Territory and Mobility in Tāmaki Makaurau

Jeremy Leatinu'u,  Tight Rope , 2011 (video still).

Jeremy Leatinu'u, Tight Rope, 2011 (video still).

Published in:
Hue & Cry
Issue 7: Deep
Edited by: Chloe Lane, Andrea Bell, Ashleigh Young
Published 6 July 2013

As a matter of instinctual vindication I punched my middle finger in the air just in time to be seen in his rear windscreen. The car stopped instantly and the driver bounded out of his seat and headed straight for me. The short and grossly muscular skinhead man, wild with indignation, stormed up to me and bellowed: 

‘You touched my car! You think you're a tough guy eh, trying to impress your girl are ya, you think you can fuck with me?’
‘Are you joking, you hit me,’ I said.
He replied: ‘This is a DRIVE WAY you were in MY WAY!’

This is but one of many near violent encounters that I have either witnessed or experienced while being a pedestrian, cyclist and motorist in Auckland. Upon reflection of such experiences I have come to the conclusion that Auckland is a city of fractured mobility and territory, where various social codes of transition occur in simultaneous disharmony. Not that you would know by looking at a map of Auckland. In contemporary cartography cities are represented as definable entities, although, closer to the truth is that cities are multifarious and unknowable places. What would it be like to map intangible social relations and alternative methods of movement through a city? What new urban relationships and experiences would we form through the aid of such a map? How many realms of perception would it reveal within the one city?

In his novel The City & The City China Miéville imagines a contemporaneous city that is confusingly divided into two cities by a complex network of crosshatched boundaries. The cities share the same geographic location but fundamentally remain historically, socially and politically divided. On the most part the invisible boundaries between the cities are self-governed by the citizens who live within a strict social regime of ignoring or 'unseeing' the opposing city and those that dwell there. The result is a boarder of enforced behaviour not unlike the 'thought crimes' of Gorge Orwell's London in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Miéville's ability to make this absurd fiction convincing is the human truth that it draws on – that we indeed inhabit cities as a society but they are greatly mediated by personal and collective boundaries and, in essence, cities within a city. 

Among the many cities that Auckland could be experienced as, it is hard to ignore that it is primarily a city experienced by car. In such a motorway dependent city one’s car becomes a hermetic bubble from which to live and experience urban life, to the extent that in Auckland the car has replaced the home as 'a man's castle'. Hence, the anger of the driver towards me – for me to touch his car and gesture the finger was the equivalent of pissing on his doorstep. I had desecrated his territory and had given justification for rage. It also occurred to me that the man's violent bewilderment was tied up in a further notion of territory – that the presence of a human body had no place in an area designed for cars. 

In Miévelle's divided city, such a border or territory transgression would be considered a 'breach', and the omnipresent and all-powerful force also known as Breach would mediate the incident. If a breach of the invisible boundary was committed, Breach would emerge from the shadows and delete the transgressor. In reality, without a mediator of invisible territories, it remains that of citizens to find the limits of such boundaries in order to cohabitate. 

In his recorded performance Tight Rope (2011), Jeremy Leatinu'u tested the limits of the boundary between motorist and pedestrian to reflect upon a much more grave traffic incident than my own. The video pictures Leatinu'u walking tightrope fashion down the dotted centre line of Church Street, a busy road in Otahuhu. The artist’s chosen action was in response to a fatal hit and run incident that occurred on the street. Arms stretched, Leatinu'u defines his own body's physical territory and balance as he walks. The behaviour of passing cars become indicative of the varying limits of care and tolerance of this unorthodox use of street space, and borderline transgression of road etiquette. To ovoid collision, motorists are forced to negotiate the perimeter of his body. As car after car passes, varying degrees of safe distance is exercised; some overcautiously give Leatinu'u a wide birth while others aggressively swerve around him.  By willingly putting his body in a potentially harmful situation, Leatinu'u highlights the fragility of the body in the urban environment, and tests the boundary between motorist and pedestrian. 

Shadowing this polar experience of motorist and pedestrian, is the great irony that despite being one of the most accessible cities by water and indeed founded upon its waterways, it is land transport that now dominates Auckland. This should come as no surprise since many of New Zealand’s main arterial roads were built as a military and economic colonising strategy in the mid to late 19th century. This is the history of Great South Road, the road that would significantly lead to Auckland’s urban and financial growth.  

