Oenpeli – Arnhem Land :: Jamil Yamani

5 September 2005, Oenpeli, Arnhem Land, Australia 16 artists and three troupes headed out to Oenpeli from Darwin for a four day stay. Our mentors Daivd Haines and Joyce Hinterding were with us and they planned to show and tell some of their lo-fi techniques for audio and video recording and low level DIY electronics. We also met local Injaluk artists and saw ancient rock paintings. For the duration of the stay we all pretty much stayed together as one unit and we all got along together splendidly well.

Day 1
We arrived at Oenpeli rather late, a later start than we anticipated and more stops than we really needed, turned a three hour drive into a six hour drive. That night though, we settled in and then later, explored the mission, which was interesting for a number of reasons.

Earlier this year I had flown to Northern Kenya to visit a refugee camp called Kakuma. We were way up near the Sudanese border and until I had visited Oenpeli I had never quite made the connection between the African landscape and the Australian Landscape. But as were walking around through this rather remote town, indigenous people were wandering around in the dust, the heat and wide open spaces and all I could think about was how familiar this environment was.

Our accommodation was parked on the far side of town overlooking a beautiful billabong which contained about 400 crocodiles, if you stood and watched for any length of time you would see big bubbles floating ominously to the surface.

Rather foolishly I thought that I would be engaging actively with the people from the area, at a political and sociological level but I have to say that four days is not enough time for any real sense of interaction to take place. Needless to say on our first night, at dinner time, it was just us, 16 of us, having salad and snags. By day two we had a couple of extra people and by the third night we had passionate family arguments around the campfire replete with a roo tail amongst the embers. To reiterate though, the time one needs to really accomplish anything with a history as complicated ours is much more than four days.

Day 2
On this day our trusty guide Thompson took us on a walk through some sacred sites on the Injaluk hill. The day was spent shimmying through rocks, ducking under spider webs and gazing at Aboriginal rock art. By the end of it I felt like I had just strolled down Glenmore Avenue in Paddington and seen twenty or so galleries in the space of four hours.

Up until this point we had been very wary of taking cameras and other such recording equipment out. However our guide was very humorous and understanding and almost kept forcing us to take pictures of this, that or the other.

But still, taking footage of people was, in my books, a big no no unless permission was gained, so I chose to shoot the land instead, and even this I did very early in the morning or early evening. It occurred to me that in this instance that audio was the loophole, where when filming might be inappropriate audio could bridge the gap. Even though in principal we were engaged in a similar act as recording video, it seemed more acceptable. So while I did not record vision of anyone and neither did I ask, I did record audio in the Gambalanya Sports and Social Club which was open from 5.30pm until 8.00pm everyday. I also recorded audio from the nearby billabong which was teeming with birdlife and together with some interviews, l am currently building this audio into a suitable stream for multipurpose output, for example a podcast, cd or dvd distribution etc. I was hoping to do a live stream from Oenpeli itself but there was only one broadband connection out there and it was heavily guarded.

Later in the evening we also workshopped with David and Joyce, who taught us how to build contact mics, hydrophones and demonstrated homemade antennas which were capable of recording the Milky Way and other very distant phenomena.

Day 3
Day three found us traveling out to yet another beautiful spot in Arnhem Land to shoot video and record audio. We did this with the objects that we had built, ie. hydrophones in billabongs and security cameras attached to helium balloons, floating/recording above the landscape but not quite high enough to be considered aerial, we only reached the status of the uncontrollable steady cam.

Towards the end of the day we all chipped in together to haul one of the troupes out of some deep sand and then it was off again to relate at Gambalanya Sports and Social Club. It was here that we met people and interacted but once more I want to emphasise how naïve I was to think that I would be entering into critical dialogue about cultural displacement/identity with these people, where the Western concept of communication and ideas exchange has very little purchase with their own ideas. I have to say that the 5.30pm to 8pm opening seemed to work as a decent compromise between zero alcohol and too much, I did find it a bit disconcerting when they turned the sprinklers on us to get us moving along a little quicker. But I didn’t witness any trouble or violence which I have been told can be quite hectic.

Day 4
On this day we hung around and packed up and slowly woke up to the fact that we were too soon on our way out. What had we accomplished? Well, while I thought that we would be exchanging ideas the sad fact was that we didn’t. Perhaps this has left me feeling a little disappointed. In terms of what I had learnt though, I felt very honoured to be shown through the sacred sites of the Injaluk people. I also learnt a great deal about lo-fi technology and the different applications outside of their original purpose, that they could be put to.

Furthermore on the up side, on Saturday the 20th of August I was invited to participate in a show at the Fig Tree Theatre, here in Sydney, and a work entitled ‘Trapp’ which I have recently made using footage from Oenpeli was very successfully received. This work was presented by the Sydney Moving Image Coalition (SMIG), and the event was called ‘Area #2’. Below is a video still from the work, the video is a simple shot of the mission, the woman in the shot noticed my camera and walked into the shot of her own accord. Her permission was also granted, she is filmed from afar and unrecognisable. The text to ‘Edelweiss’ scrolls across the screen karaoke style and is being sung confidently but very badly. The woman walks towards the centre of the screen and then stands still gazing into the distance for some time.

The lyrics go:

Edelweiss, Edelweiss
Every morning you greet me
Small and, white, clean and bright
You look happy to meet me
Blossom of snow may you bloom and grow
Bloom and grow forever
Edelweiss, Edelweiss
Bless my homeland forever

I had hoped to investigate migratory encounters versus land politics and identity, did this occur? I’m not sure, it certainly didn’t happen in a structured Western methodical way, instead it was teased out in those intimate spaces between people, and the resultant video work very much reflects that. So yes, I guess it did happen. Other interesting collusions have developed though; upon my return I set up a list to enable the group to continue to communicate amongst themselves. This has been a great success and has resulted in four or five of the artists present to make the trip down to Electrofringe this year. Also for me personally, I have developed a keen interest in the landscape of Arnhem Land and as a result I have booked flights to Elco Island, a totally dry community off the northern coast of Arnhem Land itself. I am very much looking forward to producing more work and developing further upon the knowledge I have gained during this stay in Oenpeli. As a last comment I would like to thank ANAT for allowing me to travel to Oenpeli to take part in a very successful venture.

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