What is the reality of trying to make a living as an artist in Auckland? How do we shake off the doom and gloom clinging to politics? Why should students bother to vote at all? Can Chlöe make history (again)?
Karangahape Road is not a place I’m used to being at 9am on a Monday morning. At least not these days. Back when I lived in the CBD I had to walk the entire length of it to get to work, running (or usually stumbling) the gauntlet, stopping once or twice for coffee along the way, hunching over dusty in the bike lane. These were the joys of first year—of working all weekend, every weekend.
But I’ve since swapped my cramped uni hall room and subsequent apartments for city-fringe-suburb-bliss. All the money I now save in rent goes on heat pump bills, DampRid, my HOP card. Now I’m only on K Road for the usual reasons, at the usual times—bar hopping, kebab eating, existential spiralling in the corner of Thirsty Dog on poetry night.
The most recent of these usual nights was last Saturday, when Karangahape was glowing green. Chlöe Swarbrick’s new campaign office (dubbed Chlöe’s Clubhöuse) launched in all its neon glory with live music, speeches, and a party teeming with people that spilled out onto the street. As I passed by, the raucous support sounded a lot like the starting gun to the race for the Auckland Central electorate.
36 hours later, I’m back outside the Clubhöuse again—this time being welcomed in by Chlöe herself, the entire place to ourselves. It’s a sprawling space filled with mismatched couches and climbing plants, and the meeting table is piled high with tupperwares filled with home baking. The abstract green light fixtures sprinkling the room are much dimmer in the daylight, like snapped glow sticks on festival grass. I thank her for being willing to meet with me first thing on a Monday morning before she sets off to Parliament—being awake and articulate so early in the week is not something I personally am capable of. But she brushes off her act of heroism (hanging out with me for an hour), she’s been up since 5am debating David Seymour on early morning radio. Which is to say she’s had to deal with two insufferable losers from Epsom all before lunch.
While quiet and still now, the office housed many local artists for its launch—live music and comedy, art on display all over the walls. Fostering that talented community that has been so let down by all levels of government is what we’re here to talk about today. Chlöe’s dream for the arts in Auckland?
“It’s really the same vision I’ve held out for since 2016, when I was 22 years old, on the air back at bFM—when I was looking at this city and watching a lot of my talented friends in the arts head overseas, where they could earn $22 an hour doing a job like bagging groceries and have the time to do the thing they loved on the side. Going to international cities that were more affordable, had better public transport, and were far more supportive of arts and culture.”
“I’m such a big fan of the talent we have here—you can go out any night to Whammy or Wine Cellar or Neck of the Woods and find a plethora of people who are up there with the best international talent. But the problem is our structures are—primarily at a council level—not supportive of the places and spaces that make up the ecosystem which is necessary for arts and culture. Over the last few years I’ve been hacking away and lobbying for those things. Things like more street trading for more food vendors on our streets, more busking, more vibrancy which in turn means more people out and about, more enjoyment. And these things create something called the surveillant effect which leads to greater feelings of safety and less crime on the streets and more community participation. So I think we have to look at things from an entire ecosystem perspective. When I zoom out and look at things at a national level I think about how precarious it is to try and have a career in arts and culture—so having a backstop like a guaranteed minimum income provides safety nets for artists to be able to pursue the things that they love.”
“And pursuing the things that they love has been an inherently political battle for Auckland’s artists, particularly this year. Council’s proposed budget cuts threatened the liveability and vitality of the city for its creatives, and generated huge movements across communities. Swarbrick credits organisations like Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi: “even though it was awful looking at the level of austerity cuts—It really demonstrated the power of our community. We rallied together and had the highest level of submissions to Council ever, and managed to soften those blows. But the reality is that council is still looking to cut half of the jobs at Tataki Auckland Unlimited, amongst other things—and I think that’s one thing that’s really important for people to know about politics: while we’re having this election in the next few weeks which is focused on the notion of government [economic] waste, it’s really important to look behind that rhetoric and to really understand what is on the chopping block.”
The ongoing problems of funding and support for the arts, while nationwide, have been felt particularly deeply in Auckland, which historically hasn’t had the reputation of a cultural centre that’s worth supporting.
“I so profoundly and deeply love this city, much to the disdain of my friends who live in places like Wellington or Dunedin. People love to chastise us for being this sprawling urban centre, but the reality is that we have the ingredients to do phenomenal things here, we just need a system that enables as opposed to disables.”
Chlöe goes on to say, “Last week, I was talking to some of my friends who are musicians who didn’t know Tāmaki is literally a UNESCO city of music, but we don’t have the council setup or infrastructure or mechanisms to support the people that operate within the music ecosystem.”
“We’ve got the talent here, we just don’t have the cultural norms or officialdom working on the ground. And back in 2020, that’s why it was so important for me to win Auckland Central, to start connecting those dots. We have these forces inside of our political community like landlords and business owners, but we don’t have those same forces and lobbying powers from our students and NGOs and artists, and it’s because they haven’t necessarily seen themselves reflected in our politics.”
“And you look at something like FIFA going on at the moment, met with this surge of focus from the mainstream media—and often that’s met with some more financial resourcing or some coverage from local and central government—imagine if we had that same level of interest and engagement when it came to issues of arts and culture. It would be transformative.”
