Future Authoring

This is the five year plan I never wanted to write. It extends into the distance, so expectedly its clearest in the shortest term. It begins with the next 7 months, the most significant period of community service and professional development I’ve known to date. I’m here in Gapuwiyak, a remote Indigenous community in north east Arnhem Land, as a volunteer through Gapuwiyak School for the rest of the year. During that time I’ll run small to medium sized art projects with young people in the community. I’ll also complete the 75 hours of practicum placement I need to finish my Advanced Diploma in Art Therapy. In exchange, Gapuwiyak School is providing me with rent free accommodation and materials. I’m responsible for living and travel expenses. 

The projects I help develop and facilitate will centre around providing spaces and opportunities for kids to hang out and express themselves. I'll collaborate with other members of the community and organisations such as the Gapuwiyak Arts Centre. 

Personally I’m interested in ways that mapping processes can strengthen connections to place and nature. At the moment I’m recording found sounds at specific locations in given geographical areas, interpreting those sounds in a visual language, then arranging (mapping) the interpretations according to their relative geography. The process translates well into collective, project based iterations, that result in geographically accurate representations of subjective encounters with place. In February this year I successfully ran the first iteration in Sydney, with primary school students at Nicholson Street Public School, as part of a broader project to build an orchestra with all 175 students using recycled materials. I’ll run the second iteration with the kids at Gapuwiyak School. Then, having been selected to participate in the Arquetopia International Art Educators Residency in Puebla, Mexico, I’ll run a third iteration of the idea in January 2019. Arquetopia is an internationally established, non-profit arts and cultural foundation with a social scope that emphasises critical thinking through artistic practices. Their academic international residency programs are the largest in Latin America, with an array of contents anchored in a solid structure of collaborations with prominent cultural institutions, renowned experts and notable artists. Participation in the residency program will ground my work in an institutional framework. I’ll meet three times per week with Arquetopia’s academic staff and the project participants will be students from the local University.

That's the plan until February 2019. Along the way I aim to produce written work and a podcast that appeals to an audience of people interested in the kinds of stories and insights that arise from my work. In that way I aim to sustain a unique and multifaceted career as a writer, with a special interest in education, nature connection, place, culture and community.

So, with the support of my loving family and friends I’ll suffer the burden of my dreaming, defeat the troublesome companions that are my weaknesses, rise to meet the best I’m capable of and share it all in words and pictures. If you’d like to read and see them, please subscribe to receive weekly letters and updates using the form in the sidebar (at the bottom of the page if you’re on mobile). 

Contact

 Future Authoring, Photo taken aboard Cessna 208(A) en route to Gapuwiyak, 20 July 2018.

Future Authoring, Photo taken aboard Cessna 208(A) en route to Gapuwiyak, 20 July 2018.

Soft landings in Gapuwiyak

I arrived in Gapuwiyak on July 20, 2018. Its a town the size of postage stamp, 220km east of Nhulunbuy. At one end of the main road is the air strip. 700m away at the other end is the lake.

 700m From the Airstrip to the Lake, Gapuwiyak, Arnhem Land, NT. July 2018

700m From the Airstrip to the Lake, Gapuwiyak, Arnhem Land, NT. July 2018

The are seven crossroads, the longest of which will take you 350m. There is a general store, post office, health clinic, rec centre, council chambers, arts centre and a school. The houses float on luxurious plots of land dotted with trees and shrubs, watched over by eagles, crows and brightly coloured bee eaters. The dusty roads are red, so are several of the houses. Others are green. Mine is yellow.

 Yellow House on Gali Street, Gapuwiyak, Arnhem Land, NT.

Yellow House on Gali Street, Gapuwiyak, Arnhem Land, NT.

 Gulun (Lake), Gapuwiyak, Arnhem Land, NT. July 2018

Gulun (Lake), Gapuwiyak, Arnhem Land, NT. July 2018

 The Store, Gapuwiyak, Arnhem Land, NT. July 2018

The Store, Gapuwiyak, Arnhem Land, NT. July 2018

 Sunset Corner, Gapuwiyak, Arnhem Land, NT.

Sunset Corner, Gapuwiyak, Arnhem Land, NT.

Letters Home #2 "Soft Landings"

Notes
This is the second letter of its kind. You can read the first one here.
Also, thank you so much to everyone who sent replies of support and encouragement to my first letter. Your words were a balm on my heart and mind.

You can see photos relating to this letter here

Letter #2 "Soft Landings"

Let me just say that change out here is constant. But not time. Time bends and warps, and sometimes it stretches to eternity. Days begin instantly, they burst forth from sunrise like supernovae. Then they cruise at 34 degrees forever. Until sunset, when every colour from blazing red to the deepest violet spreads out in slow motion across an infinite horizon. Light speed sunrise and technicolour sunset, and eternity in between. 

Writing my last letter I felt as though I were sifting through shrapnel left here by the bomb blast of modern life. After sending it I wept. For the confusion and helplessness I was feeling. For the grief I could see in everyone’s eyes. I wept for the hungry and the sick and the lost and especially I wept for the displaced. For those of us, maybe all of us, who somewhere deep down feel as if we haven’t been home in generations. Then I picked myself up and went outside. There was a fire on the beach. A group of five people from the Czech Republic were visiting Djalu and they brought food to share. So we all sat together. Djalu, Dopiya, M--, T--, Vernon, a couple of kids and some unfamiliar faces. Dopiya said it was like old times. I thought to myself how odd, that a group of Czechs, some baked chicken, a teary eyed Jew and boiled potatoes on Thai-made blankets - how that could possibly bring back memories. But I too felt nostalgic. As if I were remembering something older than any of my actual memories. I looked around at the fire-lit faces and listened to the hum of crisscrossed conversations and I realised, we were all there for the same reason. To remember what we ever did with eternity before there wasn’t enough time in a day. And that night I slept like a baby.

