“Research in the Central Darling is a bit like archaeology. Most of the information lives in people's heads, very little of it has been written down and there are no libraries of information.”
The outhouse has long been a part of Australian folklore. Now the traditional dunny has been transformed to capture the stories of modern Australians.
The Outhouse Storycatcher was created by Melbourne-based arts company, TRAX Arts, as an interactive installation. During September and October this year, it will be used as a social research tool by the CAMRA Project: Cultural Asset Mapping in Regional Australia.
The collaborative research project is funded by a $2 million grant from the Australian Research Council. It involves UTS, the University of Sydney, University of Wollongong, University of New England and 12 industry partners.
CAMRA Project Manager and Senior Research Associate in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Lisa Andersen, says, “What we’re doing is working with communities in different parts of regional and rural Australia to identify and articulate their local cultural assets.”
The project’s ultimate aim is to help governments understand how they can improve cultural planning and policy making.
“The four regions of this project – the Central Darling Shire, Wollongong, Albury-Wodonga and Uralla and Armidale – are a microcosm of development issues facing regional Australia,” says Andersen.
“In each of the project regions we have similar research questions we want to ask, but we have different demographics. So we had to design the research quite differently for each region.”
Andersen says the Central Darling is one of the most remote places in the state. “It is the largest local government area in NSW. Yet it also has the smallest local government population in NSW and high levels of disadvantage. There are townies, farmers and opal miners and a 37 per cent Indigenous Australian population.
“It has a population which isn’t going to respond well to more traditional research methods, like filling in surveys.”
The Outhouse Storycatcher
That’s where The Outhouse Storycatcher comes in. “The outhouse is a video booth that was developed by TRAX Arts as an art installation which we now plan to use to collect information and local stories from the residents of the Central Darling in far-west NSW,” explains Andersen.
“It looks like a dunny, a thunderbox. Inside there’s a chair and a video touch screen with audio information and questions. People will be recorded answering those questions.”
TRAX Arts’ Creative Producer, Tara Prowse, says the semi-public video confessional booth was originally built in Ivanhoe to gather stories that the Outback Theatre for Young People could then turn into stage performances. Ivanhoe, which is located 830 kilometres east of Sydney, is also the first stop on the research tour.
“This year however, when it does the tour, it very much belongs to CAMRA,” says Prowse. “The questions that are being asked inside it are very specific to what CAMRA is looking for in terms of mapping the cultural assets of the region.”
She believes the outhouse is ideal for social research in remote communities. “Facilities are often hundreds of kilometres apart and literacy can be an inhibiting factor as well.
“The Outhouse Storycatcher very much invites people to give a creative response, to focus on the narrative, to tell a story, to do more than tick a box.
“As you approach it, all four doors are open and it’s not clear how you turn it into a booth. You have to physically play with it in order to close yourself in, to make it the box that you then go onto recording in.
“It’s also a bit of an oddity. It’s kind of an odd, tent-like looking piece standing in the middle of the high street. It’s also a talking point and people wandering past and go ‘hmmm what’s that?’”
According to Andersen, the research tour will take in five townships in the region: Ivanhoe, Wilcannia, Menindee, White Cliffs and Tilpa.
“We’re also attending rural agricultural events – like the Kilfera Field Day – which is a get-together of all the west-Darling agriculturalists.”
The questions asked in the outhouse will focus on the cultural capital of the region – the people, their creativity, the landscape and heritage.
“So they might get asked a question like, ‘Who’s the one person from the Central Darling would you nominate to be made into a figurine, statue or action figure?’,” says Andersen.
“It’s been really fun coming up with the questions – I’ve been walking around the house saying things out loud to myself to test how they sound. I come from a background in theatre script development and often you use that technique to see if something makes sense when spoken. So I feel like I’ve been writing a theatre script, not a series of research questions!”
For those reluctant to step inside the booth, researchers will also be conducting interviews at a picnic table next to the outhouse, and they’ve even planned a research exercise on the train from Sydney.
“I’m also going to be identifying a number of what I’m calling ‘cultural elders’ from the region,” says Andersen. “Not just Indigenous elders, but agricultural elders, town builders and artists. What I’ll be doing is putting a GPS tag on them and walking and talking with them and having them tell me about their stories of place.
The Outhouse Storycatcher
“These are stories that need to be collected. Research in the Central Darling is a bit like archaeology. Most of the information lives in people’s heads, very little of it has been written down and there are no libraries of information. There is ABS data, but that doesn’t articulate the community stories and the individual stories that make up that place. Concern about loss of information and loss of traditional knowledge is a massive issue for that region.
“At the end of the process we’ll be able to give the research back to the communities and they’ll be able to use it for their own purposes.”
Andersen hopes it will help governments better understand the issues important to regional Australians.
“If we understand more about the strengths and weaknesses of place and locality then cultural planning can be based on that wisdom.
“From the research we have done already we have identified that the recent emphasis on investment in capital infrastructure has tended to downplay the critical importance of supporting human infrastructure in rural and remote Australia – the handful of local cultural leaders, skilled artisans and specialist makers whose practice is linked with the activities and heritage of their communities.
“But this is a vulnerable group of people: under-resourced, peripheral, ageing and highly susceptible to burn out.
“I feel enriched as a researcher. We’ve piloted the questions, we’ve piloted the outhouse, and we’re now ‘on tour’ doing the research.
“To collect literally thousands of years of their knowledge and turn it into a research outcome that can influence decision making, policy making, other researchers and research themes that need to be further developed, it’s a really privileged position to be in.”
To find out more about The Outhouse Storycatcher, visit camra.culturemap.org.au
Marketing and Communication Unit
Photographer (The Outhouse Storycatcher): Brian Cohen
Photographer (L Andersen): Joanne Saad