Structures of Brick and Quiet Undertones: Considering Contemporary Christchurch

This essay was commissioned by Toi Moroki Centre of Contemporary Art (CoCA) in response to their 2016 survey exhibition Contemporary Christchurch and originally published on their blog in November 2016.

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Rob Hood, Erosion Problems II, (2016). Photo: Daniela Aebli 

Contemporary Christchurch is the inaugural iteration of a survey exhibition which aims to capture a moment or feeling of what art practice has been like in Ōtautahi in the past three years; CoCA plans to run this exhibition triennially during Director Paula Orrell’s Tenure.

Artists in this exhibition were suggested by a curatorial panel of artists and curators from the region, and then Paula Orrell approached the artists to discuss possible works. There is intentionally no unifying theme or aesthetic, and the artists included range in medium, generation, identity, and process. This, along with the fact that many works have been exhibited before, has drawn criticism. But there is a worth in exhibiting works that have been shown before, especially in post-quake Christchurch where exhibition spaces have been dispersed across the city and do not often draw large public crowds. There is also a worth in showing a diverse range of artists that don’t seem to sit together at first glance; in placing works next to each other or in the same space, you create a context; the works speak to, reflect off and relate to one another. Themes, commonalities, concepts and politics emerge. Even in this exhibition, with its wide range of artworks, artists with varying approaches to their practice, with different backgrounds and identities and artistic interests, the context becomes apparent.

The context of this city in 2016 is irremovable from earthquake recovery, but the tone of that context has moved from shock and mourning to exploring the potential of the rebuild as well as frustration with that process. In terms of art, there is plenty of opportunity for public work both temporary and permanent, but gallery and studio space is limited, especially for early-career artists. Leases on central spaces are at a premium, and the kind of cheap temporary lease due to an oncoming demolition – like we’ve seen at Snake Pit in Auckland, for example – do not exist. Spaces are either already demolished or too dangerous to use. This has necessarily changed how artists are working in Christchurch – there is a strong culture of collaboration, not only in creating art but in creating spaces to work and exhibit. Artists have had to make space work for them, and there has been a proliferation of art created in vacant spaces in the past few years. However, with both Christchurch Art Gallery and CoCA reopening, there is a sense of a return to the white cube, and the luxury of that context has become apparent. To me, a thriving art scene involves many spaces for students and recent graduates to exhibit, both by themselves and alongside established artists – and this remains difficult in Christchurch. By including younger emerging artists such as Nina Oberg Humphries, Ana Iti, and Daegan Wells in Contemporary Christchurch, Toi Moroki is continuing its historical mandate as the Canterbury Society of Arts of supporting local artists; encouraging and enabling an emerging artist scene to develop and flourish.  Placing these emerging artists as peers alongside more established artists such as Pauline Rhodes, Scott Flanagan, and Jacquelyn Greenbank not only gives them validity, but also allows for the works in the exhibition to speak cross-generationally.

The earthquake and rebuild process – ‘EQ art’, as I’ve been calling it – remains one of the most significant topics or concepts to work with. I personally was not living in Christchurch in the years immediately post-quake, but from what I have heard, there was understandably a deluge of work about the quakes and the recovery. This is still a running theme within the community, but focus has shifted to the rebuild, the recovery, and frustrations with the process.

The works in Contemporary Christchurch that engage with the quake also deal with other ideas, as well as interacting with the other, non-EQ artworks that surround them. I think this gives them depth and layers, and from what I have gathered speaking to artists and patrons that were in Christchurch for that flood of earthquake art, it seems to make them more interesting and relatable – they are not just about the quake.

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Louise Palmer’s 90 Canon (a series of empty rooms) (2016) (pictured above) is a good place to start. Her images of her own home, now demolished, with sculptural interventions throughout the architecture, reflects current media coverage of the recovery process – stories about the rebuild and EQC claims and bureaucratic frustrations. The interventions themselves reveal otherwise hidden layers that have become visible throughout the rebuild; pipes beneath the floor, for example. Her artist text that accompanies the works captures the feeling behind the work well:

For some time in Christchurch conversation would inevitably turn to our houses, structures of brick, concrete and timber, repositories of memory. Acronyms and codes signalled the extent of damage and whether to rebuild, repair, demo, restore. I carefully recorded every crack, every split, every broken piece of furniture, of crockery and glassware. I wrapped my grandfather’s shattered crystal glasses in newspaper and stored them in a box in the garage. Other boxes are now stacked in the garage of another house; the weight of things with which we surround ourselves, and which five years later are partly forgotten.

Daegan Wells’ work, Sutton’s Garden (2016) (detail pictured below) speaks of home and the rebuild process, but also of frustration. He has been collecting artifacts from the Red Zone through his sculptural and archival practice. Through this process he unwittingly came across W.A. Sutton’s former home and studio, one of the few buildings left standing in a large expanse of land that has been flattened and turned into an empty, grassed landscape. Like many other buildings in Christchurch, the home studio is trapped in conflict between the Earthquake Commission and Heritage New Zealand. The form of the work is almost in opposition to the frustrations it represents; calming footage and thoughtfully composed black and white silver gelatine prints of Sutton’s garden.

