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LOUISE MENZIES: In An Orange My Mother Was Eating


Louise Menzies, 'In an orange my mother was eating' (installation view), Hocken Collections Uare Taoka o Hākena. Photo credit: Iain Frengley.
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It seems as though we are all creative now.

The University hosts an event after the Christchurch terror attacks. The speaker offers ‘creative solutions’ to violence. My mind swivels.

What does that even mean?

A wry smile from across the table: yarn bombing?

Let’s give that one a miss, eh?

This article is a bit of a swivel. It’s about Louise Menzies’ exhibition but I had to swivel away from that to get to the heart of that. Her work made me think about – well ... work. And creative work in particular.

Swivel with me.

In restructures there’s an injunction for us all to be nimble, and creative in ‘moving forward’ ... and paring down ... into more efficient ‘finance unit’.

They keep you on your toes.

Thinking back to ballet lessons. I was on my toes. But I was gritting my teeth.

Oli Mould discusses this instrumentalization of ‘creativity’ for the purposes of neoliberalism in his provocative book Against Creativity. His provocation – that ‘creativity’ is a nice way of saying ‘exploitation’ – rings true, even twenty years after Richard Florida’s notorious and heavily-critiqued defence of gentrification (ahem, I mean, ‘creative cities’).

When you start looking for that word ‘creative’ you see it everywhere!

Maybe you remember twenty-, even ten-, years ago. All that bluster about creative cities; creative industries and the ‘creative class’. When I finished my PhD, everyone was talking about a university where creativity was their ‘thing’ (dare I say, their brand).

'It’s a powerhouse. All that creative industries stuff. The only Cultural Studies programme that runs in the black.'

(My parents, from the region where said university was located, were less enthused: 'That’s an old teacher’s college!')

It was like what we were ‘trained’ in – cultural studies – all that stuff from Stuart Hall about popular culture being a site of hegemonic struggle; about critique withered away. Why be critical when you can be creative?

Petit-bourgeois snobbery aside, my parents had a point. A teacher’s college teaches people to be workers. It’s fundamentally instrumental. Maybe (in another classroom far, far away) we could even say that places like that old teacher’s college were about reproducing ideological state apparatus.

The rush to creative cultural studies worked in a similar way. It was all about being ‘useful’. Knowledge-transfer was a thing. Policy consulting was a thing. Headlong strides into a kind of boorish reformism that promised outputs was a thing. Originally I had that word ‘outputs’ in scare quotes. But then I deleted them. This is because at first this was all at a remove – getting creative and getting grants and getting ‘bums on seats’ to keep the good work of cultural studies going.

Stay on your toes!

But then these words just started circulating without the scare part. Without that little knowing wink part. Creativity was a ‘skill set’ (I insist on making these words scary again – I apologise). We were training ‘creative workers’: fast thinkers and fast movers. Some people might say we churned out a precarious, surplus labour force. Or Public Relations personnel.

Or maybe that’s the same thing now.

Bear with me. Your creative skill-sets should be firing on all cylinders. I’m shifting focus, I’m swivelling.

'CRITICAL THINKING – Ability to make informed decisions ... with flexibility, adaptability and creativity.'

It’s a thing where I work. It probably is where you work too.

It’s already old hat in my un-extended that I have an ... ambivalent view of where I live in Dunedin, Aotearoa. Maybe I should get creative about it. Loosen up.

Boxes are for breaking, after all my ex-husband’s surname was Box.

A colleague says: Walk a different way to work. Then you might meet somebody new.

Shake it up! I just need to be more nimble.

Where I live is just starting to get creative. The city council here is all about creativity. Never mind that Mr Florida has something of a Saul / Paul moment last year and conceded that all those tactics to garner his famous ‘pink index’ (upwardly mobile ‘male homosexuals’) and the ‘creative class’ (the Artists Formerly Known As Yuppies) led to widespread gentrification.

Dunedin is curious. It attempts to mark creativity through the usual things like murals; novelty bike racks and hot desking spaces (the one here is called, quite obscenely ‘the petri dish’). But these sites are relatively unremarkable and ignored. The tourists come for the albatross. The locals spend a lot of time designating ‘elsewheres’ as where the ‘real creativity’ happens. This town does have ‘lime scooters’ though (but that’s another article).

Maybe where I live is not so curious. Maybe ‘curious’ just a synonym for poor. When a city is poor it’s hard to get creative – at least in the ‘Floridian’ sense.

But then, even in Florida’s model, the poor have a place. He neatly calls them ‘auxiliary’ workers. These are the coffee-makers and cocktail-shakers and cleaners who work in the service spaces requisite of a creative city. Florida has all these statistics and graphs that show that these workers are usually also some kind of ‘organic’ creative. They are the artists; musicians and writers – which, in fact, are the major value add-er to the urban space. Not only are they vital for sating the PR personnel’s demand for coffees, they also embody the ‘brand’ of the city (I’m trying to keep scaring you with ‘those’ inverted commas).

No doubt you know all this already. No doubt you studied the creative industries at university.

Where I live is poorer than most. And New Zealand is poor. The Labour government only just raised the minimum wage to $17.70 per hour.

The coffee-makers, cocktail-shakers and cleaners in Dunedin I know are all artists.

