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The newness of news and why Christchurch matters

1 Oct 2014

This content is tagged as All Artforms .


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Stephen Wainwright
Posted by Stephen Wainwright

Chief Executive - Pou Whakahaere

Tēnā koutou katoa

Do you ever have that experience where you see or hear something very familiar then - for some reason - you interpret it completely anew?

New news is good news

Words can do this for me. For example it has only recently dawned on me that the key thing about news, is that it should be new, hence new…s.

Given this fresh personal insight around the inherent newness of news-making it’s predictable that there is some indifference about the recent past in our mainstream media, and maybe even in our collective consciences. I am referring in particular to the fact that the Canterbury earthquakes on 4 September 2010 and 22 February 2011 are now old, so no longer news. Consequently they are not newsworthy. Fearing overstatement, this morning in a quick scan of the biggest Wellington and Auckland papers I could see few references to anything outside their regions and nothing at all on Christchurch. This degree of localism concerns me as it confines and narrows our sense of ourselves.

Why Christchurch matters to all of us

Stemming from the humanist tradition, a key role of the arts is to nourish empathy towards our fellow humans. So what happens in Canterbury is in some ways a marker of our national empathy. In fact it was wonderful to behold the many spontaneous acts of generosity across the arts landscape to help fellow arts organisations, and artists in the wake of the quake. Fundraising, loaning stuff, opening doors and hearts to keep the arts alive and raise spirits. These expressions of empathy were all very evident early on.

Scale should be acknowledged as a relevant factor too. The Canterbury population is 560,000, a significant number of New Zealanders call Canterbury home.

Loss should be acknowledged too. The loss may be felt most keenly by Christchurch residents, so many of whom have been personally touched by grief. Many are still seeking closure around unresolved claims and damaged homes.  However the loss of most of a city is a national tragedy, which is why the Government has made Christchurch a priority. Sometimes pictures speak more powerfully than words, so watch this brief video on Facebook if you are not clear on the extent of the change to the physical environment.

So not only is Canterbury not an island, it is a key link in the national arts infrastructure chain. If Canterbury doesn’t work for the arts not only do the citizens miss out.  Many deliverers of arts at a national level are deprived of opportunities to present work so they risk shrinking too.

Once in a Lifetime

Once in a Lifetime: City-building after Disaster in Christchurch is a recently published book that includes about 80 contributions. In the interests of full disclosure I should declare that, along with others, we contributed to getting this book published. Across nine chapters including Rewriting the Rules, and Building Back Better, there is a thoughtful exploration of where things are and what yet might be.

I can’t say for sure, but surely it’s not a coincidence that the title Once in a Lifetime is also recognisable as one of the more commercially successful songs from Talking Heads? The lyrics of the song seem apt, given the title of the book, and the very real consequences of the changed water table, and resulting flooding, liquefaction, displacement and so on.

Letting the days go by
Water flowing underground
Into the blue again
After the money's gone
Once in a lifetime
Water flowing underground

(Watch  on Youtube)

In a dissenting note, in terms of the last line of the song, Christchurch is absolutely not Same as it ever was...

In the book, and in a number of local and international commentaries, you can see that in some ways the arts community have been the heroes of post-quake Christchurch. In this ongoing ‘transition’ the inherent creativity, initiative and imagination of many arts people has meant they were well placed to make things happen.  They quickly did things while others were thinking about what to do, stunned or attending to important priorities further up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I am referring here to the new events like the Festival of Transitional Architecture (FESTA), LUXCITY, TheSocial, urban transformers including Gap Filler, Greening the Rubble, Life in Vacant Spaces, Rekindle and spaces including the National. Established infrastructure organisations like the Physics Room Trust, and larger performing arts entities such as the Christchurch Symphony, the Christchurch Arts Festival and the Court Theatre have all continued to do what they do, having made profound changes to how they work. Having not only brought their audiences with them, but grown them.

Next Steps

It was the writer L P Hartley who began the novel the Go-Between with the memorable sentence “The past is another country, they do things differently there.”

It remains to be seen to what extent Christchurch will be a different city and things will be done differently.

The Arts Council has been working with everyone you would expect (the arts community, local and Central Government entities) to ensure the arts are delivered in the ‘transition’ and that the arts are front and centre in the new Christchurch. We’ve changed our own rules about how we deliver our services in Christchurch and, as a consequence, have supported all the enterprises mentioned above to continue their important work in the city and region. The exact shape of the future is more blurry than is desirable.

When in Christchurch

The Crown has identified Christchurch as a key priority, and so has the Arts Council.  It will be meeting again in Christchurch at the end of October. We will engage with stakeholders and have a function so that people can meet and talk about their hopes and plans for the future.   We are mindful that many in the arts sector and related agencies need clarity to make big decisions being asked of them; including whether to move into the central city. We are conscious some big decisions are looming, including around the PAP or Performing Arts Precinct. It is not yet clear how the plans around the precinct will translate into reality. We would certainly welcome, and are pushing for greater openness and early engagement on basic stuff like money, accountability and timing. We are doing what we can to achieve the future more clearly.

What is already known is the excellent results that accrue from unleashing the imagination and practical skills of creative people. It would be terrifically wasteful were their achievement and hard work regarded merely as a flash in the pan or peripheral.  We will be advocating for decision-makers and planners to include arts practitioners in their work as early as possible. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity, but one that will be realised over years, not weeks or months. While it may be a stretch to wholly agree with David Byrne and say “the money’s gone,” it is clear that some innovative solutions to the inevitable shortage of financial  resources will be required to make the most of the opportunity.

Ōtautahi tu ki te rua o te mate: Ōtautahi standing at the brink of death

Ōtautahi  whakaarahia ake anō: Ōtautahi rise up again….


If you are interested in the book Once in a Lifetime: City-building after Disaster in Christchurch you can buy the book from Project Freerange

If you are interested in finding out more the arts in Christchurch visit Christchurch Cultural Hub

Or contact one of the Creative New Zealand staff members based in Christchurch: Chris Herbert (chris.herbert@creativenz.govt.nz) or Chris Archer (chris.archer@creativenz.govt.nz).