Gustav Hellberg

Tracing Australia

North by Southeast Residency: Gustav Hellberg in Ravensthorpe

Artist: Gustav Hellberg
Work: Tracing Australia (2017-18)
Partner: Ravensthorpe Regional Arts Council (RRAC)
Location: Ravensthorpe, Western Australia

Tracing Australia was the working title for Gustav Hellberg’s North by Southeast Residency project.

The project culminated in the film Amnesia – the Eagle and the Rabbit, showcased in the two-channel video installation exhibited at AGWA upon project completion. Hellberg's film delves into the untold histories of the Ravensthorpe region, examining its nature, and exploring the lives of the people who have shaped this land.

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I was posted in the community of Ravensthorpe, Western Australia, as part of the Spaced North by Southeast program.

How do you plan to work with an art project in a small rural town in Western Australia? Well, I didn’t. Or at least I deliberately didn’t plan my project for IAS's spaced 3: North by Southeast program in detail. I reasoned that for a Scandinavian, who has never been to Australia before, let alone a in remote place like Hopetoun and Ravensthorpe, I couldn't risk building my intentions on false presumptions on what such a place could harbor. I had a project outline drawn up and I also brought some ideas, based on earlier works, together with a prepared interview. I brought a sculpture, which I thought could help me get started or work as a catalyst. At least it could be used as a conversation piece when approaching the locals.

My art practice has circled around issues on property and its social effects. My project outline presents an idea to make a video based artwork where surveying land and people’s use of it will be the project’s core. I also want to approach and involve time as an important aspect. Land, ownership, use and access to land are the cornerstones that the work will focus on. The time aspect will be played out by people’s notions of the place where they live or have lived, where I will make an attempt to tap into people’s dreams and future visions.

The project has been planned to be made in two sections. One will be of a documentary character, which will left behind as document. The other will be of aesthetic nature and the aim is to make a video based installation.


Journal entry #1, Mar 22, 2017

Day 1

I arrived in Hopetoun at night, which always is a very disorientating experience. I was brought to a smart looking James Bond style bungalow, generously provided as my accomodation by First Quantum Minerals, by two people, whom would come to be extraordinarily important for my stay and the project’s development, Ainsley and Paul Foulds. After we had poked around and marveled at my temporary pad together, I was left alone in a fancy house, surrounded by darkness and God knows what. Oh, I could hear waves beating at the shore.

Ainsley Foulds is the Chair of the Ravensthorpe Regional Arts Council, which is the hosting organisation for my residency and project. She and her colleagues had developed an itinerary of people I should meet. I politely thanked them for their enthusiasm and initiative. In my head I thought the program looked rather dull. First meeting Men in Sheds, which I thought sounded rather funny and the next was a gang of retired nurse, oh dear. And so on. What could I possible gain and learn from this? Man, was I wrong! It was never dull, all the people I met where very hospitable, curious, had tons of stories and where the most important links into the community and they where all a laugh. Nice wine was served too. Shamefaced and blushing due to my ignorant and arrogant thoughts, or was it the wine, I left these meetings well informed about the Hopetoun-Ravensthorpe region. Even more embarrassing, I left these encounters with wonderful people with crucial keys to the community. Without these people’s generosity the project would not have been able to become airborne. I wouldn’t have found the airstrip really. So I am very sorry for my ignorance and I thank you all for your valuable and so much appreciated engagement to help me get this project on its feet and literally off the ground.

Week 1

Meeting people and trying to get my bearings on where I had ended up. This endeavour was made a bit uncomfortable by a constant drizzling rain and rather chilly weather. Little did I realize that this seemingly harmless weather situation was going to alter most of my plans as it developed into a full-blown flooding catastrophe. The region’s swamps, rivers and streams couldn’t handle the downpour and water spread over vast areas, flooding roads, ripping bridges apart and disintegrating road banks. Devastation hit the farming and mining industry. All road transports where cut off and life became alarmingly serious. My surveying plans went down the tube as accessible land areas became scarce. However, my livelihood was not threatened and compared to what happened to many farmers my inconvenience was minute and irrelevant. In retrospect it probably helped me finding what I needed to build my project on.