The next day a group of young boys decided to show me a place 5km west of Wallaby Beach, where Crocodile Creek meets the sea. W-- (11), J-- (9), P-- (11), N-- (10), G-- (5) and me (28). Before setting off we gathered several of the straightest stems we could find and fashioned them into spears. I packed a knife, lighter and water bottle. J-- walked next to me, a little behind the others. Earlier that day we’d made a game of drawing a diagram of the body with Yolngu Matha labels. That’s the language group out here. J-- was still in language mode and patiently pointed out to me the different sights in his native tongue. Soon we came to a place he identified as the home of a big crocodile. G--'s brother was famously bitten by this one. So spears in hand we starred down the last known whereabouts of the great lizard. Like old times, they say. Turns out G--'s father died last year. It was a suicide. J-- said he was a good man. He also said his grandfather was killed by a bus because he was drunk and didn’t see it coming. J-- said when he grows up he’s not going to drink. He wants to play footy instead. I suggested he consider going to University. He agreed. By the time we reached the river mouth we hadn’t caught any fish. So instead the boys collected longbums (a crustacean with a 10cm triangular shell), lipids (river snails) and mud mussels. They gathered dry grasses and a few sticks and with my lighter made a small fire, into which they tossed our bounty. By the time the fire had burned down each of them had assembled in front of his folded legs an apparatus consisting of one flat rock for the bottom and one for the top - to crush and de-shell the various critters. A little lemon juice would have been to taste but on the whole everything was delicious.  

When we got back I felt as though I'd extended the patch of earth around me on which I knew my feet to have stepped, and I could breathe. I felt as though I’d slipped beneath the surface of this place and found there an innocent human experience of discovery and survival. I tried to stay in touch with these feelings during each of my remaining days at Wallaby Beach. And for the most part I managed. I finished my Yidaki (didgeridoo) and Dopiya painted it with a traditional cross-hatch pattern. I now carry it with me.

So it was that 10 days into a journey barely begun, I packed my suitcase full of questions and said goodbye to Birritjimi. My charter flight to Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella) was scheduled to leave early the following morning so I spent one night in town at a Motel. Djalu’s son, Vernon, planned to meet me there with a care package for his two kids. They live in Gapuwiyak with some family. Yolngu kinship, an elaborate constellation of lineage and location, is a thing to behold. Its common for kids here to call 4 or 5 different people mum and dad. Other aspects of Yolngu culture require life support from numerous intersectional community organisations working hard for continuity. Some organise traditional dances, ceremonies and tours for visiting Balanda. Others take a different approach, such as Yolngu Radio, a highly successful initiative to broadcast local music, news and ‘history’. That’s the English word Yolngu people use to refer to myths and stories. As if telling them is an act of remembrance. Its impossible to know the trajectory of the struggle for continuity out here, so close to town. Because on the one hand, watching mobs dance on the beach in front of groups of Balanda risks falling into the realm of token spectacle. But on the other hand, the owner of the Motel I stayed in, Travis (45), told me that the dancing and chanting he witnessed at a Welcome to Country in Yirrkala was so powerful he’d remember it for the rest of his life. My hope is that someday our children, or their children, will hear or watch or even sing along to any one of the thousands of ancient stories that criss-cross this country. And when they do, I hope it makes them feel at home.

Vernon never did meet me at the Motel. But I arrived in Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella) on July 20, 2018. Its a village the size of postage stamp, 220km east of Nhulunbuy. At one end of the main road is the air strip. 700m away at the other end is the lake. The are seven crossroads, the longest of which will take you 350m. There is a general store, post office, health clinic, rec centre, council chambers, arts centre and a school. The houses float on luxurious plots of land dotted with trees and shrubs, watched over by eagles, crows and brightly colours bee eaters. The dusty roads are red, so are several of the houses. Others are green. Mine is yellow. Its a two bedder with a spacious kitchen and an open plan, south facing living space. Its walls are pale blue with powder blue window frames and skirting boards. The main bedroom looks over a sprawling rear garden with three large trees, a perennial, gum and possibly a Kimberly Rose. There's also a fire pit and a hills hoist. Around the side is a shed, car port and a storage container housing some spare furniture. Not that I need it, back inside there’s a large timber dining table, several bookcases, a plush satin sofa and two deeply set arm chairs. The washing machine can hold 8.5 kilos, only 2 more than the dryer. A selection of non-stick cookware and cutlery stay behind the white laminate kitchen cupboards. There’s also a blender, toaster, kettle and twelve-strong cupcake tin, which slides easily into the electric oven. The bathroom has a mirror and medicine cabinet, as well as a shower equal to the task of blasting the red dirt from beneath my finger nails. I’ve not yet met my western neighbour. But to the east lives O--. She runs a women’s group. There are problems here and O-- is frustrated by what she perceives to be an uphill struggle to guide the community towards something like the integration of Western values of education and self determination. Why? Its a question I’m carrying around. Maybe Yolngu culture could stand on its own here. The possibility seems less remote the more remote I go. At the same time, globalisation is here too. And its a flood. Even the strongest swimmer runs the risk of drowning in its hazardous waters of nihilistic overconsumption and pathological self obsession. Everyone needs some basic skills in navigation. So maybe that’s what we’re doing here. Myself, O-- and the 30 or so Balanda that work as teachers, medics, community developers, employment consultants and aid officers. Maybe we’re here to learn together just what kind of ship is going to keep us all dry.

School starts on Tuesday. I’ll run several art projects of varying scale as a volunteer this term. Some will centre around ideas I brought with me. Others will be in collaboration with various members of the community and calendar. People like Trevor, who runs the Art Centre. Every Saturday Trevor makes coffee for anyone wanting. Its a caffeine watering hole and today, alongside a band of enthusiastic folk, I had my fill. Among them was a woman named Judy Davey. In the 1960s Judy was one of a handful of Methodist missionaries who bushbashed their way to this place with enough gear to mill timber, and started this town. She’d not been back in over a decade. But low and behold she was here for a visit. So I asked her if she’d do a recorded interview with me. She agreed. Trevor suggested we do it in the Art Centre. So we did. But that’s a story I’ll save for another letter.

Postscripts 
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Photos and sounds from Birritjimi

These photos and recordings were taken over the past 10 days at Birritjimi (Wallaby Beach) in Arnhem Land, NT, visiting Djalu Gurruwiwi and his family, learning about Yidaki (didgeridoo) and Yolngu culture.

Tomorrow I'm heading to Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella) where I'll be posted at the school as a volunteer, running some art projects with the kids, completing my placement for an Adv.Dip. in Art Therapy, writing, reading and researching mapping processes and connection to place. I'll also be developing a new project that focuses on nature connection in urban environments, which I'll run with 10 University students in Puebla, Mexico, as part of the Arquetopia International Art Educators Residency program in January 2019.

