Research in the Central Darling: 'The Outhouse Run'

 Outhouse in Ivanhoe, 2010
 The Outhouse  'Gone Bush' on the main street of Ivanhoe, 30 September 2010. Photo: Lisa Andersen

Long Drop. Dunny. Biffy. Thunderbox. These are all Australian terms for the place where some of our best thinking is done - in the Outhouse. TRAX Arts

The 'Outhouse' video booth was originally conceived and built in Ivanhoe in 2009 by Melbourne-based arts company, TRAX Arts, and software designer Samuel Van Ransbeeck as an interactive art installation to gather local stories that Outback Theatre for Young People could turn into a local performance as part of their 'Ivanhoe Chronicles' project.

In May 2009, I approached Brian Cohen and Tara Prowse from TRAX with a proposal to adapt the Outhouse concept and develop a social research tool for CAMRA that would help to 'map' culture in a region where documentation is scarce, local people have described how they are 'fed up' with social service surveys and research where they see no outcomes, and there are varying literacy levels.

But there are stories that needed to be told and recorded. Research in the Central Darling is a bit like archaeology, most of the information lives in people's heads, very little of it has been written down and there are no libraries of information. There is statistical and social services data and some tourism information, but that doesn't articulate the community stories and the fascinating individual stories that make up the small towns and settlements of this region of NSW which is little-known to many people from 'away'. As it turned out, concern about loss of information and loss of traditional knowledge proved to be a serious issue for the local communities we visited in the Central Darling.

In 2010, the University of Technology, Sydney, commissioned the TRAX team to redesign and rebuild the Outhouse, with software design by Samuel Van Ransbeeck, 'game playing' screen graphic design from Alan Lippert and research content development by me. In September and October, The Outhouse  - now 'Mark IV' based on TRAX's continuous improvement of their original design through two subsequent versions of the Outhouse participating in numerous cultural events - was part of the UTS-CAMRA research fieldwork in the Central Darling Shire in far western NSW. The project was supported by CAMRA partners James Giddey and West Darling Arts and the Central Darling Shire Council.

Ivanhoe, located 900 kilometres west of Sydney by car, became the first stop on a research 'run' which included the towns of White Cliffs and Wilcannia and the local agriculture event, Kilfera Field Day. Generating a 'buzz' where it parked, locals and visitors were asked to step into the Outhouse to tell their stories about what is 'cool', 'inspirational', 'memorable' and 'creative' about the Central Darling.

Inside was a chair and a video touch screen that allowed the interviewee to listen to the pre-recorded questions and control their participation. Their responses were recorded by a digital camera built into the wall of the booth and participants could choose to broadcast their responses via an external screen and speaker or keep their answers private.

For those reluctant to step into the booth (around half of those asked), Andrew Warren ('borrowed' by UTS from the University of Wollongong for this field trip) and I were on hand to conduct face to face interviews. Samuel Van Ransbeeck - who is a also a PhD Candidate from the Catholic University of Porto - travelled from Portugal via his home country of Belgium to act as technical manager of the video booth.

In Menindee without the Outhouse (which technically failed in Wilcannia), we were greatly assisted by the local knowledge of Margot Muscat, Central Darling Shire Council, and carried out face to face interviews with local people in the Rural Transaction Centre, the Mens' Shed, the volunteer-run Tourism Information Centre and other local landmarks. (While in town, I also moonlighted as a reporter for the innaugural Menindee Yabby Race Trials for local media outlets.)

Alongside more than 100 'Outhouse' recordings or interviews, Andrew Warren and I carried out a number of in-depth interviews with local creative practitioners and community and cultural leaders.  The questionnaire was based on 2007 research I had undertaken with Regional Arts NSW in nearby Broken Hill and included questions about creative practice, markets, sourcing 'raw' materials, outsourcing production and the special (if any) inspirations of place. 

The population of local creative practitioners is not visible outside the region - and a number expressed a need for support to articulate their 'artist story' and promote local creativity outside the reigon. Currently, and with the support of West Darling Arts and the organisers of the 2010 White Cliffs Music and Arts Festival, I am develping an online database, the Central Darling Artist Gallery, that profiles local artists and their practice. In addition, we created a series of GPS tracks that mapped 'walking, talking and storytelling', less visible cultural tourism assets of the region or articulated the nature of creative practice in remote Australia.

I will be returning to the Central Darling to get input from the local communities into the draft research findings and do further interviews with artists and with the residents of Tilpa, who heavy rain prevented the team from reaching in 2010. In addition, Pat Bazeley, one of Australia's leading experts in mixed methods data analysis and software, will be advising on the analysis for the mixed media data collected (including audio, video, GIS, photographs, secondary and primary documents and, of course, local art works). GIS expert, Chris Brennan-Horley, from the School of Earth & Evironmental Sciences, University of Wollongong, will advise and work with us on map production and mash-ups for the region. 

Written by: Lisa Andersen, Senior Research Associate, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, UTS (14 December, 2010)

More Information: lisa.andersen@uts.edu.au

See also:

'The Outhouse Storycatcher', U:News, 28 August 2010.

Outhouse in Wilcannia segment on Bush Telegraph, ABC Radio National, 6 October 2010.

The Outhouse Storycatcher @ Junction 2010, short film by TRAX Arts, 2010

Re-use of the Outhouse at NSW Indigenous Cultural Summit, September 2011