in conversation with Tracey M Benson

Can you describe where you are while writing this and what you can see from your window?

At the moment I am sitting in my office, looking out at the garden and enjoying the winter sun coming in the window.

What is your chosen medium for recording your Landlinks work?

My work for Landlinks uses a combination of photography and video as well as an image rich View Ranger map. I have also written a couple of blog posts about the project.

What and who is the 'driving' force or major influence for your work?

Great question. I would say social and environmental justice and equity have been key drivers for my work across a number of realms for many years. In addition to my personal creative work, these issues have been the focus of my work in education, teaching interaction and web design and cross media production, focusing on the importance of accessibility. I have written about closing the digital divide and champion producing products and campaigns with a focus on design thinking and developing products that effectively reach the audience.
The other realm has been in the public sector, in the context of applying user-centred design approaches to managing digital engagement projects, my most significant work focused on delivering programs aimed at supporting households to be more energy efficient and sustainable. I am very proud of the work our team did on the LivingGreener program for 5 years before the political landscape changed and it had to be rebranded. You can still find it online at*/
As an artist, I am very interested in developing works which engage audiences as active participants with a focus on experiencing ‘place.’ This has evolved over some 25 years, firstly emerging as digital media works exploring and challenging notions of the landscape and identity through the creation of digital souvenir objects, audio tours and mockumentary video and animation works.

Scalpland, Documentation of performance 1996

Around this time, I also explored performance as a means to link the relationships between land and body, as well as creating installations which asked the audience to actively participate with the work. For example, I created a number of food installations where the audience was invited to consume the art. The purpose of these works was to engage the audience in play while trying to challenge the idea of what consumption is and the context of the gallery in the process of describing how we participate in the space/place. This interest in participation has definitely been a driving force with my practice as I see art as something that everyone should be able to engage with from their own perspective with a sense of playfulness and curiosity.
Often, I find the white-wall gallery limits the ability to not only express some of the issues of place and land, but also the gallery is the locus for a very defined audience which is (usually) literate in the arts and artspeak. In my early digital work, I would montage famous landscapes with the ’big things’ making them into souvenir objects like coasters, jigsaws and tee-shirts. I wanted to play with perceptions of the landscape as a commodity, one imbued with a hierarchy of values according to where it is situated.

You work in a variety of different mediums...and working methodologies may differ. How important is research and experimentation to your work and can you outline some of your working processes for us?

In my creative work, the research is usually located in the context of where I am working and who I am working with. Sometimes it will be something small which starts a process which unfolds over time. Other times there is a lot of background research undertaken to guide the concepts and direction of the work. I also like to be open to suggestion, to let the work shape its own meaning from how people respond to it. When I was living in Norway as part of an artist residency, I met a like-minded curator who ran a gallery next door to my ancestral church. I described a recent video collaboration with Josiah Jordan with DNA music as a ‘meditative work’ which sparked her attention. Next thing I knew I was part of an art/science/spirituality speakers evening leading a meditation with my video. Now I am actively using meditation in a number of projects as a way to connect to the themes of walking and ‘being’ in my work.

Journey of the Ancients, Balance UnBalance 2017 - a collaboration between Tracey M Benson and Josiah Jordan

Often my works evolve quite organically, for example in 2016 when I was on an artist residency in Iceland, I started to collect small stones on my daily coastal walks. Over time I made a set of runes from these stones and gave them to another artist, Aishling Muller, to include as part of an installation about the elements of nature. My only caveat to her was that the stones be released back to the seas and that she document the event. The resulting work was a beautiful performative video work with a recitation of Goethe’s poem “Spirit of Water” as the audio track. We then collaborated with another artist based in Norway, Anne-Britt Rage to develop the work further to include a layered audio in English (Irish and Australian voices), German and Norwegian.

Spirit of Water | The Oceans Meet - A collaboration between Aishling Muller, Anne-Britt Rage and Tracey M Benson 2016

Another project that resonates is the ongoing collaboration with Parihaka Kuia (Elder) Maata Wharehoka. Our project Puanga: the sound of silence brought together Māori and Norse creation stories with Maata’s skills in weaving with our combined love of bookmaking. Again, this project evolved organically through an ongoing conversation from 2015 which resulted in us working together on this project for two weeks in Parihaka in 2019. We continue to share ideas and I hope to evolve this project into the future once travel restrictions are lifted.

Can you talk a bit about walking and the importance of walking in/to your work?

