Mikayla Journée

2022 Michèle Whitecliffe Art Writing Prize runner-up – Opt, Co-opt and Co-ops: Politicised Participation in Recent Art from Aotearoa.

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This essay was selected as one of two runner-ups in the 2022 Michèle Whitecliffe Art Writing Prize.

Each year entrants into the Michèle Whitecliffe Art Writing Prize respond to a theme and in 2022 the theme was ‘Freedom’. New constraints experienced during the height of the global Covid-19 pandemic curtailed our ability to travel, socialise, connect with whānau and in some cases make a living. This coincided with increased political and economic uncertainty globally, resulting in an intensification of the already fraught debates about freedom of speech, control of information and the meaning and practical working of democracy. Writers were asked to consider where freedom is to be found and comment its representation in art.

This year’s judge was award-winning writer and critic Chris Kraus. Now based in Los Angeles after many years in New York City, Kraus spent some of her early life in Aotearoa New Zealand, attending Victoria University of Wellington and working as a journalist at the Evening Post. She is perhaps best known for her 1997 genre-breaking novel I Love Dick, described by the Guardian as a ‘cult feminist classic’, which in 2016 was adapted for television.

Commenting on Mikayla Journée's entrey, 'Opt, Co-opt and Co-ops: Politicised Participation in Recent Art from Aotearoa', Krauss made the following comments:

‘Opt, Co-opt and Co-ops: Politicised Participation in Recent Art from Aotearoa’, by, Mikayla Journée, is a compelling, comprehensive chronicle of Aotearoa New Zealand art that involves politicised audience participation. The ‘freedom’ of perpetual mobility, Journée observes, is a postmodern norm that was shattered by the pandemic. As she points out, ‘lamenting their loss of liberty, a large swathe of people neglected to see and understand that mobility (having both options and agency to opt) is a privilege not afforded to all.’ Journée describes Tiffany Singh and the Auckland Resettled Community Coalition’s 2017 installation, A Journey of a Million Miles, as an artwork that, in a single gesture, conveys individual stories and performs a kind of healing. Journée is an excellent historian of participatory art, describing works that, variously, force uncomfortable confrontations between spectators and performers; invite their audiences to share adventures in the fog; and provide urban farms to residents in underserved areas of the city.


This essay explores opting, co-opting and co-ops in relation to recent artworks from Aotearoa in the public realm. Within this framework, the primarily participatory and social practice artworks in this essay engage with the freedoms of human mobility, bodily autonomy and economies – journeys, fog, subjugation, violation, consent, visibility, invisibility, intervention. Within these works there is social exchange and expressions of futurity. They ask critical questions about control while dialoguing with and manifesting freedoms.


Opting – opting in, opting out, options, agency

Global mobility is a postmodern norm, a supermodernity condition.[1] Pandemic travel restrictions drew much of the world’s attention to the normativity of mobility and the once-believed unstoppable flow of both people and products. Travel turned from intercontinental darts to humble neighbourhood walks. And lamenting their loss of liberty, a large swathe of people neglected to see and understand that mobility (having both options and agency to opt) is a privilege not afforded to all.

Pre-pandemic, the Auckland Resettled Community Coalition partnered with artist Tiffany Singh to turn their book of resettlement stories, Beyond Refuge: Stories of Resettlement in Auckland (2016), into an immersive installation and participatory artwork. The Journey of a Million Miles Begins with One Step, 2017 sought to turn the public’s eyes to what is so taken for granted: freedom. Jacinda Adern (pre-prime ministership) participated in the project’s accompanying film, highlighting the project’s political and advocacy aims. The installation comprised a number of transformed upturned dinghies, which played audio recordings of the resettled community’s experiences, and which were adorned with thousands of golden paper boats and infilled with vibrantly patterned strips of fabric. On a Waiheke Island headland, the wind swept away the voices. There was freedom in that environment, a healing breath to carry the stories. In the project’s second staging at the New Zealand Maritime Museum’s gallery, there was, in contrast, a hum, a mumbling, the quiet shuffling and rustling of others in the space, and the stories embedded themselves into the room and into listeners. This second iteration of the project invited the public to record their own audio narratives of journey and immigration. That data was then mapped onto a visual projection on the gallery wall, and the stories played for visitors to listen to. Those stories became nodes of data in an archive while also contributing to a shared experience – together, apart. ‘Opting’ takes two forms in this work, both in subject and in form. The 12 individuals who share their experiences in Beyond Refuge, individuals who have experienced an immense lack of options, are meaningfully opting in – storying as an act of freedom and futurity.[2] And the public who share their own experiences as artwork participants are also opting in, giving of themselves to form connection with strangers.

