Aotearoa and the Hive

Published in:
edited by Rebecca Lal
ISBN: 978-0-908995-58-5


Welcome to the hive, where a global population of seven billion minds are linked by road networks and rail lines, shipping lanes and flight paths, submarine cables and satellites, electrical grids and server farms. These immense infrastructures are completely dependent upon the plans of engineers, designers, programmers and the countless others who build, maintain or legislate their use. Yet despite its impervious appearance, this hive of civilisation is continually put to the test as terrestrial and human forces seek out weakness and fight for control – be that through social, political, economic or environmental pressure. Since the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 there has been an international resurgence in art practices that explore financial and political forces and their effect on our material existence. Artists in Aotearoa New Zealand have been exploring these forces for a number of decades, their work reflecting the benefits and compromises that such global mechanisms have had on our country throughout history.

As an adherent of neoliberalism and capitalism, New Zealand has become a place where multinational companies invest and operate. Also, with the recent rise of companies such as Uber and Airbnb, New Zealand is fast becoming part of the digitally based decentralised peer-to-peer sharing economy. Despite the national fixation with stoic isolation and small country syndrome, this cluster of islands is actually significantly invested as a global player and will share the fate of what that interconnection ultimately brings.

It has become a trope for curators in this country, me included, to address globalisation through an international selection of artists. This mixing of artworks by national and international artists is motivated by a desire to place New Zealand’s concerns in dialogue with the global – to connect with other practitioners around the world and for our issues to be seen in comparison to theirs. However, this approach can suffer from vagueness, can privilege the international voice over the local and can forsake the rich specific context right in front of us. THE HIVE HUMS WITH MANY MINDS attempts to address these issues by providing a glimpse of the global hive entirely from the perspective of artists from Aotearoa.



 The Anthropocene

A hard rain pelts the orange clay as I walk the vast perimeter of the Martha Mine at Waihi, New Zealand’s largest opencast goldmining operation. The crater rim, a 5-kilometre circumference, has been turned into a type of macabre anti-ecological tourist experience. Signage tells me that for every tonne of earth that is extracted only one teaspoon of gold is gained. I am tracing the precipice of this ochre-coloured abyss in the pounding rain because I want a direct experience of New Zealand’s goldmining industry. In particular, my purpose is to understand what compelled Caroline McQuarrie to hike through bush on the South Island’s West Coast to photograph forgotten goldmine adits for her series Homewardbounder.

An adit is a horizontal entrance to an underground mine that allows ventilation to flow in and water to drain out. The adits in McQuarrie’s photographs were excavated over 150 years ago, kickstarting the 1860s gold rush.  The South Island swelled with people from all over the world intent on striking a ‘homewardbounder’ – a windfall large enough for a miner to return home wealthy. The Martha Mine was established a couple of decades later in the 1880s using a similar tunnelling method to extract gold. In contrast to the large opencast pit at Waihi, the comparatively shallow adits in McQuarrie’s photographs have likely only ever produced failed dreams – more successful mines typically grew to become large pits like Martha or eroded mountainsides. Now overgrown and spentof value, these ominous barren voids are a sombre record of the human and ecological price New Zealand has paid and continues to pay in order to participate in the global dependence on precious metals.

We are all complicit in this trade. It is the gold in my laptop circuit board that enables me to write this text and it is the gold in McQuarrie’s scanner, computer and printer that has enabled her to produce her photographs. Since gold doesn’t tarnish, it is one of the most reliable conductors for such technology. While there is less than a few grams in each gadget, computer technology is now among the largest uses of the metal worldwide. There is a price to pay for this interconnected virtual world of ours. Joanna Langford shares this sentiment in The beautiful and the damned. In this work she has assembled an extraordinary city out of a ramshackle stack of old 1990s keyboards, bamboo skewers, hot-glue globules, wire strands and scores of firefly-like LED lights.

