Creative living in a transitional city

STREET ART: Peter Majendie's commemorative installation features 185 empty chairs on the site of the Oxford Terrace Baptist Church in Madras St.
STREET ART: Peter Majendie's commemorative installation features 185 empty chairs on the site of the Oxford Terrace Baptist Church in Madras St.

There is a crack in everything, it's how the light gets in. Did the Christchurch earthquakes crack open the city's conservative shell and unleash a great wealth of creativity?

Yes, according to the New York Times, which recently included Christchurch in the No 2 spot in its list of 52 places to go in 2014, saying: "Three years after two large earthquakes devastated central Christchurch, the city is experiencing a rebirth with creativity and wit - thanks to the ingenuity of its hardy residents".

Christchurch is arguably a city breaking free of its "conservative" stamp. Since the 7.1 earthquake struck Christchurch on September 4, 2010, residents have not only been rebuilding their lives and homes, they have sought inventive ways to express themselves while doing so. In difficult times in a transitional city, Cantabrians are using a Kiwi No 8-wire mentality and humour as survival tools. While bureaucrats and politicians play with their blueprints, Christchurch residents are getting on with things, creatively.

After the February 22, 2011, quake, the Hotel Grand Chancellor, precariously leaning in the centre of a deserted town, became symbolic.

Dylan Herkes, known as Phats, moved to Christchurch from Whanganui two days before the 2011 quake to finish his film and fine arts degree. In Whanganui, his record label, Stink Magnetic, had taken up a large chunk of an old newspaper office. In Christchurch his base became his home in an inner- city street. It was destroyed by the quake.

In response to these events, he decided to start three-piece "hotel rock'n'roll" combo the Grand Chancellors with friends Luke Wood (Shakin' Luke Wood) and Aidan Moody (Bad Evil).

"Bad Evil helped Phats dig his guitar and beautiful, old, blue-face Jansen amp out of the rubble, " Wood recalls. "We felt Christchurch really needed a band that wasn't all sooky, cardigan-wearing, cuppa-tea stuff, you know?"

He says they wanted to capture the raw energy and anger they knew people were feeling.

The Grand Chancellors wrote quake- related songs including Shakin' and 13th Floor. "Amputee was a crowd favourite cause they could chant along: 'Amputee, amputee, amputee', " he explains. "Someone said that they thought that song was a bit off, but it was our genuine heartfelt recognition of everyone that was injured but not killed in the quake. We thought it was really important that they were immortalised in rock'n'roll."

Ann Brower was the lone survivor of the No 3 bus that was crushed by an unreinforced brick building in Colombo St in the 2011 quake. It broke her left leg, both of her hips and part of her spine, and one of her hands was crushed.

Playing the fiddle was, Brower says, one of those things she assumed she would give up. But then she met Al Park in Samo's Cafe in Lyttelton that June. Brower was looking for a band to play at a party to thank the men who had dug her out of the building rubble and who took her to hospital in the back of a truck.

Park said his band, the Latter Day Sinners, would love to perform but he had one condition. "He said I had to play one song on my fiddle with them. I couldn't move my left index finger far enough to reach a string at the time but Al said that, if I didn't play too, well, I'd have to find another band."

Anita Clarke of the Eastern gave Brower fiddle lessons and she spent three months painstakingly learning one song, the Waterboys' Bang on the Ear, before performing at the party.

Brower has since moved on to a more public stage, playing at gigs around the city. "I'm looking for a band looking for a fiddle player, " she says. "I like playing with others, but by myself is rather terrifying still. So much can go wrong with a fiddle and when a fiddle goes wrong, it's painful for all involved."

Brower will play at a commemorative concert, organised by Park, in Lyttelton next Saturday.

Nick Harte, who performs as Shocking Pinks, will release his triple album Guilt Mirrors on Tuesday.

There is a great deal of international interest in the former Flying Nun and DFA artist. Directly after the earthquakes, Harte became a hermit. He stayed up for days at a time and, with his windows blacked out by tape, wrote and recorded music constantly locked away in his inner-city home, until police kicked his door in and he was forced to move.