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Downstairs, in the lower gallery, Rob Hood has a different approach to the frustrations with the rebuild process. His work Erosion Problems II (2016) uses humour and play to express the absurdism in what many see as a ridiculously slow, bureaucratic process. The Banks Peninsula volcanic rock left sandwiched between a sack barrow and a cooling fan, a blue jacket or lab coat draped over it all speaks to forgetfulness, a nonsensical job left undone.

The specific use of volcanic rock speaks to another thread that runs through a number of works in the exhibition – the notion of earth, of land, of space. Louise Palmer’s text once again makes this explicit:

A core was drilled from the ground in front of and then behind the house… Sections of the strata were carefully recorded, numbered and placed into crisp white archive boxes. Topsoil, soft silt, clay, peat, firm silt, dense sand, coarse gravel. Layers of time, of history revealed.

Land as it relates to time and history relates heavily to the work of Ana Iti, whose piece First, they chose a name (2016) (pictured below) includes a piece of Halswell quarry stone. Stone from this quarry was integral to the construction of many early colonial buildings in Christchurch, many of which either did not survive the quake or have been demolished since; colonial architecture being one of the focusses of Ana’s recent body of work. The stone is engraved with the word ‘Karaitiana’, an early name for Christchurch, being a transliteration of the word Christchurch.

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Adjacent to this space and these works is one of Steve Carr’s two works in this exhibition, Bubble Cactus (2015). His works are unique here in that they are in totally separate spaces from one another; appropriate considering that while similar, they deal with slightly different concepts in different tones. Bubble Cactus is found footage from a Phantom HD camera, known for its capability for extremely high frame rates. The footage is of a cactus popping a bubble, stretched from 30 seconds out to 10 minutes and 42 seconds. Commentary on media and technology is a common motif in Carr’s work; this piece referencing film speed, linking to film and TV; for example nature documentaries speeding up growth of plants or decay of flesh, or sports events replaying and slowing down a moment to reveal the precise sequence of events. Carr ‘makes visible the invisible’, in this case literally, exploring how technology is used to reveal ‘intimate details of how the world works’.

Ana’s piece also works with the notion of making visible the invisible, questioning the politics and power of naming. The accompanying audio recording of the artist speaking goes into detail of how Christchurch was ‘named’ by colonists, beginning with the line “there is a power in naming things,” a concept that underpins the whole work. Ana aims to make visible the invisible by questioning the idea that a name is natural, apolitical. The power to name things rests within the dominant class – they name what is ‘other’; they came to this land and named what was already named.

Ana also emphasises the relationship between name and identity, particularly in the audio recording, speaking about her own family name: “Our name Iti doesn’t belong to us, but none the less we were given it and lived with it… / Our sister was an Iti and she died an Iti”. Her recent work at North Projects (1) as well as First, they chose a name explores the difficulty of navigating a Māori identity within Western colonial knowledge systems, made explicit once again in the audio: “How should you navigate identity when even your name is troubling?”

Underneath the concept of rebuild frustration in Wells’ install is another approach to his work, one of identity. Included in the install is one of Sutton’s portraits, Portrait of Peter Young (pictured below, installed at CoCA). Painted in 1955, it is one of his less significant works, resting on the wall of his home for 45 years before being bequeathed to Christchurch Art Gallery on his death. These are two reasons for its selection in this install – that it was easy to acquire on loan, and that it clearly had some personal significance to Sutton.

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Often referred to as a ‘constant bachelor’, there is the beginnings of a rumour of Sutton’s queerness, ‘bachelor’ being common code for queer men throughout history. Daegan is almost the sole perpetrator of this rumor, having his practice recently described in the Listener as a ‘queering of Sutton’s work’. During an exhibition at Blue Oyster about Sutton’s home, a friend of the artist suggested very subtly to his queerness; the Christchurch Art Gallery archive of Sutton’s work and belongings contains many photos of half naked men.

The queer aspect of the install is intentionally only a quiet undertone, reflecting Sutton’s possible closeted identity; considering the historical context and homosexuality being a crime for much of his life, there is a tricky question of ethics to the work. Like Ana says, there is a power in naming, a power in acknowledging and recognising our queer forebears. But also there is a question of whether it is appropriate to place a label on someone who did not outwardly identify with that label. So, the portrait is included but no mention is made to the possible queer history, and to many – initially myself included – it flies under the radar (2).

