An Urban Quest for Chlorophyll
Rim Books, 2013
Barry Thomas – a bit
Planting cabbages as an intervention in a disused block of land in the central city (January 1978), or using a long length of rope threaded through a neighborhood block of houses in Clairemont Grove (1979) are social sculptures. Photographic portraits of the Cuba Street precinct also concern the artist outside the gallery. Interfacing with people, making and recording social document: Barry Thomas works with people not about them.
Through the 1990’s Thomas’s experiences within and outside of the mainstream film and television industries trained in him collaborative skills toward the end-game, humility. The innovative RADZ® series was art as time-based projects intervened within advertising space on TV – placing art into that most widespread of public mediums – first thought of by Thomas in the late 1980s, what Alan Brunton later called ‘art dancing in the devil’s playground’ (Illusions, Issue 17, Spring 1991).
His collaborative skills extend beyond industry. When working with underprivileged community groups in New Zealand, and between 2000 and 2004 with community groups in Manchester and London, narratives are mutually work-shopped, then are acted out – or made into ‘clay’ animations – and filmed by Thomas. These are matter of fact films to disclose the contestations faced by the subjects in and of their everyday life.
Thomas’s narratives tell life scenario: an account told by an 18 year old about a kid who was killed when a steel door collapsed off its hinges crushing him, this incident in a Manchester housing project occurs due to a sub-standard maintenance programme; a girl who loves soccer – the boys on the team believe girls can’t play soccer – and she scores the match-winning goal while wearing a monster disguise (a deft touch). Or a Maori youth who interviews the local MP over why the Mangrove trees were ripped-out in his town: the youth makes a clay representation of his subject and distends her facial features pending his (dis)trust of her answers (the interview is a voice-over to animation). So Barry Thomas does not ever overstate, or lead either his subject or the viewer to moments of grandeur. He guides response, does not manipulate in this current moment.
Dr. Marcus Moore,
Massey University September 2009
“I do remember your cabbage patch. it always seemed to me to reflect a special Wellington spirit, which grew over the next few years and contributed to making Wellington the liveable, human city it became.” Rosslyn Noonan (ex WCC councilor and Chief commissioner – Human Rights Commission NZ)
STRIDING down Auckland’s Wellesley Street in the golden glow of an autumn evening the flags atop UNITE House were hard to miss. Bright red, and emblazoned with the UNITE union’s logo, they declared to all the world that capitalism’s monopoly over Queen Street was about to be contested by a merry band of entrepreneurial socialists. In celebration, the new tenants of 300 Queen Street’s twelfth floor were having a party.
As Matt McCarten, the Organising Director of UNITE, and his new partners from Te Wananga O Aotearoa and the United Credit Union, were welcoming a broad cross-section of the Auckland Left to their proletarian penthouse atop the old ASB building, another entrepreneur – this time in the arts – was preparing for an opening of his own.
Just a few miles away, on the other side of the Waitemata, Barry Thomas, and his fellow painter from the Coromandel, Evelyne Siegrist-Huang, were putting the finishing touches to “Di-Vested Interest” the joint exhibition they were due to open the following day at the Depot Artspace in Devonport.
What’s the connection? Well, apart from the fact that I’ve known both men for more than twenty years, it’s their extraordinary talent for breathing new life into very old ideas.
In McCarten’s case, it’s the idea that, to make a real difference to workers’ lives, working class organisation must go beyond the “bread-and-butter” fixations of traditional trade unionism. McCarten’s key insight, at the very beginning of his career, was that the only way to avoid being seduced by, and eventually joining, his capitalist opponents (as one of their industrial “minders”) was to beat them at their own game.
With Thomas, it’s an even older idea: that art can change society – and that one of the artist’s primary roles is to represent people’s desire for change through creative media. With personal links going all the way back to the merry pranksters and film-makers of BLERTA (Bruno Lawrence’s Electric Revelation & Travelling Apparition) in the 1970s, Thomas’s modus operandi has always been to laugh and/or embarrass ‘Korporate Kapitalist Kulture’ off the artistic stage.
And Thomas knows whereof he speaks. It takes a special appreciation of the adman’s art to win a Golden Axis Award for the best automotive commercial – when the automobile being advertised is a Lada. Winning his award with the slogan ‘Nothing But Car’ – “because there wasn’t anything else!” – was something of an epiphany for Thomas. “I suddenly realised, I don’t have to do this anymore.”
With characteristic chutzpah, Thomas decided to stand the whole idea of advertising on its head. In collaboration with other like-minded “artist provocateurs”, he somehow persuaded Television New Zealand to pay for the privilege of inserting miniature artistic manifestos called “rADz®” (Radical Art Advertisements) into the network’s programme schedules. Popping up at random in the middle of genuine ad’ breaks, these frequently bizarre examples of guerrilla art caused many viewers to doubt the evidence of their own eyes: “Did I just see that?”
