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Hardwiring Te Tai Tokerau To The World

11 Dec 2023

Creatives in regional Aotearoa know how hard it is to fend for yourself - so one Northland organisation has found a way to bypass the bureaucracy and hidden hierarchies through exciting new portals. 

Isolation - both geographic and artistic - has the potential to cripple creativity.

But Dr Maggie Buxton and her collaborators at AwhiWorld are determined to ensure that there's nothing that can constrain those wanting to thrive creatively in Te Tai Tokerau.

Focussing on transdisciplinary practice and opportunities that showcase the intersection of arts, science and technology, Whangārei resident Buxton has never been one to accept limitations or perceived realities. 

She tells The Big Idea "It’s incredibly important to me that we find a way to bypass the bureaucracy, politics and social protocols that get in the way of regional emerging creatives getting their mahi into the world - particularly cross-disciplinary creatives who don’t fit in boxes easily. 

I feel there are hidden hierarchies and ways that emerging practitioners and regional or community practitioners are put in their place in the arts area.  

"When those creatives are working in science, tech and art, funding is not as easy to gain or if they have mahi that doesn’t easily fit in a box, they struggle to ‘sell’ it to funders."

Northland-based artist, author, designer and Awhi Incubator contributor Tracey Willms Deane agrees that there's a real threat of feeling cut off from the rest of Aotearoa’s creative community when you live regionally. 

"Absolutely. Literally and intangibly, like funding doesn’t often come north of Auckland, for example. There's a lack of availability of opportunity and support."

South Hokianga contemporary mixed media Māori artist Reva Mendes (Ngāpuhi, Te Rarawa, Tainui) adds that it expands beyond just creative opportunities. "We live in rural areas and that means less economic and structural support and safety like roads, transport, health and educational services, civil defence, housing and food supplies!"

Helping the garden grow

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Buxton's desire to 'hardwire' Te Tai Tokerau to the rest of the world - without the need for local creatives to find links through main regions and spend hours driving to and from Auckland to find opportunities - sparked AwhiWorld's latest ambitious project;  Alternative Reality Gardening (ARG).

It's all part of the Awhi Incubator project, which receives funding support from Manatū Taonga and follows on from their successful BIOS interactive installation in June.  

Artists, poets, crafters, dancers, engineers, theorists, scientists and technologists have all come together under the theme of gardening between different realities, seen through different practices. From organic farming to creating future fibres and materials, nothing is off the table.

ARG producer and curator Buxton is excited to switch up AwhiWorld's delivery approach for ARG, with a free symposium available online as well as a lush, colourful and hypnotic publication that's available both digitally and physically.

"I was interested in moving away from places bound by time and space into digital platforms where time and location were not issues and resilience increased. 

It’s hard to cancel a server or postpone a webpage because of a weather event.  

"Also, it felt like we could have much more flexibility to connect our creatives globally as time and location constraints were removed the pre-recorded nature of the symposium means it exists in a kind of everywhere, ever-now type reality."

Power of portals

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 Natalia Fuentes, Propagation Vase. Photo: Supplied,

At the project's core is a creative conception of connection - and that unlimited imagination is the key to finding answers to vexing issues across science and society. 

"AwhiWorld has always focused on portals, alternative realities, parallel worlds," Buxton expands. "It's quite personal because I’ve been fascinated with other dimensions and worlds in a sci-fi and spiritual sense since I was a small girl. 

"Later, the concept of a portal was a metaphor for opening possibilities and disrupting mindsets between disciplines and cultures. Then, in the last fifteen years, I have been engaging with the portals of devices like laptops and phones, where we can connect to different worlds - be they virtual, social or cultural - and see other realities using augmented and virtual reality.

"I believe that if we can activate portals between realities and blur the barriers to connecting across different mindsets and practices, then many of the issues that face us today will have a greater possibility of finding workable solutions. 

"We get stuck in one reality and don’t realise there are many. In a world where reality is becoming more fluid than ever before, having the capacity to move between ways of thinking and being will become critical."

