The Superheroes of Barry Road
An audio-visual sampling of stories, family photos and Super 8 film shared by people who lived full, hard working lives at a time when most families had a piano and others spent their weekends in the bush, at picture theatres and dance halls.
Created for Illuminate, the closing event at the Whittlesea Community Festival Sunday 16 March 2014. Produced with the support of the Barry Road Community Activity Centre and the Community Cultural Development Department, City of Whittlesea.
At roughly 8:30pm on Sunday 16 March The Superheros of Barry Road was projected onto two shipping containers sat on either side of a dried out lake bed at the Whittlesea Public Gardens. A third container, placed in the centre, had a previous work, Video Portraits of Whittlesea, projected onto it. To the left of the installation a carnival of ferris wheels and gravity defying rides churned relentlessly to disco beats and the shrill cry of thrill seekers. At the front of the dry lake bed several hundred locals gathered to watch my eight minute works, a prelude to a fantastic fireworks display that closed the Whittlesea Community Festival.
The Superheros of Barry Road began as a project that would collaborate with elderly citizens from across the City of Whittlesea, to gather their visual and recorded family archives, from photos to Super 8 film, slides and perhaps VHS videos, into a non-narrative projected work that would be shared with the broader community. What I discovered within the Barry Road Community Activity Centre was a small group of hard working men and women from a variety of local and migrant backgrounds, all of whom had toiled their entire lives, that had skills one rarely finds today and life experiences of a world future generations will have no knowledge of.
These were not simply elderly people at the end of their days, enjoying each others company over the few hours spent together each week, they are the near forgotten Superheroes of a time before television, well before the internet and mobiles, when most families had a piano and others spent their weekends in the bush, at picture theatres and dance halls. Home Movies .1 is a fragment of the stories they shared as they reflected on their lives in the then burgeoning suburbs of Whittlesea, Lalor, Bundoora, Epping, Preston, Mill Park and Thomastown.
This paper, or post-project report, documents the process, some post-production techniques and choices made, what was entailed in the projection of this work and a sampling of stories.
Home Movies .1 was realised in collaboration with Mahony Kiely and with the support of Martin White, both from the Community Cultural Development Department, City of Whittlesea.
Home Movies .1 is based on a project proposed to The City of Whittlesea. The Home Movies premise is to collaborate with an aggregate of families within a single suburb, preferably an entire small street, block or cul-de-sac, to unearth their visual family archives and create projected works shared within the broader community.
Home Movies provides not only insights to the diverse lives of the people living around us, it juxtaposes the moments documented in often meagre collections of photos, slides and super 8 film against the tens of thousands of photos and video clips recorded everyday on mobiles and other devices.
Home Movies builds on a series of my prior works, from oral history projects to social documentary inspired web artworks and projected / screen based initiatives. These projects include The Rowville-Lysterfield History Project in collaboration with writer and oral history historian Barry Powers, Unseen/Unheard, Undercurrents, Tat Fat Size Temple, Auslaender Micro, Synesthesia Urbania, D3, Biggest Family Album (for Museum Victoria), Hear Her Voice (for Immigration Museum), Bamiyarra Not So Still(s) and NOTHINGKNOWN.
All these projects were in one way or another community artworks created in collaboration with the elderly, the young, jungle communities, poets, GPS mapping artists, photographers, web coders, designers, photographers and videographers. They were all, by and large, dealing with over-looked stories and public space, whether perceived as public or otherwise, and then placing the completed works, or works that would self-perpetuate (i.e. generative) within publically accessible environments.
Through these projects I became increasingly interested in how communities are formed, how they are held together, why many are said to be communities but few people know each other, and what it is about the jungle villagers I had met in Sarawak ensures that no one would be alone from when they were born till their final days and why it is that in Australia our elderly are often isolated from the rest of society, or communities for that matter?
I became less interested in employing the most recent technologies to create these works by, whether they be enabling or not, but more about the substance of stories, how they are told and to whom they can be shared. As such I sketched out the original project outline for Home Movies. It read:
Home Movies is visual anthropological study of how people use mobiles to photograph and video their lives, where they’re published and how they’re shared.
Home Movies would take place in a specific suburb where locals, perhaps individual families or residents of an entire block of flats or apartments collaborate with artists to compile their vast reserve of photos and video, juxtaposing them with any actual home movies, slides or photos from their families.
The end results would be screened at their homes, on their buildings, rear projected from windows, using screens made from domestic and found materials and curated into a series of evening screenings that visitors to the neighbourhood may amble and view.
Home Movies would be a collaboration with local artists and communities, that’s out in the public, on the street – much like a troubadour would collect folk songs from one village to the next, Home Movies artists would collect videos, stills and saved text messages, and screen them at the source so to speak.
In discussion with the Cultural Development Department, City of Whittlesea, the following brief emerged.
