Kim V. Goldsmith is an established digital media and installation artist, based near Dubbo in Central New South Wales, Australia. Raised on a large mixed farm in the region and going on to work as a rural journalist, farmer, and a marketing communications specialist in the rural, regional and natural resources sectors over the past 30 years, Kim uses her knowledge, experience and networks in her art practice to explore new perspectives on rural and remote landscapes, the issues impacting them, and the stories at their heart.
Kim has been working collaboratively with me on our Mosses and Marshes project, with her component of the project called Pulse of the Wetland, documented over the past year through her website, ecoPULSE. Pulse of the Wetland is centred on the iconic Australian wetland, the Macquarie Marshes, where Kim has spent the past year using cameras and sound recorders to document the recovery of the wetland from prolonged drought and fire. She explains more about what’s she’s been doing.
What drew you to the idea of working collaboratively on the issues faced by Mosses and Marshes?
I’ve been working in the field of environmental, issues-based art making for over a decade now, largely because it made more sense to bring something to the table as an artist rather than just documenting what was happening around me, as I had for several years before that. Having been part of Arts Territory Exchange for the past three years, I knew collaborating with someone with a different practice and perspective on things is an extremely powerful way of working, extending one’s thinking and ultimately the actions resulting from those investigations. It makes you think harder about what you do and why.
The issues we’re dealing with in Mosses and Marshes isn’t limited to the politics or existential questions of what the future holds for these fragile wetland ecosystems, it’s about the need for new perspectives that may expose our shared hopes for the future and provide insights into what the collective effort to get there might look like. The way Andrew and I work means we become part of the conversation, and our work can potentially create a platform that invites others to be part of it too. Conversations lead to connections. From there, you start to see we all share more in common than we first thought.
You’re working in the Macquarie Marshes in the northern part of Central NSW. What sort of environment is it?
The Macquarie Marshes are a bit of a mythical place as 90 percent of the 200,000 hectares considered ‘Marsh country’ is privately owned. Those land managers often run cattle in the wetter areas, as they’re the last places to have water and feed when things get dry, with sheep mostly grazing the dryer surrounding floodplain areas.
By British standards, it’s a very harsh environment. The Marshes are one of the largest remaining inland semi-permanent wetlands in south-eastern Australia, with extensive areas of phragmites reeds, water couch (coo-ch) grassland, River Red Gum woodlands and floodplains supporting an incredible amount of life. The Marshes are particularly noted as one of the most important nesting sites for waterbirds in Australia – with 77 water-loving species recorded in the area, including the beautiful brolga, iconic magpie goose, elusive booming Australasian bittern, and painted snipe. It’s also home to 156 species of woodland birds, fish, turtles, frogs, snakes and mammals, including kangaroos, emus and plenty of feral pigs.
The private property I’ve had the most access to throughout the year sits right on the boundary of the 10,000 hectare, Ramsar-listed Northern Marsh, and covers three of the main vegetation zones (all except for water couch grasslands), giving me a rare opportunity to sample the drought recovery of the Marshes within a contained area of 260 hectares. It hasn’t run livestock since it was purchased in the early 2000s. I’ve gathered content from a few other areas around the area, including Gibson’s Way that sits between the Northern and Southern Marsh, where you can see birds such as pelicans and black swans alongside grazing cattle from the road, as well as at a couple of locations at the top and bottom of the Marsh area. I’ve been working mostly at dusk, through the night and at dawn, which makes access to other less suited areas a bit of an issue.
The real connection with the landscape for me on Pulse of the Wetland has happened from repeat visits to the one site over time – experiencing the deafening night silence during the heat of summer when little black flies choke the hot day-time air, to the calls of lapwings piercing bone-numbing cold autumn nights after the water has returned to slowly soak into the dry cracked soils, slowly filling channels and stimulating new growth in the reed beds. My impending spring visit will be the next milestone in that experience. I’m expecting to see the reeds standing over my head — they were close last time I was there, and the woodland birdsong should be at full chorus. And fingers crossed, there’ll be more waterbirds on some of the lagoons as well.
