Sophie Jerram, interviewed by Michel Bauwens
Sophie Jerram is an artist, writer and curator with a passion for widening the commons, particularly in cities. Since 2009, as the co-director of Now Future and Letting Space she has curated dozens of talks and large scale public art projects including the Transitional Economic Zone of Aotearoa (TEZA) and the Urban Dream Brokerage. Having originally trained in business and philosophy, she has kept an active interest in company investment and directorships and was a founding director of Loomio 2012-14. She has formerly worked in government and as National Communications Manager for the Sustainable Business Network of New Zealand. She lives in Wellington New Zealand with husband architect Evzen Novak and two children, Franta 13, and Vita, 11 and is involved in community-led planning and engagement in her local community of Vogeltown.
Dear Sophie, we first met at a digital arts festival in Istanbul. Tell me a bit about your formative years and how you got involved in digital culture. Is there anything specific about the context of living in New Zealand that has driven your work ?
Dear Michel. Istanbul is a great city to go deep and that 2011 trip was hugely influential in terms of my thinking about Islam, Christianity, ‘them and us-ness’ and public space. Do you recall how we witnessed a real crackdown on the streets, that year, where drinking and busking in public was being stopped? The centre of Istanbul, Beyoglu, written so fondly of by Orhan Pamuk as a bohemian treasure trove, had just become the last of the seven municipalities to elect an Islamic council and there were many protests around Taksim square where we were exhibiting, protests at the new restrictions in urban spaces.
You and I met briefly the year before at Article, Stavanger,the Biennale for Art and Climate Change, run by Hege Tapio in Norway. I recall we took a ferry out to the Lysefjord and talked all the way there and back then had a beer in a pub. In Norway, I was presenting a work concerned with the commodification of water. Like New Zealand, Norway has no shortage of naturally-occuring fresh water and it seemed appropriate to be questioning why we had adopted a commercial habit of buying bottled water. It is and was of course about a major commodification drive for a relatively cheap but vital resource. Marketing bottled water in a country where there is no market is part of the normalisation process of commodification.
As for digital culture – it has been the place where many of the hungrier minds have gone in New Zealand. That’s probably why I’ve found myself in ADA (Aotearoa Digital Arts) and at ISEA (InterSociety for Electronic Arts) twice. Personally I am a magpie for experiences in business, climate, arts and media – an early adopter but by no means an expert in things digital. My interest is in making experiences for people, – through curating and making – that can be transformative at a personal and community level.
New Zealand is not a heavily intellectual nation, but it is a deeply feeling one. Perhaps staying here has turned me inward, toward unspoken experiences rather than heady ones. Working with composer Dugal McKinnon under the moniker Now Future in 2010-12 (including the work, Te Kore, for Istanbul) was profound . Through the medium of sound we were aiming for communication with people’s limbic systems, rather than addressing the frontal lobes of people’s minds, as it were.
Tell us a bit about the commons movement in New Zealand, and its history ? Did the Maori culture play any special role ?
At age 16 I recall sitting in history class with the strong realisation that ongoing conflict around the Treaty of Waitangi (the founding document between Queen Victoria of England and many Maori tribes in 1840) had come from the confused concepts over of the idea of kawanatanga – interpreted by the English as ‘governance’ – and rangatiratanga- interpreted as ‘sovereignty’.
I’d like to think that this root of the conflict is conceptually understood by many people in New Zealand now – there are many people passionate about history here – but we don’t go much deeper in terms of what this could mean for our future.
Given that New Zealand history (as opposed to foreign history) had only begun to be taught in New Zealand twenty years earlier I’m could be mistaken about the levels of understanding in those over 50.
The ‘commons’ movement here in the pakeha (white person) world is pretty nascent, to be honest. I don’t know many people outside my circles using the term as I understand it.
There has been a long history of remotely sited, intentional communities – somehow these have been present but not party to the table at a wider political or civic level. It is the same with the environmental movement. IE, the ‘protection’ of other species has been a huge driver for New Zealand, but the idea of sharing the world as one is new. Private property is king here and I will write more about that later.
In 2011, as part of Now Future’s Dialogues with Tomorrow series, we brought (Nobel Laureate) Elinor Ostrom to the stage at Victoria University, along with Aroha Mead, a leading Maori and international indigenous rights campaigner, on the Future of the Commons. We had the leader of the (right wing) Business Roundtable, arrive which I thought was a good sign, but on the whole the discussion went a bit dead. Elinor sadly died shortly afterwards and I was moved to push on with more practical manifestations of the idea, namely, building the arts platform Letting Space.
Maori history of commons-based living is deep and knowledge about the different territorial iwi (tribal) approach is available for those who will listen and can be trusted in the pakeha world. It is only with Maori partnership that we can build our commons movement, I am sure of that. For example, I am working alongside an arts-based group, the Kauri Project, looking to raise awareness of the disease-ridden devastation to the Kauri tree (the grandparent species of our indigenous forest) and through this I am optimistic that a bicultural understanding of interdependence will emerge. It is powerful. You will find that Increasingly, ideas of Maori tikanga (customs) influence the way we run our meetings or ‘hui’ as they are often called.
