Far from home
Out of the general miserableness of my first year of university, an oft forgotten memory – which has curiously recalled itself recently – was my sensitivity to sound and the anxiety that accompanied it. For the first few months of my university life I would lie for hours in the dark with my eyes fixed to the ceiling; convinced that the ambient hum of the city was keeping me awake, whilst clenching my teeth and feeling as though I was perpetually on the verge of a heart attack. Upon reflection now, the sound aspect was one minor part of a much larger issue pertinent to the precarious state of my mental health. Being homesick, out of place and feeling incredibly lonely were the big contributors, but I’m in no doubt that a sensitivity to sound played a role in making my life abjectly miserable for most of that year.
I’ve lived in the city for the following twenty years, yet I still struggle with this sensitivity to sound which can often disrupt the delicate weave that holds together my mental wellbeing. Notable instances include: an inability to focus on conversations in busy or loud spaces, jumpiness at sudden sounds and an extreme hatred of leaf blowers. A bit ironic for someone who deeply loves the din of noise music.
In spite of spending years preoccupied with sound, I’ve never really researched or thought at length about sensitivity to sound and its potential impacts on mental wellbeing. This is something I’m keen to explore in the future. Just as the aforementioned memory of my first year at university was reviving itself late last year, Country Arts SA’s Arts & Health Creative Producer, Alison Howard contacted me and was keen to discuss a new project.
So now I’m currently engaged with Country Arts SA as part of a creative team for an exciting three-year project called, Equilibrium. I’ve included a description of the project scope below, courtesy of Country Arts SA:
Equilibrium aims to raise awareness of sound as a contributing factor to our health and wellbeing and pose solutions, transforming environments in health and community.
Current research examining the causes and impact of sound on our health demonstrates that unwanted noise, whether high intensity or low frequency can affect our emotional state and impact on our physiological and psychological health and wellbeing.
Sounds we choose to listen to, in particular music, can make us feel calm, joyful or elated. However, sound that is unwanted, uncontrollable, or unpredictable can have the opposite effect. Recent debate around wind turbine noise has highlighted this health issue that affects not only those living in city environments where we expect to hear noise from traffic, neighbours, planes etc, but those in regional and rural areas.
Equilibrium will delve into the psychology of sound, specifically in relation to mental health and wellbeing. Through a collaborative, exploratory process, contemporary artists Vic McEwan, Jesse Budel, John Simpson and Tristan Louth-Robins will investigate alternative sonic landscapes in mental health units and public spaces with communities across regional SA. 
In early March, the creative team (myself, Vic, John and Jesse, along with CA’s Arts & Health Creative Producer, Alison Howard) hit the road and came together for a week, visiting Integrated Mental Health Inpatient Units (IMHIU) in Whyalla and Berri to gain a firsthand insight into how these facilities operate, whilst establishing a rapport with staff and in-patients*.
* The latter, which I’ll refer to as ‘consumers’ from hereon, as per the appropriate descriptor in this context.
As a creative team, we each come from diverse and unit backgrounds. Myself and Jesse’s respective practices are chiefly concerned – at this juncture – with aspects of landscape and sound ecology; Vic has an extensive background as an interdisciplinary artist, heading the CAD Factory whilst frequently collaborating within the health industry; and John is world renowned foley artist, whose work has been featured in big films such as Mad Max: Fury Road, Happy Feet and King Kong. The project’s creative producer, Alison has had a prolific career as a creative producer and theatre director. I first met Alison back in 2013 when I contributed a score and sound design for the production of Van Badham’s play, Muff (which Alison was directing.)
In terms of scope, this is one of the most intensive and challenging projects I’ve committed myself to. Since it’s occurring over three years, our creative team will establish connections within our designated sites and develop work in-situ every 3-6 months. Following this first stage, I’ll be based in Berri (Riverland), with John in Whyalla (Lower Flinders Ranges) and Jesse in Mount Gambier (South East). Vic will be accompanying each of us in our respective sites as a creative collaborator. In addition to this long game approach, there is of course the matter of working within mental health units. I must admit that leading up to this project, I’ve been apprehensive about the mental health aspect since it represents confronting territory to bring my practice into. As an individual I’m enormously passionate about mental health, but as I hadn’t visit an in-patient facility before I knew that this would draw upon another lot of energy (both creative and emotional) to realise the objectives of the project at given stages.
So with that bit of background covered, from here I’ll provide a summary of what we got up to during our inaugural stage this past week.
