Walking towards the pale grey, surround sound pavilion that has descended onto the lawn of Blacktown showgrounds, it is hard to imagine that the project began as an entirely intangible experience. The original genesis of the project was when newly installed creative director of Urban Theatre Projects Rosie Dennis initiated a program of four small commissions for Aboriginal artists to tell whatever story they wished to tell, which were then broadcast on Koori Radio.
But for a theatre company there was something missing. The experience of coming together to experience story, to listen and to share a space, were not yet realised. Commissioning architect Kevin O’Brien to design the space, the box was born.
After its first installation at Barangaroo, the box has relocated to Blacktown, with a new program of speakers curated by Bundjalung and Kullilli artist and journalist Daniel Browning.
“Every time it's moved there's new artists,” described Browning. “At Barangaroo there were fifteen key artists, many different voices, ninety minutes of sound - this is forty five minutes, with four key artists. It's a different beast.”
What has been maintained is the connection to country. The box’s floor is the ground on which is is installed, and in this iteration, the speakers are four local First Peoples, the Four Winds of the project’s title. Producer Andrea James, a Yorta Yorta and Kurnai woman, noted how the connection to the land that Blak Box sits on is suffused throughout the installation.
“[Blak Box artist] Aunty Edna is one of the oldest living Dharug speakers still living in Blacktown,” noted James. “She has gifted language to [songwoman] Emma Donovan and [composer] Eric Avery who’ve created music and sound. Because the language is sung, the vibration of the land happens through Aunty Edna's incredible gift of language.”
Joining Aunty Edna in dialogue is Uncle Wes Marne, Savarna Russell and Shaun Millwood. With an age gap of almost eighty years between the two elders and Russell and Millwood, the space and time in which the conversations occur is vast, as Browning highlighted.
“Although this is storytelling from Western Sydney and from Blacktown in particular, Uncle Wes talks about epic journeys in western Queensland when he was a drover and fencer. He talks about walking from Longreach to Blackall and his adventures, the things that happened on those incredible journeys.”
For the younger artists, who ask questions of the Elders, there has also been a process of traversing through time, and in connecting these two experiences, Browning hopes to provide a platform for otherwise unheard perspectives.
“The very young and the very old, I think their voices aren't being heard in the national conversation.”
Creating a space within the box for a period of concerted listening further challenges audiences to think about what voices and sounds are present both within and outside of the installation, and what are missing. Allowing for these voices to be heard also requires an awareness of the way they are being told, and what it means to tell them.
“Uncle Wes's stories,” noted Browning, “They're like a river, they meander, and then you come to that point, you come to that magical place at the end of the river. Whereas Savarna's stories are just like this is what happened, in 25 words or less.”
For James, this also requires an awareness that these stories are of their time and place, and creating a record of them is as important as the projection itself.
“Aunty Edna's daughter said, ‘We all want USB copies of this.’ For them it's going to be this really important family recording and document, and so it goes beyond art for us.”
In setting down these stories and editing them for the installation, the oral tradition of storytelling is inevitably changed, however it is increasingly pertinent that these stories are shared and remembered.
“it's a really beautiful thing that we are providing permanence to these things,” reflected James. “For Aunty Edna and Uncle Wes there's a real urgency to what they're telling us: ‘We are only on the planet for a short period of time and I need to say this.’”
Restating the value of these voices not only for the local community but for the society at large works to begin to reframe First Peoples as the tellers of their own stories, in new and innovative ways.
“These four people are the boss of their own story and then that really challenges ideas about Aboriginal people. It is Aboriginal people being actors, rather than people to whom history happened,” stated Browning. “We created history.”
Between hearing and listening, the solid and the fleeting, as Blak Box is lit with hues of blue, the stories continue to flow, to and from and around Blacktown.
Blak Box runs from January 9 to February 2. To buy tickets and find out more, click here: http://urbantheatre.com.au/2019/blakbox/