There is, however, nothing remotely electronic about Thomas’s contributions to “Di-Vested Interest”. Trained at of the Ilam School of Fine Arts, where he studied under the notorious Rudi Gopaz (who also taught Tony Fomison and Philip Clairmont), Thomas has always revelled in the experience of covering canvasses with paint. Three large examples of these: “Market Forces in the Shadow of the Long Black & White Cloud”, “Conscience Serving Life” and “Between Moa, Man, Sheep, Cabbage Tree & Rail” dominate his half of the exhibition.
Executed in pigments he has personally extracted from the Coromandel clays, these are paintings of stern didactic purpose and haunting imagery. Not for Thomas the elaborate explanatory infrastructure normally required to carry the ideas of “conceptual” and “installation” artists. The meaning of these three works is plainly rendered – and the message is unmistakable.
We have marred this landscape, says Thomas, and in doing so we have marred ourselves. But before we can heal our ravaged environment we must heal the wounds we have inflicted on each other.
In the words of one of Thomas’s youthful compositions: “Come to the country – be rained on.”
* * * * *
THERE’S not a lot of countryside to be seen from the twelfth floor of UNITE House, but the ideas of redemption and mutuality are in no way foreign to the two institutions McCarten has invited to flesh out his vision of a new trade unionism. Redemption through education, and mutual financial support, are the core businesses of Te Wananga O Aotearoa and the United Credit Union.
UNITE’s focus on young, Maori, Pacific Island and immigrant workers – many earning no more (and often less) than the minimum wage – made its innovative approach to trade union organising inevitable. In most developed countries such people constitute a stealth workforce, operating beneath the organisational radar of the traditional unions. Indeed, most of the “experts” in the field have argued that workers in the vast service industries of mature economies are simply not interested in joining unions. McCarten never bought it. “My secret weapon,” he chuckles, “was to ask them.”
The UNITE union’s highly successful “Supersize-My Pay!” campaign to organise young workers in the fast-food industry has already acquired semi-legendary status among those who keep an eye on such developments. But, in an industry with close to 100 percent staff turnover annually, something more was needed to keep the kids on board.
Having battled on behalf of Rongo Wetere and Te Wananga O Aotearoa against Trevor Mallard and Michael Cullen in 2005, McCarten was well-placed to initiate discussions about linking UNITE’s mission to organise young workers with the Wananga’s mission to educate them.
Bentham Ohia was there at the opening to celebrate a deal which brings the Wananga’s tutors face-to-face with young Maori, Pacific Island and Pakeha workers in language, computing, and basic business courses. For most of these low-paid workers it is their first encounter with anything remotely resembling a tertiary institution.
Phil Todd, CEO of the United Credit Union, was also there at the Friday 23 March opening. The 65 year-old, Wellington-based UCU is a not-for-profit financial institution dedicated to providing full banking-type facilities to its 10,000 trade union members. Naturally Todd was thrilled to be given the offer of office space in the CBD of New Zealand’s largest city.
The person who got McCarten really interested, though, was the UCU’s National Development Manager, Mark Griffiths, who successfully pitched the idea of a special UNITE “loyalty” card that offers “massive” discounts to union and UCU members. Recorded at the point-of-sale, their savings are aggregated and posted to UNITE members two weeks before Christmas in the form of a cheque from McCarten himself. “What could be better than that?”, demanded the UNITE leader of his mostly young audience. “A letter from your union boss which says “Merry Christmas! Oh, and by-the-way, here’s five hundred dollars for being a loyal union member!”
Old hat, you might say. Union discount cards have been around for years. Which is true. What’s different about the UNITE-Wananga-UCU combination, however, is that, in the past, the main recipients of such services were sensible public servants, and all those other employees-for-life who grew up in the stable industrial environment of the post-war boom. UNITE’s flash new card is going to patty-flippers, baristas and pop-corn sellers: the new, casualised, and consumption-driven workforce of the 21st century.
But, if the audience is new, the script is at least a century old. Because what’s being pulled together on the twelfth floor of UNITE House is something very like the trade union organisations which set the pace of collective bargaining at the turn of the 19th Century. They were unions which harboured ambitions much larger than winning a few extra pennies on the hourly rate. Their goal was the emancipation of an entire class.
And it’s this emanicipatory – this transformative – impulse, which, finally, brings the “openings” of Matt McCarten and Barry Thomas together. This gleaming office complex: with its Maori and trade union iconography; its rooms filled with state-of-the-art computer technology; and its UCU officer, Siu Armstrong, ready to lift the burden of South Auckland’s loan sharks from the shoulders of the poor – is McCarten’s work of art. And, like Thomas’s paintings, it has a power in and of itself: a power to move and inspire.
Not long before the opening, McCarten noticed one of the UNITE staff – his first recruit, Rima Taraia – just standing and looking at the bright new premises. This staunch, working-class woman had been with him at the very beginning, when the organisation ran on sweat, hope and aroha – and not much else. As she stood there, quietly taking in what she and her comrades had built, a single tear welled up, and rolled slowly down her cheek.
Oh, why don’t you break away?
You weren’t born to obey.
Come to the country – be rained on.
- ENDS -
Likewise Thomas has links also to another English town that has turned the like of the cabbage patch into the entire brand for Tod Morden… please do take the time to be inspired by Pam Warhurst’s Ted Talk on the subject. https://www.ted.com/talks/pam_warhurst_how_we_can_eat_our_landscapes.
