In The Future of Work, a recent exhibition at The Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt, Aotearoa New Zealand, projects by the artist collective Public Share and Tongan Auckland-based artist John Vea explored the relationship between the daily rituals and conditions of working life and the food stuffs that are produced and consumed, to forefront labour relations in a region that has been a historical hub for the production of food on an industrial scale.
Public Share, comprising Monique Redmond, Harriet Stockman, Kelsey Stankovich, Deborah Rundle, Mark Schroder and Joe Prisk, create site-specific events underpinned by a collaborative ceramics practice at their Te Atatu studio in Auckland. Committed to sharing, production and exchange, their collective work, skills and experiences are informed by an ethics of practice and sustainable enterprise. Their research into local histories and industries, and worker’s rights, inform projects in specific workplaces which are often oriented around common customs such as tea-breaks.
For the Dowse project Collective Agreement (2019) Public Share highlight the eight-hour working day and discuss the “importance of breaks” as a “real and symbolic marker of the state of working life in any country” in their accompanying exhibition document, Take Away. This is also a reference to the landmark achievement of the eight-hour working day in New Zealand in 1840 by Samuel Parnell, a carpenter from the suburb of Petone in Lower Hutt. Underscoring this local history of workplace gains is the subsequent narrative of deregulation and closure of local factories, which had a substantial impact on the working life of the community.
This includes fond memories of the iconic Griffin’s Biscuit Factory, a key employer in Lower Hutt for seventy years before it’s closure in 2008 shifted all production to Auckland. It is a brand closely aligned with work tea-breaks as a right and a conviviality that has become increasingly undermined by changing work habits. Public Share position this daily ritual as a valuable “social interlude” that offers reprieve, but also crucially operating as “conduits for conversation”1 that contribute to a less-hierarchical workplace. The ceramic cups provided as vessels extend the dialogue through the “real and imaginary life of the object” and its potential for dispersal beyond the event itself.
Under these terms the staff were obliged to take at least one ten-minute break for every four hours of work, using their assigned cup in a communal or non-work space, and to hold onto their cups at the end of the project, giving added meaning to the idea of the “keep cup”. Matching this solidarity, Public Share committed their own labour through ceramics and fortnightly home-baking. Enlivening the conversation and making a cultural and material nod to Griffin’s by using some of their biscuit recipes, the project also celebrated the popularity of the communal biscuit-tin.
In the production of these vessels Public Share engage in the complex material enquiries of recent ceramic practices that also privilege the trace of the worker in the digital age, with the deployment of 3D printing also prompting some tidying up by hand to finish the product. Noting the advances in 3D-aided manufacture, Public Share “accepts that we are on the threshold of displacement”, even if it’s still “faster to produce ceramics by hand”. For them, “workers rights remain important, and likely more so under impending large-scale disruption”. Transferring this connection from one site of work to the other, Public Share used a “home Te Atatu clay” mix and a glaze incorporating ash from their studio fire, with the visible mineral residue from neighbouring Poplar, Macrocarpa and Pohutukawa trees. Holding the cups, the staff at The Dowse could recognise these physical traces of the warmth of their makers’ care and labour.
In a comparable work that alludes to contradictions in the labour market and determinations as to how working communities might better be served, John Vea’s contribution to The Future of Work at The Dowse, Not to be sold separately (2019) drew on conversations with local Pacific residents. During his research trip for this project, Vea was particularly struck by the community’s hospitality and openness. Herbert Bartley, Creative Director, Pacific, for Massey University’s College of Creative Arts, who was raised in Lower Hutt, shared his memories of clothing factory work, a perk of which was a wardrobe full of suits, reminding Vea of his own experiences of working in factories.
Vea’s installation comments on these “benefits” as the supply of cheap or free goods granted to full-time workers, but not those employed on temporary contracts. Such products are commonly traded with or discounted for casually employed workmates, and shared with family, neighbours and friends, creating an informal economy and stockpiles of products in homes. Vea aligns this with life on Pacific Islands, where people share or exchange what they’ve caught, grown or cooked with family and community. In contrast, Vea highlights the restrictive job “benefits” meted out by employers, and attendant regulations around the private use of products “Not to be sold separately”, as the label states.
