FIELDWORKING | Hobart: Battery Point, MONA FOMA, GASP! & Port Arthur

Posted on 28/10/2013

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This walk is comprised of several walks and forays. Earlier this year, John and I ventured to Hobart for MONA FOMA. My intention when we head off was to document the experience of MONA FOMA for Fieldworking and to explore my experience of the festival as fieldwork and public art. However, as with most explorations, new paths and possibilities emerged, following a heritage walk at Battery Point and various MONA FOMA events, including an installation at the Glenorchy Art & Sculpture Park (GASP!), and Port Arthur.

Our stay was coloured by the fire emergency that had gripped the state the week prior to our arrival. As we drove out of the city, fires burned. Smoke billowed in the distance and the charred remains of towns and forests still smouldered. The smell of smoke lingered as we drove out to the haunted landscape of Port Arthur. The sight of Dunalley and its people still processing the extent of the damage was unbearable. Twice this year we have found ourselves in the midst of disaster impacted zones. In Hobart, stories were told as disaster response mounted and someone tells me that, on the Tasman Peninsula, flames leapt a two kilometre strait on high velocity winds. Stories of survivors who just barely outran the rampant flames to seek refuge in the sea. John and I drive through that country after the threat was downgraded. Unable to find a suitable opportunity to volunteer to contribute to the disaster response, we ventured out, appreciating the importance of tourism to regional economies that are rebuilding.

In Hobart, our historic hotel was located on the waterfront and from there we would emerge daily to wander down the street to Princes Wharf where most of the program was presented. The city seemed unaffected by the fires, though MONA FOMA responded to the emergency with a benefit event to raise funds for the devastated communities and assist with relief and rebuilding. Having been nestled in the cool comfort of the bayside city, where the festival pulsed in an auditory world of experiment and hope, we were ill prepared for the scenes of devastation that remained in the wake of the voracious fires.

In the tiny town of Dunalley, charred chimney stacks stood upright amid the cindered remains of homes along the highway. People walked through the blackened and ashen landscape, sometimes talking to others, sometimes alone. Sifting through rubble in some vain hope that something might be salvaged. The sullen quiet was punctuated by the machinic and vehicular sounds of rebuilding. Trucks sharply beeping as they reversed. Electricity wires being redrawn. Roads being cleared. It was deeply moving, even challenging – as we drove by the emergency centre, with its orderly temporary village of tents and cars, we wept. Driving by a group of volunteer firefighters parked at a roadhouse, their exhaustion was palpable. Smoke continued to plume on the mountain slopes further afield. The vast tracts of burned bushland were bereft, with no birds or other signs of life. There’s always silence after disaster strikes. The silence engulfs, like the roar of the disaster itself.

A while ago, when I was bike riding, a grass fire broke out; it quickly scampered along the bike path and into the dry wetlands. I was intrigued by the sound, by how hot and smoky it became in such a brief time, by how loud it became as it sparked from gently crackling to exploding combustion. Australia’s notoriously extensive bushfires are inflamed by rambling winds, dry conditions and eucalypt bushlands. Their roar must be deafening, audible for kilometres.

Like my earlier post, the writing is yet to happen. Unfortunately, some of my photographs have ‘gone missing’ (perhaps accidentally deleted) and a friend now resident in Hobart, Alan Ward, kindly reshot the panoramas and brought a different eye and sensibility into the viewing, walking and writing. The following photographs were shot during our visit to Hobart, not sequentially. The series starts with a photograph from the interior courtyard of some waterfront warehouses – near the art school where he once lectured – now renovated and repurposed. John explained that he was commissioned to develop a public artwork for the site by the Tasmanian Fisheries Commission in 1976. The work is no longer on the site but he was very surprised to find this remnant of it in a courtyard. The work included a piece of convict cut sandstone which was chained to a trolley that was used to move baskets of fruit through the jam factory. The elements of the installation were scavenged from the IXL Jam Factory and make reference to multiple historical events and ruptures. The project sounded beautifully industrial with elements like anchors, ladders and old machinery as the carriers of stories and histories. A series of 20 copper plaques were engraved with stories – tall tales and true – recounted by factory workers. The stories were about the events of the town and the waterfront as seen through their eyes. This small remnant is now clustered with other historic martime detritus in the courtyard.

