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WALKING UPSTREAM: WATERWAYS OF THE ILLAWARRA

WALKING UPSTREAM: WATERWAYS OF THE ILLAWARRA

COMPANION CURATOR > Laurene Vaughn

RESPONDENT > Josie Stockdill

MORE > walking-upstream.net

Walking up Illawarra watercourses from sea to escarpment – roads, railway lines, drains and suburbs.

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Hemmed in between the Tasman Sea to the east and steep escarpment to the west, the Wollongong (or Illawarra) region has few large rivers, but an abundance of small watercourses. Rainwater seeps down the escarpment forming gullies and creeks. These watercourses run through backyards, alongside sports ovals, through industrial estates, and variously constitute picturesque (desirable) water features and unsightly concrete-lined drains.

Walking Upstream: Waterways of the Illawarra has roots in the avant-garde practices of the past century: conceptual art, socially-engaged art practice, land art, and happenings, for example. It is at this site, between land and sea, that these three intrepid artists actively adopt Donald Brook’s definition of art as ‘unspecific experimental modelling’. Through embodied acts of walking as a trio, and in consort with fellow walkers, they seek to be in these places as they traverse the diversity of landscapes.

The walkers begin at the sea, at an identifiable ‘mouth’. They walk their way upstream along named and unnamed creeks, hacking through weeds and undergrowth, skirting along property boundaries, talking their way into people’s yards. They continue for as long as geography, topography, and social boundaries allow.

Through this simple methodology, their trajectories intersect with various cultures of land use – mining, bush regeneration, weed infestation and suburbanisation. These walks are a form of ‘ground truthing’ – a means of comparing official maps and aerial photographs with the lived experience of tramping along actual creeks. Walking Upstream: Waterways of the Illawarra is a resolutely local project – born from the desire of the key walkers to engage more deeply with the topographical, ecological, and social fabric of where they live.

  • Walking Upstream: Waterways of the Illawarra, Margaret Lawrence Gallery VCA, 2015. Photography: Christian Capurro.

  • Walking Upstream: Waterways of the Illawarra, Margaret Lawrence Gallery VCA, 2015. Photography: Christian Capurro.

  • Walking Upstream: Waterways of the Illawarra, Margaret Lawrence Gallery VCA, 2015. Photography: Christian Capurro.

  • Walking Upstream: Waterways of the Illawarra, Margaret Lawrence Gallery VCA, 2015. Photography: Christian Capurro.

  • Walking Upstream: Waterways of the Illawarra, Performing Mobilities, Margaret Lawrence Gallery VCA, 2015. Photography: Christian Capurro.

  • Walking Upstream: Waterways of the Illawarra, Margaret Lawrence Gallery VCA, 2015. Photography: Christian Capurro.

  • Walking Upstream: Waterways of the Illawarra, Margaret Lawrence Gallery VCA, 2015. Photography: Christian Capurro.

Walking Upstream: a simple arts practice method with unexpected outcomes

Respondent > Josie Stockdill

My viewing of this work took place in three parts. Firstly, attending the Performing Mobilities exhibition with the objective of focusing on the collaborative multimedia work presented by the Walking Upstream: Waterways of the Illawarra artworks. Secondly, gaining an insight into the Walking Upstream method by participating in a wander up Edgars Creek in Coburg North with Karina Quinn and some of the Walking Upstream group and various other artist/researchers in tow). Lastly, re-examining the printed broadsheet, which is best described as an unconventional catalogue of the project’s works, and reading over the project’s website. As my viewing encompassed several works, writings and an activity, I will approach this task as a reflection on the arts practice method of the Walking Upstream project, and how the resulting artworks of the embodied experiences translated within an exhibition space.

Setting off on the Coburg poetry walk, I was able to chat with the group more generally about unspecific experimental modelling and the brave notion of starting a walk (or indeed an entire project) having no clear idea of where you will end up, or what might come out of it. We also spoke more fully about the ‘ground truthing’ technique, and considered the real risks of researchers using a process that is so ‘deliberately vague’ and ‘open ended’.

During the walk, we traversed some landscaped and some wild areas, we found swimming dogs and rubbish, native birds and introduced weeds. All of these expected and unexpected discoveries intersected with our path and our conversations, creating atmospheric conditions rich in thought and creative provocation. Walking and interacting with others gave me access to readings of the waterways that I would have never before pondered.

A fellow artist/researcher and permaculture buff pointed out that some of the replanted native species in the area were not the best flora to be re-introduced to the current environment, and that this type of conservation was often nothing more than a romantic attachment to what we think ought to be there. Someone else shared her concern that we were not going to get very far at our current pace, although the distance travelled did not concern me at all. Personally, I was most taken by the excellent swimming dog we saw and how he relished the dirty, muddy waterhole. I can imagine that if we were to present our artistic response to the same walk in our individual disciplines, the outputs would be unanticipated and diverse. Nevertheless, they would have all been provoked by authentic embodied encounters with the waterway itself.

The exhibition included several multimedia installations by three artists, including a display of the broadsheet. Accordingly, this exhibition presented both individual and collective creative outputs of the Walking Upstream project. The complete exhibition gave me a sense of an ongoing chat, a scholarly yet playful conversation, which continues to consider and prod the waterways with the concerns and interests of the group. Part of this chat was literally demonstrated in the broadsheet writings, an experimentally logged form of communication between the three artists. The other multimedia artworks proffered alongside one another in the same space highlighted the fact that despite the conversational connection, each artist experienced a disparate ‘ground truth’. Overall, the exhibited works materialised as though the writings carried an ongoing thread of the group’s conversation. This conversational thread then intersected well with individual installations that functioned as singular thought bubbles linked to each artist.

The Walking Upstream project explores the experimental practice of ground truthing, a process that I had not yet considered; yet the simple techniques employed here are applicable to a wide range of topical concerns within arts practice. It is clear that something productive, playful and inventive has emerged from this project, resulting in interesting new ways of knowing the Illawarra waterways.

 


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