“Not to be sold separately”, this generic phrase became the title of a new work presented in the gallery—a mock worker’s storage cupboard below a staircase filled with bags of locally produced Mexicano Corn Chips. While an original 1970s state-housing kitchen store cupboard bursts with Griffin’s biscuits. Open doors signal that the contents are available to take and share, and that the public participate in this relationship. Here, favoured brands and dietary choices are demonstrably linked to availability, the logistics of the marketplace and its attendant power structures.
Vea explores these issues further in an exhibition at the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in Sydney. If I pick your Fruit, will you put mine back? included a newly commissioned work that is the culmination of a year-long project, and two Sydney based research-residencies, during which Vea spent time with the Pacific Islander and broader community. In response to these Sydney exchanges, the commissioned work Section 69ZD Employment Relations Act 2000 (2019) highlights the experiences of workers under New Zealand’s break entitlement laws. This is a second iteration of a work Vea created for the Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts in West Auckland called You Kids should only experience this for a Moment—Don’t be here for Life like me (2018) critiquing the conditions for factory employees.
At 4A Vea has recreated from memory a staff break-room with sleep-inducing yellow walls decorated with picturesque scenes of Pacific Islands. These photographs were overprinted with quotations from noted Pacific scholars, intended to empower migrant workers to reconnect with their homelands and oceans. These motivations are contrasted by the familiar, often reductive and negative rhetoric, of Australian and New Zealand politicians relayed on a notice board and an accompanying audio file supplied, discussing the expatriate workforce of Pacific peoples.
In this installation minimal cooking facilities are shown alongside common food stuffs from Pacific Islands that imply the regional diet. These products are available for the public to touch, use or consume but only during the standard break-times of 10:00–10:10am, 12:00–12:30pm and 3:00–3:10pm, when they are allowed entry. The audience physically encounters the break as a controlled space and time, in which they must “consume food and information quickly” in the bleak amenities provided, as if they themselves are part of the production line. Our presence, and the worker’s absence, pushes us to consider the cultural contradictions for the migrant worker and the dehumanising precision of the application of these minimum rights and entitlements for all “low-skilled” labourers.
Vea also developed a second commission with 4A in a joint initiative with the Performance Space’s Live Works Festival of Experimental Art at Carriageworks. To coincide with the Carriageworks Farmers Market, Vea installed a stand similar to those in holiday expos but with a reversal of perspective, as Pacific Island nations view New Zealand and Australia as work rather than holiday destinations. This was a further comment on the restrictive premises of the global trade in temporary labour migration, exemplified by New Zealand’s Recognised Seasonal Employer Limited Visa, which entitles Pacific Islanders to work in the country’s horticulture and viticulture industries only for the visa’s duration.
This short-termism can be isolating and expensive, consuming much of the minimum wage salary that workers receive. The invisibility of this workforce is emphasised by the display of life-sized photographs of agricultural workers, with their faces cut out, inviting the audience to stand in the shoes of the workers and insert their own heads in the hole provided. Oranges with stickers detailing minimum wage levels and visa restrictions can be taken from packing boxes printed with “Seasonal Workers Small UMU” (the name of a New Zealand product to transport food cooked in Pacific island earth ovens).
The consequences of these discriminatory policies are everywhere in the eroding of workers’ rights, escalated by the globalisation of the workforce. Standing in someone else’s shoes can be an eye-opener. As with the work of Public Share, drawing attention to the tea break, to share in a communal moment, potentially offers its own sites of resistance, providing a mirror to our everyday rituals of production and consumption as pause for thought.
Unless otherwise stated, all quotes and information taken from answers given by Public Share in an email interview with the author in October 2019.
The Future of Work was on exhibition at The Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt, New Zealand, 3 August – 17 November 2019.
John Vea: If I pick your Fruit, will you put mine back? is on exhibition at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, 25 October – 15 December 2019.
Altair Roelants is a freelance arts writer based between South West France and Auckland. She is co-founding director of the bilingual visual arts career service Art Talk Write.