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The transformation of meaning generated via drawing as mark making into the land itself is demonstrated through an environmental site-specific collaborative artwork. The Trench (2006) temporarily disrupted the natural environment to examine the politics of land as a primary source of knowledge, as cultural translations. A ten-hour excavation, in the traditional land of the Indigenous Australian group, the Larrakia people – whose country is Darwin, Australia – is where The Trench (2006) was made. Whilst viewing select Australian Indigenous material cultural collections housed at The British museum, The Natural History Museum and The Pitt Rivers Museum the artists were evoked to make the eventual work. The actual processes of excavating the land emphasized concepts of cultural continuity central to active archaeology, as identified by Peter Ucko. The work uncovered dynamic relational issues, such as those between Indigenous lands as heritage, and the impact of Western settlement, in shaping contemporary society. The site-specific artwork positions the artist-as-agent and challenges the interplay between visual culture, representation and the politics interpretation through the language of art. The Trench continues to mould itself back into the environment, made visible by a dent in the land.



The Trench (2006) 35 x 1.5 x 1m, 8am – 6pm was a site-specific study of land. Rather than a study using pencil and paper this used a small excavator as the marking device and the land as the inscribed surface. The art site disentangled the fusion between the past and present. A track, pathway or intervention was made into the land tracing and revealing the multidimensional environment. The excavated environment, served to delve deeper into the contextual significance of Indigenous Australian continuity, land as identity and heritage and the embodiment of such heritage within material cultural items housed in museums’ collections.

The ten-hour dig took place in the traditional land of the Gulumoerrgin (Larrakia). The Larrakia is the name of the traditional owners, language, land and waters of Darwin region, the Cox Peninsular, Shoal Bay, the Vernon Islands and the Adelaide River. The Larrakia are known as Saltwater people.

The art event, a collaborative work with Desmond Raymond, artist and filmmaker of Larrakia heritage, was made after we visited select Northern Territory material collections housed in Department of Palaeontology, The Natural History Museum (NHM) and select Larrakia items housed in the British Museum (BM) Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, Reserve Collection stores.[1] Collections viewed, courtesy of (BM) ranged from bark paintings and baskets from Arnhemland, items from Western Australia, engraved items from the Central Desert, and importantly, for Raymond several Larrakia items. The Larrakia items had once been worn by Raymond’s ancestors. They consisted of rattan and fibre-threaded armbands, wristbands and headbands made of kangaroo teeth, bees wax and fibre. On another occasion I viewed particular items at the Pitt Rivers Museum, The University of Oxford.




Following our return to Australia, we filmed the process of the dig, during which Raymond performed an on-site traditional dance, as an acknowledgment of his heritage – land, and as permission for the dig to occur. The art event footage was edited into a short film, with the additional inclusion of a female of Larrakia heritage. The art site was periodically filmed over a period of several years.

The concept of gunumitjjandawa gwoyalwa (country/environment) is the resources from which damitjjila ni’pbarr gujinaning (inheritance) exists and operates. It is the foundation of Larrakia existence embedded with detailed sacred and public gwoyambarranggwa (story/knowledge) keyed in the landscape.[2] It is this concept that the power of gunumitjjandawa gwoyalwa (environment) establishes and ensures Larrakia biyilirra (people) as belonging to gunumitjjandawa gwoyalwa (environment) and not gunumitjjandawa gwoyalwa (environment) belonging to Larrakia biyilirra’. (Raymond 2004, pers. comm. 4 Oct)[3]

A former associate, the Emeritus Professor of the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, George Chaloupka (1932-2011), rock art specialist significantly internationalized making known the important relationship between land and Indigenous people, as evidenced in pre settlement art sites; ‘demonstrating clearly the close and special relationship between human beings, land and spiritual beliefs’ (Chaloupka, 1997, p. 87). In Australia, such continuity of creative expression spans over thousands of years, with many different layers of interpretation and information that Aboriginal people take extremely seriously. Cultural objects form an essential part of such identity formations and are a rich source of information about cultural history, both pre and post settlement (Pappin & Fforde cited in Ormond-Parker, 2008).