Passage north to Quorn
Jesse and I picked up our hire car in Adelaide on Tuesday morning and drove four hours north to rendezvous with Vic, Alison and John in the small town of Quorn in the southern Flinders Ranges. It seems a little inexplicable that I’d never travelled this far north before, let alone visited the Flinders Ranges. Quorn is about 350 km north of Adelaide, which seems like a major undertaking for a driver or passenger like myself, who is more accustomed to the semi-regular trips I’ve made from Adelaide to the Fleurieu Peninsula over the years, scarcely breaking the triple digit mark on the odometer at any given time. The last time I’d come within touching distance of the Ranges and approached the desert frontier was about three years prior when I had visited Wirrabara; and another couple of years prior to that when my mum lived in Peterborough. Jesse and I shared the driving responsibilities on this occasion: Jesse handling the escape from the city and pushing through the endless sprawl of northern suburbs before we swapped over at Port Wakefield. As we approached Port Pirie the vegetation flanking the highway became increasingly spartan and appeared squashed by the oppressive conditions, whilst the colours drifted into mottled ochre and ashen colours. It was really dry out here. This summer past has been South Australia’s driest on record, with average temperatures scarcely dropping below 30 degrees, whilst whatever meagre rainfall that arrived had been instantaneously evaporated by the overheated ground. The first stretch of the ranges appeared around the wider districts of Port Pirie – an imposing stretch of terrain that looks at once uninhabitable, whilst appearing as though it might spontaneously combust at a given moment. We were getting closer to Quorn. A turn off the highway through the suburb of Stirling North led to a gradual climb into the ranges. Following a plateau of parched agricultural land, we climbed a little higher and the remarkable sight of thousands of porcupine bushes dotting the rolling hills. By this point, I quietly cursed the fact I was in charge of keeping the car on the road as Jesse took a series of photos on his phone. I would have done the same if I had been the passenger. As the driver – since I was utterly taken by the beautiful landscape – I struggled to keep the car on the road for the rest of the journey to Quorn as we made a passage through the Ranges’ gullies and scrub..
We arrived in Quorn a little after 1pm and were to meet the rest of the creative team at The Great Northern Lodge. On the itinerary, the name alone suggested allusions to the sprawling log-cabin-as-hotel that FBI Agent, Dale Cooper took up residence in the town of Twin Peaks. Quorn’s Great Northern – which contains the eatery Emily’s Cafe – was by contrast, a beautiful historic single story building with a long colour-striped verandah. Beneath the shade of the verandah, the warm afternoon sun stretched across the wide street and surrounding buildings as an avenue of trees hissed nearby. Walking past a bench that had been voraciously subsumed by a vine, Jesse and I entered Emily’s Cafe and were greeted by Quorn local and foley artist, John Simpson. Alison and Vic would arrive a little later.
Seeking quiet in Quorn
I hardly ever find myself in spaces where the environment is subjectively and categorically quiet. Although my hometown of Normanville and the wider Fleurieu Peninsula is relatively quieter than my current home of Adelaide, I’ve found that journeys up north (which are rare in my case) afford an opportunity to experience spaces, which – at times – are completely removed from anthropogenic clamour.
Which brings us to the reason why someone like John’s out here with a sound studio. He might be a local, but he hasn’t been out here all his life. After cutting his teeth in the film industry in Sydney for years, his family relocated to a property near Quorn about a decade ago. It’s all about the quiet out here that permits the quietest and loudest of creative gestures – be it capturing atomised gesture of a single pin literally being dropped or the firing off of huge firearms. Following our creative team meeting at Emily’s cafe, later in the afternoon we travelled a few kilometres and had a tour of John’s studio; which, from the perceived vantage of the studio itself, seems as far away from the rest of the world that one can possibly get. Upon leaving the tiny town of Quorn and travelling the relatively short distance of five kilometres to John’s studio, it felt akin to crossing a boundary into another paradigm. In a couple of cars we followed John ute, careful to evade the big jagged rocks on either side of the dirt road and the odd only that would materialise in our direct path – threatening to gouge open the underside of our hire car.
John’s studio looks like a big nondescript shed from the outside, powered by some generators behind a stack of hay bales. I presumed the bales shielded them from the wind. The wind is basically the only thing you hear out here, and upon entering the shed it shears and whistles through a large space that functions as a storage area. From here, there’s a couple of purpose built rooms which comprise of a cosy control room and larger studio space. The sound of the wind recedes as the door is closed. However, trace elements of the world outside are still evident. I see a fine particulate layer of dirt across the mixing station and monitors. I feel a bit better about the standard of cleanliness of my own studio space at home.
