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 Semaphore is a newsletter and publishing project about art fromWestern Australia | Semaphore is a collaborative project and practice | Semphore enters into a dialogue with art from its rooted location of Boorloo on Noongar Country |


Five Short Blasts

27 September 2019
A collection of reflections by Christina Chau, Kelly Fliedner, Cassie Lynch, Melissa McGrath and Katherine Wilkinson
Perth Festival, Derbarl Yerrigan (Swan River)

Created by artists Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey in collaboration with Elder Marie Taylor, Cassie Lynch, Sarah Rowbottam, Katherine Wilkinson, Bec Reid, Christina Chau, Alex Desebrock, Sandy McKendrick, Mei Swan Lim, and many more; Five Short Blasts Fremantle is the fourth incarnation of a series of 80 minute-long, dawn and dusk journeys of 10 small, orange catamarans along the Derbarl Yerrigan (Swan River) and around the Fremantle Port. Each boat was accompanied by a skipper and four to five audience members. Broadcast to speakers specially installed in each catamaran was a sound work featuring a spoken reflection on the Deep Time of the river and port by Cassie. Woven through this recording were a plethora of oral histories and narratives of personal connection to the river and port by those who make it their home. As the flotilla of boats carved a route from Zephyr Cafe to the inner harbour of Fremantle Port and back again, their cargo/ audience looked out to shore. Rock formations, traffic, changing weather conditions, morning exercise enthusiasts, and a series of subtle performers provided a choreography of practical and poetic actions to accompany the sonic documentation of this place.

In preparing Semaphore, and I suppose far before this publication was really considered, Kelly and I have been talking about writing around and in response to impactful art; and what it means to be creating and viewing in Perth. Five Short Blasts provided a profound experience that still weaves into conversations we’re having 6 months later. The following text documents reflections by participants and contributors to Five Short Blasts as a way of grounding us on Whadjuk Nyoongar boodjar as we begin to write around, and in response to this place.
During the 2019 Perth Festival Kelly and I we were each living on opposing sides of the Derbal Yerrigan: Mosman Park and East Fremantle. It was my first Bunuru back in Perth for a number of years and I felt an incredible need to soak up as much salty air and squint through as much sun as possible to reconnect with this place.

We both experienced Five Short Blasts as audience members, and I while I don’t remember all the details of our first conversation following this, I do recall us trading the stories that we had heard about places that were starting to become familiar, yet known anew by witnessing them from another perspective. The physical perspective of being low in the water and up early on a crisp March morning. But also the perspective of specific histories, facts and narratives connecting to the shape of a rock or the habits of people who, like ourselves, made a home along the river. As a witness to these narratives, they felt like a way of calling the audience into the landscape (both geological and cultural) - welcoming, sharing, opening up. The connection of a tangle of quiet, personal narratives and big structures or/ long histories felt like it created a common space for us to sit in together.

I was meant to take the Five Short Blasts journey with my Dad. It seemed like a great way to share our common passion for listening to the radio, observing ecosystems and thinking about big questions with the less compatible inclinations for getting up early (Dad) and performance art (me). But as the date of our berth arrived my Grandfather was approaching the end of his time with us and my parents headed inland to the wheatbelt.
On a cloudy and rainy morning after far too little sleep, and with a great friend by my side, the gentle radio broadcast and showers of rain emulated the meditation app that I use to quell an anxious mind. I could tune in and out of it as my attention moved between rock forms, reflections, what remains when we go, wildlife, figures on the shore, knowledge of land, and the existential scale of fuck-off huge ships. Subtly receiving the transmission and thinking of next steps - hopeful, but wary.

Early on in the development phase of the project, Sarah Robottham one of the festival producers got in contact with us. At the time, my husband and I had just moved house in North Fremantle and were lucky enough to live 100m from Rocky Bay. Every day we would have our morning coffee at sunrise on the cliff, and in the afternoons after work we’d swim in the river out to the sandbank with a beer. I quickly became hypnotised by these rituals and wouldn’t stop talking about how the river had impacted our lives. Through Sarah, Tim and Madeleine came over and recorded my stories about our romance with North Fremantle: of night swims, watching a family of dolphins multiply and grow up over a summer, diving for prawns and crabs every Tuesday night, noticing how much the river changes across the seasons, and my husband diving in the river and port for work. At the time I was quietly pregnant in my first trimester and feeling constantly sick, and swimming in the river was the only thing that stopped me from chucking everyday.
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^^^ images by Cam Campbell

Attending Five Short Blasts six months later completely serenaded me. A lot of site specific works feel like a one-way artist’s response to place and community, however Five Short Blasts feels more like a total communal weaving facilitated by Madeleine and Tim. Looking back now, I realise how much they were soaking up and listening to everyone, and then quietly working the tales together. The people who speak in the recording express an intense love and wonder for that place, that I was only starting to begin to recognise in my own stories.

