Jenny-Anne McCowan was awarded travel funds from the Canada Council to assist with the costs of traveling to Australia and Thom Sokoloski awarded residency funds from the Ontario Arts Council to complete a four week professional development residency, exclusive of travel time. This residency was in Mapoon, Queensland, Australia, located in the Gulf of Carpentaria.
In addition to the support Ghosts Nets Australia provided in coordination and making this residency into a reality, the Mapoon Shire Council provided accommodation, guides, permissions, catering, office use, studio and installation space and permissions.
The goal of this professional development residency was to work with a range of artists, rangers and community members in Mapoon to learn more about the Ghost Nets, their impact on community and daily life, to learn, understand and practice the artistic techniques used by artists in the community and to witness and get physicality involved in reclaiming Ghost Nets from the shorelines.
Our experience in Mapoon extended above and beyond our expectations and goals. With the incredible support of Jane Blackwood, ranger coordinator at Mapoon, we had an extraordinarily informative stay in Mapoon. Jane facilitated meetings with the Elders, daily trips to visit different parts of Mapoon, shared her knowledge of wildlife, flora and what it means to understand one’s natural environment. She also shared with us her extensive knowledge in working with remote indigenous communities, the impact of mining on these communities, as well as other elements that influence the health of the land, marine life, the waters and Aboriginal culture.
What impacted us the most was the lifestyle that we shared while in Mapoon. Daily fishing trips, wild horses, wild dogs, foreign sounds, loud birds, snakes, lizards, spiders and crocodiles, casually meeting up with members of the community, sharing thoughts, ideas, time. The pace and freedom in the community was overwhelming and had a strong effect on how we have begun to re-imagine the artwork and the public participation in the work. Jane used the word ‘yarning’, to mean talking or having conversation and much of the creation of our work “Playground of Memories,” the installation we created at the end of our residency, was developed during our long days working and yarning as a group with the Ghost Nets.
Ghost Nets Australia scheduled all day long workshops which focused on the integration of Ghost Net materials into traditional artistry. Artists in attendance included Mapoon elders and community members, Western Australian contemporary artist Cecile Williams, South Australian Artist Gina Allain, Queensland’s artist Sue Ryan, established Arukun traditional Indigenous artists Janet Koongotema and Jean Walmbeng and several traditional weavers from Mapoon, Zoe and Stan de Jersey, as well as the Rangers themselves. Each day different members of the community dropped in to the workshops to learn new skills and techniques working with the Ghost Net materials and share stories. In the 1st week of the residency, we spent the majority of their time working with the nets, unraveling the rope, cutting and shaping it into different things; masks, necklaces, baskets and bags. During this phase, a good understanding of the community, the rhythm of the town, the politics and its history was gleaned. This hands-on work and daily discussion gave the artists the opportunity to begin imagining a temporal installation for the community.
Through the development of the installation “Playground of Memories” we were able to explore the material of the Ghost Nets in various ways. The playground in Mapoon, consisted of a series of play structures and was surrounded by a series of posts designed to hold a shade tarp for the playground. The tarp had been accidentally destroyed by children of the community who had more fun using it as their improvised trampoline. We spent time gathering and unraveling nets and then a week mounting one tonne of Ghost Net to the playground structures. During this process, we explored different methods of weaving, tethering and stringing to create different shapes and effects and to create a sculpture from afar and a total environment through which the audience could move within, explore and become entangled. Through this, we became aware of the different kinds of nets that were available in Mapoon and the surrounding regions. Possible colours, shapes, sizes, weights and strengths all became known. Through the desire to create this temporal sculpture, a deeper understanding of the challenges for collecting nets that were intact and in good shape for sculpture making was learned as well as the challenges, costs, manpower and equipment for extracting them. All of this information became extraordinarily important in understanding the logistics of developing of a future and larger version of “The Ghost Net”.
