top of page

Common Ground: A Place to Stand – Together

DOI: | Issue 6 | May 2021

Mairi Gunn (University of Auckland, New Zealand)


The immersive video installation, Common Ground, seeks to establish commonalities across racial boundaries based on cultural attitudes and grounded experience, including attachment to place, eviction from ancestral lands and enduring struggles for self-determination. Three stories (16:9) about connection to place, supported by massive ultra-widescreen 48:9 video landscapes, are told by Highland Scots (Gaels) from the very north of Scotland, ancestral homeland of the author, and three Māori from Te Tai Tokerau (Northland in Aotearoa New Zealand, current home of the author).

Writings by radical human ecologists describe as a triune the three-way relationship between land, people, and the unseen realms. The short stories that comprise Common Ground reveal a history riven when servants of capital intervened in the traditionally collective lives of people who had been cleaved to the land for millennia. The human ecologists call this enclosure as an ontological split. What affect does such a schism have on the psyche of the colonised… and, one wonders, on the colonisers and their offspring? As a settler living in an uncomfortably colonised reality, the author is drawn to Māori because their values are often ordered similarly. The way the stories are presented in Common Ground, is based on the Māori ritual of encounter within a meeting house (whare tupuna) where speakers take the floor un-interrupted and speeches are embellished by a song, be it a psalm, a waulking song, a Gaelic ballad or a prayer.

The immersive installation brings viewers together in a darkened space where they experience connection that may serve to remind them of the potential for the commons and commoning to be a salve for our grief.

Research Statement

The immersive video installation, Common Ground, is designed to highlight commonalities across racial boundaries based on cultural attitudes to land, connection to place, eviction from ancestral lands by enclosure and enduring struggles for self-determination. This work was driven by the following research question: Can audio/visual media help overcome cultural/social division by bringing people together in the dark to hear each other’s stories?

I am a white settler (Pākehā) born in Aotearoa New Zealand. My background in the film industry brought me into collaboration with indigenous Māori filmmakers and the Māori subjects in our films. Because it runs counter to my lived experience, I find interracial conflict disturbing and most often counterproductive. Therefore, when I began to direct my own films, I sought to enter the rocky terrain of intercultural relationships.

I had considered using the lens of the gift economy (Hyde 2006) as a way of identifying any mutual benefits brought about by Māori/Pākehā contact. However, in 2012, I was fortunate to land a driving job in Scotland, so was able to dig deeper into our family history and locate some of the pertinent landmarks. One sunny day, I chanced upon a pile of bright orange books, fresh from the printer, stacked on a friend’s coffee table. Upon enquiry, I was offered a copy. As the author, redoubtable land reform activist Shirley-Anne Hardy, lived within a stone’s throw, a visit was in order. Gifts and embraces ensued. The book (Hardy 2011), is about what she calls ‘the land question’, meaning how our birth right has been stolen from us to be replaced with indebtedness. In a moment of electric clarity, I could see that the conversion of land into private property was a tragedy common to both the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (my people) and to Māori. Although our ways of dealing with this sleight of hand is different, we have a great deal to share and learn from each other. This was to be the focus of my research and filmmaking practice.

Academic research allows us to ignore commercial imperatives. After many years of shooting for television broadcast and film festivals, I took the opportunity to step into an art gallery environment where designer/artists can make our own rules. I could honour both people and the land by framing the subjects traditionally, while allowing the land to stretch out, as it does, in a longitudinal way. Even favoured films that use nothing wider than a 2.35:1 ratio to depict landforms appear curtailed, dissected and claustrophobic. I had seen real life panoramic depictions of battle scenes and still panoramic photographs of the land and they provided evidence that ultra-widescreen was a wise choice. This coincided with the discovery of PanOptica software that was made available to me by the developers for experimentation. The decision to opt for an aspect ratio exactly three times the width of a 16:9 frame was arbitrary, although it occurred to me that instead of projection, perhaps three large monitors might provide a future screening solution.

Three of the short stories in the film (16:9) about connection to place are told by Highland Scots (Gaels) from the very north of Scotland and three more by Māori from Te Tai Tokerau (Northland in Aotearoa, New Zealand). These are accompanied and supported by massive, mute, 48:9 video landscapes, built using PanOptica software.

