Heimlich Unheimlich

Hazel Smith, Roger T. Dean, and Sieglinde Karl-Spence

Heimlich Unheimlich is a screened, collaborative work consisting of visual collages, performed and displayed mixed genre texts (poetry, narrative, memoir, documentary), manipulations of image using the computer language MAX/MSP/Jitter, composed and improvised music, and vocal and instrumental sound samples.

Heim in German means home, so Heimlich Unheimlich could translate loosely as Homely Unhomely. However, heimlich more usually means secretive or hidden while unheimlich means uncanny or weird, so the connotations of the two words can overlap. This relationship between heimlich and unheimlich (discussed in Sigmund Freud’s essay ‘The Uncanny’) underlies the content of the piece.

The piece uses the contrasting childhoods of two of the collaborators (the visual artist Sieglinde Karl-Spence and writer Hazel Smith) as a starting point. It focuses on two characters who have names related to forms of cloth that sometimes appear as body parts in the collages. One is Hessian, a German girl born towards the end of the second world war, whose father fought in the German army. She migrates with her family to Australia when she is still a child and eventually becomes an artist. The other is Muslin, a violinist and poet born to a Jewish family in England after the second world war, who migrates to Australia as an adult. Her family are preoccupied with preserving a Jewish ethnicity and avoiding antisemitism: they live in the shadow of the holocaust and are unforgiving of Nazi Germany. Both Muslin and Hessian are shaped by the cultural environments in which they grow up and both in some respects rebel against the constraints of those environments.

Heimlich Unheimlich suggests strong crossovers between Muslin and Hessian, in particular intertwining and reconciling their different childhoods. It explores the inter-generational after effects of the Second World War (what Marianne Hirsch calls “postmemory”) and the blending of personal and historical trauma. But the piece also engages with the relationship between autobiography and fiction, the dynamics of families and the enigma of family photographs, the significance of migration, the bonds of ethnic identity, the tension between natural and unnatural environments and the interplay between individualism and convergence that constitutes the collaborative process.

The collages use photographs taken from family albums combined with many other visual images such as buildings, ruins, cemeteries, birds, musical notation, boats, flowers, feathers, bones and overlaid text. These collages are algorithmically organised so the order will be different each time the work is performed; split screens are used to juxtapose the changing relationships between the visual and the verbal. The computerised manipulation of the images results in their animation, segmentation and disintegration. Performed text and vocal samples are combined with written text, and different sets of musical materials are identified with Muslin or Hessian. The juxtapositions and transformations of text, image and sound create tensions between representation and abstraction, movement and stasis, continuity and discontinuity. These synergies reinforce the separate but blended identities of the protagonists and the broader social contexts from which they emerge.

The work is presented in the form of a video. It combines the live audio recorded when austraLYSIS premiered the piece at the MARCS Institute, Western Sydney University, in 2019 with a studio rendering of the image animation and montage. This represents only one version of the piece, others would be considerably different. The creators of the work are Hazel Smith (text), Sieglinde Karl-Spence (visual images) and Roger Dean (musical composition and image processing). The performers are Hazel Smith (text), Roger Dean (image processing), Sandy Evans, (saxophone), Phil Slater (trumpet) and Greg White (electronics). Claire Grocott and Claire Letitia Reynolds were technical assistants and collaborators in the making of the visual images.

The photograph "Boar Lane, looking east,1951" is reproduced by kind permission of Leeds Libraries, www.leodis.net

About the Artist

Hazel Smith is a poet, performer and new media artist. She has published four volumes of poetry including The Erotics of Geography: poetry, performance texts, new media works, Tinfish Press, Kaneohe, Hawaii, 2008 with accompanying CD Rom and Word Migrants, Giramondo, 2016. She has also published three CDs of poetry and performance work and numerous collaborative multimedia works, including motions, with Will Luers and Roger Dean, selected in 2016 for the Electronic Literature Organisation Collection 3. She is a member of austraLYSIS, the sound and intermedia arts group, has performed and presented her work extensively internationally, has been commissioned by the ABC to write several works for radio, and has been co-recipient of numerous Australia Council for the Arts grants. In 1992 the ABC nominated her collaboration with Roger Dean, Poet without Language, for the prestigious Prix Italia award. In 2017, her multimedia collaboration with Will Luers and Roger Dean, novelling, was shortlisted for the Turn on Literature Prize, an initiative of the Creative Europe Program of the European Union. In 2018 novelling was awarded First Prize in the Electronic Literature Organisation’s Robert Coover Award.