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 My home for 10 days at Wallaby Beach, 10km from the nearby town of Nhulunbuy. These houses were built by a mining company thirty odd years ago using asbestos and concrete. All in disrepair, they are nestled in paradise.

My home for 10 days at Wallaby Beach, 10km from the nearby town of Nhulunbuy. These houses were built by a mining company thirty odd years ago using asbestos and concrete. All in disrepair, they are nestled in paradise.

Surrounding the houses on all sides is litter. Lots of it. Like pieces of shrapnel left here by the bomb blast of modern life. Why? Its a question I've been grappling with since I arrived. A question that I think holds a mirror to the shadows of our modern experiment and a window to the grief and sense of loss that pervades the complexity of this place. 

Paradise, an infinite dyad of beauty and ugliness, each made more so by the terrific magnitude of its other. The ocean here glows every shade of blue. It laps on white sand scattered with pieces of coral remains, lined by mango trees, coconut palms and casuarinas. There are hundreds of small birds, occasional osprey, dolphins and the odd saltwater crocodile.

 Kids dancing before the sunset.

Kids dancing before the sunset.

Dopiya paints Yidaki in layer upon layer of simple movements over their surface. Like the stories that criss-cross this landscape, every stroke is a trodden path.

I'm currently reading Jeff Malpas' Place and Experience. Its a work of philosophy that speaks to the deepest aspects of our human experience of place. Reading the work I was struck by this passage, which I feel is a wonderful compliment to the images of Dopiya painting Yidaki.  

The complexity of place is mirrored in the complex process of triangulation and traverse by which the topographical surveyor builds up a map of the region being surveyed. No single sighting is sufficient to gain a view of the entire region, multiple sightings are required... The delineation of place can only be undertaken by a process that encompasses a variety of sightings from a number of conceptual ‘landmarks’ and that also undertakes a wide-ranging, criss-crossing set of journeys over the landscape at issue. It is only through such journeying, sighting, and re-sighting that place can be understood.
— Jeff Malpas, 2018, 'The Obscurity of Place' in Place and Experience: A Philosophical Topography 2nd Edition, first published 1999, Routledge, London.
 Together with two of the kids at Birritjimi (Wallaby Beach).

Together with two of the kids at Birritjimi (Wallaby Beach).

One night, one of the kids (11) took me down to the beach. He'd prepared a small fire and placed a rock for me to sit on. An overturned wheelbarrow acted as an amplifier for the Yidaki. For two hours he taught me some dances and songs. We played 'ceremony' in much the same way that city kids might play 'house'. One of the songs was called Gapu (water). In the dance, cupped hands are thrown over alternating shoulders, stepping in time with the pulse, washing the body with imaginary water. The next day when we were down at the beach having a swim, we sang the song and danced it in the shallows.

 Originally I was going to take both of these Yidaki with me. The one on the right is painted with the Wititj (Python Snake), who according to history enters the Yidaki during the making process and ultimately controls its every sound. But from the moment I took possession of that Yidaki my body succumbed to a feeling of immense dread. That night I had a dream in which I was told to leave it behind, because it didn't belong to me. So I did.

Originally I was going to take both of these Yidaki with me. The one on the right is painted with the Wititj (Python Snake), who according to history enters the Yidaki during the making process and ultimately controls its every sound. But from the moment I took possession of that Yidaki my body succumbed to a feeling of immense dread. That night I had a dream in which I was told to leave it behind, because it didn't belong to me. So I did.

Next stop, Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella). If you'd like to receive my weekly letters and updates, please subscribe using the form in the sidebar! (Bottom of page if you’re on your phone)

 MAF RPT Flight to Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella)

MAF RPT Flight to Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella)

Letters Home #1 "Infinite Dyad"

Notes
In case you're not sure what I'm up to, I'm on an adventure beginning in Arnhem Land with a 10 day didgeridoo masterclass with Djalu Gurruwiwi in Wallaby Beach, then I'm heading to the remote community of Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella) to volunteer in the school there, complete my Art Therapy placement and develop some ideas I have for an art education project that focuses on nature connection in urban environments - which I will pilot at the Arquetopia international art educators residency in Mexico in January.

For photos and sounds relating to this post go here.

Letter #1 "Infinite Dyad"

So far this trip has been an infinite dyad of beauty and ugliness, each made more so by the terrific magnitude of its other. I’m staying in Wallaby Beach, a settlement of twenty houses (shared between five or six large family groups) and a store, which sells soft drinks and chocolate, 10km from the nearby town of Nhulunbuy. The houses were built by a mining company thirty odd years ago using asbestos and concrete. They are all in disrepair. Djalu Gurruwiwi, the man I came here to meet, lives in number 9. I am staying in number 5. T--, one of his daughters, lives between us in number 7. I share number 5 with two, sometimes three, twenty-something year old boys. There is no fridge, no working stove and the bathroom is several smells from clean. One night there was a dinner plate sized frog in the toilet. I’ve been into T--’s house, which is tidy, if not clean. She takes pride in it, though there isn’t anything she can do about the black mould that spills along the joins in the ceiling boards. And I’ve been into Djalu’s house, which is neither tidy nor clean. Surrounding all the houses on all sides is litter. Lots of it. Ten pieces to a square meter - mainly packaging for food and drink. You must understand, these houses are ugly and the people in them are as poor as their condition. And you must also understand that these houses are nestled in paradise. The ocean is a stone’s throw from the front door and glows every shade of blue. It laps on white sand scattered with pieces of coral remains, lined by mango trees, coconut palms and casuarinas. There are hundreds of small birds, occasional osprey, dolphins and the odd saltwater crocodile. The kids tell me a big one lives nearby, it was spotted walking the beach at 6am last Thursday. Whomever saw it would have witnessed a three metre lizard walking past an old bicycle lying half submerged in an iridescent ocean. Earlier this year Prince Charles flew to this place to meet Djalu Gurruwiwi and have him play Yidaki (didgeridoo) into his chest to help heal an ailment. When Djalu and others tell the story they are most impressed by the fact that Prince Charles was the only member of his party to take off his glove when shaking Djalu’s hand.

