What’s Happening #7: Ode to geography, SID and 64 kilobytes

 

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c. 1987 with my brother, Sean.

So far these semi-regular instalments have featured commentary and rumination on activities, projects and my general state of mind. Whilst all of the posts so far have been grounded in the present day, I’ve been surprised how retrospective they have become in some instances – drifting back as much as ten years or so. This isn’t necessarily how I planned it, but it’s been an interesting process to go through and oddly therapeutic at times. It’s also interesting given that I haven’t written on such a regular basis about a bunch of different things ever. At times it feels like I’m writing disparate sections of a future memoir. A common theme that I’ve identified across the six posts – which all deal with my creative practice – is seeking a contentment with what I’ve done so far whilst looking for some kind of pathway to lead me out of this protracted period of creative uncertainty and doubt. Therefore, in this instalment I’m not going to dwell on something I’ve done in the last ten years and instead interrogate a couple of things that interested me as a child. Increasingly I find I’m tracing lineage back to the early periods of my life and reflecting on just how critically things like geography, silence and space, technology and music informed many of my interests over the years.

This time around we’re going to pull anchor, catch the wind and slip back into the mists of the 20th Century. 1987 to be exact.

Cottage lyfe

I was six years old at the time. We were living in my hometown of Normanville in a cottage at one end of Field Street. Our living room was made up of a pot belly stove and furnished with a couple of huge patterned velour armchairs. A similarly vintage lampshade hung from the ceiling, covered with a brown tapestry with long string tassels hanging down. Guitars hung on the walls. The carpet that covered the room is etched into my memory – an uneasy rhythm of lurid red, blue and green splodges floating on a black background. Our television was a small colour screen encased in a off-white plastic shell with various dials and knobs. I recall watching news footage of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster around this time, as well as episodes of The Goodies, Dangermouse and Doctor Who. To further reinforce this nostalgic onslaught, a Commodore 64 personal computer took pride of place next to the television.

Computer Age

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Touted as being the ‘best selling computer in history’ the Commodore 64 was ever present in my childhood. Back in these days you could route such a computer into your television, so often I’d be seated a few inches from the screen steering clumps of pixels across the screen with a joystick. This could be my memory playing up, but I distinctly recall a couple of episodes of  light sunburn from prolonged exposure to the screen.

When I wasn’t scorching my retina or getting flustered by a game designer’s tendency to not thoroughly debug a program (causing regular crashes), I was really into Cyclopedias, flags and maps. My parents had been purchasing a set of small volumes which came out every week; they were hard-bound with silver covers and a big circular image featuring anything from a camel, a test tube or a guy working on an oil rig. My favourite part of the volumes was the entries on countries, particularly European countries which I was fascinated by. Each of the entries in these volumes would feature a written description of the country, its flag and a map detailing cities, roads, rivers and symbols representing prominent industries (oil, manufacturing, agriculture, etc.) Think of this as the 1987 equivalent of Wikipedia. I also had a large world map with flags framing the border. I took pride of place on a desk in the front room of our house where I would often draw pictures of the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

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Around this time, my mum bought me a new game on cassette which – in spite of the reservations she had with me spending so much time at the C64 – she thought would be vaguely educational. The artwork on the cassette case featured a cartoon of a mole leaping into a bi-plane whilst being chased by a couple of police officers.

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By 1987, the Commodore 64 was still a leader in the low-end market, though the limitations of its 64 KB of RAM and 16-colour graphics palette restricted what was possible in a steadily expanding computer and videogames market, with the newly released Commodore Amiga already beginning to exceed the capability of the C64. In many respects, 1987-88 represents the bell curve of popularity and innovation for the C64, with many of the games from this period (The Last NinjaCalifornia Games, The Giana Sisters) pushing the limitations of the C64 as far they would go in terms of handling content, gameplay, memory, graphics and sound. It’s remarkable just how well something like The Last Ninja (1987) holds up in this respect – a beautifully crafted game.

By virtue of attempting to keep up with the innovations led by Amiga, Nintendo and Sega, the bottom steadily fell out for the C64 as the limitations of the computer could not match the sophisticated gameplay and graphics of its peers and the computer gradually drifted towards niche-dom before being withdrawn completely in the early 1990’s.

Released in 1987, Auf Weirdersehen Monty consisted of a flick-screen platform-style gameplay with its visual design carried across from the hugely successful Monty On The Run (1985) and Jet Set Willy (1984). Each of the screenshots would represent a section of European country, sometimes incorporating landmarks unique to the country into the screen’s architecture. The visuals were also really trippy too. I’m fairly sure that blinking eyeball in the screenshot below is a nod to the Spanish filmmaker, Luis Buñuel.

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Ah, Spain! Don’t take that bottle of wine – it’s dodgy stuff.

