New Zealand’s National Digital Forum has quite a reputation among cultural heritage & museum types internationally, for the quality of its speakers and the integrity of its focus – and for good reason. This is a place that values speculative thinking, applauds technical prowess as much as imaginative concepts, and celebrates the work of big institutions with big budgets as much as small, community-driven initiatives. Like, wow!
I was invited to give a Keynote Presentation to the 2012 NDF when I was doing some consultancy work for Historypin earlier this year. Given the Forum’s reputation this was a great honour, but it also gave me the chance to reflect on where my own practice is heading. One gets so caught up in the day to day busyness, it’s always a treat (and challenge) to step back and consider the broader currents of change and chance.
Having now completed two fairly large scale public installations for the City of Sydney’s Art & About Festival, I was quite conscious of how energised I’ve been by the chance to work in a more collaborative, community-oriented way, rather than being led purely by my own research pursuits. Working as part of this public platform makes you accountable in different ways – one needs to be able to speak to your city, not just your peers. It’s also become increasingly clear to me how archives-led installations can act as interventions for community-led urban activation and place-making, as much as they can help to showcase the possibilities of creative and digital archives innovation. More on this below.
In the end, attending and presenting at the NDF was inspiring in so many ways – probably the enthusiasm and commitment of the people I met was the biggest highlight, but also inspirational was the chance to witness just how much change is sweeping the cultural heritage sector, and how ripe this time is for new creative practices to emerge.
Having said that, it was also interesting to hear the war stories of some attendees and presenters who, it appears, seem to experience a fair amount of institutional malaise and perhaps downright disinterest from within their organisations about how audiences might engage with a museum or library through digital platforms. I’d like to hope this is not the predominant experience of the Forum’s attendees. The opportunity to present again at the Auckland Museum with Nate Solas from the Walker Art Museum in fact highlighted some really exciting digital strategies being developed or implemented at the present time.
Below are the slides alongside the associated notes I spoke to during the presentation. This was one of the first presentations I’d given to a very active Twitter audience (yes I’ve been quiet for awhile), so I’m embedding some of the commentary along the way as well, just for, umm, fun.
Past Forward: Speculative adventures in the city’s archive
Hello, I’m Sarah Barns, I live in Sydney, and I work independently as a digital producer and researcher at the moment. ESEM Projects is the collaborative venture I’m Co-Directing, partnering with visual artist and designer Michael Killalea. We make site-specific installations about the history of a place. We draw extensively from both public and community collections, we use lots of different platforms, some of them digital, some ‘post-digital’, we work sometimes for clients and sometimes initiate our own projects.
I realised the other day that I’m one of these people whose professional lives has been completely shaped by the Internet. My first real job was working on policy advice for the Minister for Communications & IT advising on broadband applications. That was about 12 years ago and we were telling the minister about all the amazing things that were going to happen when people got smartphones and pdas and so forth.
Since then I’ve worked for the ABC, the Arts Council and helped set up something called the Creative Industries Innovation Centre and more recently have been doing work with Arup.
Across all these areas I’ve been thinking, researching and advising on how digitisation is going to impact our lives, our artists, our media landscape, our cities & regions. But while I’ve been working and advising people on the near futures of technology, I’ve become increasingly interested in how the near futures of digital technology is changing our relationship with the past, and specifically with how we come to experience a historical moment, in time and place.
I’m therefore a bit of a different creature of person here in the sense that I don’t work for a museum or gallery or archive. I’m an independent producer and researcher who approaches collections as active resources that help me to tell stories about the city, creating engaging and immersive experiences of place and space. I therefore have the pleasure of approaching archive collections not as objects to define; I don’t have to worry about meta data and promoting audience access. I am interested more in the experience of a particular recording, and how we use different mediums of today’s digital technology to creatively promote and encourage different interactions with past moments in time.
The notion that we’re living in the midst of a big data but also, dare I say, ‘big archives’ phase has been touched on a bit. We have this sense that we are living through a digital deluge: how do we we make our way through it?
I believe one of the points raised here at the NDF in 2011 was a paraphrase from Melvyn Bragg that ‘the 20th century has released us into history through technology‘
Quote:”We call what we do harvesting or cataloguing, digitising or preserving, data visualising or crowd-sourcing, community management or customer service, or whatever the latest round of restructuring has deemed our job to involve. But what we’re really doing is working with people to create and share back our collective and collaborative history.”
