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Sonic, Social, Distanc

As more than a third of the planet’s human population has gone into some sort of social restriction…self-isolation, social isolation, physical distancing, quarantine…since those who have the luxury of walls have gone behind them–time has not so much stood still, but became fragmented and blurred. Our schedule markers have gone virtual, or gone away, or are far away.  As artists of various media attempt to capture some essence of this time, it may be found that fragments, notes, moments, and blurs, are what express better our experience. Text, audio, visual-both moving and still, compilations, complications, towards combobulations, if that is what comes. This is a time-capsule archive of finished works, and of fragments, reflecting a fragmented time. Fragments that feel frozen or appropriate as they are, and would then be placed with other fragments to create an unanticipated whole.

Sonic, Social, Distance, is calling for works on listening and sound, and thinking about listening and sound, in the time of social distance…alone together, together apart. We are calling for full texts, as well as text with media, or fragments and notes that will be curated and compiled together. This call is on-going, until it no longer makes sense.

Rain and precipitation covering, then peeling off with the sun. Fruit grows and ripens, colors change. New plants reach for the sun and shadows, rolling over the garden like waves. The up and down attention of trees and plants with each moment of the day, like the taking of a breath. Covid Backyard is striking in its different rhythms, its different times at once in a gentle discord, yet beating together. The human-sensed-time is anchored aurally, allowing a calm to the eye to investigate what changed time is revealing.



Covid Backyard



This response to the Covid-19 lockdown was a renewed interest in the backyard fruit trees and the re-installation of a vegetable garden behind the backyard studio. A sustained view into a migrant garden of fruit trees and vegetables is resurrected. The migrant moves in-between, so does my practice. What made this response so re-assuring? This do-it-yourself (DIY) response connects to my image and sound manipulation strategies through its time-lapse surveillance and documentation, all a fluid home-grown, DIY creative practice. Media theorist Vilem Flusser talks of the freedom of the migrant, who experiences the in-between of migration directly on her body rather than fleetingly on the surface of a computer screen.


March is terrible timing in the southern hemisphere, moving into winter, to establish a vegetable garden. This beginning presents its own challenges. Silverbeet, Broad Beans, Peas, Cauliflower, Bok Choy, Onions, Garlic, Endive, and Broccoli all took hold. Slivers of produce now enter my body. Though small, the mandarin’s tang is welcome. Vegetables flavour modest soups.


Over the last six years of professional teaching excluded and marginalized these backyard activities. No time, no energy. This duration now occupies the core of my daily life sonically. Apart from the natural growth itself, its documentation also provided a subtle reassurance that something was moving forward. In Covid Backyard, this sustained duration is expressed as an act of witnessing orchestrated by birdsong. The rhythms of the earth’s rotation leave the sun’s light, shadow, and stellar dance in sync with the neighbourhood suburban birdcalls.



Birdsong provides the sonic engine for Covid Backyard. Time-lapse has been a strategy that I had managed to continue through some of my cluttered professional life for decades. You could always set up a camera safely at home and turn off at the end of the day to capture an absence.  Time-lapse was utilized in the three-decade compilation of my backyard in Telescope (2013, 75 minutes) There was a deep listening in Telescope to the reality of the occupation of indigenous land. When Telescope screened in Shanghai, Australian expatriates volunteered that its birdsong was the element that transported them back ‘home,’ more than the images.


My audio-visual works have been highly influenced by sound. There is a branch of animation referred to as Visual Music connected to abstraction and exemplified by such artists as Oscar Fischinger, Len Lye, Norman McLaren, and Steven Woloshen. The flicker films of Paul Sharits are structured by their chanting soundtracks, their frame to frame flickers, and repetitions. Sharits’ practice is situated in parallel to Steve Reich’s sound performances, which produce similar perceptual artifacts. T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G (1968, 12 minutes) reveals this congruency. Positive and negative flickers of single-frame images provide a rhythm for a soundtrack that repeatedly loops the word “destroy.” The film’s clusters of images are arranged rhythmically more like a musical score or computer script than a narrative. Over time the destroy chant drifts into other meanings.


The seminal avant-garde film Wavelength (1967) by Michael Snow, who is also a musician, has an innovative soundtrack. The underlying tone on its soundtrack shifts to a higher-pitched frequency as the image camera zoom moves across the apartment. These shifts in wavelength produce shifting waves and troughs in the screening space defined by the theatre’s architecture. These sonic artifacts vary for every space in which the film screens.


This is the history upon which my audio-visual work rests. Covid Backyard’s rhythms simulate the flicker thrown out in Sharits’ flicker films but here propagated by the speed-up of the earth’s daily spin and rotation. In the 1960s, Media theorist Marshall McLuhan noted that the speed-up of information flow created a need for pattern recognition. Richard Cavell’s re-reading of McLuhan in: McLuhan in Space: A Cultural Geography’ (2002), situates acoustic space as McLuhan’s core concept. I understand this to mean that images behave sonically in our current technological situation.


When I sit in my garden, I sense I am sitting in an acoustic space, orchestrated by birds singing, leaves rustling in the wind, the sound of children in the distance, dogs barking, flies, bees, trains passing. My eyes move to the sounds, and my body settles in, I sense my breathing changing. Is it syncing into rhythms around me? I inhabit this acoustic space to get away from my computer.


The virus imposes its rhythms onto our bodies through technology, lockdown, and restricting inhabited space over long periods of time. During my three-month confinement, which continues, how could I set up a grounding dialogue with nature, cross and express the in-between? How do monks and criminals deal with confinement? Monks chant and garden. Prisoners tone their bodies with exercise. There is the case of Robert Stroud, fictionalized into the Hollywood film Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). I craved a daily ritual that could contain my fortified world productively. A necessary grounded rhythm that could stretch beyond my normal perceptual reach was sought.


Where is my future? Inside the rhythm of the planet. Its stroking shadows and birdsong coax me into this future. My creativity retreats into a suburban patch at the bottom of my backyard. The suburban backyard can be an intimate personal or social hidden space, but is also disappearing with the proliferation storied and apartment living in suburban Melbourne living.


Speeding up the image brings to the surface shadow and light’s relation of the suburban backyard’s acoustic space. Sound expresses this in-between that seeps, like water, through everything. I have always wanted my films to flow through an in-between where trauma often survives as an invisible presence. There may be something of this in my creative reaction to Covid-19. Like the strewn breadcrumbs and pebbles that lead Hansel and Gretel out of the dark forest, let the birds spin the world out of our fatigued NOW.


Dirk de Bruyn





Dirk de Bruyn is Associate Professor of Screen and Design at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia where he teaches Animation. He has presented numerous moving image, performance and installation work internationally over the last 45 years. His book The Performance of Trauma in Moving Image Art (ISBN-13: 978-1-4438-6053-6) was published in 2014. Retrospective programs of his moving image work has been presented at Alternativa, Belgrade, Serbia (2015), Melbourne International Animation Festival (2016), and Punto Y Raya, Karlsruhe Germany (2016).


Maile Colbert

Sound artist and designer, intermedia artist and filmmaker, teacher and researcher