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Battery Point Historic Walk

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Photograph: Alan Ward, November 2013

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Photograph: Alan Ward, November 2013

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MONA FOMA

In Tim Ingold’s essay ‘Against Soundscape’, he argues that sound can be compared to light. It is experiential – not an ‘object of perception’. Written as a response to R. Murray Schafer’s seminal work on soundscape, Ingold described sound as an envelop and a medium. This notion of experiencing sound was at play during MONA FOMA (Festival of Music and Art). In particular installation works by Robin Fox, Susan Phillipz, and Vicky Browne and Darren Seltmann enabled very different auditory and compositional experiences that positioned the listener ‘in sound’. Ingold argues that sound is “not the object but the medium of our perception. lt is what we hear in.” There are intensities and affinities at play in this approach to sound.

The listener, according to Tim Ingold, is positioned ‘in sound’. This experience of being ‘in sound’ problematises soundscape recognising that, like the viewer who beholds landscape, the listener is positioned outside soundscape. Reflecting on several installation works presented MONA FOMA (Festival of Music and Art), this text will consider works by Susan Philipsz, Robin Fox, and Vicky Browne and Darren Seltmann in terms of ‘hearing in sound’. According to Walter Ong, “Sight isolates, sound incorporates” in that auditory worlds are enveloping and immersive.

Robin Fox’s Giant Theremin was installed in the forecourt of the MONA FOMA venue, Princes Wharf on Hobart’s once industrial waterfront. Standing at seven metres, the Giant Theremin is sculptural and material in the form of a pyramid made of oxidised steel with a long mast protruding from the tip on which sensors were mounted. As a musical instrument, with a somewhat industrial aesthetic, it is played by movement around it. Play multiplies through wordplay: playing an instrument playfully. As interaction triggers diverse sounds, strangely reminiscent of other sounds like whale song and electronic pulses, there is a concomitant change in the surrounds and the people who use it. In a joyous feedback loop, laughter among its users is one of the sounds that the theremin is most adept at generating. As people dance, step and jump around it, sometimes trying to sneak up on it, the calls of the Giant Theremin ululates through and around the waterfront, distinct yet interlaced with the sounds of traffic and shipping. For those accustomed to the auditory environment of the waterfront, there is something new and strange here, a calling out or announcement of difference.

On the mezzanine level of Princes Wharf, Vicky Browne and Darren Seltmann’s Synchronic Lines provides a distinct experience of enclosure. Geometric sound pods enclose listeners in a unique and intimate auditory space of their own making. Users can shape the auditory space using a console to alter pitch and tempo of electronic sounds. Stepping out of the larger space of the wharf into these cocoons of sound is like stepping into an ‘other’ inner world of nuance. Without the cocoons, as small architectures, the sound of Synchronic Lines would dissipate and the listener would be straining to find them among the rattling cacophonies of the cavernous warehouse structure. When in the darkness of the pods, the listener is immersed in sound. Through their reliance on instrumentation, sculpture or architecture, Ong’s divide of “Sight isolates, sound incorporates” becomes apparent. Occupying the pod or playing the theremin is not incorporation.

At Glenorchy, out of town on the way to MONA, an arts sculpture park has recently been opened on a stretch of regenerated waterfront. Susan Philipsz’ The Waters Twine is the first commission at GASP! Based on a 1929 recording of James Joyce reading Finegan’s Wake, the strains of the multichannel work drift along a recently built boardwalk that spans the bay, emphasising its tidal flows. Composer Hazel Felman set the Joyce recording to music being guided by the pitch of his voice. This sonification of the spoken word and poetic language results in a gentle motion of watery sound that merges with the surrounding speed and hum of traffic from the nearby highway and the lapping of water in this littoral zone. The large black swans seem lulled by it as they flock and rest on the glassy waters within earshot of the speakers. As footsteps cut their own tempo along the boardwalk the listener is more aware of their presence. The listener is welcomed into the fold of listening openly and carefully: to be present and to experience sound in its plurality.

The auditory worlds created by each of these installations merges and disrupts with other auditory worlds, and the listener not only explores their listening in sound, but sound within sound. This becomes more acute as sound based works are introduced into spaces and places in way that alter them, as well as encourage other ways of interacting with and experiencing those spaces and places.

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Princes Wharf

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Plaza, Princes Wharf
Giant Theremin, Robin Fox

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Synchronic lines, Vicky Brown & Darren Seltmann

GASP!

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Boardwalk, site of The Waters Twine, Susan Philipsz

Port Arthur

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Ship Sculpture, Ben Booth and Colin Langridge

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