The artwork’s title is borrowed from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1922 novel of the same name. The book tells the tragic tale of a well-heeled couple lured like moths to the bright lights and whiskey-soaked glamour of jazz age New York. Riffing on this theme, Langford’s miniature city is built from the computer rubble produced during the lucrative dotcom era which gave birth to hastily built towers of Silicon Valley wealth and heralded the financial viability of the internet. In this light, Langford quietly reminds us that in the current time of consumer excess and glittering pixels it is easy to forget that this fantastical world has an unfortunate social and physical reality. As the writer Elizabeth Grossmann observes:

without this understanding we will continue to behave as if high-tech products exist in some kind of cyberuniverse, one that has little to do with the air we actually breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat . . . there’s really no such thing as a completely ‘post-industrial digital economy’.[1]

Many of the billions of mobile phones produced each year eventually end up in landfill with the gold, silver, copper and other metals never to be used again. Or they are thrown into the vast e-wastelands in developing countries where people put their health on the line to dangerously extract the metal.

Another crucial part of this profitable and costly economy of technology is the centralised production based in Asia for distribution around the world. The invention of containerisation has allowed these industries to flourish by making efficient cargo transportation between countries. Its products arrive in New Zealand regularly on large container ships via the harbours of Auckland and Tauranga. In recent years Tauranga has rapidly overtaken Auckland as the country’s main port, but not without consequence. This was made apparent on 5 October 2011, when the MV Rena container ship ran aground on Te Moana-a-Toi Bay of Plenty coast, spilling hundreds of tonnes of oil and diesel and many of its 1368 shipping containers in one of Aotearoa’s worst maritime environmental disasters. Oil and shipping containers were carried on ocean currents, reaching the shoreline five days later and continuing into the following year after the MV Rena broke in two during a storm.

Alex Monteith’s five-channel video work Rena Shipping Container Disaster includes long-take footage recorded during the New Zealand Defence Force clean-up of oil along the Papamoa foreshore on 16 October and of the removal of shipping containers that washed up at Waihi on 9 January 2012. A sequence of screens were installed in mid-space and enveloped visitors as they entered the gallery. Through this the artist offered an immersive perspective of the ecological tragedy and the considerable human mobilisation required in response.

Alex Monteith,  Rena Disaster,  Waihi Beach 11 Jan 2012 Photo by Sarah Munro

Alex Monteith, Rena Disaster, Waihi Beach 11 Jan 2012
Photo by Sarah Munro

One of the most unforgettable stories of this disaster for me was of a container holding 17 tonnes of plastic beads that burst open. It is impossible to recover these tiny particles. They are now embedded into the ecosystem as toxic food for fish and birds and mingled among the sand and shell that line the shore.

Suji Park’s pile of painted plaster Dols (Korean for rock) suggest a further step, when waste becomes reconstituted into a geological cycle. Piled high on an old worn coffee table, this synthetic rubble resembles the brightly coloured plastic-infused rock matter that geologists of the future might unearth. Such new sedimentary matter, which scientists are now calling Plastiglomerate, is indicative of the Anthropocene, a time period characterised by the indelible trace humans have had upon the planet. One of the main geological markers of the Anthropocene age is the world’s first nuclear test, codenamed ‘Trinity’, which was detonated in the Jornada del Muerto desert, New Mexico, on 16 July 1945.[2] The isotopic signature of this and other atomic explosions is found in every living cell on the planet.[3]

Equally representative of the Anthropocene is the video work Avail by Max Bellamy, which features hallucinogenic-looking substances. The footage is simply the light spectrum revealed through a soap bubble and filmed in micro-detail. However, coupled with an ethereal synthesised soundtrack this streaming imagery takes on a sublime primeval-like quality as the pitch modulates in sync with shifts in fluidity and viscosity. Its toxic appearance triggers associations with the molecular reality of nuclear fallout, the oily residue of a petrochemical disaster or the cosmic mechanics of the universe morphing matter into endless elements and forms. The ambiguity of the footage evokes a deep-seated pleasure not unlike the delight we get from watching a crackling fire – alluring yet dangerous. Perhaps we humans are hardwired to become infatuated with powerful substances that can be equally harnessed for creation and destruction.

