Creating multiple points of connection to our backyard environments
Kim V. Goldsmith, lead artist and Inhalare project coordinator
During 2021’s COVID lockdowns and periods of self-imposed isolation, I walked my back paddock several times each week, often photographing or videoing these walks on my phone. Sometimes I made sound recordings with a binaural headset.
The area I traversed is encased by my garden fence to the south, and rusty barbed wire and ring lock fences shared with neighbours to the north, east and west—patched and pocked with kangaroo holes. It’s about 10 hectares (or 25 acres). Having lived here for 13 years, I thought I knew it well. When thousands of kilometres away on the other side of the world as I was in 2019 (pre-COVID), I can visualise it in fine detail—the cool, dark tree-lined gully, ducks swimming on the dam, thickets of lichen and moss-covered cypress pine, giant black-red ironbarks oozing sap and scrubby wattles, the high, exposed quartz-jewelled ridge where the kangaroos camp, and open, grassy woodlands with giant box trees.
The sounds that are part of this small parcel of land are the sounds of home for me, as my home and garden are part of this landscape. They include the song of dozens of woodland bird species, frog song after rain, crickets, the rustle of a breeze through the grass, wind in the tops of the trees, overhead planes coming into land north of us, the neighbours’ barking dogs, crowing roosters, screaming children, revving engines, thumping bass, leaf blowers, and lawn-mowers—all part of life on the peri-urban fringe.
Always looking for projects that excite me and keen to create an opportunity that would connect me with Australian artists whose work I respect and admire, I started thinking about a way of allowing these backyard environments to be further explored, peeling back their layers to discover or rediscover new or hidden elements such as the subterranean sounds I’m so fascinated by, in turn, reconnecting with these places that sustain us during times of restricted movement with a renewed appreciation.
My thoughts initially swirled around just the sounds of these environments, but the challenge of writing in a new, succinct way where each word carried weight, and challenging artists to respond to these sounds and words without being able to visit the places that evoked them, became an intriguing prospect. So, the idea became multi-staged.
Transforming familiar landscapes into unfamiliar territories
Approaches to the first group of artists were made in early August 2021. Only one artist on my list said they were too busy, everyone else was excited to see where this would go.
It was a leap of good faith on the back of a proposal that documented some ‘loose’ ideas under the title of Inhalare, the Latin word for ‘to breathe upon’, more often used by singers using a technique called inhalare la voce or inalare – to ‘inhale the voice’. The idea of breathing upon places in our backyards seemed appropriate for the times.
The six artists who ‘signed up’ were given a brief with ideas about the colonising use of language and its inadequacies to communicate experience and express communion with the more-than-human world. I added ideas of deconstructing language, humanising the natural world, and reconstructing familiar territories in new ways. I referenced the writings of Charles Foster, Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing, and Lesley Head, and invited each artist to produce works that allow others to hear, feel, and taste these places. Nothing too challenging.
Following a successful grant application for COVID money put up by Create NSW in the second half of 2021, by mid-December 2021 I had six edited soundscapes and short text works of 150 words or less. This was just the first stage. Our text editor was Dr Liz Charpleix, who I’d worked with on the Mosses and Marshes book.
The Stage One artists are Andrew Hull (Bourke/Mildura), Danja Derkenne (Little Forest), Dr Greg Pritchard (Wagga Wagga), Anna Glynn (Jaspers Brush), Jason Richardson (Leeton), and me, Kim V. Goldsmith (Dubbo).
The challenge of creating multiple points of connection
The six soundscapes and writings covered a vast range of natural environments across New South Wales from the rainforests of the South Coast to a national park near Bourke in Western NSW, the Marrambidya/ Murrumbidgee River near Wagga Wagga and wetlands near Leeton in the Riverina, to the Callitris glaucophylla (white cypress pine) thicket of my back paddock near Dubbo in the Central West.
With the support of NSW regional arts organisation, Orana Arts, we hosted an online roundtable event in mid-December so the Stage One Inhalare artists could talk about their work and environments. It was the first time they had come together. It was also where the Stage Two artists were named and introduced. These were the artists who would be responding ‘blindly’ to the soundscapes and text works, creating an A4 sized work about the site without being able to experience it for themselves. Thankfully, all six of the visual artists on my list for Stage Two had responded with a resounding yes to my project pitch.
