By KIERAN FINNANE
I join other participants at the Alice Desert Festival hub in the Youth Centre and follow performer Fina Po to a gathering point opposite the Todd Tavern. This event is called Out Hear in Alice Springs, so I’m expecting an emphasis on listening even if I’m primarily attracted by the prospect of experiencing art made in the out-of-doors. This is not unheard of in this town, yet it doesn’t happen often. Surprising perhaps, given the dramatic character of the landscape all around, in both its cultural and natural dimensions.
We follow Po onto the footbridge crossing the Todd at Wills Terrace. It’s unusual for so many people to enter the bridge at the one time. Two Aboriginal women are coming in the opposite direction. They are perhaps wondering what is going on.
I’m in the rear. The signal must have come to stop and look around … North from the footbridge the river is quiet on this warm afternoon. I can’t help noticing with the usual bleakness the dried feral grasses – couch and buffel. Not many sounds can compete with the passing traffic, its noise increased by the causeway’s uneven slabs of concrete. They sound as if they move as the vehicles pass over them.
We are heading for the first stop under one of the fine old river red gums along the eastern bank (see photo at top).
Po hands out earplugs. This will change the way we are listening. It will mute some sounds, heighten others. She hands around slices of apple. Again, there’s a sense of being taking care of. I’ve forgotten to bring water and the moist sweetness on my tongue is welcome. The earplugs amplify the sound of my chewing inside my head. I look up into the branches of the great tree; some of them are dead. There are small pointed protrusions all along the trunk and live branches. There’s the wrinkling of bark in the forks. The canopy is not thick but enough to shield us from the sun.
We keep going, northwards along the bank, following a two-wheel track. I am aware of the silence of my companions, can hear my footsteps and some of theirs, muffled by the earplugs.
I become aware of a sound, something like a cowbell. I look around, trying to identify it. I realise it is being made by a man in dark glasses and a khaki shirt. He has something in his hand. It looks like a sugar-shaker. I expect he is the sound artist named in the program, Dale Gorfinkel.
We stop in front of a group of saplings, a fallen burnt trunk. The buffel is growing greenly here. I slowly became aware of a gurgling sound, then a little symphony of gurgling sounds, and after a while see that it is coming from bottles filled with water, strung up in the branches. Perhaps they are attached to a small speaker.
Gorfinkel dons a hi-vis vest and takes over as leader. I don’t notice Po slip away.
He leads us across the drain that runs along Gosse Street.
Walking, just the sensation of it, contact with different surfaces, and actually moving along on foot in this area where I mostly drive: it’s pleasant to be doing this and thinking about doing it.
At the base of Spencer Hill, where it forms something of an amphitheatre facing the river, Gorfinkel uses an instrument to make bird-like whistling sounds. It’s as if he’s calling to the hill, and to the birds who might be up there.
From here we turn down into the river. A big kangaroo comes bounding into view. I raise my camera to take a shot … and almost fall as I step into a rut. I decide to focus more on where I am putting my feet.
I hear Po before I see her. Her voice and laughter, overly loud in the way of mobile phone users in a public space, where they seem to be performing their connectedness elsewhere for all to see and hear. Obsession with her phone is the key motif of Po’s performance at this stop. The point being, no doubt, that phones and other devices get in the way of being present, of taking in what is going on around you, including the sights and sounds of the natural world.
Meanwhile Gorfinkel is sorting out his extraordinary instrument, made from bottle detritus found in the river, as well as a few brass trumpets, connected by reticulation piping. He blows through the inter-connected pipes, again producing a strange little symphony – huffing, whistling, soft trumpeting, sighing.
We continue northwards. Gorfinkel has two trumpets, inter-connected by plastic hosing. He blows in one and brings the other down onto the sand, in a kind of cupping action which seems to pick up sound from the ground.
It is both amusing and a little alarming to come across Po half-buried in the sand, her face covered in the silk scarf that she has been wearing round her neck, the mobile phone sticking up like some kind of mortuary object or symbol.