He was recording throughout the earthquakes and says the recording process inadvertently captured "earthquake noises".

James Dann aka Ed Muzik, took a light-hearted approach. He has been offering up "#eqnz-inspired tunes" since his 2011 EP Hates It. Songs include EQC Are Looking At My House, It's Grim Out East, Double Brownlee and I Once Was An Orange Parka, in reference to then mayor Bob Parker's ubiquitous orange jacket.

A follow-up EP, Still Hates It, included CERA, a nod to the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority, a remix of the Fleetwood Mac classic Sara with particular emphasis on the line "when you build your house then call me".

A band of Lyttelton musicians who gathered under the name the Harbour Union in 2011 were drawn together by a simple idea - to do what they do best to raise some cash for their community.

Together, the Eastern, the Unfaithful Ways, Park, Tiny Lies, Runaround Sue, Delaney Davidson and Lindon Puffin got together, formed a collective and made a record of, for and about their community. Ben Edwards of Lyttelton Records recorded it in a lounge in Lyttelton using borrowed gear, with aftershocks inadvertently captured during the recording process.

The proceeds of their album have gone back into Lyttelton and the wider Christchurch community in a variety of projects.

And another collective, Melted Ice Cream released a fantastic compilation album of Christchurch music titled Sickest Smashes From Arson City.

Experimental sound artists have also risen to prominence post-quake. The Canterbury Society of Sonic Artists have opened "world-first" inner-city venue the Auricle - Sonic Arts Gallery and Wine Bar. It matches wine to music.

Jo Burzynska, who performs as Stanier Black-Five, says it is the first sonic art gallery and dedicated performance venue in the South Island, with, Burzynska believes, a programme of exhibitions that could establish Christchurch as an Australasian and, potentially, "international centre of excellence in the sonic arts".

The wine list at the not-for-profit, artist- run venue is "curated" to complement the exhibitions.

The group will also stage a major sonic arts festival, Audacious, next month at various venues throughout the inner city.

In Christchurch, music can happen at any time. Random Acts of Music is a new form of street art led by the organisation Muse, which roams the city in a caravan stocked with instruments.

In a public place, grooving happens with anyone who happens to be around and wants to take part in the fun.

Because the city lost many venues, post-quake gigs have been held in tents, marquees, bowling alleys and ping- pong clubrooms. Many international touring musicians have happily agreed to perform in tents and marquees.

When Jack Black's Tenacious D played in Christchurch last year, his dressing room was a Portacom beside a marquee. After playing to more than 1000 people, Black returned to his Portacom only to have power go out. Towel around his neck, he stuck his head out a window, smiled, and declared that the city would "rise again", just as power came back on.

When Printz Board, musical director for the Black Eyed Peas, played an ecclectic DJ set in Christchurch, he did so in multi-tent inner-city venue, the Club.

With limited venue and performance spaces available, many like-minded organisations have chosen to work together. Popular live music venue the Darkroom, which hosts national and international touring musicians, shares building space with Galaxy Records and art space, Room Four.

Although art gallery spaces remain limited in Christchurch, art seems more visible, with artists inserting their work into the cityscape in increasingly inventive ways.

Civil engineer-turned-artist Mike Hewson eloquently mirrored many Cantabrians' sense of dislocation from the city they once knew with Deconstruction, his "homage to lost space". It won an award at the FBi Sydney Music, Art & Culture Awards.

He also created a digital print of a sky scene to camouflage a bridge between two buildings, while his Government Life Suspension mirrors the building that once housed his former studio.

He believes such art would never have happened pre-quakes. "There wouldn't have been any chance for these works . . . visually Christchurch's CBD is almost unrecognisable when compared to mid-2010. This is not only in the removal of architecture and revealed firewalls, but in the broad embracing of the arts throughout the city."

Art installation and community mental-health project, Temple for Christchurch, was burnt in a fiery public spectacle last year in a ritual designed to release the earthquake experiences written by members of the public on its walls.