Indigenous Australian connection to land, gained constitutional acknowledgement in the legislation of the Native Title Act, 3 June 1993.[4] However, as Noel Pearson noted:

Native Title is extremely favourable for non-indigenous people. All non-indigenous rights are automatically protected; Indigenous people have to go through a difficult process to get what is left over, including some crown land. (Pearson, 2006)




The purpose of this paper is to consider the ways in which text, artwork, event, or object, are far more than a ‘copy’ of a deeper societal structure as in a structuralist definition; and far more than a formal grammar of visual signs to do with one culture or another. Visual texts, images and objects are inherently transformative, in that they are made new by encapsulating different sites of knowledge. Art making, and image viewing, function as a trail of visual signifiers, shaped by particular historical and social contexts. Therefore, artmaking / marking meets everyday life through the processes of exchanges between people and places and the ‘consequent changes of meaning inherent within such transactions that penetrate and inform each other’ as noted by Campbell and Miller (2002, p. 2).

If people negotiate and understand meaning according to their background, then as Stuart Hall claims, ideas of culture, race and ethnicity are understood through ‘floating signifiers’ – associated with particular multilayered contexts (2000, p. 1).

In modern society meanings are rarely fixed, particularly when people with different origins live and work together. Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) proposed that society is the only reality, and that ‘it only becomes conscious of itself through the collective behavior of its members’ (cited in Jenks1999). According to Marcia Langton (2005)the concept of Aboriginality extends Durkheim’s idea of social interaction in the collective society. Langton holds that Aboriginality is a changing, unfixed concept. It is through processes of dialogue that Aboriginality occurs and that it is continually remade. Such exchanges that occur in creative practices and images are what Stuart Hall describes:

the marking of something evokes what is not said, as images circulate meanings and interpretations within the language of existing frameworks of knowing. It is a matter of absence signifying as much as presence. (Hall, 1997 in video)

If meaning making is particular to the context of place and circumstance, as informed by heritage then as Chris Jenks suggests, ‘vision is a social and cultural process linked to how a given society arranges its forms of knowledge, power, and desire’(Jenks,1995, p. 1). As such, creative expressions would clearly encapsulate the condition of change, and may be understood as a form of cultural translation. Translation, in that, signs, symbols, meanings and references transfer meaning. The art site, The Trench (2006) draws attention to the particularities of historical, social, and environmental contexts and to broader narratives of social exchange and the conditions of change itself.




In discussion with the Professor Peter Ucko, (1938–2007) at the Institute of Archaeology University of London, 2006, Ucko spoke of how the idea of ‘interpretation’ is informed through transference of history and the politics of land (Ucko 2006, pers. comm. 13 July).[5]

The challenge is to recognise continuity amidst change. For example, how a motif may change, but meaning will stay the same or vice versa. This requires an understanding about how interpretation is informed through the politics of land. (Ucko 2006, pers. comm. 13 July)[6]

The Northern Territory expedition led by Goyder sailed in to Fort point, now known as Darwin city. After the 1869 settlement of Darwin, as with elsewhere in Australia, this resulted, in disruption of Aboriginal society, languages and land. However, as Ucko proposed, when a site, region and cultural system have been disrupted, beliefs and knowledge systems will be transferred into something else. He considered that the condition of history, change and circumstances link together a continuity of shifting values and perspectives.

While Ucko became well known for his work as an Egyptologist, in 1972 Ucko was appointed as the Principal of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, replaced by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Act in 1989. Ucko had instigated the opening of the Institute to Aboriginal involvement and inclusion and launched a significant project to describe the country’s Indigenous cultures and languages.[7] In the article ‘Native Tongues imperilled’, Noel Pearson (2007)noted the importance of the recordings of language and knowledge that arose from Ucko’s initiative, referred to as ‘Before it is too Late’.  

At the World Archaeological Congress, 1986, Ucko was responsible for bringing together international archaeologists committed to the explicit recognition of the historical role, and the political context of archaeological enquiry. Ucko was deeply disturbed at the way, as he saw it, Western elites had appropriated the archaeological heritage of poorer, less influential cultures as representing the inheritance of all mankind, ‘often to the detriment of those to whom it really belonged’.[8]

How can static material objects be equated with dynamic human cultures? How can we define and recognise the ‘styles’ of human activity, as well as their possible implications? In some contexts these questions assume immense importance. Archaeological evidence of cultural continuity, as opposed to discontinuity, can make all the difference in regards to an Indigenous land claim, the right of access to a site/region. (Ucko in Layton, 1994, p. xvii)

Following our experiences of accessing museum collections – Desmond Raymond’s heritage – we decided to conduct the site-specific dig, via the process of ‘active archaeology’, underlying Ucko’s concept of continuity. Active archaeology is premised on firsthand Indigenous involvement, in addition to the active involvement of Indigenous knowledge contributions in the interpretation and documentation of particular sites and regions. It also serves to work within particular Indigenous protocol, such as, private or public information specific to the area site of significance.

