2020: a paradoxical year

2020 has been a year where less has become more, we were forced to live in the present for the sake of the future, and the only constant we could be sure of was change. It’s also been a year of limitations and incredible opportunities.

Eye of the Corvus installation view
Eye of the Corvus landscape installation view, Western Plains Cultural Centre

Eye of the Corvus

As the year got underway, my first major solo exhibition in years, the ambitious Eye of the Corvus: Messenger of Truth was showing at the Western Plains Cultural Centre in Dubbo, opening a couple of weeks before Christmas 2019. January was spent giving guided tours and artist talks.

I’d been thinking that 2019 was going to be a hard year to top after travelling across Scandinavia and spending two months of it in Iceland. Things were only just warming up.

ecoPULSE

Just after Corvus closed I made my first field trip to the Macquarie Marshes for the start of a new project that would document the wetland’s recovery from drought and fire over 12 months. Pulse of the Wetland would become the first major project of a new project platform I was developing called ecoPULSE – a collection of investigative, ecology-centred, digital media projects that explore the futures of rural and regional communities through enquiry, creativity and connections. It builds on the works I’ve been doing for the past decade. The Marshes project was something I’d been working on with my fellow Arts Territory Exchange (aTE) collaborator, UK-based Andrew Howe, for most of the previous year that has now become another ambitious creative endeavour in the form of Mosses + Marshes.

Field recording in the Macquarie Marshes, February 2020
Field recording in the Macquarie Marshes, February 2020

The CORRIDOR project

In March, I was awarded one of 16 artist residency places at the highly regarded Cowra-based the CORRIDOR project. About this time, my consulting business took a hit as clients went into COVID damage control. By April, I’d lost 70 per cent of my regular communications work and was looking to access JobSeeker, which became not only a financial lifeline but a mental lifeline, giving me valuable thinking time to work out where I wanted to put my energy.

Party time

2020 was also the year of my half-century, which was always going to prompt a bit of navel-gazing. My plan had been to go to Tasmania for the Dark Mofo festival, but it was clear by March that was not going to happen. With little consulting work on my books and time on my hands, I made a snap decision to bring the festival to me. ART e-Parties was born and the first online event, F50 was created bringing 28 artists together from Australia, Canada, USA, Germany, France, UK and Ireland for a two-week program of music, literature, visual and digital arts. We launched ART e-Parties on my birthday and the festival got underway a month later at the end of May, after six weeks of website building, program designing and social media promotions. It was completely crazy and a huge amount of work, but about 500 people from across the world joined me in the celebration. You don’t often have parties like that.

Live and In Conversation with F50 Writers Jen Cowley (AUS) and Grace Wilentz (IRE) on ART e-Parties
“Live and In Conversation” with F50 Writers Jen Cowley (AUS) and Grace Wilentz (IRE) on ART e-Parties, May 2020

Topping off the end of financial year, was a State Parliament motion of commendation on 4 June from our local member, Dugald Saunders, for my contribution to Dubbo’s cultural life, congratulations for Eye of the Corvus, and the promotion of Dubbo through various cultural groups and projects.

Creative incubation for a new project

Early on, the CORRIDOR project had to ‘pivot’ (one of those overused words of the year) with its programming, delivering a series of creative and scientific PD LAB sessions online over several months from April – about 18 all up. It was to be supplemented with time on the residency property near Cowra, with each artist securing 10 days on-site. Offering information and the opportunity to investigate the Lachlan River/ Galari, anthropogenic biomes, geomorphology, astrology, plant pathology and herbarium collections and curatorial practice, the residency gave each of us the time and space to develop concepts and works around these themes. Pre-COVID, we’d been allocated a place in one of four ‘seasonal’, themed slots in a 12-month program. By May, we were all thrown together online and allowed to find our own interest and place in the offering.

The PD sessions were a major highlight of the year despite Zoom exhaustion setting in after a couple of months. The presentations were interesting and the discussions thought-provoking, and relationships formed with artists and curators from across the State I wouldn’t have otherwise met. We were all itching to get on-site, one of those negotiations that had to be considered week by week as the year progressed. The residency site is relatively isolated on a rural property bordered by the Lachlan River, just below Wyangala Dam, but it was obvious that 16 artists and program tutors weren’t going to be able to descend on the property in one go. I split my 10 days into two visits undertaken in August and October, with other artists coming and going in small numbers during that time. There’s more about the residency in the ecoPULSE blog post about the project that has evolved from this time.

On site at the CORRIDOR project (photo taken by Phoebe Cowdery)
On site at the CORRIDOR project (photo taken by Phoebe Cowdery)

Content creation

By May, work was picking up again largely thanks to the CORRIDOR project’s (tCp) involvement in Science Hub programming for Inspiring Australia. I was commissioned to produce a video on recording sound in the field as part of an online presentation with Dr Jo Lenehan of the NSW Department of Industry, Planning, and Environment on environmental corridors, soundscapes, plant and bird identification relative to monitoring techniques, habitat and waterways. This led to further work on videos for National Science Week programming delivered by tCp, working with content from artists Angus Fisher and Todd Fuller.

