‘If you remember the 2010s…’: On trying to make a difference through art | #datingscams | #lovescams | #facebookscams | #datingscams | #love | #relationships | #scams | #pof | | #dating

A new book on public art created in the 2010s, Urgent Moments, is out this week. Here, the book’s co-editor Mark Amery looks back to the eve of a National-led government in 2011, and the work of public art project Letting Space


  • The National Party wins 60 seats in the general election, and work with Act, United Future and the Māori Party to form a government
  • John Key becomes prime minister
  • Sir Jerry Mateparae becomes governor general
  • A 6.3 magnitude earthquake strikes Christchurch, causing major damage and killing 185 people
  • Minister of finance Bill English delivers the “Zero Budget” planning $1.2b worth of cuts over four years
  • MV Rena runs aground on Astrolabe Reef Tauranga, causing a large oil spill
  • Two further major earthquakes strike Christchurch in one day
  • Internet vigilante group Anonymous launches attacks on government websites in response to Arab Spring protests
  • A 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit the east of Japan, killing 15,840 and leaving 3,926 missing
  • Mojang Studios releases video game Minecraft
  • Prince William and Kate Middleton spend $1.1 million on wedding flowers
  • Sāmoa and Tokelau move west of the International Date Line, skipping December 30
  • Anders Behring Breivik kills 8 people in a bomb blast in Oslo, then kills 69 at a massacre on the island Utøya
  • WikiLeaks and others publish 779 classified documents about Guantanamo Bay detainees
  • Occupy Wall Street protests begin
  • North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il dies

(an excerpt from Urgent Moments, prepared by Pip Adam)

There are many first attributions for the expression “If you remember the 60s, you weren’t really there”. But the first written citation I can find is in a comedy column in the Los Angeles Times in 1982, 12 years after the 60s ended.

Twelve years ago now is 2011. That’s the year John Key’s National government came into power. The year that gave us the Occupy movement. Do you remember? Were you really there? 

Thinking about our recent past is difficult, but it’s one of the most necessary things needed for change. And it’s at the heart of our new book about the 2010s – Urgent Moments: Art and Social Change. The Letting Space projects 2010-2020. 

“If you remember the 60s” was the expression that came to mind when The Spinoff’s books editor Claire Mabey challenged us to write about Letting Space in the context of climate change. Letting Space began in the mid 1990s under the auspices of gallery Artspace in Tāmaki Makaurau, taking over vacant spaces for artists’ projects in response to the long slump that followed the crash of the 1980s. In 2011 it was happening all over again but climate awareness and neoliberal reform had changed the whole endgame. 

Letting Space was a response to those times. Rather than creating more stuff through art we needed to explore new ways to work together and employ the fallow space the economic system offered up. In the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, Letting Space worked with artists to stage public interventions around the motu. It invited artists to work in new ways more as part of society, staging a series of ambitious projects largely between 2010 and 2018. 

As we approach another national election day, and the prospect of a change of government, it’s clear our politicians are averse to even mentioning climate change. Let alone outlining the cost and mitigation of the storm of events that will come. Yet moments remain urgent. 

How well do you remember your first climate actions? Could Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth really have been in cinemas in 2007? Think back to a time when social media like Facebook was fledgling, and liberating. How are you tracking now in reducing your carbon footprint? 

Accounting for how our actions matter in the long face of a climate emergency is challenging. And perhaps the goals need to be reassessed, the activist message reconsidered. The climate deniers of 2011 are now climate accepters: “We’re doomed, so there’s no point doing anything”. The inconvenient truth becomes the convenient truth to hide behind.

Co-edited with Sophie Jerram and Amber Clausner, Urgent Moments, contains thoughts on the 2010s in Aotearoa from Pip Adam, Chris Kraus (of I Love Dick fame) and Zara Stanhope, and gathers work created and written in that time by at least 85 other artists or writers. 

Performers in Mark Harvey’s work Productive Promises outside parliament in 2012. (Photo: Gabrielle McKone)

Rather than just a catalogue of public art projects or art essays, the book attempts to put these artists’ responses to the world in context. A social history – not of the baby boomers’ 60s and 70s (still evergreen popular) or our naive 80s and 90s – but of the 2010s. Such an approach felt appropriate for a public art project that aimed to step outside the so-called insulation of the gallery to deal with the complexities of being part of the street and its community. 

