Saturday, September 25, 2010

Fairly unacceptable

I came across this important document the other day: the New Zealand Broadcasting Standards' Guide to the Acceptability of Words on Television and Radio, 2010 [PDF].* It's an interesting index to the cultural changes in New Zealand society over the past decade, if you go in for that sort of thing. Or if you simply appreciate long lists of rude words published by a government body.

Comparison with a similar list issued by the BBC in 2006 is instructive: Britons and New Zealanders agree on the rudest word of all, but otherwise there are considerable cultural differences, most notably as regards the relative offensiveness of 'wanker', the taking of the Lord's name in vain (far more shocking in New Zealand), and the various Britishisms ('sodding', 'shag', 'spastic' etc) which don't merit a mention on the antipodean list. While saying 'bollocks' is still quite rude in England, apparently, it's no problem at all in New Zealand: the respondents to the NZ BSA's survey believe 'bullshit' to be far ruder than 'bollocks', and 'bastard' considerably ruder than both of them.

There's probably a thesis topic to be developed in an analysis of the social changes reflected by the unacceptability of words over time, or in an international comparison of the valence of unacceptable words: a kind of Big Mac Index to cultural vulgarity. I'm a bit busy at the moment, but I'd love to read it.

The trend is definitely downwards, however: what offended New Zealanders in 1999 hardly ruffles a feather today. Which begs the question, once again: if swearing is increasingly socially acceptable, and everyone's doing it, where's the fun in it?

*via Sacha Dylan.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Way We Lived Then

The golden kakapo from Canterbury Museum, detail from an installation by Ronnie Van Hout at the Robert McDougall Gallery, 2009, from the Snare/Mahanga exhibition

When we moved back here nearly four years ago, I found Christchurch like a ghost town. It wasn't so much that the city was dead, but more that it was UnDead, to me at least: after fifteen years away I encountered the ghosts of my former life around every corner.

I'd drop the small guy off at gymnastics out at QEII, and bump into my teenage self staggering out of the turnstiles after Sweetwaters South in 1984. I'd go for a checkup and recall that the Greek-pedimented medical rooms were built on the site where the Victorian Coffee Lounge—one of the only two establishments in Christchurch in the early 1980s that was (a) open at night and (b) not a pub, complete with greasy red gingham table-cloths and candles in Chianti bottles—once stood. I'd see the green substation box on Wairarapa Terrace and remember the 'Fendalton Graffiti Club' sign that was once written on the front of it. I'd drive past the casino on Durham Street and suddenly be spilling out of the Gladstone at closing time after seeing The Bats or The Verlaines, checking my watch for the time of the last bus home.

Bill Hammond, Watching for Buller, 1994

Smells would do it, too. I don't notice it at all now, but for some months the university library's characteristic smell—equal parts dust and sweat and sweet floor polish—took me back instantly to Orientation Week 1985: black basketball boots, black sunglasses, black tights, black Cleopatra hair. Christchurch Gothic. The ghost of my former self.

Tony de Lautour, Operation Overload, 2006, Ray Hughes Gallery

For some time after I came back to Christchurch I went about reeling with the Freudian uncanny of it all. Every experience, every view, was overlaid with the memory of another time in the same place. It was like old fashioned offset printing, the picture slightly out of register, or perhaps a badly-tuned TV leaving ghostly trails behind the actors. I seemed to have forgotten everything, but my life was being replayed in jerky fits and starts. Any walk or trip in the car would trigger the back story. It was exhausting. It was relentless. I think when I left town in the early 1990s I pulled the door closed behind me. I never expected to be back.

Detail of serpents on a park bench in the Botanic Gardens

We live a few hundred metres away from the site of my old family home, long since demolished. The suburb is so changed that it's hard to remember what it was like, back then; but sometimes when I catch the light a certain way the Tuscan McMansions with clipped box gardens like Legoland Hidcotes disappear and the old white-painted weatherboard villas my school friends lived in rise again, shaded by hundred-year-old rhododendrons and dense shrubberies of camellias.

Even now, of course, the Freudian unheimlich, or unhomely, is never far away here in the England of the South Seas.

Reconstruction of predation by Haast’s Eagle (Harpagornis moorei) on South Island giant moa (Dinornis robustus). Image by Ray Jacobs, Canterbury Museum.