Everyone here consumes a lot of sugar and packaged foods. Some people drink two litres of soft drink every day. And the older people smoke a pack of cigarettes in the same time. It costs $30 for a taxi to the supermarket in town. Thats a $60 round trip for anyone without a car. At the moment that includes Djalu, his wife Dopiya and the six or seven people that live with them in number 5. Most days the kids go hunting for fish with spears fashioned from the stems of young trees. The old people don’t hunt. The people in the middle can hunt but their demographic seems the most troubled out here. They appear caught between worlds. A few work at the mine, some spend their days playing out American hip-hop stereotypes (to the dismay of the older women who protest against identifying with 'negro culture') while others wander aimlessly between the shop and their homes, drinking soft drink and waiting for footy training. I’m told that twenty years ago the people in the middle would light fires and cook food every night. The old people would come and sit and tell stories and the young people would dance. These nights loud electronic music blasts continuously from number 6 and the old people stay indoors. In the morning the young people tell me which of their older cousins was drinking. 

There are some exceptions to the disillusionment. Two of Djalu’s sons, Larry and Vernon, both intend to continue teaching history and playing Yidaki. They play in bands that tour the region, fusing traditional styles with reggae, afro-beat, hip-hop and rap. They plan to take on the task of welcoming balanda (white people) to Wallaby Beach after Djalu passes away.

And there’s the kids. Like everyone else, they know every song, rhythm and dance. One boy, W-- (11), took it upon himself to be my teacher. One night he came to get me from my room and led me to the beach. He had built a small fire and placed a rock next to it for me to sit on. Next to that was an overturned wheelbarrow that acted as an amplifier for the Yidaki. For two hours we played ‘bunngul’ (dance ceremony) - in much the same way that city kids might play ‘house'. He taught me the songs and dances and explained to me their meanings. At one point a Dolphin approached. W-- got to his feet and asked that I hold the end of the Yidaki towards it, then he played the traditional Dolphin song over and over. Afterwards he sat me down on the rock and played Yidaki into my chest. Then he shared a story with me, a dreaming, about Yidaki. It was the same story he had been told by Djalu. The next day W-- gave me a Yolngu name, Mutjatjal, which means rainbow python snake. It was all a game, like house. 

The kids here are tremendous athletes. They play throwing games a lot, pegging stones at birds, throwing spears, skipping rocks. They have amazing hand eye coordination and agility and they love sport. Especially Australian Rules Football. Everyone does. Its tribal. No other way to describe it. Game day is a celebration. Those who play for Baywarra (the local team) are revered and forgiven. One night I was talking with T-- (66). She was opening up to me about some of her hopes and dreams for the community, about the trials and tribulations of her life and faith. At one point she spoke of a dream she had a few nights previous. It was full of powerful symbols. She interpreted it as an omen that Baywarra would win the league this season. She hoped desperately that it would be so, as if her very future depended on it.

If this all seems a bit confused, trust me, I know - and remember that I have very naive eyes. One day we went out hunting for Yidaki. Djalu, Dopiya and their daughter, M--, together with a group of 6 balanda including R--, who comes up once a year from Victoria and has a Land Cruiser. We stopped at a stretch of bushland Dopiya seemed to know well, got out and began walking around, knocking on the young trees with the butt of an axe. When Djalu, Dopiya or M-- heard the right sound we’d chop down the hollow tree and cut it to length, then load the raw Yidaki logs onto the Land Cruiser. After a few hours of hard work we drove to a nearby stream and had a swim, lit a fire and cooked some meat that someone had brought. As we sat by the stream Dopiya munched the root of a plant she'd identified as edible from a distance of about 20m while tying together a bunch of leaves that she would later use for weaving and rummaging in her bag for another cigarette. Djalu nibbled on trail mix - the hardest food he can eat - and M-- spread jam and butter on slices of Helga’s. 

On a personal note, I’m doing okay. It hasn't been an easy adjustment. I’ve found it difficult, sad and painful. I’ve been awe struck and overwhelmed. Mostly overwhelmed. I’ve sought refuge in my books and research, taking recordings and illustrating sounds, reading philosophy and daydreaming about poetry. How alien those things seem out here, and yet, how familiar. I suppose I feel most of the time like an alien, with alien interests speaking an alien language, landed here by alien spaceship to do some alien research before returning to my alien planet and alien friends. Its lonely work. But on Thursday I’m heading to Gapuwiyak, to my school placement. I’m looking forward to having a stove and the familiar routines of a school week. I’m looking forward to working with the kids there, making some friends and further developing my ideas. In the meantime I’m going to finish making the Yidaki I started yesterday, hang out with the kids, light a fire at sunset, learn some more stories and take big sips of small joys.

I’ll write again when I’m in Gapuwiyak.

Last day at Bush School for a while...

Today was my last day at Bush School for 8 months. It feels strange to leave something I feel so connected to. At the same time it feels like leaving is part of my responsibility to the community and the work. Its time to make space for others and return with new things to contribute. I'm grateful to everyone for showering me with love and well wishes and for taking the time to reflect with me on the impact this experience is having on their lives. If you're one of those people and you're reading this I hope you will check in here from time to time. I'll post updates and discoveries, letters and essays. In the meantime, thank you. Through Bush School I've had the great fortune to nurture my own connection to nature, to practice what I preach, to listen to the birds and tell their stories. I've learned to be a guide, a friend, a colleague and a leader. I've shared many moments of wonder and deep connection - which I carry with me and which keep me warm. With love and gratitude, Ranger Dan.

Frame-06-07-2018-05-45-10.jpg

Sound Mapping

During the Trash Orchestra project I was thinking of ways to get students to perceive the world through their ears, to develop their capacity for listening, before they started making musical instruments. From my work in nature education I'd used mapping as a tool for connecting people to their environments, and from my contemporary musician friends I'd seen how graphic scores are used to communicate sound. That's how I got to sound mapping, which is not a new concept - but even old ideas can be found and picked up and looked at for the first time.

Ever since I've been thinking about how to refine the process and apply it in different contexts. Next week I'm heading to Arnhem Land for six months to do some projects with the kids at Gapuwiyak School. The first will be to create a collective sound map of the grounds. And in January I'll be facilitating a sound mapping project as part of the Arquetopia Art Educators Residency in Puebla, Mexico. In the meantime I plan to make a practice of sound mapping and to research related concepts.