The wall text for Wells’ work refers to the red zone land as ‘unoccupied’, an interesting choice of wording considering the install is right next to Ana’s work, so heavily steeped in post-colonial politics. This creates an interesting sense of tension between the two pieces. Ana herself draws a strong connection between this tension and both artists’ practices:

“the idea that my practice and work exists in this post-colonial landscape seems fundamental but I’m not sure that that idea is pervasive with other practitioners or even CoCA as an institution. Both our works delve into personal territories where queer histories are often swept under the rug, which is the same ‘out of site/sight, out of mind’ rhetoric that people have about our colonial history.” (3)

Nina Oberg Humphries, recently studying at Ilam, also explores identity in her contribution, a series of photographic portraits of her family with high gloss, sculptural frames (pictured below). The choice to show photographs is interesting, considering she majored in sculpture. Being of Cook Island and Pākehā descent, her work combines traditional Polynesian art forms with elements of pop culture. The frames are a good example of this, being a pine base with traditional adornments that could be read as kitsch: plastic flowers and palm trees covered in resin and automotive paint, giving that poppy, high gloss finish. Alongside this look though, they have all been hand cast by the artist herself – they are unique artworks themselves. This combination of tradition with pop could be read as a commentary on the commercialisation and exploitation of Pacific cultures; the selling of kitschy commercialised versions of traditional materials being a good example.

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In the same space as these works is a sculptural piece by Pauline Rhodes, Towards the Light (2016) (detail pictured below). Known for two forms of environmental sculptural work; outdoor minimal interventions in the landscape and indoor installations in gallery spaces, her work in this exhibition is the latter. The two forms are linked, however, the indoor works being conceptually related and often referencing the outdoor works. Her works are simple and elegant, the minimal elements responding and referring to places or things, only ever lightly and delicately touching one another. This simple, elegant form ties in nicely with Ana’s adjacent work, also characterised by being simple but striking. The series of rods in Towards the Light point towards the north end of the gallery, filled with natural light, in which a large bundle of indigenous vegetation is piled; yet more rods, some wrapped with text and musical notation, are stacked on this pile and point upwards towards the gallery’s ceiling window. The use of indigenous vegetation is significant, especially in this space, especially being adjacent to the work of Ana and Nina – it feels referential to this specific land and space, referential to indigenous politics and notions of (de)colonisation.

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Land and nature is also apparent in Rob Hood’s other works, Coupland’s Waterfall (2016) and Donald’s Pew (2016), moving back to the lower gallery again. The two works deal with parallel binaries – that of nature vs society and object vs art object. Coupland’s Waterfall is film and audio of the artificially constructed waterfall on the outside of Coupland’s Bakery in Hornby, almost an iconic site in Christchurch. The work questions how we delineate between nature and society – is this completely artificial waterfall and fish pond ‘natural’? What does it mean to have such an ‘object’ created by a business? The audio exemplifies this questioned binary well, including both the sound of water falling and the adjacent road and pedestrian crossing. The second work here, Donald’s Pew, questions the second binary: the opposition of ‘art object’ and ‘object’. Referential to Donald Judd’s work around furniture and objects, Hood realised while making both art and objects that he treated them both the same, beginning to question what delineated an art object from an object. The way gallery visitors treat Donald’s Pew highlights this; despite it being created as an ‘art object’ and being listed in the wall text as a work, people sit on it in order to watch the video work.

Questions of object run through the exhibition, returning again to Louise Palmer’s text:

The house is small and has no passages, no corridors, there’s a fluid movement from room to room. With doors open Ruby runs a circle around the house and I follow her, through each room, and around the furniture. The objects in these rooms define the space. They are markers around which we navigate our daily lives. The spaces of things. The weight of things.

This is an interesting point of reference from which to read Louise’s photos: the rooms in the photos are voided of objects, of markers of domesticity and personal identity.

Also in the lower gallery is another work that deals with object referencing identity – Jacquelyn Greenbank’s Squatch Poles (2015). With a history of working with typically ‘feminine’ craft such as knitting, these totems are comprised of found objects, recycled materials, and craft processes. The found objects are covered with leather from jackets found in op shops, speaking to a specific era, a specific kind of person, even a specific scent. Throughout her practice Greenbank has used craft to create objects, such as her series of crocheted constructions of 1950s household objects, or her 2004 piece State Carriage. The work approaches identity and craft processes with humour and a kitsch aesthetic, poking fun not only at the traditionally domestic medium but also at the identities both the medium and object signify. Squatch Poles in particular seems to reference the late 20th century Kiwi bogan aesthetic – faded leather jackets and home constructions. This theme of kitsch humour dominates the lower gallery; it is characterised by works that play, works that are humorous and absurd.

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Steve Carr’s second work, Watermelon (2015) (above) plays into this notion really well. It is primarily a work of suspense and tension, organised around an absurd act – placing rubber bands around a watermelon until it pops and snaps in half. It has its origins in a commonplace Japanese children’s game which Carr restaged in a residency in Sapporo, Japan. The same act was streamed live on BuzzFeed recently to a live audience of 807,000 viewers; the video has since been watched over ten million times. This formalised, gallery version removes the ability to self-satisfy by skipping to the end, increasing the tension and suspense. Carr’s motif of media commentary runs through this work too, speaking to the tension we find in film and TV – we must put the effort into this piece by patiently waiting the full 33 minutes for a split second of satisfaction. Critic Francis McWhannell, in a discussion on the New Perspectives exhibition at Artspace this year, said of video works: “video art has to work very hard to be interesting, because there’s this huge amount of often very good material available outside the art world.” Audience response to Watermelon signals its success in this aspect: on opening night there was a constant large crowd around the piece that would disperse once the watermelon popped and almost immediately re-form in the minutes after. It is an absurd act surrounded by so much tension that gives so much satisfaction, no matter how short, that people are drawn to it and compelled to stay, lest they miss that split second of satisfaction.

