The necessity of ‘awkward silence’

Kim V. Goldsmith, Gated sunrise (still image)
Kim V. Goldsmith Work in Progress detail, 2021
Detail of a work in progress from the Pulse of the Wetland project, 2021

The vision of ecoPULSE is to create a safe space to talk, share, think and plan a future that’s inclusive of all of us, human and more-than-human.

ecoPULSE has an ambitious mission – Exploring regional futures through enquiry, creativity + connections. Creativity is fed by enquiry and connections help extend the ideas and conversations that evolve from that creativity. But for me, it always comes back to the creativity. Art has a power to cut through where other forms of communication can’t.

I’ve had some fantastic conversations with scientists recently, who understand – or at least they tell me they understand what it is I’m trying to achieve through ecoPULSE and the projects in the Macquarie Marshes and Lachlan River catchment. As encouraging as that is, it’s only when the enquiring output of scientists comes together with creative applications that I believe we have any chance of creating alternative perspectives to consider – perspectives that may be far more inclusive than those we’re currently debating.

The vision of ecoPULSE is to create a safe space to talk, share, think and plan a future that’s inclusive of all of us, human and more-than-human. Our ecologies and our futures are intertwined in a multi-species world where we’re reliant upon each other. The issues are nuanced, layered and complex – there are no easy answers and to borrow an idea from US-based provocateur and academic, Donna Haraway, we must stay with the trouble. As an artist working in the environment, I’ve noticed a void where some voices aren’t heard in the debate about what should be conserved, preserved, compromised or sacrificed; voices that are muted, marginalised, lost in the loud emotions, or simply not understood.

I often talk about the use of field recorded sound as a powerful way of revealing hidden elements of the landscapes I work within, be it the gurgle and vibrations inside a thick, gnarly, old coolabah, or the fizz and pop of water wort photosynthesing underwater in the afternoon sun. I’ve captured the glooping suck of mud around the roots of wetland plants, the angry attack of meat ants on a foreign body in their nest on the floodplain, and the singing vibrations of high tensile wire carving up public and private property across the country. What I’m really doing with those recordings is giving a voice to these elements of the natural world and the territories they inhabit.

Kim V. Goldsmith, Gated sunrise (Pulse of the Wetland series), multitrack sound mix, 2021

The use of underwater cameras in running streams within the reed beds of the Macquarie Marshes, small fish bumping and sweeping past the lens, or within a writhing mass of European carp choking the shallow channels at the end of the Great Cumbung Swamp, bring another perspective to a world we rarely think about, little less visit. We only see what exists within a human field of view range or personal experience.

Kim V. Goldsmith video still from underwater camera in the reed beds of the Macquarie Marshes, February 2021
Underwater footage (video still) from a fast running stream in the reed beds of the Macquarie Marshes, February 2021

These sounds and moving images tell a story; stories that are just as important as those shared with me by humans inhabiting these landscapes. One of the best known of these types of ‘natural world’ stories are David Attenborough’s documentaries, created using the latest digital technology and with huge budgets. But you don’t need a film crew and a screen to access them for yourself, they’re on offer to anyone who chooses to lean in and be attentive. It’s about listening – actively, deeply, beyond your own breath.

Haraway’s book Staying with the Trouble explores more hopeful ideas for existing in the world today that aren’t centred on anthropocentric or capitalocentric concepts. She suggests, revolt needs other forms of action and other stories for solace, inspiration, and effectiveness. Haraway believes storytelling is essential to the practice of thinking and essential to the stuff of living: It matters what thoughts think thoughts; it matters what stories tell stories. 

Today’s stories about the natural world revolve around the values we attach to the environments we live within, the triple bottom line of productivity economics, social or cultural values, and biodiversity. They’re no longer enough – if they ever were. The currency of these values continues to be debased.

If our multi-dimensional, multi-layered and connected ecologies are to have a future, we need a new language for and process of valuing the natural world, beyond the metric – where fat ducks of the wetland are not tied to the production of fat cattle.