So I got myself some recording equipment and I'll be collecting sounds, creating illustrated and poetic impressions of those sounds and collating them according to GPS location. I'll be posting my sound notes on a new blog Notes. Down the track I'd like to explore ways of creating maps with the data. 

IMG_5130.jpg

Trash Update

Earlier this year I completed a project called Trash Orchestra that involved 175 primary school students over six weeks. The kids constructed musical instruments from discarded materials and recorded an album of original music with Australian contemporary artist and vocalist Tina Stefanou and composer Joseph Franklin.

In a poetic twist following the completion of the project, the instruments themselves were then reused by Tina for an artwork entitled Can I Bare Children?. In Tina's words:

"Transported into the exhibition space these childhood relics act as questions marks - playing out narratives of consumption, objects and there relationships to each other, and the question of child rearing in a time of environmental and economic uncertainties. Can we re-design our cultural memory to meet new needs and new economies of being without baring [sic] weight on our shared lived ecology? The objects are not limited to themselves but to space and time. Once a sound is made it is never unmade - it ripples infinitely. Like the materials that form a bigger narrative, the components are orchestrated to decompose at different rates - the child, the rock, the cardboard, the wire - all move with us and beyond us in this living morphology of beingness. Not seeking to resolve or produce, Can I bare children? explores fluctuations and indeterminate factors of being in time as felt through the artist’s ageing female body."
(Stefanou, T (2018), 'Can I Bear Children?', Tina Stefanou, viewed 1 July 2018, http://www.tinastefanou.com/#/new-gallery-3/)

Here's a photo of the installation, which included a 14 minute loop of the original album.

  Can I Bear Children?  2018, found objects, enamel, acrylic paint. various sizes, two channel audio

Can I Bear Children? 2018, found objects, enamel, acrylic paint. various sizes, two channel audio

Street Art Project

This is a summary of an arts project I completed this term (term 2, 2018) at Wenona School as part of Design School (co-curricular creative arts for junior school students).

The project involved two groups of 15 to 18 students over 9 weekly 2 hour workshops. The aim of the project was to explore the world of street art and for the students to express their ideas in tags, paste-ups and murals. It was a rich learning experience with a lot of development potential. In this post I follow a description of the project with some general comments and insights.

What happened...

To begin I showed the students some videos about street art, emphasising its relevance to freedom of expression, breaking out of the gallery and as a mouthpiece for young people. Then each student was given a 'wall', a piece of plywood 600x200 on which to experiment each week with different processes. The idea was that their designs would be layered on top of each other to reflect the way street art builds on itself (a concept called succession).

The processes I introduced included tagging (repeating an alias or phrase in a personal font and style), paste-up (creating works on paper and sticking them onto a wall) and mural (using spray or poster pens to create backgrounds and imagery).

I encouraged students to come up with original concepts that reflected their interests, ideas and messages for others. And along the way I introduced them to concepts such as succession, tag-up (only covering something with something better), scribble (the vandalism end of the street art spectrum) and cross pollination (collaborating or tagging with others).

After 8 weeks the completed walls were photographed and I rendered the images (with artistic direction from the students) onto found photos of actual walls in the world. Conceptually its street art in the digital world, treating found images of walls on the internet as the public spaces on which to make digital street art.

In an unexpected twist around week 6, some students noticed three cubby houses in an area of the school grounds called Woodstock covered with chalk scribble by students in K to 2. Their discovery presented an opportunity for a real world project based extension.

With my help the students measured up the cubbies and designed a series of murals. Then together we submitted a proposal to the school offering to install the murals as a way of addressing the scribble problem and demonstrating to the younger students that "street art isn't scribble and scribble isn't street art". The school approved the proposal and the murals were installed by the students in the final week of term.

All of the walls, photographs and a video presentation will be exhibited at a co-curricular creative arts showcase in term 3.

Some general comments and insights

Street art represents a way of communicating that comes naturally to these kids. Its all about memes, snippets of text and images that express something about themselves or send a message to others. From the idealism and depth of "Love is Who We Are" to the unapologetically insider "Yawn Now" and the popular swath of variations on "Unicorn". The students were able to create a map of their interests and self concepts. They were also able to locate themselves on the maps of their peers by creating transferrable tags or memes to share with others. By the end of the project several students had new nicknames and one had even devised a concept for her own brand of Lemonade, which she plans to give away for free at the exhibition next term (her tag was a Lemon). And the process of 'painting' the images on actual pictures of walls in the internet was a futuristic expression of the street art process that opens up new possibilities for how to inhabit and navigate digital spaces. The popularity of games like Minecraft show how these kids love to construct their worlds in the digital space and they are very good at it. Last year during the Architecture project one student designed her whole building in Minecraft. Suffice to say its difficult to know how to integrate tech into these spaces sometimes but this time at least it felt very natural. I hope to build on this project in the future by distilling what happened into a more streamlined process and use the new space to add elements such as the possibility to travel the digital world in search of walls, the social impact potential of the kids' memes and collaborations with photography for digital street art with older students. There are obvious links to my favourite subject - mapping - which which will no doubt be drawn out in future iterations.

Sharing is Caring

I've told this story a couple of times in the past week and many times since I first encountered the phrase 'sharing is caring' on a preschool playground in 2016. At the time I wrote a blog post titled 'Understanding the Law: Sharing is Caring'. It was a satirical legal commentary that attempted to unpack the problems with practical application of the 'sharing is caring' principle. I've included the original post at the end of this one. In the meantime here is the story I wrote in response to the problem. I also feel it holds particular relevance given that next month I'm heading up to Arnhem Land to volunteer in the remote community of Gapuwiyak. I hope to learn from local art makers and educators up there and contribute to the community by supporting arts education. I'm sure I'll learn a lot more about sharing and exchange over the next 6 months. 

