issue #36

issue 37 cover image

The issue featured Campbell Walker's review of The Rocket (which was shown as a bit of a teaser at the 2013 NZ Film Festival Programme Launch on Monday 15th July), David Graveney's reflections on works by Toss Wollaston, Colin McCahon, John and Ann Caselberg which was on show at Brett McDowell Gallery, and a somewhat convoluted phase shift of an editorial bemoaning the statistical infrasture of political cliché. 

  1. <MARK OFF!>  by POINT Ed.
  3. LET A MAN COME IN AND DO THE POPCORN: 2013 Film Festival Programme Launch by Campbell Walker


by POINT Ed.

Well, another phase in the war on poverty (or better, the war on the poor) unfolds around (or is that ‘between’?) us after the government announces the implementation of a new phase of ‘welfare’ reforms. Warfare . . . welfare . . . its all the some to same, but we don’t all seem to get the same figures in our sums.

The rhetoric of the administrative technocracy which passes for politics has been heavy on sums and figures for a while now. Announcements are made, broadcast across the expanding (or is it contracting?) mediascape and marked up with the seemingly essential batch of ‘lastest statistics’. ‘Marking up’ is a now widely understood idiom coming from the world of coders and programmers (the engineers of communication), and refers in its most accessible form <html> to a string of symbols which function as a kind of grammar of VISIBILITY. <h1>INDICATES TO A WEB BROWSER THAT THE TEXT ENCLOSED BY THOSE FIGURES SHOULD BE DISPLAYED AS A HEADING</h1>, <b> that text should be displayed in bold </b> etc etc. This same function seems granted to statistics in press releases. For something to become visible and therefore valorised it seems to need to be bracketed by statistical aggregates. <CPI down to 0.6%> its all rosy for consumers! </CPI>, <Beneficiaries down by 10,000> our brutal policies are vindicated! </Down with Beneficiaries>. Although a simplistic analogy, there is merrit to it: it certainly does seem to be necessary to justify a statement imbued heavily with value judgements with the seeming objectivity of statistical coding. Just as a web browser will not display a sentence without it being ‘marked up’, so too media visibility seems to require statistical ‘back up’.
Another interesting parallel is that both html and statistical media ‘coding’ require an authority to decide exactly what the syntax and elements of the conventionally determined grammar or <doctype> will be. It is here, in what Eugene Thacker and Alexander Galloway have called THE PROTOCOL, that the real political struggles take place. Sometimes we have competing protocols to deal with. We are usually quoted Statistics New Zealand figures when it comes to bookending value laden judgements about beneficiaries, crime statistics, and business activity. But this particular authority has its limitations (as do all statistical aggregators) and the details embedded in its protocols can hide as much as they reveal. A good example are the unemployment figures so (neo-)liberally quoted. Apparently unemployment is at 6.2% according to Statistics NZ, but Roy Morgan (a private Australian polling company) runs its own New Zealand unemployment survey, and its figures come in at about 10%. How do these disparities come about? Statistics New Zealand base its figures on the numbers who are registered as unemployed (with WINZ), Roy Morgan bases its on a survey asking people whether they had jobs or not.
It is this protocological difference which is interesting given the current announcements/warfare on welfare policy and the ‘great news’ that beneficiary numbers are down. Because of the 3.8% difference between the two statistical accounts of unemployment above, it seems that there must be a very large number of people neither in work nor registered as beneficiaries and the current drive pushing people off the benefit is slipping them into this hidden realm of super-poverty and not into work. Reviewing the Roy Morgan and Statistics NZ differences since Paula Bennett declared war on the poor in July of last year, this seems evident.
Mass media reporters seem merely to repeat the statistical mark up these days . . . we need to politicise these tired protocols, look a bit closer, dig a bit . . .



by David Graveney

One reviewer has already labeled this show ‘art royalty’ [sic] and they are certainly right. Anyone with even the most rudimentary understanding of the trajectory of modernist painting in our country will be familiar with the work of at least three of the artists gathered in this modest exhibition. As the title of this show implies, the curation aims to celebrate the working relationship and an ensuing solidarity that developed between members of the group. There are some twelve works: a sketch, a suite of lithographically illustrated poems, paintings, and a further suite of handwritten poems. What interested me as a viewer is not so much the individual merits of each work (all are competent works by artists who are working at the higher end of the scale of their abilities) but the interplay of influence between each of the artists. There is no shortage of published literature available detailing this. Woollaston as the grand visionary of a tradition inherited from and informed by German Expressionism, with McCahon as his lieutenant in the realizing and continuation of this vision. John Caselberg’s poetry derives too from the same influence, and lines from which can be found in many of McCahon’s paintings.