Create and present a seven to eight minute video work as a finale, referred to as Illuminate, to the Whittlesea Community Festival, Whittlesea Public Gardens, March 2014.
Working with a target group, the artist, in collaboration with the City of Whittlesea, will research, digitise, compile and share the personal visual and audible archives of project participants from the Barry Road Community Activity Centre.
Leaning towards moving image, but not limited to slides, stills, reel-to-reel and cassettes, the artist will create a visual representation of these materials illuminating both the intriguing and the banal, the ordinary and the sublime through a meditative succession of images and sound.
Four meetings were held with two groups of mostly retired elderly people at the Barry Road Community Activity Centre in Lalor, a suburb of Melbourne’s outer north-east, in the City of Whittlesea. These meetings were attended by Mahony Keily and myself with Martin White assisting where feasible. Mahony had attended the first meeting and I joined her for the last three.
Participants were introduced to the project brief and asked whether they were interested in participating. All were, though few had materials to share. Those that did provided a selection of photos going back to late 19th Century. Two provided Super 8 reels.
Most photo and Super 8 film collections were with other members of their extended families. Others had lost their archives to fires in the 1950s whilst some were lost in transit as several people moved extensively within Australia, Victoria and the shire itself. Most were migrants having originated from Egypt, Slovakia, Germany, Scotland, Italy, Greece, New Zealand and Holland with very few having any photo records from their homelands.
Initial discussions were recorded and follow-up interviews conducted with those who had found photos and films to share. A sample of these interviews comprise the soundtrack to Home Movies .1, generally in tandem with a sampling of the visual archives provided.
Observational and intuitive content collection
The notion of a theme or set of pre-intentioned subjects to instigate discussion and story-telling is not part of my personal creative process. It is entirely intuitive. It is more about listening and observation, to find ways and means for participants to open up and share what feels comfortable and responsive at the time.
I will ask questions, but they are formed from an initial enquiry; in this case asking about family archives, what they entail, who were the documenters and / or archivists in the family and what became of them? In former times I’ve come across well recorded archives that have included slides, for example, beautifully catalogued and photo collections annotated with brief, but sweet references to the people and activities captured there.
In this way the final work is part collaboration, part intuitive response, part joining of dots between stories, photos and films, and part poetry; by that I mean the end result is an expression of feelings and ideas composed as a rhythmic interplay of images and spoken word with the least amount of artificiality imposed on the recorded and / or archived works. Even though a video camera and audio recorder are not the norm for Barry Road guests I work to create the least intrusive documentation process as feasible and work with whatever results are recorded.
The tangible outcomes of Home Movies .1 are but a fragment of the breadth of expertise, the depth of living and the profound hardships barely touched on within the group I had met on Barry Road. It was not possible within the scope of this first iteration of Home Movies to reproduce all the stories that had been shared.
About an hours worth of Super 8 film was digitised with an additional 24 – 30 minutes provided as the project was nearing completion. The latter material had not been included in the final work. A DVD copy of these films was made for each contributor and uncompressed versions for editing.
Around 180 photos were shared, scanned and archived. An additional 300 were provided by the City of Whittlesea’s digital archives.
With all the materials received it was evident that there was less Super 8 footage relevant to the emerging themes than could be incorporated into the final work. As such the final work was focused on a selection of stills, from 19th century family photos and portraits up to colour prints taken in late 1970s and early 1980s.
Given the number of stills I had to work with I wanted to avoid the tendency to wrap these images into a standard slide-show, but to find a means that would gradually reveal the subject matter by focusing on parts of the photos only.
These images would then be underscored by a sampling of commentary; fragments of stories told. In some way this reflected the nature of the conversations that took place, stories that had either changed or been forgotten from one week to the next.
I set up three circles, or port-holes in which both photos and films would be seen through. Two smaller circles on either side of the central view.
In this way images could be examined and relationships between different ones could be made where they may have been impossible to do so viewing one after the after. The dark space from which these circles emerged would given the impression of being drawn out of the night sky during the projection.
Each image would move, would have some motion applied to it in accordance with the pace of the narrative and the music that would be mixed into the work as it neared completion. I chose a piano piece I had composed in Hurstbridge, Silvan Sounds, adding an additional local flavour to the final work.
There are no doubt ways and means of presenting bulk images in either quick succession or by way of a more detailed collage, but this would not have worked given the environment in which the final work was projected in, i.e. in that much detail would have been lost.
The Superheros of Barry Road was projected onto two shipping containers sat on either side of the dried out lake bed at the Whittlesea Public Gardens. A third container, placed in the centre, had a previous work, Video Portraits of Whittlesea, projected onto it (see image below).
The three projections were synchronised to commence and finish simultaneously utilising equipment and an operator from Corporate AV.
The shipping containers were spread wide apart so one needed to be on the centre of the banks of dry lake bed to value the full effect of the projections.
Below is a video still of the final three channel work.