The collaborative ten-hour dig sheds light on the continuity of human activity and practices over land, inspired by the re-connection experienced by Desmond Raymond while accessing his heritage, material cultural items housed in British Museums.

Gaining, retrieving and accessing knowledge about personal missing history, is an important part of everyday life, for the first people: As Raymond’s words imply,

It froze a particular time for me that I was able to go back to and connect with: I felt emotional and moved by seeing part of my cultural heritage. I wanted to touch the items, to reconnect with them, likened to how somebody would feel when reunited with a family member. Although these are seen as material objects, they are central to Larrakia identity, heritage, and symbolic of the policies held at the time which disrupted Aboriginal existence, although we are still here today. (Raymond 2006, pers. comm. 4 Aug)[9]

Current Museum initiatives and curators that encourage and support traditional inheritors to access collections, play a vital role in the building of historically fragile relations, be it regarding particular matters of repatriation, or supporting incentives that re-connect people with their heritage in ways that are conducive to informed knowledge exchange. 

The inscribed 35 x 1.5 x 1m trench in the land, and subsequent video emphasized land as heritage, a container of life, death, languages and affiliations to country, continuity of identity as embodied within select museum collections. Documenting the art-site in Larrakia land, Darwin took place over several years, however by 2008, two years after the actual dig The Trench had virtually remoulded back into the environment, to its natural state. Growth resumed,  the scar, mark in the land had faded.



Black Cultural Studies (2000 ). Stuart Hall.

Campbell, S., & Miller (Eds.). (2002). Artistic exchange and cultural translation in the Italian Renaissance city: Art, identity and cultural translation in Renaissance Italy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chaloupka, G. (1997). Journey in time. Victoria  Reed

Hall, S. (1997). Representation and the media. Northampton: Media Education Foundation.

Jenks, C. (1995). The centrality of the eye in Western culture: An introduction. In C. Jenks (Ed.), Visual culture (pp. 1–26). London Routledge.

Jenks, C. (1999). Durkheim's double vision. In I. Haywood & B. Sandywell (Eds.), Interpreting visual culture: Explorations in the hermeneutics of the visual (pp. 260). London: Routledge.

Kauffman, P. (1998). Wik, mining and Aboriginees: Allen and Unwin.

Langton, M. (2005). Aboriginal art and film, the politics of representation. Retrieved from

Layton, R. (Ed.). (1994). Conflict in the archaeology of living traditions. London Routledge

Ormond-Parker, L. (2008). Indigenous material culture in the digital age. Paper presented at the CIHA conference 2008.

Pearson, N. (2006, 21 October). A peculiar path that leads astray. The Australian, from,20867,20616106-7583,00.html

Pearson, N. (2007). Native tongues imperiled. The Australian. Retrieved from



[1] Courtesy of James Hamill, who organised the viewing of catalogues listing artefacts from the Northern Territory, in the Anthropology Library of the British Museum. These consisted of photocopied original documentation describing the artefacts, acquisition and authenticity.

[2] In Brand, Haritos and Walsh, Kenbi Land Claim, Northern Land Council, 1979, p.23.


[3] D K Raymond 2004, interpretation of traditional Larrakia words and meanings.

[4] Previously in 1992, The High Court, in what is known as the ‘Mabo decision had overturned the 204 year old concept of ‘terra nullius’, recognising the right to land of native people. ‘The high court found that Edie Mabo and the people of Mer in the Torres Strait had full beneficial ownership of their lands’(in Kauffman, 1998). 

[5] Professor Peter Ucko 2006, in conversation regarding ‘continuity’, held at The Department of Archaeology University of London, 13 July. 

[6] Professor Peter Ucko 2006, in conversation regarding ‘continuity’, held at The Department of Archaeology University of London, 13 July. 

[7] [In Orbitory; updated 12.01am BST 25/06/2007].

[8] In Obituary; updated 12.01am BST 25/06/2007.

[9] D K Raymond 2006, in conversation regarding museum visits, Darwin, 4 August. 


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This text, DRAWING AS INTERVENTION: SITE SPECIFIC ART AND THE TRANSLATION OF MEANING., by Emma Barrow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported license.