The layers of hospitality, sovereignty, and responsibility established by institutional positioning can be seen in the operation of Local Time’s project Waiariki 9 May–11 August 2013 (+1200) for the 5th Auckland Triennial ‘If you were to live here …’, curated by Hou Hanru. Waiariki was on the surface simple: we invited the Triennial’s various host venues to make a simple gesture of hospitality to artists and audiences. Local Time provided water containers to the venues and directions to Waiariki, an old source of drinking water within the pre-European flows on and under the land that the Triennial’s venues occupy. The spring is located in a car park in the University law school, known by a few history enthusiasts and patronised by a few city residents who believe in its health benefits, but it is not marked or signed for the public in any way, and not widely known. We asked the participating organisations to use this infrastructure to serve the spring water to their guests during public events, aiming to connect participants materially to the ‘here’ of the Triennial’s title. The work performs a kind of place-making and activation of the Triennial’s physical environment, without formally soliciting the input of most participants.
As always, the different effects of our responsibilities only showed themselves in the ‘setting-to-work’ of the concept in practice, where one senses the need for Spivak’s ‘empirical scruples’. We discussed the concept with the traditional maintainers of the spring, in this case the local iwi Ngāti Whatua. Kaumatua (elder) Uncle Grant Hawke, Chairman of the Ngāti Whatua o Orakei Māori Trust Board, agreed to meet and said that it was ‘great’ that we were interested in the spring, and he hospitably provided a couple of hours of his time to relate an incredible range of stories about the role of the spring in the political and spiritual economy of pre-European times and during the colonial period. Our sense of ‘responsibility’ at this point settled more deeply, but there was no final approval nor disapproval given by him to our proposal to distribute the water of the spring. Hawke had made it clear that the spring was bigger than all of us, but his manner of doing so undermined any possibility of us making a Romantic identification with the natural environment. It was the scale of the human relationships – past, present, and future – to which any work with the spring would be accountable that became most challenging for our work. Fulfilling our hosting responsibilities would mean not simply taking responsibility for treating the spring ethically within the parameters of ‘the artwork’, but also considering how our platform of extended engagement with the spring may affect the spring’s future viability. We could not guarantee to ourselves or to Ngāti Whatua that increased knowledge of this resource would not potentially damage the very relation of customary maintenance we sought to highlight.
Our ambivalence toward the potential decontextualisation of the spring through the project led us to distribute the spring water in as many parts of the Triennial’s own hosting occasions as possible, but to avoid mapping or graphing the knowledge of the spring in a way that travelled easily outside the project. Sensitive to the history of gestures of institutional critique that are inevitably recuperated by institutions, we saw the move not to disavow our foreignness to the spring as a productive gesture, sparking conversations that deepened our relationships to customary and contemporary maintainers. In turn, we invited others to find their own conversations. We were, in a sense, intruders whose presence triggered the hospitality of the traditional owners.
Spivak points to ‘grounding errors’ as inevitable, and in this case our errors related not exactly to indigenous protocols, but to European ones, which are often less flexible. Our project involved Māori relationships and content but was not explicitly activated through the organisational arm of the Auckland Art Gallery (Haerewa) that have delegated responsibility for indigenous materials, as that group had not been present for the discussions with the curator. This lack of engagement was not a deliberate strategy on our part, but a combination of an oversight and a by-product of our existing relationships and other channels by which we pursued the project. Yet, issues of mana whenua or indigenous authority over lands involve multi-layered and overlapping areas of negotiated responsibility inside and outside European institutions. Our aim was to involve the non-indigenous staff of the gallery in these politics, and they turned out to be demanding for us as well. Bernard Makoare, as the artist responsible for both the traditional welcome (pōwhiri) at Te Wai O Horotiu marae and the opening speech at the gallery, brought the spring water into the ceremonial welcomes at both the marae and the gallery. Yet even on the morning of opening, we realised we were unclear what his sense of the project was, or how other Māori staff associated with the gallery would view this intervention. Our gesture of hospitality had every opportunity to be read as a gesture of hostility, and it is in this ‘undecideability’ that the work perhaps found its aesthetic operationality.
Next: IV. Footscray: camper, occupier, visitor