Saltfish: Ecologies of Creative Processes
My name is Stephen Pigram. I’m a Yawuru man with a little bit of Manila man and white man mixed in too.
Inspired by the award-winning short film, How to Make Saltfish (2021), by Paul Bell and Stephen Pigram, the Posthumanities research group at Flinders University in Adelaide got to work writing this essay, collectively, more-than-humanly. Among other possibilities, the posthumanities puts bets on a couple of things: that it is better to work as a group, debating ideas, and that it is better to take our working environment into account. We want to keep those things in the process. So, how many of us are there?
My name is Stephen Muecke. I was born in Adelaide, on Kaurna Country. My German ancestors came here in the mid-nineteenth century, the Scottish ones later. I know Stephen Pigram because of the work I have done in Broome over the years. When we see each other up there we call out, ‘Hey, gumbali’ [namesake].
My name is Tully Barnett. My name is Tully Barnett. I was born on Noongar Country and grew up on Kaurna Country. My great-grandparents were tenant farmers in Kent, England and my grandparents were post-war migrants. Because of transformative experiences with arts and culture at a formative age, I now research ways of talking about the value of art and culture that are diverse, meaningful and learn from knowledge systems that do it better.
My name is Alessandro Antonello – Sandro to friends and family. I was born in Melbourne in its large Italian migrant community, and have made my life in Melbourne, Canberra, Oregon, and now Adelaide. I’m a historian and I try to understand how people make knowledge about their environments and themselves, especially in frozen and saltwater places. Among my lovely Flinders colleagues, I feel an imposter in our talks about aesthetics; I try to anchor our conversations in events and ideas from the past. I have not been to Broome.
My name is Jennifer Eadie. I grew up on Taribelang Bunda Country. My heritage is mongrel: northern Italian (post-war immigrants) on my mother’s side and a mix of Celtic (post-invasion settlers) and unknown on my dad’s side. Currently, I live and work on beautiful Kaurna Country. I first heard Stephen Pigram singing at a funeral in Broome.
Stephen Zagala joins us from the South Australian Museum, where he works as a researcher in the World Cultures collection. He’s always telling us that the museum is full of things that were meant to move: musical instruments, dancing costumes, elaborately decorated weapons and exchange commodities. And he wonders how to prolong the creative forces that reverberate in these items. He wonders if curating exhibits from the museum’s collection is a bit like waiting for a new song to find you.
My name is Jana Norman. I inherited my surname from my Swedish great-grandfather and was born where he landed in 1888: along the eastern border of Nagaajiwanaang, which means ‘where the water stops’ in Ojibwe and is the name of the Fond du Lac Reservation (La Pointe Treaty, 1854). My hometown – before the French, Swedes, Finns and Norwegians, the iron ore mines and the lumberjacks – is Minnesota Chippewa Country. I live on Peramangk Country now.
My name is Amy Matthews, but I also go by the names Tess LeSue and Amy Barry. I was born and live on Kaurna Country. I like big skies and I plant a lot of trees. I write about people and relationships and the mess of it all. I am a fretful, anxious person; I can’t do small talk and would do anything to avoid it. I am a radical optimist, and a cynic. I practise hope.
Songlines network right across Australia, connections criss-crossing the country. Ancient trade-routes brought songs and also beautiful carved pearl-shells all the way from the Goolarabooloo (‘saltwater’) coast, around Broome, down to Kaurna Country. You can see some of those pieces in the South Australian Museum today.
I grew up in the sleepy pearling town of Broome, going fishing and writing songs. For me, these two things have always been entwined.
Where does a song come from? Or a film? Or a piece of writing? How do these creative works link up and double back? These are the three instances we are playing with: after the first, inspired by Stephen Pigram’s songwriting, then, secondly, his collaboration with Paul Bell to make a film, we begin work, thirdly, on a collective writing project tracing the movements among these three creative ecologies, ‘tentacular’ extensions that are also in sideways collaboration with Donna Haraway’s ‘sensible materialism, with all its pushes, pulls, affects, and attachments’.