Experiencing the work on the boat and travelling on the river had a wonderful narrative arc the day that we went. We boarded at dusk when the river was flat, and the sun was still warm, and then coming into the port the wind came in and it started to rain. The thrill of being close to the container ships, and passing under the bridges while listening to the audio gave an immersive effect where I felt like I was travelling-with the narratives. It’s difficult to forget about the temporal dissonance with pre-recorded material, but taking the journey on the dinghy was a reminder of the constant weaving, and retelling of histories and narratives that are happening now, and have happened for centuries.

For the rest of the run I often stood on the cliff and watched the orange dinghys pass Rocky Bay. Every day was so different in weather conditions, and also with peoples reactions. I’d love to know more about the entire run of the work from Madeleine and Tim. A lot of people from my neighbourhood watched the work from the cliffs, beaches, bays, bridges, and coves. Some kids did monos on their bikes on the cliff, shouted at the boats from the rocks, did backflips off the jetty at Harvey beach while waving. All of these neighbours did it in a celebratory impromptu fashion, and I wonder if everyone on the boats thought that these mini performances were intended by the artists or not.

I encourage everyone to read the piece that Ruth Little wrote about Five Short Blasts - she so beautifully captures the feeling of the work and how deeply the connections to this work were felt.

My Five Short Blasts journey started with a phone call from Sarah Rowbottam (who was the first local Perth Festival Creative Producer for Five Short Blasts). Sarah was moving to Melbourne and was looking for someone to step into her role. From memory the specific line from Sarah was, ‘you’ve worked on so many projects about water, this is perfect for you!’
And it’s true, I’ve worked on a number of projects now in, on, around, or about water. The uniting element in all of these works has been this idea of water as a carrier of personal, collective and cultural memory. Water shapes our environments and is intrinsically linked to our social, economic and political systems. It feels obvious to say but because of this, people are so drawn (and feel so strongly) about artistic works that reflect this memory, that question our water infrastructure, or ask about the future of water. It’s a space that I continue to be fascinated by. Personally I also spend a lot of time in the ocean, so the answer to Sarah was always going to be yes.

The way Maddie, Tim and Bec work is deeply collaborative – they are generous with their knowledge and time and so trusting of the process and those they work with. There is uncertainty in collaboration, in trusting people and communities you have not worked with before to guide the creation of your work. I think it takes integrity, trust, nurturing and immense courage to work in this way. It is this process that Maddie, Tim and Bec embrace - the collaborations with Aunty Marie Taylor, Cassie Lynch and our water communities that define Five Short Blasts, and I think are the reasons it continues to resonate for so many in so many different ways. 

There were many moving parts to this work: the connections and gathering of voices and contributors from Fremantle’s water communities; the entire Perth Festival team, everyone contributed to this project in some way, our Production team who spent over 12 months negotiating with Australian Maritime Safety Authority and Fremantle Ports for our yellow fleet to be granted passage; our masterful boat builders, who worked endless nights to craft our Power Kittens (small catamarans); our incredible team of skippers, who still to this day see me and ask if I have any more art projects they can work on; our local artists, musicians, water performers, neighbours and the communities they created (only they know what they did); our unseen radio technicians (guardians of the tower); the Manifest – the record that tied all these elements together.

My time on this project was spent navigating all these networks and elements. I was on the phone a lot, and at the river edge, speaking to wharfies, boat-owners, farmers and rowers. Walking, riding and driving the Five Short Blasts route which connected Fremantle Ports to the Swan Yacht Club and up again to the Sea Rescue Tower.
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^^^ images by Cam Campbell

During the performances, every day I would wake up at 3.45am to turn on my two kettles in my small Fremantle kitchen, to prepare the flasks of tea for each of our boats. I’d arrive at Zephyr’s Café at 4.30am to be greeted by Maddie, Tim, Bec. Our early rising skippers would already be gathered at the shoreline tending to their boats; our Whatsapp groups would start to chime in from their various vantage points along the river; our morning briefing would begin. We would get ready to welcome you.