“Our arts community is so resilient, and I’m a little bit loath to say that because I don’t think they should have had to have been. Because often when we talk about resilience we glorify these people that have had to fight against a system that is trying to decimate them. We’ve had events like F.O.L.A (Festival of Live Art) that was cancelled first because of lockdowns and then again because of flooding, but still managed to bring together disparate events and hold them in different ways—it shows the ability of the arts to pivot and to innovate and to constantly create in so much stress, it demonstrates how inherently valuable the skills are that underpin performance art. I’m so amazed by the potential for collaboration and cross-pollination across artistic fields if we had a system that enabled that.”
It feels large and impossible, the challenges of a city in survival mode for so long. And though Chlöe is frank when she says “the state of the world genuinely distresses me sometimes”, she still speaks with a vibrant, defiant passion on these dogged issues. It’s an aspirational outlook, but still feels grounded in reality:
“I can totally understand the loop a lot of us get into; where you feel disenchanted by the politics of the day, so you end up disengaging, and when you disengage you get less representation, and without representation in things like Select Committees you end up getting less action, then less engagement, less representation, and so on. It’s a downward spiral. But in my personal experience the only antidote to that is to find your community, and to actively engage as much as possible on a local level. Just try and do cool shit. How can you make things work? How can you make change happen? How can you build your community? It’s not going to come from the top down—because the people that are benefitting from the status quo have no incentive to change it. I understand that many people will be reflecting on how we were promised transformation but it was met with the reality of tinkering, and now it’s quite hard to hope for something better. But the reality is that things can get worse. And dare I get a little abstract and maybe even a little bit hopeful—crazy I know!—but elections really are a portal for change where genuinely anything is possible.”
“I know that it’s really bleak out there—and that a lot of people are looking at the world and going ‘politics sucks!’ and I’m like ‘yes, it does!’ but, you know, we get the politics we think we deserve—and we deserve a much better level of engagement and discourse from our politicians. So support those politicians that you think are giving you that, and know that things can change if we have the willingness and the hope to actually engage in making that a reality. Politics belongs to those that show up—and Mike Hosking is voting, ya landlord is voting, your boss is voting, so I hope you are too!”
“We’ve been confronted these last three years with relentless challenges in Auckland Central, Everything that I do, I do working with and for our community. I’m not interested in this job for the sake of having it, I’m interested in the potential that we have and the outcomes we can achieve together. And with that, I think we’ve got unfinished business – you know, it took three years to save St James, it took a year to save The White Lady. We’re looking at issues like climate change and wealth inequality that are on our doorstep right now. We need leaders who can confront the reality of those crises and not just resort to soundbites—that can go through the gritty challenges and unify people and find solutions. I’d like to think that I have a bit of a track record on that stuff.”
I only know what I am doing because I am consistently empowered by the community. There is no point in occupying this space or doing this gig if I’m not sense-checking and being accountable to the people I care about. And that’s how I reconcile holding these views that some people would call radical, that I would just call basic human rights necessary for the survival of people and planet, but you know. But I view it as this career—and I loathe to call it that because I don’t think anyone should have a career in politics—but this gig, this stint, is going to end in one of two ways. Either I get voted out because the things that I stand for are perceived for whatever reason as being too radical or too controversial. And if that happens, that’s cool, because I maintained my integrity and fought really hard for these things that align with my values. The other option is we win and I get to keep going at this until I don’t have the energy to do it anymore. And that is a privilege, to work with your community and people that you love to try and get shit done. And sometimes I am really distressed about the state of the world, and it can be the most frustrating job sometimes, but when we get shit done it’s the coolest feeling in the world.
“We’ve absolutely internalised the idea of student poverty as an inevitability—that it’s normal, that everyone works while they study. But actually the fact is that students do have it materially worse now than they did even back when I was studying. And even if they didn’t, I would argue the point of social evolution is to make sure the people after you don’t have to go through the same struggles that you did.
Turn up to debates—have those debates and conversations on campus, with your flatmates, your parents—it’s useful to be informed and look at the policy details. But I also hope that rather than feeling the need to get involved, the presence and voice and work that we [politicians] do for you speaks for itself.
And for those artists who survived the Covid period, that’s certainly what it’s felt like. And we have recent evidence and research now that fully details the precariousness of living as an artist in Auckland.
and how whenever something like that or the Rugby World Cup is going on for example, it’s
I have very interesting relationships with many different political figures and our mayor, His Worship Wayne Brown is no different in that respect. And I’m really straight up with him that I’m the same person in public and I am in private, so if I’m seeing and hearing things from our constituents that need to change in our community, I’m gonna say the same damn thing publicly. And I think that can be jarring to some that are used to what they conceive as the four-dimensional chess game of politics, but as far as I’m concerned it’s the only way to be a politician with integrity. So there’s definitely been times where Wayne and I have clashed, but there’s also been areas where I think we can have a form of collaboration, we have some interesting synergies on things like using port land on the Waterfront as public space, and things like not wasting millions on things like putting Light Rail underground. So we can actually find things to agree on, but it’s certainly a back and forth. We’ve certainly found… creative ways to work together. And you know, we had to work together on things like confirming the restoration of the St James, and things like that are why it’s important to remind people: you’re not always going to get everything you want out of an election, but the game doesn’t end there. The opportunity for getting outcomes or successes for the community doesn’t end there. Politics doesn’t just happen every three years, it happens every single day with every single decision that is made. So it’s about staying engaged and finding those opportunities and causes .