Walking has been central to my practice for the last seven years. Creatively walking first manifested as ‘augmented media’ (AR) walks of urban spaces as well as creating exhibitions which focus on walking and mapping particular locations. For example, my first major AR project was an exploration of a series of bushwalks of national parks close by - the Namadgi and Deua National Parks in particular. This project started just as a need to reconnect to nature for my own personal health and wellbeing but over time I developed a large body of online maps and images which documented these walks. Around the same time I started to also work more actively with First Nation artists and communities, to create works that are layered storyworlds.

Book cover from Finding Balance : Mura Gadi book 2013

I guess the other aspect of walking which is intrinsic to my conceptual focus is that walking is an immersive way of experiencing ‘place’. I have long challenged the notion of the landscape as it is a theme, particularly in Australian and more broadly western art which is tied to notions of ownership and framing the view. In Australia, the landscape also represents a colonial perspective - with the landscape being ‘over there’, rather than a place in which we are immersed.
The process of walking unfixes that horizon line and opens up a multi-perspectival experience which is also not just reliant on visuality.

What do you think about when walking?

To be honest, I like to walk to stop or slow my thinking. I deliberately try to focus on being ‘present’ when I walk so I can be open to experience what is happening around me. Often for me walking is a way of processing or unblocking things mentally. If I am stuck with an idea about a piece of writing or how I might approach a creative project, or just to think through how to plan out my week, walking is a great way to untangle my thoughts. Walking is a chance just to ‘be’, a chance to appreciate the small things and to breathe.
I am a very sensory person so I am tuned into the non-visual aspects of walking. I am drawn to birdsong and other nature sounds as well as the smells of nature. One of the things I love about bushwalking is being able to take in the olfactory joys of the trees, creeks and soil.

Touching trees, Tracey M Benson 2020

Also I am a ‘toucher’ so when walking in Australia, I am a bit more wary of touching plants just in case there are some untoward creepy crawlies. That said, last year I was in France and looking for a lost stone in the bushes, at the time I was just rummaging through the bush and then was overcome with pins and needles on my arms - stinging nettles. Bit of a lesson learnt there.

You are part of the Landlinks project and the synchronised walk that took place in April. We would love to hear your feedback on this networking initiative and your resulting creative response to that walk

Documentation from Groundworks Landlinks, Hyde Park Sydney 2020

I loved the structure of this project and the tools we were encouraged to use. I have since used both View Ranger and What3Words in other creative projects, most recently with the Urban Tree Festival. I was a little bit naughty though as I did not follow the instructions to the letter, but that is very much my personality - I love structure but I love to bend it as well 🙂
Also for me, to walk in sync with other walkers around the world is also a way of building connection and community - as the group all bring their intention at the same time. There is something powerful in these kinds of activities in building both connection and awareness. Over the past few years, I have co-designed ceremonies with other artists, cultural leaders and wisdom seekers where we aligned our energy. For example, I organised a 3 day workshop for Intercreate/SCANZ in 2017 with participants from a number of First Nations, artists, scientists and researchers to focus on the theme “From the mountains to the sea.” One of the key events was gathering for a water ceremony, where one of the local Ngunawal Elders Wally Bell led the ceremony with a blessing and Welcome to Country. This ceremony aligned with events in the US, England and France with other artists holding local water ceremonies.
In September 2017 I went to Scotland to collaborate with Kate Genevieve to create a ceremony at Crawick Multiverse. This ceremony tied together our shared interest in cosmologies, ancestral realms and acknowledging the land. For me it was very powerful to perform this space as it also symbolised regeneration and renewal as the Crawick Multiverse was built on top of an old coal mine near Dumfries. On reflection it was quite prophetic, as I discovered last year that some of my ancestors came from around that region, moving to Yorkshire in the 1400s.

The Call, A collaborative ceremony at Crawick Multiverse  with Kate Genevieve 2017

Do you collaborate with other artists or groups? If so, who and why?

Yes. I love collaboration and actively collaborate with other artists, technologists, knowledge keepers, scientists and historians. Collaboration enables a layered richness to the development of projects, giving space for different kinds of knowledge to shape the work. This is critical for me as my work is about understanding and acknowledging place, so collaboration provides opportunities for different voices to speak to these places.
For the past seven years, I have been a Trustee for the Intercreate Trust in Aotearoa, New Zealand, an interdisciplinary project based organisation cutting across hybrid arts, science, traditional and local knowledge and technology to focus on environmental challenges and climate change.  Intercreate has run many residency events  - SCANZ and through these residencies a like-minded community has emerged which has also resulted for me personally as some wonderful collaborations which still continue.  For example, Josiah Jordan  and I have worked on projects that were presented at ISEA2018, RIXC Open Fields 2018 as well as a number of conference papers. Other long standing collaborators include Linda Carroli, Jo Tito, Lee Joachim and of course my partner, photographer and cartographer Martin Drury. A great example is the Way of the Turtle | Exchanging Breath project which was created at Parihaka in 2016.

