'Nearly BEING THERE'
Tarkovsky's Stalker, the first of a series of film screenings
to be held at the Otira site, revolves around the journey of its
three central protagonists, known solely as Writer, Scientist and
Stalker. The characters are glyphs, representatives of the diverse
potential of human achievement, brought together by the pressures
of their individual captive subjectivities.
What distinguishes this film is its metred pace and the sense of
anticipation this inculcates in us. At every turn we expect something
terrible and irreversible to occur. In the end it never does and
we are frustrated by the uneventfulness of the film as a whole.
Stalker confounds our expectations of what a film should
be which makes the process of viewing it difficult. Eventually what
it elicits from us is a willingness to abandon ourselves to a purely
cinematic experience. This cinematic aspect was once naturally apprehended
as part of the medium's newness. As our exposure to film has increased,
so the sense of its materiality has inversely diminished. Today,
instead we are encouraged, especially through TV, to read screen
phenomena as the by-product of a linear narrative.
As an alternative Stalker offers us an intensely palpable
experience. The film's experiential quality results from its lingering
investigation of natural phenomena generally disregarded in the
routine of our day to day activities. The film is marked by its
sense of dampness, fragility and ruin, qualities that lend it an
apocalyptic or post-historical sensibility. Ultimately what we are
left with are remains and industrial waste. Civilisation itself
becomes the meditative focus of a retrospective reverie. In this
world nothing works, or what works does so only momentarily. We
become bored yet equally we are mesmerised. We experience the film
as though immersed in it. It is this sense of immersion that captures
our attention, propelling us through its various meanderings.
Tarkovsky's Stalker provided an eminently suitable metaphor
for the Oblique project. Here nothing was as it seemed at first
nor as we anticipated it. Oblique was marked at various levels by
its difficulty as much as by its ambition and the show's 'final'
result. Having personally been transposed from Sydney, a terrain
of an entirely different nature, the challenge of the show, like
that of the film, lay in our willingness to adapt to the circumstances
Otira is an isolated town surrounded by irrepressible mountains.
The landscape is marked by its rural and remote and the abandoned
traces of a more prosperous time. Not exactly a ghost town, most
of its twenty-two inhabitants rose to the occasion of this alien
event, making their individual presences known, through assistance,
query, and the daily pattern of their lives. The artists housed
in abandoned buildings were left to acquiesce in these new surroundings.
Living more or less communally if only for a week meant that the
ease and familiarity of everyday routines and moods were easily
Like the experience of Stalker, much of being in Otira was
centred on a sense of anticipation. On the one hand nothing much
happened. On the other, what happened was rather proccessual, occurring
as the coming together of individual subjects in a site away from
Being in Otira was about surmounting the unfamiliar while equally
celebrating 'difference'. Even the local population accustomed to
living in such an environment, were in a position in which their
familiarity was suddenly challenged. Otira became a melting pot
of possibilities that not only served to challenge the individual
artist but to question traditional notions of 'exhibition' and 'product'.
Together these things served to make the Oblique project
a unique endeavour. It was easy to regard individual works as ephemeral
in the lazy expanse of the town. Suddenly gone were the immediate
and occasionally counter-productive pressures of urban art making,
instead time was needed to absorb the location and experience its
peculiarities as well as its potential for alienation.
Oblique was an event in which perceptions of time were altered.
Like viewing a Tarkovsky film, those involved were left to find
their own pace. What was gleaned as a result were experiences and
knowledge of a quality perhaps not readily quantifiable by narrow
conceptions of finished products alone.
Traditionally as artists we are expected to consider our practices
on the proviso that we ourselves cannot be completely represented
by what we make. This is an important appraisal of the art making
process because it refuses to narrowly equate art with personality.
However, it ignores the notion that every artwork exists as part
of a broader pool of ideas and other related artworks. An overriding
consideration for those involved in the Oblique project was
the challenge of the site itself and the artists' grapplings with
notions of site-specificity.
Some artists approached the experience with an openness that allowed
the site to resonate both as a product of its singularity and as
the 'punctum' of its alteration. Alternately, other artists brought
with them fully formed self-contained works whose success depended
on the degree to which the individual object/concept could successfully
engage a particular location. While certain works functioned in
a manner that enhanced both the site as well as the meaning of the
work, others seemed cast adrift and on the point of evaporation.
In Otira any notion of competing with the environment was soon quashed.
If works appeared small or insignificant it had to be noted that
they were surrounded on all sides by natural formations of extraordinary
altitude. Furthermore, it was impossible to avoid notions of historicity,
or the fact that the town itself would finally read as a text notable
for the disparity of its possible interpretations. Yet does the
scale of something necessarily reflect its vacuity or do such a
notions merely serve to maintain our identification with the monumental?
Alternatively, does producing work of an ephemeral nature constitute
respect for the environment in which the work is housed, and for
those who live there permanently? Similarly, if the intention behind
the Oblique project was immediately apparent then surely
it would have exceeded itself before its physical realisation and
denied the event its investigative and social aspects?
