Doing the Arts/Science/Techno thing in Inland NSW

  • Challenging city-based stereotypes of inland Australia
  • Celebrating 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 Moon Mission and humanity’s ongoing exploration of the Universe in 2019
  • Work of Big Skies Collaborator David Clarkson and his Stalker Theatre Company
  • Adding ‘A for Arts’ to the Science/Technology/Engineering/Maths equation
  • Collaborative vision for 2019 celebration … R&D and a call for sponsors
  • A long read – 3,300 words – with some great videos!

‘This is not Dubbo!’ Sam joked, as we were seated at our table. She was surprised, bemused. Me too. We hadn’t expected to find such cosmopolitan sophistication in this big country town which, for generations, has been the butt of coastal city folks’ jokes about Australia’s rustic inland. Fine dining didn’t happen in Dubbo, did it? And contemporary Italian cuisine? In the world of these old stereotypes this could only mean a ‘spagbol’ at a local truck-stop, or a doughy Neapolitan at a pizza franchise, not what Sam and I actually encountered: crisp white table linen, full silver service, degustations of locally grown produce, handmade gnocchi and ravioli with viola blossoms, and a hipster waitperson direct from Naples!

So, had we accidentally tripped into a parallel universe? Had the timespace continuum improbably ruptured? Were we hallucinating?

No, none of the above! Dubbo’s posh Italian restaurant is here-and-now reality! Proof, indeed, that the fuzzy frontier between so-called coastal ‘sophistication’ and the ‘bogan bush’ has shifted yet further inland. Such is the scale of this cultural transformation that, after dinner, Sam and I were even able to wander into Dubbo’s ultra-modern theatre complex to see Encoded, an Avant-Garde production by Stalker Theatre, the Sydney-based international touring troupe described by The Times of London as ‘the world’s most exciting visual and physical theatre company’!


And why should anyone be surprised by this? Some of the world’s most exciting astronomy and astrophysics is done from south-eastern Australia’s rural inland, some of the world’s most exciting astro-tourism and astro-photography, some of the world’s most exciting food, fibre and wine production, manufacturing, conservation science, renewable energy generation, land regeneration, habitat restoration – and, as Sam and I discovered, some rather fine contemporary cuisine as well! So why not a performance by ‘the world’s most exciting visual and physical theatre company’ at Dubbo’s Regional Theatre and Convention Centre? Why shouldn’t we Inlanders enjoy the same cultural opportunities that people in big coastal cities take for granted? A rhetorical question, but one we Big Skies Collaborators ask repeatedly.

And another question: why am I blogging on about an experimental theatre performance in a small inland city in central New South Wales anyway?

Why? Because Stalker’s artistic director, David Clarkson, is one of our Big Skies Collaborators, and he’s now seeking strategic partners, enlightened supporters, and visionary sponsors to help him develop an inspiring high-tech outdoor production for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing in 2019. A celebration of humanity’s first steps on Earth’s moon and of our species’ continuing exploration of other moons, other planets, other galaxies. A big inclusive production with both local and global dimensions, about the last 60,000 years of astronomies in inland Australia, and the next 60,000 years! A big agenda, and David and I had a lot to talk about after his Dubbo show.

Dubbo’s Regional Theatre named for local dance legend Joyce Schneider OAM. Credits: Merrill Findlay, 22 October, 2016

Dubbo was my first opportunity to see Encoded. Back in 2012, when the show premiered in Sydney, the Arts Guide described it thus:

Mesmerizing and enthralling, ENCODED is a powerful and hypnotic, at times almost trance like work that combines fabulous contemporary dance, aerial acrobatics and the latest in computer images and technology.

The Sydney review still seemed apt. I too was mesmerized, enthralled, and hypnotically entranced. Encoded was my kind of theatre: innovative, experimental, high-risk, exquisitely executed, and it refused to patronise its audience. Such productions are rarely seen in my part of the world so, for me, it was like a shower of rain after a long drought. I drank it in through the very pores of my skin. I had no idea how the four dancers created those astonishing liquid light habitats as they soared across the stage, and I didn’t really know what it all meant – but it didn’t matter. I knew those sensually gorgeous images would remain with me and that I’d have time to mull over them on my long drive home, perhaps even to make sense of them. I could already see that there was something in there about the ‘real world’ versus the virtual, and about how the spaces we humans construct change as our models of the universe change … but what?