On our way to school we pass the house where Allen Curnow lived in the 1940s. I told the children about this one day when we were standing outside, waiting to cross the road. "A very famous poet used to live here. There should be a plaque, really. He wrote a great poem about the giant moa skeleton in the museum." Then a little white terrier ran through the garden and jumped up on his hind legs against the low brick wall behind a laurel hedge. "We could call him Allen," said the small guy.

Having been here for four years we are beginning to put down some roots. A while ago the small guy and I wrote down all the dogs whose names we know and whom we see on their morning rounds while we're walking through the park to school. There's Bebe the gigantic Newfoundland; Duke the poodle; Teddy, and Charlie, low-slung plumy tailers of uncertain parentage and cheerful disposition; Bertie and Bunty the spaniels; Milo the chocolate labrador. There's one big white one we call the Polar Bear, and the Barker Brothers. You start to feel at home in a neighbourhood when you know the names of its dogs.


I wrote this post, on the difficulties of being at home again in Christchurch, before the earthquake. Since then many things have changed, along with the streetscape of the inner city and the skyline of our street: one of the oddest after-effects of the quake, for me at least, has been to finally make Christchurch feel like home.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Dispatches from an earthquake zone

Some post-earthquake photographs I've taken in and around the city over the past couple of days.

I took the first series through the car window, driving past the old brick Methodist church on the corner of Rugby Street and Papanui Road in Merivale on Saturday morning. The crane is lifting off the spire.

Notice on the door of our favourite Christchurch cafe, C1 Espresso in High Street.

The historic facade of the McKenzie and Willis building, built in Venetian Gothic style. You can see the red 'unsafe' sticker at lower left. While we watched, a man in fluoros and a hard hat appeared briefly in an upper window. He was welding a steel support structure in place. Above the corbels on the second storey, you can see the metal bracing which has been temporarily installed in the hope that this building, one of the architectural treasures of Christchurch, may be saved.

The army guard Tuam Street, a no-go area. In the background behind the bike shop is the 132-year-old Odeon Cinema, the last surviving historic picture palace in the central city. (Of course, it wasn't the earthquake that knocked down the others, but short-sighted development.) Originally built as a theatre, I think for vaudeville, the 700-seater Odeon closed as a cinema in 1983 (the last movie I saw there was Time Bandits), but has been remarkably well-preserved. There have been moves to reinvent it as an arts venue, but I'd rather see it returned to its glory as a movie theatre: it could be Christchurch's version of the Embassy or the Civic.

Meanwhile may I recommend a new blog, written by my friend the musician/academic Ed Muzik/James Dann: Rebuilding Christchurch.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The aesthetics of earthquakes

I find it comparatively straightforward to write about nonsense, as will be evident to even the most cursory reader of my blog. My speciality is the art-inflected trivia that I stumble across in everyday life, which is a foil to the slightly bigger brain work that I do elsewhere. My subjects are multiple and various, and usually involve the moments of collision between two worlds—the high-minded and the low-brow—which I find particularly amusing or noteworthy. (The politics of aesthetics, you might call it, if you weren’t especially familiar with Jacques Ranciere.) The painting of the two dogs in Good Fellas; the social history of British TV’s Testcard pattern; the small guy’s foray into the western literary genre; the need to bring speculation on the Walters Prize under the TAB’s auspices; the problem with stairs at dealer galleries. Nothing is too small or too insignificant to be magnified and horribly distorted by my smeary blogging lens.

I find it much more difficult to write about serious things.

Manchester Street. Photograph by Christie Douglas

Like the massive 7.1 magnitude earthquake which struck the Canterbury region of New Zealand early last Saturday morning: definitely, A Serious Thing. The earthquake itself took apparently only 40 seconds, although each second was interminable. When I think back to it now—almost a week’s passed—I see that those 40 seconds represent a faultline between two different worlds: the time before the earthquake, and the time after it. The land itself has shifted more than four metres sideways, and things have changed.

