The Milton Street Project – Tim Middleton

Christchurch/Sendai Art Exchange: The 183 Milton Street Project

183 Milton Street is a turn of the 20th Century villa that sits in the Christchurch suburb of Sydenham. I have called this address home for the last 4 years and during that time I have been studying at the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts, majoring in sculpture. As a part of my practice, I am extremely interested in site specificity and modes of exhibiting that fall outside the conventional gallery and the role the gallery takes as site. I had always had an idea of using the domestic setting as a site, mainly as a viewing platform for sculpture I was engaging in at the time.

February 22nd 2011, the first day of term 1 after the summer break, was a typical day in the studio and a few of us were getting ready to head for lunch when the earth decided to beat us to the break. As a 1970’s-designed saw-tooth concrete building, the studio definitely made us aware of the quake, but with only a few objects toppling over and all of us still on our feet, we had a relatively diminished understanding of the severity until we headed outside to find out what the evacuation procedure was. Cars in the carpark were jumping on the spot to a cacophony of car alarms, I think I saw a tree walk and telephone communication was jamming fast. I managed to get through to my flatmate at Milton Street who, bless him, asked if he could still borrow my car to go to work. Some texts were making it through and a friend in town let me know they had seen the spire of the cathedral crash to the ground, and it was then that the magnitude became apparent and a little panic and fear set in.

The following days were filled with cleaning up and looking after friends and neighbours. With no power, water and limited phone network access, the experience was bizarre and it seemed that people outside of Christchurch new more than us and we were pretty helpless and living in a bubble. As news filtered in, I was told of fatalities that had a personal connection and there was nothing I could do. During this time, 183 Milton Street, spared any major damage, became an oasis for people to drop in, share experiences and take time out of their own chaotic lives and maybe have a laugh.

Once the clean up was well underway and things had settled a little, a catch up session was had at Milton Street around the table over a couple of bottles of wine. Talk turned to art and the lack of accessibility to galleries post-September 4th, 2010 and the resulting dearth of showing spaces, and spaces in general, since February 22nd, 2011. During this conversation, I became aware of the space we were sitting in and half-heartedly suggested we have shows here, at 183 Milton Street. Before I knew it I had a fellow student, Sophie Scott, booked in to show her paintings. I had no gallery or curatorial experience and my only knowledge of the format of a gallery was through audience participation. Through sheer determination to see this come to fruition and with a healthy dose of naivety, I quickly sketched together a programme and starting approaching some of my peers that I thought were doing work that was interesting and challenging. This project managed to become part of my year’s research and work thanks to the support of my senior lecturer. The head of the school at the time was not so impressed and wanted engineer’s reports and student sign-offs to allow it to go ahead, but my lecturer encouraged me to go ahead and basically keep it on the down-low. That suited me fine, fitted in with my subversive nature and introduced me to the heady world of institutional politics.

I made a decision to set certain parameters, not many, and pretty much gave allowance to whoever was to show free-reign to respond to the space in any way they saw fit. As a sculpture student, I had imagined some wild ideas to ensue. One of the requirements being that the house was not to change to respond to the art, but the art had to respond to the house and its environs. As a result, the installation of the art took on a relatively conventional, gallery-style hang with only a couple of forays into spatial intervention. One of the more successful of these was a light-work that positioned itself in the hallway that couldn’t be ignored and had to be gingerly negotiated so as not to dislodge any of the hot-glue that appeared to be melting from its fluorescent host.

In its own way, the house did change, not to the art but as a physical result of the earthquake. There was concern the chimney was going to collapse, and we were instructed to avoid the area around the fireplace and kind of hope an aftershock didn’t bring it down and take someone out. We really should have been told that a lot earlier than we were, as there had already been a couple of exhibitions that drew a good number of visitors that milled around the aforementioned death-potentate. At least my fingers were crossed throughout all the show openings and there were no fatalities, apart from the obligatory hangovers.

Sitting here now, at the table in 183 Milton Street where this project began and looking back over the successes and mild failures, I wonder if this project would have been realized if the earthquake had not caused such damage and in some way became a facilitator of the idea. I think that by being confronted with no other alternative than to challenge the established notion of the gallery, what is expected from a gallery and therefore expanding the world of the gallery-goer, the 183 Milton Street project succeeded. The hardest part of this excursion into the gallery world was keeping an eye on wine specials at the supermarket.

Which reminds me, 183 Milton Street was entirely self-funded and I was extremely fortunate to have had sympathetic landlords and, equally important, understanding flatmates that became, by proxy, assistants, wine pourers and critics.

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