Oblique – The Otira Project

16 January – 13 February 1999

Otira, Highway 73

West Coast Route Southern Alps, New Zealand

Curated by Julaine Stephenson

Philipa Veitch,  The Wit of the Staircase2 x 60 minute audio recordings of people describing their daydreams, played on two handwinding cassette players, installation view, 1999

I think it was about a four hour drive. My friend and I left Christchurch at about 5 in the afternoon, driving unobserved along a single lane highway through empty fields. After some time, a mountain range appeared abruptly on the horizon, smothered in clouds. Another hour or so and we had reached the foothills and began a winding ascent. Massive screes loomed on either side of the road, and I seem to recall there was a pleasant smell of lupins. We passed in and out of the rain as we drove through valley after valley. The long twilight finally vanished as we began the final ascent up through Arthurs Pass. Hairpin turns curved above 5 or 6000 foot chasms, which were by now obscured by rain and fog. We peered anxiously through the rain at every new sign and tiny mountain outpost. Long after nightfall, we reached Otira.

After checking into the Hotel, we crossed over the single railway line and made our way gingerly through the dark toward a group of houses. A single streetlight, about a hundred metres down the road, provided the only illumination.

Some of the other artists were camping in an abandoned house during the project. They seemed moody and withdrawn after two days trapped in the house by an uninterrupted downpour. We decamped back to the Hotel and our beds in what became known as the Blue Room.

The next day we scoped out the town. Dwarfed by mountains, its dominant feature was an almost but not quite abandoned railway workshop and yards. A freight train would pass through the town at odd hours of the day and night transporting coal from a distant mine. A dozen or so mostly abandoned fibro cottages stood along the single street across the railway line. The Hotel, the towns’ only functioning business, was next to the highway.

We were there to participate in Oblique – a month long project involving thirty artists, mainly from New Zealand and Australia, who had travelled there to construct site specific works in the towns’ abandoned houses, workshops, parks, indoor pool, school, and community hall. Only 20 or so people still lived in the town, just 10 adults and their school age children. The Hotel – a mishmash of flock carpet, printed wallpaper, ancient wood veneer furniture, faded landscape prints and gas fireplaces – was the only source of civilisations’ comforts.

For decades a busy mining and railway town, Otira had for various reasons become almost extinct. The town had been sold by NZ Rail to the government, and fell eventually into private hands. More recently, the town in its entirety had been famously purchased for $700,000 by a family who had moved in from Auckland to run the hotel. They were now on the verge of bankruptcy.

Oblique – The Otira Project had been conceived by New Zealand artist Julaine Stephenson, who had gradually developed an interest in the town after a series of visits to the region. Sympathetic to the plight of the elderly owners of the town, as well as to the possibilities of the site as a potential exhibition space, Stephenson initiated Oblique with the idea of developing an ongoing project that could provide a locus for contemporary site specific installations, artist residencies and events, as well as potentially re-animating the economy of the town through a form of art-tourism.

In Oblique, the location and environment of Otira itself would act as both exhibition space and subject, as text, form and surface upon which ideas of itself could be projected or animated. At least this was the idea. As the town had gradually been evacuated, dispossessed of its’ function or utility, so too had it closed in on itself, obfuscating attempts to transform it into a “cultural site”. While this was not necessarily the main intention, the atmosphere in Otira was such that it simultaneously opened and closed itself to the possibilities of the project.

The gradually decaying forms of the abandoned domestic and industrial buildings, set in an otherwise uninhabited semi-alpine landscape, evoked a feeling of melancholy and vague anxiety, and resonated with the traces of previous and unknown occupants. There was a pervasive atmosphere of isolation, of timelessness, of a discontinuity with its own history that was unable to be suppressed or overridden by any obvious indications of urban or social “progress”. Abandoned, burnt out and vandalised dwellings stood resolutely against the onslaught of frigid winters and dry, hot summers. Seemingly bypassed by any compelling reason for its continued existence, Otira endured.

The psychic space that lay between the materiality of Otiras’ past, and immateriality of its present, became the somewhat fragile context in which the participating artists were able to conceive, construct and situate their work. Time, habitually perceived within a framework of familiar social, domestic and work-related routines, took on a certain ambiguity in this novel environment, unbounded, for most of the participants, by the usual demands and contingencies of the everyday. This unyielding open-endedness elicited a variety of strategies for engaging with the project and with the sometimes disconcerting spatio-temporal qualities of the site.