Spider

One day Spider was wandering the bush in search of a web. He was searching because he didn’t have a web of his own. Suddenly he came across a beautiful web between two trees. He crawled up and found that another spider called Leaf Curler was already there. “Excuse me,” he said, “Can I have this web?” Leaf Curler looked confused.
“This is my web,” it said.
Spider responded, “Yeah, but... sharing is caring.”
Leaf Curler was stunned. Sharing was caring. So it gave up its web and moved on.
Spider was happy in his new web. But after a while he became hungry. He didn’t have any food so he went out in search of something to eat. Nearby he found another web with a juicy fly stuck inside. He crawled up and reach for the fly but was stopped suddenly by the web’s owner, a spider called Jumper.
“Hey!” shouted Jumper, “That’s my food!”
“But I’m hungry,” pleaded Spider.
Jumper looked confused, “Well you can’t have my food,” it said.
“But,” said Spider, “Sharing is caring!”
Jumper was stunned. Sharing was caring. So it gave up its fly and moved on.
Spider took the fly to the web he had taken from Leaf Curler. He rested happily and ate his fill. After a while Spider became lonely. He didn’t have anyone to play with so he went out in search of some friends. Nearby he spotted Leaf Curler. He went over and asked, “Hey, want to play with me?”
“No way!” shouted Leaf Curler, “Not after you took my web!”
Disappointed, Spider moved on. He came across Jumper. “Hey Jumper,” he said, “Want to play with me?”
“No way!” shouted Jumper, “Not after you took my food!”
Spider was hurt by this. He was lonely and wanted to play but no one would play with him. Had he done something wrong? Sharing was caring after all. Spider needed some guidance. He decided to visit someone older to ask for help. Because sometimes older people know things we need to know. The oldest spider in the bush was Golden Orb Weaver. Spider told the Orb Weaver about his problem, how he was lonely but no one would play with him. The Orb Weaver listened carefully.
“Spider,” she said eventually, “You did not have a web of your own, so you took one, because sharing is caring. You did not have food of your own, so you took some, because sharing is caring. Now because you have taken these things you are no longer welcome. What you must learn is this. Sharing is caring, but, sharing is giving, not taking.”
Spider was stunned.
He thanked the Orb Weaver and left.
In a nearby tree Spider began to build his own web. It wasn’t easy. It required some skills he didn’t have and he needed some help to learn these skills. But eventually he was able to build a web. Then he waited for some food. It wasn’t easy. It required patience and he wasn’t so patient but eventually he learned and caught some food. Now with a web of his own and food to eat he saw a little spider wandering nearby, hungry and lonely. “Hey,” called Spider, “Would you like to share this food with me?”
The little spider was surprised but gratefully accepted the offer. After sharing the web and eating his fill the little spider asked, “Why did you share this web and your food with me?”
“Well,” replied Spider, “Because sharing is caring. But sharing is giving, not taking."

The End

  Spider,  (from Arthropod series) 5/8, 2017, 20cm x 13cm, ink on card

Spider, (from Arthropod series) 5/8, 2017, 20cm x 13cm, ink on card

 

This is the original post from 2016

Understanding The Law: Sharing is Caring

The Facts

Adam and Jaimee were playing one day in the school playground. Adam was on the swing. Jaimee wanted to go on the swing but there was only one. So she asked Adam, "Can I go on the swing?"
Adam replied, "No."
Jaimee really wanted to go on the swing so she sought the assistance of Ms Simons, the teacher on duty. "Ms Simons, Adam won't let me go on the swing," she said.
"Did you ask nicely?" replied Ms Simons.
"I did," said Jaimee. And so it was.
"Okay, let's go and see what's going on."
And with that Jaimee led Ms Simons to the swing.
"Adam, do you think you might give Jaimee a turn on the swing?" said Ms Simons.
"But I want to go on the swing too," replied Adam.
"But Adam, its important to let others have a turn with the equipment in the playground. Sharing is caring, remember?"
Reluctantly, and after a little more coaxing, Adam agreed to let Jaimee have the swing and he went off to find something else to play. The next day in the playground, Jaimee was on the swing. Adam really wanted to go on the swing, so he went up to Jaimee and said, "Jaimee, can I go on the swing?"
"No." said Jaimee.
"But sharing is caring!" Adam decried.
Alas, Jaimee could not be persuaded. So Adam sought the help of Mr Bell, the teacher on duty that day. "Mr Bell," he said, "Jaimee won't share the swing!"
"Did you ask he nicely?" asked Mr Bell.
"Yes, I did,"
"Well let's go and see what's going on, shall we?"
They walked over to the swing.
"Jaimee, do you think you might like to share the swing with Adam?" said Mr Bell
"But I'm not finished swinging," said Jaimee.
Adam cried, "Sharing is caring, Jaimee!"
"That's true," said Mr Bell, "Sharing is caring, Jaimee, and its important to care for our friends here at school. How about you let Adam have a turn on the swing?"
Reluctantly, and after a little coaxing, Jaimee agreed to share the swing with Adam. A few days later, in the classroom, Adam noticed one of the other children drawing with a most wonderful pen. It was adorned with feathers and from its end the ink ran all the colours of the rainbow. Adam liked drawing, and rainbows, so he decided to have a turn with the pen. He went up to the child who was using it as said, "Can I use that pen?"
"No, its mine from home," said the child.
"But sharing is caring," responded Adam.
And so it went. Adam noticed things he liked and wanted and went about acquiring them by way of the Law, Sharing is Caring. For Adam, this Law meant he was able to get what he wanted from others, for they were obliged to care for his wants and desires. For Adam, sharing meant taking from others what he wanted.

Legal Commentary

Intuitively this represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the principle of Sharing is Caring. Yet the intentions of the teachers in attempting to apply the Law were sound. So what went wrong? How did sharing come to mean taking?

One way to better understand how it happened is to consider on whom falls the burden of proof. In the case of Adam and Jaimee, it was for the one without the swing to prove that the one with the swing was not sharing. Thus sharing becomes a course of action available only to the one without. However, it is the one with who is ultimately the sharer, the person responsible for performing the act of sharing. So there exists a fundamental separation between the desire for action and the will to act. The former is linked to wanting what the other has, and the latter is imposed on the one who has it rather than arising from his or her own volition.

The solution is simple. It requires a shift in perspective and a corresponding amendment to the Law. The phrase 'Sharing is Caring' fails to capture the essence of what is involved in both sharing and caring. In practice this Law defines sharing as taking and caring as acquiescence. But what if the terms were redefined? 

Consider the following: Sharing is GIVING not TAKING.

Teaching Sharing is Giving not Taking (Creative Arts Workshop)

In groups of 7 children,
Each child is given a paintbrush or crayon of a different colour (one of seven colours),
Each child is also given a blank piece of black or white card.
Seated in a circle the children are told the following story:

A long time ago there were no colours. Everything was black or white. It was peaceful but also a little boring. One day a group of children were sitting in a circle and their teacher gave them each their own special colour. The child with yellow was only only one who could give yellow to the black and white worlds. The child with blue was the only one who could give blue to the black and white worlds. At first the children began making colour marks in their own worlds with their own colours.

