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UP DOWN UNDER
London based public art organisation UP Projects have just returned home from New Zealand where they took their Portavilion concept down under for the first time, to collaborate with Auckland based artists Cut Collective and the Splore Festival at Tapapakanga Regional Park. Artist, curator and street art expert Cedar Lewisohn questions this complex collaboration with the Southern Hemisphere through a six-way 'skype-a-thon' with UP Project's founder and curator Emma Underhill in London, Jasper Middelton, architect in Paris, Ross Liew and Gary Yong from Cut Collective in Auckland and Mark Osborne representing the Splore Festival in Auckland New Zealand.


Cedar Lewisohn: what is Cut Collective?
Cut Collective – Ross Liew : Cut Collective is an art collective that met through doing street art. we’ve formalised a collaborative relationship that has taken us on a path to the point we are at now. It was a very loose collaboration in the early days and we’ve now moved to a model where it’s very hard to separate the individual from the collective.
Cut Collective – Gary Yong: We constantly try to put a balance between making our own artwork and commission jobs. We do exhibitions and projects such as the Portavilion Splore. These are the things that we totally enjoy

CL: Emma, what is UP Projects?
Emma Underhill: We describe our work as operating like a gallery without walls. A lot of what we do is about encouraging public participation and engagement.
CC RL: That’s very much in line with what Cut Collective is all about. The very essence of us is an art collective that believes in accessibility of art. It is all about cultivating relationships within our community, that isn’t just an art community but a wider community or any other cultural practice and it’s really about promotion of creative culture full stop; and cultivating collaborative relationships.

CL:  How would you describe the Portavilion Splore?
CC RL: Portavilion Splore basically is a multi-functional structure.  Our intention was to make it visually engaging, and enhance the site and work alongside the site, bearing in mind it was a music festival setting.
EU: Just to give you the back story; Portavilion is a programme that UP Projects has been running since 2008 that commissions artists to create temporary pavilion structures for public spaces. It started off in London’s parks and then moved to the waterways. We then took the concept to New Zealand, so in a way the Portavilion concept became a framework for Cut Collective to really run with and shape it shape it as they wanted to.
                                                                    
CL:  Mark can you explain your part of this project?
Mark Osborne: well Amanda Wright is the founder of the Splore Festival and one of her dreams has been to get overseas artists to collaborate with New Zealand artists at Splore. Amanda and I wrote to Emma who took our brief and developed it for artists in New Zealand to respond to. Amanda and I have backgrounds in commissioning  artists  to realise projects.

CL: Jasper what is your involvement in the project?
Jasper Middleton: Well I’m out in Paris and I’m an architect from New Zealand, and I’ve known the Cut Collective guys for a number of years. We first did a project together at the last Splore festival and that was our first chance to combine some art elements and spacial elements together. This was the second bite of the apple; to collaborate.

CL: what made this project unique, for you, to New Zealand?
CC RL:  I don’t think you can remove the setting from the project,– we’ve never done anything like that, in that environment, it’s hard to communicate what the geography lends to a project like this. We are quite familiar with the site and it was always right at the forefront of our thinking. Beyond that, I think there is a reference point in our development that goes back to a nostalgia for a part of New Zealand culture that is very much beach orientated in terms of ramshackled temporary dwelling, a run-down holiday house, up against third world shanty towns. It was a collision between something we were familiar with, and third world temporary housing. All explored through the medium of shipping pallets!
EU: I’d never been to New Zealand before and what struck me was just how beautiful it is as a country. The geographical features and the beaches are incredible. To be able to bring a temporary architectural structure that completely integrated into that landscape made it very different to any of the projects that I’ve done in the UK.
MO: 150 years ago, New Zealand was still predominantly covered with indigenous peoples who tended to live coastal because they relied on food from the sea for their sustenance. This particular site: Tapapakanga regional park, and the region where we live in Auckland was one of the food bowls, a place where masses of fishing was going on. There also a was cultivation of the land by Maori.  It’s not that old a history in a lot of ways, in the last few years there has been a more conventional New Zealand style dairy farm and more recently it’s become a regional park. What Splore has been able to do is work with the authorities to allow us to hold a bloody big party every two years. This site was a Pa site, a fortified Maori village. Cut Collective brought back an element of what had been there for the last few hundred years, which was an environment where an extended family could spend time, and live.

CL: So the Maori bless the project?
MO: traditionally when you’re working in New Zealand and you’re working on land that has a Maori history. There is a Maori concept of kaitiaki which is guardianship of the land. Although this land has been in private ownership for a hundred years and is now owned by the people of Auckland as a regional park, it is acknowledged and embraced that Maori are partners in that ownership. Whenever we do Splore, we engage with the Maori, and tell them what we want to do, and listen to their ideas and their concerns. One of the things they like to do is to bless the site and people who are going to be on that site. It’s about building a mutual respect for the history of the land and the future of it.
EU: I was part of that blessing ceremony.  It was something that was really special and unique about the experience of working in New Zealand.