It was our attempt, as climate action leader Mike Smith urged at Nui te Kōrero (a Creative New Zealand conference in Taranaki this month), to use “art as a crucible for change.”  

The word crisis gets used a lot these days. A climate crisis. A food crisis. A housing crisis. Letting Space was our response. Led by artists that inspired us, we explored new ways of thinking and working together. We emboldened artists to push their practice and respond to climate change, to capitalism’s waste and disregard for anything other than the wants of the individual consumer. We wanted to create new public space. 

We set up transitional economic zones in earthquake-affected New Brighton, Christchurch and post-settlement Porirua; and responded with others to water issues in the Hutt Valley (Common Ground). There was a people-powered geothermal fountain with mobile community radio station and storytelling space in Taupō and Tūrangi (Tim Barlow and D.A.N.C.E Art Club). A PR company that promoted working less (Tao Wells’ Beneficiary’s Office) – much to the outrage of the Act Party and rightwing bloggers and raised eyebrows from government (see the trailer below for Wells’ and Dick Whyte’s documentary about the project). There was Kim Paton’s Free Store, recirculating food waste from the supermarkets as a friendly wee grocery store on a site owned by Foodstuffs (now a genuine Pōneke social enterprise).

The last two had real media lift-off. But many other projects worked more quietly. There was a vacant office tower in which the lights went on and off at night in response to movements in the stock market (Colin Hodson’s Market Testament), and a mass performance art work in response to civil service lay-offs (Mark Harvey’s Productive Bodies), where artists experimented in the streets with ways as a group of being of public service: for example, providing human safety barriers at pedestrian crossings for example or wind and sun shelters – under the eye of the new Ministry of Business. 

We thought we were doing enough, suggesting new forms to catalyse social change. But was it enough? Are temporary actions ever really enough? 

For me, what tangibly kickstarted Letting Space’s revival in Pōneke in 2009 was seeing a project created by Sophie Jerram with Dugal McKinnon called ‘Now Future’. They staged a series of public discussions between artists and scientists relating to climate change. This was at a time when no-one seemed to be talking about the role artists might play in climate activism.

It set a template for Letting Space creating its own media channel and spaces for conversation: at a time when new digital tools from shared documents to consensus decision-making tools (locally, Loomio) suggested the digital space was full of free public possibilities.

Jaime Cortez, artist Kim Paton and Letting Space curator Sophie Jerram at the Free Store in Wellington 2010. (Photo: Murray Lloyd)

Today, our politicians’ inability to reference contemporary culture is disturbing. Perception of visual art remains with painting and sculpture, despite a catalogue of high profile Venice Biennale projects over 23 years. We have not been reaching them. 

Social change is slow. It is not, as Sophie reminds me, linear. I think it may be more granular, seeping in, rearranging part of the fabric. Art’s effect is always dispersed. While you may privately treasure an art object or moment, the artist wonders what good they’re really doing.

I’ve feared that all we were doing with Letting Space was laying down topsoil to be washed away, but I do think the projects power people to this day. People, I hope, were inspired by new pathways, new alternatives. The challenge has been to take what we have learnt and work the knowledge into a more embedded engagement over time in a place. 

Letting Space was slowly moving towards a deeper, longer systemic approach with earth and people: what we did both critiqued global event culture at the same time as we delivered it. But, because we were caught in an endless cycle of short-term Creative New Zealand project-funded events, ultimately the whole economic clobbering machine set us back.

Will Letting Space rise again? We’re not sure. Never say never, but Sophie and I both continue to do public work with the same passion in other more sustained ways. We still believe that creativity and community is what we must continue to claim space in cities for.

The past doesn’t seem like a different country. I remember it. But through the process of working on this book I’ve become fascinated by how easy it is to forget how long we’ve been working for change.

Urgent Moments: Art and Social Change, The Letting Space Projects 2010 – 2020 edited by Mark Amery, Amber Clausner and Sophie Jerram ($65, Massey University Press) can be purchased at Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.


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