Nowadays we take story arcs for granted in videogames, but in 1987 I guess this was fairly unique. The action in Auf Weirdersehen Monty picks up from where Monty On The Run left off. Monty’s story began back in 1984 with Wanted: Monty Mole where following his intervention in the British Miner’s Strike (yes, really) he’s hunted by authorities and by the time of the following year’s Monty On The Run we’re guiding him through buildings and sewers, eventually culminating in a dangerous high-speed car ride to reach a boat in time. At the opening of Auf Weirdersehen Monty he’s beached himself at the Rock Of Gibraltar and we’ve got to help him cash up across Europe and avoid death so that he can buy a Greek island and live the rest of his life in sunny exile. Not bad for Thatcher-hating communist mole. The political overtones don’t end there. This was 1987 after all, so Germany is split down the middle – the glitzy West on one side and the otherside resembling the backend of a toilet. Very subtle. The game is memorable in so many other ways – by taking a bottle you become drunk and walk the wrong way, Monty breakdances in Luxembourg, there’s a chairlift to catch in Switzerland, you can repeatedly murder your evil doppelganger in a biplane and there’s a parade of surreal shit that makes no sense whatsoever from Italy to Greece (via Czechoslovakia). As was par for the course with a majority of sophisticated C64 games, Auf Weirdersehen Monty is ridiculously difficult. In certain parts of the game (especially in Italy and Greece) a lazy twitch of the joystick will lead to repeated death and it’s GAME OVER, BRO. Then you have to start all over again. Adding to this is the precarious requirement of taking various items back and forth across the continent in exchange for money – again and again. Saving progress is not an option. I have vivid memories of hurling the joystick across the room in frustration, breaking down into a pool of tears and being consoled by mum because I couldn’t deliver a football to Sweden.

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All of the screenshots in Auf Weirdersehen Monty making up *most* of mainland Europe. A shame Portugal and Finland missed out.

I have no idea how many hours I spent playing this game. I could never finish it and in spite of engaging the help of friends to develop various strategies and carefully sketching out the screenshots to form a big guide map, it never came to much and more often than not we repeatedly checked out on our way to Greece with a trail of bloated dead moles in our wake.

SID Love

It wasn’t just the futile and brutally Kafka-esque gameplay combined with a love of geography that kept me so engaged with this game. The soundtrack composed by the legendary Rob Hubbard (not the Scientologist) who, utilising all three-channels of the SID soundcard produced an absolute belter of a soundtrack that perfectly accompanied all the highs and lows of Monty’s traipses across Europe. Electronic drums clomped along beneath woozy synth textures with wailing bursts of (emulated) shred guitar.  I’ve already mentioned just how innovative some of the C64 programming was around this period and this carefully composed soundtrack is just extraordinary in terms of its structure and sophistication.

Thirty years on

Out of the mists and back into the present. Nostalgia can be a foolishly naive enterprise sometimes; I’ve lost count of the recent things I’ve revisited lately (mostly films) only to walk away disappointed and – in some instances – appalled. Some things just shouldn’t be revisited later in life and should instead be left to dwell within the little universe they were first encountered and experienced. Memory tints, exaggerates and smoothens the edges and everything from here looks idyllic and appealing. Our past viewed through a vaseline smeared lens. Leave it there.

Rarely though, there are exceptions to this rule and Auf Weirdersehen Monty is a case in point. This is a game in recent years that I’ve revisited (via a C64 emulator) and become lost within all over again, whilst recalling my early fascination with geography, Europe and electronic music. Despite faithful attempts I couldn’t finish the game and instead applied a cheat mode (Jesus Mode!) to evade death, cash up, successfully deliver the football and land Monty on his island thirty years on from my first attempts. Sometimes you’ve just got to give a guy a break.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s Happening #6: Fleurieu Drift

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Handheld mic, hat and beer at Normanville Surf Life Saving Club – April 2017

Over the past couple of weekends L and I have made our way down the coast to check out a few events happening as part of the annual Festival Fleurieu program. On the first weekend we checked out longtime family friend, Ruth Eisner’s open studio at her wonderful property, Mulberry Farm; then this weekend we checked out a couple of exhibitions and attended a concert by Margie Russell at the Yankallila Agricultural Hall supper rooms. Both trips have been enjoyable and revitalising since it’s been great to get down my hometown digs and catch up with some folks I haven’t seen in a while. This weekend also provided a good opportunity to make some more field recordings for my Fleurieu Sound Map project which is now in its seventh year.

Fleurieu Sound Map beginnings

From 2011-2012 the Fleurieu Sound Map gathered momentum with a flurry of activity as I darted all over the region with a handheld recorder in tow. This was an exciting time as I found myself revisiting familiar places and redicovering them with a fresh aesthetic appreciation. At the time I had an Edirol HR handheld recorder for my captures, and whilst it was up to task most of the time, its flimsy windshield and noisy preamp prevented me from capturing certain environments faithfully – where winds sheared over the microphone’s diaphragm, or conversely where environments were so quiet that the noise floor of the device would be the most prominent feature in the recording.