In art history terms – to our knowledge – Joseph Beuys (Germany’s most important artist of the 2oth century) was the first artist in Europe to use living plants as works of art but he did this four years after the Cabbage Patch… in the Documenta show of 1982 when he planted his “7000 oaks”… our Cabbage Patch – a by far more complex, open, political and participatory work has reached much further into multiple generations of artists and is embedded in the very psyche of the capital… the capital that now calls itself the ‘creative capital’ was most certainly a long, long way from that in 1978. Chris Lipscombe has recently described it as “ sitting at the intersection of so many lines of enquiry… art, history, urban living, community development, sustainability, health, even economics. For me, urban foraging presents a similar intersection.”
As noted above – the capital’s well regarded vacant buildings art initiative - Letting Space – (headed by Sophie Jerram and Mark Amery) again, follows in the wake of the Cabbage Patch waka – writing in the Listener(March 2013) Amery says “If you need an official marker that contemporary art’s role as a politicised community change agent is now centre stage …Te Papa’s purchase of the cabbage patch archive could well be it. Ever greater numbers of artists are doing planting projects, increasing the public commons and collaborating with communities, industries and businesses, well beyond the confines of the gallery. .. This is art that deals with the complexities of life. It is a movement, I predict, that will see artists this century recognised as key public players in experimenting with the different ways society might operate.”
Thomas himself has even gone to the extent of providing his own definition of art that has come in part from his own studies and long reflection into the workings and growth of the cabbage patch and many others of his works: “Art is only leading – seeding radical new memes in the pavement cracks of culture… framing elephants in rooms.” Thomas’s other largely under critically examined and curatorially side-lined major initiative - radical art advertisements rADz® was in part described in Rome’s largest newspaper Il Messaggero – by the very chap who ‘discovered Peter Jackson’ whilst he was a critics week selector at the Venice film festival – one Fabio Ferzetti described Thomas’ rADz and their arrival in Rome’s Festival of Brevity thus:
“And so “short form, long thought” (here again condensing things into a slogan). But maybe Giacomo Maramao was right when, quoting Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, La Bruyere and Valery, (“A philosophy has to be portable”) he eulogised about the aphorism as a form of anti-systematic thinking, above all capable of reconciling the Orient and the West.
Thereby, anticipating that, the most left of field of the contributors to the conference (Rome’s Festival of Brevity) (the New Zealand Producer Barry Thomas – the inventor of lightning shorts rADz of less than one minute duration, which in his distant country were scheduled in TV advertising breaks) should land in Europe with his latest project: a collection of filmed proverbs which are to be made drawing upon the traditions of every country in the Old Continent. Ancient and modern. Striking and genius.”
As the readymades of Marcel Duchamp directly informed the conception of the Cabbage Patch it recalls words written about Duchamp (and how he engaged the media into the rejection of the urinal) and how in the complex ways Thomas deliberately chose to invite both media and the public into the work… On the front page of the Dominion under the headline “Phantom cabbage ‘artist’ appears” he said “I have planted the cabbages now it’s up to Wellington what will happen to them” and react and contribute they did – and in describing Duchamp’s legacy Caroline Cros (Curator with France’s National Museums and professor of Contemporary Art - Ecole du Louvre) said “he systematically reversed the relationship between the artist, the artwork and the public.” It also recalls for Thomas the legendary defining of Duchamp by Guillaume Apollinaire “Just as a work by Cimabue was paraded through the streets, our century has seen Blériot’s airplane, bearing the weight of humanity, of thousands of years of endeavour, and of necessary art triumphantly paraded through Paris to the Arts-et-Métiers museum. It will perhaps fall to an artist as free of aesthetic considerations and as concerned with energy as Marcel Duchamp to reconcile Art and the People.” The cabbage patch has arguably achieved much of what Apollinaire foresaw…
Giovanni continues… “Six months is how much time it bought: six months during which a delimited section of the city remained open to intervention and reinvention. .. there is the question of how to preserve the memory of the work: where is the archive, where are the curators that will ensure that information about events and projects such as this one are available to scholars, reporters, artists and activists? The documentation concerning the Cabbage Patch is not kept at Te Papa (it may be worth speculating as to why) or by any of Wellington’s universities, and for this post I have relied almost exclusively on Barry Thomas’ own archive and recollections. But personal networks and the efforts of individuals aren’t enough: sites of institutional memory are fundamental to preserve the genealogy of socio-political criticism and activism. There is a very plausible genealogy here, one that connects the movement against the extension of the motorway through Thorndon to the one against the Inner City bypass through Te Aro, but also the Springbok Tour protests and the Cuba Street Carnival, and the cabbage patch is likely linked in some way to all of them. Just as significant are the severed connections, for instance between the Cabbage Patch and Tao Wells’ Beneficiary’s Office – two works with much in common but sealed off from one another due to the lack of access to past local practice as a meaningful resource.” (our highlights). Add to this the now legendary occupation of Aro Park c. 1982) – which is now the most used park in the city.