This could be read as a form of conditioning and a commentary on that conditioning we experience from media and technology – a concept that is explicitly present in James Oram’s video installation Pavlov’s Pockets. Simple in concept, it is a pair of denim pockets – a material consistent through the variety of works he has presented, including the bean bag that Pavlov’s Pockets rests on – that vibrate, as if phones are in them, often causing gallery goers to check their own phones, a Pavlovian conditioned reaction to the sound of a mobile notification.

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Commentary on technology is a thread common to multiple works in Contemporary Christchurch. Scott Flanagan’s Wild South – Young Mountains (2016) (above) is another example, a significant work both in scale and in concept, drawing together many inspirations, themes, and theories. It is a large-scale wall of woven VHS tape paired with a sculptural installation, also consisting mostly of woven VHS. It has its origins in a feminist history of technology, focussing on women’s involvement in the development of technology, starting with Ada Lovelace (4).

It was this history that led Flanagan to weaving – first, small scale paper weavings, then small VHS weavings, and then over the decades variation in scale. They are installed now in a collaborative process – linking back to the history of collaboration in weaving and craft, typically associated with women and femininity.

Weaving also links to technology in the history of the Luddites – a term that now refers to people who are outdated and anachronistic, hating technology for no real good reason, but originally referred to a group who could be described as union activists. They were concerned about the introduction of mechanical looms and the threat they posed to the jobs of workers – a theme that is recurring today with rising automation in factories and other industries.

Wild South – Young Mountains also has a political drive behind it, though not immediately obvious. The paper weaving that is part of the sculptural installation is made up of copies of New Zealand’s anti-terrorism legislation; laws that Flanagan finds absurd and unnecessary, linking through to Ana’s work and the (de)colonial politic behind it. The paper weaving also has an almost hidden connection to quake-related art, having been stuck in a basement gallery after the earthquake stuck. When retrieved a few months later, rats had eaten holes into it. The weaving has intentionally not been repaired.

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In the same room and on a similar scale, Emma Fitts’ installation Fit-out for Olivia Spencer Bower (2015) (detail pictured above) also works with craft and the notion of information as material. It is a work that seems driven by feminist thought around craft and feminine labour, domesticity, and family, linking it to other works in the exhibition – in particular, Greenbank around craft, Palmer around domesticity, and Humphries around family. It is a huge series of pieces, hanging from the ceiling of the main upstairs gallery, the first thing you see as you walk up the stairs or exit the elevator. The fabrics are hung in a way that aligns them with the architectural plan of Bower’s own home, referencing not only the specific building but the neo-brutalist architectural style it and many other buildings in Christchurch were constructed in. The house was commissioned to accommodate a female artist living alone, a nice parallel to Daegan’s work and Sutton’s bachelor home studio. Grass mats have been hung on the front of these fabric constructions, almost obscuring the front, as Melanie Oliver points out in her essay on this work in its first exhibited iteration at Ilam School of Fine Arts. By doing so, along with the way they are hung, Fitts, like Flanagan, Wells, and Iti, makes a comment on history; specifically how ‘a version of history sits behind every image’ (5). Fitts disrupts the notion of a simple viewpoint, both materially in that this work must be walked around to be viewed completely and metaphorically in that there are always alternative histories.

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Right next to this installation is another series that works with size, texture, and layering – Tjalling de Vries’ series of cartoonish, gesturely, and experimental paintings Copy Card (pictured above). Coming from a multidisciplinary background, these works are almost defined by studio experimentation. Having painted on canvas and bits of billboard in his recent body of work, these pieces are on stretched translucent linen, intentionally chosen to be able to work with layering. The figures present in these works are cartoonish, drawing a link to Oram’s other pieces in the room downstairs, paintings and sculptural pieces that draw from definite cartoonish origins. De Vries also works with some of his own father’s cartoon designs, drawing a thread between this series and other works in the exhibition that deal with family, such as Humphries and, opposite this series, Tim J. Veling.

Veling has exhibited a number of photographs taken from the seriesD,P,O (2014-15) (installation shot below). They are intensely personal works, capturing moments spent with his father after a terminal diagnosis. They are a document of the time spent from the diagnosis to his passing, twice a day family visits. Originally presented in a short-run artist book, Veling developed over 100 rolls of film. The processing of the images was also intensely personal, using a magnifying loop to find fine focus on his father’s eyes.

Veling also presented a text, a conversation from him to his deceased father:

I kissed you on the forehead then traced the shape of a crucifix with my thumb, just like you’d always do to me when saying goodbye. I held your hand and said it was okay to pass if you wanted. With that, you drew your last breath.