Radical human ecologists prioritize indigenous worldviews (Williams, Roberts & McIntosh 2016). They are activists who currently work in fields of food sovereignty, indigenous rights, farm machinery hacks and writing as academics and independent scholars. They honour a fundamental set of relationships as a triune; a three-way configuration of land, people, and the unseen realms. This can be expressed variously as the planet, all creatures who live thereon, and the numinous/the divine/culture/language/communication and so on. For Māori, this is whenua/tangata/atua, or land, people and god. Common Ground addresses the fundamental relationship between two of these - people and land. As the Borromean Rings demonstrate (Figure 1), if one element of the triune is missing, the other two can no longer hold together.

Weyland’s Knot

Figure 1. Weyland’s Knot. AnonMoos, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

(Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License)

Bonding/binding/connecting is of utmost importance to Gaels, expressed by their ceilidh culture, and to dedicated commoners who must have a place to common on in order to develop commoning relationships with each other. For Māori, the value of connection is regularly reaffirmed by the recitation of an ancient chant (below) often used in formal oratory to mark important occasions.

Tuia i runga Tuia I raro

Tuia i waho Tuia i roto Tuia i te here tangata

May it be woven above

As it is below

Woven without

As it is within

Interwoven within the threads of humanity

One such occasion was the anniversary of the arrival of explorer Captain James Cook to these shores over 250 years ago. Sadly, the aspirational proposition that, in 2019, ‘Tuia 250’ should celebrate this event, illuminates the disconnect between Pākehā, the European settlers/immigrants’, naivety/ignorance and Māori trauma/grief. Have Pākehā, forgotten our own traumatic backstories?

The short stories that comprise Common Ground reveal a history riven when servants of capital intervened in the formerly collective lives of people who were cleaved to the land. In Scotland, this took place during the Highland Clearances (post-Culloden and up to the present day). It neatly delivered evicted peasants to mines, factories and the colonies to work in service to the monied and land-holding class. It has recently been revealed that many of those who sought to clear the former clan lands of its people were financed by wealth gained from participation in the slave trade (Mackinnon & Mckillop 2020). In Aotearoa, the introduction of iron, muskets and title deeds had this exact same result; that is, the creation of the landless poor, dispossessed and disenfranchized, who migrated to become factory workers in the towns and cities. Human ecologists call this upheaval an ontological split because, simultaneously the people were deprived of their nurturing Mother, prohibited from speaking their own languages and practicing their formerly collective way of life. My intention, while making Common Ground, was to disrupt stereotypes of white people as domineering capitalists and Māori as victims. while highlighting the ways in which traces of human lives are held then offered up by the land.

The six stories were filmed as mid-shots of people standing in their landscape, in the places they call home, as a face-to-face encounter (Figures 2-7). When projected, the subjects were a little larger than life and elevated somewhat and addressing the viewer directly. Transcripts of their stories and accompanying video files were sent to each subject for approval. Filmmaker Kat Cizek, in conversation with documentary producer and media theorist Mandy Rose, discusses the distinction between participatory and co-creative documentary making and describes the latter as ‘a collaboration with the intent to make quality media with partners instead of just about them, to make media … with people that aren’t media-makers’ (Aston, Gaudenzi, and Rose 2017: 39). All of the subjects in Common Ground are experts in their own areas and have contributed to this work in their own ways. My expertize is filmmaking. It is what I contribute in the same manner as someone who turns the heels in a sock-making knitting circle – because the others trust them to do that job, and because they are present and willing. I continue a friendship with all but one of the storytellers and one, darling Iri, has tragically since left the land of the living. They are repeatedly invited to go where the installation goes in accordance with the Indigenous mantra ‘Nothing about us without us’ [1].

Environmental expert Irihāpeti Morgan

Figure 2. Environmental expert Irihāpeti Morgan introduces us to the maunga, the mountain, Whakarongorua.

Master carver and musician Nōpera Pikari

Figure 3. Master carver and musician Nōpera Pikari describes an experience of climbing Pukenui, or Te Ahuahu (to his left).

Weaver Reva Mendes

Figure 4. In Motukaraka, weaver Reva Mendes shows us the road leading from the church to the cemetery that her uncle maintained by hand.

