READ | Christchurch in Transition: Two Books

Posted on 09/10/2013

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I hope Christchurch will …, comment on a community blackboard

I returned from Christchurch with two new books in my luggage: SCAPE 7 Public Art Biennial Guide/Reader and Christchurch: The Transitional City Pt IV. These works provide valuable insights into the transitory and tactical dimensions of urban culture and adaptation, marking out territory at the intersection of curating, design, community and place. Modernity’s industrial and colonial cities are under pressure to flex with changes wrought of capital and climate, community and culture, globalisation and governance, technology and terrain. These books are attentive to and drawn from the context of Christchurch, a city that has endured a devastating earthquake and has embarked on a prolonged recovery and rebuilding process. Evoking Heideggerian phenomenology, these volumes settle in the folds of building, place, care and dwelling.

Both books act as platforms for documentation, reflection and resistance, offering readers and practitioners interested in how cities might be done differently opportunities to engage practice and possibility in the face of overwhelming destructions and difficulties. Christchurch: The Transitional City Pt IV was published by the Christchurch Transitional Architecture Trust and produced in conjunction with FESTA, the Festival of Transitional Architecture. It provides a catalogue of initiatives that have taken place in the city since the earthquake. It includes a spectrum from the community based, small scale tactical or DIY projects to the major government planning, demolition and rebuilding projects at this critical time. More importantly it is a testament to the spirit of communities, collectivities and individuals whose creativity and ingenuity, even humour, kicks in during times of need to rekindle the spark of community and to recreate place.

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Losing a city is an unspeakable loss. Christchurch: The Transitional City Pt IV honours this sense of loss while also celebrating and remembering each contribution to transitional arrangements and the rebuilding effort. Many of the creative projects – including pop-ups and street events – took place in the stricken suburbs. With its straightforward and simple documentation of about 150 projects, there’s an unearthing of sorts at play here – a discovery or rediscovery of social bonds and the life of cities born of excavations of the earthly terror that was the earthquake. (There’s also something else happening with this publication. It is concerned with hanging on – with so much of the city lost, there’s a desire to remember and to hold the dynamics of transition, which are by their very nature fleeting.)

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The SCAPE 7 Guide/Reader is the first of two volumes to be produced in conjunction with this year’s iteration of the SCAPE Public Art Biennial. It includes Blair French’s curatorial essay, essays by Jacky Bowring and Lara Strongman and the details of the projects, artists and legacy works. A second volume, which will include critical responses to the projects, is forthcoming. Where once public artworks tended to address the specifics of site, in this year’s SCAPE they tend to address city, reflecting to some extent on what it means to make artwork for a place that is so wrecked and levelled.

French sets the tone with a promise and plea to ‘tread lightly’. I take this to mean be gentle and kind, be open and generous, be careful and caring – not just in our walking and looking at the city and the artworks, but in our reading about them. In his introduction to the keynote presentation during the opening weekend, French commented that SCAPE 7 wasn’t ‘about anything’. It’s a useful qualification to make as ‘aboutness’ can be impossible and vexing. The people here know what has happened. In drawing sensitively from its context, French explains that SCAPE 7 is guided by principles of mobility, embracing the unexpected and looking forward. These principles are woven through the writings in the Guide/Reader as themes, questions, provocations and possibilities in themselves. In an environment where everything has changed, nothing can be taken for granted.

As Bowring reminds us, every city is plural, a multiplicity, and she writes of the imagined possibilities for Christchurch through the lines of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. What city might Christchurch become? Through recollections of other earthquakes in other cities in other times, she explores ideas of the sublime, surreal and melancholy. In her essay addressing the relationship between art of disaster, Strongman takes memorial, mourning, healing, community and critique as her organising themes. With them she sketches a cultural map of artistic and cultural responses to the earthquake. Public art – broadly understood – enabled a particularly potent engagement for local artists and communities, providing a vehicle for rethinking the city and reforming the bonds between residents.

Both SCAPE 7 and the Transitional Architecture projects and the books that accompany them demonstrate a caring ethos and an ethics of care in this strange and confusing here and now. They offer alternatives in and for the planning and community development processes that shape our cities. They harness a longing and a will to make the city more inhabitable, accessible and enjoyable in this moment. They provide points of focus and sites of occupation where buildings and other urban features are gone. In modest ways, this normalises and builds. The books do what books do best – collect, remember and engage – in an intimate and intelligent way. While these projects are focused on the city, they are intentionally about the people who will encounter and experience these initiatives as they move through the streets of a city they know and love. The city is all but abandoned; the absences linger; the city remains.

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