See the complete show here >>

I wasn’t the only one struggling to understand Encoded, as my visit to the ladies’ loo revealed. Many of the women checking their hair and reapplying their lipstick at the mirrors that night had never experienced an ‘Avant Garde’ theatre performance. None of them complained in my presence, but their comments suggested that they might have preferred a more traditionally linear narrative with ‘real’ characters they could identify with, rather than all that glorious abstraction, innovation, and ambiguity done to Peter Kennard‘s pulsating electronic music. I could understand that! Narrative is important; indeed, it’s fundamental to human cognition. We all need a good story to make sense of the universe and our place in it. Encoded does have a story line and characters though. They’re just narrated in non-traditional ways. But what else would you expect from a bloke who names his theatre company for Andrei Tarkovsky’s enigmatic 1979 Russian sci-fi classic, a film which is now recognised as one of the greatest ever made. Film buffs are still arguing about what Tarkovsky’s Stalker means decades after its first screening! (More >>)

David’s Theatre Company also does less cognitively challenging work though, including its 2016 production, Creature: An Adaptation of Dot and the Kangaroo, commissioned by the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) for the Out of The Box Festival for Children. In this show, Australian actor Ursula Yovich re-narrates Ethel C. Pedley‘s much-loved nineteenth century Australian children’s classic, but from a very contemporary perspective, and with songs, acrobats, aerial dancers, interactive digital technologies, and truly enchanting 3D landscapes populated with virtual animals. ‘Dot’ will be performed at Q Theatre, in Penrith’s Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre (The Joan), on April 13-14, and at the Australian Opera House on April 26-27, 2017. It will tour China later in the year.

Sam and I left the Dubbo auditorium in meditative silence, as I recall, and crossed Darling Street to Victoria Park. The air was spiced with Asian street food, the trees were bathed in purple, gold and ruby-red light, and Thikkabilla Vibrations, a Wiradjuri dance troupe founded by local hero Tyrone Gordon, was performing to the beat of clapsticks, a didge, and throbbing laser lights for Dubbo’s DREAMfest. The Regional Theatre and Convention Centre was glowing in the background. Through a plate-glass window we could see people lingering in the foyer and the theatre’s name emblazoned across the foyer wall: The Joyce Schneider Auditorium. For this theatre was named for another local dance hero, the woman who founded the region’s first ballet academy back in 1934, as a twenty-year-old bride. This institution is now known as the Dubbo Ballet Studio, or DBS, and is reputedly ‘Australia’s oldest and longest running dance studio.’

Joyce Schneider was born in the small coal town of Boggabri, near Narrabri, at the northern end of our 700 KA. The year of her birth, 1914, coincided with the beginning of World War I. Little Joyce must have moved with her family to Sydney during or after the this ‘War to end all wars’, because she took her first dance classes in that city at the age of four. As a teenager, she performed with some of Sydney’s leading dance and theatre companies, and, had she remained in the Big Smoke, could have enjoyed a successful city career. Instead, she married a farmer in Dubbo who shared her passion for the arts. Mrs Schneider finally retired from her dance academy at the age of 90 having trained at least three generations of locals in the arts of dance and life. She passed away in 2015, at the age of 101, leaving her adopted town and region a remarkable legacy.

I suspect that some of Mrs Schneider’s former students were in her namesake auditorium watching Encoded with me on that Saturday night. I like to think that they too marvelled at the production’s daring choreography, the startling virtual costumes, and the simulated fluids surging across the stage walls in response to the dancers’ movements. I wondered though what Mrs Schneider herself would have thought about dancers soaring across her stage on wires to interact with pre-programmed devices that were only invented in the last decade of her long life.

And what about all the social changes she witnessed and was part of between the 1930s and 2015 in Dubbo?

When Mrs Schnieder married her farmer and established her dance academy, the families of the young Thikkabilla Vibrations dancers, and Tyrone Gordon’s own Wiradjuri forebears, were still reeling from the impact of the invasion, conquest and colonisation of their homelands, and were enduring extreme racism, discrimination and injustice, as were all First Peoples in Australia at the time. I suspect that young Wiradjuri people who wanted to dance would have been very unwelcome at Mrs Schneider’s dance academy back then.

Many Wiradjuri descendants are still enduring the consequences of this history, or course, but what I witnessed in Dubbo that night was something different: a new generation of descendants proudly celebrating 60,000 years of their people’s resilience, in music, dance and song. There, in Dubbo’s Victoria Park, all our pasts and presents were entwining, entangling, and yes, even reconciling, to allow a very different kind of future to emerge. Tyrone Gordon and his youthful Thikkabilla Vibrations dancers, Mrs Schneider and her legacy, us DREAMfesters with our multiple generations of cultural baggage, and now you too, dear reader. All of us embracing the power of the Arts to effect (and reflect) social and personal change.