Historian Sandra Train

Figure 5. Historian Sandra Train (née Macdonald) from Strath Hallidale, describes her childhood visits to the Iron Age broch in her background.

Poet and author George Gunn

Figure 6. Poet and author George Gunn stands on Beinn Freiceadain on the north coast of Scotland, from where we can see the Dounreay nuclear powerplant and numerous wind generators.

Farmer and archivist Neil Macleod

Figure 7. Farmer and archivist Neil Macleod tells of ‘old foundations and stones in the ground’, remnants of a collective life, near his croft in Caithness, Scotland.

As a white settler (Pākehā) living in an uncomfortably colonized reality here in Aotearoa New Zealand, I am drawn to Māori because, broadly speaking, our priorities and values are often ordered similarly. As a mark of respect for Māori wisdom and deep psychological understanding expressed through their cultural practices, the way the stories are presented in Common Ground, acknowledges Māori rituals of encounter that often take place within meeting houses (tipuna whare) where speakers hold the floor un-interrupted and in turn. Speeches are embellished with a song. In the installation, this may be a psalm, a waulking song, a Gaelic ballad or a prayer. All Māori subjects sing their own…

Alongside the human stories, the land (Papatūānuku) ancient Mother to all, speaks for herself. She discloses the presence of absence (Whelan 2004), the ‘where is everybody?’ epiphany. She holds remnants of lives lived in former realities, and commands awe and respect as the sentinel representing eternity and forbearance. She may also reflect back to us our mistaken endeavours as we go about polluting, denuding and despoiling our environment. During earlier projects, such as the feature-length documentary Restoring the Mauri of Lake Omapere, (Browne, Gunn & Marler 2007), interview subjects remarked on how they ‘speak with the mountains’ and how the birds farewell then greet them on return to their home valleys. They asked for those comments not to make the final cut. Perhaps this was an acknowledgement that Christianity displaced earlier practices and beliefs that were subsequently viewed as pagan or savage and even outlawed by such legislation as the Tōhunga Suppression Act of 1907. (NZ Government 2007)

Celtic cross, Hokianga Harbour, Māngunu

Figure 8. An outsized Celtic cross stands on the shore of the Hokianga Harbour at Māngunu to mark the Andersons, Anihana, who were Irihāpeti’s ancestors.

Pukenui (Te Ahuahu)

Figure 9. Native forest has been felled to create grazing land for agriculture on Pukenui (Te Ahuahu).

Hokianga Harbour

Figure 10. The Hokianga Harbour is at the heart of Reva’s ancestral lands.

The Strath of Kildonan

Figure 11: The Strath of Kildonan, whose people were evicted during the Highland Clearances.

Dounreay nuclear power plant

Figure 12. Dounreay nuclear power plant is a relatively recent addition to a landscape that holds burial mounds and slate walls, as seen from George Gunn’s viewpoint.

Braemore, Parish of Latheron

Figure 13. A panoramic image of Braemore, Parish of Latheron, home of my forbear Elsebeth Gunn b. 1788. Cleared in 1793.

In the exhibition of Common Ground, the huge rectangle of screens describes a place where visitors stand together in the darkened space. In the blacked-out studio, two 3.2 metre-wide screens at each end of the rectangular array display the human stories. Two 10-metre-long screens reflect the silent landscapes that support the storytellers. (figures 8-13) The place in between is the common ground in which visitors to the installation stand together, immersed in the imagery and soundscape. (See figure 14).

Common Ground: A Place to Stand – Together

Figure 14. Four screens and six projectors describe a central shared area for the audience to watch/listen together. This is the common ground. (Diagram by Mark Schafer)

Although standing together in a temporary space – a gallery in a First Nations reserve, university or art gallery – the people gathered there felt real human emotions in a real place. Scots Gaelic author, Iain Crichton-Smith alluded to this fundamental aspect of the indigenous experience in his essay ‘Real People in a Real Place’ (Crichton-Smith 1986). The audience was charged with energy and power. That power was grief, awe and love. In the face of top-down governance that has overseen world-wide destruction and havoc, what does one do with this force of emotion? Australian scholar in political science and philosophy, Mary Graham from the Kombumerri Mob of the Yugambeh language group, explains that ‘Despite the coming of colonializm with its state violence, the resulting social dislocation and lack of formal respect for Aboriginal people, they still don’t formalize or idealize conflict with the state’ (Graham 2014: 20). Therefore, perhaps we might consider that ‘The challenge rather is to build up a more just and sustainable society from the bottom up’ (Dirlik 2011: 54). This chimes with Gustavo Esteva and Madhu Suri Prakash in Grassroots Post-Modernism: Remaking the Soil of Cultures when they urge their readers to work from the ground up, so as to avoid power struggles with dominant constructs, that might have the unintended consequences of strengthening such structures.