Contemplating Bellamy’s work, I am reminded of the now legendary anti-nuclear speech delivered by former prime minister of New Zealand David Lange at the Oxford union debate in 1981 on nuclear weapons.  In reply to the claim that New Zealand benefits from the military security provided by US nuclear weapons, Lange said:

I’m going to give [my response] to you if you hold your breath just for a moment . . . I can smell the uranium on it as you lean towards me! . . . we [New Zealanders] used to have the vision of our being some kind of an antipodean Noah’s Ark . . . Now, the fact is that we . . . know that if the nuclear winter comes, we freeze; we join the rest of you.[4]

This position established New Zealand as a staunch environmentally aware country – a legacy that we still claim today through the Ministry of Tourism’s 100% Pure New Zealand slogan. However, in reality we have lost this mantel and it is time to readdress our ecological responsibility to the world. New Zealand is a country actively contributing to the onset of the Anthropocene through the pollution of waterways, the extraction of fossil fuels and the mining of precious metals. It is easy to blame the superpowers for our ecological predicament but the harsh truth is that we are all complicit. This country has played a part in ushering the dawn of the human and its residues will linger for millennia.



The urban condition

Rows of art deco buildings are gradually gilded by sunlight, petals weighed with dew unfurl in excessively pretty flower gardens and intermittent waves rattle a pebble-clad shore. It’s dawn and I rest on a park bench in the township of Napier. I should be enjoying this beautiful morning but instead I am using this peaceful hour to imagine that gravity has been switched off and everything on the Earth’s surface is unravelling. This thought exercise is an attempt to channel the memories of my nana who, as a young woman, lived through the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that levelled the town in 1931.

She would recall the disaster with vivid detail. Her wide eyes, glinting with sober clarity, would transport me into the kitchen in which she stood the instant crockery came flying horizontally at her from a nearby cupboard. How terrifying it must be to experience the security of reality so violently usurped – how indelibly startling to the mind and soul. Reliving this inherited memory is the closest I have come to being able to understand the significance of Tim J. Veling’s series of photographs titled Support Structures.

In the months following the 6.3 magnitude February 2011 Christchurch earthquake, many falsework reinforcements were erected all over the city to prop up fences, doorways and entire buildings. Veling documented the diversity of these structures from ad-hoc and humble 2 x 4 timber struts to highly engineered steel, concrete and shipping container buttresses. These ingenious constructions were built both to make the buildings safe and to maintain properties during the controversially lengthy process of insurance claims.

Tim J. Veling,  ‘Radio Shack’, Christchurch Boys High School, Kahu Road , 2011 C-type print, 762 x 940mm

Tim J. Veling, ‘Radio Shack’, Christchurch Boys High School, Kahu Road, 2011
C-type print, 762 x 940mm

According to Veling, when bureaucratic and legal systems failed to remedy Christchurch’s broken urban environment it was the social bonds of its citizens that held everything together. In this sense the physical supports documented in his photographs could be considered metaphors for the communal resilience that became so important after the quake. These intangible community structures are also a type of infrastructure that in many ways were more immediate and robust than any provided by the government or urban planners.

The formal mechanisms through which cities are built and their inert frailty is also the topic of Reuben Moss’s large-scale billboard and video work Simulations: flood. This work was created using the 1994 computer game SimCity 2000 in which players are able to construct a functioning city under replicated real-life conditions. Using external software to modify the game, Moss was able to create an optimal city that would be impossible to produce within SimCity’s original constraints. Programmed to imitate urban planning principles popular during the 1990s, this ideal city supports a virtual population of three million with a socioeconomic distribution based on common Western urban trends.

Experiencing this imagery while in downtown Auckland, where many of the buildings are of the same 1990s vintage, makes me feel a little unnerved. Especially since in the video this utopian cyber-metropolis is slowly destroyed by a flood of biblical proportions. It wasn’t until 2013 that the city of Auckland started planning for the possibility of sea-level rise as a result of human-made climate change.[5] In Auckland’s forecast future the water levels will be high enough to threaten the waterfront concrete silo venue where Simulations: flood was on display. While SimCity is far from a mirror of reality, Moss’s provocation does present the fragility of our urban structures as fact, reproducible within even the most simple of simulations.