Week 2

I slowly grew accustomed to the geographical layout of the region. I traveled around the area, in a nice four wheel drive ute, handed to me by the Fould's, surveying the topography photographing and video filming. The landscape here is breathtaking. From Ravensthorpe, which is surrounded by large green hills in a distance, towards Hopetoun and the sea to the South lies flatlands covered with brush and lined by two rivers running south. A mountain range, The Fitzgerald National Park, is resting west of the western most river. The southern half of this land is broken by farmers and used for grain and livestock farming. You will find disused mines, with rusting structures and debris, scattered in the brush all around Ravensthorpe. There is one large active nickel mine and a smaller lithium mine, as well as a couple of gold mines. There are many traces of human activity in this area. Some of it is slowly disappearing.

Spending my time roaming around in this landscape it came to me that this area is a concentrate of agricultural and industrial history. Industrial activity and farming has made an obvious environmental impact on the land and it has brought social consequences to people living on this land in the past and present. Western people brought a certain agricultural and industrial culture to this part of the world around 150 years ago. That is an important time marker. Looking back in time, beyond that marker, this land becomes invisible and dumb to me. What staggers me the most is that traces of human activity older than 200 years are not available for me to comprehend, not yet. Moving from that time marker towards our time on the land, which is covered with various historical codes, tells us a story of what has been going on here.

Thoughts about time and traces of change during time are forming. I am thinking a lot about the impossibility of traveling in time. Or is it impossible? In my western tradition of thinking and with our notion of time, such travels are unimaginable. I am not so sure if that is the right approach. From what I hear when I talk to people in the region about the people who used to exist on this land further back in time, my culture’s way of thinking, I am moved to start to imagine a different approach to time and space then what I am used to. Time and space must play an important role in my work here. How do I bring that visually to life? How do I incorporate what I cannot see and comprehend into this project? What happened before and outside of the 150 year era that has made such large and visible impact on this land?

Week 3

I still couldn’t reach some land areas I thought important to the research so I hastened into production of the look-at-the future part of my plan, which I initially had scheduled for my next visit. I decided to conduct interviews with people from the community. They where to tell me their dreams about the future in their community, or a future dream for the community. This was taped and will become the document to stay in Hopetoun when the project is finished. Some of the voice material might also be used in the larger video installation project. I created a little video recording studio in the Hopetoun Community Resource Centre (CRC) and invited people to drop in to tell me their dreams.

On Tuesday 21 February I delivered an artist talk at the CRC, where I presented my practice and what I was doing in Hopetoun. I also tried to explain the ideas I had developed and presented an outline of the project. In the adjacent hall I installed the sculpture I had brought with me together with a video projection – Things That Get In Our Way.

Then everything happened at the same time. I was able to fly a drone over one of the mines, so out of nowhere a drone was produced. Erm, Sam the son of Ainsley Foulds most kindly lent his top range drone to the project. If he only had known what skills in drone flying the artist had prior to the Blade Runner shot of the mine he had planned.

I also remembered an old idea of aerial surveying of landscapes had to be tested out. So the last days of the research session in Hopetoun was carried out like a one man band. I darted out into the bush flying that adrenaline raising machine around, scouting for locations for next session’s upcoming video filming. Then quickly back to the electrical grid to recharge drone batteries and water the artist. Bumping into engaged citizen’s of the Shire asking if I had seen this and that old mine, track, kangaroo filled paddock and what not. Fantastic! The result of this is that I returned back to Seoul with extraordinary and interesting image material to use to plan the larger upcoming film session. I also left Hopetoun with a near complete idea of how to capture an important situation at a specific place on this planet that also can be of interest to people from other parts of the world.

