Equilibrium Journal: #1 – making connections

IMG_4550.jpeg
Between Port Augusta and Quorn, South Australia

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.

Equilibrium

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. [1]

[1] https://www.countryarts.org.au/events/equilibrium/

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.

IMG_4549.jpeg
Between Port Augusta and Quorn.

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.

IMG_4524.jpeg
Emily’s Cafe – where it’s simultaneously a historic nexus of the early 20th Century and 1992 (judging by those chairs).

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.

IMG_4464.jpeg
At John Simpson’s studio site. Five kilometres out of Quorn.

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.

IMG_4468
With John in the studio control room.
IMG_4473
The studio itself.

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. 

IMG_4483.jpeg

Whyalla

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.

IMG_4561.jpeg
The imagined Soviet clocktower at Whyalla Hospital.

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 feeling 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, Mick 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 Mick, 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. [1]

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4056361/

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 Mick 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.

IMG_4566.jpeg
Leaving Whyalla.

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.

IMG_4583.jpeg
Driving through the upper Clare Valley, on route to Burra.

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.

IMG_4596.jpg
With the Burra Gallery staff.

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. 

Girl with Cat.Jpeg
Barbara Hanrahan: Girl with Cat (1972)

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.

IMG_4594.jpg
Morning in Berri.

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.

280715chaffey.jpg

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 Helen 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 Helen’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 Helen 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. 

IMG_4598

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. 

IMG_4604.jpeg
The Bonney Theatre in Barmera.

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.

53706641_2094274007542666_2646097392213950464_n.jpg

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.

The Longest Heartbeat from Cad Factory on Vimeo.

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.

img_4603.jpg
With Vic at Part of Things

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 IMHIU, Margaret. We sit together for about an hour and Margaret talks at length about her love of music and memories of her childhood living on a small island near Port Augusta. I mention to Margaret 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 Helen, 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, Helen 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 Margaret, 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.

 

Advertisements

Compression: the album

It’s been a bit quiet around here. The social media channels have been busy, but the blog has taken a backseat for the duration of my artist residency at Sauerbier House Culture Exchange; which has just finished and culminated with the exhibition, Compression

To coincide with the exhibition launch, I’ve released a new album of material featured in the exhibition which was created in-situ during the residency.

It’s available in two versions: a digital-only edition; and a limited artwork edition with ink print and digital download. Click into my Bandcamp page to read more about it.

So, the blog will be getting a bit of love in the new year. I’ll be writing about my experiences during the residency as well as compiling a short documentary covering these adventures. Stay tuned!

Compression – Artist Statement

44929425_10155644362006712_994280097185792000_n.jpg
Suspended Echo #2 (2018) – installation element

I must admit, due to the AIR at Sauerbier House Culture Exchange (Port Noarlunga) I’ve scarcely had much time to keep the blog updated with my activities and movements. It had been my intention to post weekly installments, but this has been virtually impossible. In lieu of blog posts, my social media channels are suffused with photos and notes documenting a very intensive few weeks. You can find these links via my artist website tristanlouthrobins.com

As the launch of the AIR exhibition Compression approaches, I’ve finalised the artist statement which you can read below.

Compression launches on Saturday 15th December at Sauerbier House.

Artist Statement

Tristan Louth-Robins – Compression

Working as a sound artist, my practice has been concerned with exploring the relationship between the natural world and human activity. Prior to commencing the AIR at Sauerbier House, I committed my weekends to follow and document the Onkaparinga/Ngangkiparri River, from its source in the Adelaide Hills to its meeting with the sea in Port Noarlunga.

At almost every stop along my river journey the presence of human activity was evident. In spite of the remoteness of a given locality, the environment where the river passed through seemed constantly impinged upon. A relative quiet would be interrupted by a mechanical din; the riverbank polluted by the accumulation of plastic detritus. With my sound equipment, camera and notebook on hand I would observe and document these dynamics.

Upon arriving at Sauerbier House to commence the AIR, the impact of this dynamic that I had previously observed intensified significantly. Wandering across tracts of open space, the presence of urban development and road traffic were inescapable.

The detritus and residues of human activity quietly and loudly punctuated the landscape.

Within audio theory compression is a term used to describe the technical process of attenuating loud sounds, whilst increasing quieter sounds. In essence, establishing a state of dynamic consistency and reducing the space between the loudest and quietest sounds. Considering the environment of the Onkaparinga in these terms; with a pressing together of natural and human environs and a reduction of natural space, the notion of ‘compression’ found its way into my thinking as a poetic reflection of the tenuous nature of the Port Noarlunga environment.

