Fellowship Research

This web journal documents research and activities undertaken during my (Thembi Soddell) Regional Arts Victoria Fellowship period of July 2020 to April 2022. This project took place on Dja Dja Wurrung Country, in my hometown of Clunes, Victoria, Australia.

Research was tailored toward a question essential to sustainability and innovation in regional arts: in what ways can an individual, experimental art practice be sustainable, relevant and accessible in a rural location? Research focussed on my main area of interest: the use of sound art to represent, understand and manage this thing that’s often called ‘mental illness’, using my own work as a testing ground. My approach is influenced by Mad activism, which highlights the expertise gained through lived experience and often challenges the mental health system.

It involved presentation in my hometown of some of my sound-based artworks that explore themes of depression, anxiety, trauma and madness – some of which were developed through my practice-based PhD research – to garner community response and feedback and better understand the place my work might have within my local community. I say “so-called” mental illness not to invalidate the reality of these experiences and their significant impact on people’s lives, but to acknowledge the limitations of (as well as harm and abuse often caused by) the Western medical framework for understanding these experiences, and to honour the many valid understandings that exist outside of it.

Other research activities included:

  • Interviews with regional and rural based artists and community members on the topics of access (or lack there of) and sustaining practice in regional arts, with a focus on solo and experimental forms of practice, as well as the topics of ‘mental health’ and disability justice.
  • Experiments with remote methods of working to address the limitations around presentation, collaboration and networking that I have experienced living rurally, especially with a disability that limits my ability to travel or socially engage (some documented here, some not).
  • Co-designing an event in partnership with metropolitan-based (Naarm/Melbourne) sound art organisation, Liquid Architecture in consultation with Clunes Neighbourhood House, with the hope of seeding an ongoing Clunes-based program of sound art.
  • Informal, solo creative activities around my hometown to ground myself in place, such as field recording, photography, scoping for unconventional venues etc.
  • Continuing on from my PhD research with further reading and listening to a range of texts and artworks by people with lived experiences of so-called mental illness (some of these can be found on the resources page of this website), including consideration of how the information learned might be used within art projects in regional locations.

Through the research I also aimed to improve my understanding of the multiple factors that prevent access to the arts in regional locations, for both artists and audiences. I consider access through the lens of disability justice and the social model of disability (while still acknowledging that despite social barriers many people still experience hardship from their illness or disability itself), as well as considering other systems of oppression that form barriers to access to the arts, including racism, classism, sexism and transphobia. In turn, I hoped to better understand how to develop projects grounded in accessible, anti-racist and anti-oppressive values as central to the creative process, not as an add-on.

This project is operating in partnership with Liquid ArchitectureClunes Neighbourhood House and Clunes Free Library.

Some background to this project:

I’m a non-binary, Polish-Australian (2nd gen.) / Anglo-Celtic sound artist born and raised on Djadjawurrung Country, in the regional city of Bendigo. I moved to Naarm/Melbourne at 17 as soon as I finished highschool, where I lived for the next 15 years. There I established my sound art practice and artistic networks. In 2013, I moved back to Djadjawurrung Country (this time to the rural town of Clunes) and while this has been important for my health, I have been struggling with practical aspects of my practice since (and have many times thought I may have to move or quit). This extends from being divided between rural and metro locations, my long-term psychosocial disability, a lack of opportunities to work in or around my hometown, a lack of artistic networks or connection to community close by, and the challenges of being an individual, experimental artist working in isolation in a context that values community-based practice above all else. Perhaps fortuitously, I proposed this project before COVID took hold, and many of these issues are now more relevant for many than ever. This reflects how many of the challenges of intermittent lockdowns are ones that many Disabled and/or regional artists have already faced long-term. Through this fellowship I hoped to find ways to foster a more sustainable artistic practice despite these barriers.