Allow some time for the children to draw with their own colours on their own pieces of card. After a while return to the circle and continue the story.

Now there was some colour in the worlds of the children. But each child only had one colour. The child with yellow noticed that the child with blue might want some yellow in her world, so she went over and offered him some yellow for his world.

Get the corresponding children to act out this part of the story, using the words, 'would you like some ______ in your world?'.

The child with red noticed that the child with green might want some red in her world...

Again, have the children act out this part of the story. Then allow some time for the children to go around offering their colour to others. And so on.

At the end of the activity collect all of the worlds and display them on one board. Return to it from time to time to retell the story of the children who gave colour to the world.

Turtle

This past week I've been telling a story about turtles. Its inspired by a Native American motif I came across that relates the pieces of the turtle's shell to the twenty eight days of the month and explains their occurrence by a fall from grace. I wove in some seasonal themes and the concept of hibernation. At bush school we usually follow this story with some clay and invite the kids to make little turtles. They can draw shell designs in the clay with sticks and then make hibernariums for their turtles to rest in. We also play predator/prey type games in which the kids have to embody turtles looking for food, when the hungry eagle swoops in the kids have to curl up into their shells or else get eaten by the predator.

 Turtle, 2018, ink on paper, 20cm x 15cm

Turtle, 2018, ink on paper, 20cm x 15cm

Long ago turtle's shell was smooth as stone. Like today he lived in small ponds and swam around in search of food. It was summer and there was plenty to eat. Turtle would swim around looking for insects and crustaceans. Occasionally he would poke his long neck out of the water and take a look around. On one such occasion turtle noticed that some of the trees were losing their leaves, it was windy and the air was growing cold. There were less insects and crustaceans about. Winter was coming and soon there would be no food to eat. In the distance Turtle saw Heron, a large bird with long legs, preparing to fly north with the sun. Turtle approached Heron and asked if he could accompany her on her journey. But how would she carry him? She asked. Turtle had an idea. He fetched a stick and asked Heron to hold it between her feet. Turtle gripped the stick with his front claws and held on tight. Okay, he said, I'm ready. So Heron flapped her wings and took off into the air. Higher and higher she went, all the while Turtle held tight to the stick. When they were quite high Turtle looked down. He'd never been so high up before and was shocked by the bird's eye view! So shocked in fact that in his surprise he let go of the stick and began falling to the ground. His heavy shell hit the ground with a loud crack, splitting into many pieces. Heron flew down after him. When she landed she found Turtle in a great deal of pain. He was too injured to fly and would have to remain in the pond while his shell healed. So Heron helped Turtle find a safe place in the pond to rest. She soothed him until he fell into a deep sleep. Turtle slept so long that when finally he woke the sun had returned and it was spring. Turtle's shell had completely healed. Every crack was now a scar. Together they made a beautiful pattern.

So it is that every winter Turtle recalls his misadventure and chooses to rest cosily in his shell, recover his energy and emerge just in time for spring.

Word from the Fronts

Its a windy time. The freshwater eels are waiting for enough rain to fall so they might begin their migration, the turtles are searching for shelters secluded enough to be suitable for hibernation, and both are finding their tasks tougher than usual given the frantic urban environments that seem to have snuck up on them in the night. I'm feeling the call to migrate and to hibernate somewhat simultaneously.

On the Street Art front, the project is in full swing. In week one the kids came up with personal tags and designed graphic fonts on their 'walls' using posca pens. We watched videos about street art and had some good conversations about why people take to painting things on public surfaces. One reason that came up was that art is generally only accessible to people who can go to galleries and then its up to the galleries to decide what's worth seeing and what isn't. So there's a rebelliousness to street art and a freedom which the kids resonated with. At the same time we spoke about the difference between street art and scribble. Its not about vandalism, its about communication. These kinds of conversations arose informally during the process of 'making graffiti' on small pieces of plywood. In week two I handed out spray cans. The kids loved it. I later found out that even with masks, its technically out of bounds to let kids use spray paint. So it was a case of forgiveness rather than permission. The next week I told the kids that we couldn't spray paint anymore. The whole thing was really cool because without really meaning to, we had broken the rules, which complimented the theme of the project really well. Next, in week three, I got out some 80gsm paper and sharpies and we made paste-up stickers to go on the 'walls'. They turned out great and the kids are really connected with their work. This week came another unexpected turn. In the K to 2 playground there are these three wooden cubby houses. They are riddled with chalk scribbles and look pretty awful. So I took the street art crew down there and we measured up the cubbies and they came up with mural designs for them. Then I had the idea to prepare a proposal on behalf of the kids and send it to the school requesting permission to paint the murals on the cubbies in response to the problem of the scribble. Its very real world in terms of process. One of the kids even suggested we submit a selection of works and invite the K to 2 students to decide which one gets the commission. So next week I'll prepare the presentation with them. I'll post a copy here too.

On the bush school front I've been exploring symbolic language using a scavenger hunt type game where each kid gets a scroll on which is drawn a set of symbols. Each symbol refers to something he or she has to find to complete the challenge. Some examples include 'something yellow, something wet, something spikey, something beautiful, something warm etc.' Its a great process because the kids pick it up really quick and very soon they can read and remember the symbols. I know that because a week later when I did the same activity with one of kids, I only kept one of the symbols the same, and she remembered what it meant. Basically in this activity the kids are reading. Reading language and also reading landscape as made up of language. There is so much to explore here in terms of mapping but I'll save that for another post in which I plan talk in more depth about mapping processes and nature connection.

On the didge front I'm excited to say that I've confirmed a trip to Arnhem Land to participate in the Rripangu Masterclass with Djalu Gurriwiwi. I'll be heading up there in July to spend a week with Djalu and his family, make a didge and learn with him. Afterwards I'm planning to spend some time in the area working with kids as part of a placement for my Art Therapy qualification. Its going to be an adventure, and a break from the work I've been doing with bush school and design school. The process of making this decision has been a source of a lot of learning for me. I've been thinking a lot about indecision and dissatisfaction, so expect a story with that theme soon.

