular. I made a few comments there, in an effort to correct Garrett's erroneous claims about Tongan history, about his eccentric understanding of historical research, and about his failure to understand the causes of what I call modern Tongan exceptionalism.

Garrett also has some interesting views on Muslims, Indians, and gays.

I'm pleased that the man's various personality flaws and his addiction to booze got him booted from parliament before he had completed his first term.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

The late First Cat

Aneirin and I are sorry to hear about the demise of Jacinda Ardern's cat Paddles. Aneirin had been fascinated to learn last week about Paddles' recent rise to the position of First Cat. He was a little sceptical, though, about whether 'the really big cats, the ones in the zoo' would recognise Ardern's little tabby as their ruler. Now that Paddles has passed on, Aneirin is wondering whether there will be an election to decide on a new First Cat. He's pondered whether our grumpy black tortoiseshell Smudge could be a candidate in such a contest.
Aneirin followed the recent general election closely - he saw the various parties' billboards on his way to and from school, and also noticed ads in the media. He decided that he supported The Opportunities Party after seeing a photograph of Gareth Morgan and a few of his chums on a motorbike. But then Cerian, who knows how to influence young minds, informed Aneirin that Morgan wanted to wipe out New Zealand's cats. Aneirin was mortified. He turned his back on the 'Motorbike Party', and became an enthusiastic backer of the 'Red Team'. 
Indeed, when he came into the polling station with me on election day Aneirin raised the returning officers' eyebrows by shouting 'Come on Dad, vote for the Red Team!' He even followed me into the voting booth, in an effort to influence my choice. I have a feeling that we won't be voting on the next First Cat, and even if we were I wouldn't want Smudge exposed to the stresses of electoral politics.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Shuffling cards

There's been a lot of public interest in and debate about the New Zealand Wars lately, with a commemorative day being held for the first time, a series of public discussions involving Vincent O'Malley, the author of a massive and authoritative history of the Waikato War, and some interesting arguments about whether monuments raised after the wars should be demolished or amended. 

Image maker Paul Janman has been documenting many of these events, and has also been finding time to help me edit Ghost South Road, the war-haunted book of images and texts that will appear next year. Where O'Malley's book is a mighty narrative, Ghost South Road veers backwards and forwards through time, and features frequent character and costume changes. Paul and I recently exchanged e mails about the book's (lack of) structure. 

In his reply to my e mail Paul mentions a recent turbulent protest-meeting beside the Otahuhu memorial to Marmaduke Nixon, a man blamed by historians for human rights abuses during the invasion of the Waikato. I'll be posting Paul's account of that meeting soon. 

Hi Paul,

I have been following the New Zealand Wars commemorations and the debates over monuments to the wars. Although I support the work that Vincent O'Malley and other revisionist, anti-imperial historians and activists are doing, I think there is the danger of replacing one teleological timeline of events, events that must be rote learnt by schoolkids and journalists, with another. 

The people and events in Ghost South Road are generally there because they have excited me: because they have somehow enlarged my sense of what is possible in New Zealand. But perhaps this is a privilege I have, this feeling of astonishment. If I lived in a mouldy rented flat down the road from a farm that was confiscated from my great-great-grandfather after the Waikato War then I might have a different, less aesthetic, attitude to the past. 

Nevertheless, I am trying to ask the question: how can we encounter, communicate, the feelings of surprise and wonder that history can cause? How can we make people feel excited as well as saddened by the past? How can we reconcile the necessity of remembering the dark parts of history with the possibility that the past might also contain sources of nourishment, of reinvigoration?

There was a tradition, in Britain and in certain other European countries like Germany, of historians keeping loose cards, on which they wrote notes about discrete events, people, organisations. The cards could be shuffled, read in different orders. Beatrice Webb wrote about the 'games with reality' that she and her scholar-husband Sidney would play, as they sat with their boxes of cards by the fireplace in the evening. When the Webbs wrote their research up, though, the games were replaced by neat linear narratives.  

Nowadays historians file their notes on computers: I suppose they'd need a programme or an app to simulate the old card shuffling. Keith Thomas, author of Religion and the Decline of Magic, is famous as the last historian to keep loose notes. He says he files slips of paper in various envelopes, depending on their theme, and begins an essay or chapter when an envelope has begun to bulge and spill its contents onto the floor of his study. 
Perhaps what we need, as well as the linear counter-history that Vincent O'Malley and others are so ably providing, is a sort of card shuffling history: a history in which different events and people continually appear, and in which the marginal people - the pushers of wheelbarrows, the Lawrence Beavises - and the apparently minor events - the theft and wrecking of one of the first motorcars to reach Auckland by a group of servant-boys - can suddenly appear alongside more apparently significant personages and doings, and can, through their unexpected presence, perhaps suggest new perspectives, new possibilities. That all sounds terribly waffly, doesn't it? 

I don't have much sympathy for his long-winded theorising, but I do like Gilles Deleuze's  advocacy of nomadism: his advocacy of an instability of opinions as a way of life, his warning of the dangers of arriving at dogmatic views on this or that subject. Perhaps a sort of nomadism of history is required, so that we feel excited rather than oppressed by the past. But I'm still groping in the dark, as you can tell...

Thanks for these views Scott. I am myself working in this sort of way. Using an app called Scrivener, I am creating a range of index cards that I return to and rearrange. The talk at the Nixon monument was an outcome of this way of thinking and it was interesting to test it out on an audience - both good and bad results. I think it's worth remembering that shuffling type literary technologies are best I think, when they are driven by a tested kaupapa. 

Take the I Ching for example - it is free associative but its power also resides in the accretion of thousands of years of experimentation and scholarship that is distilled into 64 archetypes. So yes, the results can be exciting and enlivening for history but it can also turn off an audience that doesn't know where you're coming from, or perceives privilege in the inevitable genealogy of your ideas. 

And yes, I think there is a danger in privilege manifesting itself in aestheticism. This is why the privileged historical poet still needs the inclusion of a suppressed community to temper his excitement by exposing him to their own immediate interests. In O'Malley, you've seen how an individual commitment and effort has played off an audience and galvanised a movement. More to say but I've got to get back to my marking!