Gorfinkel takes the phone and pockets it. A ripple of soft laughter amongst the rest of us. He begins to cover Po with more sand, using his trumpets to scoop the sand, then his hands, and finally sprinkling sand over her face so that she completely disappears from view. A symbolic return to the earth … but inseparable for me from its association with burying the dead. I am troubled by the predicament of the living Po.
Some of us, including the children of the party, go up to where she is. We can see the river sand rising and falling with her breath. Fascinating. Beautiful. Reassuring, to an extent.
Gorfinkel gains our attention by blowing on a gong, which produces a kind of resonant humming sound. He leads us away. I start to follow but feel unsettled. I keep looking back, wanting – for peace of mind – to see Po rise out of the riverbed. She doesn’t.
I can’t keep going. I turn back.
I’ve been obediently silent and otherwise doing as I’ve been told for about an hour, and appreciating it. I have a sense of breaking the rules. The notorious Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures enters my mind. Are we in fact being put to this kind of test? My rational mind tells me no, that everything up until this moment has had its own artistic logic and integrity, that the ‘burial’ must have been practised in advance. Po and Gorfinkel must be confident that she can breathe and extract herself without a problem. But still …
I kneel down in the sand where I think she is, looking for the scooping marks Gorfinkel left. I can’t see the rising and falling. Perhaps I’m not in quite the right spot, but that thought only worries me more. I am still feeling constrained by stepping outside my role and by breaking the silence, but I speak to the spot where I think she is, in a hushed tone: “I just couldn’t leave while you were buried in the sand.”
Po sits up immediately, a metre or so away.
“Thank God!” My relief expressed in the primal phrase of my heritage.
“Is it a legal thing?” she asks. “Are you part of the festival?” (I’m wearing a festival media pass on a lanyard.)
“No, no, just an anxiety thing. I was worried someone would walk on you or drive over you.”
There are car tracks through the sand but these worries have only just occurred to me. My anxiety has definitely been around seeing her ‘buried alive’.
Now I can leave. I go ahead to join the others.
At this point my camera runs out of battery. I’m happy not to take any more photos, just to be in the experience. Then my trusted colleague turns up. I break the silence again. He has water. I drink thirstily. And he’ll take a few more photos on his mobile phone. When I catch up with the others, Gorfinkel is handing out blindfolds. Another way of helping us to listen differently.
He plays his trumpets. I can hear galahs overhead and other birdcalls … although they might be sounds Gorfinkel is making. After a while I get better at distinguishing between the two. There is silence too. And then in the distance, a siren.
A tap on my shoulder. I wait expectantly. Then a tug at the blindfold. It is Po. I take it off. She moves on to the next person.
I lie down and keep listening. As if on queue a breeze moves through the branches overhead, turning the leaves this way and that, bright in the light, and brushing them against one another, that lovely rustling sound that is almost like running water.
It must be the voice of Gorfinkel: “Who wants to eat cake?”
The food is laid out on a cloth decorated with bark and branchlets from the river gums. We picnic in the shade. It is over. Gently, graciously.
While I eat I ask the artists about what seems to me a tension between the nurturing that has marked most of the experience and the quite violent (for me) image of the ‘burial’.
“She’s my girlfriend!” says Gorfinkel, surprised that I could have seen it that way and also pointing out the playfulness of his pocketing the mobile phone. He talks about how much he values Po’s playfulness generally.
Po is also surprised. She speaks of how she felt as she lay there under the sand – peaceful, connected, returned to the earth “as happens for all of us”.
Some of the others have read it this way too. One speaks of the Aboriginal cleaning and healing practice of sand baths.
People start to leave. Most climb up out of the riverbed to walk on the track back to town. I do too, eventually. A ringneck parrot is sitting on the fence I climb through. A lizard scuttles across the path and freezes at the edge until I go past. A young woman jogs past heading towards the Telegraph Station. In the riverbed a man and his dog are walking.