The Wired Lab: A Space for Contemporary art in Rural Australia

On a property just south of Cootamundra in rural NSW fourth generation farmer and interdisciplinary artist Sarah Last has created The Wired Lab; a platform for the formation of contemporary rural art within the context of the wild and beautiful Australian landscape.

Over a decade ago Sarah Last returned home to Muttama, in the Riverina region of southern NSW, with her creative partner, electronic musician David Burraston. After years of working as a curator in institutional, urban environments, Sarah had become frustrated by the conventional presentation format of metro-centric galleries. “There was so much being created about the Australian landscape and the significance of artist’s documentation as they saw and experienced it, yet there was a massive gap in how contemporary art forms reflected this in galleries,” explains Sarah. With the return to her country homeland, the expansive landscape of the farm presented a unique opportunity – to cultivate a contemporary context for rural art within the local community. And so, together with Burraston, the pair created The Wired Lab; an artist led initiative that creates a platform for research, development and skills generation towards the expansion of interdisciplinary arts.

Aunty Anne and The Wired Lab founder and creative director, Sarah Last during a Wiradjuri Native Grasslands Weaving & Tanning Project workshop. Photo by Harriet Goodall.

These days The Wired Lab is a hub of activity, research and creativity. Not only is the site a platform for the creation of work within the cultural context it was inspired by, but it’s also a meeting place for acclaimed local and international artists and the wider rural community.

Instantly recognisable on the property is the kilometres of wires stretching across the landscape, a foundational project made in collaboration with Sarah, David and Alan Lamb, that continues to attract interest and collaboration with sound artists worldwide. Sarah’s interest in sound was prompted by the technical limitations she experienced when returning to rural living after attending university in Sydney. “When I accepted a curatorial position in Wagga Wagga and returned to live in the Riverina, the only way you could access contemporary audio-visual culture and art forms was via very rudimentary internet, so sound & music naturally became an area of interest” she says. Built from fencing posts and wire, materials central to the rural vernacular, and attached to tiny microphones, the singing of the wires can sometimes be audible in the paddock, noising the sounds of the land. The real beauty of the work, Sarah explains, is how the site and the subject exist only in relationship to each other – that is, the experience of the wires can only exist within the rural context.

Also at the heart of the initiative is The Open Lab Workshops program, which offers a huge variety of short courses to the community – botanical art to macramé, taxidermy to digital marketing.

It’s important to me that we offer a lot of activities locally – workshops and events that can be accessed by people in the community, helping them to learn new skills or regenerate lost knowledge,” Sarah explains.

Every second year, the site opens to the public for The Wired Lab Oped Day Festival – an opportunity to showcase and share the work of Wired Lab artists with the broader community. After boarding buses in Cootamundra, the audience are delivered to the property, and are soon enmeshed in the huge variety of experiential landscape based works taking place throughout the afternoon and into the night – picture people of all ages and backgrounds coming together to wander the landscape, joining in site based installations and performances, sticking their heads into silo meditation chambers and sharing an abundance of local food and drink. The unpredictable weather – which Sarah explains in previous years has been borderline cyclonic! – only adding to the dynamic experience between the viewers, the works and the landscape.

The thematic focus of this year’s Wired Open Day is the ‘Agri(culture) project’, a long running focus area of the Wired Lab, that explores agriculture and land management practices in their broadest sense.

To me, agrarian landscapes are cultural landscapes. They are an exact reflection of what’s happening in the world around us and what our capacities and limitations are at the time,” says Sarah.

Exhibiting the works of twelve artists whose creations explore this concept from a past, present and future perspective, the Wired Open Day landscape is set to come alive with edible insects, a chorus of Kenyan elephants, fungi highways and the art critiques of kids from Jugiong and Melbourne.

Silo Meditation Chamber by David Burraston. Image © Jacob Raupach.

One of the exhibits featuring at Wired Open Day is the Wiradjuri Native Grasslands Weaving and Tanning Project. Produced in consultation with the Wiradjuri community, particularly women involved in cultural rejuvenation practices like weaving, fibre arts and traditional language, this is a multi-faceted initiative that brings together Country, the landscape and long-held traditional Wiradjuri practices and knowledge. Through a series of workshops, including plant identification, production and harvesting of native grasses, weaving and twining techniques and leather tanning, the ancient land management knowledge of the Wiradjuri culture is explored and traditional knowledge is shared.

The Wiradjuri culture is experiencing a powerful rebirth in knowledge, with Charles Sturt University introducing a Language, Heritage and Culture Certificate, and regional artists, such as Indigenous weaver Melanie Evans, who is engaged in the Grasslands Project, reigniting interest in traditional Wiradjuri fibre techniques. One of the participants Melanie introduced to the program is Kerrie O’Sullivan. Although Gamilaraay by ancestry, Kerrie was born and bred in Wiradjuri Country, where she was raised to be proud in the ancient practices of her people:

We grew up walking the bush, using what we found and sometimes reinventing their uses. Often, we lived off the land, grew our own food, a practice that has been handed down through generations and now to my grandchildren… I recall tripping around the countryside with my grandparents to visit family. I recall my great grandfather, taking us on bush walks, telling us about what to do if we came across snakes, telling us to take care of the land and it will take care of you.”

Kerrie explains to me the Wiradjuri word for this slow, deep respect, love and appreciation of the land, all its beings and the lessons and laws it holds: Yindyamarra – its an ancient, beautiful element of Wiradjuri identity. “If you have Yindyamarra at heart,” she explains, “then you also have the land, language, lore; law and people as a priority.”