A Story about Resilience

This story was inspired by two encounters. The first was with a comment by Dr Jordan Peterson, he said during one of his lectures, "You are the last in an unbroken string of successful reproducers going back three and a half billion years." Those words struck me to my core. The second was an encounter with the parent of a child who was suffering from attacks of anxiety. I see this a lot and I suffer from anxiety myself from time to time. Its really hard. There are lots of people out there developing tools to help. Some of them might even work. But at the same time, like all technology, tools come and go, not everyone can access the same ones and its important not to mistake the tools for the solutions. I think the actual solution has more to do with accessing the quality of human beings that for thousands of years has given rise to tools. We are resourceful and resilient by nature. We have to be. But we forget. And it helps to be reminded. And the best way to be reminded is for someone or something to hold a mirror to that part of ourselves which is the last in an unbroken string of successful reproducers going back three and half billion years.

So, with that in mind I wrote this story...

Once the sun and the earth made a seed. The rain watered the seed and it sprouted two leaves, then a stem and then two branches. The sun and earth watched the seed become a little plant. One day the plant woke up. It looked down and got such a fright! Oh no it thought, I am so far from the ground, what if I were to fall? The plant was very worried. So worried that it stopped growing altogether. The sun and the earth were worried too, for they watched the plant refuse to grow. So they sent the wind to help the plant. The wind listened to the plants worries and suggested that perhaps the plant would be better off as a bird, for birds can fly and so there would be no chance of falling over. The plant agreed and so the wind transformed it into a bird. The bird flew a great distance until it came to a large forest. The forest was full of enormous trees. The bird was amazed by the trees. It landed on a branch high in the canopy. Oh dear said the bird aloud to the tree, you must be terrified! The tree responded to the bird in a low and gentle voice. Dear bird, it said, how old do you think I am? Maybe three? Said the bird. And how old do you think trees are? The bird was confused, what do you mean? Well, said the tree, I may be three but I am a tree and trees are 300 million years old. And for all that time we’ve been learning to stand without falling, and all that we’ve learned is inside every one of us. So you see dear bird, it is my nature to remain standing. The bird was amazed. It thanked the tree and flew back to its home. When it arrived the wind was waiting. It asked the bird how things were going now that it could fly. The bird replied that things were great but would the wind please transform it into a tree? They’ve been learning to stand for 300 million years!

 Resilience, 2018, ink on paper, 18cm x 14cm

Resilience, 2018, ink on paper, 18cm x 14cm

First Post

I decided to make the homepage of this website into a blog. Here goes.

I'm heading somewhere. I'm not sure where that somewhere is but I'm making my way. And I'm taking notes about interesting encounters and discoveries as I go. Every now and then I look over my notes to see where I've been or maybe to remember something I've forgotten, because I so easily forget. I think one day I'll forget everything. For now though, these are some of the things I'm working on.

  • I'm learning to play the didgeridoo. I started midway through last year because in 2016 some friends introduced me to music by a man named Simon Barker. He's a drummer and a sage in music education, particularly with regard to rhythm. He teaches his students how to teach rhythm to their bodies and how to know rhythm in their bodies. I know this because one of my friends is a student of his and so I'm learning through the grapevine. At the moment I'm practicing playing in 5s and 7s. Anyway I was so inspired by his approach that I wanted to play an instrument and the didge seemed a natural choice.
  • I'm doing a street art project with two groups of kids at Wenona School. I've been working with the kids there for a few years now on various art projects. This one is really exciting me. The plan is for the kids to learn different forms of street art in the context of free expression. I'm documenting the journey and I'll post more about it after the next workshop on Tuesday.
  • I'm keeping a graphic diary and drawing or painting for an hour every day.
  • I'm writing a secret blog.
  • I'm hoping to go overseas soon and I've applied for a few residencies that might make for a wonderful adventure, so in that regard my fingers are crossed.
  • Here in Sydney I recently moved into a new house with a small garden out the back so I'm planning to set up some space out there tomorrow, which will be an opportunity to take 'before' and 'after' photos and also to spend time making space, which is one of my favourite things to do.
  • I'm leading a bush school project at Centennial Park. Groups of 20 or so children aged 2.5 to 5 come with a parent to an enchanted area of the park set aside for native bush regeneration. The project runs two days a week for whole terms at a time. Our aim is to build a community around nature connection. Its a beautiful thing and rich with learning about children, parenting, connection, community and nature. I'm also co-leading a similar program for home schooled children aged 5 to 12. They come with a parent once a week for a more advanced program.

So these are the things I hope to keep track of with this blog. No doubt other encounters and discoveries will surface, but for now this is enough to remember.

And here are some photos by way of illustration.

Trash Orchestra

I'm stoked to have completed this project at Nicholson Street Public School in Balmain, Sydney as part of their Artist in Residency program for 2018. Over 6 weeks I set about constructing musical instruments out of discarded materials with all 175 students at the school. Then together with Tina Stefanou (vocalist) and Joseph Franklin (composer) we recorded an album of original music.

The project was an opportunity to bring together everything I had been developing as an educator up to that point. I integrated nature connection practices, storytelling, games, process driven art making and arts education to guide the project towards open ends. Wherever possible I drew on the approaches of innovative contemporary art makers to bring the edge into the school. And I documented everything in a project journal. The feedback from teachers, parents and students was fantastic, especially from those teachers who found it difficult to go along with the open ended nature of the project but by the end felt they had benefitted personally from the challenge.

Moving forward I see with renewed clarity and creativity the potential for this kind of project based art making with children and I have some new ideas about how projects can align with social good. I'm taking what I learned into my next project, Street Art at Wenona School.

In the meantime here is the album, Elementary, inspired by the elements. And check out the project journal.

Cadence 100bpm

Words spoken with cadence imprint themselves on the heart. Part practise, part meditation, this video explores that idea, particularly as it relates to spoken words. Instructions: Say the poem aloud in time with the metronome.

The poem is called The Unattended Lover

Cadence 100bpm, 2018, scrolling text with metronome, 2m51s

Return

Its an honour to share this video, produced by Dani Fine from We The Tender Hearted with music by Jordan Wainer. Dani and I spent some time in the paperbark forest when she visited from the US in December. I had the opportunity to share what goes on there and some of my process as an educator and storyteller. The full interview is available on the We The Tender Hearted website.