This idea of ‘compression’ informed my working methodology for the AIR studio practice, utilising sound recordings and found raw materials (both natural and synthetic) in sound compositions and sculptural forms that suggest states of solidity and fragility. The exhibition, Compression is presented as a consolidation of these impressions, a blurring of the distinction between the natural and synthetic.

November 2018

 

Oblique Territories Journal – Part 4: leaving the hills

DSCN2881.JPG

This is the fourth instalment of a series of posts covering my preparation (and eventual work) for a residency at Sauerbier House in Port Noarlunga commencing in October 2018. As part of my preparation and research I am following the course of the Onkaparinga/Ngangkiparri river from its source to the sea.

Bad weather/good weather/injuries

Given that the weather in the broader Adelaide-region was absolutely abysmal on Saturday, I decided to be sensible and defer this road trip to Monday. This promised much better weather conditions and would also allow me to take it easy and do what one should do on a Saturday morning: ideally nothing at all. Another factor which moved the road trip to Monday was due to a bicycle accident I had a couple of days prior, resulting in a series of bruises on my right side and a graze on my elbow which – by Friday night – had turned into a gross and concerning infection. So, although Saturday didn’t involve observing and recording locations, it did involve trying to hastily see a doctor who could provide some much needed antibiotics.

By the time Monday came around, the infection had been banished and I was refreshed enough to hit the road once again; continuing to follow the course of the Onkaparinga River from its source to the sea.

My partner Lauren joined me this time around and given the ridiculously beautiful weather, it was a great opportunity for us to get out of the city for a few hours and do the things that couples do in the Adelaide Hills: fill the car with recording equipment; carry around recording equipment; untangle recording equipment; and waste precious time explaining to strangers what it is that you’re doing with said recording equipment.

My previous road trip had ended south of Mylor at the Valley Of Delights, as the river crashed over a weir, rounded sandstone cliffs and continued its passage through the remote (and practically inaccessible) regions of May Valley and Black Rock. Examining Google Maps, the river narrows considerably through this region before meeting a huge body of water. This body of water would be the first designated stop on Monday’s road trip.

Mount Bold Reservoir

DSCN2860.JPG

Mount Bold Reservoir is located a few kilometres east of Clarendon in the lower Adelaide Hills. The reservoir was constructed from 1932-1938, is the largest in South Australia (approx. 3.1 sq km) and supplies the bulk of Adelaide’s water supply. The only point of public access (that I know of) is the lookout adjacent to the dam wall at the southwestern fringe of the reservoir.

Pulling into the car park, it was the valley surrounding the dam wall that first caught my attention. It’s a stunning landscape; and the scale of it (in terms of height, distance and space in between) left me slightly awestruck. Speaking of scale, the dam wall is certainly imposing. Engineering feats like this always make me marvel at the degree of human ingenuity involved in taming and withholding the forces of nature – for better or worse. At the base of the wall, a continuous roar filled the air as a continuous jet of water was discharged from the wall’s valve chamber.

DSCN2859.jpg

We had hoped to make our way down to a rope bridge that was suspended over the water, which would have made for a great recording. Unfortunately, it was closed off for maintenance so I was left to survey the area from above. I set up my stereo rig at the southern end of the dam wall (via a walkway) and clamped a contact mic to the guard rail to capture gusts of wind that were blowing across it. These gusts of wind certainly put the windjammers on the stereo rig to the test. The wind was strong enough for me to ensure that all of my gear was secure and not partial to blowing into watery oblivion below.

The challenges of a stereo field

DSCN2867.jpg

Since upgrading my field recording set up from a handheld recorder to the adjustable stereo rig, I’ve realised that I’ve got a lot more to learn about recording environments. Because I’d used stereo handheld recorders for most of my field recording practice (Edirol HR09 [2010-2013], Olympus LS-100 [2013-2017] I’d obviously grown accustomed to the non-flexibility of the stereo arrangement of these devices – which have the microphones set in fixed positions. Much like a musical instrument, I’d gradually taught myself how to best manoeuvre it, whilst accepting it limitations of both the device (and myself.) By upgrading to the rig I had greater flexibility: I could now fully adjust the stereo field. However, once I’d gotten over the initial thrill of this, I gradually realised that this presented some new challenges. Now that I was able to broaden or tighten the stereo field, I found myself listening to environments in a completely different way than before, and realised that in order to faithfully capture environments, I would have to pay closer attention to everything.