There’s a lot being said here, but one them surely is that we have a whole lot of new ways of interacting with the past. We we may previously felt a bit like we could peer through a window into another world, from a contemporary, fairly static vantage point, we now have this way of working with the past that is probably more akin to a remix, blending, curating, repurposing, re-using.
What this means, in some ways, is that we have this much more direct experience of a past moment in time – not only photographs made with incredibly high resolution – but actuality footage being made increasingly available. Not only is it available to see, we can also re-contexualise it in different ways.
An example is this original video footage of London just after the London Blitz, uploaded by the Imperial War Museum to YouTube.
Original video on You Tube
Here we have the same video geo-tagged on Historypin, capturing the London Blitz, to see it in Streetview.
The Historpin platform enables us to view the past within the present using Google’s streetview capabilities, fading in and out of time. This is free for anyone to use and publish to. Amazing. On one level it’s a great example of what can be done with Google Maps these days. On another level, I think it’s also this really quite incredible way of experiencing a past moment in time.
As well as actuality footage from the 20th century, we also have every kind of television show that ever existed becoming available. Along with this, we have this sense that we are making these kind of deep, emotional connections back in time with our former selves. The directness and immediacy of the platform encourages this idea.
Here we have Bert & Ernie, who want to say hi. Say hi to Bert & Ernie! They speak to that former you, as though you were still in that moment, at home watching television and eating peanut butter sandwiches. Hi Bert
Is there something also about the popularity of Instagram and particularly the nostalgia filters, that we’re playing out this archive fever and letting it shape the way we capture our present day lives? I’m not sure. Is it just that the colour filters are better?
All the scanning, geo-tagging, harvesting, crowdsourcing – it’s not only a digital practice, or just pinning a recording to a google map, it’s also a quite altered way of engaging with recordings, not just as objects but as experiences, ingredients, resources for making things with.
I’ve come to be thinking a lot about this increasing dexterity of time in the digital age, as a kind of Past Forwarding through and within time-spaces. Is this experience of the past in the digital age that fascinates me and has driven much of my work these last few years.
Today I’ll be presenting on these projects, but before I do I just wanted to give a bit of background about the different approaches I combine here.
In terms of the conceptual terrain, there are these four key areas – essentially questions for interrogation.
1. Archives. As I’ve been saying, I approach archives as a kind of landscape of noisy events, and as a way of trying to get inside and experience a past moment. I use actuality recordings to try to create an approach to the past that is less about telling an overarching narrative and more about providing experiential interactions with a particular moment in time. When it comes down to it I suppose I’d like to create a more affecting, emotional sense of a space in time, rather than a more objective view of time.
2. Digital A particular orientation towards the digital. Specifically interested in how the digital impacts our experience of space and place. This connects to a whole lot of location-based technologies, locative arts and also the concept of responsive environments.
3. Place. A lot of the projects I’ll be talking about have been led by the meaning of a particular place. More often than not they’re driven my an interest in telling a story about a particular place it’s broader meaning, to a person, to a city, to an idea. I’m one of these unfashionable people who thinks that places actually define us in important ways, I’m not only a global citizen, I’m also someone who lives in Sydney and is from a place called Fremantle and these are not incidental to my character. This interest in place means I tend to bring a geographic angle to my interest in historical collections.
4. Public space. Pretty much all of these projects have been created to be experienced in the public domain. I’m interested in doing things in public. I have post graduate degree in urbanism and mostly I gravitate towards sites that tell something about the history of urbanism in the 20th century. And I’m interested in how it is that we define the ‘digital public space’ of today’s media age.
I have a lot of favourite quotes, and a lot of people inspire me, but this one is one from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1974) reflects pretty fundamentally what I’ve been trying to do with place and archives.
Calvino when he wrote this was interested in how cybernetics was changing thought, there is a theory that Invisible Cities was exploring a kind of hyper textual version of the city. Apt in so many ways. I think of this quote as a reminder that while we may try to map objectively the dimensions of a place, we will always be caught out by what we miss when we miss the temporal shifts and dimensions of a place that give it character.
Today this idea of invisible cities is oftentimes expressed in terms of the language of visualisation. We live in a world that is part physical, part digital. What are the kinds of visualisations techniques we can use to engage us differently in the world around us – here we have some speculations from urban engineering firm Arup.
I’m interested in the different kinds of approaches to highlighting what we can’t see about an environment, not always using visualisation techniques, but other forms of experiential interaction.
For the next little while I’m going to introduce the practice I’ve been creating and how I came to be interested in this. My interest in location services and archives goes back a few years now, I thought I’d walk through some of the terrain I’ve covered.
