Compression – Artist Statement

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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

 

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Fenceposts and wires resonating, Port Noarlunga – Oct 2018

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Here’s excerpts of some unique recordings I made with a pair of Aquarian hydrophones. I was walking along the Onkaparinga River close to a fence line boundary when I passed what sounded like a pure wave. I realised this was coming from a fence post resonating from the vibration of fixed wires. I pressed my ear to listen closer. It sounded amazing!

I didn’t have any clamps to fix contact mics to the wire, so I decided to bury a pair of hydrophones at the base of two fenceposts. I positioned them so that they were flush and lightly making contact with the base of the post. Both resonances had fundamental frequencies of approx. 360 Hz, with a partial occuring at approx. 420 Hz when the wind picked up and articulated the wires.
I then decided to explore this further by examining the surrounding fenceposts.

Excerpt 2 is one of the initial fenceposts with another fencepost that presented a more complex resonance (423 Hz, 637 Hz, 720 Hz).

Excerpt 3 is another set of fenceposts which were far more subtle in resonance, but prone to perculiar artefacts, which (at this stage) I’m attributing to the wind and movement of sand around the base of the posts.

Excerpt 4 was at a point where the posts produced very complex resonances, and it became apparent that these were not so immediate, but rather, derived from activity occuring 50-100 metres along the wires. (the soft tapping you can hear is raindrops hitting the post, wires and sand.)

Oblique Territories Journal – Part 2: tracing the origins of the Onkaparinga / Ngangkiparri river

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This is the second 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.

Springhead and the river’s source

On a bright and sunny Saturday morning I turned off the Onkaparinga Valley main road and headed in an eastward trajectory towards the tiny hamlet of Springhead. I had only become aware of Springhead’s existence about a month ago, when I’d begun searching for the source of the Onkaparinga (Kaurna: Ngangkiparri) river. The collective wisdom of the internet had pointed to somewhere between the townships of Charlston and Mount Torrens, but it was a definitive publication by Tom Dyster (The Mother’s River) that had  pinpointed the source to the district of Springhead.

Well, the approximate source. Although it can be sufficiently established (through Dyster’s comprehensive research on the subject) that the source of the Onkaparinga finds it origin here, the natural springs which inform the river are scattered across several paddocks in the Springhead district. In this respect, a stopover off the main road was the closest I could get to the beginnings of the river. Of course, I could have sought out the springs, but time, resources and a lack of contacts (namely obtaining permission to venture across properties) haven’t been forthcoming. Besides, I’ve got a lot more travelling to do, so I’ve got to keep my expectations and scope of adventure realistic.

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Speaking of expectations, given the relentlessly rainy end to winter we’d experienced over the past couple weeks, for some reason I had expected a raging torrent of water at the source of the river in Springhead. Several factors should have reminded me to keep these expectations in check. Mostly because I’m not an expert in geography and I’m still gaining a fairly basic grasp on how rivers work. I’d parked the car by the side of the road and walked down to a fenceline overlooking a modest and fairly unimpressive trickle of water constituting the river catchment. The springs were located a couple of kilometres from my location, and given the relatively consistent level of elevation across this district  (from the springs convergence to this position) a trickle of water was as lively as the river would get at this stage.

I set up my handheld recorder and made a five-minute recording of the barely-audible water course and surrounding ambience. Rosellas, finches and wattle birds called out in the eucalypts, whilst bees swarmed around the wattles and someone chopped wood in the distance. A couple of cars passed on the main road, punctuating the relative quiet with peals of droning engines and wheels rolling on tarmac.

Intermission: Encounters with the eeire

Within the history of European settlement in South Australia, German populations have featured prominently. The first German settlers arrived by boat only a few years following the state’s proclamation in 1836, and these settlers are largely responsible for the establishment of townships and agriculture throughout the Adelaide Hills. With the German settlers came the Lutheran faith, and in any district or township with a name connoted to German origin (Hahndorf, Verdun, Lobethal) a Lutheran church isn’t too hard to locate.

Springhead was also established by German settlers in 1856 and – bucking the predominant trend – its name was attributed not so much to the homeland, but to the springs that converged into the river catchment.

A beautiful Lutheran church sits at the crest of the road and a few hundred metres down the road there is a small cemetery. Earlier, as I was making my way towards Springhead, I’d driven straight past the cemetary failing to acknowledge it at all. Only on the drive back had I noticed it: adjacent to an empty paddock and occupying a narrow tract of land. A modest wall and gates sit at the roadside, giving way to a wide path leading up to the gravesites on a hillock.

