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The soul of sustainability

Jodie McNeilly: Siteworks, Bundanon


Stalker Theatre projection creature Stalker Theatre projection creature
photo Heidrun Löhr, courtesy of Bundanon Trust
“IMAGINE YOUR SOUL, THEN, AS TIMBER; YOUR MIND META-MORPHOSED TO MYRTLE; YOUR LIFE A FOREST OF THESIS AND CHANT. WALKING HERE, AMONG ELDERS, MAKES A GARDEN OF ME; I AM CURATED, TENDED AND CONSERVED.”

These words from poet Mark Tredinnick capture the essence of this year’s Siteworks at Bundanon, and are displayed in the Singleman’s Hut by artist Janet Laurence as part of her long-term major project Treelines Track. The work is a new commission in partnership with Landcare Australia that “tells stories” through the planting of trees (once there, but no longer) in a new conversation with their native surrounds.

Reflecting on Tredinnick’s thought meditation, I see it as one response to activist Naomi Klein’s request that “we need to think differently, radically differently” if we are to effect some kind of change in the face of a worsening, potentially irrecuperable environmental crisis. For Klein it is necessary to address the failings of capitalism; for the scientists, ecologists and artists that gathered in the kangaroo and wombat-clad hills of beautiful Bundanon, the need is to look to imagination, our capacity for empathy toward earth and other species and the evocation of deeper perceptual structures, where we watch, listen and feel differently.

From curated discussions, disciplinary exchanges, creative collaborations in situ and immersive bush and river walks, the weekend’s cliffhanger for me was the dilemma of individually ‘knowing how’ to change, but ‘not knowing how’ to change collectively, as a global community. Both science and everyday experience evidence a heating planet, rising sea levels, natural disasters and loss of biodiversity. We are at a point where, as climate change ecologist Brendan Mackey soberly announced, “all the numbers have been crunched.” Whether we believe in some variation of the ‘holocene’ age where humanity and its damaging effects are understood as a ‘mere blip’ in this particular epoch of earth’s history (it’s only a matter of time until the land asks us to leave), or we invest in the virtues of the ‘anthropocene’ where human impact is all pervading, entailing responsibility, the promise of solutions, and more sinisterly, control, the commitment to change comes not from defending a position, but from allowing ourselves to feel, think and reflect differently. Siteworks continues to be a unique forum that gently reminds the most converted of us to do so.

Art is a way to blur conceptual boundaries. Rosemary Laing’s The Paper (exhibited as stills) reflects both epochal views in her carpeting of the bush floor with “truckloads” of newspaper pulp: human impact is everywhere and effaced by bush regeneration.

The Earth Law conference co-convened by Michelle Maloney and Jules Livingstone of Australian Earth Law Alliance, Tess De Quincey and Tom Rivard took place on Friday. The brainstorming session involved experts from the fields of science, arts, the law, education and finance who distilled topics for Siteworks attendees (1,100 registered for 2014) to discuss in small rotating groups during Saturday’s main conversation “Finding our Place in the Anthropocene”, hosted with wit by science journalist Robyn Williams. The main panel with Dr Shane Norrish (Landcare Australia), Michelle Maloney and Mindjingbal man Clarence Slockee (Education Officer, Sydney Botanic Gardens, who appears on Gardening Australia) was lively and informative. Each reflected on what a “sense of place” means to them, localising recognition and the effects of the anthropocene and the reimagining of our laws to support a deeper connectivity with the plants, animals and land through “earth jurisprudence.”

On the performance trail we first gather under the hovering drone used in Leon Cmielewski and Josephine Starrs’ site-specific work Dancing with Drones. Performer Alison Plevey reproduces, with slight delay, the movement we see projected onto a screen, shot overhead by the same drone in various locations at Bundanon. The footage is composited as a split image, juxtaposed with black and white footage of Plevey taken from a human standpoint. Here, the colour footage taken by the craft sensitively records nuanced movements of the dancer in a vertical duet, reconstituting the role of the drone as filmmaker, rather than as an instrument surveilling a target.

De Quincey Co’s Mountain and Water draws us to the banks of the pond between Henry’s Bridge and the Jetty. A hunched, squatting figure (Victoria Hunt) emerges from the inky black heaped in a robe of colours, intensifying the beginnings of vertical ascension and layering of ancestors. From within the cacophony of frogs, we hear Amanda Stewart’s voice, a word here a phrase there and sound from musicians Jim Denley and Dale Garfinkel. I think of the absurd logics of consumption: an ugly mountain of incoherency. The slamming of words together provokes normative thoughts: how should we live? From across the water, a leaking angel (Peter Fraser) floats towards us arcing and flooded with light. Boundaries, borders and membranes are transcended.

From the banks we return to the homestead to the projected 3D-structural drawings of Creature (Stalker Theatre and UTS Creativity & Cognition Studios). Water birds, wombats and sugar gliders swell and swirl into being, dissolving from their edges. Fixated we anticipate emerging forms in gasps of delight. A live dancer disturbs the particles with large sweeping extensions. Creatures disappear. Audience are invited to interact, make their impact; the anthropocene felt.

Black Nectar (Keith Armstrong, Lawrence English, Luke Lickfold) asks us to deepen our perceptual listening and seeing in the darkness of Bundanon’s Amphitheatre. Minimising the thick, noisy content of everyday experience, our attentiveness to the life of the bush is sharpened. In procession we are led to await the appearance of fibre optic lights in a subtle choreography drawing on the complex flowering patterns of the Eucalypt nectar that affects the migratory trails of the Grey Headed Flying Bat (mapped by Peggy Eby). Sonically the sounds of the bush are thickened. Only to the local ear, or one who listens carefully, can the layering of amplified and introduced birdcalls and insects be detected in vibratory channels of momentary electronic noise. Black Nectar exposes the perceptual tunnels we seek comfort in and with which we veil our ignorance.

The evening ends with Nigel Kellaway on piano viewed through the window of the homestead (15 Short Scenes on the Dichterliebe) and swaying with red wine in plastic cups to the convivial tunes of Olive and Concetta (Annette Tesoriero and Cathie Travers) under a marquee. Then it’s off to the Biopod for one lucky person who floats the night away in Nigel Helyer’s “micro-architectural structure.” Tiny spaces have an interesting effect on the senses: expanding, shrinking, amplifying or confusing. Helyer emphasises the aural experience in this “overnight acoustic vigil for a single person” who adds their narrative to the “capsule’s log” in a digital archive. Here the imaginary re-flavours reality: Who are we? Where are we?

Sunday culminates with a number of Bioblitz walks, activities focused on Citizen Science whereby amateurs collectively look, find and record an array of flora and fauna local to the property, adding this documentation to the Atlas of Living Australia. By Sunday afternoon with the city’s grip on my senses loosened, I was able to listen intently and capture the unique movement and colour of feathery creatures bouncing from tree to tree; and closely inspect, taste, touch and learn of the historical and cultural uses of plants, flowers and fruits with Clive Freeman on the Indigenous Plant Use Walk.

Siteworks is an event where one can imagine the soul as timber, and feel sensuously engaged with the surroundings within an expertly framed conversation. If only all Australians could be given the opportunity to reprioritise their energies and be opened by such experiences, we might begin to sustain the earth in return.


Siteworks 2014, Bundanon Homestead and Grounds, NSW, 26-28 Sept

RealTime issue #124 Dec-Jan 2014 pg. 29

© Jodie McNeilly; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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