Criptic Critic Conscience and Known for it

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Five years ago today - Wells Group and Letting Space presented "The Beneficiary's Office". Letting Space's Sophie Jerram and Mark Amery share their recollections

Working as curators with Tao Wells and The Wells Group on The Beneficiary's Office was an incredibly important experience for us as Letting Space. The work had a significant effect in the way it successfully generated discussion through questioning of the way we value work and labour of different kinds, and the limits on expression within the media, public space, and public commons generally (digital and physical). Tao was fearless in putting himself out there in a way that left him vulnerable to the 'personality politics' of the media, but also exposed them ruthlessly. 

What maybe was less apparent for the public however was below that how the project also successfully brought together a collective of people (The Wells Group) and instituted an experiment in creating an office as project. Our work with Tao in this was greatly inspiring in terms of the work we have undertaken since in exploring ways for collectivity and ways of sharing in our projects with artists. The Beneficiary's Office inspired a project with Mark Harvey, Productive Bodies in exploring notions of value with work and usefulness working with a group of people, and this has had further iterations and reflections throughout our work, and those of the artists we commission. 

In sum, we consider this project The Beneficiary's Office to be of great significance both for our work as public artists, but also in testing some important boundaries for the role of the artist in society. It was a hell of a ride. Five years on we are still fed by and continue to find inspiration in.  - Mark Amery

From me Sophie:

Dear Tao, you asked us for a response, or a memory, 5 years on of that most significant of projects that we made together and I’m really grateful for your request.
It is said by psychological researchers that emotional events are often remembered with greater accuracy and vividness than events lacking an emotional component. For me The Beneficiary’s Office was an intensely emotional event as much as a conceptual and artistic one.I know you don’t necessarily remember the same things so here are some of my memories. 

I recall the early wrangling, like kids in a mud pit, with you.  I recall your challenging me and Mark about our intentions with Letting Space and feeling frustrated because I didn’t feel I could ever get ‘level’ with you.  I recall some stress in not having a site for the project until the week before we were due to start (Labour Day having been the focus end point) and considering a huge empty floor on top of a building on The Terrace. I recall rushing in from Paekakariki one evening to see another site before 5pm and the relief at Ian Cassells agreeing to the project for his building in Manners Street. I recall the meetings with the group of volunteers (what great collaborators we met through this project) once we had the office. I recall the quiet opening days, and biking to work in the office as if I was simply commuting to an office job. 

I remember thinking it was like Mark and I were in loco parentis, very reluctantly, and it was hard to be just one of the crew. I recall the press machine begin to wake up and the anxiety as we found ourselves (‘all of us’, suddenly united by external attack) subject to severe scrutiny for using cultural money for political challenge, essentially for not making ‘tame’ enough art.    I recall Minister of Social Welfare Paula Bennett, and ACT’s Roger Douglas weighing-in on national TV and the sense that we had tripped a (nasty nerve) wire.  I remember feeling strong gratitude that Creative NZ came out in public support of Letting Space.  I recall of course the personal attacks that you and Laura suffered, and the nights of angst about the hurt that was coming.  I recall the deep contemplation we went through for months (years?) after and wondering if we could have made the project without such personal damage, without the martyrdom involved.  

The questions (like, what is a useful life?) that were raised by the project have gone on to inform many of the artists we have worked with since. Mark Harvey’s Productive Bodies and Productive Promises were certainly part of this legacy, and Ash Holwell’s imminent Ako Ako for TEZA 2015 (involving role-swapping with members of the Porirua community) has ‘Bene’ traces too. However these are more gentle and possibly more whimsical than your smiling assassin approach, Tao. 

What is wonderful about your practice is your personal immersion and constant vigilance. I recall a conversation with you a few months after The Beneficiary’s Office where you really asked me to name that which enabled me to be doing what I was doing, working in the arts, - because as we know, commissioning and curating contemporary art projects is not on the national register of essential well paid tasks for the NZ economy- …. As uncomfortable as it was at the time I realised that the capital raised by my husband in his architectural practice has plugged our income holes. Your scrutiny has helped me to be proud of that, rather than hide it.  You have always been a warm and friendly assailant, if a mercurial art-partner.  It’s hard to be a conscience for the whole country but your prodding has certainly made us sit up straighter.  
With warm regard for you and the growing family

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