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Bonemap: Resonant residues

Sophie Travers talks to Simon Whitehead

Simon Whitehead is a seasoned traveller. His performance work usually involves some sort of journey, mainly undertaken on foot and invariably over several days, if not weeks. I nevertheless have to give him a day to recover from his 24 hour journey from his native Wales to Mareeba, near Cairns in northern Queensland. Rebecca Youdell of Bonemap (the intermedia arts partnership between Youdell and Russell Milledge) gives me the background to the 2 week artist’s exchange project which has brought Whitehead to Australia for the first time.

Entitled Rupture and Residue, the project takes 4 artists on a journey from north to south, leading them through a series of landscapes and communities. Jim Denley, Australian musician and occasional Bonemap collaborator, will join Whitehead, Youdell and Russell Milledge. Lee Wen (well known for his Journey of a Yellow Man performances) will maintain a remote link to the group from his native Singapore. The artists will undertake field work and research and give performative talks at regional venues.

Starting on November 8, the party will be resident at the recently opened Centre for Contemporary Arts in Cairns and at Emerald End in Mareeba. They will then set off in their 4-wheel drive, gathering material for the multimedia creation they intend as the outcome of their peregrinations. Along the route that culminates in another residency, this one with students at Griffith University on the Gold Coast, they will stop to talk at Townsville’s Umbrella Studio and Mackay’s Artspace. They will also collaborate in a talk/artist exchange with the Sandhills Collective, based at Keppel Sands near Rockhampton.

Whitehead found his way to Queensland via the usual 6-degrees-of-separation connections that take artists around the world. The only discombobulating factor in the chain of circumstances was that he had never met Bonemap until he stepped off the plane. When Youdell and Milledge were in Japan performing, they met Welsh producer and Chapter Arts programmer, James Tyson, who immediately recognised the relationships between their work and Whitehead’s. Tyson passed on the relevant information and an email exchange began. When Bonemap arrived the following year at Singapore’s Substation on an Asialink residency, they discovered that Whitehead had recently departed. In Cardiff for Chapter’s Experimentica festival in 2002, they again missed Whitehead by a whisker. Having seen only “the back of his head in a video”, Bonemap were intrigued about how this elusive artist might contribute to their ambitious exchange.

Whitehead studied geography and human movement at university and was an athlete, teacher and professional dancer before consolidating his experience into a place-sensitive, time-based and ‘pedestrian’ performance practice. He has a close relationship with the British sound artist Barnaby Oliver, who has recently moved to Melbourne, and his work incorporates the sensual residue of the places through which he walks. A signature Whitehead performance is stalks#2 (Cardiff, 2001), in which he approached 4 strangers (an elder, adult, teenager and child), and accompanied them on their favourite walks through the streets of Cardiff. Attached to each participant was a steadycam filming only their face and recording their commentary providing a personalised mediated experience of the city. The work was eventually presented as a live video and sound mix and CD-ROM project.

As we recommence our conversation after a long night’s sleep, Whitehead speaks to me with evident pleasure at the sounds and smells of his new environment. He has been sitting around the breakfast table with the other artists, enjoying the familiarity between them and the novelty of his position in the group. “We have been looking at maps of our journey. Rebecca and Russell have been to most of the places we will visit, but for me it is all new. We have not yet discussed how we will approach the trip, but have been sharing questions about what we may make or discover in the project. Unusually for me, I have come with something of a framework. I have brought 6 sticks that I collected on a walk back home in Wales. Sea washed ash. I want to collect sticks from the beaches and woods here and use these to create drawings which I will leave behind in the places of their making. These drawings will form a trace, or map, upon the land made up of material from different continents. They will be drawings of things I see on the journey-of animals perhaps? I have done this before. In Wales I followed a herd of wild ponies for a winter and made drawings of them out of wood as I followed them. It is a familiar process, but one which I am open to puncturing through these circumstances. It could become an interface...with the other artists to record and treat the sound of these drawings. The performative nature of their making will also become part of whatever residue we create for the project.”

I ask Whitehead if he is hoping to incorporate people as well as the environment and other creatures into his work. “Certainly, I would like to ask people to guide me to places. Our conversations might be documented in the sound recordings and become a basis upon which to layer other information.” He is interested in opportunities to present the journey. “I am intrigued by the process of questioning and discussion and the taking of decisions about what to tell and show of the work.”
Whitehead has brought images and videos to show in his talk but is waiting to discover what he will reveal of himself. “How will I translate what has grown in another environment? I am interested to see how people respond to the artifacts and anecdotes which are the residue of this kind of work. These ephemera become their own kind of mythology, which is open to translation and interpretation. Russell and Rebecca mentioned that they had seen a fair bit of my work but had never seen me. I was only an echo in my own work. Yet in much of the work it is the residue which remains in the body which is what interests me. I wonder how much this project will end up as memory. Of course, there will be documents and a digital outcome, but the primary thing is what resonates in the body: the colours, the temperatures, the people and the season. Right now, my body is still in autumn, but only a day after arriving I can feel the leaves growing again.”

Rupture and Residue, Bonemap, Simon Whitehead (, Lee Wen; Queensland, Nov 12-24

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 43

© Sophie Travers; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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