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Veling’s work has strong parallels to Palmer’s adjacent series: both are about a personal tragedy, out of control. Palmer’s work investigates the intersection of sculptural conventions with the personal underpinnings of an artwork, and as such the medium becomes important. Conventions of both sculpture and photography mean the latter can easier be more personal in its motivations and presentation; photography is often a more personal and intimate medium than sculpture, and these works together signify that very well.

So, despite not having a curatorial intent to create a unifying theme, the works in Contemporary Christchurch reveal similarities in practice, approach, concept, and artistic interest. Perhaps more so than if the panel and curator went out looking for works that would fit together in some unifying manner, the exhibition reveals significant commonalities that shed light on what contemporary art practice is like in Christchurch in 2016. A strong first installment of this triennial exhibition, it will be interesting to see which commonalities remain in three years time and what new ones emerge.


(1) North Projects is an artist-led gallery space that ran from August 2014 until closing at the end of September this year. Ana’s recent show there, Is the past a foreign country?, came from the same body of research as First, they chose a name and contains the same materials (Halswell quarry and spoken and written text).

(2)  The ethics of this came into play in writing this essay, as well – considering it is such an undertone, is it acceptable or even necessary to bring it up in discussion? After talking to Daegan and CoCA curators about it, and thinking not only on Daegan’s work but on Ana’s assertion that naming has power I decided there was more worth in acknowledging it despite the discomfort some in Aotearoa’s art institutions may feel.

(3) from correspondence with the artist, 2016

(4) As the tale goes, Ada spent time around mechanical looms, driven by punchcards to generate incredible patterns – supposedly this influence led her to the realisation that Charles Babbage’s Analytical Machine could be used for purposes other than crunching numbers, that the zeroes and ones of the binary system could be translated to or representational of other, more abstracted concepts.

(5) Melanie Oliver, Silk, linen, leather, denim, grass, cotton, felt. (2015)


This commissioned text is by Jennifer Katherine Shields, an artist, academic, and writer living in Ōtautahi Christchurch. Both her academic and artistic practices examine queer theory, history, sociology, and bodily issues.


Photo Credits: Daniela Aebli

weaponised abjection & queer identity / visibility / existence

written for a pride exhibition at RM gallery entitled ‘a bone, a flesh, a daddy’s nest’ featuring sorawit songsataya and bronte perry. this text was written to accompany bronte’s work and was re-exhibited at the christchurch pride art show 2017.

In her 2015 Sociology of Popular Culture course, lecturer Dr. Ciara Cremin began to express a non-normative gender presentation and attended lectures in lipstick and heels. While the class attendees themselves had very little obvious reaction to this, Cremin talked about the response of some colleagues and, more importantly, passers-by. While she restricted this presentation to the university campus – due to safety concerns – she nevertheless experienced people doing double-takes at her as they passed by. She mentioned this explicitly in a lecture and related it to normative assumptions being challenged. As Cremin was wearing clothes typically deemed those of a woman but did not otherwise fit the societal standard of “a woman”, this perceived dissonance meant people had to challenge their initial assumptions of her and her gender.

This is a phenomenon most, if not all, trans people experience, and on the scale of public reactions, a double take is significantly mild. Most experience harassment, slurs, and in the case of trans women of colour more than any, physical violence. It is a result of the normative confronting the othered, experiencing the abject as a physical reality.

While being visibly queer can be a threat to ourselves, it is also a threat to the normative. To those for whom the abject, the other – queerness – is part of another world, one that does not involve them; to those who believe queer and trans people are not a part of their lives, not people they would ever encounter, being visibly queer is a challenge. Forcing people to recognise our abjectness, our queerness, challenges their stable, normative world. For those for whom events such as the attack in Pulse nightclub is an attack on “all of us” or “every American,” for those who “just don’t know” if it was motivated by queerphobia, active, vocal, and visible queerness is a political and personal challenge.

In a world where, for many of our most vulnerable, being visibly queer and trans is a death threat, the responsibility to embody this challenge may fall to the more privileged. There is a responsibility in the queer community not to succumb to respectability politics, to conform ourselves to heteronormative society. The gay marriage movement fell to this conformity, simply expanding marriage instead of providing the rights and privilege that accompany marriage to those who are unmarried, unable, or unwilling to marry. Hate crime legislation also fell to this conformity, expanding the carceral state and filling prisons with more black and brown bodies instead of taking steps to dismantle it. So, too, was the push for inclusion in the military flawed, similarly expanding imperial forces that put millions of innocent lives at risk. Respectability politics are inherently humanist; an ideology that centres the ‘human’ and the normative. Abjection is post/trans/inhuman, and destroys that privileged centralisation. If humanism threatens us while forgetting us, erasing our histories, experiences, and bodies, then abjection forcibly and violently centres us, staring with a billion unblinking eyes and screaming with a chorus of voices:

W E  A R E  H E R E

If being abject is distant, is other, is not something normative society wishes to face, then weaponising that abjection, emphasising it and making it impossible to ignore, is a radical act. We wear the abject like an armour, refusing respectability politics and the normalising process. In this work, the abject becomes personal and weaponised. We are brought from the ‘other’ world where normative society relegates us, and into the world they occupy, in a physical and confronting manner. The abject is here, it is in your face, all around you, and it has a body. The space it occupies is one which disturbs identity, system, and order. It does not respect borders, positions, or rules. Parts of the artist’s body normally ruled as disgusting line the walls, creating discomfort, unease, and repulsion. But this piece is as much about your body as it is about the artist’s. It is impossible to distance yourself from the reality of the body; this is a body labelled as other, different, abject, though it may share many characteristics with yours. Let it challenge you and question you, and avoid the urge to distance yourself.