<p>Tiffany Singh, <em>Journey of a Million Miles Begins with One Step</em>, 2017, mixed media installation, Sculpture on the Gulf, Waiheke Island, Auckland. Image courtesy of the artist</p>

Tiffany Singh, Journey of a Million Miles Begins with One Step, 2017, mixed media installation, Sculpture on the Gulf, Waiheke Island, Auckland. Image courtesy of the artist

A similar tension of having or not having options, of opting in or opting out, has played out contemporaneously with the mainstream experience of pandemic-induced travel and social restrictions. This theme has, naturally, been a starting point for numerous artworks in the public realm. Layne Waerea’s conceptual and participatory project Walking about in fog, 2020 addressed the unifying experience of walking together apart. Participants were invited to, as the title instructs, walk about in fog, and record their journey to then share on an online platform. Submissions included various urban and non-urban foggy environments, abstracted protruding forms through dense white-grey space, sometimes with people, sometimes not, and various musings about walking through familiar places in an unfamiliar way.

Lana Lopesi’s accompanying text, ‘Final foggy thought’, pointed out the freedoms at stake: ‘the convergence of three crises happening simultaneously: the Covid-19 pandemic, climate crisis and Black Lives Matter.’[3] ‘The devastation,’ she writes, ‘is that we as humans have to wait until things get bad before we can (hope) to see systemic change of any kind. But the hopefulness of a crisis is that we see any change at all.’[4] Lopesi reminds us too that ‘not all bodies move equally’.[5] The fiction of universal experience is visible in both Walking about in fog and Journey of a Million Miles Begins with One Step, and they each engage with and mediate the politics of mobility and global/local geographies. Marc Augé suggests that the contemporary city marks itself by its import and export of people, as well as goods, describing at a macro level what these artists are facilitating at the scale, and from the perspective, of individuals.[6] Though different in terms of subject, context, form and formulation, the geographies of resettlement and our globally familiar pandemic geographies share the same restrictions of one’s rights to move. In the age of the Anthropocene, our right to mobility has become an expected excess.[7]

It feels worthwhile to relocate Lopesi’s observation that ‘not all bodies move equally’ into the very now. At the time of writing, barely a few weeks have passed since the overturning of Roe v Wade and it seems negligent not to observe this in the context of this essay’s focus on freedoms, options and opting in/opting out.  If we turn briefly to the Women’s Art Environment of 1970s and 80s in Aotearoa, we can see a lineage of art and female freedoms practices. The Women’s Art Environment made space for women artists to practise, to be cared for, and for their work to be shared. The late Allie Eagle’s oft-cited This woman died, I care, 1978 engaged with the subject of illegal abortion. Eagle’s image replicates a publically published police photograph of a raped and deceased woman’s naked body, face down, identity-less. The image is smeared with blood-like strokes, a crack in the glass is sutured with plasters, and includes the title text – ‘this woman died I care’. Whilst not a participatory artwork in and of itself, the wider, collaborative, cooperative social practice of the Woman's Art Environment was significant for Aoteaora’s cultural fabric.

<p>Gabbie de Baron, <em>Give Her A Break! She&rsquo;s Petty &amp; Vile &amp; Ugly</em>, 2022, mixed media installation, Window Gallery, University of Auckland, 2022. Image: author&rsquo;s own</p>

Gabbie de Baron, Give Her A Break! She’s Petty & Vile & Ugly, 2022, mixed media installation, Window Gallery, University of Auckland, 2022. Image: author’s own

A new work by Gabbie de Baron, Give Her A Break! She’s Petty & Vile & Ugly, 2022, represents an urgently needed return to this theme of body sovereignty. The installation is a mess and messy manifestation of an internal world made external. A heartbreak is represented as a cataclysm of notes, screen captures, scrawls, scrolls, obsessive messages and questions and confusions. ‘I hate u, I wish u kissed my ass!’ is painted in violet nail polish on the floor, ‘twat’ is embroidered onto a pillow slip, and a spilled tin of wooden beads has fallen into the title’s words ‘petty’, ‘vile’ and ‘ugly’. Printed phone notes expose a deeply private stream of experience, and a poster reads: ‘I hate my own mind, she tells me I’m ♥unloveable♥.’ A Barbie pink handbag is bejewelled with ‘crazy’. It’s an exposing, self-critical, vulnerable work which observes external forces at work on this female body.