I’d made a firm decision by mid-year that I was going to spend more time on my art projects and work that supports my practice. The CORRIDOR project content production fitted the bill perfectly, as did work I was contracted to do for regional arts organisation, Orana Arts. This work has allowed me to bring my experience and skillsets together with my love for the arts, working with a team of people on strategic planning, marketing and communications, mentoring, and content production.

Video production job in Stuart Town for Orana Arts and Sydney Trains, November 2020
Video production job in Stuart Town for Orana Arts and Sydney Trains, November 2020

International contributions

On top of paid gigs and the residency program commitments, I was contributing to international collaborative projects such as the aTE/MUCK sound library, Cities and Memories’ #StayHomeSounds COVID lockdown response project, and an unusual project with Petra Mrša of Croatia called The Message – the first time I’d created a recording using only my voice. I also continued to do 500-600km round trips to the Macquarie Marshes every two or three months to document the wetland and surrounding floodplain and conduct audio interviews. I also locked in a showing of Eye of the Corvus at the Outback Arts Creative Arts Centre for the 2020/21 summer and published a limited edition zine for the exhibition documenting the project behind it.

Workshopping

In August, I ran a pilot workshop on field recording. It was a quiet half-day workshop with two participants roaming my back paddock with microphones, but a great test run for a program I hope to develop in 2021.

Crowdfunding + grants

By October, Andrew Howe and I were running a crowdfunding campaign for Mosses + Marshes that I’d set up through the Australian Cultural Fund. I’d used the ACF platform in early 2019 to raise funds for Corvus, achieving 110 per cent of my $5,000 target. 2020 proved to be a much more difficult year in which to raise money, but with a carefully planned campaign, we did manage to raise 55 per cent of the target or $2,768 with the help of 31 donors from across Australia, the UK and Ireland, securing the funds needed to pay for our exhibition venues, some marketing, and publishing costs. We got our exhibition proposals away to the chosen galleries here and the UK and locked in our curators for 2021.

Artlands Conversation Series, November 2020
Artlands Conversation Series, November 2020

There were half a dozen grant applications written for various projects, two of which were successful through Regional Arts NSW – Quicks and Regional Arts Fund Relief (COVID) funding. Quicks allowed me to cover some of the costs associated with time-critical travel to the Marshes and time on editing interviews, and the Relief funding allowed me to upgrade my computer. I also had a submission accepted for the Regional Arts Australia (RAA) Artlands Conversation series, developed as an online program after the September conference was postponed due to COVID. The topic was ‘What role do we want technology to play in connecting our art practices to the wider world?’ – interestingly pitched at RAA prior to the COVID interference. The conversation was held on Zoom in early November.

Prize pickle

The other windfall for my practice was winning the 2020 Fisher’s Ghost Art Award Contemporary prize at Campbelltown Arts Centre, for my dust storm video that forms part of the Corvus collection. I never expected or courted controversy with this video that includes a Wiradjuri story generously narrated by Dubbo-based Elder, Aunty Diane McNaboe, and one of the first people I contacted after finding out I won…but thanks to social media it came all the same. Lessons were learned that I’ll be taking into future projects.

Dust Storm of the Waagan, video, winner of the Fisher's Ghost Art Award Contemporary prize, 2020
Dust Storm of the Waagan, video with soundscape and narration by Aunty Diane McNaboe, winner of the Fisher’s Ghost Art Award Contemporary prize, 2020

Bittersweet endings

By mid-November I was preparing to install Corvus at the Outback Arts gallery and planning an opening event in a COVID-safe manner. I had hoped to have an artist-to-artist talk with fellow exhibiting artist, Prue Cullen, in front of a small audience in the space. It would have been a lovely way to round out the year before settling into a summer of post-production on Pulse of the Wetland and Mosses + Marshes. However, with my father becoming critically ill, plans to celebrate an incredibly full creative year with a champagne glass in hand were abandoned.

CORVUS zine published for the Outback Arts showing of Eye of the Corvus
Limited edition CORVUS zine published for the Outback Arts showing of Eye of the Corvus

I did manage to fit one more field trip in before that though. I received a generous invitation to join a team of scientists and ecology specialists on a trip to the Great Cumbung Swamp at the lower end of the Lachlan River/ Galari, in early December. My father fell ill two days into the trip, but the time spent watching, listening, learning and capturing the riverine environment of the area was worth the 1300km round trip. An update on that trip will be published in early January.

Finally, as 2020 draws to a close I’d like to thank all those who have been part of this paradoxical year – the creative highs have been quite incredible and they wouldn’t have been possible without the support and encouragement of a lot of people. In particular, a big thank you to my family, Andrew Howe, Phoebe Cowdery, David Duncan, Alicia Leggett, Diane McNaboe, Jo Lenehan, Jamie-Lea Trindall, Aleshia Lonsdale and the artists who have been part of this year’s projects and experiences, and the art lovers who have connected with those projects.

This year saw my daughter move interstate just as borders were closing again and are again being threatened with closures; my father remains critically ill in a city hospital at a time when Sydney is in the midst of another seemingly uncontrollable COVID outbreak; and friends endure lockdowns in Sydney, Melbourne and overseas unable to see family, mourn or celebrate milestones. We all lost something this year but those COVID clouds have had some silver linings. Now bring on 2021.

Experimenting in field with field assistant and daughter, Georgia, May 2020
Experimenting with a new field trip camera at home with field assistant and daughter, Georgia, May 2020

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