Aside from these existential conundrums were issues of practicality
and resourcefulness. Many of the most affective works were the most
resourceful. The Honeymoon Suite house featuring works by Layla
Rudneva-Mackay, Richard Shaw, Emma Bugden and Warren Olds was one
such example. Using an economy of means to investigate both the
physicality of the site and myths of urban (and rural) degeneration,
the artists fashioned works that were discreet and subtly interventionist.
Sydney artist David Haines' 'cut-out' graveyard sited in an empty
lot adjacent to the train station merged morbid humour and personal
narrative to comment upon the fictional aspects of history and the
otherwise seemingly arbitrary presence of the artists in Otira.
Indeed fiction was one of the key principles behind much of the
work executed at Oblique. The Room 3 artists from Auckland
elaborated upon urban mythologies through the employment of faux
graffiti and clusters of banal objects that bespoke a youthful cheek.
Collectibvely their work served as a play on the nature of the site
itself as well as on any pretence to highbrow seriousness normally
associated with official art culture.
In an entirely dissimilar vein, the imaginary, though otherwise
visibly active Dusseldorf Artists Archive promoted an ironic sense
of internationalism in the far away event-horizon of Otira. Nevertheless
the archive served admirably also as an informative means of introducing
the creative histories of participating artists to those in attendance.
Otira was a site in which play was actively encouraged, not at the
expense of the quality of the work produced, but rather to its benefit.
Play is a concept generally restricted to the domain of children
before they 'grow up'. Such an attitude evades play's indispensability
to processes of learning and its potential for anarchic affront.
To be seen not to be serious, for a society obsessed with productivity,
is a means of avoiding a simply instrumentalist engagement with
the world whilst choosing instead the active pursuit of pleasure.
Not all fictions of course are about pleasure. Terrence Hanscomb's
videos of concentration camp footage taken while the artist was
in Germany were sited in the artist's temporary abode above the
Otira hotel. The video monitors could be seen casting eerie emanations
over the surrounding countryside, making controversial analogies
between Otira's physical and cultural isolation and the enforced
isolation of the camps. Hanscomb views both as relics of reluctant
occupation. This is perhaps a gross exaggeration of prevailing circumstances
in Otira, yet it is one that inevitably confronts notions of hierarchy
and questions the artists' exact role in the town's day to day running.
Were the artists merely on a paid-up working holiday or were they
there for other more ambitious purposes? Was it the artists who
were responsible for the 'culture' in Otira, or is it a town with
a culture all its own, one that exists independently of contemporary
theories and representations of place?
Much has been written in the last few years about the denial of
mastery. It is a distinctly postmodern pre-occupation and one that
addresses modernism's traditional arrogance. Traditionally Modernism
attempts to dominate through the supposed universal application
of its cultural theories whatever terrain it chooses to colonise.
Architectural theory, for instance, concentrates on the productions
of 'serious' architects, implying the cultural redundancy of say,
the humble 'shack'. If Otira was the shack to which the artists
of Oblique brought their serious culture as a means of redeeming
it in the eyes of an imagined public, then surely the artists were
claiming ownership the town, its surroundings and inhabitants. If
on the other hand the work served to open up empty spaces for egalitarian
interaction and interpretation, then the Oblique project
could claim uniqueness in this respect also.
Much of the problematic nature of the siting of contemporary art
in Otira depended on the expectations of the locals and of the artists.
Those expecting work of a more traditional genre were in for a surprise
whilst those artists seeking all round admiration and accessibility
were perhaps simply deluded.
These questions can only be answered on the grounds of subjective
experience. Generally meanings waver according to the contexts in
which they are inserted. Traditionally art is a stable medium of
disinterested contemplation that makes no attempt to break the boundaries
of its hermetic framing. In Otira, framing becomes an issue of the
site's own fragmented self-representation. The fact that representational
modes differed for the artists and the town's local inhabitants
created an inevitable tension as potentially productive as it was
disruptive. Without this creative rupture the Oblique event
would have been a foregone conclusion.
If Oblique did not entirely live up to its promises on some
levels it exceeded them in others. The most indispensable aspect
of this project was the artists' enthusiasm to be a part of something
larger than their individually self-regulated projects. Also commendable
was the pleasure individual artists took in engaging the town's
locals and likewise of the locals' reciprocal openness to their
visitors. These interactions enable a culture to flourish and to
expand. The learning that takes place as a result is not easily
forgotten by those involved. Furthermore Oblique's on-line
representation is both informative and adventurous and will continue
to influence future events of this kind.
Finally if culture gave us everything we expected of it then it
would evaporate entirely. Our role as active participants in the
creation of meaning would be replaced by cynical faith in the pre-determined
value of its end products. If the artists at Otira failed entirely
to 'occupy' the town it is to their benefit, for the interstices
they uncovered were as valuable as the experience of nearly being
You can visit the Oblique: The Otira Project website at www.physicsroom.org.nz/oblique/
15 July 1999