Jeanti St Clair
Audio storyteller and Flood Stories producer
Jeanti St Clair (she/her/hers) tells stories through audio, both as documentaries and audio walks. She lives in the beautiful Northern Rivers of New South Wales and is a lecturer at Southern Cross University in Lismore, Australia, where she teaches media and journalism. Jeanti is a PhD candidate at the University of Wollongong and is also an associate producer with Soundtrails.
A Bit About How I Came to this Project
In March 2017, Tropical Cyclone Debbie sent a deluge of water and wind down the east coast of Australia and into the Northern Rivers, where I live. It is so named because the region is fed by a vein-like network of seven rivers, and their related creeks and streams. The land is rolling volcanic hills and floodplain, with remnants of the sub-tropical rainforest known as The Big Scrub.
I live in Lismore, which rests at the point that Wilsons River meets Leycester Creek (which is really a river) and proudly calls itself a flood town. But when Cyclone Debbie’s stormwater made its way down the catchment on March 31 towards my town, it was clear that this flood would be big. Bigger than the levee that had been installed in 2005 to protect the Central Business District (CBD) and lower-lying residential areas around it. The 2017 flood was the worst since 1974; the town was devastated and declared a disaster zone.
As a documentary maker, and an audio walk producer, I had the idea that I could invite people to share their flood stories in an audio installation/walk. In a public call out, I invited anyone to tell their story. I ran storytelling works and then, using Stephan Schwartz’s The Moment Interview method, did an extended interview with each participant, which has been edited down to around a 15-minute audio story.
The plan was to stage this project three years on, because Lismore would have had a little emotional distance, and time to reflect on what we’ve learned from that flood, and how we’ve changed as individuals, and as a community. But a few days out from the project launch, I had to postpone as the first COVID-19 lockdown was enacted. It was sad but I knew it would be only a pause, not an end.
Flood Stories is set in a shipping container placed in our public square, The Quad, as if it had been dumped there by flood waters. Inside the container are two coat racks that run the length of the side walls. We see two rows of bright yellow raincoats hanging on brass hooks, with a pair of gumboots sitting beneath each one. In the pocket of each raincoat is a small audio player and set of headphones.
To experience Flood Stories, you enter the shipping container and are asked by an attendant if you would like to listen to a story about surviving the flood or one about being part of the rescue and recovery teams. There are 12 stories available to choose from. You are then kitted out with a raincoat, gumboots and audio gear. You put on the headphones, press play on the audio player and are directed by the storyteller to walk around The Quad and surrounding CBD streets while listening to the story, before returning to the shipping container.
While my other audio walks have been geolocated, I have purposefully stripped back Flood Stories to the basics of voice, instructions, an mp3 player and a hand-drawn map of the route. I’ve done this to focus the walker’s attention on the intimacy of the voice, the story and the place it is heard in. In part I was inspired the classic audio walk works by Janet Cardiff. In experiencing Cardiff's audio walks The Missing Voice (in London) and Her Long Black Hair (in NYC's Central Park), both produced prior to locative audio walks being a thing, I revelled in the simplicity of walking to the sound of a single voice and instruction.
I was also broadly inspired by the Empathy Museum’s A Mile in My Shoes project, which I had an opportunity to try out at the HearSay Audio Arts Festival 2019 in Kilfinane, Ireland. Their philosophy suggests that an embodied/walking listening practice can support an empathetic engagement by the listener with the person’s story. When we walk as if in someone’s shoes, we are more open to understanding their experiences. The simplicity of this presentation, and the trope of the listener needing to wear the shoes of the storyteller was appealing.
I have also designed Flood Stories as a form of participatory theatre. For me, the performative requirement is in that the listener does more than listen; that they walk, they don a costume that signifies to the public their involvement in Flood Stories, and that marks them out as part of something bigger. Unlike A Mile in My Shoes where the listener wears the storyteller’s shoes, Flood Stories’ listeners wear a uniform of sorts, which emphasises the shared nature of our flood experience.
Originally, the intention was to open on the third anniversary of the Cyclone Debbie flood, framing Flood Stories around the third phase of recovery from trauma: reconnection and integration (Hermann, 1992). The person is no longer defined by their trauma but can share their story without re-experiencing the trauma. Flood Stories is an opportunity for the Northern Rivers community to reconnect around the key themes of preparedness, resilience and our learnings from the 2017 flood, and to engage in story-sharing to aid mental health recovery and release.
In the public call out for storytellers, I was inundated with people saying they had not yet had an opportunity to tell their flood story. So, I am extending the opportunity for the public to record a five minute version of their story on their phone or their reaction to the Flood Stories installation and email it to the project. That content will be added to an online repository of flood stories.
Other related work
by Jeanti Suzan St Clair
RadioDoc Review, 5, 1, 1 - 38
Consent – walk the walk, a geo-locative audio documentary walk in St. John’s, Canada, explores a 2017 sexual assault trial that led to days of protests in the Newfoundland city: an on-duty police officer is charged with sexually assaulting an intoxicated woman he drove home from the town’s nightclub precinct. Producers Chris Brookes and Emily Deming’s work of ‘landscape journalism’ was designed to highlight the tension between popular and legal understandings of the term ‘consent’ in sexual assaults. While the audio walk is a compelling place-based listening experience Consent raises issues around the impact of dramatised re-enactment in the documentary field, and the role that sound design treatment can play, in affective influence over the audience’s response. To protect the identity of the assault victim, the producers were not permitted to use the court audio recordings, so they employed actors to perform the court transcripts. While the original trial acquitted the police officer, the Supreme Court of Canada in 2019 has ordered a re-trial on the grounds the trial judge erred in directing the jury. This article explores the design choices and the aesthetic, ethical and legal challenges faced by the audio walk’s producers in applying journalistic concepts of objectivity and balance.
by Jeanti S St Clair
Australian Journalism Review, 40, 1, 19 - 33
This article investigates the potential for locative audio documentary walks to operate as a potent hyperlocal form of feature journalism. Locative audio walks combine digital interfaces and media with mobile and geo-locative technology to co-locate audiences and narrative with place and extend traditional journalistic understandings of proximity. It may be argued that faltering media economies have largely curtailed journalistic experimentation with locative technology. However, there is scope for journalists to use locative audio platforms to produce newsworthy, place-based feature journalism and documentary narratives. Such productions can provide space for narrative engagements with alternative and marginalised perspectives of events at particular locations. Several Australian locative audio walks are discussed as examples which could be considered to be journalistic audio features.
by Jeanti S St Clair
Audio walk on the Soundtrails platform
Launched December, 2016
When Nimbin agreed to host the 1973 Aquarius Festival, the influx of university students and hippies changed the small dairy community forever.
A 10-day ‘festival without a program’ was proposed where people lived in ‘an experiential community’, built their dwellings and lived in tribes. Many locals were shocked by the festivalgoers’ nudity and free-living style but appreciated the new energy and the money that came to Nimbin.
After the festival, a few intrepid souls stayed on as New Settlers to continue the Aquarian dream and sow the seeds for today’s vibrant, innovative and sustainable community.
The name ‘Nimbin’ comes from the legend of the Nimbinjee, who are the totem of the local Wyabul people of the Bundjalung nation. The towering, ancient and sacred Nimbin Rocks can be seen from the village outskirts.
From Dreamtime to farming time to Aquarius time, this Soundtrail is a sonic journey through the heart of Australia’s most famous alternative lifestyle destination.