Public art is the most durable part of any city's infrastructure. While the electricity supply, wastewater and roading systems may fail during a natural disaster, art can simply change form and carry on its function of bringing a community together. Peter Young's film The Art of Recovery celebrates this through the work done by the Gap Filler initiative post-the Christchurch earthquakes, where dancefloors, outdoor cinemas and installations were created as art came to occupy vacant space where buildings once stood.
Today Aucklanders can watch the documentary with a free pedal-powered screening held at Silo Park. The film places the organic, immediate claiming of the ruined city by artists alongside the slow-moving rebuild detached from the will of the population. Meanwhile, the fundamental question over whether Gap Filler represents a temporary response to a crisis or is now a permanent fixture is left open-ended.
Certainly, the organisation itself aspires to be the latter. But this means facing the impending challenge of finding new sources of funding once Creative New Zealand's earthquake recovery grants come to an end. The city council has pledged support for the next couple of years at least. But the wider situation is shaping up as a test case on whether the country is broadminded enough to meaningfully support this local variant of what's known as "social practice" art, an increasing trend globally.
The movement encourages community engagement through art and the work made could be something as simple as the planting and tending of a garden to supply a neighbourhood with food or training inner-city youth to keep bees. While it's not a new phenomenon, social practice has been reinvigorated by a disillusionment with capitalism brought about by the Global Financial Crisis and the Occupy movement.
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It's understood Gap Filler requires somewhere in the vicinity of $500,000 a year to run its programmes. The directors are in demand as consultants and speakers sharing the Christchurch experience internationally. This is one stream of future income. But finding backers who both "get" the concept and also believe the group has a role to play beyond transitional projects is the key. That is easier said than done, given much of its work doesn't "fit in a box", defying narrow definitions of both art and community development.
Either way, director Peter Young ensured the way the public laid claim to their city after the quakes has been recorded for posterity. The job of ensuring the country has something substantial to archive for future generations has increasingly been handed to independent documentary makers acting on their own initiative.
The Art of Recovery is an impressive piece of work. It is beautifully shot and allows Gap Filler's founders and not the officials to tell the story. But it wasn't the cinematography or the years of effort the filmmaker put into bringing the production to the screen that was the most arresting thing. I left wondering not about the achievement it represented, but instead what gap would have been left in our collective memory if Peter Young simply had not bothered.