Satellites leader Rosabel Tan hopes to build understanding between cultures by staging free arts events in public spaces. Her panel discussion 'Bad Refugee' preceded the Christchurch massacres by just two days.
1 Satellites is a series of events showcasing contemporary Asian artists in public spaces. Why did you create it four years ago?
Auckland Council wanted to ensure the city's growing diversity was being reflected in our public art, so we started talking. We decided that creating an arts programme specifically for 'Asian audiences' was problematic because of the way it segregates rather than brings people together - "Hey Asian people, here's your art over here" so we've focused on championing Asian artists in a mainstream way.
2 You also hold events for Pantograph Punch. Can you give some examples?
Our first ever event was a panel discussion called Why Are You Still Here? It involved four young creatives discussing their decision to stay working in Auckland rather than moving overseas. Dead Air featured Radio NZ hosts sharing personal and true stories about moments of speechlessness. I'm Feeling Lucky was true stories about strange encounters on the internet. My friend's grandmother talked about her experiences internet dating. She was just amazing – candid, deadpan and very funny.
3 Why did you create The Pantograph Punch arts and culture website seven years ago?
After leaving the University of Auckland's Craccum magazine, a bunch of us wanted a place to keep writing about the arts and things that mattered to us. Back then, there weren't many websites publishing writing like that, so it was about creating a platform. Now we're spoilt for choice with amazing outlets like The Spinoff so we focus more on championing incredible voices that for whatever reason tend to sit outside the mainstream.
4 You used to be an 'audience development' consultant for art galleries and theatre companies in New Zealand and Australia. What did that involve?
Thinking about the space that exists between a work of art and its audience, and making sure people understand what's happening in that gap. I'm the only one in my family interested in anything art related so when I'm programming Satellites I'm always thinking how can I impress my family. In some weird way, Satellites is me attempting to find my way back to them.
5 Growing up in Howick to Singaporean parents, did you always want to work in the arts?
There's this stereotype of the 'Tiger Mum' who wants her kids to succeed academically and certainly not in the arts, but my parents were always really supportive of whatever I wanted to do. Mum actually sent me to drama class because I was painfully shy as a kid and she thought it would help. I'm not sure it did but it definitely started a lifelong love for theatre.
6 Satellites held a K-Pop Party for the Auckland Fringe Festival in February. How was that?
It was so much fun. Everyone got up and danced in between the acts. Seeing all these strangers dancing together and supporting one another is such a heart-exploding vibe. I went to a career coach recently and she asked; "What is it that you want to see more of in the world?" The idea is that your answer should be the driving force for everything you do. I wanted to see more kindness and empathy, and doing these kinds of events definitely fulfils that.
7 You also held several events during last month's Auckland Arts Festival. How did they go?
We had the Mood Machine, a mysterious machine that prescribes you with art and poetry to match your mood. For International Women's Day, we hosted a breakfast event in the Spiegeltent featuring intimate conversations led by 18 powerhouse speakers. There were some fierce discussions - Alison Mau asked 'After the storm, what next for #metoo?' Jackie Clark from The Aunties asked 'What about that white man violence? Pākehā males are the biggest perpetrators of domestic abuse in Aotearoa — so why aren't we talking about it?' Sacha Judd asked 'Is 40 too late to change everything? What happens when you realise the career you've built isn't the one you want?'
8 You held a panel discussion called Bad Refugee two days before the Christchurch massacres. Was it prescient in any way?
It explored some uncomfortable ideas that felt very close to things in the aftermath. The title came from Golriz Gharaman; people have in the past accused her of faking her refugee status, which is ridiculous. People tend to have certain expectations of what a refugee is. For example we equate the word refugee with poverty or trauma which denies how complex and different people really are. Sometimes things we do with good intentions have damaging effects. John Campbell did a great job as chair and the panel responded to all the questions with such generosity.
9 In light of the events in Christchurch, what difficult conversations do we still need to have?
I hope this doesn't fade away as people start to forget and go about their daily lives. There's been criticism around Jacinda's use of the phrase 'This is not us'. We have a long history of colonial violence and white supremacy in this country, so obviously this is us but it also works as an aspirational statement. It would be great if this is not us in the future. We need to keep talking about the ways in which we're all complicit in a society that allowed this to take place. I've been guilty of staying silent at times, just because I hate conflict, and that isn't good enough.
10 Have you experienced racism in New Zealand?
Definitely. When we moved to Howick in 1994, we went to dinner with some new Pakeha friends who said idly, "We actually call this 'Chowick'." It's hard to process that as a kid. At primary school, kids would mock me by doing a fake Chinese accent. To protect myself from the bullying I distanced myself from my ethnicity as much as I could. Pushing your identity away has such a damaging effect on a child. Thirty years on I'm only now working my way back to who I am.
11 Is Satellites helping with that process?
Yes. Growing up, I never saw anyone who looked like me in the books and movies and plays that I saw. Weaving Asian faces and voices into our communities not only builds empathy and understanding, it makes you feel like your experience is just as important.
12 What's the next Satellites event?
Coming up in May we've got Kollywood Extra – a free public event in Sandringham Reserve. Bollywood is the term most people think of for Indian cinema, but each region has their own nickname. Bollywood refers to Bombay and Kollywood to Tamil cinema in South India. We're creating a fake film shoot that you can sneak into, learn a dance move or a line of dialogue, have your photo taken and sample some South Indian food from Satya Chai lounge. Our next event is a breakfast event featuring Filipino art, storytelling and cuisine. You can buy tickets on the Satellites website.