When ideas for the Sonic Territories series first seeded on the back of a 2017 work created with Hamburg-based artist, Didi Hock, I never imagined it would grow into something with as much potential as it has. Simple ideas have grown into powerful concepts.
The Sonic Territories projects are centred on listening and sound — sampling sound with and without technology, and creating narratives around sound that reimagine spaces and places of the past, present and future. That 2017 work, titled Fictional Territories, was about a territory that can’t be defined, but a definition of territory as an area of creativity, with the territory emerging in the active experience of listening.
Since then there have been three Sonic Territories projects started—for Kandos as part of Cementa 2019, along the Galari/Lachlan River—as the result of a residency at the CORRIDOR project, and now a project centred on the Wambuul/ Macquarie River. There’s an open-endedness to these projects that allows them to inspire future works.
The Galari project currently only consists of a five-minute video, still under wraps as a competition entry. However, it’s a sonic exploration of the river’s story from the headwaters on the Breadalbane Plain to the Great Cumbung Swamp near the Murrumbidgee River, a source of life for tens of thousands of years, and whose post-colonial history has been shaped by many unintended consequences and promises.
The Wambuul’s story is similar. This Sonic Territories project focuses on a very small part of the Wambuul/ Macquarie River—from Burrendong Dam above Wellington to just below Narromine. The river’s health is managed in balance with the needs of the many stakeholders invested in having access to water—towns, farmers, industry, various recreation groups, First Nations communities, environmentalists of all stripes, and governments at all levels.
I’ve worked on issues of water politics for the past 30 years as a journalist, communications consultant, and now artist. Regardless of what hat you wear, it’s never easy to navigate the politics. Positions on water are firmly entrenched depending on if you have rights and access, or not. My creative work of the past decade has been about giving the environment a voice, as too often we talk around it, about it, in it and over it, but rarely do we stop to listen to what it has to say.
Biologist, David George Haskell writes in his 2022 book Sounds Wild and Broken: Listening opens us to the wonders of communication and creativity…Yet we are increasingly disconnected from sensory, storied relationship to life’s community…To listen, then, is a delight, a window into life’s creativity, and a political and moral act.
The era of the Anthropocene is strongly marked by hubris.
There’s debate presently raging in Dubbo about the future use of the floodplain area of Regand Park. It’s being fuelled by mistrust of past corrupt practices, misinformation, poor understanding of process and government responsibilities, personality politics and a fair pinch of shit-stirring. However, it boils down to an argument between those who believe the floodplain should be regenerated as a site of valuable riparian biodiversity, and those who believe that the area should be landscaped and managed for active and/or passive recreation. Some have even suggested the sides are split by religious alliances, which goes to show just how crazy the whole thing has become.
The call for developing ‘underutilised’ riverine assets in this country isn’t new. A quick dive into the National Library of Australia’s treasure Trove soon turns up stories dating back to 1911 and 1925 calling for the building of a dam or weir on the river to be investigated for the purposes of offering facilities for aquatic sports (1911) and beautifying Dubbo by having a broad sheet of water running through it (1925). By the late 1920s, a river beautification committee in Dubbo was in full swing.
A new century has since dawned, an age of environmental enlightenment on the back of the grassroots Australian Landcare movement of the late 1980s. Yet in 2017 Dubbo’s media reported on calls by a vocal and opinionated local government candidate for a recreation lake to be built in the city, claiming it was shameful Dubbo hadn’t managed to do so and that it was conservative, process-driven decision making that had throttled such an opportunity. It’s interesting to note this candidate had been a Landcare coordinator for some time. Progress clearly requires built environments and the taming of nature for human pleasure and prosperity to be truly enjoyed. Is there any doubt the era of the Anthropocene is strongly marked by hubris?
Our life with the more-than-human world is entangled, regardless of how many walls we construct, trees we clear, paths we pave, or land we flood, we don’t exist separately to the natural world. Despite becoming very good at pretending we have control, climate-induced natural disasters are proving otherwise, as we’ve witnessed and experienced in the past five years of droughts, dust storms, fires, and floods. We are at the coal face of climate change.
The future of the natural world very much depends on us—conserving and protecting it, so it in turn protects and supports us. How do we even understand this when there’s such an enormous disconnect from the more-than-human world we inhabit? In his recently published book Ways of Being: Beyond Human Intelligence, artist and writer James Bridle talks about considering other, non-human, forms of intelligence, writing: …taking them seriously requires us to re-evaluate not only our ideas of intelligence, but our idea of the entire world.
He continues: What would it mean to build artificial intelligences and other machines that 6were more like octopuses, more like fungi, or more like forests? What would it mean – to us and for us — to live among them? And how would doing so bring us closer to the natural world, to the earth which our technology has sundered, and sundered us from?
We must make peace
Deep, active listening is about pulling apart what we think we know about our place in the world, experiencing it in a new way and reimagining the future—today and in a time beyond us. Listening to the scratchy, pulsing heartbeat of an ancient River Red Gum on the banks of the Wambuul, the crackle and pop of water moving inside native grasses on the overgrown reserve by the water, or the crickety clicks of water insects in a flooded stream is a privilege and a delight that proves there is far more going on in the world around us than our self-absorbed lives allow us to acknowledge. You don’t need to be a scientist to understand that.
Our spoken word human stories of the past and connections with the environment are important in our consideration of the future. Our time on this earth as a species has been relatively short but we’ve had such an enormous impact. If we are to have a future, we MUST make the time to remember, to listen—really listen, and (re)think about where we’re going and how we’re going to get there; acknowledging our mistakes, saying sorry when, where and to whom we need to, moving forward together. You might think this sounds like reconciliation. It is—with our environment. We must make peace.
Take the time to explore the surroundings in your backyard and reconnect with the earth, air and water, breathe and listen, eyes closed against the glare of progress, development and demands of productivity. It costs nothing. That time might just slow the momentum we’re using to throw the future of our species to the wind. Imagine if we could find common ground with those whose positions are diametrically opposed to ours. Imagine if we could reconfigure our sense of belonging and place in history and the world to create a future thriving on entanglement with the more-than-human world. Just imagine.
Sonic Territories: Wambuul was funded by a Country Arts Support Program grant through Create NSW and Orana Arts. A fourth artist position in the Sonic Territories: Wambuul creative team was part-funded by fundraising through the Australian Cultural Fund.
Listen to the Wambuul bila soundtrack and explore the Wambuul stories.