This is an abject realm the artist, myself, and many others occupy; it is not yours, but ours. It is a space where, as Tame Iti said: “No one can tell you that you are not important and your experience does not matter and if they do, I challenge them to say it to your face where they can see your eyes and feel your breath.” Not everyone is meant to understand or relate to it, and it is not intended to make trans narratives and experiences easier for a cisgender and heterosexual audience to consume. It is intended to repel, and if it does, you must question why you feel repulsed.

Antonyms suggested by dictionaries for ‘abject’ may highlight this repulsion: the non-abject is apparently commendable, noble, excellent, exalted, magnificent, and most of all worthy and proud. These are things normative society does not want us to be, at least not without conforming to their standards. This is especially notable in times of turmoil and conflict; during the AIDs crisis, the ‘good’ queers were those who were healthy, ‘clean’, and in long-term, monogamous relationships. Recently a man was arrested on route to LA Pride with a backpack full of weaponry and explosives. People regularly ask “why is there no straight pride parade?” while police forces attend our own parades, arresting queer sex workers and protesters and other abject undesirables. Trans women get told “wow! I wouldn’t even have known you weren’t a girl if you hadn’t said anything!” as if congratulating them. Trans people get refused healthcare unless they conform to heteropatriarchy and its standards – trans women must be feminine and fucking cis dudes if they wish to begin HRT. Trans men must be hypermasculine in every meaning of the word – including the toxic elements that cause violence to so many of us. Humanist respectability politics cause violence to and within our community.

Abjection is a weapon of resistance. I am queer, trans, and crazy. I am abject, but I, too, am divine; I, too, am exalted and magnificent and worthy and proud.

The Aesthetics of Video Games

The Smithsonian American Art Museum recently held an exhibition entitled “The Art of Video Games” – an exhibition exploring the “forty-year evolution of video games as an artistic medium”[1]. In no way is the thought of regarding video games as art a new one, but this is certainly the first time it has been awarded such publicity. For decades the gaming community, both developers and players, have accepted video games as a form of art, but the concept has been largely ignored by aestheticians and society as a whole – by these, video games have been regarded simply as entertainment, a way to spend time.

At first glance, this view on games seems rather reasonable, no? After all, they are the mass-produced fodder of basement-dwellers, aren’t they? Not so. Take a closer look and think – even on the simplest, most inarguable level, video games are at least a container for art – in them we see all forms of traditional art – visual artworks, aural works, and narrative pieces, for example. These we all regard on their own as art forms, but when combined into the medium of video games, we seem to disregard that.

Cube, a New Zealand-developed game for the PSP, is simplistic – the player tilts and rotates the point of view as a stick figure walks from one side of a map to another. But the game utilises traditional forms of art – specifically, visual, and can be read as an exploration of form and line. The maps are made up of cubes composed purely of line, and as the changing perspective aligns blocks in a purely visual element, they become physically aligned, and the figure is able to walk across them. The soundtrack to Cube contains music by New Zealand band Pitch Black – music that is ambient and electronic, adding to rather than detracting from the experience. While this game may not be considered a work of art, perhaps, it is certainly a container for, at the very least, an exploration into form and line.

But it goes further than games being simply a container for traditional forms of art. The aesthetics of video games is becoming more and more a common topic for debate and discussion amongst aesthetic philosophers. The arguments range from the simplistic, hosted on blogs and published by gamers proud of their medium, to the complicated and literary PhD theses penned by professors at various universities. The gamers argue in terms of the combination of graphics, sound, and storyline, whereas the philosophers argue in terms of advanced aesthetic and philosophical theories. Both ends of the scale present valid and interesting points while aiming at different readerships.

Dylan Woodbury, of the former group, begins by defining the “main criteria (sic) of an art form – it must interact with a person’s deep self, including both senses and emotions, in a way specific to that medium”[2]. He goes on to argue that while most games do not achieve this criterion, a few do, referencing the arcade classic, Missile Command, in which the player is defending cities from nuclear attack. At first glance, I personally would not have considered Missile Command a game worthy of art status, but upon deeper inspection, I agree with Woodbury’s point. The game is simplistic, but poses a moral dilemma that most players seem to be unaware of – the player is given three bases and must defend six cities. The player is left to decide how to play – do they value one base, needed to protect the cities, over a city and the lives contained therein? Do they try to save everyone – a much harder challenge – or choose to protect a one or a few cities? He claims Missile Command “has a lot to say about the destruction of war and inevitability of death, all though play, not graphics, sound, or story”. In this way, the game transcends the traditional art forms contained within and has a message created by the gameplay itself – which links to the personal definition of art that I hold – a piece of art is something that is either created with the intent to have some meaning or message or has the ability to be imbued with meaning and has the potential to elicit a response from the viewer, be it emotional, mental, spiritual, or visceral.

