Discussion notes: What is 19 Tory St, why is it here?
22/5/12: Ben Knight and Richard Bartlett (from 19 Tory St), Sophie Jerram (Letting Space) and Dick Whyte (Artist, Teacher, Aro Valley pundit) fronted an informal discussion about art, politics, and access to space.
Ben opened with an introduction to Concerned Citizens, the collective behind 19 Tory St. Concerened Citizens started at a Garrett St address off Cuba St where the residents hosted punk shows. Soon these turned into shows that benefited particular causes, which then broadened to include art as well as music. A show to raise awareness about Operation 8 led to more public engagement and attempts at mass media exposure. The lesson was obvious: the media are much more receptive to ‘performance art’ than protest; the arts ‘frame’ seems to be a safe zone for productive critical engagement on all kinds of issues that would otherwise be consigned as ‘radical’.
Rich followed up with his experience in the Occupy movement, namely the power of direct democracy to generate astonishingly positive outcomes, or heart-breakingly negative ones if it is not properly facilitated. Taking that lesson and those from Concerned Citizens at Garrett St and applying it at 19 Tory St: an experiment in just how participatory and democratic can you make a community venue, while maintaining sustainability. Part of that experiment is a piece of software being developed by some Tory St’ers and others called Loomio. Our process: anyone can submit a proposal for an event to be held at 19 Tory St. The proposal goes into Loomio where it is discussed by the 13 admin team members, who have the opportunity to say yes or no. The intention is to gradually increase the number of people participating in the decisions, eventually matching the size of our Facebook group (currently 750+).
Sophie then gave a quick history of Letting Space: a series of arts projects in unoccupied commercial sites with Mark Amery. They are interested in the question of how to present commercial sites as an alternative to the profit paradigm, arguing that they are useful in social and community ways without necessarily having to glean a profit. They developed a reputation among building owners for putting on good art shows that were relatively unobtrusive, which lead to Michael Baker (owner of 19 Tory St) approaching Sophie to offer his vacant premises for the use of some arts project. Would like to secure funding to make this brokerage process more official, and coach someone into a paid role of matching artists to unused space.
The mention of funding highlighted the difference between ‘public art’ and ‘community art’, and raised the question of why ‘community’ is perceived to be inferior to ‘art’. Jon from 19 Tory St suggested that developing a sustainable supportive productive expressive community is the greatest art project we can undertake. The experimental nature of the project is very artistic, regardless of the details of any one event or another taking place within the gallery.
This also raised the inevitable question of how art can be valued: i.e. how much do we care if it is good or not? There is a perception that ‘community art’ is held up to less scrutiny and tends towards mediocrity, i.e. crap art that doesn’t communicate much of anything. The counter view is that we live in a culture with far too much emphasis on shame, which prevents people from expressing themselves for fear that it their output is not going to be ‘good’ enough. The antidote we hope to develop at 19 Tory St is a culture where anyone feels free to express themselves within the community, but that the community will supportively critique that expression with the aim of increasing communicability.
Dick Whyte’s first input was to question the understanding of common space as something that came about independently of other private property rights. There was strong debate about whether common space and private space were predicated on one another and in who’s interest these common spaces had traditionally been run. Dick noted the names of a number of fore-runners to 19 Tory St: The Space in Newtown; 91 Aro St, a small community focused gallery; Space Thing on Adelaide Road; Freds of Frederick St. He noted that all of these locations have used the word ‘space’ or the physical address in their name. He questioned why there was this focus on ‘space’ over ‘place’.
A number of members of the group tried to postulate the difference between these spatial concepts. Richard Keys and Murdoch and a few others made reference to the Sun Ra 1974 film Space is the Place, which resonated with the cosmic imperative behind many of the noted shared spaces. Caitlyn talked about how social geographers deal with this issue. Jonny mentioned the difference between the way space is used in art galleries, but room and place are used for more musical or residential situations. The name ’19 Tory St’ was explained as speaking to the temporary nature of the gallery. Ben noted that it had not been chosen for any particular reason beyond the facebook group choosing it. Brandel suggested that elevating space over place is about elevating the unresolved potential of an area.
A new discussion began about whether the project at 19 Tory St was original in its aims or whether the lineage of other spaces were essentially the same idea. Some people suggested that there are always limitations on the number of people willing to become enthusiastic about a shared space and a limit to the number of people who would attend these events. Others suggested that there was something more original about the 19 Tory space/place whether that be in the breadth of the organisational project, or the scope of the events on offer.
There was a general agreement that projects with similar ideas have been going on forever. As long as there is a community willing to create, there will be a place for them. As such, 19 Tory St needs to recognise our roots. Part of this is recognising our unique position in a market that has constricted due to economic and earthquake concerns.
The evening ended with a discussion of the three elemental, practical issues: time, space and money.
Space: Members of the administrative group wanted to spread the word that events, and even the space, are easy to set up, that anyone can do it, and if one falls over or you miss it, then it is easy to start again. The processes for organising the space to run smoothly can be copied and exist at a meta-level to the actual space.
Time: Michael Baker, the owner of 19 Tory St, was reported to have said that he would like to see this become a more permanent fixture. There were general murmurs that many participants were attracted to the temporary nature of the place as it gave a sense of urgency and necessity.
Money: decommodification was considered to be a virtue of the place, though there is a need for some income to cover the weekly toilet expenses (approx $46) and our basic catering for events. A compromise was envisaged by relying on Koha (you pay what you think it is worth). Rich closed by noting that the phrasing of the cost of an early gig “$5, but nobody turned away” seemed perfect.