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Red Light Roadblock?

Rhythm and Vines in full flight. Photo: Instagram.
As Alert Levels are replaced by traffic lights, one of NZ's biggest music festivals has stalled at the stop sign. The Lowdown looks at how the new COVID framework is impacting the arts.


When the Government proclaimed Aotearoa would be open for summer - Rhythm and Vines was held up by the media as the posterchild of what we should be excited about.

The catch at the time - Aucklanders would need to be open to travel to make it viable. It’s those travellers that are now threatening this year's event's existence.

After receiving a petition from locals calling on organisers to call off this year’s New Year’s spectacle and meetings with iwi leaders expressing their concerns about the possibility of visitors bringing the pandemic to Tairāwhiti’s doorstep, R&V founder Hamish Pinkham and his team were forced to weigh up their options. 

There was also the added pressure of Gisborne’s ability to host the 24,000 people event still weeks away from clarification - the punters were understandably itching for a decision, one way or another.

That's why it seemed inevitable that R&V announced on social media "the sad news is Rhythm and Vines will not be going ahead this New Year due to the COVID Protection Framework settings being at RED for the Gisborne region.

"An incredibly stressful time for everyone involved, however, pressure makes diamonds, and our team are determined to turn this into a positive." 

That positive being holding the first R&V Easter, from 15-17 April, 2022. "While we are sad that we won't be spending the New Year together, we are pumped about the possibilities of this new adventure. We are already having some exciting discussions with touring talent around this period. Expect some announcements regarding the lineup for Easter in the coming weeks."

So like it, love it or loathe it - we find ourselves in a national traffic light.

And just like its road management name-sake, how you feel about it could well be down to not the overall benefits but what colour you're currently on.

As festival season - and peak earning/performance capacity - looms, the reality of the new COVID-19 Protection Framework is still causing much trepidation for many who make their living off the access of live crowds to their work.

While there will be many more freedoms (for the double-vaxxed) come Friday, for a certain section of event organisers, performers and support staff - Red light still means stop.

While most of the North Island and all of the South Island will spend the next two weeks in orange (with no gathering restrictions if using the My Vaccine Pass), for Northland, Auckland, Taupō and Rotorua Lakes Districts, Kawerau, Whakatane, Ōpōtiki Districts, Gisborne District, Wairoa District, Rangitikei, Whanganui, and Ruapehu Districts - they’ll start off in red.

With event size limits of up to 100 people (based on 1m distancing, seated and separated for service of food and drink), that’s not going to be enough to stand on their own two feet.

New Zealand Events Association General Manager Ségolène de Fontenay told The Lowdown the red light traffic regions will be feeling the pinch at a time where out of town visitation is crucial to their local economies.

R&V ampitheatre. Photo: Supplied.

As well as the R&V community-style backlash, de Fontenay states that most of the nation’s Councils won’t go ahead with their usual summer events based on the latest Framework, “which in turn will create a drought of events, impacting the well-being of those affected communities even more and resulting in more events being cancelled.”

An early call has already been made that next year’s Waitangi Day celebrations on the treaty grounds will be crowd-free while the 2022 Auckland Folk Festival didn’t make it to the traffic light, cancelling their event.

Given the avalanche of events that have already been cancelled or postponed since August’s arrival of Delta, these are troubling times for cultural and arts events. 

“We clearly run the risk of losing capability, expertise and its supply chain in the events sector which have been instrumental in driving investment, economic and social benefits, domestic tourism - and international tourism when our borders open again - and delivering on a world-class event industry that Kiwis need more than ever.”

For the events that are able to plough ahead, they are also navigating an extra task on top of their already huge workload - Ensuring contact tracing and QR codes are readily available for all event attendees, and mask-wearing is followed as required.

Asked if events are getting enough support on this front, de Fontenay says “whilst we are confident event professionals will embrace this new technology, the concerns are more about costs of managing Vaccine Passes, including costs to adapt technology for passes to be scanned, extra staffing costs, and costs of managing congestion and time for physically processing people with time-bound events.”