For Pigram, going fishing and writing songs are always ‘entwined’, as he says. He is part of a generation that brought a new style of music to the world, born of the musical influences that first flowed together when the pearling industry started late in the nineteenth century: Aboriginal people, Chinese, Japanese, Malay and Europeans came together and entertained each other on verandas in the hot tropical nights, when the pearling luggers were laid up for the wet season. The music started flourishing from the late seventies, with the Aboriginal cultural renaissance. There was the Kuckles band and the Pigram Brothers, and later Jimmy Chi’s famous musical Bran Nue Dae, with Stephen ‘Baamba’ Albert, and other bands like Scrap Metal, often with a fluid membership of whoever was around on the night.
Hey, Babali, Babala Bro
You got any saltfish I can smoke?
After watching the film, the group agreed to take up the challenge that Stephen throws back to the viewer at the end: ‘How you make saltfish, bro?’
Cooking up a song. Singing up a dish
Feeling a movie. Talking up an essay. We would love to travel up to Broome, but we can’t. The State border into Western Australia is open now, but the University won’t give us permission to travel. So we go back to our books for background on Broome music. The acoustic guitars, harmonicas and ukuleles used today, in a genre that Marcus Breen has taken a stab at calling ‘acoustic calypso’. It picked up a bit of reggae on the way, and the music is now finished for commercial release with sophisticated studio engineering . But that doesn’t stop the music rocking the Broome backyards and pubs, or on a weekend fishing down at Crab Creek. This signature local music is inspired by Country, as Stephen tells us, from those specific places they call their buru, places in the home Country. Buru describes a spatio-temporal habitat in which creativity becomes real. The song finds you when you ‘open yourself up to the experience’ of the buru. You’ll know when it’s done because:
You can hear-im, you can smell-im
You can feel-im in your belly
Everything is in movement, and everything moves on:
Then you release that song out back to where he come from
How does that work, a creative process that is more about immersion in a place, maybe even in a multispecies ecology? Could it be more about a collective than individual genius? But not just any old collective because the changing connections can release bursts of energy that can take us by surprise. One thing is attracted or repulsed by another, and then moves on. It is about the ‘co-opting of strangers’, in Haraway’s words, the ‘sympoesis’, the making-with, that is an accurate description of generative life forms, the forming of the holobionts that are us, us ‘humans’ with our symbiotic bacteria inside our gut and our songs…wait…are songs outside our bodies, or inside? Maybe a networked ecology on the move is a better descriptive term for creative processes than all that psychology that tries to shaft it back to the individual brain? (We call it encephalitis, the Western swollen brain syndrome). Where does a song come from, really? In the West Kimberley, there are Indigenous theories about how they come about. Individuals don’t make them up, but they might come to them in a dream. One of the old men Stephen Pigram knew was Butcher Joe (Nangan), and this is how Muecke remembers him:
He used to wake at about three in the morning and sing. Sing the lines over and over, until he remembered them, I guess. Paddy had put us two fellas together in the same camp out at Coconut Wells, in those early days, and Butcher Joe would get me to smuggle in a couple of cans of VB. We would smoke rollies and sip our warm beers in the tropical night, having a laugh. Then, well before dawn, that singing would half wake me. This was what was called his nurlu, coming through from his Auntie’s spirit.
Auntie – Kintimayi was her name – when she ‘came out in him’ (as they say, in dreams), she ‘emerged from her grave at Wayikurrkurr on Dampier Downs’ way down in the desert, south-east from Broome. Country comes first. The song comes if you go out on Country, to your buru, and just do what you do:
It’s from the land, from the buru
That’s where the song came from
In Stephen Pigram’s case, going fishing:
Got a backyard full o’ boats
Hoping one might stay afloat
Then heading out to the reef, where blue-bone, stingray, turtles and dugong swim, and brown boobies fly low, skimming the waves, looking to dive. Sitting there, you are peacefully unravelled from the mainland, the mainstream, and all that is implicated in it. It’s a bit like the old days when no-one had to ‘work for a living’. Back then, it was more like taking care for the living: which meansnoticing, nurturing, singing the right songs – anthropologists call them ‘increase ceremonies’ – to make those fish ‘come out in them’:
Come on the walga-walga!