Leaping forward into the 1950s these colonial roads were superseded by an extensive motorway system replicating the American dream of a motorcar dominated urban landscape and to make way for a new type of economic colonisation. In keeping with this model, Auckland later embraced the sprawling suburb with snaking cul-de-sac streets and the shopping mall as the new town centre. In recent years shopping malls and retail hubs have almost replaced the original Auckland townships. What's more is that when shopping mall developers gain the permit to build or expand, they now strategically apply for a plan change as opposed to a resource consent. The former allows the developer to work closely with the city council behind closed doors with only superficial public consultation. The result of such a process is that developers ultimately make decisions that should be made by an urban planner and open to public input. Promising new enclosed public spaces to service communities, these developers build immense beguiling tin sheds that shun their immediate location for the benefit of profit. 

On the evening of the described encounter, my partner and I were visiting our local cinema, located in the St Lukes shopping mall. We live only a few blocks away. To walk to the cinema we must jump a small brick fence, walk a well-trodden path through a garden, and pass through the dimly lit car park. This mall is not designed for local pedestrians. It does not encourage foot traffic. Rather, it increases vehicular traffic by encouraging people to drive into it from other areas across Auckland. It is an inward looking edifice that disadvantages the surrounding inhabitants.

This is the self-consuming happenstance of Auckland's shape shifting and pluralistically experienced urbanity. Yet, in the chaos of the everyday I find myself unseeing much of what contributes to the many cities within the one city. As Guy Debord and the Situationist's taught us, we need to be active observers to become aware of such plainly obvious urban realities that surround us. Considering the Situationist's dérive, brings to mind my experience of Luke Willis Thompson's work inthisholeonthisislandwhereiam (2012). 

In this work Thompson chartered a two-week schedule of taxi rides from a downtown dealer gallery to his mother’s home in the suburb, Epsom, where visitors were welcome to walk through the house at their whim. The taxi route was choreographed by the artist to create a nuanced journey of various social urban strata from the flâneur-like perspective of a chauffeured window. In conversation with Thompson I further learnt that, while the car journey was intentionally open to interpretation, it was formed in the nature of a memorial to trigger specific local memories. The car follows the taxi route that the artist and friends would take as a teenager to 'hit the town'. It also passes by a bridge known for a number of suicides by local teenage boys. Other sites included a tag reading R.I.P (in remembrance of a tagger) and an antique store both of which refer to Thompson's earlier works: Work No. 1 and Yaw (2010). The most intriguing to me was a driveway that made it possible to cut through from one street to another. On this shortcut were a series of small two-story apartments commonly known to be rented on rotation by small migrant families in order to acquire addresses in zone for the schools, Auckland Grammar and Epsom Girls Grammar. The social prestige associated with these schools, and others in the wealthy areas of Auckland, have greatly influenced the real-estate value for the area and also necessitated temporary low-cost accommodation or other more cunning ideas of attaining zoned addresses.      

The destination of the Thompson's family home brought the anonymous voyeurism of the taxi ride into contact with the intimacy of domestic life. Within the old tree shaded bungalow, evidence of condensed living was clearly apparent with mattresses used in areas barely qualifying as rooms and numerous accumulated belongings left out, stacked or stowed. The opportunity to drift and wander through a stranger's home gave a momentary glimpse into another's life and with it a curiosity of the social and economic factors that necessitated a poor overcrowded home in the most affluent suburb of Auckland. 

It is tempting to echo James K. Baxter’s ode ‘Auckland you great arsehole’. In reality though, the truth is so much more complicated and less heroically dismissed. Auckland can be experienced as different realms within the one location by subconsciously choosing to navigate and see what we wish. These perceived social codes of mobility and territory that we build from personal and collective assumptions, will continue to be transgressed and unfailingly trigger violent reactions and disputes. But when they do collide we need not come to blows. We need only to see through the breach and consider the absurd arbitrary borders. 

Just as it looked like he was going to lunge for me, my partner diffused the situation by laughing uncontrollably at him. Stunned, his ego instantly flaccid, he backed off and said: ‘If you weren't a woman LAUGHING GIRL, I would smash you.’ He returned to his car and sped off. We took a minute for the laughter to lose its intensity, then we listened as they were swallowed by the endless sonic grind of tarmac, rubber and steel.

Bruce E. Phillips