Seeking to go beyond the premises and promises of modernity, people at

the grassroots are reinventing or creating afresh intellectual and institutional

frameworks without necessarily getting locked into power disputes. Ordinary

men and women are learning from each other how to challenge the very nature

and foundations of modern power, both its intellectual underpinnings and its

apparatuses. Explicitly liberating themselves from the dominant ideologies,

fully immersed in their local struggles, these movements and initiatives reveal

the diverse content and scope of grassroots endeavours…

(Prakash and Esteva 2014: 1)

My work is practice-led, post-positivist and subjective. At the time of making Common Ground in 2014, the methodology (Gunn 2015: 70) referenced palimpsests that are ancient parchments on which layered writings suffer erasure and revelation by turn. This reflected the way in which images are captured, selected, edited, composited and refined over time. It responded to physical encounters in the land with rocky remains, telltale signs of surplus and ill-gotten wealth and colonization connoted by demolition or burning of people’s homes and construction of foreign cultural edifices, be they religious or industrial. The small groups of people who sat together after viewing Common Ground to share their observations and to console each other was unexpected and remarkable. In addition to this, quite late in the research process, I discovered the pre-private ownership concept of the commons, that sits outside the market and the state. It is more than likely that Dirlik was aware of the commons when he wrote:

Despite social and cultural homogenization under the double forces of the market

and the nation-state, places are marked by ecological and social differences that call for a different kind of thinking than the universalist instrumentalist rationality

that Max Weber identified as the driving force of the modern state under

capitalism, which also informs contemporary education and scholarship both in

their goals and their methodologies […] indigenism offers an indispensable critical perspective on the hegemonic assumptions that inform globalization (Dirlik 2011: 4)

And so, subsequently my research moved away from a close consideration of the brutal enclosures and towards the healing and transformational paradigm offered by the commons and practices of commoning. This involves relationship building, eschewing competition, bridging silos and bringing together atomized individuals to co-design artistic endeavours. A useful umbrella term for my new, commoning methodology could be post-capitalist or even a rudimentary or aspirational decolonizing methodology because it prioritizes local people and their relationships with each other and their immediate location. Social and environmental health trumps profit. We can enact change from where we stand. At least then we can be sustained and steadied in our strategies, activities and endeavours by our Mother Earth and fellow countrymen and women.

Land is the great life force that both created and further enables the continuation of all species including humans, providing for our nourishment, shelter and social organization and informing us of meaning and purpose in human life, in particular, and all of life, in general. […] The intrinsic part of this understanding is expressed as the sacralizing of the relationship between Land and human beings which, in turn, led to the fundamental principle of custodianship or a permanent, standing obligation to look after Land, society and social relations – the Law. (Graham 2014: 18)

Contrary to these values, in The Sovereign Individual penned, with James Davidson, by English aristocrat and brexiteer Lord William Rees-Mogg, it is suggested that the time has come ‘to realize complete individual autonomy and independence’ […] ‘In the new age to come, communities and allegiances will not be territorially bound’ (Davidson and Rees-Mogg 1997: 252). If the ultra-rich can plug in their headphones and access wifi in their palatial accommodations like astronauts, they can avoid contact with the earthy realities of the great unwashed and the ‘tyranny of place’. Author and political columnist George Monbiot quips that ‘People who would consider living in the Gobi Desert intolerable […] rhapsodise about living on Mars’ […] ‘This belief is the ultimate negation of belonging’. (Monbiot 2017: 118)