Twining and weaving with Lomandra, a native grass, in the Wiradjuri Native Grasslands Weaving and Tanning Project. Image © Sarah Last.
Twined Lomandra basket by Harriet Goodall. Image © Sarah Last.

The Grasslands Project has given the Wiradjuri people a platform to exchange knowledge about native plants and grasses that were endemic to the Lands of their ancestors and these workshops are one of Kerrie’s favourite components of the project: “I love getting out on Country and exploring, discovering plants particular to regions and the like. The theme of this project is a passion of mine – in my home garden, I have cultivated many plants that are endemic to the area I live in. They have many uses such as weaving, for cooking and medicinal purposes.”

Another of the artists sharing in the rejuvenation of local knowledge through traditional fibre techniques is weaver, Harriet Goodall, who was born and raised on a farming property in Wiradjuri Country. For Harriet, the project has also been deeply significant as its given her the opportunity to give back to the ancestors of her community Lands.

My father was a farmer and I grew up completely with a sense of ownership of the land, our farm, our place, our country. Working on this project has given me a beautiful opportunity to say thank you to the Indigenous people who were vacated by my ancestors when agriculture and farming took over. To say thank you, and to work with the Wiradjuri people to regain pride in their culture.”

“In our last plant harvesting workshop, Alison Elvin from Natural Capital was talking about seeds and the way they lie dormant beneath the ground,” reflects Harriet. “It doesn’t mean they’re not there – it just means they haven’t had the right seasonal conditions to germinate. Often it might take years, and people will say to Alison, ‘Oh, you don’t know what you’re doing,’ because nothing comes up. But then, the rains will arrive. The seeds will germinate. The grasses will come up. The Wiradjuri culture and heritage is the same – it may be lying dormant, but it’s all there, waiting to germinate again, ready for rebirth.”

Wallaby grass samples harvested by Alison Elvin of Natural Capital. Image © Sarah Last.

A selection of woven vessels and native endemic grasses will be displayed during Open Day, providing an opportunity for the audience to engage with Wiradjuri Country, the artists and their creations. “When they experience the Grasslands installation, I hope the audience takes away with them a new way of thinking,” says Harriet. “That they look around with fresh eyes instead of looking only towards land ownership. That they have an appreciation of the sheer scale of introduced species takeover and not just human. There was an abundance of resources that were once farmed and managed sustainably and now are not. Or perhaps they will just make a personal connection with the Wiradjuri culture for the first time and enjoy it’s richness.”

For Kerrie, the sharing and learning of not only Wiradjuri culture, but all Indigenous cultures and the Countries that make up what we now know as Australia, is paramount for the health of the earth and its people. But it’s an ancient knowledge that she believes should be shared in customary Wiradjuri style – storytelling around a camp fire in the bush: “It’s difficult to ‘snapshot’ a culture that has existed since time,” says Kerrie.

We are the oldest continuing culture in the world, and the original First Nations people. Telling the Wiradjuri story, or any Nation’s story, is preferably told the traditional way – sitting down and having a yarn, hearing the words as they flow from the person. This is how it should be. Any other way doesn’t do the culture justice.”

This project and the many others you will find on exhibition at this year’s Wired Lab Open Day Festival are wonderful representations of contemporary Australian art in the rural context, with important universal ideas explored and questions generated within the audience. The Wired Lab is giving a platform for the kind of art that speaks to its context – that engages with the agrarian landscape surrounding it and that invites the local and urban communities to take part in its unique experience. “I’m really proud that our projects have an incredibly diverse demographic which you don’t often see in conventional art environments,” says Sarah. “You don’t need to have a degree and a knowledge of art to appreciate a cultural representation of the world around you.”

The Wired Lab Open Day takes place on Saturday the 21st of October, 2017.

It features works from acclaimed local and international artists including Chris WatsonCat JonesChef Soon Lee Low, Julie VulcanTamara DeanBron BattenDavid BurrastonThe RonaldsField Theory (Jackson Castiglione with kids from Jugiong and Melbourne)Harriet GoodallMelanie Evans and members of the Wiradjuri Native Grasslands Weaving and Tanning Project.

Don’t miss out on your chance to join Open Day! The Wired Lab are offering discounted tickets to Planthunter readers and subscribers – buy your tickets here and enter PLANTHUNTER at the checkout for a $15 discount!

To find out more about the amazing work happening at The Wired Lab, you can visit their WEBSITEINSTAGRAMFACEBOOK & TWITTER.

Header image © Ella Murphy. All images supplied by Sarah Last and Harriet Goodall.

The Edge’ is a two year skills development project for young people (aged 13 -17 & 18-25) living in the small rural communities of Tumut and Cootamundra working with Sarah Last and contemporary photographer Tamara Dean. This image is by Ella Barclay, aged 15. Image © Ella Murphy.
The Edge’ is a two year skills development project for young people (aged 13 -17 & 18-25) living in the small rural communities of Tumut and Cootamundra working with contemporary photographer Tamara Dean. This image is by Conner Akers, aged 15. Image © Conner Akers.
Beggan Beggan, a sound and photographic collaboration with The Ronalds, Sarah Last and David Burraston, exploring the archetypal form of the shearing shed. Image © The Ronalds.
'Insecta Delecta' a participatory artwork exploring edible insects by Cat Jones in collaboration with Chef Soon Lee Low. Image by Cat Jones. Image © Cat Jones.