Oh, yes, out there in the tinny you are not alone. You are sensible to, and sensitised by, all the wondrous material of this multiply-real world, including history and tradition:
The things you grew up with
The tastes, the smells, the family
What you listen to
It’s more a living, nurturing network that produces the song and then the song feeds back into it, keeps the culture alive, as they say:
Then you release that song out back to where he come from
In July 2021, Stephen Muecke [SM] asked Paul Bell [PB] how the film idea came about:
[PB]: So Steve rocked up in that driveway there about 18 months ago and said he wanted to make a film. The actual concept came from his mind, aah, ‘cos I worked with him a bit before, making various films and stuff. But his idea was…he had a bit of a writer’s block. And he wanted to go back to…the Country. To get the inspiration for his next album, which was Saltfish. So, his idea was that we…for him going fishing was like the songwriting process.
[SM]: He’d suggest things like, we gotta get the boat out and go down to Crab Creek?
[PB]: Yeah. Well, that was the easy bit, we can go fishing. Like, well.
[SM]: So he had the original idea and you worked from a draft script?
[PB]: Yeah. I just wrote it, recorded it and edited it to get something to edit the film with? Like what you call a guide track. And then the process… you know when it came to him, he just grabbed a phone and recorded it… and it’s like that moment when it comes to you but then, you can actually hear him while he tries to sing something to it, and then he goes, ‘arrgh, fuckin’ lost it!’ you know, like he tried too hard to grab at it and he lost it, so…
Stephen Pigram’s story and song extend the fishing metaphor to cooking the meal, a process of catching the fish, salting it and hanging it out to dry in Paul’s backyard, then preparing the meal. The composition is getting all technological now:
Now, you need to arrange-em
Let-em breathe, let-em hang.
Give-em some space and air…
It’s time that makes-em real (laughs)
But this composition is not just in the ‘natural setting’ of Broome fishing spots where we love to imagine we have escaped the neoliberal state. There is a technological arm to the network (‘some reverb’ etc), here integrated with the ‘recipe’ metaphor, with interjections (‘two cabbage’) on the soundtrack (from fishing mate Craigie Hamaguchi) to do with ingredients for the meal:
Then, when it’s ready to lay down to record,
You bring in all the other elements.
The right instrumentation, some reverb
Some flanger, some this notion
Maybe fatten the bottom end and tweak the tops.
‘The main vocal, the vocals’ (laughs)
Then you bring it all together and mix it down
What did Bell do to transform into a film the experience of yarning over the years, and going fishing with Stephen and Craigie? What were the technological transformations of these experiences, these experiences that were always more-than-human anyway? Remember Marshall McLuhan, ‘the medium is the message’? He talked about media as technological extensions of the human. There is a kind of layering of media brought out to us again via the perceived false tension between the ‘encephalitic’ brain and the body walking in Country. The old mind-body split is long forgotten, theorised away, but we have to live out the new ecology, always-already embodied. Jussi Parikka asks the question, ‘Where do machines come from, what composes technology in its materiality and media after it becomes disused, dysfunction dead media that refuse to die?’ and proposes a ‘geology of media’ by which he means ‘a different sort of temporal and spatial materialism of media culture.’
Pigram’s melodic voice is another active agentic component of the storytelling, a layer of the media that builds up between the sea and the sky into a parable of creative practice:
Who bin steal my mojo?
Sing it back to me
I really need it to fly
[PB]: You know, that whole analogy all comes from him, and I sorta basically tried to turn it from, out of his head into a film. But it’s his creative process and it’s his thought about how fishing is sorta similar to songwriting.
