Sounding the city’s real times

It was 9am Sydney time on August 15 1945 when British Prime Minister Clement Atlee announced that Japan had surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. ‘The last of our enemies is laid low’ he said. PEACE! roared The Sun. In downtown Martin Place, massive crowds spontaneously gathered, to dance and make whoopie in celebration of the end of the War.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)’s Talbot Duckmanton was there that day to record the scenes, describing to his audience some of the finer details of the setting: a Hitler effigy being hung from the windows of one of the banks, circles of dancing women before him (‘fine looking ladies, too!’), the din of a mosquito zooming around maniacally over head.

Duckmanton’s recording captures the emerging style of documentary radio reportage adopted by the ABC’s radio correspondents after the war, as they took advantage of new, more versatile recording technologies to head out of the studio and into the streets and backwaters of Australia (Inglis 1983: 164; Thomas 2007).

Standing in Martin Place today, listening in, through headphones, to the sounds captured by the ABC’s recording of these ebullient scenes some sixty-five years ago, one feels a giddy sense of time travel, being transported to that celebrated moment as it had been experienced right here. That sense of immediacy Duckmanton had worked to establish for his radio listeners back in 1945 draws today’s listener back in, to participate with his audience of the day in imagining the scenes at Martin Place. ‘There’s no policeman directing traffic on Pitt St today’ he tells us. No, indeed there is not.

Today Martin Place is unusually quiet. It’s Saturday and the office workers who normally mill about here are nowhere to be seen. Weekend shoppers and tourists are perhaps avoiding the tunnel of wind that blows constantly up through the pedestrian promenade, making the place feel somewhat chilly even on hot summer afternoons. Duckmanton’s narration continues:

Over on my right, on one of the buildings at the back, somebody has hung out a big dummy of Adolf Hitler with a great swastiker on the front of it, and to the cheers of the crowd he was lowered down from the top of the building and – duly hung!

Today’s solitary listener might look up, wondering on which of these buildings here the spectacle occurred.

Listening to the sounds of this old radio recording through personal headphones, we join with Duckmanton’s audience of the day in imagining the scenes being described. But we’re not listening to the wireless, whether from home or work, we’re in Martin Place, separated through time, not by distance, to the sounds of this euphoria en masse of the manic joy of wives soon to be reunited with husbands, of a city jubilant with the prospect of an immanent end to war-time rations.

As we ‘return’ to this moment as it was documented here, in-situ, we are also just another person in the crowd with headphones on, enclosed, as Bull (2007) would have it, in a ‘pleasurable and privatized sound bubble’ of own own choosing.

We might consider the peculiar sound bubble of this listening experience to be hallucinatory in its effects, in eliciting ‘visions’ of that which can no longer be seen. The experience is reminiscent of a movie soundtrack, transforming what is seen into a kind of cinematic-like visual feast. While this experience is all too familiar to headphone wearers everywhere, this particular piece of audio, an old, scratchy recording of a public event that took place right here some time ago, brings back a sense of the collective memory of an invisible past.

So this audio recording facilitates a slightly different kind of audio-visual interactivity to that which might ordinarily be experienced with headphones, as the displacement affected by the auditory frame is also something of a ‘return’; an intimate commemoration with that previous, broadcast present.

Today’s listener might ‘visit’ a number of these archival recordings as one would visit a monument, or some kind of a physical artefact that describes a historical event. Further up the street at Chifley Square, our listener can hear the chants of a student demonstration. It’s 1968 and Australia’s involvement in the war in Vietnam is under fire. The protesters have gathered outside the Commonwealth Centre, a towering 1960s office block demolished in 1988 to make way for the Chifley Tower. She hears a voice projected through a loudspeaker proclaiming the rights of conscientious objectors to a trial by jury, muffled cries calling for Mr. Robert Kennedy’s resignation, boos and hisses, muffled and dispersed at first and then becoming louder.  The listener hears these sounds through her headphones, while the ambient noises of Chifley Square bleed into her densely, scratchily archival audio space. Further down at Circular Quay, she can ‘visit’ the voice of Paul Robeson singing Old Man River to the construction workers of the Sydney Opera House in 1963.

If she heads over to the Rocks, she’ll also hear the sounds of Green Ban protesters fighting against the prospect of further high-rise construction, clashing with police in 1973; a bird sings in the background as a reporter details the scene. As she visits these recordings, the listener’s experience of these events yields a city of discrete, temporally-discontinous moments in time: a topography of events, as captured by recording technologies of the day.