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Cemetaries are naturally disquieting with a heightened charge to them, but there was something about this cemetery site that struck me as decidedly eeire. Recalling Mark Fischer’s definition of the eeire from his excellent 2017 book, The Weird and The Eerie, there was certainly a pronounced absence of something from this site (aside from the living, obviously) that intensified the already uneasy feel of the place. As I made my way up the path towards the graveyard I noticed the patches of barren ground on either side of the path. I thought to myself: Why would they put the graveyard so far away from the gates? Surely something used to be here?

IMG_2193.JPGUpon arriving home later that afternoon, and as I often do when things don’t stack up in my head, I scoured Google (specifically an image search) for something relating to the history of this cemetery which might explain what was missing.

Eventually I came across this uncredited photograph which revealed what was missing: an impressively spooky avenue of pine trees flanking both sides of the cemetery path.

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It’s quite extraordinary how much of a difference this makes to one’s impression of this space. The avenue of trees form a distinctive physical frame: imparting an impression of natural grandeur, weight and contrast; whilst also being symbolic of the passing of time. These centurion trees would have also visibly punctuated the landscape, and this site would have certainly been noticeable as one approached it from a distance. Without the trees, the site appears (as it did to me, initially and retrospectively) uneasily adrift in the landscape, muted – both visually and audibly. On the morning I visited the tree-less cemetery, a stiff breeze cut across the site. I trained my ears against the wind’s shear and listened for sounds. Save for the distant cry of a crow and the rustle of a plastic bouquet by a gravestone there was nothing else I could hear. Now as I write this, with the impression of these absent trees firmly implanted in my mind, my aural imagination can’t help but add another layer of sonic detail to a meta-memory of this site: one of creaking branches and the whispering of pine needles, for example. I have no doubt that these attributes would have defined the site and shaped one’s impression and experience of it, however consciously or unconsciously. In that same respect, I wonder about the opposite effect: how does the perceived absence of things affect our experience of places?

It might be time I read Mark Fischer’s book again.

If anything, this unexpected encounter has made me eager to look into this phenomena further. In a way, I feel as though this could inform some of my research and work during the residency.

Following the river: Woodside and Verdun

Prior to this road trip I’d studied a couple of maps to determine the best route to a) get to Springhead; and then b) follow the river’s course back through the townships of Charleston, Woodside, Oakbank and Verdun. One of the tricky things about the path of the Onkaparinga river across the Adelaide Hills is keeping track of the 20-odd tributaries that converge with it and/or piggyback their way along it at given points. In some instances, the river ceases to be regarded as the Onkaparinga altogether and assumes another name for a short distance – such as the Mount Charles Creek through Charlston. The best way I can reconcile this is to regard the Onkaparinga River as what it essentially is at this point: a catchment and nothing more. By the time one reaches the main bridge at Verdun, the Onkaparinga River is more clearly defined – both visibly and in a cartographical sense.

On my drive back along the Onkaparinga Velley road I made two stops for recording. Although the traffic had been virtually non-existent on my way to Springhead, the approach coming back and my visits to Woodside and Verdun were met with a seemingly endless precession of caravans and SUV’s clogging the roads and sullying the natural ambience with their din.

There was also the threat of being flattened on the road. For a country town, Woodside had a menacing level of traffic to contend with, as I tentatively crossed the road like a bearded Frogger and made my way to a bridge on a side road.

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It was here that I heard the river for the first time. Looking out from the bridge to the north, two cascades sounded out as the current sluiced its way towards the bridge and reappeared on the other side as a large coffee-coloured pool that seemed motionless. In spite of the traffic pouring along the nearby main road, I got an impressively transparent recording of the river, frogs and birdsong. A couple of (rare) breaks in traffic revealed a beautiful soundscape, full of rich detail and activity.

I survived the return trip across the main road to my car and continued onto Verdun. Earlier I’d noted the large bridge outside the township and had planned to make my way down a steep bank and get a recording of the river environment and vehicles passing overhead. Upon arriving and making my way towards the bridge I quickly realised that I might have to settle with a recording from the road. Blackberry bushes covered all sides of the slopes leading down to the river, and then to complicate matters further, fencelines demarcated the commons from private property. Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have flinched at the prospect of having thorns in my skin or being yelled at from afar, but age has ultimately softened me.