In her recent book Summertime: reflections on a vanishing future, Australian academic Danielle Celermajer, taps into the idea of alternative values, querying the perceived value of the land she was looking to buy, posing some important questions in the process.

Within the world of the real estate market land is worth as much as people are willing to pay for it; its value is an entirely comparative and competitive artefact. But what about the value of the life this place could open up for us and the others (human and other-than-human) with whom we could share this life? What about the land’s intrinsic value, one that cannot be tagged against any currency or measure by any metric, one that does not change over time because it has no quantity? What about its value understood as the life, presence and relationship of all beings that make the place what it is: the rainforest, the animals, the river, the shifting light on the escarpments? And what about the value and meaning this place once had (and still has) for the Aboriginal peoples for whom it was and is Country? What of the thick relationship between traditional custodians and place which we – the settler colonial society – have decimated, leaving nothing but the name of the river, recalling an Aboriginal man we killed?

Danielle Celermajer, Summertime: reflections on a vanishing future

My formative years of tertiary education were in the study of systems agriculture at Hawkesbury Agricultural College(HAC). Barely 18 years of age and from a conservative multi-generational farming family where only male heirs inherit farms, I was keen to understand and experience a new way of thinking about agriculture. My interest at the time was beef cattle genetics and marketing.

Systems thinking in the Applied Science degree I studied at Hawkesbury was about understanding and dealing with real-world problems through the study of frameworks, patterns, cycles, and interconnectedness. It was project-based, methodology-orientated learning in the field with a key competency being our ability to effectively communicate processes and outcomes. In the 30+ years since I left Hawkesbury, I’ve come to see its profound influence on my arts practice, not something I’m sure the Faculty of Agriculture ever intended.

In my weekend travels, I was listening to ABC Radio National’s The Minefield and a discussion about the neglected practice of attentiveness, with reference to French philosopher, Simone Weil. I love these conversations for their expansiveness, not providing answers but exploring possibilities. US philosopher, Rebecca Rozelle-Stone talked about the work of Simone Weil on attentiveness, the idea being it’s not just the time spent on something, but giving it space, and not expecting immediate answers – the ‘awkward silence’ many of us are conditioned to ‘fill’. Rozelle-Stone referenced the origins of attentiveness coming from attendere – to stretch toward, implying tension. Tension that can come from trying to over-ride the tendency of personal ego to project, to reply, to tell someone else’s story before they’re ready. 

She explains this further in a recent opinion piece for the ABC:

If we refuse to see the world as it is (or other persons as they are), then we cannot respond appropriately, honestly, or with true compassion. That is, when we are inattentive or distracted, or when we project pleasant (but distorted) illusions in place of real beings or situations, then our energies are really in service to our own desires — our egos.

Rebecca Rozelle-Stone, April 2021
Kim V. Goldsmith, photograph of a red gum leaf stain on concrete boardwalk, Burrima, February 2021
River Red Gum leaf stain on the concrete boardwalk following summer rain, Burrima, February 2021

So, as I come to a point in my work on Pulse of the Wetland and the impending deadlines for its inclusion in the international Mosses + Marshes project, I need to sit with these ideas of multilayered ecological systems, stories of solace and hope, systems thinking and the real meaning of attentiveness, as well as the many other threads of ideas that have surfaced over the past two years. The process of enquiring, documenting, recording, dissecting, exploring and creating is a messy one, there are many tensions, but like the practice of any craft, it takes time to reach a point of satisfying resolution. The stories given up to me by the Marshes will reveal themselves in good time, no doubt with a good dose of ‘awkward silence’.

Keep in touch with the progress of ecoPULSE projects via the monthly/bi-monthly ecoBYTE e-news for coming events, or check into our Events page.

Published by Goldsmith's Studio

Digital media artist, creative content producer & instigator of ART e-Parties.

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