This is what made me swivel when I visited Louise Menzies’ show at the Hocken Gallery. Her work made me think about all that other work that goes in to making the work. The work that goes up in the gallery. That gallery work used to be the creative work. Now the other bit is creative too. My friend cleans AirBnBs for people who come in to Dunedin to watch albatross, or rugby matches. I overhear a job interview in a café (yes – I’m FKA Yuppie). It’s a couple – a business couple. A power couple. Interviewing a student for a cleaning job. They ask if she could be ‘passionate’ about cleaning. She nods. It’s not quite ‘creative’. But it’s getting there.

Making smiley faces; or cocks or sacred yonis as latte art might demonstrate passion and playfulness or a pure love of coffee ('a food dream' or something else for which reality television has granted us vocabulary). But listening to my friend talk about the precise timing to clean an apartment ... ‘You chuck the sheets in the dryer straightaway – you wouldn’t believe … - that’s the timer for cleaning the three flats ...’.

I guess she’s got creative about clocking on and off. Beating the dryer might be a game. If you’re in the mood for it.

It sounds like it keeps her on her toes!

Menzies’ exhibition is all about that extra work that underpins the ‘organic’ stuff that goes up in the gallery. Of course, you’d have to be crazy, to think that what gets mounted on walls simply erupts from some organic, authentic ‘creative’ space without the mediating factors of – well ... work.

You’d have to be crazy; or Richard Florida; or an advocate of creative industries.

Menzies is not crazy.

She has a series of works on the wall by Joanna Margaret Paul. A New Zealand film-maker, poet and painter who lived in Dunedin in the 1970s. They aren’t Paul’s famous paintings, however. Menzies has put together facsimiles of illustrations she did for a colouring book in 1979. The illustrations are of ducks and geese mostly. Alongside the illustrations are more facsimiles of a heated exchange between her publisher, John McIndoe and the major NZ book distributor at the time, A. H. and A. W. Reed. The book, apparently, wouldn’t sell. It left the distributor 'terribly cold.'

It wouldn’t work. It wasn’t nimble enough to move off the shelves:

We really need some special hook to hang this on and it had better be a good one, otherwise I fear our reps are going to be laughed out of the shops if they try and sell it.

It was too 'arty.' This was before the creative boom – you might say. But doesn’t creative work still need that ‘hook’? That little instrumental bit that keeps the punters purchasing and ‘reps’ taken seriously?

McIndoe defended the book, insisting that it remain until remaindered, due to Paul being 'held in high regard by those with an appreciation for art.' The interchange between relatively inoffensive Mother Ducks and typewritten missives discussing the validity of a picture book is amusing – sure. No doubt it shows the erasure and marginalisation of women artists in NZ, particularly at that point in time. Creative work is gendered. Sure. But doesn’t Menzies’ piece also tell us something about how creative works? The picture book was Paul’s bread and butter. Held in high regard or not, to make ends meet Paul had to get her ducks in a row, ‘make it work’ and keep on her toes. Menzies’ arrangement of these objects – full of bluster and noise from the distributor and her publisher – actually highlights the banality of creative work. The hyperbolic musings of McIndoe (the picture book is described as generative of that magic creative ingredient 'pure organic pleasure !') and distributor alike are flattened out on the facsimilied paper.

It’s just the dullness of getting it together and getting on with it when your place in the economy is, well, ‘creative capital’ (a ‘significant artist’; or ‘successful illustrator’ – they amount to the same thing) for somebody else.

No doubt Menzies, too, had to get it together. Local ‘creatives’ helped out with the exhibition, printing off the facsimiles just so. Getting the project mounted takes a lot of work. The letters and images from Paul’s book look ‘real’. Somebody copied and printed those? I marvel to the curator (I suppose, crazily, I imagined Menzies’ just plucked them from the archive and stuck them on the walls). Yup – they’re prints. There’s creative labour there – even if you can’t quite place it.

Joanna Paul, like Louise Menzies, was a Frances Hodgkins Fellow at the University. In fact, this exhibition is a culmination of Menzies’ 2018 Fellowship. Grants and Fellowships are another thing we have to get creative about. Could our Department get together and ‘spitball’ a session about an app which determines ‘fake news’ from ‘real news’? Don’t worry – we are assured – this is still praxis. We’re just ‘blue-skying’ it to get the money so we can keep teaching Gramsci.

The Frances Hodgkins Fellowship is generous. It’s what they call ‘a good gig’ in the creative industries. You get an entry-level lecturer’s wage and a studio. It’s nice that Hodgkins bequeathed it to the University. I usually think of bequests and those doing the bequeathing as aristocratic types. My feeble brain imagines that, in Aotearoa, this type has something to do with the dairy industry. Not quite. It ends out that Frances Hodgkins had to get creative too. Bourgeois – sure – she was the daughter of a lawyer. But she, like Paul, like my friends here in Dunedin, had to do that other labour to get the ‘organic’ work out there.

Menzies tackles this in another part of her exhibition. In Untitled (textile design I) and Untitled (textile design II), first shown in local artist run space XXX, she’s placed three office chairs askew in the middle of a room. They are covered in the usual ‘zany’ fabric you see on bus-seats ... or in hot-desking suites. The fabric looks contemporary. It’s not though. It was designed by Hodgkins in the 1920s when she worked as a fabric designer in Manchester. Certainly, Hodgkins – widely considered the most significant woman New Zealand artist of the twentieth century – was a creative worker prototype. Menzies does something quite clever here. She sourced the fabric and rebooted it through the University’s ‘Property Services’ division – taking actual office chairs and stretching Hodgkins’ fabric design over the top.

Creative types are often stretched.

Or are they just nimble now?

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.