We were woken at 4.35am by a loud bang, like an explosion, and the house violently shaking. It was the darkest part of the night, just before dawn, and we were deeply asleep, but snapped instantly awake, out of bed and running fast and low with some ancient atavistic part of the brain directing the body's response. We were asleep, and then we were on our feet, in motion. Wordless, we ran for the children. On the way to the toddler’s room, an old sun porch at the other side of the house, I could hardly stand: the floor was pitching and tossing like the deck of a ship in a storm. The noise of the quake was tremendous, a low, insistent, growling roar which mounted in intensity to an unbearable volume. There was the distinct sense of something dark, and massive, and indescribably violent, advancing on us at high speed.

We live in a two-storey weatherboard house built in the late 1920s, not far from the railway line. During nor’westers, we can hear the late-night freight trains hooting as they pass through the level crossing at the shops. Sometimes we go for a walk along the track the council has made alongside the railway line, down to Mona Vale to feed the ducks and back again. A few months ago a freight train came past when we were on the path, and the kids and I flattened ourselves against the bushes, overwhelmed by the noise and bulk and speed of the locomotive in such close proximity.

That’s what it felt like, a bit: a freight train attempting to drive itself at speed through the house. As I stood clinging to the doorframe, the toddler in my arms, every window in the house rattled in its frame simultaneously; I was dimly aware of the smashing of ceramics and glass downstairs; and bricks rained down on the roof directly overhead, as the first of our old tall late Arts and Crafts chimneys collapsed. The lights flickered once and died as the power went out. It was pitch black. The house was shaking so brutally that it appeared to be tearing itself apart. After a while, I understood that the back of the house might well disintegrate. It seemed impossible that it was still standing. That was the moment that I thought that our number may well be up. This is it, I thought.

But it wasn’t.

Afterwards, in the dumb silence that followed the earthquake, we all made our way downstairs, huddled together in the dark. The house creaked around us like a boat. Our feet were bare, of course, and the floor of the dining room was covered in shards of glass and smashed ceramics. We found a torch, which gave a pale gleam and lasted perhaps 40 seconds before going out. The big guy lit a candle. The power was off, and the phone and the water. We sat together on a couch, and waited for what would happen next. We didn't speak much. The big guy found a transistor radio and turned it on. "There's been a major earthquake in Christchurch," it said. When we went outside to check on our elderly neighbour, the stars gleamed cold and clear and distant. “Oh! The stars,” said the small guy. “I don’t usually see them.”

It was the big one, the one that every New Zealander expects; but strangely we had no notion of what would happen afterwards, in its aftermath. (I’ve read an opinion by a seismologist that says this wasn’t the big one, that at some point in the not-too-distant future New Zealand’s due for a quake of magnitude 8 or so: in which case I think that all bets are probably off, as anything much bigger than this may well have razed the entire city.)

Avonside Drive. Photograph by Christie Douglas

When I’ve read about earthquakes previously, like the one in Haiti in 2009 which was, they say, of a similar type, and size, to Christchurch 2010, I’ve imagined the horror of the quake itself, and then the heartbreaking recovery and clean up. But what really happens in the aftermath of a major earthquake is many, many more earthquakes, some almost as big as the initial quake itself. In the past week there have been more than 300 aftershocks, many of which have sent us scurrying into doorways or leaping from bed or diving under the reassuringly solid oak of our dining table. We’ve seen that an earthquake is not a singular event but a series of terrifying revisions of the initial shock, in which you relive that moment over and over again.

A notice the small guy made for our dining table

For a couple of days, our legs were rubbery, our knees wobbling. The floor rose to meet us. We weren't sure at times if the shakes were real or imagined. After some of the real aftershocks, ones in which the house banged and rattled and mortar rained down the roof, my hands were trembling so much it was difficult to hold my mobile phone, which didn't leave my hand or my pocket for five days straight. When we lost coverage for an hour or so on the first day when the emergency batteries ran down in the cellphone towers, I knew to expect it—and that it would be temporary—through what I'd read on Twitter. Twitter was an immediate source of necessary information, reassurance, companionship. Critically, my phone felt like a lifeline to the outside world, to places where the lawn wasn't covered in bricks and entire shop-fronts hadn't fallen into the street and the river hadn't changed its course and cracks so big a man could stand waist deep in them hadn't appeared in the roadway. A line to the old real life.