As the didge didged into silence and the clapsticks clapped their last, as the traders dismantled their food and trinket stalls and the coloured lights faded into darkness, another question rose in my mind: what will we be able to look back on when – and if – we reach Mrs Schneider’s ripe old age? Having experienced a little of Dubbo’s twenty-first century diversity, I left Victoria Park feeling remarkably positive about this small inland city and its future.

Dubbo’s 2017 DREAMfest in Victoria Park across the road from the Joyce Schneider Auditorium. Credits: Merrill Findlay, 22 October, 2016.

The following morning David and I met on a grassy knoll overlooking Wambuul, or Macquarie River, Dubbo’s main artery and the reason for its existence. We’d already discovered a few common threads in our lives, not least of which were our rural childhoods and our experiences of growing up near major research telescopes; in my case, CSIRO’s Parkes Radio Observatory, and in David’s, Mount John University Observatory on New Zealand’s South Island, in what is now the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve.

‘Yeah, living near an Observatory gives you a kind of ownership on the stellar system! On the galaxy!’ David quipped, as we shared our memories. ‘It somehow gave us more permission to look at the stars and dream!’

For David and his family in rural New Zealand, the Mount John telescope was ‘an outpost of the imagination’, just as the Parkes Observatory still is for me and my rural family. David recalls lying on the grass at night, gazing up at the sky, and being overwhelmed by what he described as ‘the scale of it all, the awe, the wonder…’. His passion for astronomy led him to study astrophysics at university — until he discovered that he had more of an aptitude for the Arts than for differential equations!

Decades later, our Big Skies Collaboration is drawing these threads together for David, as he mulls over Stalker’s contribution to our 50th anniversary celebration of another formative event in our lives: the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. Humanity’s collective understandings of our Universe have expanded way beyond what we thought we knew in 1969, however, and our astronomical and astronautical aspirations have grown so much bigger and bolder. Research projects now underway at observatories within our 700 Kilometre Array, are, in David’s words, ‘taking us to the furthest limits of what we can imagine.’ Such ventures include Yuri and and Julia Milner’s Breakthrough Listen initiative at the Parkes Observatory, and its follow-up project, Breakthrough Starshot, to send a fleet of light-driven nanocrafts to Alpha Centauri to investigate its exoplanets.

Equally exciting, from a Big Skies Collaboration perspective, is the growing acknowledgement among astronomers that that Australia has an astronomical heritage which dates back more than 50,000 years (See Hamm et al, ‘Cultural innovation and megafauna interaction in the early settlement of arid Australia’, Nature 539 (7628): 280-283; and Tobler et al, ‘Aboriginal mitogenomes reveal 50,000 years of regionalism in Australia, Nature, 8 March 2017, preprint doi:10.1038/nature21416.)

One of our collaborators, cultural astronomer Trevor Leaman, is working with communities to explore, analyse and document the Wiradjuri astro-heritage in his Wiradjuri Astronomy Project. He has also commissioned Wiradjuri artist Scott Towney to visually represent his people’s traditional constellations and other cosmic phenomena. Trevor has uploaded these graphics to Stellarium, the free open source online planetarium program, so people around the world can view our Southern Sky as Wiradjuri people saw it in pre-colonial times. Scott’s images, and some of the stories Trevor’s research is uncovering, will, I expect, feature strongly in Stalker Theatre’s 2019 production.

Scott Towney's representation of Mouyi, the Sulphur Crested Cockatoos, also known as The Southern Pointers, or Alpha and Beta Centauri, which guide our eyes to the constellation Crux, or the Southern Cross (Yarran-Du), for the Wiradjuri Astronomy Project. © Scott Towney 2017.
Scott Towney’s representation of Mouyi, the Sulphur Crested Cockatoos, also known as Alpha and Beta Centauri, or The Southern Pointers, which guide our eyes to Yarran-Du, aka Crux or the Southern Cross. © Scott Towney 2017 for The Wiradjuri Astronomy Project, Big Skies Collaboration.

Some of the themes David Clarkson is now exploring for the 2019 show parallel those he addressed in Encoded. As he explained to me on the river bank, Encoded was, for him, a poetic meditation on fragility, on the changing nature of our external and internal spaces. Encoded’s characters –- the four dancers and the interactive system which (sort of) performed as a fifth character — take us on a symbolic journey through ‘Western’ constructions of space and time. The first scenes immerse us in a ‘naturalised’ organic space in which the dancers appear to glide through a field of stars, as generated by the show’s fluid simulation algorithm. Slowly the dancers ‘stir’ the ‘fluid’ projections into the more geometrically constructed patterns representing the European Renaissance  – think Copernicus’s heliocentrism, Galileo’s telescope, Newton’s gravitation, and Gutenberg’s 2D printing, for example. Then they stir the fluid some more to figuratively take us into the more complex era of the European Enlightenment, with its Scientific and the Industrial Revolution, as represented by rapidly moving straight-lines and factory-like projections.