From here, we step into the studio space itself where the foley action happens. Closing this door, the world recedes further and it’s quieter to the point of a Cagean anechoic chamber experience; albeit with some Harry Partch thrown into the mix. John had earlier told us not to get our expectations up about the studio, dryly describing the space as something between a junkyard and garage sale. He wasn’t far wrong, but it also uncannily resembles a couple of share houses I’d lived in or crashed at during my student days. It was wonderful though. There’s no pretension to John and his work; his work ethic is dead serious and honest. Besides, anyone intending to set up shop out here would have their pristine operation quickly eroded by the oppressive conditions (mostly the dirt.) We make our way back outside, hop in our cars and head back to Quorn. Later in the afternoon, the light is perfect and I take some photos of an old petrol station and the rail yards.
Note: from hereon, when I mention IMHU staff and clients out of confidentiality I will use only single initials – i.e. John = J.
The following morning we all drive over to Whyalla, over a hundred kilometres south west from Quorn. Aside from some strikingly jagged ranges to the south and vivid red sands, the landscape is fairly unremarkable. We’re here in Whyalla to visit the hospital’s IMHIU. I think Jesse and I were a little apprehensive on the drive over, since our conversation comprised of (mostly me) fitfully opining on aesthetics and philosophy. Never a good sign. Not only does this week’s trip represent the furthest north I’ve been in my home state, but now also the furthest west – my first landing on the enormous and mysterious Eyre Peninsula! The hospital sits atop a hill in the town, overlooking the ocean, and following a series of turns and climbs my usually reliable sense of direction is completely shot. Thankfully, Jesse’s driving.
The hospital comprises of late 70s architecture (which I adore – more on this later) met with some 21st Century cosmetic interventions. A large brutalist column thrusts itself into the sky near the car park and looks a bit like a late-Soviet era clock tower that one imagines would not even bother to display the time and just drone ominously on the hour. Vic and I gaze at it for awhile and agree it’s probably used for pumping noxious gases into the air instead.
Over coffee at the cafeteria we check in with each other before heading into the ward. We’d previously discussed managing our wellbeing back in Quorn the previous day, and now at the hospital it’s genuinely felt. I make a quick dash to the bathroom, if only to collect myself in private before entering the ward. We wind through various corridors and arrive at the hospital Mental Health Unit. We’re warmly greeted by one of the case workers, M who provides us with a tour of the small six-bed facility. We meet some of the staff in the cramped kitchen space and front desk, seeing a couple of consumers who make uncertain eye contact with us. One of these, a man, in his sixties is assisted by a walking frame and he makes his way around the ward in a frenetic manner. He honestly looks closer to eighty with deep lines etched across his face – reflecting immense trauma and pain. He kindly gives us a tour of his room – a bed, door to an en suite bathroom and flat screen tv fixed behind a perspex barrier. Natural light fills the space and there’s a couple of artwork prints on the walls: highly detailed photos of flowers, trees and blue sky. Whilst we’re in his room, the man talks to us a little about his stay before becoming distressed and gets the attention of the case worker, M explaining to him that he hears constant gunshots. Vic explains to the man that what he’s hearing is probably a door slamming at regular intervals. In fact, it’s the double doors at the entrance to the ward, which are frequently opening and closing during our visit. We take him down to the doors and demonstrate the sound they make when they close. As a result of this, his distress and confusion is allayed slightly and he makes way back to his room. On our way down the hall, the door slams again and he turns his head anxiously.
This scenario presented itself as a vivid introduction to the sonic environment of a health facility and the detrimental (and at times, debilitating) effect that excessive levels of sound can have on a consumer’s wellbeing and ultimate recovery. Back in Quorn when Vic was giving us a background on his research working in the health sector, he noted that the World Health Organisation stipulates that the acceptable sound level for Intensive Care Units (ICU) should not exceed more than 35 dB with a maximum of 40dB overnight. This is the equivalent to a library space or very quiet urban ambient sound. It has been found through the WHO’s findings that all of the hospitals surveyed in this research exceeded the acceptable sound levels, exceeding 45 dB with overnight averages of 51dB around 4am. At times across several hospitals, peaks of up to 85db were recorded – which is akin to hearing a passing freight train at 15 metres. 