Most of the philosophical end of the argument is not based on whether or not the games have meaning or whether they elicit responses from players, but on the technicalities and aesthetic theories regarding traditional art – specifically, regarding passivity versus interaction and authorial intent.

Traditionally, viewers of artworks have been passive and have no control over the piece, maintaining authorial control. Roger Ebert, film critic, in 2005 stated that “video games by nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control”[3]. However, in the post-modernist, post-structuralist world we live in, authorial control is no longer as much of an issue – the viewer’s interpretation and derived meaning is equally important, if not more important than the meaning intended by the author, if such a meaning even exists.

If we are to examine video games as a form of art, we cannot simply adapt an existing aesthetic. When asked if video games would ever have their Moby Dick or Citizen Kane, Henry Jenkins, a prominent game theorist at MIT, responded “My first response is to ask whether the analogy is the right one. If the question is, ‘Will video games become a serious art form in its own right?’ I think the answer is inevitably yes. Whether the analogy is to literature or to dance or to cinema or to theater or any number of other media, it’s hard to know what the right approximation is. In a way, to ask the question that way is like asking ‘Will cinema become theater?’”[4]. As such, the answer is to develop an aesthetic that relates to and pays attention to the intrinsic qualities of the medium. One of these qualities is interactivity. Games are not created for the spectatorial element, they are created to be played. Therefore, there is no way we can approach the topic of video games as art with an aesthetic that focuses primarily on spectatorship and passivity – it must make interactivity central to the theory.

Interactivity is, by definition, essential to video games – it is a very part of the medium itself. A player interacts physically with the game via some form of controller, be it a keyboard and mouse, joystick, multi-buttoned controller, or even a camera or remote requiring the player to simulate the way they want their character to move, and the game responds in some way – most commonly, the player’s avatar or character moving. In a similar way, the game interacts with the player – a character in-game gets injured, and the controller vibrates, in some cases simulating a heartbeat. The interaction is beyond the physical, though. It is not an uncommon sight to see gamers playing a game involving driving or racing emulating the movement of their vehicle by rotating or tilting their controller – an action prevalent even before developers included technology to enable this as a legitimate form of control. Whilst playing horror-based games, players may lean in toward the screen in intense focus, and jump back in legitimate fright when something pops out at them. This back-and-forth between player and game – or viewer and art – is simply an interesting observation until one links it to John Dewey’s philosophical theories. Dewey, a naturalist, philosophised that there is no breach between self and world – “The world we have experienced becomes an integral part of the self that acts and is acted upon in further experience. In their physical occurrence, things and events pass and are gone. But something of their meaning and value is retained as an integral part of the self. Through habits formed in intercourse with the world, we also in-habit the world. It becomes a home and the home is always part of our every experience”[5]. Philip Deen explains this relevance better than I ever could: “Novels allow access to the inner lives of characters in a way that other media do not. Music and dance evince a specific bodily response”[6]. Deen goes on to reference John Lanchester and his opinion that video games surpass other forms of media: “The interiority of the novel isn’t there, but the sense of having passed into an imagined world is”[7].

According to Dewey, experience is both precarious and stable. Deen states that “Absent either, growth is not possible. Rather, growth occurs only in dynamic equilibrium as old habits are found inadequate to novel situations and new ones must be developed. Interaction is marked by periods of disharmony and re-harmonization where we fall out of habitual relation with the world and have to develop new ways of fruitfully transacting with it”[8]. The interactivity in games exhibits this rhythm of experience being precarious and stable, and it is in this way that the interactivity allows for authorial intent. The author of a game will write a major plotline, the story itself, and in doing so, they constrict the player to a specific series of events, but it is a series of events that is interactive – quests or missions may be optional, there may be multiple plotlines or side-plots that a player can choose between. Ultimately, a game is, as Deen puts it, a “structured interaction”.

This directly refutes Ebert’s claim that video games may not be considered art due to a lack of authorial control. It is evident that while the player’s interaction may influence the game, the author still has the control and intent, be it in perhaps a less traditional form.

Dewey’s theory of the lack between self and world is also relevant to the consideration of video games as art in relation to aesthetic distance – the concept of the gap between the viewer’s conscious reality and the fictional reality contained within a piece of art. It is arguable that, due to the back-and-forth of interaction between game and player and the responses elicited by the game and, indeed, the player, that video games have the highest potential for a close aesthetic distance. Aesthetic distance is integral to the aesthetic of video games not only because of this potential, but because it, in return, assists in interactivity. The more a player is engrossed in a game – ie, the closer aesthetic distance a game has – the more likely the player is to respond to events within the game. If a game as achieved a close aesthetic distance, a player is more likely to, for example, jump in response to events on screen, or feel an emotional attachment to a character.