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A brief recording of (mostly) cars was made and then I hopped back in the car and headed home. Since around Woodside I’d been beset by a splitting headache so this wasn’t exactly keeping me enthusiastic about spending too long in places, looking for the river and making recordings. I needed a litre of water and a double-barraled hit of paracetamol.

Onwards

Although I hadn’t made as many recording as I thought I would, this was a revealing trip covering my initial stage of following the Onkaparinga River down to its estuary in Port Noarlunga. It was nice to locate the approximate source of the river, whilst getting carried away by a bit of local eeireness too (this happens to me frequently). The stopovers in Woodside and Verdun had some merit too, and an impression of the river, its trajectory and relationship to surrounding environments has strengthened my understanding of the river and made things feel a little less academic and more tangible.

From here (hopefully next weekend) I’ll make my way from Hahndorf onto Mylor and maybe even get down to where the river meets the Mount Bold Reservoir. This time around I’ll make sure I’ve got some water and painkillers on hand.  I’m looking forward to more random cemetery visits too.

Cheerio.

TLR.

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Life Is Short and Long: Wirrabara field notes (part 2)

Read PART 1 here.

PART 2 – Wirrabara Town Hall

An early Sunday afternoon in Wirrabara. My ears, still acclimatising to the quiet of the town following the Producers Market catch whatever comes into relief (however brief): the rustle of trees lining the main street pavement, the faint rumble of a car engine or distant machinery and the occasional twitter of birds. In spite of these sounds – both tangible and hidden – the overall impression of this place is a strangely uneasy, empty quiet.

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Main street in Normanville – January 2008.

I’m accustomed to this type of quiet. My hometown of Normanville on the Fleurieu Peninsula, which in spite of being more populous and fitfully vibrant during the warmer months, is partial to the same kind of mid-to-late afternoon lull. Since I’ve spent most of my adult life living in the city, it’s occasionally surprising to become enveloped by this quiet, whilst acutely aware one’s own presence (or agency) – marked out by the sound of shoes on gravel or the rustle of clothes. This is maybe one reason why we find streets, buildings and vehicles with a perceived human absence so disconcerting. Within this environment one becomes so much more aware of their own presence.

The Wirrabara Town Hall is rarely used these days. It is split into two main spaces – the original hall, built sometime in the early 20th Century and a small recreation hall with adjoining kitchen probably constructed sometime in the 1960’s. Within the smaller hall, there are shafts of golden sunlight spreading across the floor but the expected warmth is virtually non-existent. It is incredibly cold in this space, the adjoining foyer and larger hall. Within these cold, enclosed spaces and shut off from the empty main street of Wirrabara, it feels as though as I am a little further removed from the world.

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Wirrabara Town Hall – main hall space. July 2016.

A border of gold paint frames the stage of the main hall and deep blue and black velveteen curtains drape across the stage. Florescent lights and ceiling fans are suspended from a ceiling consisting of beautiful pressed tin panels. To the rear of the hall above the main doors is an elevated projection room. Overall, the hall is in immaculate condition – giving an impression that it’s hardly been used in a very long time. There are some indications that the hall may have been used recently – such as a box of children’s toys and books to the rear of the hall, however this is certainly an anomaly. Behind the curtains of the stage is an old piano (recently retuned – another indicator of recent visitors?), upon lifting the piano’s lid I notice its prominently chipped keys suggesting plenty of use over the years.

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To the rear of the stage area is a large overhead speaker protruding from the rear wall and appearing to be fixed to a canvas petition. It’s a peculiar looking thing – a huge magnet and voice coil enclosed in a solid wooden box with a square shaped diaphragm. The wooden box has a sticker on it indicating that the speaker was purchased from ‘Benbow Amusements’ with ‘Gladstone’ written below (Gladstone is a town about 30km south of Wirrabara). It’s difficult to place the vintage of such a strange looking loudspeaker, though the 1940’s and 50’s come to mind.

I make a sound recording of the main Town Hall space, positioning the hand-held device on the lectern so as to capture the ambience of the space from the stage. The discrete buzz of fluorescent lights provide a hushed continuum as incidental sounds from the building and outer periphery materialise: the creak of the roof in the sun, a whisper of wind, the muffled trill of a magpie, a passing vehicle, an unidentifiable murmur, a rustle of trees.

It’s a quiet world out/in here.

Later this/next week: PART 3 – Wirrabara Forest and other locales.

 

Life Is Short and Long: Wirrabara field notes (part 1)

A trip (back) to Wirrabara – July 2016, PART 1.

