With marquees, marketplace and diverse acts, the arts community can bring much- needed hope, excitement and light to the city, writes GEORGE PARKER.
The Christchurch Arts Circus is an arts and entertainment-based project proposed by Arts Voice Christchurch as a flagship for the pivotal "Transitional City" chapter of the CCC Plan.
It is a way for the arts to contribute meaningfully to the cultural, social and economic revitalisation of Christchurch and bring much-needed hope, excitement and light to the city. And quickly.
Inspired by the world-famous Tollwood Festival in Munich (established in 1988), the Arts Circus will be arranged around different scaled marquees and transformable structures, which will house a range of art forms and diverse entertainment: music, theatre, dance, visual arts, film, concerts, stand-up comedy, kapa haka, buskers, and more.
A central marketplace, themed restaurants and hospitality/venues, among a diverse range of art experiences, from the conventional to the experimental, will make the Arts Circus an international showcase for a community rebuilding with creativity at its heart.
The Arts Circus will cater for a diverse range of people, tastes and ages in the Christchurch community and, vitally, will generate new audiences and activity in an inclusive, people- friendly city centre. This is the principle behind the name Arts Circus - an intentional blurring of high art with popular entertainment to reflect a variety of experiences and events for the broader Christchurch community and not just the "arty crowd".
As with Tollwood, it is not necessarily the arts that will attract everyone to the Arts Circus; it may be the changing, interactive environment, the market and hospitality all working to create an environment that can bring diverse parts of the community together.
But for the arts and entertainment that will be central, the guiding principles will be intimacy and immediacy. The aim will be to create a variety of smaller venues to allow for a greater range.
The Arts Circus will act as a home to many of the city's festivals as well as introducing new and innovative events in conversation with other initiatives arising during the rebuild. Imagine, for example, the potential cross-overs between the arts and the hi-tech industries or with the NZ Centre for Urban Resilience - a possible outcome with the latter could be an International Festival of Sustainable Architecture.
The transformable nature of the Arts Circus will mean that festivals and events can be adapted to work to a particular theme or idea. A residency programme will be set up to invite innovative national and international artists to work with local artists to create exciting and vibrant environments within the city.
In these ways, the Arts Circus looks to maximise the potential of the city's immediate future.
Although we may be sick of hearing it, it is true, the transitional period offers an unprecedented opportunity to really engage with what we want as a city - and in this period, the arts can lead the way, by generating activity in the city centre and acting as a medium via which the wider community can search for a new sense of identity.
As widely reported, the arts and activities in the Events Village of Hagley Park have given a boost to the city - providing entertainment and, most importantly, a gathering place for Christchurch people. The Arts Circus will move beyond the Events Village in the park to engage with the actual city environment as we rebuild.
A team led by international landscape architect Sam Martin and Christchurch architect Jason Mill are designing an environment inspired by the urban, and particularly the transformable contemporary context of a city in creation.
To implement this design, Martin and Mill will work with artist Neil Dawson to create interactive experiences that are exciting, transformable and innovative. And unique.
When we talk about creating a Distinctive City, this kind of initiative will offer a different experience to the suburban mall but will cater for similar needs, with the added excitement of the unique urban experience. Christchurch would become known nationally and internationally as an innovative City of Arts - turning adversity into creativity.
The Arts Circus is proposed as a major urban renewal project. In keeping with international cities that have regenerated through the arts and related activities - Glasgow, Melbourne, Newcastle, Barcelona - the general principle is that the activity and people generated by the arts in previously derelict areas leads to the emergence of hospitality, associated industry and business.
A number of locations seem possible for the Arts Circus and the make-up is designed to be flexible. However, the ideal location for such a venture would be in the south city, outside the current red zone. This location would build on what was already becoming a distinctive arts and entertainment neighbourhood developing in the High St area.
SOL Square, for example, was a bold initiative that breathed life into a previously derelict area. It worked in tandem with the accompanying Lichfield Lanes development and the emergence of High St as a revitalised, attractive, exciting and surprising area of fashion, entertainment and inner-city living.
Referring to the area as the Arts Neighbourhood reflects the human-scale, integrated, grass-roots nature of the project (and of the arts).
Being based in the south city area would also place the Arts Circus next to the grand old Odeon Theatre - a sad sight at present, but also a potential beacon for the rebuild. It could be carefully restored and then programmed in keeping with the ethos of the Arts Circus, presenting a range of arts and entertainment. It would act like a marae or community hall - a gathering place for the wider community.
Even though the Arts Circus is seen as a flagship temporary project for the Transitional City, should the initiative prove successful, there is the potential for a long-term legacy of a unique, boutique arts and entertainment area to develop permanently at the heart of a distinctive neighbourhood and in conversation with the Cultural Precinct.
Indeed, the Arts Circus might be seen as the wellspring of what Arts Voice has proposed as a River of Arts flowing through the city, connecting the Cultural Precinct with the various plans suggested in the CCC Plan but in a way that spreads them through the city rather than segregating them in a single area.
The experiences gained from transitional projects such as the Arts Circus can spread, providing the opportunity for the arts to be more fully integrated and contribute to the vibrancy and diversity of the social life and physical environment of the city.
A city with the arts at the heart will have positive effects for the cultural, social and economic revitalisation of the city.
In many ways, one might argue that the arts, like life, are transitional, always moving and evolving, responding to time, place and space in a process of becoming.
If we embrace the transitional we have every chance of establishing firm but flexible foundations for a world-class 21st Century city that places people at the centre. It doesn't need to be big, brash and iconic; small, sustainable and innovative is the way to go - that is what we like to think lies behind the beauty of our city and our country.
* Dr George Parker is manager of the Te Puna Toi performance research project and tutors theatre and film studies at Te Whare Wananga o Waitaha, University of Canterbury.
- The Press