As we argue and deliberate about the impending flood the immediate issue facing Auckland today is the so-called housing crisis. The cause of this crisis seems to come from all directions including a rapidly growing population, property speculators inflating house prices, the Christchurch earthquake draining the construction industry, baby-boomer investors, the dream of owning a house with a backyard over inner-city apartment living and a growing gap between the rich and poor. The main cause might be elusive but the symptoms of unaffordable housing, overcrowding and homelessness are not. A recent Auckland Council report claims that:

400,000 additional [affordable] dwellings will be required by 2040, which means that at least 13,000 additional houses have to be built each year. This is a huge challenge, given we already have a shortfall of about 10,000.[6]

These are daunting figures but construction is now under way, for instance the Tamaki Development which is supplanting a 1950s public housing estate in Glen Innes with  medium-rise privately developed mixed housing. However, as with many rapid urban changes such developments often end up destabilising our most vulnerable communities. Evictions of those living in the Glen Innes houses began in 2012 amid concerns that government workers were using unfair tactics and harassment.[7]

Louisa Afoa raises the concern of bureaucratic bullying in her video work 23 years. Afoa’s mother shares her experience of dealing with an over-officious Housing New Zealand staff member who unjustifiably implied that he could end her tenancy. Slow-panning footage of the well-lived-in property syncs with her mother’s narration and as an audience we become her confidant, listening to a story rife with unbalanced power relations In Auckland, private rentals can be on and off the market within short timeframes and therefore reliable accommodation is highly competitive and costly to attain. Consequently, the loss of a state-house lease could have grim implications for a low-income family.

Up until late 2015, the sale of property in New Zealand was not taxed, making the residential do-up industry lucrative but not entirely above board.[8] Using a loophole, those with the ability to purchase and modernise a house could earn an additional income by buying and selling property, and if they wanted to save even more money they could manage the renovation or do the manual labour themselves. Consequently, domestic buildings are no longer only designed by architects; they are now embellished, dissected and added to by untrained eyes and novice builders. Charlotte Drayton is interested in the passing trends of residential decor, specifically fashions she has observed in an Auckland gripped by a fervour of home improvement. In particular, her practice entertains the impossible idea of achieving a sense of suburban normality through DIY renovation.

In her installation It must be nice to work outside on a day like today she has significantly transformed Te Tuhi’s outdoor courtyard with commonly used landscaping materials such as pre-grown hedges, shell groundcover and trellis fencing. Due to the familiar appearance of its components, Drayton’s intervention achieves a degree of invisibility despite the amount of space it occupies and its awkward aesthetic relationship to the surrounding architecture. These intentionally prosaic stylistic quirks replicate the quiet way in which real-estate fashions inadvertently shape our physical and cultural experience of urban life.

Auckland’s commercial spaces are also perpetually shedding old skins in favour of fashionable new ones by following the trends of international markets. Constructed out of various recycled and waste building materials, Mark Schroder’s work The new modern efficiency provides a seating area that replicates various design elements found in such buildings. His installation includes structures such as frugal cinder block walls, raw plywood construction site hoardings, steel framing, a heated towel rail, digital advertising displays of the type found in retail outlets, and planters mimicking those used as partitions in offices and plazas. This amalgam of distinct architectural features produces a sense of being in between the seductive consumer environment of a shopping mall and the prosaic infrastructure of a parking lot. By slipping between these spatial cues, Schroder turns the logic of profit-driven space inside out to lay bare its designed intentions and material qualities.

Understanding these commercial agendas and how they shape our urban experience are all the more important now that half the world’s population lives in a built environment. Salome Tanuvasa’s series of works, which meld photography, drawing and sculpture, consider how the physical properties of this environment psychologically embodies us as occupants – comparable to how the syntax of language allows freedom yet dictates our relations with each other. Her drawings, scrawled over top of inkjet-printed images of commercial sites, scan the page as if searching for patterns to decode or to trace underlying plans. In other works, delicate pairings of materials and images of ruined commercial spaces printed on wafer-thin newsprint suggest a state of undoing and precariousness. Tanuvasa’s quiet studies are tracings of our drift through such spaces and an attempt at locating the human in an otherwise unaccommodating banal milieu. As the novelist Robert MacFarlane writes, ‘we are scattered, as well as affirmed, by the places through which we move’.[9]

The urban environment of New Zealand parallels that elsewhere in the world and in many ways can be considered part of the great global urban grid sprawling out to a concrete horizon.[10] Our existence is so dependent upon an environment comprised of inert tarmac, steel and glass so when it breaks we are made all the more aware of how fragile it is and how soft, social and psychological our human bodies are.