Bringing the world to Te Tai Tokerau

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Dr Amy Holt, Sea glass. Photo: Supplied.

While ARG has a truly international feel, all roads - and realities - lead back to Aotearoa's Far North.

Both the book and symposium feature participants from the Awhi Incubator project and a selected group of people who have previously been involved in labs or projects with AwhiWorld.

Buxton details "I was interested in positioning our incubator participants right next to cross-disciplinary practitioners that they would not normally encounter unless they went to an international conference like ISEA or ARS Electronica. 

"Some of the international contributors are well-known and incredibly respected in their fields. They now sit side by side on the pages of the book and on the web page with our local participants. 

"This project allowed those involved to have an international connection and ‘track record’ without going through traditional graft."

And it's been a hit with those who have taken part.

Mendes, who has a background in traditional Māori weaving and fibre arts, works collaboratively within Toi Māori and hapū as well as local community arts, education and development.

She told The Big Idea that having her research into harakeke as part of the ARG project helped focus her research and further her practice. 

"It allows me to see dynamic and diverse worlds I know nothing about and removes self-limiting beliefs through opening awareness. It's connecting me to myself and my creativity, as well as to others in the project.

"It’s brought forth parts of myself I have been wanting to express, giving me confidence, great learning and wisdom along the way."

Mendes describes seeing her mahi in the ARG publication as "Surreal and also feels like where I am meant to be. 

I feel like I have a voice and am being heard.

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Tracey Willms Deane. Photo: Supplied.

Deane is quick to tautoko those sentiments. 

"It’s an antidote to this feeling of not being noticed, that we are an unfocussed-on area for funding and programmes. Having access to the rest of the world helps us be more engaged. If we can cut out middle places and go straight out to the rest of everywhere else. 

"Being featured alongside international artists was fantastic, it felt extraordinary. It's nice to normalise connections with international professionals. An opportunity to build direct relationships with professionals in other fields is exactly what is needed."

Buxton's proud of what's being achieved out of Northland's creative community.

"I think many people have been really surprised and impressed by the range of works as well as the calibre - and location - of those involved. It feels like international-level mahi. 

"A lot of cool international stuff happens in our region, like Collaborationz - another international peer-connecting project. These types of responses are essentially forms of creative innovation; ways of finding connections, to keep practising and staying relevant despite our isolation."

Adjusting your reality

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 Chris Brady, Puriri Talking (Performance Still). Photo: Supplied,

The publication - produced with designer Jessica Keesing - proved a huge thrill for Buxton, particularly "working with the contributors to select their angle and refine their content - it felt like cross-disciplinary practice at its best. 

"I was excited that the international contributors were so happy to be included with some of them showing a new side of themselves for the first time in what they generously put forward to be published – some of the scientists said they felt more excited for this foray into creativity than some of the papers they had published wearing their other hats."

Buxton notes that this is just the start of what the ARG concept has to offer, with a physical version of the book and a large-scale creative innovation lab planned for 2024. The whole process is perpetual by design.

"Anyone with a creative or environmental bent will find something for themselves. In the publication pages, hackers forage for algorithms while space scientists forage for sea glass. Dancers create Calla Lilly choreography while technologists generate 3D-printed seaweed. And in the symposium, psychotherapists discuss gardening and de-colonisation, alongside organic farmers sharing their experience of living in an alternative reality in rural Northland."

The door remains open for other creatives in Te Tai Tokerau, Aotearoa and beyond to be inspired to get involved and spark further conversations.

Mendes explains "If there is something deep down you want to have come out and you want to work through your doubts, amazing things will happen. 

"Many worlds have opened up for me as a result of this mahi. I am looking through the portal to see lots of good things at the end, as well as seeing results already on this journey."

Written in partnership with AwhiWorld. You can find the Alternative Reality Gardening symposium and publication here.

Dr Maggie Buxton, Morning Glory Bioplastic Experiment Batch 5 - 11 Jan 23. Photo: Supplied.
Dr Maggie Buxton, Morning Glory BioPlastic. Photo: Supplied.