Beyond the recorder itself, I started building my own hydrophones as a way of capturing sonic activity in bodies of water. I went through a number of hydrophone variations incorporating piezo transducers enclosed within pill boxes, film canisters, shoe polish cans and on one occasion, a condom. What I realised – each time I heard the DIY hydrophone fill with water – was that I probably wasn’t up to the task of making hydrophones that are reliably water tight and that I should get around to buying some, which I did later on. Still, a couple of my inventions worked for a while and captured some nice sonic activity in water and beneath sandy substrates.

“Nancy” the hydrophone in 2012.

One of the reasons why 2011-12 was such a fertile period for skipping all over the region and making hundreds of records was because I was engaged in an art project with the WIRED Lab and Country Arts SA which would culminate in the latter half of 2012 with the National Regional Arts Festival, Kumawuki in Goolwa. Our work, Southern Encounter was a group multimedia work and my headphone installation, Echocline featured field recordings from around the region.

With this project behind me by the end of 2012, in the following years I managed to keep exploring the region and expanding the sound map, largely thanks to routinely visiting the sculpture I constructed south of Lady Bay and compiling an album of Fleurieu-centric field recordings for my 3Leaves edition, The Path Described (2013).

Five Year Itch.

Prior to heading back down south for the Festival events this month, I realised it had been over a year since I’d last updated the sound map. The last update in February 2016 included a dearth of material from a weekend in Carickalinga the previous year and a single recording made in Yankalilla during January 2016. In spite of finding time to get down to the region I was finding it to be a struggle to find new locations to capture, let alone finding reason or motivation to capture particular locations.

It didn’t help that some of the locations I found (when I had a recording device with me) just weren’t very interesting at all:

Why bother recording this location? Why am I here? Nothing’s happening at all! OK, I haven’t documented this particular location, but let’s be honest there’s nothing going on here and I believe that nothing is going to happen. I’m wasting my time here.

This was happening a lot. I’d arrive at a location with the best intentions and nothing would happen at all, or – to an equally frustrating extent – a potentially good recording where a chosen element unique to the location was clearly emphasised would be compromised by a human (I presume) cranking up a chainsaw, angle-grinder or techno album somewhere nearby. I was caught between two extremes on an axis of a) nothing or b) too-much-information – the former is a waste of everyone’s time, the latter is a blemished document.  I was becoming fed up with the whole process and the limitations of what I could achieve with my equipment on hand. I was still restricted to a handheld recorder since I didn’t have the motivation to invest in more high scale equipment due to my growing discontent with my sound practice at the time (see What’s Happening #1: Therapy for more on this.)

So I purposefully took a break from updating the sound map. When L and I went down to visit the Nude sculpture in August 2016 it was the first time I hadn’t taken my recorder with me, instead opting for my camera to document the state of the largely destroyed sculpture.

Solastalgiac

Diverging from the sound map, over the years I’ve watched the Fleurieu region change in visible increments, noticing prominent swathes of vegetation reclaiming the hills and gullies whilst conversely land is cleared and houses pop up in towns and on their outskirts. The tension between nature and human activity is particularly felt on the Fleurieu. It occasionally causes a measure of anxiety in me.

I remember the first time I felt an unease towards changes in the surrounding landscape. In the early 1990’s a large parcel of agricultural land was sold off near Lady Bay and a large scale housing development covered the hillside and a golf course was carved out of the ground. The Links Lady Bay took a long time to get going and for its first decade it looked like a geniune folly with only a few houses constructed and the golf course stalled at nine holes and situated in what looked like a cow paddock (which is what it was previously). Now, over 25 years later it has the semblance of something like what the original scale model looked like when myself and the locals saw it proudly displayed under perspex outside Normanville’s shopping centre. Elsewhere, other pockets of land have been sold away and a combination of residential and holiday houses spread over plains near the town.

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It’s a delicate topic of discussion for a town like Normanville. After all, a significant chunk of the region’s economy and employment has relied on tourism and development since the 1970s. The resort at Wirrina Cove was one of the first developments of this kind in the area. I completely appreciate this reality and that this sort of progress in regional towns around Australia is a vital component to keeping communities intact.  The Links development and its golf course are hugely beneficial to the area and it employs plenty of people including some I knew in high school. The compromise is, of course trading off bits of the landscape (and potentially the environment) for progress. Within the scope of my experience, this can be summed as a solastalgia of sorts and has comprised a large part of my ongoing relationship with the region when I was living there and when ever I’ve returned.