The parentheses in the title are intentional since I’d visited Wirrabara once before – some thirty years prior in either 1985 or 1986. Given such a considerable span of time has elapsed since my first visit, it seemed only appropriate to regard this as a second visit, but the first visit as an adult with the majority of my childhood memories lost to the chasm of the intervening years. It’s tricky attempting to consolidate disperate experiences like this.

For my first visit to Wirrabara the primary destination was the Wirrabara forest reserve (about 10km west of the township) where my dad was participating in an orientation sport event. I remember our 1970’s Ford Cortina station wagon, a blue tent and my younger brother being carried around by my mum in a harness. We were camped on the edge of a pine plantation – the spires of the tall dark trees towering up into an overcast sky. Sonic memories – from such a young age, as always – are harder to come by and are virtually non-existent.

So now in mid-July 2016 I found myself on route via Port Wakefield, Crystal Brook and  Gladstone to my destination. The purpose of my visit was as part of a rec (i.e. research) visit as sound designer for Emma Beech’s Life Is Short and Long project, which has been joint facilitated and funded by Vitalstatistix and Country Arts SA. You can read about the project on Vital’s website[1], but in summary – and in Emma’s words – the work is described as “a performance installation created from three years of travel yarns and investigation of how people respond to crisis and change.” Wirrabara is one of three locations that Emma has spent time in – the others being Port Adelaide and Barcelona – conversing with locals and discussing how aspects of crisis and change have affected their lives.

Whereas communities in Barcelona and Port Adelaide have been primarily affected in recent years by the respective crises of the GFC and decline of local industry, Wirrabara’s crisis is more reflective of the plight of regional Australian communities in the 21st Century – affected by aspects of climate change, industrial decline and dwindling populations. The main street of Wirrabara now hosts a few functioning businesses, the remainder of properties (formerly cafes, specialty stores and restaurants) are now either vacant or have been sold as private residences. I remembered witnessing a similar situation in a nearby town I’d visited several times in 2013.

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Main street in Wirrabara, July 2016.

Peterborough, located approximately 50 km west of Wirrabara and situated near Goyder’s Line was once a thriving agricultural and industrial hub servicing local communities in the lower Flinders Rangers, whilst functioning as a crucial railway network between Port Augusta and Adelaide. Since the decommissioning of industrial railway services in the late-1980’s the town had since experienced a rapid decline in the intervening years, coupled with the dual-related factors of long droughts and a declining population. In 2013, the town looked broken and half-ruined – the main street had a handful of active businesses, the rest – similar to those of Wirrabara, save for a defunct bookstore and video rental outlet – were now empty and fading into the routine main street visage of threatened regional centres.

Post collapse Peterborough Railway Station.
Peterborough Railway Station, February 2013.

That familiar tableau was mirrored in several of the townships that I passed through on my way to Wirrabara – the burnt out pub in Locheil, visibly abandoned homesteads on the outskirts of Red Hill and several gutted petrol stations over a stretch of a hundred kilometres.

By contrast, my arrival in Wirrabara on a Sunday afternoon was characterised by activity, commerce and the sound of a lively community. Existence. I’d managed to arrive within the last half-hour of the Producers Market on the main street where locals sell their produce, knick-knacks and hang out with each other. It was probably the best possible way to arrive in a town that I’d been told was in considerable decline. There’s something  particularly invigorating about withessing an event consisting of groups of people within such a small locale – voices and activity spill out into the street, inviting you to engage and participate. And so I found myself being instantly drawn to the markets with enthusiasm, eager to experience this community interacting with each other and see what the market was like. It was fleeting. No sooner than I’d arrived, the market was in the process of closing up and the eventual absence of people and activity couldn’t have been more striking – the emptiness and deadening quiet of this small town rapidly encompassed the space. What energy there was had dissipated.

[1] http://vitalstatistix.com.au/performance/life-is-short-and-long/

Orbits: excerpt of today’s recording – 30th April 2016

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Listen below (via YouTube)

From my notebook:
9:25am – 10:25am
Recorder positioned with L (north), R (south)
Town Hall bells chime at 9:30am, and periodically every 15 mins.
Lots of sporadic traffic on Pirie Street (trucks, rattling engines)
Construction to building to the south. Frequent sounds of drilling and hammering. Becomes less frequent in the final 15 mins of recording.
First tram passes on King William Street at 9:47am
Nice organ harmonies at 9:53am
Nice low resonances at 10:07am
Patter of leaves blowing at either end of walkthrough

Pedestrians – on foot: 33
Bikes: 4