Listen to the Inhalare artists in conversation on SoundCloud
The second stage of the project kicked off at the start of February 2022. This part has been much harder to fund, as it falls between funding rounds and is the start of a new year that is just warming up. I’ve been running a crowdfunding campaign for Inhalare through the Australian Cultural Fund (as part of a year-long ecoPULSE campaign), but we haven’t quite made $1,000—about $2,000 short of what is needed to pay the artists. This is where artist/ project managers dig deep, investing heavily in the projects we initiate. Most of the artists have been prepared to produce work without the fee, but that’s not equitable or fair.
It’s now the end of February—the first month of a two-month creation period now over. The visual artists are at different stages of developing their responses. As I did with the Stage One group, I check in every two to three weeks to see how everyone is progressing, and update them on plans for the project. One artist has already completed her work—a stunning response to a stunning soundscape and text. Others are still working through ideas. Like the Stage One artists who were challenged by the possibilities and complexities of their chosen environment, or the much remarked upon word count restriction, the visual artists are being challenged in different ways. There’s excitement, but there’s also the weight of expectation of dealing with the work of another creative and a responsibility to the environment we’re creatively exploring.
This period of contemplation prompts a deeper connection with and appreciation of the layers within natural environments that invite us to draw closer, to listen more carefully, choose our descriptions more wisely, to engage our imaginations, emotions and senses. These works are as much for the more-than-human worlds we’re celebrating as they are for our human audience. To do any of this successfully, we need multiple points of connection.
The Stage Two artists are: Vicki Luke (Table Top), Libby Wakefield (Southern Highlands), Dr Carol Archer (Bulahdelah), Clementine Belle McIntosh (Gilgandra), Edgar Alvarez (Coonabarabran) and Amanda Thomas (Lake Macquarie).
Art and the environment are for everyone
Stage Three of Inhalare is about presenting the sound, text and visual works. One of the elements added to the project early on was the idea of making the artworks as accessible as possible to everyone, regardless of age or ability. It goes back to the idea of multiple points of connection. We’ve included audio recordings of the text works, audio descriptions of the visual works, and a range of accessibility elements are being planned for the website to digitally support the exhibition in its physical space.
With the possibility of a grant to help promote and develop the accessibility elements, all 12 artists committed to a show at SPACE Gallery in Coonabarabran for mid-May 2022. This will be the first time all the works come together, allowing for not only multiple points of connection to the environments at the heart of the project, but multiple points of access to them.
SPACE Gallery is run as a not-for-project social enterprise space in a town that’s the gateway to some of the State’s most beautiful and interesting natural environments—the Warrumbungle Mountains and Pilliga Forest. It’s run by its founding director, Allison Reynolds, an artist and passionate arts accessibility advocate who is also part of an artist-run initiative in Coonabarabran for artists with disabilities. Her guidance and support are going to be critical to getting this point of connection right.
The hope is that once we see how the elements work together, we can take it one step further with the sound artists/writers and visual artists collaborating to develop more expansive, immersive, multi-faceted creations for bigger gallery spaces, maintaining the accessibility elements that allow for a more inclusive and memorable creative experience for all.
What’s the end game?
Initially, this was an excuse to work with artists I’ve long wanted to work with. Making art in regional Australia can be isolating and connections with like minds is critically important to my practice. Inhalare has also more than met the ecoPULSE brief I set in 2020 of exploring regional futures through enquiry, creativity and connections. The project has become so much more than either of those objectives.
As an environmental artist, I always hope to create enough interest in my work that might lead someone to think about the natural world a little more, or a little more deeply. To think they might be inspired to ask a question, look something up, explore their local neighbourhood or further afield, learn more about or act on an environmental issue is a bonus. Audiences need to start where they are now, but to do so they must have access in a way that invites or excites. I believe Inhalare can do that.
Inhalare/breathe upon will be at SPACE Gallery, Coonabarabran, from 15 May to 16 June. Further details to come.
Stage 1 of Inhalare has been proudly supported by the NSW Government through the COVID Development Grant administered by Create NSW. The project is supported by Orana Arts and additional funding for Stage 2 has been provided through crowdfunding with the Australian Cultural Fund and private donations.
ecoPULSE is a web-based project platform developed by Kim V. Goldsmith in 2020 to provide an online ‘home’ for collaborative environmental and social ecology projects across regional territories of Australia and beyond.