Granted an Integrated Mental Health facility is not an ICU, but it’s still incredibly loud in here. Aside from the slamming door, there’s the sound of the photocopier, periodic beeps, tapping of keyboards, shunting of trolleys and the clatter of dishes; all of which are further amplified by the crude acoustics of the ward space. John admits to the rest of the group that he wouldn’t last longer than five minutes in this space due to the continual cacophony of sound. Considering the heightened sensitivities that come with mental illness, it’s easy to appreciate how such a space could compromise a consumers recovery, or conversely exacerbate it further.
We discuss this issue with M in a private meeting room, going over the challenges of managing sound levels in a busy health facility (with a regular turnover of admissions) and how our project interventions could provide improvements to the welfare of consumers, staff and the facility as whole. It’s patently evident that it’s not simply a case of a facility investing in and installing more sound insulation alone, but rather that by promoting an awareness of sound – in its production, transmission and the way it’s perceived – is going to be a large part of our research, as well as the practical and creative interventions.
Burra and Berri
Following a quick lunch, we bid farewell to John and Jesse. John’s due back in Quorn and Jesse’s driving solo back to Adelaide. From here, it’s the trio of myself, Alison and Vic who continue onto Berri in the Riverland. Our journey consists of two parts: the long passage out of the Whyalla, Port Augusta and Pirie districts to an afternoon picnic invitation in Burra, then crossing the Eastern demarcation of Goyder’s Line onto Berri. Since we’re travelling in the Country Arts SA car, only Alison can drive; and whilst I feel sorry for Alison, I make the most of the back seat and slip into fitful conversation, scribbling in my notebook appreciating the shifting landscapes.
As I’d mentioned earlier, I very rarely drive long distances. As we passed through Crystal Brook on route to Burra, following hundreds of kilometres as a driver and passenger over the past two days, my impressions of time and distance were becoming one long slippery, liminal drift. A constant of my city-based life is a series of short hops between regular locales: from home to work; to the supermarket; a morning run; a walk to the pub; going to a friend’s place. I’m reminded of the relentless cycle of daily activities that forms the narrative of Michael Haneke’s film, The Seventh Continent where a jaded middle class family repeat themselves. A process of repetition that escalates to the point of absurdity and eventually – death. Unmoored from the familiar nodes of my daily routine, any semblance of tempo dissolves and perceived nodes are drawn out. My perception and felt experience leaves the grip of a Kraftwerk pulse and becomes subsumed in an Eliane Radigue drone work. As clouds mark the dry bald hills in slow moving shadows and variances of light. I feel calmer and more serene than I’ve felt in a while.
We arrive in Burra in the late afternoon and are warmly greeted by the volunteer staff at the Burra Regional Art Gallery. Burra’s a beautiful little town, full of beautiful historic buildings and more of that golden afternoon light I experienced in Quorn. At the gallery, we’re treated to some delicious snacks and coffee whilst being given a tour. Upstairs, there’s a store of work from the wonderful South Australian artist, Barbara Hanrahan, whose colourful paintings and ink prints of flowers and cats make me think of my partner, Lauren.
In spite of the hospitality, our visit to the gallery is brief since the Goyder Highway to Burra is notoriously treacherous at dusk with kangaroos, wombats and feral species coming out en masse. The gallery staff suggest we could stay in Burra for the night (we’d spontaneously been invited to a barbecue!) and their loveliness is hard to resist, but we decide to continue onto Berri.
I can’t say I’ve ever been in a car where all of its occupants attention is intensely fixated on the road and its perimeter. It feels as though we’re travelling through a demilitarised zone fearing imminent ambush. Conversation still flows, but it’s frequently broken by interjections of: “roo!”, “goat!” and “oh!”. Along one particular passage there’s a notable increase of tyre skids criss-crossing the road, followed by the ominous sight of a recently abandoned car that’s plunged into a bank of saltbush.
We eventually leave the worst of the road behind as we approach the Riverland. Vic’s obliged to eat his banana quickly, since the threat of fruit fly and heavy fines for bringing fruit into the region loom large. As we reach Berri, the dusky light has almost entirely ebbed away, as a few streetlights and the inviting glow of our hotel (and some food) beckons.
