Preliminary Research Project Description:
Beyond Concrete will investigate ways of listening in order to navigate pathways towards decolonisation and understanding Australian identity in a post-colonial context, whilst developing an audio visual language of site through practice lead research. This project will respond to the Yarra (Birrarung) River and socio-political factors related to this site using sound, expanded photography and sculpture.
(1) Bandt, R. (2001), Hearing Australian Identity: Sites as acoustic spaces, an audible polyphony, In: Nation and Narration conference [online], Brisbane: The Australian Sound Design Project, Available at: http://www.sounddesign.unimelb.edu.au/site/papers.html [Accessed 4 Mar. 2018].
Sound artist Ros Bandt examines Australian identity, the sonic landscape and how ‘focusing on auditory phenomena through the process of listening [...] requires us to inhabit time’ (para 1). As an Australian artist of European decent (like me), Bandt discusses the cultural sensitivity, respect and awareness required to respond to Australian identity and significant Indigenous sites (i.e. anywhere in Australia) in a post-colonial context. During my research I will perform unique inquiries of site through listening, with the foremost intention of preserving a well informed approach to Indigenous, and colonial Australian themes relating to the Yarra (Birrarung) River. Bandt describes listening as ‘another way of being, which indicates and endorses silence. Not to listen to a land that has been sung for thousands of years by many peoples, is to deny their existence, ever widening the gab of silence and endorsing the colonial imposition of terra nullius’ (para 2). Investigating the capacity that listening has to decolonise site is vital to my research.
During the install of Mungo (1992) Bandt recalls conversing with and listening to Mutti Mutti and Bakanji traditional owners, and experiencing a ‘completely different speed and type of communication. The sense of time had expanded’ (para 7). I will focus on the embodiment of time through the act of listening and observing by investigating temporal shifts that sound can occupy.
In Voicing the Murray (1996), Bandt details sound’s ability to carry ‘layers of meaning and non-verbal information’. These intricacies of understanding sound in the mode of semantic listening (Chion 1994) is an important way to unpack meaning through historical research of the Yarra (Birrarung) River site existing in a colonised Australia.
(2) Boyce, J 2013, 1835: The Founding of Melbourne & The Conquest of Australia, Schwartz Publishing Pty. Ltd, Melbourne, pp 3-8.
Albeit an informational read, Boyce’s text provides a valuable and detailed description of pre- colonised Melbourne; the landscape; how traditional owners of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung used land and river systems; and the dramatic, fast changing effects colonisation had on the ecosystem. In order to understand a colonised Yarra (Birrarung) river with aims of decolonisation, I believe it imperative to employ a firm comprehension of pre-colonised Melbourne as a framework for my research.
Melbourne was made up of two ecosystems, primarily wetlands in the southern areas, and pastoral grasslands and woodlands stretching north. Boyce states that ‘here language misleads - the native grasslands of the Melbourne region were as different from contemporary pastureland as old-growth
forest is from a tree plantation’ (pp 5). Rich with flora and fauna, this area was home to hundreds of species of grasses, herbs, trees, fish, eels, birds, mammals and insects many of which are now extinct or endangered (pp 4-6). Encompassing the complex and vastly different ecosystem of pre- colonised Melbourne in my research helps to underpin the idea of seeing beyond the concrete of our colonised society which inhabits the crux of my project.
My research requires an engagement with cultural narratives of the Boon wurrung and the Woi wurrung people of the Kulin nation before and after invasion. With reference to Presland (2008) Boyce describes the waterways of Melbourne as a centre-point to the region operating as ‘human transport corridors, traversing ecological and political boundaries’ (pp 6). He speaks of John Batman documenting eel traps and ‘devised earthworks and stoneworks’ (Presland 2008) made by Indigenous peoples in this area.
(3) Chion, M (1994), Audio-vision: Sound on Screen, Columbia University Press, New York, pp. 25 - 34.
Michel Chion outlines the theory of three intertwining/overlapping listening modes. I am investigating these modes to develop an engaged language of site through sound, vision, and listening. Chion’s theory provides a foundation for unpacking how sound can behave as a communication device, differentiating between listening with ears and cognitive listening, Chion compares this to the distinction to looking and seeing (pp.33).
Causal listening is defined as ‘listening to a sound in order to gather information about it’s cause’ (pp 26). These are sounds that the listener can recognise from an aural description alone. However, Chion states that ‘we must be careful not to overestimate the accuracy and potential of causal listening [...] causal listening is [...] the most easily influenced and deceptive mode of listening’ (pp. 26).
Semantic Listening, is ‘listening that refers to a code or language to interpret a message’ (pp. 28), interpreting complex devices designed by humans to communicate and interact, such as spoken language or Morse code. Semantic listening accommodates inflections and multifaceted characteristics in spoken language which will aid my research in pre-colonial and indigenous Australian history, a history of which was largely spoken not written.
Most relevant to my research and hardest to ascertain, is reduced listening. A term coined by Pierre Schaffer (1966) that ‘focusses on the traits of the sound itself, independent of its cause and of its meaning’ (pp30). Reduced listening can sharpen our listening and understanding of sound, revealing qualities like ‘timbre and texture’ (pp31.). Engaging with this mode of listening as practice will enable a highly focussed understanding of sound in the environment and site.
(4) Kwon, M (1997), One Place after Another: Notes on Site Specificity, October, 80, pp.85–110.
Examining developments over a thirty-year period, Kwon presents three non-linear paradigms of site specificity in art as ‘phenomenological, social/institutional and discursive’ (pp 95). Stating the ‘operative definition of site has been transformed from a physical location - grounded fixed, actual - to a discursive vector - ungrounded, fluid, and virtual’ (pp 95). In research lead practice I will use Kwon’s malleable proposed framework to provide critical reflection on the function, definition and utilisation of site in my work.
Kwon cites the Minimalist practice of Hans Haake and Michael Asher (among others) as conceiving site ‘not only in physical and spatial terms but as a cultural framework defined by the institutions of art’ (pp. 87-88). Perceiving de-materialisation and de-aestheticization, Kwon recognises a shift from the work as an ‘object’ to the work as a ‘process’. Therefore, enabling artists to invite audiences to engage a subjective view - site becomes the situation in which the work sits, rather than emphasising the permanent relationship of the site and the work.
Kwon identifies a blurring of lines between art and non-art as site based art pursues ’a more intense engagement with the outside world and every-day life’ (pp.91) by addressing current socio-political issues and teetering on the verge of activism. Kwon is concerned that ‘current manifestations of site specificity tend to treat aesthetic and art-historical concerns as secondary issues’ (pp.91) in 1997. Whilst my research will traverse a problematic path through social issues relating to site, Kwon’s critical response is a poignant reminder to establish strong foundations in how to successfully address aesthetic and art-historical concerns now, in my formative stages of research.
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Presland, G. (2008) The place for a village: How Nature Has Shaped the City of Melbourne. Melbourne: Museum Victoria.
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