Sonic Visibilities


Sonic Visibilities

Auditory space has no point of favored focus. It’s a sphere without fixed boundaries, space made by the thing itself, not space containing the thing. It is not pictorial space, boxed in, but dynamic, always in flux, creating its own dimensions moment by moment. (McLuhan and Carpenter, 1960 p.67)

I sit at a bench in a park that acts as a balcony overlooking Black Rock Jetty, its carpark and assembled sail boats moving in and out of pools of silvered light. Port Phillip Bay’s (Nairm) vast grey horizon line is anchored by three pastel grey transport ships, a drifting musical score of containers, mobile collages of global mobility and trade. The wind is shifting and there is fog and streaks of rain on the horizon. My time-lapse camera captures its detail in 90-minute packets, transcribed for a hundred times speeded-up replay, not even a minute. This program parcels my memories of this real-time visual music into pattern recognition and my body breathes a bit easier.

I watch the changing wave patterns on the water as the wind changes and think of Aura Satz’s visual patterning of sounds, her use of the Chladni plate in Onomatopoeic Alphabet (2010) translating sound and vibration into imaged patterning. The bay performs as an endless Chladni plate. What patterning and sounds reside under the water?

I have been locating Clarice Beckett’s tonal sketched paintings of this area, described as all about fog, from Beaumaris and Rickett’s Point Sanctuary to Picnic Point. That is the light here and is prescribed by the direction of her sustained looking, determined by the coastline in a southwest arc from her 1920’s home on Tramway Parade. Every day at 5 a.m. she wandered out to capture its tonal silences and hum until struck down by pneumonia during a stormy vigil, passing away at 48. Her grave is two blocks from my weathered and discarded home.

In her essay on Misty Moderns: Australian Tonalists 1915–1950 Exhibition in 2009 Tracey Lock-Weir referred to Max Meldrum’s softened form of Tonalism as “semi-abstract ‘colour music’ studies” in Roy de Maistre’s hands. On Beckett Lock-Weir identifies a further visual music: “Beckett transcended Meldrum’s painting system, transforming it into her own ethereal signature style, distinguished by a wonderful command of design and feeling for colour.” (Lock-Weir, 2009)

Today Beckett’s mobile drawing kit, which she incessantly carted with her like a dog on a leash, is replaced by mobile phones and tablets that gather instant snapshots of sails, sunsets and scan clouded vistas. Such imagery registers on the corner of the eye of those passing upper middle-class walkers, joggers and lycra-clad cyclists occupying this impeccable comatose suburbia’s fringe. As you walk towards the coastline the hum of cars cancels the din of the waves. There is a point where these sounds embrace, stroked by wind, and punctuated by birds that direct the eye. And then you are in, through the portal. Do we still have available here the immersive traces of a Boon-Wurring looking, before Chaos Time before their women were abducted by sealers?

Between Clarice Beckett’s time and now, to use McLuhan’s term, the media have flipped. ‘When all information moves at the speed of light it literally translates itself into the auditory mode’ (McLuhan, 1960 in Cavell 2002 p.138). In the 1960 everyone in my generation wanted to be in a band and play a guitar and this, at the very least, enabled moments of recognition of Jimmi Hendrix’s technical virtuosity. For some reason a recent Video of Prince reminded me of this intelligence.

Now, with the malleability of what Vilem Flusser describes as the “technical image”, the pervasiveness of digital media, the transistor radio has been replaced by the mobile phone. Our mobility allows us to be in many places at once. The rules of sonic behaviour re-assert themselves. How do you sample this media environment? We do it every day. We do it when we get up at 5 a.m. to catch a live-stream on the other side of the world.


Sonic Visibilities

The coastal area of Bayside was part of the walking barreeng followed by the Boonwurrung bagurrk from many thousands of years as they journeyed to their meeting place.

