Behind the scenes


The new regional sound exhibition The Art of Sound was launched on 24 January 2013. The following is a chronicle of the days leading up to the opening, by Project Coordinator Brendan Smith.

Friday 25 January

Opening day

As the storm clouds clear (and cluster again) over Grafton, The Art of Sound exhibition at the Regional Gallery carries on after the official opening last night. Between 80 and 100 people gathered in the courtyard and garden to celebrate the opening of five new exhibitions here, including this NFSA project.

There was a BBQ/sausage sizzle and wine/beer provided generously by the Friends of the Gallery, and people of all ages (children, parents, aunties, uncles) all enjoying the balmy early evening.

All throughout, Billie Peach, The Necks, the didgeridoo and frog calls could be heard drifting through the crowd, causing many people to double-take and try to figure out where the strange noises were coming from. Many people were caught peering down the well or into the garden to investigate.

We had a great turnout from the local Indigenous communities, supporting acclaimed Grafton ceramicist Bevan Skinner for his exhibition. The opening included a thong-throwing and Aussie accent competition (as part of the lead up to Australia Day), which all seemed to enjoy.

While there were arguably too many people in the gallery spaces at once to truly and fully enjoy the Art of Sound experience, almost everyone had lovely and positive things to say about it. Most visitors commented, ‘I’ll come back next week when it’s a bit quieter to really hear the sounds properly’.

It was great to see kids interacting with the works, especially any with a beat – dancing unashamedly to Hunk o Man by Happyland alongside sculpture Tim the Bream. Two young boys queried me, bemused by the labels ‘Not Suitable for Children’ and ‘Contains strong language that may offend’ alongside Hud and Mugsy and the Hilltop Hoods’ Clown Prince: 'But why isn’t it suitable for children?' they demanded, 'We LOVE it!'

We were lucky to have five of the visual artists whose work had been chosen for the exhibition present at the opening: Karla Dickens, Frances Belle Parker, Cass Samms, Robert Moore and Bevan Skinner. All were interviewed briefly about their work and the music selected to accompany it, and all were pleasantly surprised and thrilled about the match-ups. Frances Bell Parker spoke about the issues of Aboriginal identity and connection to land in her work and Archie Roach’s Took the Children Away; and Karla Dickens found resonance with the punk song I’m Not Whole – she felt it summed up her feelings about herself in the 1980s, and she spoke about her passion for the early punk movement in Australia.

This morning, with the crowds gone, the sounds continue to waft through the courtyard and the gallery, and I’m sure people will wander back through and take time to listen and experience the art and sound combinations created as part of the exhibition. It will be interesting to hear people’s comments and reactions, especially in the lead-up to the Curator’s Forum on 9 February – a chance to explore the processes and combinations created in this exhibition more deeply.

I only hope that the sound of Billie Peach and ‘Hello, Bruce?’ don’t drive the gallery and cafe staff mad in the meantime.

Tuesday 22 January 4pm

It’s getting and looking exciting now! All five outside sounds are installed and running in the gallery courtyard and garden – so frog ‘gulps’ and magpie cries (Boyd River Crossing) are mixing beautifully with The Neck’s Aether (which drifts gently from the old gallery well) and Mark Atkins’ didgeridoo solo, with occasional interjections from Billie Peach the Budgie and Howard’s Home Records’ Telephone Call to Bruce (in England).

Council for Peace, by Aine


The various recordings, triggered by sensors as people walk by and projected from cleverly disguised ‘rock’ speakers, have created a gentle but distinctive soundscape which will hopefully intrigue gallery visitors and cafe patrons as they sit and enjoy a latte or a gourmet lunch.

Inside the main gallery, the unusual-looking dome speakers are slowly being programmed and mounted from the ceiling, adjacent to the accompanying artworks.


They are so reminiscent of Maxwell Smart and Get Smart’s ‘cone of silence’, but ironically, they are the very opposite – cones of sound!