Amongst the literal and conceptual mess, there is an extended handwritten scroll running down the centre of the wall. The text speaks of body sovereignty and of invasive and disruptive contraceptive methods that women endure. ‘Fuck this! I’m done being railed and then being expected to take the pill next morning … They cum and they go  … I will never let a man say anything about my body because he will never know strength, the way I do.’[8] Highly responsive to contemporaneous freedoms at stake, this work is brave and poignantly timed, but eternally relevant. With abortion debates still rampant across the globe, it is clearly necessary to acknowledge that ‘not all bodies move equally,’ while at the same time demanding, ‘Can we be free?!’.

<p>Darcell Apelu and Amiria Puia Taylor, <em>Can you see me?</em>, 2018, Performance documentation, Gus Fisher Gallery, Auckland. Image courtesy of the artist and Gus Fisher Gallery</p>

Darcell Apelu and Amiria Puia Taylor, Can you see me?, 2018, Performance documentation, Gus Fisher Gallery, Auckland. Image courtesy of the artist and Gus Fisher Gallery


Co-opting – Join, assimilate, trick, absorb, use, abuse

Darcell Apelu and Amiria Puia Taylor’s Can you see me?, 2018 speaks directly to the freedoms of bodily autonomy within a decolonial framework. The work asks us to consider subjugation while also raising questions about the implications of co-opting the public in order to turn them into the subject of inquiry. In this participatory performance two women sit still on the threshold of an inner-city gallery, with its gothic, colonial, brick street facade, and let the public tape their bodies to the ground, bound, blinded, gagged. Alluding to a performance of the same title by Lonnie Hutchinson,[9] the bodies in this artwork are both subject and subjected as they are entrapped and walked over. The public are implicated here: participants put themselves in the dominant position by choice, and thus re-enact a dominant/subservient role play. But the public are already implicated in subjugating brown, female bodies. The performance involves mechanisms of both ‘opting’ (relating to the theme of autonomy as well as the public’s opting to participate) and ‘co-opting’ (the artist using the public to articulate an artistic narrative). How free were the participants in this exchange? Have they been subtly tricked into performing the political narrative of the artist? Or are they authentically and of their own intent performing the perennial dominance of the dominant? Both paradigms have been systems of the colonial project.

Expressions of counter hegemonic experience can be quiet, collaborative, culturally responsive counter-acts. Gretchen Coombs writes about the ability of participatory and social practice art to invoke and mobilise a public in different contexts to consider social issues relating to ‘democracy, social justice, race, ethics, and the use of public space’.[10] Amy Spiers suggests that‘socially engaged and participatory art’s potential for amelioration raises questions about how such practices attend to the deeper social inequalities and divisions that inform how people see, experience and move through public space’.[11] Artists might resist co-option into systemic assimilation through politicised art actions that perform freedom. This can sit in a productive tension with the co-opting of the public through participative practices. Can you see me? literalises freedom at different levels: it heightens the freedom/entrapped tension and dichotomous reality of the immobility of some and dominant hyper-mobility of others.

A project that literally employed co-option in an act of dissention was Best Before Dairy Cooperative’s project for the 2013 Auckland Triennial. An artist collective, the project title of Best Before Dairy Cooperative denies clear authorship.[12] This could be an act of resistance in itself. Collaboration is an act of resistance to being co-opted into the dominant mode of art production and art market, modelling alternative solutions to a late capitalist paradigm of objectified artist and capitalisable art object. Deborah Rundle describes the project as ‘an antagonism within the dominant culture’ which asks questions about the politics of milk production and supply in Aotearoa.[13] The collective bought a cow, named Kowhai, milked her daily, then served the unpasteurised milk to gallery visitors. They sold shares in Kowhai in the Gallery space, ‘entitling members to full benefits of ownership, including the consumption of raw milk’.[14] Under the hood of participatory and conceptual art, the collective offered an alternative experience of small-scale subsistence farming as an experimental act of food sovereignty to counter and critique the hegemonic dairy industry. Publics often view art as other to real life, and it’s perhaps this other-space-ness that enables subversive tactics to be employed – counter-acts hidden in plain sight within the art gallery system. Are institutions open to enabling more radical political counter-acts in galleries, and can the gallery be an enabler and provide the productive framework from which to produce experimental, performative political acts of resistance such as this?