Lousia and the bagurrk journeyed along the coast to what is now known as Beaumaris and Black Rock, as was their custom. But on this occasion [in the 1830s], these bagurrk never returned from their journey. They were kidnapped by sealers and taken to the islands in Bass Strait where they worked for the sealers (Briggs 2014: 18)

There are two fixed points between which I will often walk. The first fixed point is beneath the Black Rock garden, where the stone sea wall begins. It is a pathway that hugs the shoreline of Nairm. Just before the fossil-rich beaches of Beaumaris is found the second point – the low-lying cliffs at the Southern end of Beaumaris beach. It is between these two points that my body oscillates, as it attempts to defragment from the exhaustive encounters of daily life whether that be the political game-machine that accompanies the human temperament, or simply trying to understand what all the fuss is about. The wall is nearly a century old. It was designed to protect beach road and provide employment for the young men left jobless by the Great Depression. It is constructed from the stones of the dismantled Old Melbourne Gaol, which include grave markers of condemned criminals including (maybe) the war hero, Ned Kelly. The stones are mnemonic departure points, that remind me I shouldn’t complain about my unbroken neck.

There is one small section of this walk called Quiet Corner. It is an aptly named location because sitting there I can easily drift into a suspended state of reality, imagining encounters with the wild. The constant roar of Beach Rd is somehow shielded; and the visual cues to left and right are lost around the tight bends of the sea wall walk. Ahead are fossilised platforms immersed in the glistening light and wave refraction patterns so peculiar to the ecology of Nairm. Given a rare and precious moment, when the jet skiers have stayed home and the marching leotard-bound exercisers have not yet emerged from their homes, a fragment of the wild is encountered. The caressing waves on the sea wall, the call of passing birds, and once, but only once, I watch a pod of dolphins swimming the stretches.

I’m not sure I require McLuhan’s positioning of auditory space as in flux (though I’m glad he brought it to our attention); only because the visual is also in flux, as are my senses and memories that try to apprehend it. There is not an hour that the light of Nairm is the same; and the fixed sounds of cars and joggers are always encountered, as they maintain their rhythms. But this is in the peaceful times. There is something terrifying about watching a Cold front roar across the bay like an impenetrable wall of dark-grey destruction; I can only be thankful they are clouds and not the shattering cliffs they mimic. These weather fronts can, and often have, torn the sea wall to shreds leaving engineers scratching their heads as how to protect their anthropocentric landscape (Bird 2009). The built environment is also in flux – watch the graves of the condemned swallowed by a storm.

At point 2, the cliffs of Beaumaris present another tantalising moment. If one shuffles carefully along the rugged rocks at the cliff base there are small platforms from which to dive and connect with a variety of fellow species. There is something healing about this space – it is the final space in which I undo my body’s ailments. When I swim here, I wonder what paradise we Europeans destroyed when we arrived. The story of the path they walked – the bagurrk (women) – what was life like then? I desperately want to know. By being here, am I trespassing again? Should I leave it alone? But I keep coming back, to these tiny wild pockets that stir my imagination, and compel my body to connect with something that may have been.


Sonic Visibilities

Both time (as measured visually and segmentally) and space (as uniform, pictorial, and enclosed) disappear in the electronic age of instant information. (McLuhan, 1964. p.138)

The light on Nairm is in looping flux, rhythmically stroked by the sun and moon. In speed-up this air performs as a Vortex. Layers of cloud move in different directions, speeds and hues. Light envelops us as a grey tonal fog, which Beckett was accused of overstating. In the fog the foghorn is the locating call. For George Kuchar the rising fog from San Francisco Bay became a metaphor for the denied depressions enveloping its Mogadon addicted tenement residents in his melodramatic A Reason to Live (1976).

The Vortex reminds me of the suicidal final image in Maya Deren’s seminal experimental film Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). This image of Deren herself, covered in seaweed, summarizes within it the re-iterations of a split persona processed through the film’s spiralling structure. Deren’s concept of the vertical editing process plumbs layers of meaning and perspective and pre-dates McLuhan’s ‘probes’. This final image incorporates ‘the richness of many moments’. (Deren, 1946 p.27)

Deren had studied the Imagist and Vorticist movement in pre-WWI London, featuring Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound. ‘The image is not an idea, it is a radiant node or cluster, it is what I can and must perforce, call a VORTEX, from which and through which ideas are constantly rushing’. (Ezra Pound 1970 p.92) ‘You think at once of a whirlpool. At the heart of the whirlpool is a great silent place where all the energy is concentrated. And there at the point of concentration, is the Vorticist.’ (Wyndham Lewis in Hunt, 1926) McLuhan related these descriptions to Edgar Allen Poe’s short story: A Descent into the Maelstrom. Are these compacted forms of meaning that Deren constructs in her film and described by Lewis and Pound’s approach productive responses to current speed-up of over-mediated environments?

