RMIT University
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Negotiating Distance: Making Place Through and in a Practice of Landscape Architecture

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posted on 2024-05-02, 01:30 authored by Jock Gilbert
This PhD exegesis describes the transformation of my practice through what I term the ‘negotiation of distance’. In broad terms, negotiation is understood through its etymological origins (Latin: negotiare) as being that which is not leisure or in other words, negotiation is that which is business and importantly the business of dealing with another person. Distance here is understood as a noun as simply being the length of the space (where space comes to be understood in both spatial and temporal terms) between two points but, as a verb, is also etymologically inflected with a Middle English sense of discord. In doing so, the practice is now positioned within a contemporary discourse situated at the intersection of concepts of landscape, place and Country. This work is geographically sited on the western edge of the Murray-Darling basin. It emerged from a concern around the inability of the discipline of landscape architecture to engage with and contribute to one of the most pressing issues of Australia (an issue arguably rooted in concerns of landscape) – the management of the Murray Darling basin. In 2012, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was released to which an AILA committee provided a formal response which was couched in terms of stewardship and which provoked an adverse internal reaction (internal to me). It commences with an attempt to negotiate landscape by employing the tools of practice with which I was then equipped and locating these tools in a western-oriented landscape discourse. The failure of this negotiation – blamed initially on geographical distance (ie western NSW is so far away) – is identified as lying in the inability of the tools of practice and the profession to facilitate the negotiation of cultural and conceptual distances. It is a failure captured in a series of projects which can be seen as invitations to the landscape to participate in these projects – a failure not only of the projects but an indicator of the failure of the tools themselves. These can also be understood as futile attempts to read the landscape. The work then moves into the negotiation of Country in relation to landscape. Protocols and tools for Indigenous engagement including Storying, yarning, reciprocity and deep listening are then understood as tools which allow such a negotiation, overcoming ontological distances. In doing so, the major learning of the work is revealed through the concept of the invitation – the revelation that I am being invited to participate in Country, an invitation conditional on acceptance, acknowledgment and embodiment of this alternative set of tools. Central to the learning from the PhD is the understanding that this engagement must be undertaken on terms which are often antithetical to normative, rational academic practice – one must negotiate with both the limits of one’s understandings of the Indigenous knowledge system and the terms of the academic knowledge system of the institution. The specific tools which facilitate engagement and the negotiation of relationships also lead to shifting understandings of landscape – towards a landscape knowledge inflected with that of Country which is discussed in relation to discourse around contemporary place knowledge. The central claim of the work has become that a practice which allows the non-indigenous practitioner to engage with Aboriginal people and hence knowledges also offers transformational potential in relation to landscape knowledge – and hence the practice of landscape architecture. The work makes the claim to contributions to knowledge in several interrelated areas. It serves to extend the discourse of landscape knowledge in relation to Aboriginal understandings of the world - in particular through the concept of Country as it is understood by Barkandji people of the Darling River and western NSW. In doing this, the work contributes to an emerging discourse about the ways that academic engagement with Aboriginal people is conducted through the formation of correct relationships – providing a clearer idea of what it is to conduct relationships from a non-indigenous perspective which are based on sovereignty. This includes consideration of the role of the non-indigenous practitioner in Indigenous-led projects. Through this relational engagement, the work also contributes to cultural knowledge – but not as an end in itself. Although the work has brought me into direct proximity with cultural knowledge, the claim made through the work is around the ways that cultural knowledge is understood to be a living, working entity which is enriched and enlivened through engagement with it.


Degree Type

Doctorate by Research


© Jock Gilbert 2023

School name

Architecture & Urban Design

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