With flexibility comes great responsibility.

I believe that through this process, I’ve become far more aware of just how weirdly sound can behave in particular environments and how much care I must take with regard to the recording process. I’m not simply pointing, recording and capturing sound anymore; I have to work with it, manoeuvre with it sympathetically, whilst monitoring and listening more attentively. In my previous post, I’d observed the peculiar phasing effect that was apparent whilst recording beneath the Princess Highway bridges. I’d attributed this to a combination of factors: my position in relation to the underside of the bridge and the river; the positioning of the mics; and what I was hearing via the rig against what I heard with my naked ears.

A dam wall situated in a narrow valley is a unique acoustic space and its slippery  characteristics were certainly emphasised by the way the roar of the water below could be perceived, depending on the position of your body/head in relation to the source of the sound and the erratic behaviour of the wind. In a given position, only a low resonance could be perceived; in another, the roar enveloped my body; then, the wind would pick up and it would appear as if frequency bands of the sound were breaking apart and swirling around. With complex and volatile acoustic properties like this, a humble stereo set-up doesn’t stand any chance of faithfully capturing what’s occurring. For this situation, something like a binaural dummy head or one of Rode’s new innovative ambisonic microphone arrays would have been more appropriate.

Obviously, a stereo field (fixed or versatile) will not replicate what we apprehend with our ears; and at best, can only render a faithful impression of an environment.

What did the recordings with the stereo rig sound like? Messy. As I was monitoring the recordings on the dam wall I realised I would need a good couple of hours (and possibly consultation from expert peers) to figure out how to record this location satisfactorily. At the very least, I did have an impression of the roaring water to the south, the relative tranquillity of still waters on the other side of the wall, and a hell of a lot of wind in between.

Whilst we couldn’t visit the site where the Onkaparinga River flowed into the reservoir (near Black Rock) we could certainly see where it left the reservoir: just a bit beyond the roaring jetstream below, forming the semblance of a crooked river and continuing its passage through the valley.

As we made our way to Clarendon we encountered the river flowing beneath a shallow bridge leading out of the wider reservoir district. I set up the recorder to capture the river’s flow and surrounding birdlife, whilst Lauren took pictures of a dozing possum in a nearby eucalypt.

DSCN2888.JPG

Clarendon

Upon arriving in Clarendon, we were less than enthused to find that the bakery was closed. Following a good pummeling by the wind and energies spent wandering around the reservoir area, a pasty and doughnut seemed like the world’s best kind of sustenance. Instead, we put our grumbling stomachs aside (not literally) and wandered down to where the river passed through a large reserve.

Ah, Clarendon. This is a beautiful little town that was established in the early days of European settlement. The last time we had been here was on my birthday earlier in the year. We feasted on pasties and doughnuts, inspected the local buildings, and then drove onto Kangarillia to down a couple of beers. One of the things that I like most about this town is the steep hills and valleys that surround it. Without trying to sounding too whimsical, it definitely has an enchanted feel to it; like a small Ye Olde Village with faeries and sprites hiding just out of sight. Of course, I’m certain it’s got a dark underbelly radiating some seriously bad vibes. Everywhere does.

IMG_2652.JPG

As I made a recording just above the banks of the river, I spotted a burnt out car slumped near a fat concrete pipe which led to an imposing wall laced with razor wire. Indeed: venture off the main road in a given town and the enchantment of a place ends there.

This observation was however a minor schism within the overall loveliness of the place. Further downstream, a school group on excursion were exploring the river with nets and notebooks, mucking about and trying to scare the shit out of each other. Despite my initial concerns, this actually made for a good (albeit, slightly obnoxious) recording. The whimsy of children can only sustain so much patience though, so Lauren and I made our way around the reserve to a secluded spot surrounded by reeds with steep cliffs looming above.

IMG_2653.JPG

In this spot, I set up the recorder, put my headphones on, blissed out slightly and gazed up at the cliffs dappled with ivy, bushes and little nooks. On top of the cliffs, thin clouds passed slowly though the clear blue sky as craggy old olive trees rustled in the breeze. Birds sounded out around us and frogs at either end of the creek started up in tentative bursts. Eventually the kids finished up their excursion and approached on the periphery. Through my headphones their approach sounded terrifying! Then I realised I’d had my headphone volume up way too high in relation to the actual (real world) volume level. Such was the lovely ambience of the riverside, that I’d gradually cranked up the volume to further immerse myself in it.

