There’s an exhibition at the Dowse of Gavin Hipkins. I don’t know who Gavin Hipkins is. I don’t follow art but I enjoy going to look at it. I liked three sections of his work, and the other four parts didn’t do much for me. There was a video at the end that I enjoyed most. A woman reading H.G. Wells The Time Machine across video of Jantar Mantar, the sea, mountains, the sun, the moon, and the housing development at Stonefields in Auckland. The text, about hurdling through time, plays against those images beautifully. Meaningfully. Meaninglessly.
Another film had a camera pushing through a room of suspended balls. A critic said it was about penis stuff. I couldn’t see it myself.
The first room of the exhibition has rows of silvery, black and white pictures of academic architecture. Surfaces and stairwells and emptied spaces from the concrete minds of the state architects who delivered New Zealand universities a whole suite of buildings from the campuses of Otago to Auckland. They’re the buildings that I know from my time at university: drear and watermarked slabs of grey with windows like machine guns slits in a bunker. Beautiful though because no surface is ever perfect, and the sun will make pleasing shadows where ever it can.
Because I had just finished reading Ruth, Roger and Me by Andrew Dean, because I saw the photos taken at the university, I was argumentative later about higher education. In Dean’s book he talks to the CEO of Canterbury University (sorry, Vice-Chancellor) who feels overall that things are more efficient since the reforms in education funding in the 90s. It’s a curious definition of efficiency. In fact it seems to me that most of what has happened is a good example of how competition can make things far, far less efficient. In a country of four million the model of having all universities compete with each other is absurd. The idea that all universities should devote huge budgets to marketing campaigns, to finding ways to offer everything (thereby creating pointless duplication), and to launch massive building programmes to house all these capitalist fantasies of growth is clearly a colossal waste of money.
Two of the mantras of neo-liberalism are true/not true. Growth is good. Except when it isn’t. Competition is good. Except not always. Please, everyone, just remember to consider the not true side of the true/not true binary and use it like a stick to beat white people in suits over the head with when required. How did selling the rail network go?
Carr, that CEO I mentioned earlier, says something extraordinary:
“So the benefits… I think our academic staff actually do work harder. I think they have longer hours, longer weeks and a longer year, than they did 25 years ago.”
It’s economically logical to think of more work and stagnant pay as a plus. Odd though for us, as human beings, to accept a totally artificial, human created ideology’s own terms of success as more important than preserving human dignity.
Every time I hear someone breathlessly report on the driverless car I think of two students I know. The income in their family comes from their fathers. Their fathers drive taxis. One family is from Afghanistan. The other from Somalia. The driverless means what to their families in the future? Poverty.
The book How to Resist by Matthew Bolton begins by describing a living wage campaign for cleaners at a university in England. Imagine a system that requires such campaigns to exist. Imagine a country whose suicide rate among the young has leapt so high and that continues with its same models anyway.
I know students who have died. They sit in back of my heart like a stone. They point a finger back at me like a raw, wounded indictment. Are there any other statistics required than the ones about youth suicide, about self harm, about depression to let us know that whatever it is our leaders have thought they were creating, it has in fact, for many, turned into a dystopia without meaning or hope? That it is not through a glass darkly we see now, but through a laugh darkly.