Co-ops – cooperate, collaborate, alternate, rupture

Artists-as-collectives and art-as-cooperatives rupture the flow of late capitalist systems by providing alternative options and co-opting publics. We turn now to art projects that intervene in the urban environment to critique hegemonic economies that restrict contemporary experience of place. Amanda Yates and others call for a reconception of urban placemaking to something more responsive and responsible – quite simply, we should be thinking in terms of ‘places making us’.[15] Yates and Janine Randerson have asked:

‘How might art in public space activate multiple publics in ecological conversations or actions? How can art create a platform for enhanced networks and actions for change?’ and what ‘range of practices and tactics’ can be ‘utilised to animate public discussion and build action networks?’[16]

As an urban design research project, Yates established Pop-Up Garden, 2012, a series of gardens planted in a publicly accessible square in Wellington city. City sites were predominantly chosen due to their productive locations and soils – rather ironically, Sue Gallagher observes, considering that urban farms have previously been lost and pushed elsewhere.[17] The gardens were available to the general public to harvest and, if so inclined, maintain. Some of the users recalled family gardens of their childhoods, some would harvest just enough salad lettuce to add to their lunch, and for others it was simply a place for meetings or for rest.[18]

In Auckland, the social sculpture For the Love of Bees, 2014–present, has similarly re-introduced urban farming to the city.[i] The project began as a collaboration between Sarah Smuts-Kennedy and Taarati Taiaroa, who installed urban ‘pasture paintings’ for bees in Tāmaki Makaurau. For the Love of Bees has since bloomed across the city, and now encompasses productive community gardens with education programme components, advocating for food economies, food sovereignty, food futurity and food freedom. What has flourished is a multi-sited urban gardening enterprise, an art project-cum-cooperative economic and social project that sustains, and is in turn sustained by, people in urban environments.

‘What we want is free,’ posits Ted Purves, who explores gift economy as an act of resistance in an art context.[20] Numerous urban interventions with cooperative models of artistic production and gift exchange practices ask critical questions about our current capitalist systems. Barry Thomas’s Vacant Lot Cabbages, 1978 was an urban intervention in Wellington which commandeered an unused lot as an artistic act of guerrilla gardening. Cabbages were planted in a formation to spell out ‘cabbages’, around which social ecologies emerged – people as companion plants, perhaps? David Mealing’s Jumble Sale, 1975 offers us another historic precedent for art-as-co-op. Utilising Auckland City Art Gallery as a functional place for a charitable society marketplace, Mealing transformed the art institution – symbolically as well as the physical site – into an alternative economic zone for transactions and exchange. Jumble Sale asked valid questions about the art market, art and capitalist markets and succeeded in stirring the status-quo. The title of one news clipping about the artwork proclaimed ‘You as Art’.[21] Another, entitled ‘Democratic Anyway, But Is It Art?’ captures the discomforting rupture felt when art doubles as a social and economic environment and resource.[22]

In ‘Blows Against the Empire’, Purves writes about the ‘gift-détournement’, offering a framework to consider these practices that could be seen as both quippy agitations and acts of gifting.[23] He describes détournement and the alternative gift-economy as a ‘double transgression’, which ‘rips through the fabric of what we have accepted to be given’.[24] A D Shierning’s Freedom Fruit Gardens, 2007–present, asks important questions about, as the title suggests, food freedoms: affordability, access and rights to produce. The artist planted fruit trees on underutilised council sites in communities chosen due to their deprivation index status, and members of the public are invited to pick the fruit via simple signage.[25] The inaugural planting took place in Preston Road Reserve in East Otara.[26] Freedom Fruit Gardens is as much a playful, conceptual intervention as it is optimistically servicing a disadvantaged community with food. Kim Paton’s Free Store, 2010, a Letting Space project, operated in that same intangible zone of artist-activist-service provider. A vacant space was turned into a free store, filled by the community for the community and facilitated by the artist. These examples of urban interventions model a different system for supply and consumption. They are acts of structural and food freedoms as much as they are simply offering things to people for free.


This essay has been interested in artworks in the public realm that are engaging with opting, co-opting and co-ops as art practice strategies. These methods have been used to great effect for meaningful dialogue facilitating action around freedom. The works explored in this essay address freedoms of mobility, bodies and food, and there are, of course, many more projects that could have been brought into this discussion. On a quest for transformation, these artworks have been both performative and propositional. Purves has suggested that ‘strategies for responding, and perhaps even fighting back … have come to light … in the form of certain contemporary artworks, that by choice and definition unfold themselves within the public sphere, rather than on stages and in galleries’.[27] This form/formation of practice has been visible in Aotearoa for some time. In the public sphere, and with bold and brave dialogues, artists have been relentlessly holding up flags, and pointing out red flags, for freedom. To them, ngā mihi maioha.



