Contaminated by our encounters and why this is good
The residency and the project
To start an artist residency well, you need a clear mind. Driving the 75km between my home outside Dubbo and Wellington Caves was not nearly enough time to create the shift needed, despite playing loud music (something I rarely do) and some conscious mindfulness. The boot of my car was packed tight with recording equipment, a crate of reference books, project folders and notebooks, hiking boots, gumboots, food and clothing — it looked like I was going for a month. The artist residency at Wellington Caves on this occasion was four days and three nights.
This is a pilot residency, part of my Dubbo Regional Council commission as a Regional Futures* artist in partnership with Orana Arts and Arts Mid North Coast. It’d been in planning for months, in between coordinating and marketing exhibitions and public programs for my ecoPULSE.art platform, planning and writing grant applications for new projects, and the video and content creation work I do for clients. Life is busy and residencies are supposed to be valuable time and space away from the pressures of daily life to focus on the process of creating.
This first weekend at the Caves was about getting to know the other Regional Futures artists I’m working with and sharing a snapshot of the region that might provide ideas for our work. Kit Kelen** (Bulahdelah) and Ronnie Grammatica (Crescent Head) both travelled directly or indirectly from the Mid North Coast region to Wellington for the weekend — a long trip. Unfortunately, Coonabarabran-based artist, Allison Reynolds was unable to join us in person, but she did join us by phone on the last day. While we work in different art forms and come from vastly different backgrounds, we all share an interest in the environment and future of Regional NSW.
Collaborations can’t be forced, but from the start, we’ve been open to the idea of it as
part of our cross-region conversation. Any entanglement we manage, along with the big questions of why are we doing this and what impact we’re hoping to have, will be shaped by our expectations of the project and its possibilities. Anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing confirms this will change us.
We are contaminated by our encounters; they change who we are as we make way for others. As contamination changes world-making projects, mutual worlds—and new directions—may emerge.[i]
What shape will the future take?
The Orana Arts and Arts Mid North Coast brief for Regional Futures has further defined the question of what the future holds for the regions by asking what a post-carbon future might mean. The transition to renewables is well underway in the Central West, one of several Renewable Energy Zones (REZ) in NSW but the first to have been declared in Australia.
Love it or hate it (few seem to be ambivalent), Wellington has had a fair share of the investment, with solar farms and wind farms now rolling out across the hills as far as the human eye can see. Battery storage facilities are in planning, and farmers and other industries are trialling solar, hydrogen, and carbon capture work is underway. This isn’t just about renewables though, it’s about how ready our regions are for all that comes with a changing climate, how adaptable we are as individuals and communities, how liveable our regions will be, how sustainable our production systems are, and what hopes we have for the next 30 years and beyond.
What’s that future sound like?
From a conceptual and creative perspective, my interest in this project lies in how that future sounds, not just to us but for more-than-human species. Some believe it will be much quieter than it is today — just not for the reasons we assume. Biologist David George Haskell explains.
Every vocal species has a distinctive sound. Every place on the globe has an acoustic character made from the unique confluence of this multitude of voices.
The diverse sounds of the world are now in crisis. Our species is both an apogee of sonic creativity and the great destroyer of the world’s acoustic riches. Habitat destruction and human noise are erasing sonic diversity worldwide…Our actions are bequeathing the future an impoverished sensory world[ii].
Paradoxical positions and hot compost
For all the discussion that arises around greenwashing markets, social licence and the aesthetics of this ‘new’ future, we fundamentally know that maintaining a fossil-fuelled status quo is not an option. We need to recognise that everything we do has an impact. As someone who is not a disinterested observer in this conversation, I know there will be no high ground if we maintain our current ways of thinking.
The oft-quoted Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene by science philosopher Donna Haraway dismisses two main responses to the future — that there’s are techno or divine fixes or that ‘the game is over’. I too have heard these positions too often.
There is a fine line between acknowledging the extent and seriousness of the troubles and succumbing to abstract futurism and its affects of sublime despair and its politics of sublime indifference…staying with trouble is more serious and more lively. Staying with the trouble requires making oddkin; that is, we require each other in unexpected collaborations and combinations, in hot compost piles. We become-with each other or not at all. That kind of material semiotics is always situated, someplace and not noplace, entangled and worldly.[iii]
We’ve had a change of Federal Government since Regional Futures got underway. The shift of power at a Federal level has seen the Greens pick up more seats than ever before. Yet, for some, there’s still great bewilderment about how the National Party managed to hold on to large areas of the Regional NSW. Wellington and nearby Dubbo are part of two of those electorates — Calare and Parkes. This is a party whose members have resisted and actively lobbied against any significant change to address climate change. Some still dispute that human-induced climate change is real. The answers to how they’ve seemingly maintained their relevance as a political party are not simple. Their position post-election under new leadership is yet to be tested.