It’s worth noting that there has been something of a safety net added for events over the past week.

Manatū Taonga’s released the details for the Arts and Culture Event Support Scheme (broken down clearly here on The Big Idea) which has a pool of $22.5 million for events happening between 17 December-3 April with audience capacity within 100 and 5,000.

And yesterday, as part of the Government’s Tāmaki Makaurau support package, Auckland Unlimited announced a new $10 million Local Activation Programme fund is a new, contestable fund, and yes – it is part of the package announced in the release today.

It’s a contestable fund created to support summer programming - including mana whenua and community groups, cultural organisations and event organisations. Its purpose is described as aiming “to increase participation in the arts and cultural events for Auckland families, revitalising town centres again and enhancing wellbeing in our community, while stimulating economic activity for the arts and culture sector.”

The criteria for application is still being finalised - due to open on 8 December.

But more immediately - there is something for Aotearoa’s artists, creatives and organisers to look forward to.

The Butlers performing on a Christchurch rooftop. Photo: Fran Scrimgeour.

Like many bands who have been organising their summer schedule with fingers crossed - Christchurch indy group The Butlers are waiting to hear if events like Taupō’s Le Currents festival in late December will be allowed to go ahead.

Drummer George Berry told The Lowdown “I was initially thinking orange might have had a cap on how many people can attend an event, but to see that it’s uncapped as long as you’re double vaxxed etc is super encouraging. 

“It has been difficult to plan ahead over the past few months because it hasn’t been easy to get an idea of what the country’s lockdown status will be 4-6 weeks ahead. No one can make concrete calls or plans in these times, that’s just the way it is at the moment!  Just gotta take it a day at a time and hope for the best come the end of December and the summer season."

The Butlers drummer George Berry. Photo: Fran Scrimgeour.

But Berry senses the draining vibe of uncertainty being replaced with a more optimistic one. “There’s a real buzz at the moment! As soon as the announcement was made on Monday afternoon, I saw a lot of venues hitting social media with all these gigs they have planned for this Friday and Saturday that they clearly had pencilled until they got the green - well, orange - light. 

“I’ve seen fellow artists who are in the orange light areas really jump at the opportunity to get back to playing live shows.”

After enduring months of cancelled opportunities and frustrations - that’s the least our musicians and performers deserve.

The call for audience members to be ready to go with their vaccination status has also been of high priority for the creative community. The rules are in place - no jab no attendance. 

A group of leading Aotearoa artists have formed a campaign with Creative New Zealand to explain that their ‘why’ for creating their mahi is also why they’re vaccinated. Pere Wihongi’s video is the first in the series, with fellow singer Ria Hall, spoken word poet Stevie Davis-Tana, street artists Charles and Janine Williams and comedian Tofiga Fepulea’i all set to contribute. 

FAME & funding

There has been a swag of creatives celebrated for their achievements with awards, residencies and other such recognitions in 2021.

Nathan Joe is one that seems to be adding such accolades at the rate of knots.  

The Chinese-Kiwi, Christchurch-based writer’s been announced as the winner of this year's $10,000 Bruce Mason Playwriting Award - having already landed 2022 Grimshaw Sargeson Literary Fellowship and confirmation his play Scenes From A Yellow Peril is part of Auckland Theatre Company’s 2022 season. 

He spoke to Standing Room Only on RNZ about his big year.

It’s been a good week for young writers - with the Michael King Writers Centre revealing the winners of the inaugural Signals Young Writers Awards 2021. 

Ruby Macomber has been crowned the overall winner for her work Good Catholic - which also claimed the non-fiction prize. Waterside Walk by Jackson McCarthy won the poetry category with Stella Weston winning the fiction gong for Raumati.

The next generation from the performance world are also getting their time in the spotlight - one in search of fame has already found it.