What are the issues there?
Water sharing is the big issue – it’s a limited resource and there are many stakeholders. The Marshes sits at the end of a regulated river system, and apart from natural rain events, it’s dependent on environmental water allocations from Burrendong Dam, several hundred kilometres to the south on the Macquarie River system. The management of water and how its allocated has been a long-running issue, with the recent drought bringing the entire Murray Darling Basin of eastern Australia into sharp focus as dams across the Basin were reduced to unprecedented lows, including Burrendong. It put river-reliant communities on severe, prolonged water restrictions that created a great deal of debate at a grassroots level. There’s a school of thought amongst environmental activists that the river shouldn’t be regulated and that irrigated agriculture is misplaced in such an arid country and should therefore not receive a water allocation.
It’s the 23,000 hectare Ramsar-listed areas, managed by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, that are often the focus of the environmental water allocations – both the quantity and frequency of allocations. However, there’s a long-standing Marsh grazier saying that hints it’s not just conservation values that are being threatened. Fat ducks mean fat cattle. Given 90 percent of the area is privately owned, it’s really a tussle between upper and lower river system water users that’s made the Marshes a political water sharing football.
Burrendong Dam sits at the top of the regulated part of the Macquarie River and it’s one of the largest inland dams in NSW with a capacity three times Sydney Harbour (1,678,000 megalitres) that includes water storage and air space for flood mitigation. Completed in 1967, it took 21 years to build, and today it supplies towns downstream with water, environmental water (the bulk of the allocations), industry and domestic requirements, irrigated agriculture, as well as playing a flood mitigation and recreation role. There’s a 19-megawatt hydroelectric power station which generates energy using summer irrigation and flood mitigation flows.
How do you bring all the threads you’re investigating through these projects together into a body of work? What media are you playing with?
To be honest, it can seem overwhelming at times. I’ve received criticism of my project for not working across a broad enough area of the Marshes – for limiting my observations and documentation to just one part of 200,000 hectares that is perhaps considered an anomaly in the Marshes because it doesn’t run sheep or cattle. It’s easy to fall down that rabbit hole and doubt the scope of the project.
While I am documenting stages of recovery in the landscape, using local stories, scientific sounding boards and research to inform what I’m hearing and seeing, the underlying brief is to show the Marshes in a way that even those familiar with it may not have experienced it. I’m using contact mics and hydrophones to single out sounds, some of them silent to the human ear, and visually focusing on line, patterns, rhythms, and some of the more unseen elements of the landscape, all layered and abstracted in their final, digital format — a reflection of the processes that have shaped this landscape over millennia and our more recent post-colonial history. The politics, histories, stories, emotions and opinion are a swirling undercurrent acknowledged in documenting my process, but I’m hesitant to make them a focus of the works themselves. I’d like to see the aesthetic and sonic values of the hidden Marsh take centre stage.
I’m using a collection of microphones, sound recorders and cameras to record with, including a drone, underwater camera, and time lapse cameras. To capture the ‘hidden’ sounds within the landscape I’m using contact mics and hydrophones, with atmospheric recordings using acoustic sound recorders and 360 sound that form the base of multi-track compositions.
When will you be presenting the outcomes of your project?
I’ve got a couple more field trips between now and November to get recordings and collect audio stories, then it’s into the studio for a few months of post-production over our Aussie summer. As well as our individual works, we’re also planning to collaborate and contribute something to each other’s output. I’m looking forward to that and possibly revealing a teaser of what’s to come by World Wetlands Day on 2 February 2021.
We’re obviously trying to organise exhibitions before we have the works finished, which is always tricky, but Covid-permitting, we’ll soon start locking in some local and international presentation opportunities from mid-2021 into 2022.
In the second part of the conversation, we will be talking further in a little more depth about how our work will be presented and some of the themes to be explored.