Architect-designed space for conscious deep listening will immerse Sydney Festival visitors in the identity and spirit of place

Through a program of spoken word, music and field recordings, BLAK BOX curator Daniel Browning provides audiences with a sound stream of consciousness – blending stories of the past, the present and an imagined future.

You launched BLAK BOX in June this year. What makes this work significant for you and what does it mean for you that it will feature in the upcoming Sydney Festival?

BLAK BOX is an initiative of Urban Theatre Projects, the performing arts company based in western Sydney. I’ve curated two sound works installed at Barangaroo during the premiere season in June and now at the Blacktown Showgrounds for the 2019 Sydney Festival.

What we’ve done with the BLAK BOX is hard to define but it’s design, performance, sound art, music, storytelling – the human voice – and light all rolled into a sleek architectural box. Our content is ephemeral but what I’ve tried to do curatorially is to create sound that penetrates. We don’t spend enough time listening and the BLAK BOX really is a space for conscious, deep listening.

Urban Theatre Projects has really gone out on a limb with this – but I know that the artistic director Rosie Dennis has dreamt big and really imagined how this architect-designed space can deepen the kind of dialogue we have with First Nations communities, artists and the broader public. But the first step really is to stop everything and listen.

Will you be adding any new features to the work?

The Sydney Festival program is an evocative piece that tries to bridge the past and the future by bringing elders and young people into dialogue. It’s called Four Winds and the simple premise is that knowledge transfer across time can drive empathy, understanding and respect. That goes in all directions. Voices can be carried on the wind, but if we don’t stop and listen we’ll never learn anything. It grew out of a strange feeling I had that we aren’t listening because we’re losing touch. A big issue is how we maintain an oral culture in the digital era – where stories are constantly pinging on all our devices. That’s great, the multiplicity of voices and diversity of stories, but as the First People, we have a particularly compelling story to tell. I want to ensure that we are nurturing storytelling and storytellers as well as listening.

BLAK BOX provides audiences with an immersive experience, built of sound, light and purpose-built architectural spaces within a context of contemporary storytelling and history of place. What were the circumstances that brought your ideas to life?

Whenever I curate a program of sound for BLAK BOX I’m conscious of the identity and spirit of place. The box sits on country, so it must integrate that into the sound you hear. Wherever you go on this continent, place has identity and spirituality – like waterways can be said to have something like personhood, or a right to exist. Every spot has been walked on by our ancestors. They are embedded in it, so when we install the box we must respond in meaningful ways with that.

I always think about Aboriginal presence and continuity across time and how voices echo in the box. We can deepen the relationship between gentrified sites like the Barangaroo headland – reanimate them, if you will – and simply abide with places, like the wetland in Blacktown. Just as you can coax birds back, and rehabilitate sites that have been alienated, you can also jog public memory and create a new dialogue.

With Four Winds I hope that we can stimulate dialogue between elders and young people. It’s like one of the key artists says, the elders carry encyclopaedic knowledge and if we don’t listen to and hold their stories, what hope do we have to continue oral culture and storytelling traditions into the future?

How do First Nations people respond to your work when they experience it?

From what I’ve heard there are a range of responses. I’m conscious when I program sound that there will be certain points, certain stories or ‘images’ that resound for Indigenous listeners, but in a way that would be preaching to the converted.

I reckon the unifying thing about sound is that, we all register the same vibrations. We generate meaning from them in the brain and in that bodily experience, we start to differ. That’s when true communication begins, in deriving meaning from what we hear.

What do you hope Sydney Festival audiences will take away from BLAK BOX?

I hope that audiences during the Sydney Festival listen as intently as they can, and then engage more deeply with their own elders and young people. What I’ve tried to emphasise is that everyone has a story and that it’s respectful to pause, to listen and to be alert to the subtleties in the human voice. Beyond that, each of the key artists has given their stories willingly; to be heard and to be understood. This is raw, honest unrehearsed storytelling and it comes straight from the heart.

Tickets

BLAK BOX will run from 9 January – 2 February 2019 at Blacktown Showground Precinct as part of Sydney Festival 2019.

Book tickets:

https://www.sydneyfestival.org.au/events/blak-box

Sydney Festival will run from 9-27 January 2019, see www.sydneyfestival.org.au for further information.

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