Sound has meanings not directly related to the acoustic, but remain in dialogue. From a Vorticist point of view these meanings can be entwined in a nodal cluster of associations. Sound is also a geographic term derived from the Old English expression for water, sea and swimming or gap; sund. A Sound is a deep ocean or sea inlet, useful for protected anchorage and is usually formed by the flooding of a river valley. It can also be situated between two bodies of land, like a strait. Further, oceanographic depth sounding or plainly ‘sounding’ refers to the act of measuring depth with a segmented thread of lead-weighted rope. This was a critical tool during the European discovery and circumnavigation of Terra Australis.

Capel Sound, a deep-water anchorage situated in Port Phillip Bay on the Mornington Peninsula between Rosebud and Rye was named during the first survey of the bay in 1836. It rests on the horizon line south-east of Beckett’s Beaumaris. It has been speculated that this location is where the Yarra River and the Tamar River met well before Chaos Times when the Boon Wurrung could travel across the bay to the Ballerine Peninsula and across Bass Strait to Tasmania. In 2017 Rosebud West was renamed Capel Sound to increase local land values of the ever-encroaching suburban garrisons that have buckled the slither of foreshore and cliffs that Beckett occupied, paced and scribed during the 1920’s.

Depth sounding’s lead weighted rope has been technologically enhanced by post-industrial Sonar technologies, retrieving a direct link to the acoustic. Sonar sound emissions are used to communicate with or detect objects on or under water. Sailors and Fishermen use it to map the ocean floor and to detect schools of fish near a fishing vessel. This intrudes on the sensitive acoustic aquatic habitat of porpoises and whales, for example. Ultrasound, outside human hearing is defined as sound at frequencies higher than 20 kHz. Like bats, porpoises use ultrasound to locate prey and chart the seascape have an upper hearing limit of 160 kHz. The visual intrusion of suburbia is complimented by the sonic intrusion of sonar and ultrasound technologies.


Sonic Visibilities

Emu made a hell of a mess, running around showing off his speed and claiming his superiority, demanding to be boss and shouting over everyone. You can see the dark shape of Emu in the Milky Way. Kangaroo (his head the Southern Cross) is holding him down, Echidna is grasping him from behind, and the great Serpent is coiled around his legs. Containing excesses of malignant narcissists is a team effort (Tyson Yunkaprota 2019: 31).

Looking out onto the smooth spaces of Nairm, I am reminded of Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) vorticism: were they influenced by the Vorticist movement? I don’t know. According to them, vorticism refers to the movement of a cyclone or spiral or anything that radiates inwards and outwards. In effect, vortical movement is simultaneously located everywhere. There is no discernible spot that can be isolated and bounded. Similar to a body of water where no droplet can be isolated, because each droplet inhabits every place in the ocean simultaneously – it is in endless movement.

Understood as such, bodies are capable of stretching out infinitely at infinite speeds. They can’t be isolated. Endless stretches enveloped by endless stretches. This is flat, timeless space, without a suburban back fence.

Noises are vortical. They don’t care about fences. The acoustic spray of leaf blowers and jet skis fills all of McLuhan’s acoustic space. It is hopelessly invasive. It’s strange to stare at a fence and imagine the holder of the leaf blower. When I stare out over Nairm, I can see the jet ski perpetrator. He is usually a young man with rippling muscles with super-loud music mingling with the roar of his engine. This roar, sonically and visually, completely occupies – no colonises – space, and the experiences of everyone within it. A short 190 years ago there were no such intrusions on these peaceful shores – and no fences to contain them. Apparently, that’s what civilization does: builds fences and makes noises.

How can I respectfully broach the question of the experiences of Lousia Briggs, whose body was stolen from the very shores of which I write? Aunty Caroline Briggs (2014: 31-3) tells the story of the young woman (bagurrk), kidnapped and transported to the Bass Strait. What horrors must have this bewildering moment brought her? Am I allowed to ask? Or wonder? The story continues, that Louisa Briggs married a Tasmanian direct descendent and returned to Victoria, where eventually she became an important and respected leader of the Aboriginal settlement, Coranderrk. The resilience captured by this story is astounding.