The complex adaptive system

I am just one unit among ten thousand walking down the middle of the road on Auckland’s busy Queen Street. Together we are a swarm of dissenting citizens making our presence and voices heard while leaders from Pacific Rim countries gather together to sign the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. At this point in time little is known about the agreement because its details have been kept classified. Its purpose is to create a free-trade agreement between the countries of New Zealand, Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam. The concern, among those I am standing with, is that the agreement will give greater powers to multinational companies which could undermine the sovereignty of New Zealand and the constitutional rights of our people.

This type of debate is common in New Zealand; the Treaty of Waitangi and the subsequent wars that ensued when it was breached remind us how international agreements can have clandestine agendas and unwelcome repercussions. Colonisation is more than just a relic left behind in the nineteenth century. It is a system of logic very much alive today, hidden in economic and political rhetoric. Colonisation strategically infects another culture like a virus, infringing the worldview of its people until they are forcibly disenfranchised. Its malice becomes normalised into everyday behaviours. Historic and present manifestations of this logic send shockwaves that ripple throughout successive generations. Those affected must navigate a complex array of tensions that permeate all aspects of life.

These frictions are alluded to in Rangituhia Hollis’s 3D animation Oho Ake. This 14-metre-long three-channel video work features a psychological odyssey that takes place in a surreal animated world punctuated by a transfixing soundtrack of insectile textures and transcendent electronic beats. A giant figure clambers up high-rise buildings, a car speeds through the night on a covert mission, a choir of digital voices spouts portentous poetry over a pulsating heart and spectrum of hallucinogenic colours. Throughout the work, allusive references to Māori and Pacific cultures are integrated into different architectural environments and suggest a sense of unease with the Western European-dominated drive of modernity.

Rangituhia Hollis,  Oho Ake , 2016 (install view) 3 channel colour HD video, 6.2 channel audio, 10:08 mins looped commissioned by Te Tuhi, Auckland photo by Sam Hartnett

Rangituhia Hollis, Oho Ake, 2016 (install view)
3 channel colour HD video, 6.2 channel audio, 10:08 mins looped
commissioned by Te Tuhi, Auckland
photo by Sam Hartnett

An ambiguous skeletal figure made of Māori and Pacific weaponry haunts many of the scenes in Oho Ake by hovering over houses, driving a car and lurking as a silhouette in the Auckland cityscape. This and other elements create a fantastical reflection of the many post-colonial realities that arrest us with their cutting truth but also remain inconceivable spectres that are hard to pin down. As the philosopher Slavoj Žižek writes ‘a fantasy is simultaneously pacifying, disarming . . . and shattering, disturbing, inassimilable into our reality’.[11]

If the global effect of modernity and colonisation has such complex psychological implications for a relatively small island nation, then what greater effect could a multinational agreement governed by an economic imperative have on New Zealand. Of course we are already living in this reality and have done since the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism. This methodical profit-driven logic infiltrates every entity on the planet to some degree. From the algorithms that crawl through our digital footprints to the way our bodies are corralled in the city – we are handled, tracked, analysed, consumed and made into consumers.

Such systematic abstract logic is represented in Monique Jansen’s drawing A length without breadth. In this work, thousands of individually hand-drawn pencil lines are combined to create a swarm of optical murmuration and the appearance of a matrix folded in upon itself. Jansen’s intricate mark-making depicts a rational but complex system of many individual units that make up a whole, not unlike the many minds that make civilisation tick. The mass of pencil lines could be compared to many things, from the weave of textiles to mapping biological emergence or the representation of ‘big data’ harvested from the countless clicks we make searching the internet.

The fact that it is possible to read numerous associations into Jansen’s linear abstractions may be an indication that human existence is now highly engineered within such patterns. There is no ‘off-grid’, no escape from the matrix. The only free will we possess is the degree to which we believe in its illusion. Yet, obviously, we are not an army of drones governed by a hive mind like the workers in an ant farm. It is important to remember that our reality is plastic, contestable and can be reconfigured no matter how demoralisingly impossible it may seem.