However, currently, many games fall flat when it comes to achieving aesthetic distance due to a concept called “ludonarrative dissonance”. The term, coined by Clint Hocking in reference to the game Bioshock[9], refers to conflicting concepts, or dissonance, between gameplay and the narrative within a game. This dissonance violates the aesthetic distance, pulling the player out of the reality of the game. Since Hocking’s article coining the term, many other bloggers have written similar articles, pointing out the ludonarrative dissonance in other games such as the Mass Effect series and Max Payne.

The ludonarrative dissonance in BioShock is due to two differing choices offered in the game – one in the ludic element, and one in the narrative element. The ludic choice is one that is common in single-player games due to the majority of the other characters in play being in conflict with the main character – ‘do what is best for me without consideration for others’. This choice aligns with the values of Randian rational self-interest, an underlying value of the game itself. The game’s narrative offers another choice – to help Atlas and progress further in the game. Unfortunately, this does not align with the self-interest clause – helping someone else is not a part of Randian rational self-interest. More importantly, the narrative does not offer a choice – the player is constrained by the narrative of the game to help Atlas, and thus, the narrative is at odds with the gameplay. This is a major and complex example of ludonarrative dissonance, and perhaps is one that the average gamer would not notice. There are other, more obvious examples, however – more often encountered in games with free-roam elements, where the narrative is not necessarily strictly linear. Commonly referenced are games such as Grand Theft Auto 4 – the main character does not kill or hurt anyone he does not have to in the game’s cutscenes, but within play, the moral compass defined by the designers spins wildly as the player, if they so wish, kills and commits crime wantonly.

According to Hocking, and undoubtedly other, non-philosopher gamers, ludonarrative dissonance is the last barrier between games and art status. Hocking claims that while Bioshock is not the video game medium’s Citizen Kane, it shows us “how close we are to achieving that milestone. BioShock reaches for it, and slips. But we leave our deepest footprints when we pick ourselves up from a fall. It seems to me that it will take us several years to learn from BioShock’s mistakes and create a new generation of games that do manage to successful (sic) marry their ludic and narrative themes into a consistent and fully realized whole”[10].

It is clear that interaction is integral to the aesthetic of video games, and there is no way that can change; it is their nature. But passivity and authorial control is no longer an issue – and not only in terms of post-modernism – while games are interactive, an author is still able to have their control; in fact, it is just as integral as the interactivity itself. As Jonathan Wilson, yet another blogger, points out, a game that has infinite capacity for interaction and freedom, in the current gaming world, would be an impossibility – “how would you frame or sell a game without any story framing, with no showing of who the bad guys and good guys are? Being able to create a story that does not contradict itself when placed into the hands of someone who could play the same section as everyone else yet experience something different?”[11]
Video games without interactivity is an impossibility – and, ironically, without interactivity and the resulting aesthetic distance, video games would probably not have come this far in terms of artistic status. As Aaron Smuts, philosopher, puts it, “video games are possibly the first concreative, mechanically reproduced form of art: they are mass artworks shaped by audience input”[12].


[2] Woodbury, Dylan. (2011) “Defining the Art of Video Games”, http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/DylanWoodbury/20110308/89112/Defining_the_Art_of_Video_Games.php

[3] Ebert, Roger. (2005) “Answer Man” Chicago Sun Times. November 27, 2005. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/section?category=ANSWERMAN&date=20051127 Retrieved February 9, 2010.

Ebert, Roger. (2007) “Games as Art: Ebert vs. Barker” Chicago Sun Times Online. July 21, 2007. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070721/COMMENTARY/70721001 Retrieved February 9, 2010.

[4] Vitka, William. (2006) “Will Video Games Ever Have Their ‘Moby Dick’ or ‘Citizen Kane’?” CBS News Online, March 23, 2006.

[5] Dewey, John. (1934) Art as Experience from The Collected Works of John Dewey. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University.

[6] Deen, Philip. (2011) Interactivity, Inhabitation, and Pragmatist Aesthetics. Game Studies, http://gamestudies.org/1102/articles/deen

[7] Lanchester, John. (2009) “Is it Art?” London Review of Books. 31.1 (January 1, 2009): 18-20.

[8] Deen, Philip. (2011) Interactivity, Inhabitation, and Pragmatist Aesthetics. Game Studies, http://gamestudies.org/1102/articles/deen

[9] Hocking, Clint. (2007) “Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock”. ClickNothing, http://clicknothing.typepad.com/click_nothing/2007/10/ludonarrative-d.html

[10] Hocking, Clint. (2007) “Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock”. ClickNothing, http://clicknothing.typepad.com/click_nothing/2007/10/ludonarrative-d.html

[11] Wilson, Jonathan. (2012) “Why the Ludonarrative Dissonance is Video Games Biggest Challenge”. The Play Vault, http://theplayvault.com/wp/2012/04/30/why-the-ludonarrative-of-dissonance-is-video-games-biggest-challenge/

[12] Smuts, Aaron. (2005) “Video Games and the Philosophy of Art”. Aesthetics Online, http://aesthetics-online.org/articles/index.php?articles_id=26