Long drop into water 1: “Raw Material”
The Shot Tower at Taroona is entered past postcards and souvenirs, tourist brochures, advertisements for ice-creams, and a sign to the tea shop downstairs (the scones are exceptionally good). There is a small interpretation area before the entrance to the tower proper that provides information about the history of the place, including a short video. But there is an intrusion here, an oddity. The video shows a map of Tasmania with a voice speaking in detailed and matter-of-fact terms, not about the tower, but about mining, heavy metals, and the contamination of sites and rivers – Rosebery, Royal George, the Arthur, the Pieman. It is, one hears, “not just about lead”. The video cuts to shots of the tower and the scenery around, but the voice that we now hear, and the colonial tune that accompanies it, is slowed down, almost parodic, distorted and even off-key. The explanatory panels fixed to the wall set out some of the tower’s history, yet here there is another disturbance, another seeming intrusion. A single smoothed-out slip of paper, fixed to the same sort of white panel as the information sheets above it, reads: “Notice to Visitors Please ask no questions”. There is no explanation. The interior of the tower, entered partway up, is filled by the wooden frame of the stairway, constructed so as to leave a central shaft of open space – a single and very long drop (elsewhere the phrase refers to a type of outhouse or a method of execution). Artificially lit, the space is dusty, cobwebbed, without interpretive signs or notices. Were it not for the window slits that allow glimpses outside, one might think this to be a space dug underground rather than extended above, a tunnel rather than a tower. The water that would once have been at the base is replaced by a white rectangular platform on which rest three neat stacks of shiny ingots and a handful of rock. Beckoning (or is it warning?), a voice echoes from below as if intoning an inventory (of “raw material”?): “37.5 kilograms of arsenic and lead alloy… one rock of galena containing up to 96% lead… one rock of arsenite pyrite crystal”. What took place at this tower, the casting of shot, was once an “industrial secret”, hidden like an alchemical process, using the materials of alchemy itself, not only lead and arsenic, but also antimony – valuable elements, yet poisonous – the same “heavy metals” that the video outside tells us contaminate Tasmanian land and water. Strange that what is taken away should leave so much weight behind. “Notice to Visitors Please ask no questions”. And don’t forget the postcard.
Long drop into water 2: “Lead Shot Production”
Just so there is no mistake – one mustn’t misconstrue the artwork as something it is not – a small printed sign on the entrance door now informs the visitor that what is going on here is an art work. The notice is a response to concerns raised with the artist and curator that the video showing inside may be seen as unbalanced in its presentation of the issues relating to mining in Tasmania – concerns that have resulted in some local television and radio coverage. In this iteration, the work also has an explicit performative element – or such is the expectation. A small crowd gathers at the appointed time to witness “production of lead shot”. Such production, after all, is what used to take place here, and this place is now a heritage site – a site that re-presents and re-enacts the past, that presents what is historical, factual, real. But the casting takes place inside the tower, and can only be viewed through a second video monitor in the interpretation area. Health and safety alone would prevent visitors being allowed into the confined space while the casting occurs – the molten lead is dangerous, and its fumes toxic – but the exclusion also re-enacts the secrecy of the original process (and of processes elsewhere?). A new notice, almost identical to that already there, has appeared on the wall, close to the floor: “Notice to Visitors You are free to do as we tell you”. There is clearly some disappointment from those anticipating the re-enactment. Noises can be heard, but is the casting actually taking place here, now? An additional shows what seems to be happening. We watch molten lead being poured through a colander positioned on a metal frame over the central shaft. The dark metal showers down into the half-barrel that is now positioned at the base of the tower – dropping rapidly down toward the earth, metal into water, heaviness into liquid. Yet some of the images are clearly not live, so what is being shown? And what of the original video with its images of the tower, its claims about mining and heavy metal toxicity? One watches the video more closely now. It begins with dark water, handfuls of shot dredged from its depths. A map of Tasmania appears and a voice is heard — “I want to really get into Rosebery because that is connected with the lead stuff from the short tower”. One listens again to the details of mining activity, contamination, control of information (you are free to believe what we tell you?), governmental inaction. Yet the origin of the information, the identity of the voice is removed from us. Much the same might be said of the heritage video that also plays – who speaks here? What are “the facts” being recounted? More importantly: what has been produced? Later, on looking into the tower, one can see the metal frame spread across the shaft from which the lead was poured and the pool of water below that now replaces the original assemblage of raw materials – lead and ore. The sides of the half-barrel are stained with shining lead as is the tower floor around it. This is a heritage site; it is also, so one discovers, contaminated.
