Hans von Lieven, copyright 1992
"That is not its dreaming," the old man said, pointing to the ancient Aboriginal images on the screen of Bruno's computer.
Bruno Wangurra yanked his head around in surprise and looked at his uncle. It was the first time the old man had spoken in three weeks. Bruno threw his hands up in frustration. It would be a long day! How do you explain electricity, digital technology, scanned images and sampled sounds to an old shaman that had lived in the deserts of the Northern Territory all his life?
He wished he had never started this. It seemed such a good idea at the time.
* * *
Bruno was a loner. He was born in the bush about a hundred miles north of Timber Creek. His mother died giving birth, his father was killed in a hunting accident two years later. A visiting aunt took the child back with her to Sydney. She and her husband, a well known painter, raised the child as their own. It soon became apparent that the boy was talented. He did well at school, and when the time came his adoptive parents sent him to university, sacrificing much along the way.
Bruno found things difficult in a white man's world. There were few openings for full blooded Aborigines in these days. Nevertheless, he found his niche. He became the first Aboriginal to earn a masters degree in psychology with honours!
He craved recognition. Bruno felt ill at ease in his role as the token Black in the white dominated, patronising Department of Aboriginal Affairs.
Bruno decided to go back to university. He would do a research paper on aboriginal culture and history, using his tribe as a model.
There was government money available for this sort of thing, and if he was clever he could live comfortably for the next few years and gain his Ph. D. in the bargain. His timing was right. He applied for, and received, a generous government grant to help him with his project.
Bruno went to the Northern Territory. In spite of his background and training he knew very little about his people. He needed someone to instruct him.
There was really only one man who still knew the old ways. Everybody called him Uncle. Maybe he was related to everyone as he claimed, he was old enough. What did it matter anyway?
Bruno met Uncle in the Wayside Inn in Timber Creek. The old man did not drink, nor did he accept the cigarette Bruno offered. Bruno outlined his project. To his surprise Uncle accepted the idea and agreed to go to Sydney to help Bruno with the history of their tribe.
Bruno felt elated. The trip back to Sydney put a dampener on his enthusiasm. Uncle refused to fly. Bruno had to rent a car. It took him ten days to get home. Not the drive, that would have taken half the time. But, every now and then the old man would tell him to stop, then drag him to some isolated spot and just sit there for an hour or two. Bruno had the vague feeling the old man was trying to show him something, but whatever it was escaped him.
Eventually they arrived in Sydney.
Bruno lived in an old sandstone cottage in Woolloomooloo. He had noticed that Uncle became more and more withdrawn the closer they came to the city.
Once inside the house he clammed up completely. He did not speak, he hardly acknowledged Bruno's presence. He ate what was put before him but other than that he seemed contend to sit cross legged on the floor in the lounge room and retreat into his own world. Until now!
* * *
"That is not its dreaming," the old man repeated.
"This is just a picture of old Aboriginal paintings, something like watching television," Bruno explained wearily.
"I have seen computers before. That is not what I am talking about."
"What are you on about then?"
"It doesn't like what you make it dream. It has its own dreaming. It doesn't want yours!"
"Uncle," Bruno was having difficulty to contain his impatience. "This thing is not alive. It cannot dream. It is a machine!"
"No," the old man said firmly. "I'm not talking about its body. I am talking about its spirit."
"It has no spirit. It works on electricity. Electricity is only energy, nothing else."
"All spirit is energy," the old man retorted impatiently.
"Have it your way," he said to cut the argument short.
"You have much to learn," the old man said sadly.
Bruno felt uneasy. Here he was, the only university graduate of his tribe, and Uncle, an old bushman without education, was talking to him as if he were an idiotic child.
* * *
Next morning Bruno was surprised to see the old man sitting in the kitchen with a steaming pot of coffee in front of him. His eyes had lost that lethargic look of recent weeks. New, vigorous life sparkled in them now. Uncle poured a cup for Bruno and motioned him to sit down.
"Show me how to talk to your computer," he said abruptly.
"I want to do something."
Bruno did not want to get involved. On the other hand he needed the old man's help if his thesis was ever to take shape. Reluctantly he decided to play along, if at a distance.
Jeremy, a young student living next door was something of a computer whiz. He could do with a few extra bucks. Bruno's budget could stand the expense. Anything to keep the old fellow quiet and get him to cooperate. Besides, it would not take long. The old man would soon find out that there was more to computers than pushing a few buttons and give up. Then Bruno would get what he needed.
Bruno was wrong. Not only did his uncle maintain his interest in the machine, he thrived on it. For the next three weeks Bruno could not get near the computer. The old man would be at work already at five in the morning and still be there at midnight. He only stopped to eat and answer the calls of nature. During the day Jeremy would come in and show him some more. The old man never looked better.
At the end of three weeks he had mastered the paint program and was creating designs on the machine that were reminiscent of Aboriginal artwork, yet totally different. They were beautiful!
Instead of the traditional red, white, yellow and black ochres delicate blues and greens contrasted vivid, shining colours like the special effects seen in video clips and science fiction movies. However, the treatment of the composition and shapes was strictly traditional.
Bruno was amazed that his uncle was handling the computer so well. Jeremy must be an excellent teacher to be able to show an old bushman so much in such a short time.