So then I thought we can cut something out of this. Art Works approached me to make some films? I thought well, I sorta got a half-finished film sitting on the shelf I’m not sure what to do with, and I think it would be right up their alley.
So I said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got a film for you, it’s about Stephen Pigram.’ About his creative songwriting process and going fishing. And they’re like, ‘we love it.’
[SM]: So they should. What about…a good short movie is not going to work if your timing in the editing is haphazard, or if it hasn’t got the right rhythm. What are you thinking about in the editing suite?
[PB]: In that one I was particularly interested in capturing the Broome flavour, of ah, going fishing with a couple of local boys. So, the pacing for me had to be quite slow, you know, a lot of the stuff you edit these days is really fast. It was just…lettin’ it…lettin’ it breathe and watching the pictures, trying to include as many little Broome moments as I could, to give it that flavour of what it was? Not trying to cut around anything that looked…I dunno, the dogs eating a fish head or whatever. I was trying to include as much of that as I could. Just trying to include the flavour of what I find unique about Broome, I suppose.
[SM]: Yeah, cool.
Paul Bell jokes about the slab of Little Creatures beer on the floor in his studio, that it, too, is essential for the creative filmmaking process. But his studio is so different from the fishing boat environment! You can see his Sony FS7 camera on the floor, and the editing software on his desktop Mac is Adobe’s Premiere Pro. This techno-ecology blends tracks, and aligns sounds and images within the available technical frames: a certain frequency range for the sound, and the ubiquitous rectangle for the image determined by the FS7’s field of view. We are not easily casting the gaze 360 degrees like when we are sitting in the tinny out on the bay, or getting a glimpse of things out of the corner of the eye. At the keyboard, he can’t smell bait on his fingers. But there are, no doubt, some mental images or mental sound images running in parallel with what is present on the screen-rectangle. Paul might thus remember another shot buried in a folder on his desktop, ‘oh, that was good, I think I’ll paste that in here.’ That shot (‘dogs eating a fish head or whatever’) might be aesthetically judged as ‘good’ both because of his technical experience and because of his experiences living in Broome for decades.
Who bin steal my throw net?
Sling it back to me
Nice and clean and hanging on the line
My shorts got no big holes
Or busted pockets ‘cos I
Wanna get some bonefish by and by
But that might only be the start.
We start to compose an essay, versions of it richocheting a number of times through emails. We academics, when we write, seem to make it as hard for ourselves as possible. We isolate ourselves in ‘a room of our own’. We stare at a computer screen. Or occasionally pick up a pen. We agonise over every word and fool ourselves that wordcounts are a marker of productivity. We chase the fish away from the hook. We forget to add time to salt the work. (Do we forget? Or are we clocked in, the work demanded on schedule, a not-human schedule that has little to do with rhythms and everything to do with weighing, measuring, apportioning.) Then, just when we don’t expect it, a good idea pops up when we go for a walk, or make a cup of tea, or do a bit of gardening. Off the clock, just in time:
‘I have had some really good ideas working in Adelaide.’
‘The Athens of the South.’
‘The big open skies.’
‘A singular shade of blue.’
‘One of the world’s most liveable cities.’
‘Ideas that come on the winds. The warm northerlies from the central Australian deserts; the chilled Antarctic winds from the south.’
‘That gentle misty rain that the local Kaurna people call ivaritji.’
A simple list of attachments to a place that is very good for writing.
But Saltfish, the film, effectively explains itself as it weaves together those different dimensions of theory, practice and metaphor. It has a formal consistency that means it stands up by itself. No need to write about it, really. But that’s the point they wanted to get to, to incite things other than itself: things like a longing, a rebellion, a journey, a text or ‘some notion’. In order to ‘work’, it has to, and it did:
How you make saltfish, bro?
No, the short film didn’t really ‘stand up by itself’ though, because it kind of tumbles rather than stands. And this tumbling is demonstrative of the creative process being described in the voice over. The artwork comes into being through the intertwining of different processes. And giving yourself over to the duration of these processes seems critical:
It’s time that makes-im real.