CL: What were your favourite reactions to the project?
CC RL: We had a yoga workshop [in the Portavilion] in the morning at 9 o clock or something like that, and essentially you had concentric fan layout of people worshipping the Portavilion in synchronised motion.  You had a funny overlap of people arriving for yoga and the dregs of the last night’s partiers who were taking shelter under the Portavilion, which I found quite amusing. The worship of the structure as a performance was amazing.
CC GY:  I really enjoyed people using the space and embracing it, having an afternoon nap or using it for their performances.  People actually admired a lot of the artwork on the structure and that was great to see – it was like a gallery but a hang out zone as well.
MO:  At Splore we set up stages, and they are all clearly used for specific functions. Main stage is where you see big acts, and you get 5 – 7 thousand people, Dj stage is just that. We wanted Portavilion to be an outdoor lounge that at times could then be converted to somewhere that programmed activities could take place. Portavilion was always occupied regardless to whether it was people just chilling out with their mates or programmed activity so that was a really successful aspect of it and something that I enjoyed.

CL: One thing I’ve noticed in the last two years, is a lot more cross over between architecture and art, but also the building of temporary structures by architects in art kind of locations.
JM: The pavilion is the ultimate expression for this type of project because there is no specific brief or audience which is great for opening possibilities. The curious nature of this project I found, was that the artists from Cut Collective, with myself as a kind of spacial organiser, we are both using the same elements. The timber pallet was the spacial delineator and also the medium for the art to actually be applied onto.  We had this interesting situation where we were both using the same design tools for a different output.  The thing that struck me about pallets being useful or relevant for a pavilion is the strictly utilitarian way they are put together. They are highly portable and they are also quintessentially reusable. And given that we were building a relatively large structure, the idea of using these existing spacial elements was appealing to me.
MO: I see the temporary structure as a fantastic opportunity for architects to explore their own ideas and their own concepts at a cost that’s affordable from a time perspective and financial perspective. That is maybe why we are seeing more architects working in that realm. There’s a desire by the public to engage in those sort of spaces.  Putting a temporary structure in a park really opens it up for the people who use that park to play and explore with less encumbrance than you might get in a more formal architectural situation.
CC RL : We try to take ownership of public spaces through doing street art, well not ownership, but we want to contribute . Our practice has always been based on walls, and we have kind of exhausted ourselves with what we can achieve with a two dimensional flat surface. Really the extension of our practice, and what is exciting, is actually extending the influence you have on public space by customising structure and buildings which is something that we are not usually able to achieve.
So for us, we have benefitted from the expertise that Jasper has, as that it is not our background, and as much as we like to play with cardboard and stack boxes there is a limitation to our experience there!
CC  GY: It’s exciting from an artist’s point of view to step out of our comfort zone and work with architects.
EU: I think temporary structures in public space are really exciting for several reasons. Partly it’s about the combination of bringing sculpture and architecture together with a socially engaged practice. I think often those three things come together when you are doing a project like this. Also the temporary nature of it means that you can be a lot more experimental, you can do a lot more than you might be able to if it was a permanent intervention.

CL: Street art over the past five years has been crossing over more and more with officially commissioned work, I’m interested  in hearing peoples thoughts about that, is it a contradiction?
CC  RL: I think it’s a natural extension of our practice. You build up something of a knowledge base and expertise in working in a public site, you become really good at designing and developing work that can be executed efficiently and communicate quite succinctly any of the ideas that you want to work with. There is value to that in any realm. It’s great that public bodies and other entities are seen to value the expertise that has been bubbling away and essentially harnessing it. The majority of the street artists I know all come from a point of view of cultivating and contributing to the environment and their communities. The invitation to participate and produce legal and funded events is a great extension of what we set out to do in the beginning, you just get the luxury of time and money to achieve it.

CL: Was there any resistance from people to commissioning artists with a street art background?
MO: Absolutely not. I think if you look at art history, the edgiest sort of artists always hover on the margins for a period of time while people are making their mind up about whether what they are doing is valid or not.  I see street art now (particularly in New Zealand which is the only personal context I can give to it) as having come of age. People have realised that it’s not a bunch of naughty kids making marks to piss people off.  So I feel very confident about working with street artists to tackle any project because I think they will approach it seriously.

CL: I get the idea that architects might not really like street artists who basically come along and put their work on their beautiful buildings.
JM: It is funny because it’s a really important element in public realm and architecture now, that everything has to be built to be indestructible and skater proof and graffiti proof, which means quite an enjoyable part of this project was that it was really designed to be taken over by that element. It goes back to the idea of architecture as play, because the built environment, public space, it shouldn’t necessarily be fun but it should make people feel able to contribute.  The other interesting part of engaging in painting the space and painting the pavilion, for me personally in this project, is that the pavilion is normally perceived as a wide open sort of structure, something that is airy and inviting and we had this paradox where we were tasked to create something that had this open seaside location but also had enough walls or surface for the Cut Collective guys to really go to town on. That was one of the challenges for us to work out how to incorporate both of those elements together.
EU: I think the thing that was unique about this scenario that I’ve never experienced before was the international nature of the collaboration; the fact that there was me in the UK, Jasper in Paris and Cut Collective and Splore in New Zealand and it meant that the project developed in quite a different way.
MO: I guess from my perspective I’m more used to the more immediate collaboration across the table or around the table. I think long distance collaboration was quite a different way to work you kind of have these conversations but you’re missing out on the body language in the conversation.
CC  RL: It definitely presents challenges due to the far flung nature of all the collaborators. For us we’ve developed a way of understanding each other; you just read through the way people are doing things and sharing the physical space actually informs the collaboration a huge amount. That is something that we have learned to appreciate through this process; once everyone was actually on site it flowed straight away.

 
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