Maurea Perez-Varea. Photo: Supplied.

Toi Whakaari New Zealand Drama School student Maurea Perez-Varea has been selected as its first Fund for Acting and Musical Endeavours (FAME) Trust Emerging Practitioner award winner. 

Run in conjunction with the Acorn Foundation, the FAME award brings with it $10,000 for Perez-Varea, who is Fijian born, Samoa, Tokelau and South Auckland raised.

“Winning this award, for me, is forming the foundation of a fruitful journey towards my artistic creativity as a diverse Pasifika Artist. I’m honoured and grateful to have my voice acknowledged not just for myself but for those thousands who walk behind me,” Perez-Vaera reflects.

Her fellow Toi Whakaari students have hit the digital space - with their annual showcase event, Manifest released to the public, after having to be shown behind closed doors.

The country’s rising set, prop and design makers put together some stunning pieces, including the board game from Jumanji, a fairytale castle, and a “fully operational” light sabre.

And far from up-and-coming, there was plenty of excitement when internationally renowned Kiwi tenor Simon O’Neill’s performance with the LA Philharmonic received not one but two nominations for next year’s Grammy awards.

Simon O'Neill. Photo: Supplied.

O’Neill’s nods for both Best Choral Performance and Best Engineered Album, Classical attracted attention from the likes of Stuff and NZ Herald. Back in New Zealand for a well-earned break after a busy international campaign, the competition is hot among O’Neill’s family to be his Grammy date. 

“My 10-year-old daughter Violet is so excited that she might accompany me to LA to sit beside Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber or Ariana Grande at the award night! …dreams are great aren’t they!”

Ceasefire in war of words?

This time last week - we promised we’d keep you updated on the literary community vs the National Library (NLNZ) and their largely unpopular partnership with Internet Archive.

The Lowdown highlighted the voices of discontent - and those voices seem to have made an impact.

Two days before the 1 December deadline, NLNZ confirmed it was “reconsidering its plans for the Overseas Published Collections in light of concerns raised by interested parties, including issues associated with copyright. 

“The National Library will not export any of the Overseas Published Collections until it considers its next steps.”

National Librarian Te Pouhuaki Rachel Esson said in a statement after listening to multiple views, “we are aiming to balance our duty to all New Zealanders with the concerns of our valued book sector colleagues and will continue to build relationships with them,” says Ms Esson.

As you’d imagine - those so staunchly against the partnership with Internet Archive have welcomed the revisiting of the controversial decision.

Leading the charge has been the collective of Copyright Licencing NZ, the NZ Society of Authors and Publishers Association, who spoke to a QC about the possible national and international implications of “such obvious copyright breaches” - and publicly challenged NLNZ and the Government about their legal advice. They suspect the handbrake has been applied because of this pressure, along with the many other associations and lobby groups from here and around the world getting in contact.

Mandy Hager. Photo: Supplied.

NZSA President Mandy Hager told The Lowdown “we look forward to an invitation to discuss what the next steps are in preserving and rehousing this collection.

“We hope that any future decisions will be made with proper consultation from all the parties involved and that the collection can remain in the country, for use by researchers in the future. We also believe our National Library should step away from any dealings with the Internet Archive who, in our opinion, are little short of pirates and are currently involved in a class action in the US for similar copyright breaches. 

“Copyright is the main mechanism an author has for earning an income from their work, and we would hope our government and public institutions respect this and the laws that protect our copyright as a human right.”

Copyright is not the only consideration of the concerned parties - it’s the protection and retention of the books themselves, considered taonga by many.

Book Guardians Aotearoa has been a vocal critic of NLNZ’s decision to jettison 600,000 books from the international collection (books by NZ authors and publishers were never included in this saga, they remain protected in other collections)

BGA executive member Christine Dann told The Lowdown they want a “properly curated and managed” overseas collection “to form the basis of a genuine National Library worth its name.”

