The incident with the table

As part of Public Good, RAMP Gallery and Waikato Museum of Art, Hamilton, NZ

The incident with the table

burn candles in hollow knots

drill a hole with a spoon

slam a fist down

carve some love and hate

break a plate


leave something behind

lightning strike

bird shit

bend its back

cricket bat bash

cut tomatoes

eat with sand

float a raft

dig in






Ways to play a table

At some point I narrowed my search terms to ‘picnic table nz’, and came across one swathed in the flow of the 2007 Mt Ruapehu lahar, another standing in the shallows of a calm southern lake, followed by one being overtaken by a violent wave. International search terms yielded a picnic table midstream of a steadily flowing Cumbrian beck, and, strikingly, one with a bear seated politely, waiting to be fed.

Apparently, the bear was photographed sitting outside the US Fish and Wildlife Service office in Kalispell, Montana. Locals reported that the bear arrives daily and waits to be fed by park rangers. The image became a Republican meme. Various captions include ‘Democrat Bear patiently awaits hand-out’, and ‘Bearack Obama’. The meme also spawned a home-schooler-produced children’s book entitled The Fable of Bearack Obama.[1]

There are fish to catch, berries and nuts to gather, and a den to dig out – but Bearack Obama the Brown Bear soon discovers that the government can do all of those things for him! There is only one problem – the government doesn’t do any of those things as well as Bearack can himself, and he soon finds himself becoming bored, sad, lazy, and unhealthy. It isn’t until he breaks free from dependency on others and relearns the joys of being self-sufficient that he once again is the healthy, happy, and free bear that he was always intended to be. Come join Bearack in this charming and fun story …[2]

An informal survey of US art school students concluded that the meme’s metaphor is an idiotic equation, but it speaks to a particular desperation for freedom and privacy. The wild bear at the picnic table mingles ideas of designated public space, and the provision of public resources, with the freedom and weird sort of privacy that the wilderness provides. The bear is positioned between these conflicting systems of survival. The picnic table becomes a prop and interface between the bear and the rangers. It’s a place where the two might meet and establish their relations; like, what if the bear brought fish to the table? Or simply licked it clean? Or what if the Ranger just shoots a gun in the air?

The ‘Bearack Obama’ meme is commonly confused with another version of itself, the same photo captioned as a politically neutral ‘Patient Bear’. In an online question and answer forum about the origins of the photo, it has also been mistaken for an entirely different photo known as ‘Picnic Table Bear’, a similar bear eating popcorn from a picnic table in California.

It turned out that the table straddling the Cumbrian stream was in a small town called Ulverston, and was posted on the blog of local resident Geoff Dellow. His blog Discussing Topics to do with Ulverston provides localised discussion about the provision and creation of public space. The posts often focus on the way Geoff, as an individual and as part of a community group, playfully uses and repurposes shared space in the township. These efforts often involve vigorous yet peaceful conflict with the local council, and other members of the community. After a series of disputes about the unauthorised placement of several picnic tables nearby, one table ended up in the stream. Another disgruntled resident threw it there because they didn’t appreciate the congregations of young people the tables attracted.

A weary council staffer responded to the stream incident: I have been made aware that one of your picnic tables is now in mid stream of The Gill. I also note that you draw attention to it on your blog. This is getting beyond a joke. It needs removing immediately before it becomes an issue with the Environment Agency/Rivers Authority.[3] 

A responding spoof comment reads: Have you thought of talking “With” the Table rather than “To” The Table. Have you asked the table how she “Feels”. Maybe she does not want to be a table maybe she wants to be a concert pianist. Maybe she wants a weighty legal document signed upon her! I suggest you have a good chat with her and if she will not move I will talk with Denis Skinner and suggest a Private Members Bill to Facilitate her removal. Dr Benjamin Spock.[4]

In his book Building the Unfinished (1977),[5] urban theorist Lars Lerup describes a nomadic school child and a nomadic school desk that inhabit the same building, moving from room to room. The student carves their name into the surface of the wooden desk, and at a later time comes across the same desk again and knows it as ‘my’ desk. Lerup uses this scenario to discuss how relations are made through everyday activity or action. The title of the chapter is ‘To Appropriate Things’, and deals with the ways in which people appropriate objects and spaces within the process of dwelling, a process that creates habitat without necessarily constructing it. The process of dwelling can be reductive, or involve deconstruction.

Away from the Internet and Lerup’s book, I found myself standing in Hyde Park, Sydney, before a row of tall straight trees. Each trunk is carved, 360 degrees around, and looks much like the surface of a cliff-side trail to the beach, or some dusty suburban fence.  In artworks, gestural marks like these often read as a direct index of human gesture, and sometimes provide a misleading sense of expression. As with these everyday carvings, there is often a slippage between what is an intentionally expressive gesture or form, and an incidental one. The limitations of the drawing tool might produce a vicious looking love heart. In art-making this is further complicated by how easy it is to mimic either the expressive or the incidental. This results in a sort of appropriation of gesture and form. It meets a need for the object or surface to feel like it holds the index of a particular moment or attitude of human presence.

The incident with the table is an invitation for dwelling, and an experiment in the translation of a hand-drawn map of incident and gesture to a machine-cut tabletop surface. The surfaces are made to expect a future process of dwelling that will overwrite the initial score. In the public courtyard of the Waikato Museum the tables face their own challenge, their accessibility is under watch. In order to meet Council imposed Health and Safety regulations the tables are taken inside at the close of the gallery each night. For ease of this nightly maneuver they’ve also been given wheels, which subtly but surely change them as objects. They’re usually ordinary and slightly awkward objects that manage to feel inviting almost anywhere. With wheels they take on another kind of awkward mobility. Almost as if they’re unable to comfortably adjust to being under care of a public art gallery, and perhaps contemplating a run from the complications of this kind of public space. Like the table straddling the stream, these tables are in the midst of a negotiation about the ways in which a public space or object can be accessed and used.

[1] Joseph Teach, The Fable of Bearack Obama, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012.

[5] Lars Lerup, Building the unfinished: architecture and human action, Sage Publications, 1977.




photograph of trees in Hyde Park, Sydney, 2012

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