“After the penetration of the Great Dividing Range in the early 1820s Australia’s westward drive was as rapid and vigorous as the American… hopes of Australia’s westward flowing streams emptying into a vast inland sea were, however, soon dispelled, the harsh truth being that the total annual run-off of her rivers was a mere 200 million acre feet, compared with 1,300 million in the United States. Therefore, while America’s frontier moved into a fertile west before consolidation ranks of small farming families, in Australia thin spearheads of settlement strung on into the mirage of an increasingly arid interior.”
The Darling River is Australia’s longest waterway. Beginning in the lower western regions of QLD the river corridor traces its way across 4 states, supplying water and recharging ground aquifers to vast areas of a flat and arid interior. In these remote areas local communities, ecologies and landscapes are highly dependent on the intermittent and seasonal supply of water that the river provides.
For aboriginal communities the river plays a pivotal role in not only their survival but also their identity and culture. The term ‘Country’ for many Aboriginal and Torres strait islander groups represents a deep connection to a place referencing family origins, traditions, spirituality and local knowledge. Through many connections to Country aboriginal people have occupied the Darling River landscape for thousands of years.
In recent history the river formed a primary trade and transport route for European settlement in Outback NSW, driving the establishment of a string of townships, homesteads and agricultural fields along its floodplains. With this settlement, immigrants from many countries have brought and overlaid their own cultural and landscape management philosophies. This has led to a practice across Australia which values landscape primarily as a resource, a commodity whose role is distanced from that of a place through its relationship to a broader economy.
In the past 200 years the river has run dry 48 times. In recent decades, despite the sometimes-significant rainfall events in the upper reaches, the river has consistently failed to supply water to the Southern Ocean and many of the lower settlements and States that depend on it. This development has been attributed to large sale irrigation practice particularly in the northern reaches of the river.
The Darling River corridor is a landscape dominated by both flood and drought, creating a seasonal and unpredictable water supply. European settlement brought with it concentrated development based on concepts of environmental control, stability and a faith in technology. The current condition of the river reflects the cumulative impacts of the many dams, levies and weirs that attempt to control the rivers unpredictable nature.
Recent media coverage has highlighted the fraught nature of the Australian community’s relationship with this River. Despite the introduction of the Murray Darling Basin Authority and Water management scheme in 2004 at a cost of $16.2b, investigations have revealed large-scale water theft across the river corridor. Far from being isolated, these incidents of theft appear to have been facilitated through mis-representation by the senior government officials and an intentional lack of regulation.
While the value of managing the river sustainably is recognised at the federal level and supported by the broader community, significant cultural and systemic issues remain within our land management practices. In a vast and fragile landscape, what is the rivers purpose and what is sustainable? The river needs representation.
Based on an epic Outback road trip, along one of Australia’s longest and unregulated rivers, the Darling, this studio asks the students to explore the idea of landscape occupation as a spatial, political and cultural activity.
The focus of the studio is on the definition of the Australian Landscape as place, assembly field, and public house where different cultures intersect with country. Students will be required to develop a spatial proposition for the formation of a ‘Landscape Parliament’, a place of representation for the Darling River and host for a public festival dedicated to the discussion, exploration and recognition of its many qualities.
The 2018 Studio is set along the Darling River, from Walgett, through Brewarrina to Bourke. These townships, like most, are places of unresolved Indigenous and migrant histories, and perspectives on the occupation, use and appreciation of land in this country is immediate. An appreciation of the diverse meanings that this land instils, and an understanding of land ownership and recent attempts to reconcile and plan for co-existence, help form a backdrop to the project.