The Letting Space brings bread, death and art to abandoned McDonald's

Artist Simon Baker has taken over the Porirua McDonald's to bake bread and is encouraging other artists to come down and ...

Artist Simon Baker has taken over the Porirua McDonald's to bake bread and is encouraging other artists to come down and share recipes.

Stumble into the abandoned shell of New Zealand's first McDonald's this week and you might find a group of people kneading bread.

Or they could be planning their own coffins, or designing urns for their own remains.

It's all part of an art festival brought to Porirua by cutting-edge public art producers Letting Space, led by curators Mark Amery and Sophie Jerram, and producer Helen Kirlew Smith.

Artist and breadmaker Simon Gray's paint and canvas.

Artist and breadmaker Simon Gray's paint and canvas.

The social enterprise takes abandoned and derelict spaces and turns them into temporary art spaces.

They've worked in post-earthquake Christchurch, and now they're coming to Porirua, starting up in the old burger joint.

Funded by Creative NZ, the festival, which runs from November 21-29, will feature art projects like a DIY coffin service, baking to create a Porirua Loaf, and a roots festival.

Creative NZ has funded a project that will see "The Letting Space" take over a derelict McDonald's as an art space.

Creative NZ has funded a project that will see "The Letting Space" take over a derelict McDonald's as an art space.

This is the second time Letting Space has run this type of event, which they call TEZA – a Transitional Economic Zone of Aotearoa – a community-based approach to public art.

"We're sick and tired of contemporary art projects that say they're about social change but have a very limited art audience," Amery said.

"Really strong art of any era is both challenging and provocative, tests boundaries and is also accessible."

The first TEZA the organisation ran was in New Brighton, Christchurch, after the suburb's shopping centre was ravaged by earthquakes.

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They set up an encampment on the decimated shopping area and welcomed artists and locals to come and be creative.

What happened then was magic: installations cropped up, a school documented itself with photography, and locals biked around the suburb singing as part of the 'Bicycle Choir'.

Jerram and Amery were hoping the arts festival could bring the same magic to a faltering central area of Porirua.

"In the case of Porirua we were looking for a community where there was a diversity of people and a real need to provide a gathering point for people to come together from their distinct communities.

"The old McDonald's and other vacant properties are in an area deteriorating, while the big box developments like $2 stores and Pak'n Save sit around it. We're about championing artists we think would be up for the challenge to open their work out, and who are good facilitators."

One such artist is Simon Gray, a breadmaker.

Gray has set up his tools of the trade inside the abandoned McDonald's: four jars, each filled with the components to make bread, three toasters, and a giant jar of sourdough starter, the beginnings of what he hopes will be the future 'Porirua Loaf'.

The jar of starter has been taken from Pukerua Bay to Cannons Creek, developing in the Porirua air. Over the festival, Gray will be giving the starter away, and inviting people to breadmaking sessions.

He says breadmaking is the perfect canvas for community engagement. Almost every culture has traditions around bread to share.

"There are lots of people exploring creative subjects through breadmaking because of its long link with communities and traditions, and it's a way of telling stories, whether religious or about the process," he said.

Another art project was Citizens Funeral, which was about preparing people for death.

"Bread and death are some of the big topics," Jerram said with a laugh.

Citizens Funeral examined how different cultures deal with death, teaching the community how to make their own urn and coffin, in turn saving them money.

"If you can end your life well, it's a form of health and wealth," Jerram said

Letting Space was founded when Jerram and Amery met, just out of Auckland University, in 1993.

They lost touch until in 2009 Jerram had the itch to get involved with creative projects again, and contacted Amery, coincidentally the same year the McDonald's closed at Cobham Ct.

Letting Space began again, and since then the pair have facilitated dozens of pieces of public art: sports fields painted technicolour in Berhampore, food gathered from supermarkets and given away for free in Wellington CBD, and an ATM for people to deposit their moods in Auckland just some examples.

Their work was recognised this year, with Letting Space winning the Wellington City Supreme Award at the Wellington Airport Regional Community Awards.

"What they saw in what we'd done was how we were combining artistic projects with a whole lot of volunteers, and making a new approach to increasing ownership of public space," Jerram said.

Porirua mayor Nick Leggett said he fully backed the approach to bring local business back to central Porirua.

"I reckon they're right, it's an opportunity for localised businesses to work and to get that kind of ingenuity and some of the creative juices flowing in our community and see what can happen.

"We're not a traditional strip, retail is not our future, we have to ask what we do with the central city area, what can social enterprise generate for us there? That's what TEZA can do."

 - Stuff

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