Site-Specific Art

So Once You Were Here They Had You

Fremantle Biennale, SIGNALS 2023

Close to the submerged remnants of the Fremantle Long Jetty, an immersive re-telling of arrival and separation will unfold.

So once you were here they had you is an experiential audio-visual poem to the 50 young cotton-weaver women who arrived on the shores of Walyalup, journeying by ship from Lancashire over 110 days and nights in 1863. Created by electronic music composer Rebecca Riggs-Bennett and video artist Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson, this work takes place across Bathers Beach, re-tracing the steps of the women and the many others of the “Bride Ship” era.

So once you were here they had you is a reflective honouring of the time swept experiences of these women. Cross with us into an immersive, at times ghostly, real and imagined narrative of migration, loss and departure.

So once you were here they had you is site-specific, participatory installation: an ode to the 50 young cotton-weaver, working-class women from Lancashire who landed in Walyalup on December 12th 1863 after 110 days of journeying by ship.

​Raw cotton ceased exporting to Lancashire as a consequence to the American Civil War and subsequently left thousands of people in abject poverty due to the cotton famine, the closing of the cotton mills. Western Australia was the only state that accepted the prospective employment of the women through assisted passage. The event is layered in themes of complexity: the impact of colonisation in both the United States and Australia, trauma, injustice, loss and separation. Through forms of sound, text and video art, artists Rebecca Riggs-Bennett and Elham Eshraghian-Hakaansson have created a reflective honouring of the time-swept journey these women endeavoured in leaving and arriving.​

The work has been derived from initial research titled “Bride Ships” (2016) conducted by visual artist Rachel Riggs, and connects to Rebecca and Rachel’s own feelings and ties to separation by distance between Lancashire and Walyalup/Fremantle. Rachel writes: ‘Engaging with other peoples experiences within the site, whether visible or invisible, real or imaginary allows access to see the subliminal.’

The installation, commissioned by Fremantle Biennale, was installed in the area of Bathers Bay, close to the submerged remnants of the Fremantle Long Jetty, the site in which the women first arrived in so-called Australia. The artists entangled devised text with archived poetry from the cotton famine era, which was then woven into the score. Wearable speakers encouraged participants to feel the produced score and embrace the visceral nature of the oceanfront site.

Audience Response

"Utterly ethereal and putting all kinds of fanciful imaginings in my brain.... It was magical, ghostly and there was this very realized sense of care in the process... The blue ocean in the video art was completely encapsulating.”

Photography Emma Daisy and Owen Liao

“The play with light and sound. Carefully crafted and it worked really well with the scenery from sunset to darkness, to urban light. The sound and visuals really amplified that - it was a spectacularly intimate show of lights... The audio was incredible and both it and the video (which paired beautifully) captured this wonderful wistful, spooky, and melancholy-supernatural vibe I am fond of.... Serendipitous moments between the soundscape on the vests and the public site. These moments were deeply felt... The audio was 'felt' in the body. One participant had a similar history of the cotton mills in Lancashire. It was an experience of 'feeling'. When she sat and watched the visuals - a true moment was the soundscape on the vest intermixed with the natural sounds and the visual of the bioluminescent ocean. It was breathtaking for her.”

Original Research, Dramaturgy & Collaboration: Rachel Riggs | Voiceover Artists: Angeliki Georga & Phoebe Georga | VFX Artist & Animator​: Jarrad Russell | Devised text written by Rebecca Riggs-Bennett and Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson. Featuring poetry of the Lancashire cotton famine (1861-1865) by University of Exeter and audio recordings by Catherine Hill and Helmshore Mill.