Heimlich Unheimlich

Creative Work
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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

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Hazel Smith