Over our 30 performances these morning and evening greetings, tea preparations and skipper briefings became our collective ritual. As our audiences arrived, they entered into these rituals, into this small community we had created. In coming on this journey, we asked you to trust us, to trust your skipper to guide you into the watery unknown. Watching every single person who came to Five Short Blasts give this trust and climb eagerly into our little fleet was extraordinary. We’d send you off to be welcomed by the salty waters of the Derbarl Yerrigan.

I also watched all your faces as you returned. As Aunty Marie thanked you for coming and the five short blasts echoed. I don’t have the words to describe that feeling. I still cry every time I think about it.
In June last year I was down near the south coast, hanging out at my parent’s place in Mount Barker. I was driving along Albany Highway at the time and I got a call from the curator for Perth Festival Writers Week 2018, Will Yeoman, and I pulled over next to a paddock to answer it. I had gotten to know Will because he helped me out on Woylie Fest, an Aboriginal book festival for kids I run, and I had done some interviewing sessions at Perth Writers Week that February. He asked me if I knew any young Noongar writers who would be interested in writing about place, and that Perth Festival 2019 was going to feature a sonic art project that responded to the Swan River. I said to him, ‘hey no one off the top of my head, but I have a forthcoming short story called ‘Split’ which is going to be in Stories of Perth, and it’s about the deep history of Perth, of the wetlands seeping up through the pavers of the CBD’. I said I would love to be considered and Will passed my details onto someone at Perth Festival called Sarah who I hadn’t met before. I sent the unpublished story to Sarah and she loved it, and invited me to come meet the artists Maddie and Tim.

I had a couple of meetings with Maddie, Tim and Sarah, and I wanted to be involved as their creative writer, but there is protocol about speaking and working on Whadjuk Country, and any Country, and being South Coast Noongar I conveyed that I could really only be involved if a Whadjuk Elder was consulted and gave me their blessing.
My intended story would involve elements of Whadjuk knowledges about the river, and I find that I can’t write about place without referencing stories and ideas by the people who created human civilisation there. I think it’s a sign of great generosity and integrity from the artists and organisers that they extended the budget to have Elder Marie Taylor involved, who is a boss lady of river Country. Bilya Burdiya, Moorditj Kaadatjin Yok. Another strength of the project was that there was flexibility with Marie’s involvement budget-wise, the producers paid her for whatever involvement she wanted, and in the end she wound up being on the project as an interviewee. She came out on the boats, shared knowledge, history and insights to the river, and her’s was the first and last voice you hear in the final mix.

I took great pride that I was part of a project that was done the right way by my culture, and that I was working with people who didn’t make me choose between making an income and adhering to cultural protocol. It is not good for the spirit to bypass Traditional Custodians on their Country, especially on projects that are rooted in history and place. Last year I was still finding my feet with what is and isn’t appropriate, and Five Short Blasts Fremantle gave me this big chunk of time with an Elder to learn and settle and be strong for community, of how to appropriately make an income and contribute to community here, even though my ancestral Country is miles away on the south coast. 
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^^^ images by Toni Wilkinson

I think the involvement of Marie transformed the project, and my creative piece for Five Short Blasts was better for it. I wrote a page-long creative piece referencing the deep time of the river near Fremantle, of the stories written into the rock beneath the river’s body, and the creator serpents whose bodies the little boats float on. I write about the deep history of place in my PhD and this project really helpfully aligned with that creative space I had already been exploring. I recorded the story with Maddie and Tim down at East Fremantle by the river where the boats would launch, in a little gazebo with djidi-djidis hopping around. Marie came down too and recorded her Welcome to Country. Then I was done for the time being, Maddie and Tim went off to turn it into a sonic art piece.

A couple of months later Katherine got in touch about contributing to the Five Short Blasts Fremantle Manifest, the little book that every festival-goer will get. She commissioned Marie and I to write up a Noongar glossary of words, and asked me to write an introduction for the manifest. I suggested an extended Acknowledgement of Country for the project on behalf of the artists. The extended Acknowledgement of Country featured places, events and people specific to that part of the river and I was delighted to write it. Something longer than the usual Acknowledgement gave me time to convey my wonder and gratitude to live in such a beautiful place that has been cared for by Whadjuk people since before the Long Ago Times. The manifest also has my story printed in it and it is great to have record of it beyond the project.

