A River of Many Currents

A River of Many Currents

[One River Reference Group member Lani Houston shares her reflections on the Narrandera local project, Tipping Point, presented on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River at the site of the old Oakbank Brewery on Sat 20 April, 2013]. Pictured above: Aboriginal Elder, Cedric Briggs.

On a cool autumn evening I travelled with friends to Narrandera to view the much-anticipated presentation of Tipping Point, a project for One River. The sun was setting as we arrived in town and ventured on to the site of the old Lincoln’s Oakbank Brewery, nestled on the bank of the Murrumbidgee. We could feel a sense of excitement in the air. People were busily unpacking their cars and there were bubbles of conversation in the air as folk tussled for the best viewing spot to settle rugs, fold-up chairs and picnics. As the sun disappeared and the night sky revealed its constellations, I was struck by the magic of the setting and of the evening itself. The old Brewery appeared as a majestic structure in the darkening night, its empty windows framing the fading orange glow. This historic building was going to be our canvas for the Tipping Point story. The dark silhouettes of children could be heard laughing and playing. The set had been perfectly crafted for this special event.

I was excited about attending this event but also somewhat nervous. The Murray-Darling Basin is such an expansive area and the federal government’s Murray-Darling Basin Plan had aroused such an expansive range of emotions, particularly across the Riverina region, that I was cautious as to how this river story was going to be told or interpreted in the artwork. The river and the management of its waters has evoked substantial debate for decades, and ‘tipping points’ in this particular decade have certainly been triggered emotionally, environmentally, financially and socially. So my mind spun as to how this complex story, with its breadth of differing perspectives and emotions, could be effectively and usefully captured and conveyed.

Cedric Briggs, an Aboriginal elder who had grown up on the Murrumbidgee and Murray Rivers, opened the night with a warm welcome and a few tales of life on the river. This was a beautiful introduction and also a proud moment for many of Cedric’s family members, eagerly waiting to see how Cedric and many other storytellers would be represented within the production.

Vic and Sarah McEwan, the artists responsible for this work, have lived in this area for only a few years but their respectful, quirky and interesting creative practice is starting to filter into the fabric of the region.  Their varied creative projects are working to interpret and present the stories of many people living and working in communities across the region, and the sharing of knowledge and engaging conversations is a critical component in building community and creating understanding. Vic and Sarah were acutely aware of the complexities around the issue of river and the use of its waters, particularly in relation to the development of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and really wanted to approach the project in a non-confronting way so as to best capture the essence of the river and all its functions.

The artwork is a collection of images and animations cleverly woven together with recorded voices and sounds, effectively conveying a complex impression of life on the river. The work includes a narrator who plays the role of a weaver, threading together fact and story to establish a consistent current.  The animations are based on pictures drawn by young local aboriginal students who had the wonderful opportunity to listen to Cedric Briggs and to interpret his stories through their illustrations. This was a really beautiful method of engaging with the community and it has also added a unique element to the visual aspect of the artwork.

Tipping Point encompasses stories about all manner of things pertaining to and defining our experiences and understandings of the river: mission life, natives fish and animal species, farming, community, lifestyle, the environment, change, water skiing, fishing, farming business decisions, Murray Cod, drought, government policy and legislation, flood, crayfish, family and climate. That’s a broad canvas!

The stories and images certainly reminded me of my own attachment to the river and of memories from my childhood: fishing for cod or yellow belly, canoeing, listening to the sound of rain or flowing water, bird watching, witnessing the harshness of drought on the farm… I’m sure the work elicited similar kinds of personal identification and resonance for others in the audience. It was interesting to hear people’s stories and their feelings about the river, and also their interpretation of the advent of irrigation, water licences and subsequent legislation. Although not discussed in detail, there was enough material for those in the audience to get a sense that the tipping points are truly substantial and dynamic, depending on your background and personal experience.

I think the Tipping Point artwork is a reminder to all of us about the importance of our river systems and how they have played a significant role in the development of inland Australia over many decades and generations, effectively revealing how the river and its surrounding environment, be it natural or man-made, flows as one force uniting many different people and interests.

Tipping Point is a fabulous piece of creative work that has engaged many members of the community (especially those living in Narrandera, Sandigo and Boree Creek), young and old, in its development. For someone who has lived in this region most of my life it was wonderful to have such a unique piece of creative work presented in Narrandera on the banks of the Murrumbidgee. The event, the sense of community and the environment itself were all things to celebrate!

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