New Zealand has often been a pioneer in civic innovations, I’m thinking of restorative justice which was already practiced there decades ago, but has also been neoliberalized to a strong extent. How do you read the current political conjucture and the possibilities for a commons transition ?
New Zealand is a long, thin, isolated country surrounded by water, prone to hot-housing of ideologies. Yes, there has always been strong attempts at equitable treatment of all citizens – early pioneers like Church missionary Samuel Marsden and Prime Minister Julius Vogel set the tone for that in the 19th Century. Peace activists have been staunch members of our society at all times.
But as you allude, the neo-liberal privatisation assault of the 1980s took this rather sleepy country by surprise. In particular, the last 7 years of ‘look this way’ illusionism of central government has been most damaging to public discourse, to universities and other intellectual harbours. It has destroyed many public good movements – the New Zealand history site, for example Te Ara, is the latest to be downsized this month. Community education was de-funded about 3 years ago. Charity legislation has just changed, for example, to prohibit registered charities from becoming ‘advocacy’ (lobbying) organisations.
At the same time, our local municipalities (‘Local Government’) are employing better staff and political candidates are becoming more engaged with younger and progressive movements.
The New Zealand national temperament has been described as ‘taciturn’ – citizens are not generally good at heady discussion, avoid healthy debate and would prefer to follow the leadership of a very impressive ‘no-need-to-worry’ meme. Many citizens don’t want to recognise that this former idealised country is being manipulated by international trends and that our civil liberties are being eroded alongside our democratic voice. In this light it is hard to be optimistic about the future of the commons.
I’m warning you Michel, there is no paradise!
Globally there is a new hunger for solutions to desperate problems and it’s with our international partners we have to share our gaps and bridges. The very practical New Economy movement in Boston, for example, gives me hope, as does New York’s Creative Time. I have to be optimistic for New Zealand. I mean, there aren’t many other places left in the world where close to our developed cities the water is still fresh in the streams and the forests are thousands of years old. We have to make it work here.
Do you know Enspiral, which is to me a commons-oriented enterpreneurial coalition that is very inspiring to the rest of the world. Can you give us other example of p2p/commons initiatives we should know about ? Is there a special role for women in this in New Zealand
I am inspired by Enspiral and have worked alongside the collective with the Loomio team 2013-14. I shared an office with founder Josh Vial when he came to Wellington in 2008 and then again when we worked on starting 350 campaign in 2010 – but I admit I had no idea how his magnificent vision was going to manifest. It is a co-working space at one level, but it is a nest, a safe harbour for social entrepreneurs. It gives hope to those with a social conscience and has been a leading light to other co-working spaces in the city who certainly feel its influence.
As to women in New Zealand – well, we get ahead by being articulate and naming things that maybe our male counterparts don’t see. Many Maori women are strong and powerful. I find myself drawn to their leadership when I’m undergoing periods of development.
Other groups? I should mention the work of the public art organisation Letting Space, I co-direct with Mark Amery, which commissions artistic projects in the broad interests of developing a greater public commons. Our latest project, the Transitional Economic Zone of Aotearoa, (a project that first came to me in Istanbul) is a powerful provocation about what it might be to run economies based on self-reliance and skill-sharing.
Along the lines of space-activation, our Urban Dream Brokerage service is more specifically about creating urban commons. It feels great to be working with local councils in Wellington, Porirua and Dunedin who believe strongly in public space and discourse.
Social enterprise startups are abundant right now in New Zealand. In post-earthquake Christchurch, one of my favourite groups is Rekindle, which aims to turn damaged building materials into furniture with the work of people undertaking occupational therapy. In Wellington we have lots of social good projects like Inspiring Stories who create funds to help young bright individuals with ideas , or groups like One Percent Collective and Chalkle who promote the idea of giving 1% of their income to charities, and foster peer-2-peer learning.
Like the Urban Dream Brokerage however, I sometimes have the strong sense that we are simply masking market and government failure. We need to keep a critical eye on our reasons for being.
The Loomio tool which underpins much of the work of these organisations certainly allows for much more efficient communication and other forms of voice to be heard. Women may be more articulate online (not always) and so the bias on Loomio is different to that of the men who usually drive startup culture.
How do you see the role of art and culture in this transition ? How do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years time, what do you see yourself doing and what do you hope to achieve ?
Michel in 5 years time I would hope we’d shifted a long way toward creating solid measures and strong consciousness for non-financial values in our communities. I’d like to be working in a more active international movement that recognises commons frameworks and integrates indigenous thinking with pakeha planning. I am seeking to become more knowledgable in understanding the best rules of engagement for commons work from personal and received experiences – both in cities and rural environs. I would really like to continue the work of Ostrom.
The additional aspect of our approach is that in working with art and cultural experiences we can add magic to the transitions we need. Ideas can ‘leap frog’ in the context of artistic practice. We’ve developed a work with digital artist Julian Priest, for example, to mimic the surveillance culture of airports and borders in a most comic way – by scanning for electro-magnetic radiation – in a beach festival context – speaking to many unsuspecting party-goers. Under the auspices of art, many preconceptions are lifted. It’s a hugely freeing framework because rules are suspended. We can play on and draw attention to external frameworks (like Special Economic Zones, in the case of TEZA) but make new suggestions for life within the frame. Art is a subtle way to groom the populace with new ideas, fast.