whiteness/whitemess

creative disorders and hope
Wellington
15 - 16 May 2010

Wellington is New Zealand’s capital city, and politics dominates the local talk. While Auckland has three times the population (and the largest Polynesian population of any city, anywhere), it exerts less weight on New Zealand’s cultural policy discourses of biculturalism and multiculturalism. However, Wellington is also home to a range of radical groups and counter-discourses agitating to overthrow the system.

It is within this latter community that the gathering ‘Whiteness/Whitemess: Creative Disorders and Hope’ emerged. Organised by visual artist Jack Trolove and theatre practitioner Madeline McNamara (co-founder of Magdalena Aotearoa, a local chapter of the international network of women in contemporary theatre), this ‘creative and critical gathering’ provided a forum for white artists, writers, treaty workers and educators to ask: ‘how through our creative work, can we “see” ourselves and our positionalities in order not to be “neutral” or “passive participants” in conversations around identity and power?’ Held in a suburban school hall, conference fees were optional (‘if you’re flush just now’); and the catering featured organic soup and lentil bake—a self-consciously long way from art gallery glitz, stale academic bureaucracy or the flash insouciance of Auckland’s dynamic urban-commercial inter-ethnic mix.

The critiques of academic whiteness studies are legion: for all its critical approach it provides a haven for useless expressions of white guilt; encourages navel-gazing; and puts white people back in the centre, subtly displacing the attempts of people-of-colour to set the political agenda. Some of the academic presentations were true to form—mired in ‘reflexivity’, oblivious to the impact the work was having on the audience and in the world. On the other hand, a number of the artists seemed to offer an equally ‘critical’ yet far more powerful affective intervention, precisely by denaturalising the mode of white speech. As Susan van Zyl and Ulrike Kistner have noted, the reason Foucault paid attention to the operation of the aesthetic is because in creative works we can observe the ‘emergence and decline of discourses’. Notably, many of the works presented involved direct collaboration with indigenous communities.

Karena Way’s multichannel audio/visual work Te Paina to Mercer explores the 1863 invasion of the Waikato region by the colonial government. Lush green dairy estates are layered with English/Maori voices to leave us numbed, caught between present and past. Murray Hewitt’s picturesque video Weeping Waters depicts the artist in an ‘endurance performance’, wearing a motorcycle helmet bearing the emblem of the prophets of Parihaka, repeatedly kicking a soccer ball up a spectacular East Coast sand dune. The colonial landscape painter’s solitude is recast as a lonely, futile exercise in place-making. Madeline McNamara’s physically confronting performances forcefully parodied white vernacular languages of self-presentation. In all these works a flash of insight into the ‘structure of feeling’ in white culture prompts reflection, but with no ‘increased self-understanding’ that would leave us feeling in control of our whiteness.

Other presenters seemed ‘unintentionally white’ as they struggled to locate themselves in the absence of the non-white others who have historically prompted awareness of whiteness. Well-intentioned but unfortunate appropriation of indigenous modes surfaced—seeking to justify some Pékehé legitimacy in this land—while indigenous people themselves were out of the picture. These appropriative dynamics were encapsulated in the discussion format of the post-presentation sharing circle—a mainstay of Western feminist consciousness-raising, and probably second-nature among the 80% female participants. But the ‘supportive environment’ promoted ameliorative rather than critical engagement with the presentations: why were we building support for each other’s authentic experience of dominance? The gathering brought to mind the spectre of the ‘men’s group’. Initially forged in well-intentioned efforts to ‘sort ourselves out’ in response to the challenges of radical feminist activism, in the absence of women the model ended up inexorably drawn back to misogyny and appropriation of feminist concerns.

Similarly I could not help but wonder whether a gathering in an indigenous context might have been not only more critical, but more true to the adventurous spirit of the participants. Ironically, we were all connected less through our experience of whiteness, but our experience as whites of other places and other people. Poet Glenn Colquhoun, presenting some genuinely risky English-language haka and sea-shanties memorialising imagined meetings between Celtic and Maori ancestors, seemed to embody this spirit. He has learned to be Pékehé in a Maori mode of identity, rather than the Pékehé modes of identity (including ‘whiteness’) that shape our English language racial concepts; pointing toward an indigenously-defined European identity still to come. His ability to hold the room pointed to the affective as well as intellectual transformation that results from intercultural engagement, a transformation that artists, more than anyone, seem well-placed to explore.