The nature of much of the work tended to be temporary, open-ended or process based, reflecting the qualities of the artists’ evolving engagement with the site or sites. Nuances of the towns’ social and economic histories, its remoteness, as well as the forms of the architectural and natural environments formed the basis for a multiplicity of investigations, even if some of the finished works were sometimes overwhelmed by the attributes of the location itself.

Residents and visitors who had travelled from Christchurch had mixed reactions to the show. Oblique had been initiated with the support of the local community, most of whom were enthusiastic, if not bemused by the nature of the project and the works exhibited there. The interaction between the visiting artists and local residents, and the opportunity it afforded for friendship and a mutual understanding was in a sense one of the main intentions behind the project. Nonetheless, some of the residents were to varying degrees unenthusiastic and at times hostile, especially in regards to the level of public funding the project had received, while the artists perhaps had unreasonable expectations about the response to their work.

Visitors to Oblique were provided with a map which indicated the location of the different installations, objects and images situated around the town, while a kiosk was set up to provide further information on the screenings, events and artist talks that were running in conjunction with the show. Alternately subtle, humorous, melancholic and tongue-in-cheek, the exhibition reflected the sense of disquiet and bemusement the artists sometimes felt about their presence in the town. There was a simultaneously forlorn and playful quality to many of the works, most of which were constructed or arranged out of materials and objects found on site. Other artists, including myself, also brought with them fully completed works, which were then incorporated into the environment of the exhibition.

What gradually became apparent to the participants was the shifting quality of intentions and expectations, of the experiences and outcomes involved in the project. For the visiting artists, the seemingly elongated or expansive sense of time that existed there could at one moment encourage a greater attention to the details of objects, sounds, changes in weather and spaces within the town, the next moment instilling a sense of restlessness and boredom. There was a sense that one had to begin to nurture a completely different set of internal mechanisms with which to respond to the demands of this environment and the nature of our presence there. The ability to successfully translate these sentiments into a tangible process for developing new work was the ultimate challenge presented by the Otira Project.

By elaborating on these essentially subjective responses and interventions in relation to a particular site, I am attempting to give some kind of indication or direction about the ways in which I develop a process for responding to a place or subject in my work. In this particular instance, I responded by bringing a fully formed work, The Wit of the Staircase, which at that stage I had only exhibited once, as part of the exhibition Sleepwalker in the Caravan project at the Experimental Art Foundation in Adelaide. When I heard about Oblique, and the descriptions of Otira, it sounded like a location that would in some way contribute to or expand upon the possible readings of the work, while it seemed to me that the piece would in turn further develop the themes and possible readings of the exhibition and the site.

After deliberating on a number of possible locations around the town, I decided to install two tape players in the lounge room of the hotel. Placed on two tiny occasional tables that blended with the other furniture in the room, the piece seemed to become enveloped by the room almost to the point of being camouflaged. The hotel, which dated back to the 1920’s, had via an incremental process of accretion, visibly retained the traces of it’s numerous occupants and changing economic fortunes. By engaging with these enigmatic qualities of the site, I hoped to allude to the lost or forgotten memories and inhabitations that were buried within the rooms, passageways, and objects in the hotel.

The broader psychogeography that connected the ghostly traces residing in Otira with the disembodied voices on the tapes was the field I wished to elaborate upon within the framework of Oblique. This psychogeography or psychoecology acted as a kind of invisible membrane or substructure that allowed these otherwise disconnected voices, objects and places to form a common ground within the perception of the person who occupied the space and viewed, operated and listened to the work. The act of playing and listening to the daydreams became a means whereby one becomes not so much lost in a reverie, but drawn into a process of active engagement, where the imaginary spaces of the daydreams are made audible, and therefore present, within the temporality and physicality of the present moment. The listener literally conjures up the voices, where they themselves become absorbed within the ambience of the new environment, as well as in the layers of heard and forgotten sounds and thoughts that exist in the listeners mind.

Philipa Veitch

This is an extract from my 2001 Masters thesis “Nature Strip”.