Hippathy Valentine, the Christchurch artist who created it, is a member of the International Arts Megacrew and has previously built massive temples at the Burning Man Festival in Nevada, Texas, but says this burning ritual was "closer to home".

Meanwhile, artists' collective the Social aims to stimulate conversation about art between artists and the wider community in a way that is meaningful, relevant and fun. A roving caravan in the inner city acts as home to artists from around New Zealand involved in its artist-in-residence programme that creates site-specific art.

Another post-quake initiative, Life in Vacant Spaces, sourced an empty site and artist Lucy Matthews created her sculpture People's People while in the caravan. It consists of more than 60 concrete cast letters that spell out the word "people", the letters stacked into a 1.5-metre-high pile. The work has been placed on many sites, including outside Cera's offices.

Peter Majendie's installations, featuring 185 empty chairs and a hi-vis tree, are visible inner-city commemorative works.

Jenny Harper, director of Christchurch Art Gallery, says the gallery will reopen next year.

A public fundraising campaign via PledgeMe raised $200,000 towards the purchase of On First Looking into Chapman's Homer by Michael Parekowhai which will be installed on the gallery's forecourt.

Its award-winning Outer Spaces exhibition has included works by New York-based artist Tony Oursler, who last year also directed the video for David Bowie's song Where Are We Now?

"Without being able to open fully, we've been agile in ways we can - like us, artists are creative people and delighted to play a part in enhancing the transitional spaces of the city, " Harper says. "So far the art gallery team has installed some 90 or so projects as part of Outer Spaces. We reached a real high point, literally, with Ronnie van Hout's sculpture Comin' Down."

Comin' Down is a three-dimensional replica of van Hout, which stands majestically atop an inner-city building.

Even Hollywood is catching on to the benefits of a post-quake city.

A post-apocalyptic film featuring Hollywood stars Chris Pine and Amanda Seyfried is being shot in Port Levy on Banks Peninsula.

Produced by Spider-Man star Tobey Maguire and Icelandic company Zik Zak Filmworks, it is based on the 1974 children's science fiction thriller Z for Zachariah by Robert O'Brien.

Closer to home, When A City Falls, Gerard Smythe's feature-length documentary of the Christchurch earthquakes, offered those outside of the city a startling insight into events.

Christchurch mockumentary Propaganda, co-created and directed by Slavko Martinov and Mike Kelland, last year won the Grand Prize for Best Film award at the Traverse City Film Festival in Michigan, an invitation-only annual film festival co-founded and curated by Oscar-winning director Michael Moore.

CircoArts is also thriving, with the city recently hosting jugglers, trapeze artists, comedians, dancers, contortionists and cabaret artists from around the globe as part of the World Buskers Festival.

Canterbury Museum's record breaking street art exhibition, Oi You! RISE, which runs until March 23, features one of the largest private collections of Banksy artworks in the world, and has seen international and local street artists unleashed to create works on inner city walls.

During the second annual Festival of Transitional Architecture (Festa), giant puppet replicas of Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee and Cera chief Roger Sutton were paraded through the inner city.

Gap Filler was singled out for praise by the New York Times for its innovative approach to "filling gaps" left by demolished buildings.

The initiative began after the 2010 quake, when Coralie Winn was made redundant. She and six other people came up with the project as a way of rejuvenating the city.

Gap Filler projects since then have included the Pallet Pavilion, an open-air performance space made of blue pallets, cycle-powered cinema, Sound Garden, the Dance-O-Mat, an inner-city dance floor which works when you put a coin into a washing machine, and a nine- hole mini-golf course in vacant lots across the city.

With the Pallet Pavilion to be deconstructed in April, Gap Filler will host their final food event, a summer feast, on the third anniversary of the 2011 quake. "The pavilion only exists because of the quakes and sharing food amidst friends and strangers on February 22 will no doubt feel special, " Winn says. "For many I imagine it will be bring back memories of those raw, post-quake times when we came together with neighbours, friends and family and shared what food we had."

Even residents not typically prone to expressions of art have let their imaginations run wild, posting illustrations of Band-Aids on broken buildings, anonymously placing "Best Demo" ribbons on fences and installing satirical plaques on council benches.