Having been working on the project for many months and only really ever seeing the artworks as thumbnails or at best on screen, it’s striking and exciting to see them hung in the gallery space – some of them two or three metres square or long. Karla Dickens’ Black Blood (a long work of wall paper with text in vinyl lettering) is many metres long, rolling down the wall and into a wooden ‘trough’ on the floor – still metres unrolled. That will be accompanied by Scattered Order’s seminal 1980s punk track I’m Not Whole. Robert Hulland’s Untitled Abstract is also an imposing work, sitting alone on a large wall, to be matched with the upbeat Bamboo’s Theme. John Witzing’s three beautiful and evocative surf photos are awaiting The Atlantic’s Bombora and the spoken word recording of a young boy talking about his favourite north coast beaches.

The surfing artworks and sounds.

By the end of today, most of the sound domes and other sound devices will be wired up and hung or placed, and our sound specialist James Hurley will be tweaking sensors and volumes to create just the right mixes of acoustics and aural dynamics in each room or space. Hopefully, tomorrow will just be testing, tweaking volumes and sensors, and making sure all sounds and equipment are working just right. The gallery should look a little like a strange alien forest, with dome-like tropical plants descending from the ceiling to snatch up a tasty meal… perhaps not the image we need to draw people to the exhibition!

I am looking forward to people finally having the opportunity to experience the sounds and the art together in the gallery spaces and seeing what they make of it.

Tuesday 22 January 9am

Today looks like a typical hot summer Northern Rivers day in Grafton – blue sky, already warm and baking, fluffy white clouds dotted in the sky. Luckily (hopefully), we’ll mostly be in the air-conditioned gallery and studio.

Monday 21 January 6pm

Today, the first day of The Art of Sound setup in Grafton ran smoothly. By lunchtime, all the strange-looking dome sound tube speakers were assembled and ready – at one stage, a woman wandered into the workspace and commented ‘they look like very interesting lights!’

Our camouflage rock speakers.

Our trusty sparky Bruce was prepping the weather-proof casings for the motion detectors and sound cards. For one moment (or several moments…about five minutes, really), there was confusion and frustration as the first outdoor sound installed (the demonic budgie, Billie Peach) simply refused to kick off. Turns out the simplest solutions are usually the best – turn it off and on again… and suddenly the garden courtyard was filled with the dulcet tones of the Darling Point budgerigar from the 1930s, the first of The Art of Sound Grafton to launch.

Around us, the calm storm of the Archibald exhibition de-install continued until, by 3pm, it was packed and on its way to the next touring destination. It was amazing to be part of this frantic yet well oiled process, quietly getting The Art of Sound prepped in the background….

Tomorrow, it’s into the gallery itself and mingling with the artworks…

Monday 21 January 9am

The Grafton Regional Gallery is officially closed on Mondays, but you’ve never seen a greater hive of activity in the gorgeous Jacaranda-shaded courtyard.

James Hurley testing one of the dome speakers.

The gallery volunteer install team is busily removing and packing the touring Archibald exhibition from the main gallery, and several other exhibitions are heading out or coming in. Meanwhile, down in the gallery studio, three suspicious characters shuffle and unpack various oddly shaped boxes and cartons: James, The Art of Sound’s exhibition and installation expert; Bruce, the trusty local electrician; and myself, from the NFSA’s Regional Programs team.

Strange-shaped dome speakers are gently unpacked and constructed, tiny MP3 sound cards (all the way from Germany) are wired up, faux sandstone outdoor monitors are lifted out of cases and connected. The room is a mess of wires, domes, ‘rocks’, cables, casings and tools … out of all this, will (with any luck) come the NFSA’s new exhibition, The Art of Sound, opening on Thursday 24 January.

It’s lovely to watch Bruce doing what he probably does every day, and also stuff he’s never done before. As James took a ciggie break after a morning of unpacking and tests, he was heard to mutter, ‘You know, this thing just might work’. Meanwhile, passing volunteers look on, bemused and fascinated, keen to explore the exhibition later in the week…