Way of the Turtle | Exchanging breath, Parihaka 2016

Collaboration provides the opportunity to explore a range of perspectives and disciplines. I enjoy bouncing ideas around and also the potential for learning and sharing knowledge is far richer when you open up to collaboration. The recent Locative Media Summer School provided a wonderful opportunity to co-create. Our team project, Arboretum has opened up a space for future collaboration with our group of multidisciplinary and multi-located contributors, including Anne Versailles (BE), Elspeth (Billie) Penfold (UK), Fay Stevens (UK), Hira Sheikh (AU) and Joan Kelly (AU).

Landscape and the environment are both important areas of creative exploration to you. With current concerns about our environment, how do you see your role as an artist?

I see myself as a connector, working across disciplines to create and enact awareness. I work a lot with ecological scientists and I understand that there is a great need to communicate science effectively. Although my work is definitely not science communication, it is important for me to tie the issues to science in a holistic way by tying together acknowledgement of place, time and the elements to my interest in ubiquitous technologies and audience engagement

Documentation of Ancestral Journeys, Belconnen Arts Centre, Tracey M Benson 2018

I recognise as an artist,  we can tell stories and create works which can facilitate greater respect and care for the world we inhabit. In my work with scientists, I hear a lot about the need to better communicate the science and engage with the community in creating awareness and positive action. Many scientists also want to work with artists because of the potential to not only create awareness but to explore other ways of imagining science.
As earlier mentioned, I had many years experience working in government programs focusing on encouraging pro-environmental behaviour change so I have a strong working knowledge of some of the barriers to engaging people around these topics. This experience has influenced my work significantly, particularly in regards to my focus on actively engaging audiences to participate with my work through a range of strategies including the Augmented Reality walks, guided walking meditations and developing installations which invite audiences to play in different ways.

Can you describe your favourite place and why?

This is a great question. My favourite place is Nightcliff beach in Darwin, the northernmost city in Australia.
It is a very special place for me as I grew up going to this beach every day after school to explore the cliffs as it was just across the road from my house. It is not a swimming beach, the kind of beach people imagine when they think of an Australian beach as the waters are infested with salt water crocodiles and box jellyfish. However, it is an incredible place with colourful sandstone cliffs and you can watch the wet season monsoons roll in from the Arafura sea. Stunning.

Tracey at Nightcliff, Martin Drury 2017

Anyway, when I was around 12 years old I was there at a king tide and saw a Dugong (Manatee).  It is a memory which has stayed with me and even though I moved from Nightcliff many years ago, it is still a place I visualise when I meditate and dream. Jen Martin documented some of my memories of the Nightcliff when we were both residents as Made of Walking Cyprus in 2018. Here is the link from Jen’s Tumblr site of a recording she made of walking interviews she made of myself and Rosie Mountford:
These days I try and go back to Darwin every year and spending time at Nightcliff beach is always on the agenda. It is a special and magical place which still captures my imagination and my dreams. The First Nations peoples of that place, the Larrakia people say that when this place captures your heart you will always return.

Covid 19 is having a massive impact on so many lives.
Are you able to say what effect it is having on your working/creative life and what you have planned once Covid 19 retreats?

Wow - Covid 19 has been a wild ride… Two planned exhibitions were cancelled  - one with the Australian National Botanic Gardens will be postponed until next year and the other at the Ginninderry Link was shifted to an online exhibition.
Creatively it has been a productive time, as I have been involved in a range of UK / European based events including Groundworks, the Urban Tree Festival, Walk, Listen Create Cafe, the Locative Media Summer School and Drifting Bodies: Fluid Spaces. I also have a video piece going into the Nordic 5 Arts exhibition Water at Vesterheim, the National Norwegian-American Museum and Heritage Center in Iowa, USA.
Over the past months, I have also been involved in a couple of local projects including an online exhibition with other artists from University of Canberra  - Iso topics and earlier this year with Old Media Orchestra as part of the Art Not Apart festival.
I have also been enjoying having time for writing over the past few months, having produced a couple of works for which focus on some of the impacts of Covid 19: working from home and the challenges of keeping resilient during these times.
My other current obsession has been evolving my social enterprise concept Treecreate.  It is an initiative which brings together arts, science technology and futuring for the planet through creating awareness and practical action through collaboration and capability building. You will hear more about this project soon.
I was planning to be in Norway again for three months this year to be the artist in residence at Drammen Kommune, but we have had to postpone until 2021.
The hope is to spend time in the UK, Norway and Europe for an extended period next year, but it really does depend on the pandemic. At the moment I am just hoping we do not have another fire season like last year. People are still traumatized and many still homeless. It would be nice to just take a breath and relax to be honest.