But here’s the strangest thing: after a while we stopped noticing the aftershocks. I was following them on Geonet, and on Twitter where a new sport of #earthquake poker quickly sprang up; but often there would be reports of fairly big ones that seemed to have bypassed our house entirely. It was as if we'd got our sealegs, as if we'd acclimatised to the moving ground underneath our feet. In the end, we were sleeping through major shocks.

The power came back on late on Saturday afternoon, but the water was off for three days in our neighbourhood. We drank lemonade and milk, purchased from a dark dairy teeming with people. We used baby wipes to wash the kids. When the water came on again, the pipes initially gave a great belch and dribbled a little: it was some hours later when the council workers down the road finally pulled themselves out of the huge hole they'd dug and pushed the earth back over the mains pipes that the water began to flow again. For some days after that, we had stockpots of water—the palest shade of light brown—boiling on the stove. There were news reports of people in welfare shelters coming down with dysentry.

The army rolled into town, to assist the police in cordoning off the ruin of the central city. One morning after a particularly wakeful night peppered with quakes, we lay in bed and listened as an Iroquois flew low over the house. There were Unimogs in Victoria Square, troop carriers stationed behind hurricane fencing on St Asaph Street. Bored young soldiers stood in front of the barricades. It looked like a military coup.

Manchester Street. Photograph by Christie Douglas.

Gradually reports and images of the ruined city began to come in to focus. The main architectural casualties seemed to be old brick commercial buildings—corner shops, and two- and three-storey late 19th century commercial buildings in the central city—and new rendered houses in the low-lying, swampy or sandy eastern suburbs. Parts of the city were flooded; other parts lay under six inches of a slimy grey silt, which had risen from the waterlogged ground in a process of liquefaction. Houses were cracked in two, or had been moved several inches from their foundations, or were leaning at crazy angles. When I finally ventured out of the house to take the children to the park, it was obvious that there hardly a chimney left standing in our suburb. There were piles of bricks in gardens and driveways and on grass berms.

The second of our chimneys hung on through all those days of major quakes by a single corner of a single brick, threatening to come down at any moment. It was a distinct relief when an extremely intrepid builder arrived to demolish it, roping himself through a window like an alpine climber.

Up on our roof, 6 September 2010

It's classic Maslow's hierarchy of needs stuff: after the power came on, and the water came on, and it seemed that perhaps the aftershocks were finally slackening off a little, our minds turned to the rebuilding of the city, and what it might look like. And critically: who might profit from it. There are many, many hard questions to be asked of politicians and planners and developers in the days ahead. There is also an extraordinary opportunity to reimagine the city all over again as an inspiring place to live: the truth is that it was damaged by pecuniary private interests and inadequate planning regulation long before the earthquake hit. A week after the earthquake, it strikes me that it would be a fine legacy for the next Mayor to make the City Beautiful beautiful again.

Just as there are no atheists in a foxhole, there’s little concern for the politics of aesthetics during an earthquake. That comes afterwards.

A crane driver plucks a chandelier from the wreckage of Robertson's Bakery on Victoria Street, to the cheering of the crowd. Photographs by Donna Robertson

Friday, September 3, 2010

Beer, Art and Philosophy

Image: Drinking at the Hammer Museum, with Ed Ruscha behind the bar and Tom Marioni to the far right. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez for the LA Times.

‎"The act of drinking beer with friends is the highest form of art." San Francisco artist Tom Marioni, author of a memoir entitled Beer, Art and Philosophy, has put together a series of beer-fuelled art happenings since 1970 which have taken place variously in his own studio, museums, and neighbourhood bars. A show of his work (and five accompanying invitation-only beer salons, at one of which his friend Ed Ruscha tended bar), has just opened at the Hammer Museum in LA.

The public are invited to a performance later in the month called 'The Beer Drinking Sonata for 13 Players', in which players blow into the bottles after each sip, so that the tone -- so to speak -- gets progressively lower and lower. (Have a feeling I might have seen something similar done in a student flat in Christchurch in the 1980s.)

When asked by writer Jori Finkel if he agreed with Marioni that drinking beer was the highest form of art, Ed Ruscha commented: "I don’t know about a form of art; a form of life maybe. But you can call anything art, and that’s Tom’s thing. And I like the beer part of it."