Today’s s listener could chart a course through central Sydney visiting these ‘soundmarks’ as one might visit different places of historical interest. Her experience of these sounds in-situ amplifies a different historical geography to that of the ‘sculptured narrative’ (ref) of monuments and memorials. When she stands in Martin Place listening to the sounds of VP Day, she’s looking at the Victorian sandstone buildings wondering on which one the Hitler effigy hung, and may only take a passing interest in their architectural features. Down at Circular Quay, she’s imagining the Sydney Opera House as a mess of scaffolding. When the listener returns to these moments, she revisits the past as originally experienced, and documented, as the ‘present’. In these recordings, she hears journalists detailing a contemporary (now past) scene, not recollections as described by someone from a future vantage point in time. The sense of immediacy yielded by these ambient street recordings, as it retrieves an experience of ‘being there’, is in this respect quite different to a studio-based oral history recording, which looks backwards from a contemporary vantage point.

These pieces are not intended to structure the listener’s physical navigation of an environment, but simply to ‘mark’ a space-time, or series of space-times. They don’t offer the listener a structured navigation through a given locale. When you listen, you’ll hear no instructions as to which way you should walk; which way you should look. Each piece simply seeks to triangulate, like Calvino’s invisible cities, the measurements of space with the events of its past. 

Each of these sound pieces experiments with different approaches to working with sound archives for a site-specific listening experience. All are relatively short – the longest is 14 minutes. All were produced using the ABC’s archives, with the exception of one piece I produced using materials identified from the National Film and Sound Archive.

Some simply present a single archival recording; others are more complex edited compositions that integrate a number of different sound sources. Some are narrated; others are not.

Many of these pieces relate to what I have called ‘resonant spaces’ in Sydney; spaces whose amplification through the documentary record illuminates sites of conflict and contestation which otherwise remain hidden from view. Listening to these recordings in-situ intends to amplify a different historical geography to that of the sculptured narrative of official monuments and memorials.

Such resonant spaces amplify the contested nature of a site’s contemporary spatiality. But other pieces are not about urban conflict at all: they simply ‘return’ to particular moments in the life of the city, yielding a topology of events and moments, as captured by different recording technologies of the day. I find some of these recorded moments particularly compelling as they enable the listener to revisit the past as originally experienced, and documented, as the ‘present’ specifically for the purpose of contemporary documentary reportage.

As compositions, these sound marks are not intended to demonstrate new methods of sound composition, or examples of context-aware media technology. They are simply intended to demonstrate what different kinds of auditory remnants might be retrieved when we listen in to the real times of space. Wherever possible, I have made these recordings available for re-use by others interested in working with street’s acoustical historical geography. I make no claims over ownership of the final compositions, but only gesture towards their possible incorporation into contemporary practice.

Victoria St today

Victoria St Soundwalk

What’s so special about Victoria St?

Victoria St has long been one of Sydney’s most prized locations, described by the National Trust in the 1970s as the ‘Montmartre of Sydney’.

It was also the site of the first public housing campaign in Australia (Ashton 1993: 104). In 1971 first-time property developer Frank Theeman acquired whole rows of houses here through his company Victoria Point Pty Ltd, with plans to demolish the terrace houses and build a number of office and apartment towers. Theeman gained council approval for his plans in March 1973, when he began to issue eviction notices to tenants of these properties, many of which were boarding houses available for low rent.

Read on…


1. Soundwalk:’I built a city of green, the best you’ve ever seen’

2. 115 Victoria St: Mick Fowlerâ??s Funeral

3. 202 Victoria St: Juanita’s home

  1. Wendy’s speech outside 115 Victoria St

More Green Bans…

[1] This is the way Wendy Bacon described Sydney in her speech outside 115 Victoria St in 1974, featured in my Victoria St soundwalk.

[2] Accounts of what happened on Victoria St that day are available through a number of web resources, and are documented by Pat Fiske in Woolloomooloo (1979). References include Milliss (1974); Milliss and Brennan (1974); Rees (2004); Squatspace (2004); Burgmann and Burgmann (1993). The transcript of an interview with Mundey reflecting on the importance of the Green Bans to the development of Australian cities is available from the ABC at

George St gets a makeover: 1906 to 2030

Publishing street level film archives online can lead to some interesting results.

While the Powerhouse Museum have been exploring new uses of high-res images published from the Tyrrell Collection, I’ve also spotted a recent montage by Dan Hill which uses some of the film footage published through Sidetracks on Architect.