Your work takes in many locations and often references a ‘place’.  This obviously influences your creative response. Is there a place that means more to you and why?

Scalpland, Documentation of performance, VOLT Festival 1996

My approach is to respond to the place at hand, so to ground to work in a local context. I am very drawn to ancestral places and spent 3 months in Norway in 2017 exploring ancestral realms in a residency in Drammen, very close to where my Norwegian ancestors came from. I am also wanting to explore other ancestral lands including Germany, Yorkshire, Scotland and Ireland to follow some of my other ancestral threads.
I have done quite a lot of work focusing on South East Queensland, where I was born. Although I have not lived there for many years, this region has influenced many creative works as well as being the seeding ground for my work as an activist, which I can trace back to anti-nuke marches in the early 1980s when I was a teen. This activism also seeded my performance work Scalpland in the mid nineties some 13 years later, which was a response to the destructive and careless development of the suburban sprawl. Scalpland played between the colonisation of the body and the colonisation of the land. In the performance, I turned my back to the audience, deferring their gaze and clippered my hair off before drawing phrenology maps on my head.
These days I am still very drawn to the relationships between our embodiment and the land and this echoes through most of my work. For example, water is a continuing theme and through exploring water, I can touch on other related issues about ecosystems, climate change and the importance of acknowledging First Nations deep understanding of the lands and waters where I live. I see water as an element of connection, one that flows not just from the mountains to the sea, but in the cells of every living organism. Our bodies, like the earth, are about 70 percent water. It is the element which sustains life and it is critical that we all act as guardians of the water, even at the most basic level of making sure we don’t waste water at home.

What are you currently reading?

For pleasure, I am reading Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loama as well as Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta. I love how both of these authors deconstruct linear narratives - for entirely different reasons. I am also reading anything I can on the topic on Druids since discovering my grandparents were members of the Ancient Order of Druids last year.
For research, I am reading a lot of articles from journals like Energy Research and Social Science, Energy Policy and Environment and Society 🙂

What are your other interests?

I love swimming in the sea when the weather is good. I also enjoy experimenting with eco dyeing. I am very drawn to the esoteric with a love of runes, labyrinths and other mystical ways of understanding the land and non-human world. As part of this interest, I just got my Reiki Level II  Okuden as well as becoming a student of dowsing (another ancestral connection). Travel is a great love, one which has been severely curtailed in Covid 19. Other than that, I love to watch Nordic Noir on Netflix and getting out to the garden when the weather is good. I am also a keen book binder when the weather keeps me inside..

Bookbinding Runes. Tracey M Benson 2018

We noticed you collaborate a lot with First Nations, can you talk about why?

When I reflect back, growing up in Darwin was such a great experience. It is one of the most culturally diverse cities in Australia with many different Yolgnu and Anangu peoples. At my high school, kids came from all over the Northern Territory and boarded at the school. It was amazing to learn about these rich and ancient cultures as well as learning about the other migrant cultures that made Darwin such a rich and vibrant place.
I remember as a young teen asking my friend from the Tiwi Islands about whether she had her own religion (as we were at a Catholic school and I personally had been raised as an Anglican). My friend proceeded to tell me how everything was connected in her culture - spirituality to land, family. art and custom. Another friend from Kakadu talked about how the uranium mine was poisonous and that her people called the uranium rich areas “poison country.” They had known for thousands of years that this land was not a place that should be tampered with.
Those early experiences shaped my world, opening my mind to a way of thinking which was complex, unifying and rich. It also raised my awareness not just about environmental issues but the savage history of this country and how it has impacted First Nations peoples. We are still a long way from having social and environmental justice in Australia and the Black Lives Matter movement has particular relevance in the Australian context as not one police officer has been charged for over 430 Aboriginal deaths in custody.
I firmly believe that as an ally, that I can use my privilege to call out racism where I see it. In the past this has sometimes felt dangerous, as I have also been threatened and called names for speaking out against the injustices that still exist. But I recognise that this is nothing to what my friends and allies have to deal with every day.  I also believe that if we are to survive as a species then we need to listen to the people who have been caretakers of Country for millenia.

Links to recent and upcoming projects