Past and present times

I am going to make a video-based work, which is going to become a multi channel video installation, where I will deal with traces of human activity in the landscape. I am surveying the landscape with aerial footage to get a bird’s eye view of the landscape. This gives us an unusual viewpoint and we get to see something that we normally can’t see. This footage is going to be mixed with traditional narrative film work where people from the region are going to participate as actors.

During these weeks I have been using a drone to make video sketches for the future video film work, which I am going develop in Seoul together with my assistants.

A great problem with this part is that I haven’t had any possibility to explore traces of human activity prior to the time of white people entering the region. People have been active here for millennia and as a foreigner and stranger I am oblivious and blind to these issues. This is my biggest concern and challenge to deal with. I cannot look away and I will not ignore it.

Future (dreams)

I have already started with the future part of this project. This section is made out of interviews with Hopetounians who individually are telling a dream about the future. This is a project that will run parallell with the other work. Parts of it might be used in the final video installation but it is also going to be edited together as one work of its own. A similar project to the dream interviews have already been made in Sweden last year and was called Framtidsscanner [Future Scanner]. A third version of this future dream project is currently under production in Seoul.


Journal entry #2, Aug 16, 2017

Since I returned to Seoul after a month in Hopetoun I have been working with practical applications of the ideas I developed during my research residency in Hopetoun.

When I was in Hopetoun I was already involved in an interview project in the Seoul neighbourhood Haebangchong (HBC). The project is based on Future Scanner, which was a public art project in the Swedish town of Varberg in 2016. This project built on a simple question that citizens of the town are asked: Tell your dream about the future of the town or neighbourhood you live in? The interviews are recorded on video. The result is later presented together with demographical statistics from that town.

I have an idea to compare these three, and possibly more, similar interview projects with each other. It will not be an academic research but rather a way to see the difficulties that surround the complexity of describing one’s ideas about one’s future as well as outlining ideas about society’s development and urban planning.

This material can easily be brought together in various forms. For my next stay in Hopetoun I plan to create a larger one off event and possibly leave a smaller video display version to stay as a sort of archive.

In Hopetoun I also developed the idea of tracing human activity in the landscape by video filming with the help of a drone. In February I completed a lot of drone flying and filming in the Hopetoun area. I realized that I had to make full scale test. I decided to carry it out in Korea. As the Korean geographical and topographical differs so much from that of the Ravensthorpe-Hopetoun region I had to adjust the concept for a Korean project. Relevant for the Hopetoun project is that in Korea I could try the technical and graphical aspects of the work.

Throughout April I was flying around in the countryside surrounding the university, Chung-Ang, where I work. The drone flies over the landscape with the camera shooting straight down. Thus, you get a map like footage, which also resembles maps or landscapes common in many computer games. The image you get is rather abstract and objects are difficult to recognise, as I think our image comprehension comes from looking at our surroundings horizontally from ground level. It helps me to focus the project on my intention to underline that not seeing and not understanding the world as it is a large problem for humans and humanity. We just miss a lot of information as we cannot comprehend the data we have in front of us, whatever senses we use. We have limitations. We also have problems to be aware and accept that our handicap.

During most of the spring I have been processing the footage and experimented with animated graphic elements to add to the video. I have also experimented with presentation technology, multi-channel synchronized video and sound installations. This research is vital to understand how I will have to shoot the final video in Australia in February.

I created a 3-channel video installation titled Tracing Korea , which was part of a group exhibition at Artspace Boan in May.

The next two steps will be to make full scale video test on the second video shoot, where I plan to work with children acting as explorers of their environment. I will also carry that out in South Korea and hopefully build up a small team that could be part of the Australian project’s process, early next year.

The most important work starts now. This will involve thorough research into Aboriginal history in the region, as well as investigating if I can develop the contacts made in February. My aim is to create voice-based historical material to be used together with the video footage. This process is very sensitive, as I am moving in on grounds where, with my background as white European, I might not be able to access. Most of this work will thus be made with little public insight until I have received a trustful collaboration. I will try to explain further on if there’s interesting development in this section of the project.

