Mortar Life

With a piece of poem
unfolding in an essay
a story flickers

As an artist and a father, I've recently pondered what these roles share. 

Like children, making art is a process where we celebrate the arrival of a fully formed work. Also, one gets uncomfortable looks when attempting to explain the setting in which a creation was conceived. 

So, writing about developing art provides a way to share insights, while avoiding weird looks.

Testing your limits
pushing on your boundaries

Cementa is a bi-annual contemporary arts festival in the town of Kandos and the 2021 event would end up being something of a miscarriage, as COVID-19 disrupted the delivery of our installation. 

The courtship with RealArtWorks started about nine months before the dates planned for the event, when I got a message from Zeb Schulz that he wanted to talk.

If you don't know them, RealArtWorks is a post-disability arts company based in Lismore and they've been active in regional NSW. Our collaborations began with an improvised soundtrack for the This is Not What it Appears exhibition developed at Wagga Wagga Art Gallery in 2012.

Our projects since then included being part of their installation for Artstate in that city in 2020. I've had various roles, ranging from driving people across the state to shooting video. Over that time, I've observed a growing sense of purpose and confidence among the coterie drawn together in Lismore's SeeSpace.

My friendship with Zeb was cemented when he and his brother Paul established The Happiest Place In Wagga Wagga in 2003. It was based in a surprisingly theatrical space hidden high above the Australia Arcade but, looking back, I can see it reflected an inclusive and creative approach that continues with RealArtWorks. We would meet to improvise music, engage in wordplay, drink and watch subversive movies.

In our conversations Zeb explained the concept for Cementa is "Disco Concrete" and he saw a role for my musical remixes of landscapes, as well as assisting their group to explore Kandos both physically and sonically. 

We began sharing inspirations for the project, particularly Pierre Schaffer's ideas about Musique Concrete. "Why should a civilization which so misuses its power have, or deserve, a normal music?" Schaffer famously asked, so I knew we were going to get weird.

I gather it was the project's music director Randolph Reimann who made the conceptual leap between Kandos' cement-making history and this experimental genre. Reimann orchestrates the band Tralala Blip, which overlaps with RealArtWorks' membership.

Schaffer appealed to Zeb's vision, which usually involves bold creative connections packaged in a colourful lo-fi aesthetic that magnifies the smudged fingerprints to a scale that is inspiring. His partner Sunita describes their productions as "flipping people's switches" and I think the analogy speaks to the hands-on engagement they cultivate with an audience.

Art is not precious
at the heart of creation
our passionate mess

Deciding what to put in the car for collaboration with RealArtWorks is often a fraught process. Whatever I pack, it’ll be too much and not enough. I've learned to relax my expectations, as my role will be to prompt ideas and lend a hand or an instrument to the improvisations that follow. Over projects I’ve let go of my preconceptions and gone with the flow. Sometimes the most useful thing to provide is documentation, so I will take photos and keep this journal of our residency.

On a whim I pack The Narrow Road to the Deep North as it seemed appropriate to take a haibun collection by the great Japanese poet Matsuo Basho.

Scenes seen on the road
navigating with music
visual mixtapes

Travelling to Kandos brought back memories, both personal and from Australian art history. 

I know the route from visiting family at Wattle Flat throughout my life. It was strangely moving to see the old shed on the road between Cowra and Blayney that used to have Dunlop advertising on the roof. That sign had disappeared but now the shed was reduced to a series of support poles that resembled the pale tree trunks they had always been.

Another surprise was finding Wattle Flat bigger than I remembered, as new houses had joined the village. Nearby Sofala had developed a new walkway bridge that was sitting beside the Turon River. It looked like the bridge that ABC correspondent Bill Peach had been filmed walking over, before it was swept away in a flood during the 1980s.

Otherwise, Sofala looked the same as when Drysdale painted it, The Cars That Ate Paris drove around it and Elle McPherson walked through it in the film Sirens. The voluptuous hills looked as bare as when they inspired Donald Friend and Brett Whiteley.

The drive up out of the valley was as steep as I remembered and apparently, it’s one of the steepest climbs on NSW roads.

There was a beautiful sunset that stretched out across the mountains. As the road dipped around granite outcrops, the last rays of the day came and went and came and went and came again. The colours of the landscape changed between valleys, from ironbarks to those pale white gums that indicate the colder climes of the high country. 

Then, as I wondered if I’d missed a turn-off, there was the golden archway before the descent into Kandos. No longer were mining buckets hanging overhead but the view of the rock face that hangs over the town was still spectacular.

I arrived at the Railway Hotel in time for burgers with the RealArtWorks crew. Lydian greeted me like a brother and asked about the music I've been making. Even Carla seemed to remember me, although later when I passed Zac on the stairs and he asked, “How do you know me?”

We met in Lismore about a year and half ago, I explained.