While looking at today’s late-stage capitalist narrative, Monbiot is determined to write a new story, to lead us out of our current crises. In this he echoes John Ralston Saul’s observation in The Collapse of Globalism, that ‘Most of us just seem to be disconnected, waiting for the wave to crash. We are waiting with the cruel, experienced eye of a citizenry that has lost respect for its leadership in general, yet hasn’t quite worked out what to do about it and so waits for them to self-destruct.’ (Saul 2005: 13) Climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic have given new meaning to that wave. Saul insists that what we need now are ideas, before the wave crashes. It appears that, just over a decade later, Monbiot has come up with a new narrative that is full of ideas. He says our work is to ‘reach across the divides and find common ground, however unlikely this might at first appear.’ (Monbiot 2017: 27)

Australian Aboriginal Mary Graham, in her crystal clear exposition of indigenous values, insists that relationships foster stability and are therefore of utmost importance and that our relationship with land is one of our core relationships, the other being our relationships with each other, with the latter being contingent on the former. ‘There is no Aboriginal equivalent to the Cartesian notion of ‘I think therefore I am’ but, if there were, it would be – I am located therefore I am. Place, being, belonging and connectedness all arise out of a locality in Land.’ (Graham 2014: 17)


  • AnonMoos ‘The Weyland Knot’

  • Retrieved 29 March 2021.

  • Aston, J, Gaudenzi, S., and Rose, R. (2017). I-Docs: The Evolving Practices of Interactive Documentary. Nonfictions. London: Wallflower Press.

  • Bridges, D. (2003). Fiction Written Under Oath?. Philosophy and Education (10). Dordrecht [u.a.]: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

  • Browne, K, Gunn, M. and Marler, S. (2007). Restoring the Mauri of Lake Ōmapere. Directed by Simon Marler. Te Mangai Pāho.

  • Davidson, J. D., and Rees-Mogg, W. (1997). The Sovereign Individual: How to Survive and Thrive the Collapse of the Welfare State. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

  • Dirlik, A. (2011). ‘Globalization, Indigenism, Social Movements, and the Politics of Place’. Localities (1): 47–90.

  • Graham, M. ‘Aboriginal Notions of Relationality and Positionism: a reply to Weber.’ Global Discourse (4: 1) (27 May, 2014): 17-22.

  • Gunn, M. (2015). ‘Common Ground: A Creative Exploration of Narratives of Connection between People and Land in Scotland and Aotearoa / New Zealand.’ Auckland University of Technology.

  • Hardy, S. A. (2011). Stolen Land - Stolen Lives and the Great Con Trick of Debt! . Pitlochry, Scotland: Peregrine Press.

  • Hyde, L. (2006). The Gift. Edinburgh: Canongate.

  • MacKinnon, I. and Mackillop A. (2020). ‘Plantation Slavery and Landownership in the West and Islands: Legacies and Lessons.’ Retrieved 25 March 2021.

  • Monbiot, G. (2017). Out of the Wreckage. London: Verso.

  • Prakash, M. S., and Esteva, G. (2014). Grassroots Post-Modernism: Remaking the Soil of Cultures. The Critique Influence Change Series. Zed Books.

  • Smith, I. C. (1986). Towards the Human: Selected Essays. Edinburgh: Macdonald Publishers.

  • Williams, L., Roberts, R. and McIntosh, A. (2016). Radical Human Ecology. London: Routledge Ltd. doi:10.4324/9781315603476.

  • Whelan, K. (2004). ‘Reading the Ruins: The Presence of Absence in the Irish Landscape.’ In Surveying Ireland’s Past: Multidisciplinary Essays in Honour of Anngret Simms, edited by Simms, A., Clarke, H. B., Prunty, J., & Hennessy, M., Dublin: Geography Publications, 2004. 297-322.

  • ‘13 Tohunga Suppression Act 1907.’ 1907.

  • Retrieved 29 March 2021.


[1] See ‘Nothing About Us Without Us: The ethics of outsider research’ (Bridges 2003: 133), in which Bridges links this mantra to the ‘By Māori, for Māori’ bottom line of many contemporary Māori academics. Interestingly, Bridges tempers this line by quoting Scottish poet Robbie Burns ‘O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us To see oursels as others see us’ (Bridges 2003: 136) and therefore acknowledges that outsiders can have a contribution to make.

bottom of page