Local businesses have also used imagination and flair to tackle quake- related issues.

Rekindle turns wood from red-zoned Christchurch homes into jewellery, including house-shaped earrings, and wood waste from demolition sites is recycled into one-off pieces of furniture.

The business was started in Auckland by Juliet Arnott. "I'd finished art school in Auckland and noticed wood going to waste. In early 2012, I came to Christchurch to do a talk at CPIT about reusing materials, " she explains. "I was a bit blind to the amount of waste here. I realised there was more urgency for something like Rekindle in Christchurch so I moved here that August."

Earthquake recovery became more fun when Mt Pleasant resident Siobhan Grimshaw launched her board game Quakes and Ladders in 2012. Can you achieve your repairs or rebuild, or will the Earthquake Commission lose your scope of works? Beat the insurance tsars with a spin of the dice.

Popular cafe C1 Espresso has been inventive in its approach to rebuilding.

Inside the cafe, an old sewing machine is a water fountain, a vacuum- tube system snaking across the ceiling will deliver meals from the kitchen to tables at 140kmh. Solar panels power appliances, bees make honey in rooftop hives, and organic vegetables grow in gardens outside. The owner of a horse named Beautifoal occasionally visits.

But at student radio station RDU, the horses are out and music is in. After its premises and studio at Canterbury University were destroyed in the 2011 earthquake, directors James Meharry and Karyn South were champing at the bit to relocate, so they converted a horse truck into a mobile radio station. RDU has recently launched a free app and now has listeners all over the world.

The Garden City's heart has also been embraced by those with green fingers.

Grass-roots initiatives include Greening the Rubble and Plant Gang - who roam the city planting temporary gardens on the sites of demolished buildings - and collaborative venture the Agropolis Urban Farm which was set up on a vacant demolition site by Festa, Garden City 2.0, A Local Food Project, Plant Gang and green-fingered volunteers.

The raised beds were made from pallets and are full of salad greens and edible flowers. A roster of volunteers tends to the beds.

On Thursday nights, Smash Palace, a bus transformed into a bar, holds a bike night and you're bound to find someone from the Quake City Rumblers there. They ride Christchurch's broken streets - the wind barely ruffling their matching denim vests - as they reach a top speed of 50kmh.

Rider Chris Morresey said the group of 1970s-era moped enthusiasts first got together in March 2011. Boy racers? "Nah, " says Morresey. The name relates both to the earthquakes and the rumble from their tiny 50cc engines.

Wondering what became of the Grand Chancellors band? You'll often find Luke Wood at Smash Palace, too. He makes a motorcycle magazine called Head Full of Snakes. But, like the hotel they took their name from, the band has been demolished.

"Eventually Phats and family had to leave town. He got a job at the Mighty Mighty in Wellington as their spiritual guide or something, " Wood says.

"And so the Grand Chancellors came to sort of an end. I say 'sort of' because Bad Evil and I have kept going under the moniker Shakin' Evil, or sometimes Shake and Evil."

Three years on he has started another band, the Hex Waves. "As the grim reality of living in Christchurch has really set in, think about all that asbestos we've all been breathing for the last three years, something much darker was required. The Hex Waves are what we like to call doom-a-delic.

"This is the real wake of the earthquakes, because this is the worst bit right? There's none of the energy and excitement of having survived a natural disaster any more, we're all just waiting. . . waiting in our cars stuck in traffic in the rain, and waiting to die from cancer caused by all the asbestos in the air."

Luckily Christchurch has its own superhero, the caped crusader, Flat Man. Since October 2011 Flat Man, clad in provincially themed red-and-black spandex, has been anonymously giving away care parcels to people in need.

Staying true to his motto "Be a bruv, share the luv", he has been making deliveries of food parcels to struggling families, quake-hit residents and impoverished students - from Christchurch to Seddon and beyond.

Christchurch may be still cracked, but there's a lot of light getting in.

To hear a playlist of some of the post- quake music created in Christchurch, go to soundcloud.com and search for "YW Christchurch creativity".

The Press