Peering into the flow of pedestrians and trams on George St in 1906 not only provides insight into Sydney city life before cars, but also illuminates future planning possibilities.

On making Sidetracks

Apparently it’s not very easy to be offered access to the ABC’s TV and Radio archives. This strikes me as slightly odd – with the broadcaster so happy to lecture the Australian public that it’s ‘Our ABC’, and, increasingly ‘the town square’ of Australian media life, it would seem to me that a system enabling Australians to access recordings of their histories might not be such a bad idea.

Governments speak of the increasing importance of digital literacy to Australians well-being; this line of thinking would seem to suggest that digital literacy as it applies to our stories and histories might be supported by a more open ABC archive publishing program. After all, we are talking about television and radio programming funded by Australian taxpayers.

My way in to the ABC collection began with a proposal to explore how ABC archives might be used to experiment with emerging interface conventions on Google Maps.

I originally approached the ABC back in late 2007 in order simply to research their collection for my PhD research – along the lines of what I’d undertaken with the Jaywalking Sydney Fellowship. In a nutshell, I wanted to know what kinds of ambient/location-based audio recordings were held in the ABC’s archives. The ABC has been there to record just about every event and happening in Sydney throughout its 75+ year lifetime; I was interested to research its audio archive to find out what treasures could be dug up from their darkened rooms and liberated into the Sydney sunshine.

Turned out, however, that the ABC’s Innovation unit had a particular interest in the whole geo-spatial area this year, and so decided they wanted ‘Jaywalking’ to be run in-house. That meant they were willing to support a development of a mobile application for Sidetracks. My role in the project was in the end one of a freelance content producer working with an internal team of producers and developers within ABC Innovation.

Fresh & New(er) interview about Sidetracks

The Powerhouse Museum’s Seb Chan conducted an interview with me exploring some of the ideas and aspirations of Sydney Sidetracks. Excerpts of the interview are pasted below.

Q: Sidetracks (re)tells some great stories of our city. How did you choose which stories to tell?

Sarah Barns: I was pretty motivated in my selection by finding archival material that had been recorded on location. The original focus for my research was on ambient audio recordings, and embedding them in whatever ways possible (whether thatâ??s mobile, ipod, hypertag, short-wave radio or whatever..!) to enable the listener to tune in to the sounds of another era while looking at a contemporary environment. Obviously thereâ??s a lot of historical tours and commentary and podtours and the like coming out now, and my interest has been to try to decipher what can be made of actuality audio recordings for such purposes. While additional formats were later included in Sidetracks, I remained pretty focused on material that could be uncovered in a very site-specific way.

I also have quite an interest in â??lost placesâ??, whether demolished buildings or radically transformed environments, and using archives to excavate an area – an archeology of recorded action, rather than surviving artefact – which obviously becomes more potent the more a place has changed. So a lot of the stories are based on those two premises – ambience and disappearance.

I love this quote from Alec Morgan (Hunt Angels, et al) when he says

â??It is all too easy to fall into the trap of believing that the cultural essence of Sydney lies embedded in its architecture. Itâ??s structures, buildings and monuments. I find this method of interpreting the past, this reliance on concrete and real estate, a faulty and unsound foundation upon which to build an understanding of the forces that shape the distinctiveness of the cityâ?¦I sense that there is another city lying undiscovered beneath these bloated, familiar carcasses and that cultural interpretation by architecture is too impoverished to satisfy a secret desire to connect to something of Sydneyâ??s past that is more elusive, more sensual, than a pile of bricks and mortar.â? Alec Morgan (2004)

Itâ??s a quote that marks out the imaginative potentiality of the â??invisibleâ?? terrain.

Continue reading…

Sidetracks launches

Drum roll…

After a period of gestation, Sydney Sidetracks has been launched by ABC Innovation in partnership with ABC Local Radio 702 Sydney. You can read more background information about Sydney Sidetracks on this website here.

Here’s some excerpts from the media release of 10 November 2008.

Discover history where it happened with ABC Sydney Sidetracks on your mobile or online at

Uncover Sydneyâ??s hidden past â?? the people, buildings and events that shaped a town â?? by visiting

Sydney Sidetracks is a new multi-platform, interactive project from ABC Innovation which enables audiences to discover history where it happened on the streets of inner city Sydney. It is a unique service showcasing a rich range of historic audio, film, text and images all accessible via an interactive map, which can be seen on a mobile phone while out and about or online at

Sydney Sidetracks uses new technology to explore some of Sydneyâ??s oldest inner city suburbs; Circular Quay and The Rocks, Kings Cross, Paddington, Pyrmont, Redfern, Surry Hills, Sydney CBD and South and East Sydney.

