26 April, 2018
A tale of two events ...
The daily paper in the town where I live proclaims that HE has arrived.
It feels so banal writing that. The visit of a British popstar is frontpage news. But still ...
Here he is. And here we are. HIS arrival makes the town. It announces where I live as a HERE. As somewhere. From nowhere to somewhere. HE has arrived. And so have we.
HERE is Dunedin. A small city in the South Island of Aotearoa. What do I write about this town for un? How can I write about this town without telling you what is here. How here works. I want to talk about two things which have happened in this town since I moved here five years ago. Two events. Two events which yell WE ARE HERE!
The first is what has been dubbed an ‘EDvent’. The coming of Ed Sheeran. The second is a ‘terror event’ involving a cassette, a noise musician and a bomb-exploding robot.
Dunedin is parochial. But so are all cities, in their own way. Cities hum on particular family names, local lore and boosterism. Dunedin is, though, more parochial than most. The city retains a quaint slang around the ‘varsity’ (Dunedin’s main employer), and hushed tones abound when oddities barely known about outside New Zealand – such as ‘the Dunedin sound’ associated with labels like Expressway and Flying Nun– are discussed.
I have never before lived anywhere where the locals so emphasised my luck at living there. ‘It’s like Berlin in the 30s’; ‘the population is the same as Athens at the height of classical democracy’. The latter I received with a smirk, wondering where Socrates might be and if, perhaps, the ‘Octagon’ – the city centre, slavishly modelled after Edinburgh – could ever be an Agora. Too cold, for a start.
If anything, Dunedin is a sort of failed copy of the Scottish capital. The streets take their names from Edinburgh; Robbie Burns looks over the church green; and the ‘capping parade’ (the graduation ceremony - another quaint localism) features bagpipes prominently. The Presbyterian Church still plays a key part in the town’s (and the University’s) governance. People say ‘wee’ for small. ‘Edinburgh of the South’. That’s the town brand. We defer elsewhere. Somewhere North. Somewhere West. This kind of endless looking elsewhere for here does not, however, only manifest in a Robbie Burns poetry fellowship or a Robbie Rocks band contest where youngsters ‘riff’ off the poet’s verses. (Though there is that too). The very being of Dunedinites echoes through a deferral over there. Berlin. Athens. ‘The Dunedin sound influenced the Seattle sound’. In New York, Thurston Moore collected Expressway records. We are over there. So we are here as well.
This sort of comparative hereness, again, is not necessarily remarkable. Nor is the local lairds’ (ahem, city councillors) uptake of this type of rhetoric as part of their creative city project. The wares of Dunedin are trotted out – as in any other city – through various ‘events’. Fringe Festivals; a lantern parade; a zine fest; a Dunedin Sound mash up with the local Philharmonic ...
These official happenings are nothing, though, compared to the two curious events that played out in local media, tearoom chatter, and online banter to say we are HERE now. We have arrived.
But first, a word on events. Now that word … event. We hear it a lot. On facebook, my current ‘event’ list includes the sale of a boxer-mastiff puppy; a seminar on The Fall; and birthdays. Endless birthdays. Housewarmings and coolings. Signs across the town during Ed’s tour proclaim: ‘This Way To The Event’. Which way? Where? He’s HERE. Oh, right.
I think we trip out this word ‘event’ too much. Badiou says an event should be revolutionary. It is a moment in time where the bit that’s been excluded from the regular-goings-on of things breaks through and cuts into the scene. Is the EDvent an event then? Not really. The same way a birthday is not an event by Badiou’s definition.
Nonetheless HE’S HERE. And Dunedin (it’s airport sign was altered to DunEDin for the duration of the tour) comes onto the global stage. My Instagram algorithm showed me all the posts tagged #paintingthetownED. ‘Ed super fans’ – who follow the popstar from town to town on tour – ‘grammed the mural that Dunedin City Council commissioned in Ed’s honour. Ed himself took a selfie with the mural. Furtively, from a private plane, he travelled to ‘his’ mural. Then travelled back to his hotel (in another town – Dunedin doesn’t have a 5 star hotel). Seeing Ed in town, snapping a selfie, might cause an event. Perhaps. This looping back to the global screen. The breathless accounts by local journalists (partly tongue in cheek … maybe) declaring the importance of Ed ‘gramming a selfie to over 21 million followers. The Mayor tells us that it’s an opportunity to show the world ‘what a great host Dunedin is’. Hosting Ed from elsewhere. It makes us feel like we are really here.