The term solastalgia was coined by Australian,  to describe the emotional impact on the inhabitents of a community who experience significant changes to their immediate and/or surrounding landscape. Albrecht’s case study that derived this term related to the impact felt by communities in the Upper Hunter region of New South Wales where the large scale expansion of open cut mines had radically altered surrounding landscapes whilst impacting aspects of the environment – such as the air quality and wildlife. Aside from communities’ ongoing concern with open-cut mines, unconventional gas extraction and a certain coal port development threatening the Great Barrier Reef, a significant issue for communities is the sprawl of suburban developments which encrope into native vegetation or agricultural land.

In the case of sprawl, this is what one will see as you make your way  to the western coast of the Fleurieu. From Noarlunga through Seaford to Aldinga and Port Willunga, expanses of large houses pop up, creep and rub against pockets of farmland. So again we return to that onerous issue of progress and what we’re willing to compromise for it. From the vantage of what’s been happening in and around Normanville over the past 30 years, this is small fish compared to things like the current aberration that is Seaford’s Vista development which saw a huge chunk of farmland progressively covered with McMansions and an obligatory Aldi supermarket. Enough said – I won’t go there for risk of steering this post into rant territory; my cup of tea’s not strong enough to clearly articulate where that particular thread is heading. Another time, maybe.

Thankfully, nobody is mining for coal or extracting gas in or around Normanville, there aren’t plumes of coal dust filling the air and there are no spikes in lung infections or cancer in the community. All that is really happening is that more houses are being built to accomodate growing families whilst fufilling a demand for more holiday accomodation in the area.

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Normanville Heights, as seen from the Bungala River running through the local caravan park.

When I reflect on such a thing it seems like the term solastalgia was custom built for such a dramatically nostalgic individual myself – one who is so acutely affected, moved or piqued by the slightest of change to an environment. I believe this is one of the reasons why I started the Fleurieu Sound Map – where photographic media failed to adequately document (and in some way preserve) a place, the audio option would come in.

The here and the now

Given the struggles with my mental health this year, my lifelong tendency to get so hung up on the rampant scourge of humans and their prediliction or expand their turf across and into everything might not seem like such a good thing to ruminate on, especially when I’m making an effort to clear my head of particular anxieties. However, to my suprise (and relief) I found on my recent trips to Normanville that my concerns relating to this have diluted somewhat and that I’m comfortable accepting it as more of a drift of ‘stuff that happens’. I’m cool with it – as long as everyone looks after the native vegetation, sand dunes, animals and stops pumping vile shit into the Bungala River.

 

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The places we inhabit hold a deep significance for us. We feel connected to them through memories, objects, landscapes as well as the mysteriously intangible – the things we can’t quite put our finger, eye or ear to. Familiarity and change are part of this drift. There’s such a strong poetic to a hometown and through the Fleurieu Sound Map and its various field recordings I found myself slipping further into the mystery of the town I grew up and its surrounding areas. Since it continues to change and unfold, I don’t see any reason why the Fleurieu Sound Map should end – or ever end for that matter. I’ve just got to scope out some interesting locations and wait patiently for the angle grinders to abate. Unless of course the recording emphasises the angle grinders. It could happen.

So, with that in mind there will be some new additions to sound map shortly. It’s something a little different and it may potentially raise some new questions and possibilities for this project. But more on that when I get around to posting.

In the meantime, drift on.

The Path Described reviewed by Field Recording.de

http://fieldrecording.de/2017/02/12/field-recording-review-tristan-louth-robins-the-path-described/

The Path Described” creates moments of reminiscing, which are sometimes very cautious and then again astonishingly impressive.

A lovely suprise today to be informed that my 2013 release, The Path Described has recently been reviewed by the German online magazine, FieldRecording.de. If you check it out, you’ll need to run it through google translate or similar. With kind thanks to Sebastian-Thies Hinrichsen.

The past is a foreign country

Field Street, Normanville. At no.3 is the cottage that I spent most of my childhood and teenage years. On the corner of the street was a property which sat adjacent to no.3 – a small, relatively unassuming early 20th Century cottage with a couple of large spaces which used to have horses kept in them. This afternoon my mum sent me an image revealing that this property had recently been demolished. I was slightly stunned – it feels as though a significant personal landmark has been erased. Whilst the little cottage and its surrounds are nothing particularly striking, the more subtle elements of the property – its creamy pink colour, the rusty corregated fences and the peculiar white cross painted on the outside of a backyard shed – are images that have resonated with me since early childhood. I also have a particularly strong childhood  memory of routinely running my hand along a rusty, yet smooth thick wire which ran through its fence on Field Street. A lot of what I have associated with Normanville in recent years (aside from the cottage at no.3 and the town’s main street) strongly gravitates to this now demolished and razed property.

This significance is further illustrated by the fact that the two Garden Ruin albums – their material drawing heavily from memories and observations in and around Normanville – both feature this property on their album covers.

As you get older, living with the past becomes all the more beguiling.