Berri (Day 1): Brutalist segue, first visit to the IMHIU and Barmera
Our hotel overlooks the River Murray, which is gloriously wide and teeming with bird life. A barge makes a slow passage along the banks, lopping scraggly branches from eucalypts with an enormous crane-chainsaw apparatus. At a cafe on the riverbank, Alison, Vic and I discuss the next couple of days that await us. Although our focus will be on the Berri IMHIU during the day, we’ve got two social engagements bookending the day – one in the morning at Renmark, the other at Barmara.
We head to the Chaffey Theatre in Renmark to meet a couple of Country Arts SA staff who are based in the Riverland. Sharlene and Rebecca greet us in the foyer as I spontaneously espouse my love of late Brutalist architecture and take particular delight in the sight of lurid red carpet mounted to the walls backstage. The best is yet to come as we continue backstage and I can barely contain my fascination at doors painted with the red, mustard and cream stripes, clashing with bright green chairs and flower printed curtains. Granted, the Chaffey Theatre was built in 1984 – just as this architectural movement was dying out – but many hallmarks within this theatre are like a time machine transporting me back to my childhood. When I was young and made trips from the country to the suburbs and the city, similar spaces to these – with their slabs of concrete, sharply defined geometric shapes, mezzanine levels and lurid colour clashes – were fascinating to me. In aesthetic terms, these buildings almost universally look oppressive, and as if they’re constantly frowning or judging you. They’re also pretty impractical and withstand any attempt to modernise them cosmetically, add extensions or provide disability access. If I didn’t love them in such a perverse way and was in the shoes of a city planner I’d probably want them razed to the ground as well.
In spite of this prolonged segue, it didn’t draw away from the reason why we were there and meeting Sharlene and Rebecca from Country Arts SA. We found a quiet room backstage and Alison provided an overview of the project and what Vic and myself might get up to in the region over the next couple of years. Following our meeting, we leave Vic to take a phone call. Because I tweeted our visit to John’s studio in Quorn (tagging Equilibrium and Country Arts SA), the ABC’s Riverland and Whyalla radio outlets have taken great interest in the project and are eager to hear more. On the one hand, it’s great there’s interest in the project but as Alison wasn’t ready to publicise much at this stage, this means they’re both forced to hurriedly compile notes for the interviews. I apologise for this at several points throughout the day.
We’re due at the Berri IMHIU next and have been instructed to bring cakes. This isn’t exactly an olive branch or peace offering, but it strikes me as something of a local custom. It does sound particular suited to a country town, especially when vanilla slices and laminations are involved. On the way to Berri the other day, Alison had explained that each IMHIU is unique and ‘breaking the ice’ and establishing rapport with staff isn’t always easy. After all, we’re artists coming into an intensive, highly regulated environment, so it’s understandable to be treated with a degree of suspicion.
Our rapport building is further hampered by the fact that we arrive about an hour late. We meet with the IMHIU Manager (whose name escapes me at the moment) and other staff. The cakes are awkwardly placed on a table in the communal space as we attempt to make amends for our tardiness, why we’re here and explain the scope of the project. We’re given a tour of the space. It’s similar to the IMHIU in Whyalla, only it’s noticeably quieter. During a tour of a vacated room, our conversation with the manager is lightening considerably as we seek to contextualise sound and relate it to the goals of the project. The Manager interrupts us suddenly as a murmur is heard from behind the closed door of a room on the other side of the hallway. She excuses herself as she makes her way into the room. The murmur becomes a distressed yelp as we glimpse someone flailing on the bed screaming, “I can’t do it, I can’t do it, I can’t do it.” Given the relative quiet of this space for the first half hour of our visit, it’s a confronting visible and audible reminder of the reality of this environment.
Later on, Alison, Vic and I meet one of the consumers in person – a woman called H who appears to be in her sixties and is dressed in a colourful dress with equally striking plastic flowers in her hair. She professes her love of art and explains to us that she’ll draw a picture for us when we come back the following day. She enthusiastically yells to the staff at reception that our presence today (and the project itself) is a miracle and there’s a special – possibly divine – reason we’re here. The conversation is open and lighthearted, but somewhat inevitably personal subjects (both Helen’s and ours) are broached and H’s demeanour becomes more fragile as she touches on traumatic aspects of her life.
We break for lunch and I suddenly feel exhausted as I sit in the backseat of the car. I let out a couple of deep sighs and feel like I’ve been punched in the kidneys. My head’s a mess of complicated emotions and quandaries.