And now, here her story is relayed by a European-Australian man with no idea about the land on which he tramples, as he oscillates between Black Rock and Beaumaris. Like the ultrasounds and ultralights in which I am immersed, but which exceed my perception, so to the world views and knowing of Louisa Briggs and her people exceed my perception, which has, after all, been narrowly defined by my colonial education. How to break past these stone walls, built by pedagogical engineers? Where is the storm that will tear apart my own sea wall?

Perhaps the answer could come to me if I drop beneath the depths of Nairm. Submerged by smooth space such that every moment could simultaneously come flooding into my consciousness. From the collective unconscious of memory and story, its boundless, unforgiving and unstructured depths force a gruelling process of individuation – I might come to understand something. I would also drown. But perhaps that is the point. You know, the point that is everywhere at the same time.

Have we traded such capacities for understanding, in exchange for the certainty of determinism?

I’m thinking about all those films my interlocutor tells us about. I hadn’t heard of them and now I am watching them. They are so rich and strange. Monstrous reifications of human peculiarities that do the important job of knocking us off our podiums. I think indigenous cultures had many monsters that reminded the people of their place in the world. I read about them in Dreaming books.

Tyson Yunkaporta (2019) thinks the problem these days is that there are too many emus. Emus he tells us represent narcissism. There are narcissists running around everywhere, and they are completely out of control. Aboriginal law did the job of keeping the narcissists under control, which may explain First People’s longevity and happiness. Not that there is anything wrong with narcissists (or emus) it’s just a problem when they are out of control. Narcissists can be great fun – I’ve known plenty. But unfortunately, these days they become presidents and CEOs.

And anyway, I like emus. One chased me around my car in circles at Tower Hill once, trying to get my sandwich. We were like a circling vortex till I jumped into the still of my car for protection. Everyone was laughing. That is, the Chinese tourists and my children. See; narcissists can be fun.

Coda: Sonic thinking is reshaping our civilization’s understanding of the world. How can we hold onto and control that which is fluid and in flux? A world of visual objects, without meaning, is ripe for exploitation and destruction. We have done this for so long – turning a devitalised world into our image, desperate to convince ourselves that our narcissism is in fact an exercise in truth. Sonic thinking has even liquified the ocular – we see light like the painters, apprehending it as flux and flow. Right now, in this period of disassembly and destruction everything is in flux. Until everything again re-coagulates, perhaps into something sincere – something like real law. Maybe we will all end up in the base of Nairm, or perhaps those waters (wareenny) will recede again, and we will be given another go…


Bird, E. (2010) Storm Damage on Black Rock Sea Wall, The Victorian Naturalist, 127(5), p.196-200.

Briggs, C. (2014) The Journey Cycles of the Boonwurrung, 2nd Edition, The Boonwurring Foundation Ltd: Victorian Corporation for Languages.

 Carpenter, E. & Mcluhan, M. (1960) Explorations in Communication, an Anthology. Boston, Beacon Press.

Cavell, R. (2002) McLuhan in Space: A Cultural Geography. University of Toronto Press.

Deleuze, G and Guattari, F. (1987) A Thousand Plateaus, Translated by Brian Massumi, Continuum: New York.

Deren, M (1946) An Anagram of  Ideas on Art, Form and Film, Alice book Shop Press, New York.

Flusser, V. (2011) Into the Universe of Technical Images. University of Minnesota Press.

Hunt, V. (1926) I have this to Say: The Story of My Flurried Years, Boni and Liveright, New York.

Lock-Weir, T. (2009) Misty Moderns: Australian Tonalists 1915–1950, Art Gallery of South Australia.

McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. McGraw-Hill, New York.

Pound, E. (1970) Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir. New Directions Pub Corp. New York.

Yunkaporta, T. (2019) Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, Text Publishing: Melbourne.

Dirk de Bruyn (1,3)

Jordan Lacey (2,4)   Jordan Lacey is a creative practitioner, transdisciplinary researcher, musician and curator who specialises in soundscape design and the creation of public sound art installations.He was recently awarded an Australian Research Council (DECRA) grant titled Translating Ambiance. This project combines biophilic design and ambiance theory to discover new techniques for the creation of sound art installations. He is based in the School of Design at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia and is an associate editor for the Journal of Sonic Studies, which is based in the Netherlands.