Beware the seductive quality of microphones and headphones in the real world. The ontological slippages can occasionally be a little unsettling.

Next time: The final approach – Onkaparinga National Park.

IMG_2685.JPG

Goyder’s Line at ACMC 2017

Goyders Line 2017

My concert work forMax/MSP and vocoder, Goyder’s Line (2014-17) will be performed at Concert 2 (Saturday 30th September 2017, Elder Hall) as part of this year’s Australasian Computer Music Conference. Information regarding the conference and concert program can be found at the conference website.

I’ve been busy working at refining the MSP patch with a few tweaks and additional parameters. Rehearsals have begun in the studio and it’s sounding promising!

Earlier this year I wrote at length about the development of Goyder’s Line. You can find the post here.

Screen Shot 2017-09-11 at 3.17.33 pm
v. 4-5 of the Goyder’s Line Max/MSP patch

Notes on Goyder’s Line

I’ve submitted a proposal to perform my work, Goyder’s Line (2014-2017) at this year’s Australasian Computer Music Conference which is taking place in Adelaide this year. I’ve reproduced the text of my proposal/abstract below. Although I’ve regularily commented on the inspiration and development of Goyder’s Line in the past on this blog, I feel as though this text perfectly sums up the essence of the work. With thanks to L for her thoughts and input.

 

The plains that I crossed in those days were not endlessly alike. Sometimes I looked over a great shallow valley with scattered trees and idle cattle and perhaps a meagre stream at its centre. Sometimes, at the end of a tract of utterly uncompromising country, the road rose towards what was unquestionably a hill before I saw ahead only another plain, level and bare and daunting. Gerald Murnane, The Plains (1982)

The plains surrounding the ghost town of Dawson are situated in the lower Flinders Ranges – a vast arena of ochre-coloured earth and sparse vegetation. The presence of distant hills that stretch around the plains appear to reinforce the utter stillness of this place. As if time and motion are suspended or are just inclined to unfold at their own pace. As one spends more time in this place, its unique properties are revealed. A subtle scent carried on a breeze that sends a rustle through dry leaves, the droning buzz of busy insects, the brief relief that lies in the shadows of clouds drifting slowly over the terrain and discrete rumbles that exist just on the audible periphery.

Sometime during 1865, a few kilometres south of where Dawson would be settled twenty-three years later, George Goyder was travelling across the region on horseback. Goyder, who was the South Australian colony’s Surveyor-General had been tasked with the duty of mapping the boundary between areas that received regular rainfall and those that were prone to drought. Based on Goyder’s Line of Rainfall and the subsequent report detailing his findings, farmers were discouraged from planting crops north of the line. In most instances, this advice was not heeded.

At the beginning of the 21st Century as much of Australia was enduring the Millennium Drought (1997-2009), Goyder’s Line became a point of reference for meteorologists, climate scientists and farming communities. During the drought it became evident that the line of rainfall as identified by Goyder in the late 19th Century – whilst being subsequently regarded as a highly accurate tool of analysis and agricultural planning for most of the following century – was requiring reassessment and pointed to a southward trend in light of protracted drought, shifting seasonal rainfall patterns and the impact of anthropogenic climate change.

Goyder’s original line of rainfall and a recent 21st Century revision inform the basis of this electro-acoustic work. The lines – their relative patterns and trajectories- represent the fundamental frequencies of two sawtooth waves, which are routed as inputs to a vocoder and extended effects modules. Although each of the frequencies remain distinct throughout the work, the resulting modulations reveal expansive sonorities and rich harmonic textures. At regular iterations the lines are purposefully suspended in parallel, allowing their harmonic relationship and modulations to unfold and develop.

I regard this work as an ode to the South Australian interior, as defined by Goyder’s original line and its contemporary revision. The interior, at its boundary appears as a vast, seemingly boundless space – rich with the possibility of uncertainty, terror and fascination.

TLR, July 2017

FLEURIEU: Nodes/Old Waters

Another new realease. “Nodes/Old Waters” is a meeting of sorts – a studio improvised amalgam of live instruments, Fleurieu field recordings and samples from old red_robin tracks. Listen/purchase below.

FLEURIEU - artwork.png