Journal Entry #3, Dec 28, 2017

It is now three weeks until I will board a plane bound for Perth and then Hopetoun, to continue the project I started in February 2017. It is getting hectic to get the last pieces together. The project has now been formed into a concrete plan. Some ideas and elements that I have been working with didn’t develop in a way I had hoped for. Others have developed and will be the solid backbone of the next session in Hopetoun and Ravensthorpe.

The video interview material I made with citizens of Hopetoun will probably not become a new version of Future Scanner, as was planned. The reason for putting this part on hold is that I need all focus on the main work, tracing human activities on the land. The interviews were not made in vain as the stories told have been used as resource in the development of the core intention.

During the autumn I have been gathering material around the Aboriginal history as it relates to the Ravensthorpe region. I have also connected to people who are now assisting me in finding people who are willing to participate and share their voice, telling their story(ies) about the land.

I will be landing in Perth on 17 January for some additional research as well as gathering equipment needed for the video shoots in Hopetoun.

In Hopetoun I am going to meet up with a group of primary school pupils. They are going to be actors in the film, or more correctly they are going to play in front of the camera. I am trusting the kid’s ability to use fantasy and their ability to play around with a topic presented to them in advance. The kids are going to play explorers. First, they are going to be exposed to how film industry has depicted explorers and their quests as heroic undertakings. At the same time, we will discuss what they know about the land surrounding their homes. That will be the foundation for their play. This party will then be moving through the surrounding landscapes, looking for traces of human activity, which they then will mark with flashing light units. All this will be filmed on the ground as well as from the sky.

During my stay in WA the plan is to record the voices of people whose ancestors once roamed freely over this region. The history of the displacement of Aboriginal people has marked this region hard. The 1880 massacre of local Aboriginal people is maybe the main reason why today there are so few people of Aboriginal Australian descent who live in the region.

Journal Entry #4, Jan 19, 2018

Tracing Australia has been this project’s working title. The central theme of this work is the absence of knowledge of the past, in any form. At the same time this project attempts to display overseen information, that is available to us if we could understand what we are looking at. What does the land tell us? What can people tell us about this land? I have now finished my second stay in Hopetoun. It has been five weeks of intense work, mainly shooting video. Tracing Australia is still there as the project’s title. From video material that was shot, together with more found text material and interviews, a new title for the video film developed. Amnesia.

I am back in Seoul and I have some distance to the final field work in Hopetoun. The material I collected and made, while I was there, is solid. I have now a firm ground to stand on, when I am moving into the final stages of creating an artwork. Or maybe I should talk about artworks, as the final result will be made of three main sections: a video film, a video installation and a collection of artefacts together with text material.

I started my second Western Australia session in Perth, where I hired a video camera and a lens kit, suitable for field shootings in the bush. In Perth I also connected with Ron Bradfield, Operations Manager - Urban Indigenous, and Damien Webb at State Library, with whom I discussed how to further connect the project to the missing Aboriginal links to the past and present, in Ravensthorpe.

The first weeks in Hopetoun became very hectic. I organised people who where willing to engage in the making of props, with Men in Sheds became one of the most generous supporters and producers. Jackie Edwards, Ravensthorpe Arts Council, became the projects most important asset. Jackie and her family proved to be the necessary ground support to get this project off the ground. Jackie had organised so that I had a gang of young actors at my disposal. School kids, most of them ten to twelve years old, from Hopetoun’s primary school volunteered to act in the video film. So during the first weeks I introduced the project to them, starting with a lecture about my art practice in their class, followed by an introduction of the project and some historical glances of explorers and surveyors as well as how they have been depicted in Hollywood movies. The young aspiring actors’ roll in the video is to act explorers of their surrounding environs, looking for traces of human activity. Together with Jackie Edwards and her children we also took a closer look at some suitable sites for the video film shoots.