“This is the first offering of its kind in this country. By combining the resources of Australia’s oldest broadcaster with the incredible collections of other great cultural institutions it starts to build an interactive social history of Australia’s oldest city”, says Sarah Barns, concept developer, researcher and content producer on Sidetracks.

Sidetracks collection – highlights


VP DAY 1945: Talbot Duckmanton recording the crowds celebrating VP Day, 1945 in Martin Place.

Reproduced courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

Reproduced courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

While the NFSA has some interesting film footage of these moments, the sound quality is poor. It’s also owned by Cinesound and so re-publishing has some rights limitations. But more importantly, the commentary provided in this piece by Duckmanton to his radio listeners is fascinating, full of great little details about the man on Pitt St directing traffic (he wasn’t, that day), the effigy of Hitler being hung from a building in Martin Place (which one?), the ladies dancing in the street (“fine-looking ladies, too”) and bringing to our attention the sounds of the mosquito flying overhead. It really is like being there, listening in. Thanks very much to John Spence for locating this special recording for me.

Listen in to VP Day, 1945


Radio may not have been new in 1948, but a recording of then Prime Minister Robert Menzies being heckled by communists at the Sydney Stadium is one of the oldest radio recordings I could locate in the ABC Archives. You can hear it in the audio ‘Old Tin Shed’ that features as part of the Sydney Stadium selection. Also worth a mention here is a link to 1908 footage of boxing legend Jack Johnson training for his fight against Canadian Tommy Burns, in which he became Heavyweight Champion of the World – the first African American to win that title.

Burns vs Johnson fight, 1908. Image reproduced courtesy of the State Library of NSW

Burns vs Johnson fight, 1908. Image reproduced courtesy of the State Library of NSW



Nothing can really top the footage held in the collection of the National Film and Sound Archive taken from the front of a tram travelling down George St in 1906. It gives you an incredibly detailed view of the streetscape of the day, what the city streets were like before cars and before skyscrapers – the Queen Victoria Building is a huge behemoth in the distance. Thanks to the National Film and Sound Archives Centre for Scholarly and Archival Research for assistance with this piece.


The image of the AMP building down at Circular Quay is striking in the way it shows how out of scale, how guargantuan these artefacts would have been at the time of the first skyscrapers.

Reproduced courtesy of the City of Sydney archives

Reproduced courtesy of the City of Sydney archives


Another highlight is the footage from Living on the Fringe, an ABC documentary from 1965 that investigates life on the slum fringes of inner city Sydney, which at the time included places like Redfern, Surry Hills and Darlinghurst. Directed by Italian filmmaker Gian Carlo Manara. In evidence is not only the massive changes experienced to the social demographics of Sydney’s inner city, but also how styles of social commentary have changed as well. Its coverage of the indigenous populations of Redfern was too outrageous to include, I was sure it would provoke too many painful memories of what it would have liked living in the incredibly racist society that Australia was at that time.

The pieces selected for inclusion here include:

  • Redfern Community Life
  • A narration from the owner of one of the first Italian restaurants in Sydney at 181 Palmer St, East Sydney
  • Life ‘in the midst of darkness’ around Surry Hills, outside St. Francis church on Albion St


There’s a lot of footage from ABC TV’s vault. The highlights are all from the long-running ABC documentary series This Day Tonight. A highlight is a TDT special on Sydney’s underground gambling scene as it was in 1973. There’s a nice illustrative recreation of the scenes in one of the clubs, and some funny footage of long-haired Stuart Littlemoore and Mike Carlton atop the ABC studios on William St, trying to catch some action at the notorious Forbes Club opposite them (when there wasn’t any…). Also worth viewing is the whole commentary on Juanita Nielsen’s disappearance, including a TDT feature from 1976, one year after her disappearance.



Television was introduced in Australia in 1956, after a 10-year delay during which time Australian policy makers carved out the most appropriate regulatory framework for this new, powerful medium. It just so happened that the first broadcast was beamed from Kellet St, just behind what is now the Coca-Cola building in Kings Cross (I’m told the streetscape was slightly different then to what it is now). Watch the ABC’s first television broadcast here.

