Wednesday, January 10, 2007

when art comes to town: reflection on art as public mission

christmas journey2006at300.jpg

here are some reflections I wrote today on the recent Christmas Journey. Love some feedback on my last section “unresolved tensions” if anyone has the time.

When art comes to town: Reflecting on a Christmas Journey 2006

The concept is simple; to employ art to tell the Christmas story. Seek tactile interaction – make a star out of wire, mark your home town on a world map, record the one thing you would take with you on a refugee journey – as a way of inviting people into the Christmas story.

The use of containers is a master stroke. A container provides a space in which a unique environment can be created, allowing a different part of a Journey to be created. A container has roofs and floor, allowing a Christmas story to be placed outside. They are lockable, ensuring security for art and electronic gear in public spaces.

In 2005 permission was gained by Side Door Arts Trust, in partnership with Opawa Baptist Church and Creative Communities, to place 8 containers, each container telling part of the Christmas story, in the square at the centre of Christchurch city. The Christmas story was to find a home outside the church and in the marketplace.

Ironically, Council regulations demanded a temporary building permit and required a wire fence. As soon as the Christmas story was taken outside the church, it acquired a fence! However the public response was excellent, with nearly 8,000 people visiting.

Building on the relationship with the Christchurch City Council, permission was sought in 2006 to place the 8 containers, not together, but separately. Each was wrapped in nylon fabric to represent a Christmas present, and placed at strategic tourist sites – the art gallery, the museum, the information centre – around the city. Each container was also placed adjacent to the tram route, a major Christchurch tourist attraction.

The art for inside each container was prepared at Opawa Baptist Church. A hi-ab container truck transported the containers into town. Picture the scene as suddenly, nine days before Christmas, eight 20 feet long wrapped Christmas presents suddenly appear, scattered, throughout the city centre.

On the door of each container part of the Christmas Bible story was painted (in the style of Colin McCahon, a famous New Zealand artist). Inside each container a different theme is explored.

The results:
1. Stories of people emerging church containers declaring “I am changed.”
2. People’s written responses at various containers indicating an honest and deep engagement.
3. Over 15,000 people visited. (Note that there was no way to record if these visitors had been to other containers. So while unlikely, it is conceivable that a total of 2,400 people visited all 8 containers).

The implications:
1. Don’t do this if your goal is increasing church attendance. It takes a lot of energy out of a church and you end up encouraging people to volunteer on containers during church time.
2. Ideally each container has someone for purposes of explanation, welcome and security. This requires a large commitment (8 containers for 9 days open for 3 by 4 hours slots = 212 volunteers).
3. This volunteer dimension allows people a practical way to “give” during Christmas. This needs to be placed alongside the busyness and rush that people face.
4. Another volunteer dimension is that people are exposed to the rhythms of the city. This allows a missional conversation. Equally, it raises issues of safety.
5. A project on this scale demands a huge variety of gifts – to create, to stand at a container, to publicise, to negotiate. It feels a lot like 1 Corinthians 12, with all parts of the body important and thus becomes the mission of a church community.

Unresolved tensions
1. The tension between whether the Journey should act like an interactive signboard or the foyer of a building. Should each container stand alone, as a signboard? Or should the Journey be like a foyer, that welcomes and points people toward church or Christianity in some way? The concept of gift is important. Many churches offer subtle switch and bait operations. Should the containers be offered as a gift, with no strings attached? Or should they come with a subtle price tag. (This could include invitation to church services, a Christian tract, a takeway resource). Yet society at Christmas is so dominated by consumerism and when the church offers “switch and bait” have we not bowed down to the gods of consumerism in our culture? Each year this is debated. In 2006 the Journey simply offered a takeaway potential of a memorable moment.
2. Should the containers be grouped (as in 2005 in the Square) or separated (as in 2006 around the city centre)? The former allows greater visibility and increases the chances of completing the whole Journey. The latter increases visibility and curiosity and allows walking time for reflection. However it demands a greater effort if people want to then complete the Journey.

The Christmas Journey evolved under the leadership and creative talents of Peter and Joyce Majendie. They have prepared a teaching video “Art in public space as mission.” This is a four hour seminar in which they trace the creative process. This is available for sale from artcomestotown at emergentkiwi dot org nz.

Posted by steve at 08:00 PM


  1. I went to Stations last Easter held at a local theater. Very cool stations of the cross. At the end they had one pile of hand outs at the exit saying “what to find out more” with times of other arty “stations” like things in the future (last Sunday every month in a local chapel doing hands on things emergent church kind of stuff)

    I picked up a brousure expectign some tacky christian thing. I was amazed as it wasn’t and even more cool as I have enjoyed these arts experenices through out the year.

    Personally in retrospect these brosures because they were in theme with the stations, could have been on every coffee table at the end to help people on the journey.

    I guess it is about providing relevant material that helps people. Not forcing material that suits our agenda or purpose. Therefore invitations to a arty/churchy/non traditional church thingy or a book/brochure etc that is relevant to the journey is all good. Some tacky Christian tract that doesn’t fit into the theme or arts and the experienced that people have just had is not ok.

    Does this make sense?

    Comment by david whyte — January 11, 2007 @ 11:37 am

  2. Steve,

    I think as you have correctly titled the last section they are just that… ‘unresloved tensions’.

    Maybe if the whole project is understood as a gift to the city then the joy is yours’ (those involved) to know as the giver(s). The city was blessed and the story was told in a way that invited people in a non pushy way into the narrative that is actually as much their’s as anyone’s to live into.

    So in summary the tensions won’t go away but there is joy to behold because a wonderful and generous gift was given to the city that told the story of another gift that came with its own unresolved tensions!


    Comment by Andrew — January 11, 2007 @ 1:25 pm

  3. Another thought as far as group vs. spread out. Group means they are more likely to complete the journey “in order” but less likely to stumble upon it by accident.

    Comment by Chris Marsden — January 13, 2007 @ 6:37 am

  4. Spread apart it was easier to see the containers were wrapped as gifts. Stumbling upon part of a journey seems better to me than ensuring one version of the order of the joureny is “completed”.

    Comment by jowall — January 13, 2007 @ 7:16 am

  5. Kiwi,
    Saw this photo and thought of you after this post – it provoked me to think…


    Comment by Dave Larlee — January 17, 2007 @ 8:29 pm

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