What are the boundaries here? The three of us are not trained to deal with clients in a health setting and for the first time I’m feeling decidedly iffy about the ethical issues that arise when you’re having a conversation with a vulnerable person in care. Alison, Vic and I are compassionate and empathetic people at heart. Is it down to simply trusting our instincts and internal codes to keep a given discussion in check and not potentially exploit someone’s vulnerability? Exploitation – as a deliberate motivation or the perception thereof – is all too common in the arts. Some artists are genuinely awful people and again, I can’t blame some staff at the IMHIU if they feel particularly concerned about our presence there. The three of us discuss this at length as we find a place for lunch.
Whilst we’re waiting for our lunch at a cafe in Berri, I make a call back home to my partner Lauren. I’m pacing back and forth outside the cafe talking about the day when I stifle a loud sob. I felt something like this was coming when we left the hospital, but it still comes as a shock. It’s a bit like feeling pretty drunk at a party and maintaining control, then spontaneously vomiting. Whilst the conversation with the consumer at Whyalla who heard gunshots compelled a degree of compassion and empathy, there was something about the conversation with H that troubled me deeply. Was it her earnestness? Her description of traumatic experiences? Her interest in my hometown of Normanville and the way her gaze maintained an uneasy fixedness? It was a case of someone being at once present, and yet removed by several degrees. The eeriness of this was unsettling. We discuss my reaction (along with other concerns) and decide it’s probably a good idea to take the rest of the afternoon off, prior to our engagement in Barmara later in the evening.
I arrive back at my hotel room. I close the curtains, put on some music and lie in bed unmoving for the next hour. Later, I decide to take a walk and make a 45-minute field recording by the banks of the river. It’s beautiful here in the late afternoon and I lean back on a slope and I listen and watch the gentle continuities and repetitions unfold around me.
Feeling decidedly refreshed, we hop in the car and head out to Barmara – a small town whose claim to fame – aside from Lake Bonney – is their annual country music festival. As dusk settles over the town and streetlights come on, we glimpse the famous statue-cum-sculpture of an oversize acoustic guitar in the town centre. We’re in town to meet up with Alysha Hermann for a meet-and-greet at a space adjacent to the Bonney Theatre.
The theatre itself (constructed in 1938) is a wonderful art-deco structure, with its perfect symmetries and decorative motifs illuminated by an arrangement of spot lights. Whilst the art deco style – within an architectural context – is far more pleasing to the eye, and is nowhere as threatened by demolition as Brutalist buildings, every year notable art deco buildings are being razed to make way for anonymous residences. I recently remarked to friend that in fifty years time, perhaps the only architectural remnants of the 20th Century will be a meagre smattering of art deco and late colonial buildings.
The space adjacent to the theatre is a former council chambers, which for many years was Riverland Youth Theatre’s hub of operations. Alison worked here for the first half of the 2000’s as RYT’s Director. The space – having laid dormant for several years – is now being renovated and reactivated by Alysha as a DIY space – called Part of Things – for creative practitioners in the region to develop work, facilitate workshops and exhibitions, network and collaborate. It’s an interesting space – consisting of a series of rooms which appear to be well suited to artist studios and exhibition spaces. Alysha’s set up a meeting space in one of the larger rooms with a couch, chairs and some snacks. Given the size of Barmera and the short notice, it’s a small group but preferable given the limited seating and lack of air conditioning on this muggy evening. We meet with a newly elected city councillor and his son (an enthusiastic guitarist who is obsessed with Led Zeppelin); a guy who hosts a Dungeon & Dragons podcast (which honestly sounds amazing); and Alysha’s husband, Nic.
Everyone introduces themselves and talks about their background, interests and critical role of art and creativity in regional districts. On the prompting of Alysha, Vic tells a remarkable story from his work in an ICU and the work he developed with a 17-year-old, Elisha. It’s the second time I’d heard this story during the week and it’s no less profound and moving. The story beings with a series of bedside collaborations using material from Elisha’s art journals and projecting images from these on her bedsheets; which take on new interpretations and meanings. Later on, a recording of her heartbeat is made using a digital stethoscope and the recording is taken to, and broadcasted in an abandoned oil storage container – a space with the longest known reverberation time of Earth. In turn, Elisha’s heartbeat becomes the longest heartbeat in history. There’s a video documenting the creative process below.
It’s been a long day. By the time I arrive back at the hotel, I quickly brush my teeth, collapse on the bed and slip into the heaviest sleep I’ve experienced in some time.