[1] Supermodernity is a concept for our times of overabundance and excess that is posited by Marc Augé in his anthropological study of ‘non places’. See Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, 2nd English language ed, Verso, London and New York, 2008, p 24.

[2] To illustrate the lack of choice and agency that can be experienced in resettlement, Abann Yorr writes that whilst some resettled migrants have come to this place by choice, others are assigned their destination by the United Nations. See Abann Kamyay Ajak Yorr, ed, Beyond Refuge: Stories of Resettlement in Auckland, Auckland Resettled Community Coalition, Auckland, 2016, p 13.

[3] Lana Lopesi, ‘Final foggy thought’, in About Walking: 16 Months of Artist Walks in Tāmaki Auckland, eds Christina Houghton, Melissa Laing and Becca Wood, Te Uru Waitākere Contemporary Gallery, Auckland, 2021, p 30.  

[4] As above.

[5] Lopesi, ‘Final foggy thought,’ p 31

[6] Augé, Non-Places, pp vii–viii.  

[7] As above, p 24.

[8] Gabbie de Baron, Give Her A Break! She’s Petty & Vile & Ugly, Window Gallery, the University of Auckland, July 2022

[9] Lonnie Hutchinson, Can you see me?, QEII Square, Khartoum Place, Auckland, 1997.

[10] Gretchen Coombs, ‘On the Move,’ in Engaging Publics/Public Engagement, ed Zara Stanhope, Auckland Art Gallery, Auckland, 2015, pp 34–38.

[11] Amy Spiers referenced in Grace McQuilten, ‘Who Is Afraid of Public Space?: Public Art in a Contested, Secured and Surveilled City’, Art and the Public Sphere, vol 8 no 2, 2019, pp 237–38.

[12] Best Before Dairy Cooperative included the artists Deborah Rundle, Ziggy Lever, Layne Waerea, Joe Prisk, Lee Parker, Cathay Carter, Sarah Keeling.

[13] Deborah Rundle, 'Transforming Topographies', https://www.deborahrundle.com/transforming-topographies.html, access 30 July 

[14] As above. 

[15] Lucy Tukua in Jade Wikaira, ‘Placekeeping Aotearoa’, Placemaking Aotearoa, Auckland, November 16, 2021; Amanda Yates, ‘Mauri-Ora: Architecture, Indigeneity, and Immanence Ethics’, Architectural Theory Review, vol 21, no 2, May 3, 2016, pp 261–75.

[16] Janine Randerson and Amanda Yates, ‘Engaging Publics: Art, Ecologies and the Urban Environment’, in Engaging Publics/Public Engagement, ed Zara Stanhope, Auckland Art Gallery and AUT University Press, Auckland, 2015, p 100

[17] Amanda Yates, Andrew Douglas and Sue Gallagher, ‘Conversations on the cultivated city’, in An Urban Quest for Chlorophyll, eds Jenny Gillam and Dieneke Jansen, Rim Books, Auckland, 2013, p 33.

[18] Amanda Yates, ‘Pop-Up Garden’, in An Urban Quest for Chlorophyll, eds Jenny Gillam and Dieneke Jansen, Rim Books, Auckland, 2013, p 32.

[19] Sarah Smuts Kennedy references Joseph Beuys’ concept of ‘social sculpture’ to describe For the Love of Bees in ‘For the Love of Bees’, accessed July 30, 2022

[20] Ted Purves, ed, What We Want Is Free: Generosity and Exchange in Recent Art, State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, 2005.       

[21] David Mealing, Jumble sale/A marketplace: Project Programme 1975, Auckland City Art Gallery, 1975.

[22] As above.

[23] Ted Purves, ‘Blows Against the Empire’, in What We Want Is Free: Generosity and Exchange in Recent Art, ed Ted Purves, University of New York Press, Albany, NY, 2005, pp 27–44.

[24] As above, p 27.

[25] AD Schierning, ‘Freedom Fruit Gardens’, http://www.freedomfruitgardens.com, accessed 30 July, 2022

[26] Te Tuhi, ‘AD Schierning: Freedom Fruit Gardens’, https://tetuhi.art/exhibition/a-d-schierning-freedom-fruit-gardens/.accessed 30 July 2022,

[27] Purves, ‘Blows Against the Empire’, p 27.