He asked if I know a name that I didn’t recognise and have since forgotten.

No, I replied, and he explained she’s an ex-girlfriend.

Consuming ideas
throwing sentences on wind
eating universe

At breakfast I encountered the term “Concrete-Operational Thinking” and shared it with Zeb, thinking he would appreciate how it incorporates a word that we associate with Kandos. This term describes the foundation of moral reasoning that occurs in childhood and develops through adult life.

What followed from sharing this concept is an unexpected outpouring of confessions from Zeb and, if I shared them here, they might convict him of petty criminal activities during his teenage years. I will write that one part of the conversation was a technique for making free calls from public telephones.

Soon Zeb's brother Paul joined the conversation and outlined activities that brought him into the focus of law enforcement.

Afterwards I realise I’ve locked myself out of my room, so I sit and make conversation with Mike. We talk about Musique Concrete and I’m surprised by his observations of the sound of machinery.

As he’s blind, Mike explained he was frightened by vacuum cleaners as a child. At some point he was encouraged to consider their pitch, which proved to be a clever strategy for moving beyond fear and objectively thinking about their noise.

He reminded me that Australian appliances make noises between G and G#, a little flatter than the quarter tone between them. That's the cycle of 50Hz a second and, given the hum of fridges throughout the country, it might be the musical key of our nation's kitchens.

Soon I regained access to my room, as the Railway Hotel owner Milan lent me a spare key with the advice "Your keys are your wallet," which seemed to assume I had money. 

Then I went to the Kandos Museum with Sunita and Duncan to see about recording items in their collection. It was encouraging they saw a role for visiting artists to interpret local history.

Early afternoon I returned to the grounds with Mike, Duncan, Lydian and Randolph. We recorded metal objects in the Museum’s grounds and Mike improvised a few songs while playing items as percussion, including metal buckets like those I'd missed seeing on the drive into town.

That night it was my turn to cook and, after I was overwhelmed by offers to assist, Matt did all the cutting of onions and bacon for the pasta. As I watched him preparing the ingredients, I was reminded of the collages he produces. Occasionally I've glimpsed the suitcases of images that he collects from books for these artworks. Sometimes I've been able to observe him collecting resources from op shops and have felt protective of the books, which I'd prefer to keep on a shelf. But, when I see the surprising juxtapositions of imagery and poetic text, I realise how much I need to unlearn if I want to achieve his mastery of the medium.

Later, as we sat by the fire, Zac observed his stepfather shares the name Jason before he revealed his heartache. I told him that it helps to write a letter to the person that you’ll never post and encouraged him to keep his heart soft so that someone else can find their way in there.

Before everyone retreats to their beds we experiment with a projector on nearby trees.

Living with meaning
honest language in the world
more than characters

It was Carla’s birthday and she was very excited to share the event. Duncan cooked the pancakes she’d requested for breakfast.

While the rest of the group went for a bushwalk, I recorded around town and exhibits outside the Museum using a contact microphone. At a playground near the high school, I held a conversation with a young magpie. Then, as I was setting up my camera, I overheard a couple of blokes from across the grassy corner.

“Why’s he photographing steel poles?”

“Dunno, maybe he’s council.”

“Nah, he’s not council because that’s his car over there.”

It amused me that picking council staff is as easy as recognising leased vehicles.

Afterwards I went for a walk up the main street of Kandos and inspected sites for future recording.

Later I returned to a playground with Lydian and Mike after we celebrated Carla’s birthday. Mike somewhat politely listened to the equipment and tapped a bit before he lost interest. It seemed understandable since I usually manipulate these playgrounds to make them musical for my compositions. In contrast Lydian was transported as soon as he donned the headphones and began tapping rhythms. We spent about an hour exploring different pieces of equipment and, while Lydian grooved, Mike and I talked about audio books. 

That night we sat around a fire, which was lit each night by a Railway Hotel resident named John. Tonight, he and his pregnant partner Heidi sat with the group and it was surprising to hear his observations. “I thought you were all painters,” he said with a laugh and it inferred his understanding of the term artist.

It was John’s first experience talking with someone blind and I jumped into the conversation to tell him about Mike. "His pitch is phenomenal," I said about Mike's ability to tell you the tuning of the sounds he hears.

It never fails to amaze me when we tap a sculpture and he'll tell me its key.

John didn't seem impressed, so I mentioned Mike has a radio show. 

"That's awesome" he exclaimed.

Soon John shared jokes with Lydian and became relaxed enough to share details about his life. Heidi is pregnant with their first child together and, while it's not his first experience of fatherhood, he expressed excitement about how it would be new for them. John also enthused about how he'd never spent time with "these kinds of people" and I don't think he means artists.

Sound can be sculpture
carved from reverberations
taking shape in air

My sleep was interrupted by Matt talking as he led Mike to the bathroom in the early morning.