And as the ‘artist’ dissolves back into the buru, the configuration tumbles again and the filmmaker takes over, picking up the tentacles to create something new…
Someone writes. Then there is more talk. Someone else writes track changes. Someone else says: ‘For me writing about Saltfish has something to do with my own embodied responding to it, noticing that I’m humming as I do things that look a lot like chopping up bait, putting the boat out, stirring the onions in the pan, but which might be highlighting my way through another article, emptying the dishwasher, or restacking the wood pile in the back garden before the snakes wake up and move in (all things I did yesterday). Humming and noticing the smells, sounds, tastes, sensations of these being-doings has the effect of keeping me in my body and tuning my mind into…’
the right frame of mind for the tune or lyric to find you
And as she writes she reaches for Jacques Rancière’s definition of aesthetics as ‘redistributing and democratising the sensible’, just like you might reach for a can out of the esky. The way we reach for Rancière now is already beyond the confines of the ‘institutional sanction’ that was giving McKittrick a headache. How so? Because we have made a point of giving ourselves a different context, a different ecology, investing value in something other than ‘productivity’. Because aesthetics explores sensitivities to other beings and other possible ways of being, it is necessarily jolted or caressed by the more-than-human collaborations that are part of the creative process, but not always visible in the framed, finished, product. Working with the hypothesis that a realistic description of creative events necessarily takes into account more-than-human agencies, we might have to conclude that Stephen Pigram’s Saltfish album would not have materialised without fishing, not would Paul Bell’s film, nor would this essay. (Stephen Pigram’s CD, Solfish, [sic] was released in December 2021.) The pleasure and need of fishing for walga-walga, blue nose salmon, was there at the start, and can’t be left behind in the process of discovering, creating, something else. And we can’t forget that this song, and film, came to us from right across the continent, following in the tracks of an ancient songline and trade route, a track that the new technologies reinforce rather than replace, if we want it that way:
How you make saltfish, bro?
Postscript: The Recipe
Stephen Muecke rang Steve Pigram in March 2022 and he gave us the recipe for Saltfish.
Scale and fillet the freshly caught walga-walga and soak in brine overnight. Leave the skin on. Other kinds of fish will do, but we like this one.
Next day, if it is a fine windy day, hang the fish on hooks on a line outside. It has to be in the dry season, beginning April or May, when the nights are dry, not dewy.
Cure the fillets like that for 2 or 3 days.
Slice a Chinese cabbage. Wombok cabbage. (We used to get cabbages from an old Chinaman called Yip. ‘Yippee-aye-oh’ we used to call him. He grew veges in his backyard on Walcott St.)
Slice a couple of onions too.
One onion for each fillet.
Slice the fish and crisp up in olive oil in the wok.
Add the onion and cabbage together and cook and while cooking add a couple of tablespoons of vinegar and brown sugar for a sweet and sour effect.
Serve with steamed white rice and blachan or chili paste.
Marcus Breen, Our Place, Our Music: Aboriginal Music, Aboriginal Studies Press, 1989.
Donna Haraway, ‘Symbiogenesis, Sympoiesis, and Art Science Activisms for Staying with the Trouble,’ in Anna Tsing et al eds., Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene, University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
Ines Jahudka, ‘Baker Boy and beyond: the Aboriginal “Cultural Renaissance” of the 1980s and Australia’s view of Indigenous music’, Chariot Journal, 2021.
Eben Kirksey, The Multispecies Salon, Duke University Press, 2014.
Katherine McKittrick, Dear Science and Other Stories, Duke University Press, 2021.
Stephen Muecke, Butcher Joe, Documenta 13: 100 Notizen – 100 Gedanken No. 054, Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2011.
Stephen Muecke and Paddy Roe, The Children’s Country: The Creation of a Goolarabooloo Future in North-West Australia, Rowman and Littlefield International, 2020.
Jussi Parikka, A Geology of Media Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.