Another important preparation before the actual video shoot was to meet with Aboriginal representatives in Albany, in an effort to capture the Aboriginal history and voices of the area. I had a fruitful meeting with Vernice Gillies from Western Australian Museum, Albany. Through Vernice I got in touch with Harley Coyne, who helped with contacts in Ravensthorpe. Vernice also put me in contact with Ezzard Flowers who is working with the songlines crossing the south coast of WA.

I had two days in Albany, where also met up with videographer John Carberry, who was going to shoot the video together with me, for the first time.

Back in Hopetoun I gathered the manufactured props and costumes and prepared for the first shoot with school children as actors. Videographer Carberry arrived and we tried out camera angles and discussed shooting strategies for the different locations on site. Drone camera person Joshua van Staden arrived and all was set for the first shoot. Then disaster struck twice. The Edwards family dog was attacked and killed by a Tiger snake, so we had to cancel some shooting sites, as they where in or too close to snake infested areas. Well, it was the snakes home anyway, not ours. The second disaster was the weather which became cloudy, rainy and windy. It is not an optimal situation for outdoor video shooting. We made an attempt anyway and it didn’t really turn out that well. It wasn’t the weather’s fault. Most blame is on the director, who hadn’t anticipated a ten year old’s idea of a film shoot. The kids had the idea that filming and acting is the same as watching a film. They where not that interested in retakes and stupid detail footage of a hand gripping a prop in a certain way. The colour of the costume hats turned out to burn out the image on all cameras. On top of that we forgot to record sound. What a disastrous start! The kids seemed happy though. They had their “party bus” and made a riot of the whole situation. Us professionals had to retreat to find a way out of this predicament. By all means carrying on with a stiff upper lip.

The next days of shooting went better and better. The young actors grew with the task and made rapid improvement. Coaxed and bribed with promised visits to the local candy store might have helped. On day three we crashed the drone, which was a set back, but soon a new drone was produced and we had eyes in the sky again. Resourcefulness seems to be the nature of people in this part of the world. Anything you seem to need is available in this remote place. I have bigger troubles finding spare parts in Seoul or Berlin than in Hopetoun. There is always someone who knows how to fix, as it seems, anything.

Four days of intense video shooting with the students resulted in marvellous footage. We captured material that will form the core of the video film. The following weeks I spent video filming the surrounding landscape, its flora and fauna. I also made additional footage with some of the actors as well as voice recordings, to be edited into the video film. I also recreated the installations with flashing beacons, which where the main prop that the kids placed out on various sites, where human activity could be traced. The recreated installations where shot just before and after sunset, from the ground and from the air. It was a painstaking and time consuming endeavours, but it will become the story’s conclusive sections. The weather tried its best to ruin my plan but somehow I managed to capture most of the sites I needed for this project. I also had the opportunity to discover more traditional Noongar sites, such as gnamma holes and middens.

The artist Louise Lodge brought me to her friend Andy Chapman who showed me around some parts of the bush, which where off limits to me last year due to flood damaged roads and bridges. He also introduced me to a lot of very interesting information on human activities on the land that has had devastating effects on it, such as salinisation and wind erosion caused by bush clearing. Ann Williams from the local historical society and museum gave me detailed information on further Aboriginal sites and local history.

A conclusion of my experiences of this part of the world is that I know very little. This time around I came across more information than I had bargained for. I also had access to all the land that I couldn’t visit last year, as a result of the extreme flooding that occurred. It is humbling when you let reality take over and you realise that your individual knowledge is a shallow archive. The reality is always complex and usually too large for one individual to comprehend. To me this relatively small geographical area between Fitzgerald River in the west and Jerdacuttup River in the east, Ravensthorpe Range in the north and Southern Ocean in the south, is overwhelmingly large. So is its entire history, as well as the history of people that have lived here for thousands of years. This time, as well as last time, I am fascinated at how little of that past is known, by the people who live here now. That is why I hope my work will help us to remember and to create a sustainable life for the future in Hopetoun, Ravensthorpe, Western Australia and anywhere.