Over breakfast I let Mike hear samples from around town that I’ve arranged in Ableton Live.

Heidi joined Sunita and Carla to work on a cut-out figure that Matt animated to appear as dancing in a short video clip.

It took a while to get Mike’s keyboard to interface with my computer, then we had an extended jam with Duncan, Paul and Randolph. I offered Mike a variety of software synthesisers, as well as a program that repitched my samples of Kandos for his keyboard to trigger. During this Zeb and Matt video-mapped projections to the pub’s bar room. The overhead lights became eyeballs and animated marionette figures danced on the walls.

At night I took a few photos outside the Hotel, framing the stars behind the gums.

Sometime during the day there was a moment when I asked Zeb what he thought of the term "differently-abled" and his reply spoke to the inclusive atmosphere of RealArtWorks.

Zeb said he preferred the term 'neurodivergent' and, as he explained, he described himself as neurodivergent. Then Zeb looked in my eyes and said I was neurodivergent too, but I'm not sure what it means.

Stay lost without words
what we don’t know to describe
we can call beauty

I woke early on our last day and watched the dawn outside the window. It was an old piece of glass that distorted the landscape. At times it was hard to decide if leaves were moving from the wind or my head tilting.

Duncan and I planned to return to the site where the group went for a bushwalk on Wednesday. At Dunn's Swamp we had a magical moment when a peacock-like bird began producing the sounds of an entire aviary. It was a lyrebird and I had wanted to see one in the wild for years. The birds seemed kinda tame, which might be from ignoring the people camping nearby. 

I set my video camera recording on a picnic table to capture the incredible repertoire of bird calls and unlikely noises. The male's tail feathers were flipped to sit flat over the bird's head as it sang, clearly trying to impress the mate who seemed more interested in scratching at the ground.

Afterwards Duncan and I walked around the rocks, then he flew a drone over the unusual rock formations, but we couldn't stop talking about the lyrebirds.

Friday afternoon turned into evening and we all jammed again. Duncan loaded lyrebird samples into his digital drum kit and produced the very definition of Disco Concrete. Then we packed up and mentally I began the drive home.

Living in feelings
compiling information
looking for a thread 

It was foggy at sunrise and the gum trees wiggled in the window. Their silhouettes looked both close and far. The forms were clearly a tree, but the modulations of the glass made it contort. I imagined a voice asking, "why's he looking at a bunch of leaves," and became self-conscious for daydreaming and pondered things I should be doing.

Those moments where I observe myself are like snapshots. Sometimes it's a reminder of where my thoughts have wandered, other times it feels like that conversation overheard at the playground earlier in the week. In the former setting that insight can prompt reflection, while in the latter it usually chases away carefree moments of play.

Is that my neurodivergence? An ability to hear music in playground equipment, where bystanders see steel poles? The quality of play in Kandos was memorable and I was stimulated by great company and beautiful landscapes.

I reflected on our creative processes during the drive home. I left Kandos in fog, then I rose above the clouds and into a clear morning. Shortly before the steep descent into Sofala, I topped a crest that might have been the top of the world. I looked out across hilltops that appeared as islands in a sea of cold fluff. The distances between them stretched into the infinite and I wondered how much one hilltop might know about another.

As I drove back into the fog, I tried to hold an image in my mind of those peaks and the sunshine they saw while the rest of the world was clouded.

In Bathurst I tried to explain the scene to the cashier at the petrol station and realised it's better saved for a poem. Those sunny peaks seemed to epitomise the sense of play that RealArtWorks cultivate. The easy way in which creativity flowed took me back to being a child. Those days of running through Wattle Flat Common with a stick and feeling as though I held Excalibur.

Somewhere between Cowra and Young I heard a discussion on the radio about Down Syndrome being a "canary in the coal mine" as genetic testing of embryos becomes accessible to parents worldwide. It took my mind back to sitting around the fire at the Railway Hotel and John's comment echoed in my head about never having had the opportunity to hang out with people like Lydian, Carla and Zac. As he and Heidi were expecting, I began to wonder what other opportunities a parent might miss if they were told their child would be perceived as different.

The term "differently-abled" at times feels like a euphemism, until sometime during my collaboration I realised how much I envied those skills the RealArtWorks crew bring to their art-making. Their neurodivergence and their art has enriched my creative practise in more ways than I can summarise.

By the time I returned home I realised that RealArtWorks had "abled" something different in me.

By doing the verb
as father and as artist
I become the noun

The most significant resonance between being a parent and an artist is the sense of shepherding a creation into the world. One cannot fully know their personality when an idea is conceived, nor how they will be received. Our works become a mirror that others will hold up as reflections of who we are. Through creating we learn to know ourselves.

Hardened bonds of love
held by threads of wilful steel
cement your friendships