The philosopher Alain Badiou surmises that all formalisations are built upon the premise of desiring something impossible and therefore because something is deemed impossible does not eliminate it as a beneficial pursuit. In this instance, Badiou considers the common assertion that it is impossible to achieve equality within a capitalist economy, a formalisation created in the pursuit of profit at the expense of others. He contends that the pursuit of profit and its antithesis, the pursuit of equality, are both comparable impossibilities. For all formularisations are simplistic abstractions created to attain the knowledge of true reality, which Badiou describes as being an impossible pursuit akin to grasping infinity. According to Badiou, the solution to this problem is not in the utopian dream of attaining the infinite but instead the desire to create new possibilities – a desire which requires the conceptualisation of new formalisations.[12]

If our civilisation is dominated by one particular system of logic that clouds our vision, how is it possible to truly gain alternative perspectives from which new formalisations might be created. Shahriar Asdollah-Zadeh’s text and work Pale blue dot, consisting of text and paintings, to establish an adaptable habitat. In an edited email conversation, Asdollah-Zadeh and a NASA engineer known only as George discuss the all-inclusive perspective that one gains from viewing Earth from space, known as the overview effect. This profound perspective occurs when astronauts become aware of how insignificant the sociopolitical divisions between countries are in comparison to the whole of humanity, our fragile ecosystem and unique existence within the universe. As the conversation develops they consider the great potential that Western European countries could gain by welcoming migrants and refugees. George shares that:

approximately a third of PhDs in science, engineering and health in the USA are awarded to foreign-born students. These are the people responsible for scientific and technical advancements. How can anyone argue that providing a home for these promising graduates would not strengthen the economy and society of the country where they studied?

These sentiments of valuing the knowledge and culture that migrants and refugees might contribute are echoed by Asdollah-Zadeh’s polygonal paintings which call on a proud history of Middle Eastern mathematics and architecture. The drawings are reminiscent of the tenth to sixteenth century geometric patterns found in the Topkapı scroll held in the Topkapı Palace Museum in Istanbul, and which were also the basis for many of the tile designs found in mosques around the world. For Asdollah-Zadeh, the future of the Western world could be a new type of formalisation built from an immigrant’s blueprint.

The construct of human civilisation may be systematic but it is certainly not harmonious. Rather, it is charged with fertile sociopolitical tensions – tensions that have the potential to create new possibilities or perpetuate further divisions. The hive hums with many minds but we are not all singing to the same tune and perhaps this is a good thing.



[1] Elizabeth Grossman. High Tech Trash: Digital devices, hidden toxics, and human health. Washington:  Island Press, 2006, pp. 14–21

[2] David Biello. ‘Nuclear Blasts May Prove Best Marker of Humanity’s Geologic Record [in Photos]:

When did the Anthropocene begin?’ Scientific American, February 2015. (accessed 12 May 2016)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Robert Ayson and Jock Phillips. ‘United States and New Zealand – Nuclear-free 1980s’. Te Ara The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand. (accessed 12 May 2016)

[5] Draft Auckland Unitary Plan, March 2013.  (accessed 12 May 2016)

[6] The Auckland Plan. Chapter 11: Auckland’s Housing. Auckland Council. (accessed 12 May 2016)

[7] Tamaki Housing Group. ‘Harassed Tenant Takes Housing NZ to Court’. Press release., November 2014. (accessed 12 May 2016)

[8] Properties sold for the purposes of profit were required to be taxed but many were not because it was difficult to prove the owner’s intention. The new 2015 law attempts to rectify that issue by requiring tax on a property sold within a two-year timeframe. See ‘Govt to tighten tax on capital gains’. Radio New Zealand. 17 May 2015. (accessed 12 May 2016)

[9] Robert MacFarlane. The Old Ways: A journey on foot. London: Penguin Books, 2012, p. 25

[10] This phrase is borrowed from the exhibition Concrete Horizons: Contemporary art from China held at the Adam Art Gallery Te Pātaka Toi, 21 February–9 May 2004, curated by Sophie McIntyre and Zhang Zhao Hui.

[11] Slavoj Žižek. ‘Passions of the Real, Passions of Semblance’ in Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates. Verso, London, 2012. p. 18

[12] Alain Badiou. ‘À la recherche du réel perdu: In search of the lost real’. Lecture, University of Auckland, Auckland, Tuesday, 25 November 2014. (accessed 12 May 2016)