In about 2003 I was working at the ABC in the digital services area. We were trying to work out what people might do with something called 3G phones.
I was going to conferences where people would be getting up and talking about how exciting the world was going to be when they could watch TV on their phone. Quite frankly, It made me want to scream. Clearly the networks were keen that we see this new technology as something to push their product on. Having studied my media history, I knew the press titans had done the same during the early days of radio, as did the early opera performers when the telephone first arrived in the late nineteenth century.
Just to let you in on a bit of media history, when the telephone was first introduced such things as â??telephone occasionsâ?? were common â?? when telephones were used to broadcast theatrical and political events. The ‘theatrophone’ was a smash hit at the Paris Exposition of 1881, enabling listeners to hear live performances of the Opera.
In this slide we can see a musical program being transmitted over the Hungarian ‘Telefon Hirmondo’ network from Budapest in 1901. People would listen to Hirmondo’s ‘telephone occasions’ through small earpieces mounted to the wall. In the end the financial models of this form of broadcast service didn’t stack up, and the telephone occasions made way to wireless radio broadcasts.
This knowledge suggested to me that the TV networks might have gotten it wrong, and that how people might use smartphones could be as yet unknown to us. At this time, mobile platforms became an exciting conceptual terrain for me to start thinking about new forms of communication and experimentation.
I met someone called Fee Plumley visit from the UK, and she was working on something called a ‘phone book project’, which was basically encouraging people to write little text message stories with their phone. The project was exploring the potential for mobile technologies as a creative platform. There was a crazy sound artist called Nigel Heyler who was using a GPS sound platforms to get to know graveyards.
I discovered there were artists who called themselves ‘locative artists’ and they were interested in how they might be able to use location-aware devices equipped with GPS tracking to create new kinds of public experiences of space. The slides you see (above) are from a group called Proboscis in the UK, public authoring platform using smartphones.
Oftentimes these artists were working with some fairly clunky technology, by today’s standards. Here is Jeremy Hight working on his PDA project called Narrative Archaeology in LA.
In this work, participants walk the streets of Los Angeles with a GPS device attached to a TabletPC. It is a sort of “narrative archeology” unearthing the stories of forgotten lives in the urban space. Visible on the screen is a map with easily identifiable trigger points for story segments performed by voice actors. Trigger points for sound effects are hidden, left to be discovered as the user walks through the city. In this way, the landscape becomes the interface and the participant’s movement becomes input.
“Imagine walking through the city and triggering moments in time. Imagine wandering through a space inhabited with the sonic ghosts of another era.”
These artists opened up this new horizon of experimentation for me, particularly in the way they encouraged new ways of interacting with a physical space, combining an existing environment with layers of people’s own contributions, stories, histories.
But the more I got interested in this kind of location-based art, the more perturbed I became, about two things.
Firstly, while the focus was on the street, the actual experience of interaction was very device centric. You can see this in the picture. Were these projects doing enough to really engage with the user experience as you found yourself out on the street. Did people really want to walk around with these things? Would they learn more that way than they would by simply buying a guide book?
Subsequently, the focus of what participation meant was often the specific data that people had contributed. I wasn’t so sure that the assemblage of meanings, traces and stories built up over time in this kind of place were necessarily less worthy of attention that what people might contribute using one of these platforms. There seemed a kind of deafness to the existing resources of the street, and a new kind of forgetting, which said that only the contemporary data was worth listening to. Coming from the art world, works often generated their own new meanings, stories and artworks.
I realised I wanted to do something quite different. Taking these ideas from locative art, I wanted to find out if I could listen in to the cityâ??s archive. I had this image in my mind of one day the phone being some kind of homing device to the history of a place.
I wanted this experience to be very open to the world, not device centric but an experience that might frame, rather than dominate. Using sound on a mobile device, I imagined that a site specific recording could enable this truly unique interaction with the past, where the sound of another time frames a visual experience of the present.
As I learned more about this area I found I wasn’t alone, and that there were lots of people interested in using sound to create a different experiences of a place.
Hildergaard Westercamp A walk through the city (1981)
A Walk through the City is an urban environmental composition based on Norbert Ruebsaatâ??s poem of the same name. It takes the listener into a specific urban location – Vancouver B.C.’s Skid Row area, with its sounds and languages. Traffic, carhorns, brakes, sirens, aircraft, construction, pinball machines, the throb of trains, human voices, a poem, are its ‘musical instruments’. These sounds are used partly as they occur in reality and partly as sound objects altered in the studio. A continuous flux is created between the real and imaginary soundscapes, between recognizable and transformed places, between reality and composition.