My dreams that night are bizarre and disturbing. I’m back in the Berri IMHIU burying myself in soil; I’m running down a road in the middle of nowhere; I’m driving a car through a never-ending expanse of salt bush.
I wake up at 3am convinced there’s someone lying next to me. There’s an arm! I lift it and it drops with a thud. What the fuck?! A dull sensation radiates sluggishly up my left shoulder – it’s my arm! Such had been my heavy repose that I’ve been sleeping on my left arm for the last five hours and the circulation is only coming back now. I jump out of bed and begin the horrid process of reviving my arm – a storm of pins and needles. Thankfully, no amputation required.
Berri (Day 2) & Home
In the morning I have a long breakfast and several coffees at the same cafe and have an expansive conversation with Vic. Alison joins us later on and then we drive onto the Berri IMHIU for a follow-up session with staff and consumers.
We arrive and meet with a new admission to the IMHU, M. We sit together for about an hour and M talks at length about her love of music and memories of her childhood living on a small island near Port Augusta. I mention to M that it’s remarkable how detailed some of her sonic memories are and how vividly they form an impression of the environment as well as a sense of place. We discuss this a little more and are later joined by H, whom we met the previous day. Helen shows a detailed drawing of pyramids and two camels conversing with each other. She also shows us a couple of photos taken early in the morning of a blurry light in the sky. As she did the previous day, H remarks again with enthusiasm our presence and the spiritual meanings behind this, and proceeds to make connections between her drawing of pyramids, the photos of lights in the sky and impending apocalypse. What leavens this scattered logic is her sincerity and genuine appreciation of our presence. Much like our conversations with M, there’s a reminder for me of the value that simple connections can have for us – especially for those who are vulnerable, in care and in need of rehabilitation.
We bid our farewells at the IMHIU and hit the road back to Adelaide after lunch. It’s been an incredibly taxing four days. I’m feeling even more exhausted than the day before. I can’t wait to be back home, ‘switching off’ and doing nothing for the next couple of days.
Although it had been a recurrent thought and had informed the majority of our creative team discussions across the week, I’m wondering where this work might lead over the next couple of years – as Vic and I will come together at the end of the year to further our work in Berri and develop a working collaboration with the IMHIU staff and consumers, as well as the wider community. There’s so much to consider, but I’d found that – in spite of our collective exhaustion – possibilities and avenues of for exploration had indeed taken form – however scant – over the past couple of days.
Perhaps the most striking takeaway from the week is that I am now in no doubt whatsoever of the value that the arts and creative practice can bring – as an intervention – into spaces dedicated to the care and recovery of people. Not much was undertaken in a practical sense on this trip – aside from observations and ideas brokered in both Whyalla and Berri – but it was still incredibly enlightening to me. It reminded me of the intrinsic human value of people in care – how open they still are to aspects of the world, and how this is at odds with the common assumptions (or archetype) that they are completely shut off from the rest of the world – effectively institutionalised in the pejorative sense.
On the first day of our trip Vic had given us all a copy of a book written by a collaborator, Clive Parkinson whom Vic had worked with during his Harmonic Oscillator project in the UK. I’d been reading Critical Care throughout the week and it was a valuable accompaniment, as it went some way to reconciling some of my predominant thoughts regarding the value of the arts in a health context. The book is an insightful document of the pair’s time working together in the Alder Hey ICU and the creative outcomes that resulted through Vic’s collaboration with people in care. Clive reflects on this nexus of creative intervention towards the end of the book:
the patient becomes a person, a girl becomes an artist, her bedroom a medium to explore possibilities and imagination, and she is liberated.
* * *
At the beginning of this essay I described a memory of my heightened sensitivity to sound and how this is still an ongoing struggle for me – in spite of living in a city for 20 years. Upon arriving back to my home in Parkside, the thrum of the city seemed all the more pronounced following four days of relative quietude. My partner, Lauren was attending the WOMADelaide music festival for the whole long weekend and I was joining her on the Sunday night and Monday. I was home alone for the night and the following day. I dropped my bags to the floor and greeted our cat, Neko. I picked her up and sat on the couch as she purred. A momentary quiet settled on our home, then the sounds came back. Neighbours on either side of our unit were going about their usual activities – indistinct conversations, a bump to a shared wall, a car backing down the driveway. Further afield on the audible periphery, traffic coarsed along the main roads on the fringes of the city. I closed the our doors and windows, turned on the tv or listened to some music to create a necessary focal point for my exhausted state.