New Year, New You? Re-solving practice Down Under

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Rainbow Lorikeet Sydney by Tom Ottway

These are the kind of headlines magazines love to guilt us into reading this time of year, so apologies if I just hooked you the same way. I don’t know about you but doing a PhD has made me take milestones like New Year to reassess where I’m going and kick-start any stagnant processes. PhDs are a mysterious leviathan, lurking somewhere beneath our consciousness (and often slightly out of reach, generally, of others’ understandings). I thought I’d share my experiences of practical field research (my PhD is in the fields of Sound Studies, Geography and Urban Studies) on a field trip to and from Australia, via Sri Lanka and Hong Kong in December 2016 and early January 2017, and how they have helped reinvigorate my belief in my research.

Why Australia, you may ask? How lucky. Well, yes and no. Fortunate to have gone, but as a self-funded PhD candidate, I was paying my own way. The initial reason for the trip was business, as well as being way of visiting distant relatives in Melbourne with our children. However, I also had wanted to go back to Sydney for some time as part of my auto-ethnographic ‘jigsaw’ methodology of revisiting and documenting my response to places in which I have lived in, have called ‘home’, and which have therefore formed who I am and how I view space, place and identity (essentially the topic of my doctorate).

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My trusty TASCAM field recorder

My aim was to make audio field recordings of the places and spaces in which I’ve lived and using ‘deep listening’ (see Michael Bull & Les Back) to reflect on the implications of these recordings for my research. So more or less everywhere I’ve been I’ve had my portable field recorder in my pocket, ready to capture whatever struck me as characteristic of the places I went. I’d been fortunate enough in so-called ‘life B.C.’ (before children) to have lived in Manly, an outlying, surfer-suburb of Sydney, and that’s where we returned. I stood outside 25 Ashburner St, where we’d lived, not far from the beach, doubtful about what identifying sounds I would really pick up when two pairs of rainbow lorikeets suddenly swooped down into a nearby tree and made the most extraordinary racket of screeching song.

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My old flat in Manly, Sydney

This serendipitous sonic moment instantly acted as both signature of place, and a trigger to (what I thought had been actually selective, rather idealised) memories of feeding lorikeets by hand many years ago, just yards from where I now stood. Of course ‘home’ is not always the idealised place we might like to think it is, and I met people who were escaping their homelands in search of a better life in Australia. One such person was a taxi driver who had been a senior educational manager in Italy, and who painted a sorry picture of economic hardship back in Sicily.

We tend perhaps to underestimate how sound forms us; we’re used to taking holiday snaps, but not many people stand around pointing a sound recorder at a place or space with the aim of taking what might be called sonic snaps or reflecting upon them and our place in them, even though any one of us could do this with our smart phones. I’d recommend it (and the act of listening to the recording later) as a meditative or communicative practice. On many occasions, I recorded conversations with willing subjects, and I think it is in this way that sound can be truly remarkable in capturing the essence of something, enabling us to listen and think.

Most of all, I felt enlivened just being on the road, seeing new places and engaging with new ideas, and making connections. Travel can be rather akin to an adrenalin-filled, souped-up version of research (re-search; searching again), where you come smack-bang into contact with conflicting or challenging thoughts (or sights and sounds). I have a theory that there is a visual or sonic window of a few days  up to a week when you arrive somewhere new, and certain things strike you as different or strange. It was only this time round, for example, that I discovered Aussies don’t tend to put vinegar on their fish and chips, something that distinguishes them from the British.

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Christmas ‘hedge’ Manly, Sydney by Tom Ottway

So what do I resolve to do this year? Basically that: to re-think or re-solve my whole approach to what ‘home’ means, and find a way to incorporate the stories and experiences of people I encounter as part of a jungle-path jigsaw methodology. If you’ve never checked out the website Humans of New York, you can see how effective this more communal approach can be.

I tend to like combining photos and audio in my practice. I kept a kind of visual diary as I went (you can see this here: https://www.instagram.com/tomhomemademan/). My plan next is to combine audio recordings with selected images and embed these in some kind of interactive auto-ethnographic map or story of home.

Whatever I choose to do or make, I’ve been reminded that practice is an ongoing process; not one you start and then finish doing as such, and as Julia Cameron suggested in the Writer’s Way, you need to regularly re-set the brain and ‘fill the well’ with stimulation. This could be travel, or just picking up a book outside your normal field in the library every now and then, and allowing connections to begin.

On the plane home to the UK, I sat next to a young Tunisian woman and we got chatting. When I told her what I was researching, she exclaimed in fascination [sic]:

‘I have no idea where home is anymore and I keep asking myself that question; part of me belongs in France, another part in the UK, and I no longer feel fully at home in Tunisia.’

This led me to resolve to being really open and flexible about how I define home, and to consider letting people lead me to the next participant. I have a new lead: an Australian friend of a friend I met in Brisbane has a cousin now living in Brighton, and I’m now thinking of looking them up to hear their story of ‘home’…

Here at the Hive we’d love to hear your journey or stories of your research journey, or even your resolutions. You needn’t write a full post, but please comment, or tweet to us. And if you do want to share more, just get in touch.

tom-ottway-hive-photo-bwt.ottway@sussex.ac.uk

@homemademan

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