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DSC_1918On the wall behind me, a long-hid­den secret is being brought into the light. The secret is a tiled mur­al of Māui fish­ing up the North Island, and it was made in 1962 by a New Zea­l­and artist, E. Mervyn Taylor, for the open­ing of a cable sta­tion on Auckland’s North Shore.

That sta­tion housed the New Zea­l­and end of the COMPAC cable, one part of a net­work that trans­mit­ted com­mu­nic­a­tions — and strengthened geo­pol­it­ic­al ties — between the Com­mon­wealth coun­tries. It was the pre­curs­or of the South­ern Cross cable, now housed in the same com­plex and cur­rently at the centre of a row over spy­ing and our government’s role in inter­na­tion­al surveillance.

The mur­al is being reas­sembled by Wel­ling­ton artist Bron­wyn Hol­lo­way-Smith at Massey’s main cam­pus build­ing, the old Domin­ion Museum, in a stu­dio that looks down on the chaos of the Memori­al Park con­struc­tion site. Hol­lo­way-Smith, who is in the first year of a PhD on “the cul­tur­al sig­ni­fic­ance of the land­ing sites of the South­ern Cross cable”, had heard about the mur­al in the course of her research, but knew it was no longer on display.

It had been removed,” she says, “because it was deteri­or­at­ing.” So she asked the sta­tion man­ager where it might be. “He went out and looked, and found the tiles in boxes.” Hol­lo­way-Smith, who increas­ingly thinks of her­self as an art detect­ive (“or an invest­ig­at­ive artist — that’s my Twit­ter handle”), got agree­ment from Tele­com, the putat­ive own­er of the tiles, to trans­port them to Wel­ling­ton for res­tor­a­tion. “I ended up going up to Auck­land and driv­ing them down in a rent­al car. I didn’t want to trust them to a cour­i­er.” Friends and fam­ily have since joined her for a series of work­ing bees in which they painstak­ingly chipped off old cement and tidied up the tiles.

In her stu­dio, Hol­lo­way-Smith has hung up a drag­net — pun inten­ded — and stuck onto it, one by one, pho­to­graphs she has taken of the tiles. A sim­il­ar pro­cess is hap­pen­ing up in Auck­land, in the offices of an advert­ising agency. It’s one way of bring­ing the mur­al back into the light. The tiles them­selves will also, she hopes, be put on dis­play once more. “I’d like to see [them] installed at the Taka­puna Lib­rary, which is right on top of where the South­ern Cross cable comes in. I feel like there would be a really good place for [them].”

It’s not just a mat­ter of restor­ing a mur­al. Hol­lo­way-Smith wor­ries that spy­ing, sur­veil­lance and tech­no­logy are intrud­ing into our lives like nev­er before; either our spy agen­cies or America’s have almost cer­tainly tapped the South­ern Cross cable for our private data. Yet New Zeal­anders seem quite unbothered, for the most part. Per­haps, she thinks, art can spark some­thing, play­ing on the meta­phor­ic­al con­nec­tion between the South­ern Cross cable and the rope Māui used to fish up the North Island. Both were tiny strands of fibre that pos­sessed a far-reach­ing power. Both were deployed with good inten­tions but later — some would argue — were marred by con­tro­versy and division.

The mur­al, Hol­lo­way-Smith says, embod­ied a mid-20th-cen­tury optim­ism about New Zea­l­and being joined up to the world. The idea was that “even if we are really isol­ated, we can get out there and par­ti­cip­ate in glob­al cul­ture. But for me, what has happened in the last few months, is more ques­tions… there’s a sense of danger. We may be fish­ing up the world, but at what cost? It isn’t a gift, neces­sar­ily. It’s a very use­ful tool, but you need to be a bit wor­ried about it.”

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