Long Drop into Water 3: “Arbitrary Ruling”
There is a new sign at the tower: “Notice to Visitors I Made It To The Top”. The long drop makes for a longer climb. A voice echoes down the shaft as one turns upwards, the words hard to make out: “Dear Visitor. Make it to the top. You will find an artefact. Make it spin. Align it with the tube and release the sphere of your choice.” When one emerges onto the upper platform, the spectacular views promised by the video can be glimpsed outside, but inside, within the cramped room of the tower, a metal globe, like a large football, is fixed to a frame attached to the platform’s inner rail. The globe is of complex manufacture and has a form reminiscent of an armillary sphere: encircled with five upright bands, twelve segments form two hemispheres bolted tightly together; the device is mounted on a central axis, and can be rotated by a handle; it is so balanced that when at rest the globe connects with a thin metal tube that runs to the tower’s central shaft, and then points downwards to the water that can be seen far below. The handle turns, the globe spins, and a metallic rushing can be heard. Turning a small tap when the globe is aligned with the tube results in a single lead ball being released (here is the full extent of your “choice”), and then shot from the tube down into the shaft towards the tower’s base. The ball is tiny, just one from the reservoir held inside the body of the globe, and it is almost immediately lost in the gloom of the shaft, until, seconds later, if one is lucky, one sees the effect of its impact in the sudden ripples that appear in the watery surface some 50 or so metres beneath one’s feet. Here is the long drop repeated – lead into water. But the repetition is singular, no poured shower of liquid metal, just one small sphere sped into space, down to earth, towards water – what made it to the top here is thus returned below, but in the tiniest of measures. The globe itself is beautifully constructed, not some crude device of rapid manufacture, but machined and polished, a precision device for a highly specific task – like the chamber of a bespoke weapon with the long shaft of the tower as its barrel. Back down in the interpretation area the video continues to run, but even though the soundtrack remains the same, there are new images added to the old. Previous shots of painted depictions showing aspects of mining activity, of water dripping slowly from the yellow painted metal of a piece of machinery, of a sign that reads “MMG Rosebery – Australia’s safest mine? Not yet – we’re working on it”, are juxtaposed, not only with that map of Tasmania over which hand and pointer move, but with shots of bushland seen through a chain mesh fence, of water rushing over rock and gushing from a pipe, scenes of a cloudy, damp townscape, rows of houses, mine buildings, and two hands, strangely lethargic, distended, oddly held. Whose hands are these? What weight do they carry? How far is it from Rosebery to Taroona? What rules here? And how arbitrarily?
Long Drop into Water 4: “Points of Interest”
There is a new sign to match the others fixed low down on the wall of the Shot Tower interpretation area: Notice to Visitors Explore the Possibilities. A black and white flyer, made of a single folded page, is handed out. It has the circular image of the Shot Tower logo printed on one fold and details of the installation on another, but the remaining folds each carry the texts that appear on the wall, printed one per fold, with attributions in small type beneath:
NOTICE TO VISITORS PLEASE ASK NO QUESTIONS
Joseph Moir (1809-1874), builder of the Taroona shot tower
NOTICE TO VISITORS YOU ARE FREE TO DO AS WE TELL YOU
Bill Hicks (1961-1994), American comedian, social critic and musician
NOTICE TO VISITORS I MADE IT TO THE TOP
Taroona Shot Tower promotional material
NOTICE TO VISITORS EXPLORE THE POSSIBILITIES
Tasmanian Government positioning statement.
On entering the tower all is quiet except for the muffled voices of visitors and the echo of their feet on the wooden steps. Looking down into the shaft one sees the stillness of water in the half-barrel below, and in that water a large cast-lead ball lies submerged at the very centre. A climb to the tower’s top, and the strange device on the upper platform remains fixed to its frame, but no longer fires metallic shot. Instead, its nozzle is closed off, the globe spins freely, and what sounds like a single piece of shot can be heard rattling inside. The metal that was previously held there seems now to have expended to lie in that single massive sphere at the tower’s base. Explore the possibilities? If anything, the possibilities now seem closed off, agglomerated into the stillness of the water below. Yet climb back down, and there is a new version of the video running. Spliced in the middle of the existing sequence a new image intrudes: hands holding a heavy metal casting mould seen against dilapidated walls. Then, at the point where the video previously came to an end, those walls appear again, a handwritten message scrawled across them, the image zooming close: “this house will kill you”. Clearly this is Rosebery, and in another distorted soundtrack, one hears what seems to be a news report about the town, about the health problems of some of its residents, about the issues of contamination they have raised – “we want some answers” – about the division this has brought into the town, the violent and abusive messages that other residents have sent to those who make trouble. The images that now emerge, and that run until the video ends, are striking. They have their own spectacle, their own violence. Molten lead is poured, not into water, but into and onto the heavy solidity of the mould. Lead spills around it, onto the floor, onto fragments of carpet and linoleum, heat rises and metal splutters. Lead seems to run everywhere, and when it is finally exhausted, the mould is cooled and solidified with a dose of water, spitting and steaming as it hits. Here is the origin of the ball we see at the base of the tower. What possibilities does it explore? What possibilities, what “points” of interest”, does it carry from Rosebery to Taroona? Whose possibilities, whose realities, whose interest? What lies in that half-barrel of water; what lies here in Taroona; what lies in the space of that abandoned house; what lies in Rosebery?
Over these four interations, of which this is the last, a journey has been repeated from Taroona to Rosebery and back again. The lead that now rests here as a single submerged sphere has made that same journey, from the tower to the mine, and from mine to tower. The long drop of lead into water has been a movement between places and times, a combining and contaminating of sites, a mixing of modalities and materials. “EXPLORE THE POSSIBILITIES”, but please “ASK NO QUESTIONS”.
Jeff Malpas, 2011.