Arquitectura de Feria, Antigua I Barbuda
Reading Labours
In his second New Zealand Festival column Mark Amery writes on writing, reading, listening, bush walks and being idle.


What does it really mean to be idle? In this multitasking, attention grabbing world isn’t idleness something to be cultivated? Do the arts encourage loafishness?

I found myself on such fruitful, work-shy paths of thought after hanging with the Idleness labouritory (sic) project Reading Labours on the corner of Kent and Marjoribank in the Capital. 

This was a 24-hour endurance performance piece for which a group of artists locked themselves in a vacant space from 8pm to 8pm, continuously reading aloud through a microphone to passersby outside. It was not in the festival or fringe proper, rather one of those one-off festive encounters that make Wellington festival time really sing.  I got a Katherine Mansfield story about reading, a treatise on Duchamp and nursery rhymes.

When I arrived the real estate agent next door had complained about the noise of the reading, leaving artist Julieanna Preston cosying up to me on the other side of the glass door so I could read along, listening to snippets through the gap in the glass. Meanwhile, the other performers lounged, paced and slept in the large concrete space like listless animals in an enclosure at the zoo. Waiting to be put to work.

Loafing in the doorway, I found it all rather stimulating.  Particualrly when timed to coincide with the opening evening of New Zealand Festival’s Writers Week (which used to be more generously called Writers and Readers Week). 

A fellow listener in the doorway shared her rum balls with me. She was in for the long haul. We speculated on how seditious and looked down upon being idle in a public space like this still felt. I felt a great sense of liberation. You had to stop and listen. I became an observer, a thinker. This is the value of being idle. 

Yet, surely, reading aloud isn’t the slightest bit idle? What a gift we give each other! Here these performers read continuously to each other, allowing each other the luxury of time just listening.  

Across the road at the Embassy writers and readers were gathering to do exactly the same for the next four days.

Labour and idleness are paired in Antigua I Barbuda’s delightful free family funfair Arquitectura de Feria in Frank Kitts Park. Rustic, rusty and quirky, full of the traditional clowning of the sideshow barker, a set of wonky rides require exertion on the part of children to operate. My son had to pump iron while his little sister rode a ferris wheel on a toilet seat. My sweetheart and I got to lounge on a rocking recliner with a fan aloft, all powered by our children, while sweet nothings were whispered to us through headphones. Lackadaisical respite.

Is going for a bush walk a form of idle? Or is moving round a loop track - observing on the go - considered more virtuous? 

I thoroughly enjoyed another piece of family fare For the Birds at Otari Wilton Bush. Its a two kilometre walk down into a gully, in the dark, encountering sonic and light based artworks inspired by native birds (musing on the title, I doubt the birds really appreciated it). 

This was a great follow-up to last festival’s Power Plant in the Botanic Gardens. The latter was far more spectacular, diverse and child friendly but For the Birds excelled being far finer, more unified and environmentally sensitive in its aesthetic around a resonant local theme. What could be more of a local magic experience than glowworms, bird call and a game of Spotlight in the darkening bush? 

There was rewarding subtle interplay between music, tonal vibration and real bird call (the Morepork), and a well paced sprinkle of lighting effects that never dominated the experience of a nighttime bushwalk. Lets see it done again. It would be an enormous tourist drawcard at Zealandia.

Hours spent staring at the grand ceiling listening to music in the Michael Fowler Centre – idle? Or does paying a lot of money exempt you from that charge? 

The Fowler was the scene for a pretty extraordinary rock light show across its fine wooden surfaces earlier this week. It was the return to Wellington of lauded American singer songwriter Sufjan Steven and his exquisite indie band, playing the entirety of his album-of-the-year Carrie and Lowell as rock symphony. Plus a long back-catalogue encore, acoustic around one microphone.

Ever had that curious cultural experience of being one of 1% in the room who doesn’t want to rise to their feet in ovation? Who is puzzled while others rave for days after?  I’m a Sufjan fan. When he played the Opera House four years ago it was jubilant, ecstatic - everyone was on song and on fire. 

This time to me they were idling, long into a world tour with an acclaimed set. The intimate emotion of the album had long been replaced by the mechanism of performing night after night. There was much impressive, accomplished prog rock noodling unanchored to real feeling. Even the folksy encore felt like a going-through-the-motions affectation. 

I know as I write (and you read) that there are 100 of you writing imaginary contradicting reports of this concert in your head – how busy we are when we idle! I guess I just like things a little more ragged.    

Here’s to a few weeks more of idling away from our screens.



Written by

Mark Amery

10 Mar 2016

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.

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