'Outside Broadcast Van' outside Kellett St, Kings Cross c1958

Outside Broadcast Van on Kellett St, Kings Cross c1958

Remember when a mobile phone looked like a brick and if you talked into one everyone thought you were a wanker? Catch Michael Jay using one of those bricks to organise his ‘Carnival of the Minds’ rave at the then-abandoned Eveleigh Railyards in 1994.

But it’s not only media technologies that feature. Along with the George St tram footage, there is a wonderful selection of images featuring Sydney’s once-proud tram network, including a painting from the State Library collection of the first night the tram ran. Did you know that Sydney once boasted one of the largest tram networks in the world?

Trams down William St, Sydney c.1957. Reproduced courtesy of the City of Sydney archives



In 1990 Margaret Throsby interviewed Sydney’s most notorious gunman Chow Hayes following the release of David Hickie’s biography Chow Hayes: Gunman. Hayes speaks candidly to Throsby about his life of crime as the most feared man in all of Sydney. He must have been pretty old at the time but his mind was still strong – he recounts his first murder on Mary St, Surry Hills in impressive detail.

Juanita Nielsen outside her home at 202 Victoria St, Kings Cross, 1974. ABC Copyright.

Juanita Nielsen outside her home at 202 Victoria St, Kings Cross, 1974. ABC Copyright.

Juanita Nielsen is also featured here, speaking to the ABC in 1974, one year before her fatal disappearance in 1975. In this interview the wealthy hieress speaks about coming home from London, and her decision to move back to Kings Cross, the place she loved best of all. It was Nielsen’s passion for the Cross that ultimately cost her her life. The whole subject of the controversial Victoria St high-rise development is covered in detail at a number of locations on Victoria St, from Juanita’s house at 202, to Mick Fowler’s flat at 115 and outside the Victoria Heights building as well. Victoria Heights includes a wonderful full-length radio feature from Double J in 1977 produced by David Ives called ‘The Ballad of Victoria St’ (thanks Chris Winter!).


Mural of the BLF Green Bans, cnr Cathedral  and Forbes St Woolloomooloo

Mural of the BLF Green Bans, cnr Cathedral and Forbes St Woolloomooloo

There are a number of features that concentrate on Sydney’s built environment, and controversies surrounding certain developments around Sydney. Not everyone knows how significant Sydney’s BLF Green Bans were to the birth of urban environmental activism globally – people like Paul Ehrlich regarded the movement as a watershed in thinking about cities and their environmental as well as social implications. Along with the whole saga of Victoria St, you can listen in to The Rocks in 1973, when the BLF were holding up $300m of development all around Sydney, and watch footage of Woolloomooloo at the time as well. There’s an audio piece that includes actuality recording of the Hotel Australia being auctioned to the MLC Insurance company for $9.5m in 1968 (thanks to Wendy Borches for this find), as well as Mr LJ Hooker speaking about his development ambitions for the country in 1958. Developer greed is a bit of a theme here, obviously.

Listen here to a selection of audio archives about the Hotel Australia – once fine ‘Hotel of the Commonwealth’.

Some of the ‘Talking buildings’ here are iconic – the Sydney Opera House, for example, which includes video footage of Paul Robeson singing to construction workers at the site of the building in 1960. Other are less well known – 150-152 Elizabeth St is the first building to be heritage-listed for its significance to indigenous Australians as the site of the first Aboriginal Day of Mourning in 1937.


Rock and roll in Paddington in 1958 is pretty funny – this was when police first figured if they took the party to their place they’d save the local milk bar owners a few headaches, leading to the whole blue light disco scene eventually. Midnight Oil playing the Stage Door Tavern in 1979 is also a gem – the ABC’s Double J were there to record the whole show, and not only that but drummer Rob Hirst has also recalled his version of that notorious gig (thanks to Cath Dwyer for that tip).


There are some wonderful, full-length radio documentaries from ABC Radio National’s archives included in the selection. I have edited some of these, basically to provide the opportunity for users to listen to excerpts on location, via the mobile application or downloaded directly to the ipod. Needless to say the full features are well worth a listen, and here’s your chance to dowload them too, if you missed it the first time aroud…

Of course, it’s not as though I haven’t trawled through a tonne of material to locate the many gems that feature on the site. I think it’s all pretty cool, really.

Contacts, comments, criticisms, suggestions, more stories…

Do contact the ABC with any comments or suggestions you have about the site and any of its material. And if you’ve got something you think you (or your grandparents!) can add – head straight to the Your Stories section.