She notes “this will require a rewrite of NLNZ's currently extremely narrow collections policy, and probably changes to the National Library Act.

Dann says BGA is lobbying for subject experts who have an understanding of what should be kept to give the books in question a thorough assessment. 

“There will undoubtedly be some books in the OPC which are deemed not worthy of retention. But we utterly refute the view that NLNZ does not have room to store the collection now, or in the future - especially as new storage facilities are being purpose-built in Levin and should be ready in 5 years time, and a refit and rebuild on the Molesworth St site is also planned and budgeted for. 

“We are still hoping that a proper process of consultation with the users and potential users of the books can take place in a frank and friendly way, and that our offers to support a sensible retention and maintenance process - such as volunteering subject experts to do the assessments - will be taken seriously, so that New Zealand heritage and culture will be the winner in the end.”

Another group formed specifically as a rallying action to this controversy - called Writers Against National Library Disposals - is also calling for public consultation on management of the OPC - as well as endorsing a petition to have the Internet Archive deal scrapped definitively.

Spokesperson and poet Bill Direen told The Lowdown “Writers Against are also FOR something very important - the continuation of a library of the world’s knowledge and ideas, founded in this country in 1856, that has fallen into neglect due to the mismanagement of successive government departments. 

“That neglect led to this abuse of writers’ rights." 

When asked what should happen if NLNZ decides to jettison the books, Direen replied “The books are a state asset and it is up to the government to find another way of caring for them. It is not up to the library to dispose of them - it’s the government who must sign off. 

“They only have to allocate sufficient funds for their preservation and curation, and for future acquisitions with an outward reaching international purview, and then we will have the makings of great ideas, balanced research and a truly great National library for future generations. Ideally, that will happen within the National Library, and not outside of it. 

“We need to open up the discussion about what the people expect and deserve from its National Library. I am only calling for balance.” 

Welcome back

The Bertha Revolution Cont'd, Sarah Baird, Ceramic, 2017 and Hidden in Plain Sight Project, Maggie Covell, Digital Wallpaper treatment, 2021. Photo: Supplied.

Wherever you are in the country - Traffic Light day is set to be significant. For many - particularly in Tāmaki Makaurau, the doors being flung open will be substantial.  For others in the rest of Aotearoa that have been at Alert Level Two, the arrival of the Vaccination certificates might give that sense of confidence to finally re-connect with the community again.

Whether you’re at red or orange come Friday - the arts, cultural and creative community is there waiting - they’ve missed you, the audience, the visitors, the public.

Yes, it’s a big opportunity to support the artists who have done it tough over the last few months - but it’s also the chance for you to engage again.

Actively, physically - not through a screen, not in your pyjamas. The way so much creativity was made to be experienced.

So when you’re ready, when you’re comfortable - plan that artistic excursion. 

Head off on a roadie and take in Ashburton Art Gallery’s vibrant new summer sculpture show, Configure, exploring feminism and feminist artwork.

MMMM, Michele Beevors, fur and mixed media, 2019-21. Photo: Supplied.

Enjoy walking the streets of Auckland again and take in artistic experiences like any of the five exhibitions at Studio One Toi Tū or group show Afloat at Orakei’s Arthaus Contemporary, featuring Toipoto artists Jana Wood and Judith Lawson.

Check out Jeanette Verster’s solo exhibition I Haven't Lost My Marbles (Yet) at Taranaki’s out of the blue studio gallery or Ynes Guevara’s Divas at the Suter Art Gallery in Nelson.

Or get back in front of a big scale theatre production at Christchurch’s Court Theatre with Little Shop of Horrors - which from Friday will be able to perform in front of a full capacity, fully vaccinated crowd.

The point is. our creatives have been hanging out for this milestone - as well as so many others.  It’s far from perfect and what colour your light is will have an impact.

But the choice of being physically present in our creative community is now yours - that’s something to celebrate, for now. 

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

2 Dec 2021

The Big Idea Editor