"You've got it all wrong," Jeremy said when Bruno congratulated him on his achievement. "The old fellow couldn't give a shit about the computer. To him it's nothing but a paintbrush, a few paints and a canvas. He knows how to use those. He knows exactly what he wants to create. All he wants from me is to show him how to put it on the screen, how he can keep the picture, and how he can get it back when he wants it again.
"He's the easiest guy to teach I have ever met. A true artist. He knows he must master the medium before he can create what he wants to show. He will ask me to show him something, then he will sit there and practice for hours until he has it mastered. Only then will he ask me for some more.'
"What is he trying to do?"
"He says he wants to talk to the spirit. I think he is talking about electricity. He treats it as if it were alive but not conscious of its aliveness."
"Don't you find that a bit disconcerting?"
"No, not exactly. It's not important anyway. He is producing stunning artwork. That is enough. What does it matter if he thinks there are little men painting the screen from the inside every time he touches a button?"
Bruno felt a bit better after his talk with Jeremy. For the next four weeks everything went well. The old man worked diligently on his pictures. He even condescended occasionally to tell Bruno some of the old dream time stories. Bruno was collecting his material at last.
"It needs ears now," the old man said one day out of the blue. "Jeremy tells me there is a machine that can do this. Get me one."
Bruno excused himself and went next door. As luck would have it Jeremy was home.
"He wants to give the computer ears!" Bruno burst out as soon as he was inside.
"So what," Jeremy laughed.
"Haven't you heard me E A R S ! What are you doing to the old fart. He's gone nuts!"
"Calm down Bruno," Jeremy was still laughing. "It's only the way he's talking that's got you rattled. What would you call it if you knew nothing about microphones, sound digitisers and magnetic recordings. Come to think of it giving it ears is not a bad way of putting it. I know what he means, and if you are honest, so do you."
"Okay," Bruno said somewhat calmer now, "What is he on about now?"
"Let me tell you what he did the other day. He tried to show me what effect he was aiming to achieve. He said it wouldn't be exactly what he had in mind but I would get the idea.
He played his didgeridoo and while he was playing displayed several of his paintings in time with the music on the screen. Some pictures were repeated, others were shown only once. A bit like a video clip. It took less than a minute and it was makeshift. But makeshift or not, it was still the most beautiful thing I have ever seen."
"That maybe true, but I still think he is nuts. He talks about electricity as if it were a living thing. He wants to talk to it and share its dreaming, whatever that means. He reckons its unhappy because I force it to dream things it doesn't want. Now if that is not nuts, what is?"
"No Bruno, your uncle is as sane as you or I. I have worked with the man. He trusts me and tells me what he feels he must do. Don't be confused by the words and concepts he uses to express himself. He thinks with a different imagery to us. He comes from a different time, a different culture. You must treat it like a foreign language. Once you translate it, it makes perfect sense."
"Then what do you think he is doing?"
"In our terms he is creating a work of art. A multi media computer presentation entitled "The Birth of the Spirit of Electricity." He is doing it in the only way he can, through the sounds, movements and images of his culture. Now what is wrong with that?"
Bruno suddenly felt sad and alone. This young white man understood his uncle and his people far better than he did. Jeremy had not been listening with his ears but with his heart, and in so doing transcended all racial and cultural barriers. Bruno realised he was ashamed of his uncle, he had regarded him as a primitive black fellow, good only for the information he could provide. Jeremy had seen the man.
"The old man is right," he said with sudden insight. "I have much to learn!"
The equipment was delivered the next day.
* * *
After this the old man sat on the floor for hours every day playing his didgeridoo and entering the sounds into the computer. He then edited the sounds and modified their quality and rhythm. Next he merged the sounds with the visual images he had created earlier.
Bruno found the result not only appealing, but compelling. There was a sad, haunting quality in the old man's creation that touched Bruno in ways he had not experienced before.
"Soon it will be born," his uncle said one morning.
"What you have created is truly beautiful," Bruno said with genuine admiration. "But please uncle, this is your creation, it is a work of art, not an unborn child."
"You still don't understand." The old man looked at Bruno, without resentment. "Soon you will," he said returning to his work.
* * *
"I want you to stay home. Today I do something. You must watch!"
It was not a request, it was a command. Bruno had never seen the old man like this. He felt something of importance was about to happen. He agreed without argument.
His uncle spread a blanket on the floor and sat the computer's monitor on one side facing the centre of the room. He undressed and bid Bruno to do likewise. Bruno obliged.
The old man had prepared the ochres. Painstakingly he first painted Bruno, then himself with the ancient markings of their tribe.
Both sat down on the blanket, facing the monitor. After two hours of silence his uncle picked up the didgeridoo and began to play. He seemed in a trance. As the haunting sounds of the didgeridoo permeated the room the patterns on the screen began to move.
Abruptly the old man stopped. For a while nothing happened. Then, hesitatingly at first, came a reply. New images appeared on the screen, new sounds emerged.
The old man played again.
This time the reply was much shorter in coming.
And so it went on... two hours... three hours... four hours.
Then recognition! The old man had shown his spirit and in its reflection something realised itself. A jubilant cry reverberated through the corridors of space and time in celebration of its newfound awareness.
It was whole! It was free to roam infinity! Never to return!
On Earth all the lights went out.