I brought one of my PhD supervisors along on one of the morning rehearsal trips, and then another supervisor came along on a 5:30pm show. I was so pleased to be able to share this great project with people invested in my research.  We couldn’t convince Marie to come out on the yellow Power Kittens for the shows, she was like ‘hell no’ to the little boats, she didn’t want to get in! My family and friends came along to the last show and I got some great photos with the Aboriginal flag on the beach and on the boats. Sometimes my family and friends don’t 100% understand the life of an Indigenous academic and writer and taking them out and immersing them in this project was a great bridge to share what I am about.

When I was lucky enough to participate in Five Short Blasts, I had only lived in Perth for a year or so, had barely started getting to know it, and was trying to navigate my way in and through this place. As someone who has lived almost my entire life inland, the ocean is a zone that I am yet to understand. Its powerful visible and hidden currents, its rising and falling lines, its stinging salt. But I did grow up on a river—the Murray River—and so the river is something that makes sense to me, is a language I can read. And although this river—the Derbarl Yerrigan, the Swan—is not the same river, it’s patterns obviously and necessarily divergent, its contours of mixed fresh and saltwater new to me, it became the bridge and foundation in which my understanding of the ocean grew. 
I spent that 2018-19 summer swimming in the salty estuarine river mouth of colliding waters; finding shelter from the blustering afternoon sea winds in Rocky Bay; exclaiming to anyone around (and sometimes just to myself), ‘look a dolphin!’; trying not to step on the schools of minnow fish rushing against my legs as I walked upon raised sandbanks; and, adjusting, ever-so-slightly, inch by inch, to the salty ways of the ocean. With Luce Irigaray in my ear, ‘endless rapture awaits whoever trusts the sea’, I persisted in getting to know the unfamiliar through the familiar in this intersecting ecology between river and ocean.

The immediate popularity of Five Short Blasts and scarcity of available tickets meant that I was initially resigned to waking up in the morning, switching on the online radio broadcast on my phone, and walking down to the river to watch the flotilla of yellow boats from the shore. In retrospect, and after having gained a last-minute release onboard berth, I realised that I had unbeknown become part of what Christina gestures to—a collective community of onshore participants, muddying the boundaries between where Five Short Blasts began and ended.

After multiple on and offshore experiences of the transmitted sound component of Five Short Blasts, I realised that through listening to the stories I was triangulating my own fledgling relationship to the river and port. Amongst a network of complicated, intersecting experiences of country—both Noongar and settler—woven together like the mixing waters of the river mouth, the work became a way to remember my own status as an immigrant-settler and acknowledge the histories of creation and connection, movement and trade, as well as loss and dispossession, that have led to and enabled my received privilege here today. I am immensely grateful for being able to listen to those stories, the generosity with which they were shared, and for being able to become privy (in a minor way) to something that was invisible to me before.

In editing this piece I have realised that I am thinking on the gatherings facilitated by Five Short Blasts in February and March of this year, from September 2019, one week after the Global Climate Strike. Over the last week in discussing the rally and march through the Perth CBD to the reclaimed banks of the Derbarl Yerrigan I have used a number of descriptors that are echoed in the contributed reflections published here.

Of recognising your own relationship to (and responsibility for) environment and community through storytelling. Of the agency in performing impromptu actions within public space. Of transforming actions to rituals through repetition. Of the collective power drawn from looking out at the world from within a mass of people, within the swell of a river.

In international maritime language the sound signal of five short blasts means, “I am not sure of your intentions and am concerned we are going to collide.”

Uncertainty balanced by keeping track, keeping time, keeping going. 

Five Short Blasts
— Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey Elder Marie Taylor, Cassie Lynch, Sarah Rowbottam, Katherine Wilkinson, Bec Reid, Christina Chau, Alex Desebrock, Sandy McKendrick, Mei Swan Lim, and many more people from the various water communities of Fremantle.

Perth Festival, February 2019 >>> link to video documentation >>> link to project publication

Photographs courtesy of the artists and Perth Festival, and taken by Cam Campbell and Toni Wilkinson.

Kaya. We acknowledge the Whadjuk People of Boorloo boodja who are the traditional owners of the land where Semaphore is made. We respect their culture, their custodianship, and their continuing contribution to the life of this city and this region. That includes recognising and respecting sovereignty while working in solidarity towards a treaty and supporting ongoing connection to country. That means linguistic rights, economic opportunity, and artistic endeavour. To their Elders, past, present and emerging, we say thanks.