As you’ve seen in the video, the choreography, music and projections become ever more complicated in the penultimate scenes to evoke what David calls ‘Coffin Space’: ‘a neurotic but vulnerable place I feel humanity is travelling towards where, as a community, we’re becoming more and more isolated, more and more fragmented into our individual units, economic consumer status which, ultimately, I think, fragments and breaks society, and will lead to an intense state of alienation or vulnerability.’

Vulnerability, isolation, fragmentation, the breakdown of society … not a good place to end a performance! Better to send people home feeling, if not joyful about the future, then at least hopeful that we humans can somehow redeem ourselves to avoid the doom of Coffin Space.

‘We kind of took the leap of faith,’ David continued from the river bank: ‘So, the last few scenes [of Encoded] are, if you like, virtual space, an imagined world where the best aspects of virtual reality, or cyberspace, are actually integrated with our humanity. And the creative possibilities of technology and humanity are not negative, in the way of the hydrogen bomb, but creative in the sense that we have enlarged our field of play.’

‘What I wanted to do was leave the audience with a poignancy of grace, of human and technology existing together in the wonder of the universe.’

Yeah, that’s what I felt at the end of Encoded! A ‘poignancy of grace’. And wonder. Thank you.

Such productions take a long time to develop though, and can be very expensive. Encoded took two years of R&D before it was ready for public performance. Much of that work was done with Andrew Johnston, Associate Professor in the School of Engineering and IT at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), co-director of the Creativity and Cognition Studios (CCS), and director for the new Animalogic Academy at UTS, and with Andrew Bluff aka Rollerchimp. (These two Andrews have, with David, have published several scholarly articles in international journals outlining the technologies they used for Encoded and subsequent productions. You can find them with a quick search on Google Scholar.)

Those years of R&D and deep innovation have delivered some very remarkable outcomes. Encoded has now been performed all over Australia; it has toured the Netherlands and South Korea to critical acclaim; and the technologies developed for it have been used in subsequent Stalker productions, including Pixel Mountain for Korea’s 2013 Gwacheon Festival, and Hi! Seoul.

In 2015 David was awarded the inaugural Arts NSW Art & Technology Fellowship to continue his work with the Creativity & Cognition Studios. The outcomes of this partnership now include Dot and the Kangaroo, as you’ve already seen, and Creature Interactions, an enthralling immersive 3D playspace in which participants interact with the virtual bush environment created for ‘Dot’.

David brings to his work both the poetic imagination of an artist, and the scientific rigour he picked studying astrophysics in his undergraduate years. His collaboration with Andrew Johnston, at the UTS School of Engineering and IT, places his work at the very nexus between the so-called STEAM disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics. That ‘A’ in the acronym is both intrinsically and instrumentally important  … because the addition of Arts to the traditional STEM mix of disciplines can inspire creative, divergent and integrative thinking, and empathetic design, all of which we need urgently in these challenging times. It’s an old idea. Think of Leonardo da Vinci, for example. Was he an artist, a scientist, or an engineer? Could he have achieved so much in any single field without being passionately engaged in the others?

(There’s a growing literature supporting the ‘STEAM not STEM’ argument, and some great TEDx talks on the topic for educators and anyone else who’s interested, such as here, here, here, and here. Worth investigating if you haven’t thought much about the importance of the Arts in your life lately!)

David’s great challenge now is to develop a new outdoor theatrical event to spark people’s imagination about the bigger Universe, and inspire the same wonder and awe he felt when he gazed at the night sky as a child. He and his co-creators are already testing new immersive 3D technologies they hope to develop further for the 2019 production, and are exploring the possibilities of using some of the open source data now being harvested through Breakthrough Listen and other research initiatives. They’re also talking about  new ways of exploiting the potential of social media and big inflatable screens to link communities within our 700KA region and elsewhere in the world; and, of course, to televise our 2019 event globally.

And it’s all possible!

The 2019 project is now in what David calls its ‘post-germination’ phase. It’s sending out fragile shoots and roots, and all it needs to do is ‘get its tendrils into some nutritious soil.’ So how about giving us a hand to nurture and grow these tender tendrils, if you can …? But no tired old stereotypes about inland rural Australia, please. And no clichés. We’re much better than that!

Merrill Findlay
Co-founder, Big Skies Collaboration
Forbes, NSW, Australia

Page posted 10 March 2017. Last updated 14 March with a few typo corrections.


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