(Interested readers should seek out Peter Simpson’s excellent Answering Hark for an illustrated and

Anna Casselberg "Untitled (Otago Peninsula After McCahon) 1991detailed explication of their work together.) Caselberg’s wife, Anna, daughter of Woollaston and student of McCahon, contributes the majority of paintings to this exhibition, and it is perhaps in these works where the influence of the two aforementioned coalesces. These works (all dating from the early 90s) also show an abiding affinity (mimicry?) of Doris Lusk’s landscapes, herself a peripheral member of this group and painter influenced by modernism and later Cubism. There are the heavy impasto skies, the architectonic lands cape reliefs, the same palate of clay reds and light greens, flinty blues and grays associated with 1930s-40s landscape painting. I was quickly admonished by a senior curator and art historian when I referred to these works as examples of ‘very good Sunday painting.’ They were very quick to point out the inherent skill in the works. They seemed to miss my point. My gripe was not with the technique, but the fact these works don’t really do anything to develop on a tradition realized sixty years prior to their making. Perhaps it’s a little off complaining about such a trivial detail when the history of western art is built on such acts of homage, by making again.


2013 Film Festival Programme Launch

by Campbell Walker

A recent visit to Wellington’s new People’s Cinema sparked an ongoing conversation about the political possibilities of cinema as a form. . . and which way this form works best. In particular, whether it constitutes a more potent political meaning to adhere to cinema’s dominant forms but add explicitly politically engaged meaning, or, to attempt to generate a new formal structure found outside the system. I argued that the second – the “radical” rather than “activist” approach was the only approach that could avoid the risks inherent in working within the monoform – especially that of being subsumed or corrupted by the system. 

The film chosen for the programme launch of this year’s film festival really hammered home these dangers. The Rocket, a supposedly “charming” tale about a young Laotian boy’s triumph over adversity, is actually rendered quite repellent through it’s unblinking acceptance of the norms of western cinematic storytelling. Made by an Australian documentary-maker (who I hope is unaware of the condescending nature of their choice of structure) the film employs the romantic drama monoform to tell a supposedly “universal” story, in the process turning it’s main potential strength – a lively but unfamiliar cultural millieu – into severe weakness. 

The problem is that the modern commercial cinema very much serves the needs of the dominant political landscape: escapist storytelling reinforcing that the world  isn’t supposed to be easy but that, with hard work, heteronormative romance and a little lottery luck the hero and family can become the sole members of a community to upgrade their lot. Everything in The Rocket that is shown as ‘Normal,’ is shown within the modes of western cinema storytelling, and so everything that is outside the norms is thus shown as Other, as anatagonistic, and as primitive. The villagers are powerless, reliant upon western largesse and knowledge, especially (if implicitly) technologically. Their own culture, is largely reduced to colour (dick jokes) and dramatic device in a very traditional western mode (the hero’s narrative engine is generated by his desire to plant his dead mother’s mangoes). The inevitable triumph at the end of the film is only achieved after utilising western technological secrets channeled through a kind of cargo-cult James Brown. 

By showing his acceptance of his place, he is briefly allowed to permanently advance one class, on a strictly local level. Further, the ideas and traditions native to his own culture are obstacles to be overcome. . . so the process of expedient pragmatism triumphs over complex customary knowledge, as is shown within the forces of globalism. 

But there really are a lot of other ways to present these worlds, and they don’t all support these dominant discourses in such a virulent, invasive way. Unfortunately, cultural gatekeepers like the Film Festival, abandoned by public funding to the winds of economism, require ultimate recourse to such dominant discourses through an internalised profit imperative. As potential audience members are strained by systemic power shifts imposed from above, the possibilities of exposing ourselves to something more distanced from our own lives becomes more risky, more of a chore. Over the last two decades in film, I’ve seen a strong imperative towards a post-colonial cinema (with its interest in racially, geographically and culturally different ways of presenting film) slowly slide off the table and onto the floor, in favour of this kind of expedient, simplistic and falsely feel-good exotica, a neo-liberal co-option of neo-realism that replaces quiet open observation with forced imposition of identification.     

Reading the programme emphasised that this is not really a one off. There are of course wonderful and important films that will play, but extensive claims towards diversity are betrayed somewhat by a programme that features unironic categories like the documentary section “Real”, or a special one, “Bold – here are filmmakers who don’t play by anybody else’s rules”, that surely tells more about the other films selected than the single page of films in this category. What was, under gentler ideologies, an important contribution to diversity of our cultural landscape has retrenched under pressure to become a casualty of our acceptance that we don’t need to have one.

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