From 2007-2017 Hazel was a Research Professor in the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University where she is now an Emeritus Professor. She is the author of several academic and pedagogical books including Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara, difference, homosexuality, topography, Liverpool University Press, 2000, The Writing Experiment: strategies for innovative creative writing, Allen and Unwin, 2005 and most recently The Contemporary Literature-Music Relationship: intermedia, voice, technology, cross-cultural exchange, Routledge, 2016. With Roger Dean she co-authored Improvisation, Hypermedia and the Arts since 1945, Routledge, 1997 and co-edited Practice-led Research, Research-led Practice in the Creative Arts, Edinburgh University Press, 2009. She is a co-editor of the creative arts journal of online sound, text and image, soundRite, based at Western Sydney University. Hazel previously pursued a career as a professional violinist. Her website is at http://www.australysis.com

Sieglinde Karl-Spence spent her childhood years in her native Germany before emigrating to Australia with her family in 1953. She lives in Sydney. Sieglinde trained as a jeweller, graduating in Jewellery and Silversmithing from Middlesex Polytechnic, London in 1978. Since the late 1980s her practice has focused on installation and performance, including works of a site-specific, transitory nature such as Healing Mandala – 365 offerings, Mildura Arts Festival, 1996 and Red Bead Seed Offering, Botanic Gardens, Darwin, 1997.

Sieglinde has exhibited extensively in Australia and internationally, including in the shows Unfamiliar Territory, 1992, Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Art Gallery of South Australia, and Crossing Borders: History, Culture and Identity in Australian Contemporary Textile Art, a major survey of Australian textiles that toured throughout the United States of America. In 2002 Sieglinde was again part of the Adelaide Festival of the Arts, collaborating with chef Gay Bilson to produce the Edible-lei Project at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Adelaide. Sieglinde has taken part in many artist-in-residency projects in Tasmania, often working with the local community. Recently, Sieglinde has focused on making small transient mandala installations. Her work is represented in all the major galleries in Australia. Her website is at http://sieglindekarl-spence.com.au/

Roger Dean is a composer/improviser/performer and researcher. He has created, presented and published several hundred compositions and sound works for intermedia art collaborations and made numerous recordings. He is a represented composer of the Australian Music Centre, of which he has also been chair. His creative work appears on sixty LP/CD releases. Dean’s output ranges from acoustic to electroacoustic composition both for performers and for real-time algorithmic generation, as well as acousmatic (completely pre-composed and digitally recorded) music for live projection in concert. His music is often computer-interactive, and much involves improvisation. Many of his compositions are intermedia works for radio, DVD, and the Internet.

Dean’s composition and improvisation is deeply informed by his breadth of performing experience, both as pianist and laptop artist, and formerly as double bass player. He has worked in most of the leading new music ensembles in London and Sydney. He is founder and director of the sound and multimedia ensemble LYSIS, which became austraLYSIS when it moved to Australia in 1989. Dean has also been very active in European and Australian jazz, notably performing with Graham Collier Music and with improvisers such as Harry Beckett, Kenny Wheeler, Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Sandy Evans, Tony Buck, Phil Slater, Greg White and numerous others.

Dean is also a researcher, currently specializing in music computation, cognition and creation, with more than 21,000 citations of his research in Google Scholar. Most recently he co-edited the Oxford Handbook of Algorithmic Music for Oxford University Press, and previously sole-edited their Handbook of Computer Music, as well as authoring or editing thirteen other books. See www.australysis.com for further details and Dean’s biography on Wikipedia (Roger Dean: musician). Dean also had a previous career as a biochemist and spent a period as an academic leader, first as Foundation Director of the Heart Research Institute, Sydney, then as Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Canberra.