The conversations we had with farmers, local artists, and others from the community over the weekend, and our dissection of those conversations, have underscored how nuanced, paradoxical and misunderstood life in Regional Australia can be. The issues are complex and the communities are not homogenous. Our challenge as artists is to work through and with this, perhaps using our creative licence to offer new perspectives. We aren’t here to pick sides or solve problems, as Rebecca Solnit suggests is the right way of thinking about it in Hope in the Dark: The Untold History of People Power (2016).
The best response to a paradox is to embrace both sides instead of cutting off one or the other for the sake of coherence. The question is about negotiating a viable relationship between the local and the global, not signing up with one and shutting out the other.[iv]
Hearing the unheard
For me, this first weekend gave me an opportunity to see my home region through the eyes of visitors, as well as get a feel for the language, issues and responses to questions about what the transition to a post-carbon future means for a region like the Central West. I’m keen to know how people feel and what they value, not just what they believe to be true. I’m seeking conversations that provide space for others to share their story. My job at this stage is to reflectively listen.
If I’m to bring new voices to the table, listening is critical. Silence rarely means there’s nothing to say. The challenging of assumptions, biases and positions of privilege, including mine, comes later when it’s time to make art. After all, according to Solnit (2016), we’re all activists.
We are all activists in some way or another, because our actions (and inactions) have impact…we need stories that don’t gloss over the ugly damage out there but that don’t portray it as all there is either.[v]
I want the resulting artworks from this process to provoke further conversations about our ‘truths’ and where we sit in the broader conversation — locally, regionally, nationally and globally. As an artist and invested member of a regional community, I want to challenge and be challenged.
Generous in her experiences, ideas and time in meeting with us on our first residency weekend, Central West lawyer and farmer, Claire Booth shared the following thoughts on social media:
Art & creative industries is a mirror of our society….and reminds me that I exist in an eco-system, eco-chamber and it is important to learn from others.[vi]
Booth touches on what both Solnit and Haraway put forward as the possibilities of collaboration and entanglement with each other, and more-than-human species. By seeking out collaborators from within our communities, as well as giving voice to the environments we live in, we may just become that lively, ‘hot compost’ Haraway talks of — energised and nourishing.
Between now and the end of July I have two more ‘long weekends’ at the Caves and a week on the Mid North Coast in July to gather sounds and talk to many more people. The working title of my project is Vaticinor – a Latin verb meaning to utter inspired predictions or warnings; to rave or talk wildly. I couldn’t think of a more suitable word to capture conversations around this period of transition and beyond. So far, I haven’t been disappointed.
The palaeontology and hydrology work being done at the Caves gives a unique opportunity to learn more about ancient, past climates and the function of this Central West landscape today. This information sits in the mix of backgrounding meetings, extensive reading, conversations with the community, thinking, writing and soundscapes recordings, and of course, creative interactions with my Regional Futures collaborators.
Thanks to the Dubbo Regional Council Cultural Development Team and the staff at Wellington Caves, to Claire and Brendan Booth, Lisa Thomas and Wellington Arts, Alicia Leggett and Orana Arts for getting the Regional Futures project and Wellington Caves residency off to such a strong start.
Anyone wishing to talk with me about the Regional Futures project and how you might be involved can email me to organise a meeting.
* Regional Futures is a state-wide program of creative development and conversations that places artists at the centre of a dialogue exploring a future vision for Regional NSW.
[i] Tsing, A.L. (2015). The Mushroom at the end of the World on the possibility of life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton University Press.
[ii] Haskell, David G. (2022). Sounds Wild & Broken. Black Inc.
[iii] Haraway, D. (2016). Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.
[iv] Solnit, R. (2016). Hope in the Dark: The Untold History of People Power. Canon
[v] Solnit, R. (2016). Hope in the Dark: The Untold History of People Power. Canon
[vi] LinkedIn. 29 May 2022.