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Last updated February 15, 2024

Thanks to a Creative Victoria Creators Fund grant, this year I’m undertaking a period of intensive research to inform new work. Themes are around the ongoing impact of intergenerational trauma on this thing we often call “mental health” – what is unknown to us but lives within us, shaping the way we perceive and relate to ourselves and the world around us. I have a particular interest in how major historical events and political tensions shape familial relationship dynamics and impact subsequent generations. 

For context: My father was born as a displaced person in France to Polish-Catholic parents exiled from Poland once under Russian-communist occupation, for fighting against Nazi Germany. My mother was born in so-called Australia to parents of convict-settler descent, who were heavily involved in the Australian Communist Party. Therein lies the first tension.

My paternal grandfather was also a well-known Polish writer in exile, Andrzej Chciuk. He wrote many books in Polish about the Polish diaspora and a memoir of pre-war Drohobycz (the town he was born: then in Poland, now in Ukraine; then multicultural with more than 50% Jewish population, now, well… not… the book named Atlantyda after the lost city of Atlantis, some say a love letter to a time and place lost), among others. His brother was Tadeusz Chciuk-Celt, second lieutenant in the Silent Unseen (Cichociemni) division of the Polish Army in exile, who has also written books about his parachute missions into Poland during the war and the political negotiations he was involved in at that time.

I am learning Polish in an attempt to reconnect with this past. It’s by no means an easy language for an English speaker, but it’s amazing seeing my family come alive on page as I start to crack the code. Who I am, and the way I exist in this world, is starting to make a lot more sense.

I’ve also been going through the family archives, translating personal letters from Polish (with heavy use of Google translate and additional input from my Polish teacher). That has been a wild ride! So far, the anonymous letter that ends: “Ratuj się Pan. Niszczy wszystkich mężczyzn. / Save yourself Sir. She destroys all men.” – likely about my Nana (she was kind of a bad ass) – remains my favourite. It’s like watching a soap opera unfold. I now know that my flair for drama, and tendency towards bluntness, unequivocally comes from my Polish roots.

I am also learning much more about the nuances of the White Australia Policy and how has shaped my family (partly through reading an unpublished manuscript of my grandfather’s first book in English, which he was working on when he died), and “Australia” in general, which is both surprising and, frankly, the stuff true horror is made of. Maybe nuances isn’t the right word, maybe it’s more like what’s been willfully buried. How this was never taught to us in school is beyond me, but also explains so much. [These words do not do justice to how I feel about that. I don’t think words can.] There is a great course by the Centre for Cultural Competence Australia for people who want to find out more.

I went into this project knowing there was a need for more culturally informed mental health care, but now, in the midst of it, that need is palpable. Separating our “mental health” from our culture (and the impact of systems of oppression we live within) just make no sense. Sadly, it is rarely considered — at least that’s what I’ve found.

The project also involves:

– Experimentation with artist and writer SJ Norman on captioning of abstract sound for d/Deaf audiences

– Consultation with artist Fayen d’Evie on radical approaches to disability access

– Dramaturgy by sound artist and deadset legend Anna Liebzeit

I’m also working with Chamber Made on developing a new installation for their show Listening Acts, which will likely emerge from this research.

Previous years’ updates:

2023:

– Adaptation of the UnKnowing Madness composition to a single person experience-installation for Sleepless Footscray Festival (note: I had a bad experience working with this festival and would not recommend others do so, especially if they have a complex disability)

– Launch of the UnKnowing Madness website, designed by workshop participant Kim Le (you can hear the composition there and find out more about the process involved in its making and the people behind it)

2022:

– Designed and implemented a workshop series called UnKnowing Madness, to engage people with lived experience of complex trauma who do not have an experimental arts practice into my process of composing

– Composition from UnKnowing Madness premiered at The Big Anxiety festival, Naarm/Melbourne

– Working with designer remi cady freer on a redesign of my 2018 installation Held Down, Expanding. This resulted in the installation Who Is Doing What to Whom? (Object Impermanence) also premiered at The Big Anxiety festival, in their exhibition ‘Archives of Feeling’.

2021:

From mid-2020 to December 2021 I’m working on a Regional Arts Victoria Fellowship project, titled ‘A Dense Mass’.

Research is investigating 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 is focused on my main area of interest: the use of sound art to represent, understand and manage these things often called ‘mental illness’. It includes a public event program showcasing my back catalogue of recent works plus new works in progress in Clunes for the first time, alongside a website for interviews with other regional artists and experiments in remote methods of working, among other things.

Aside from that, an overview of what else I’ve been doing the last few years:

2021:

– Work on a chapter for an upcoming book, The Big Anxiety, edited by Jill Bennett, who, among other accolades, is director of The Big Anxiety Festival.

Audio paper published in online journal, Disclaimer, discussing the creation of the album ‘Love Songs’ as a first-person “madness” narrative.

– Commissioned by Liquid Architecture for ‘Unheard Relations’ in March, a satellite event for the ‘Site and Sound: Sound Art as Ecological Practice’ at McClelland Sculpture park.

2020: 

– Journal article titled ‘The Acousmatic Gap as a Flexile Path to Self-Understanding: A case for experiential listening’ published in Organised Sound.

– Research and development for a new installation/performance work.  This project is supported by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria.

– Commissioned by MESS Ltd for the presentation of an new 8-channel work at The SUBSTATION in March.

– Mentoring as part of SIGNAL’s Screen x Sound Commissions.

2019:

– Winner of the 2019 Green Room Award for Contemporary Sound Performance, for the CD launch of Love Songs at The SUBSTATION.

– Finalist in the 2019 Art Music Awards for Excellence in Experimental Music for Held Down, Expanding.

– Artist in residence at MESS Ltd (Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio) . The MESS artist in residence program is supported by City of Melbourne, with Thembi’s participation supported by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria.

– Awarded a PhD at RMIT University, project titled “A Dense Mass of Indecipherable Fear: The Experiential (Non)Narration of Trauma and Madness through Acousmatic Sound.” The dissertation can be downloaded here.
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– Presentation at Chamber Made’s Hi-Viz Practice Exchange, discussing the ‘Orange House By the Sea’ artist residency undertaken in collaboration with S.J Norman, in May 2019.