Dunedinites cringed at Ed fever as well. Eyes rolled at the ‘EDs Benedict’ signs at coffee shops and the group of forty-two primary schoolers performing a mEDley (I’m sorry) of Sheeran tunes on ukulele. The top tweet on my twitter feed right now is: ‘You can mock their enthusiasm, but you can’t doubt their ability to market themselves to future investment’, with a photo of the DunEDin airport sign. This is the top tweet. You can’t mock that.
There was another event in Dunedin in the last twelve months. A terror event. Maybe this event is more like what Badiou means an event to be. After all, the touring of a pop idol is hardly the rupture of that leftover kernel disrupting everything and prompting revolutionary ferment. Do events even happen anymore? Maybe events are not to be laughed at. You can mock their enthusiasm … What about when enthusiasm – when that sheer energy and drive around an object – is terrifying? Is that an event?
On the 16th June 2017 there was a ‘terror event’ in Dunedin. At least, that’s what the media called it. An experimental noise artist, L$D Fundraiser, taped his cassettes StreetNOISE all over town with this note:
When there’s nothing left to lose
i will firebomb your car
i will hack into your computer
i will leak trade & state
i will hammer holes in your office windows
i will raise your buildings to the ground
i will bring you down
Somebody called the police about the cassette taped up near the Octagon. The whole block was shut down and evacuated. People panicked. The ‘event’ was unfolding on Twitter and Facebook. News sites assured readers / scrollers / glancers that the event was unfolding and that updates would be posted as they came to hand. There were all the signifiers of a terror ‘event’ – the suspicious package; evacuations; and, then, the bomb squad. They were flown down from Christchurch with a special robot designed to blow up the package. The ashen faces of supermarket workers and shoppers, middle-managers and the folks from the TAB, behind barricades a block away from THE SITE – surely this was an event?
At that point perhaps, maybe, there was some forethought by the Dunedin twitterati ... would we #standwithdunedin by the evening? Was this New Zealand’s first brush with that global thing over there ... ? Had that thing arrived and intruded, here? That ‘terror thing’. That Hebdo thing and that #thoughtsandprayers thing. That thing, which happens elsewhere. But also says we are HERE – we matter enough to be resented, to be a target, to produce something in someone from over there. To make us arrive in the world of hot-takes and pious head shakes from newsreaders.
It wasn’t that thing after all. The robot blew up a cassette tape. The artist was charged with threatening to damage property. Then the charges were dismissed. Maybe this is more like an event in a way, because it wasn’t like other ‘terror events’. It wasn’t like that at all.
The response, though, was a bit like the EDvent. Dunedin’s terror event was about hosting a thing from elsewhere. Showing the world: we are HERE. The terrorists weren’t here. But a noise artist was. Dunedin bohemians made a scene about it. Their scene was on the map. The hushed tones turned from Expressway and Flying Nun to L$D Fundraiser. ‘NME covered the story!’ ‘SPIN too’. There was a blog about the event in Portuguese. And Russian. And everyone shared these on their screens. We are HERE, too.
This screening back – the urgent appeals to global recognition – is not a break. It works in the normal rhythm of Dunedin. It only happens – really – if they see it over there. We are famous over there. That is another thing I hear a lot. ‘We are more famous over there’. In America. In England. In Australia. ‘Pitchfork did an obituary of Peter Gutteridge’ (I didn't know him either). The glee after the ‘terror event’ – mixed, of course with outrage at the artist being charged – belied this desire for hereness.
Here’s to more events in Dunedin!
Rosemary Overell is a lecturer in the Media and Communications at the University of Otago. Her most recent work considers how gendered subjectivities are co-constituted by and through mediation. She draws particularly on Lacanian psychoanalysis to explore a variety of mediated sites. In particular, she considers the intersections between affect and signification and how these produce gender. Rosemary has looked at media as varied as anime, extreme metal and reality television.