We worked extensively with the indigenous people in the Ghost Net workshops organized by Ghost Nets Australia and our time at these workshops greatly impacted our understanding of the relational aesthetic that our studio Thomas+Guinevere is developing in its artworks. We explored the creative engagement of the public in our artwork as much as exploring the site and materials. The workshops were loosely organized and included a great deal of discussion, story-telling and learning from one another. An informal relationship between teacher and learner was present as each individual was respected for their knowledge of art, be it traditional or contemporary. It mirrored and matured what Thomas+Guinevere have been developing as their process of public participation.
What was extraordinary was experiencing an authentic process reflective of the traditional ways of teaching and learning in the Mapoon community. It represented a way of being and creating together while respecting and valuing the contributions of each member of the group. Participating in the workshops allowed us to understand and contextualize the participatory based process we have been developing and working to create within our work. It inspired us to look more closely at diverse ways of learning together, through story, speaking, silence and sharing.
As a concept for an installation started to define itself during the workshops, we began to ask the question, “If a Ghost Net landed in the middle of Mapoon, what would it catch? What content/things could we put inside the installation that would represent Mapoon?” There was a great deal of discussion around these questions when posed. Animals, history and people emerged as the answer to the question, and participants created artworks to represent these things. Although there wasn’t enough time to fully develop an artwork that answered these questions, many things emerged. Participants in the Ghost Net workshops created animals, horses, goannas (iguanas), snakes, frogs, fish, horses and butterflies. Several different dilly bags (for holding fish) and woven carpets and baskets were also created with traditional weaving methods for practical use and within the community. Individuals also began to create artworks that were based on their dreams. Works that were inspired by their desire to find stories that they wanted to share with their community. The questions asked emerged as an inspiration for thought, discussion and art-making. While posing the question to the Shire Council (band council), it became known that a large archive of photos of Mapoon life from roughly1895-1940 existed and was made available to the artists. 120 of these photos were printed, laminated and hung within the final installation we created.
When the ‘Playground of Memories’ opened, all of the works developed in the Ghost Net workshops were installed within the installation It was primarily the elders who attended the opening however citizens of the community came to view the work. People engaged with both the photographs and the nets which created a labyrinthine experience. People recognized photos of their ancestors in the artwork as well as the work that they had created during the workshops and shared stories and memories around what they saw. Members of the community, who rarely came together, met, spoke, listened and learned. Community generated content became a catalyst for engagement which is one of Thomas+Guinevere’s primary goals in their artwork. The importance of community involvement also emerged as an integral player in the success of the residency. As our way thanking everyone, we served up iced Inuit cloudberry tea infused with maple syrup we brought with us from Toronto.
For several days we had the opportunity to view the installation from afar, since it could be viewed from the front porch of our residence. Daily meetings between us discussing observations and experiences with the installation took place. We could also observe and discuss the movement of the public through our installation and cross the street to discuss their experiences with them when they were finished.
In addition to creating the installation “Playground of Memories” Jenny choreographed and performed a site-specific movement solo entitled “The Girl and the Crocodile” inspired by the stories shared with her by the elders and landscape of Mapoon. It was performed at the opening of the installation and videotaped by Cecile Williams. Thom shot also completed a series of videos around the construction of the installation and Cecile Williams completed a series of video interviews of Thom and Jenny based on their experiences and expectations of their residency in Mapoon. All video will be edited by Thom into an archive visual of the residency experience.
Positive relationships with the elders, council and rangers in Mapoon were developed during our residency which we intend to nurture and develop as we continue with the next stages of The Ghost Net.
We also had the opportunity to discuss the Ghost Net Programme with Riki Gunn, project coordinator for Ghost Nets Australia upon her visit to Mapoon and learn additional information about the logistics of transporting materials, other areas where Ghost Nets collect in the Pacific and the costs, labour, machines and materials needed for their removal and/or transportation to Canada or other parts of the world.
In concluding, this residency became an important testament to the collaborative and creative experiences between people. It demonstrated the richness of humanity when given the opportunity to seek a harmonious creative experience.