Janet Cardiff uses a layered narrative that deals with the physicality of memory in different places. Well known for her work in the 1990s The Missing Voice. An aural dream through the back streets of Whitechapel and Brick Lane. In no way obsessed with historical details but instead a journey into the memories of the female narrator and the sounds of East London. Cardiff’s work is filmic.
None of this particularly technologically advanced, but more about using the properties of mobile audio, which has been with us for a few decades by now.
So I set off on this speculative adventure, to explore sound archives as a medium to promote new kinds of interactions between the built and recorded history of a place
I came to this understanding of the potential of a medium: that listening to a recorded event as it was originally documented in-situ could affect a certain displacement – being from another time and capturing what can no longer been seen – just as it revisits the event ‘here’ as it ‘really happened’. My approach aimed to exploit the qualities of listening as a framing device, creating a sense of presence in a place, and giving a more experiential version of the past.
So this was coming up to 2005, I enrolled in a PhD to explore this proposition further, while working at the Australian Arts Council. From there I went on to undertake my speculative adventure #1, in the form of a research residency through the National Film and Sound Archive’s Centre for Scholarly and Archival Research.
Through this research I wanted to help create encounters with a siteâ??s documentary history that enabled a very strong sense of ‘co-presence’ with another time. This wasn’t about me doing something using sound effects, I wanted the direct contact with ambient recordings of the streets, capturing different moments in time.
When I commenced my research with the NFSA, I thought I’d find a lot of recordings. But I quickly came to understand sound archives didn’t exist in the way I’d expected – recorded on the street, that is. I honed my focus to period of development politics when documentary makers were active, and much change was occurring to Sydney’s built environment.
Competing visions of the city produced a great deal of urban unrest, of which lots of documentation exists. In particular, documentaries such as Wooloomooloo and Rocking the Foundations produced by Pat Fiske provide intimate insights into what the experience of this time was like, on the streets of Sydney.
Rather than focusing on better known locations, such as the Rocks, I ended up working with Victoria St, Potts Point (you can read about the events occurring on this street in the 1974 elsewhere on this site), and drawing extensively from the recordings made by Pat Fiske to produce a soundwalk down the street. More on the soundwalk can be found here.
At this point, I then approached the ABC to ask if I might be able to research their collection in this same way – as a kind of recorded archeology. The ABC had at this point been thinking about what they might be able to do with Google Maps which had recently been released, and so they suggested I could produce a maps-based platform for them rather than simply undertake a research residency.
The outcome was ABC Sydney Sidetracks – a cross-platform experience of Sydney’s history through its broadcast archive. You could access recordings via mobile and interactive maps. There’s lots more about Sidetracks on this site.
The ability to access the ABC’s archives meant I could locate many more actuality recordings of the particular moments and events in Sydney’s past. One in particular stood out, capturing the sounds VP Day 1945 in Martin Place, recommended to me by ABC Radio archives researcher John Spence. I have since cleared this recording for creative re-use through ABC Pool. This was in fact the first ‘post-war’ example of a mobile recording studio in action; recordings like this were really emphasising the new ability to record on location and distribute the sounds to listening audiences at home.
While the Sidetracks project was a success in many ways, and indeed won the ABC’s Best Multi-platform Content Award for 2009, at the time I felt it had many shortcomings. It was released prior to the iPhone being released which meant people had to sideload the mobile content to their phones – I had thought basically no-one had done so, however at the NDF discovered that wasn’t true!
Ultimately at the time there was a relatively limited audience for the mobile experience. (Sadly the ABC has not yet updated the platform, despite the increasing popularity of mobile as an urban history platform). I realised at this point that perhaps we needed a more spectacular way for people to engage with the recordings, and so in 2008 began to explore ways to project archival images onto the surfaces of associated buildings. After a few failed funding bids I partnered with Michael Killalea to lodge a successful application to mount a project for the City of Sydney’s Art & About Festival.
Hooray! Speculative Adventure No #3 was now underway!
These recent installation projects have been very focused on creating site-specific experiences of a location’s history using archival recordings. They extend the methodology I developed through previous projects such as Jaywalking and Sidetracks, by not only including the element of projections but also by including the community in sharing and development stories and content for the installations. For both installation projects we have received support from collecting institutions, in particular the National Film and Sound Archive. But it’s the ethos of the Art & About Festival, as led by Director Gill Minervini, that has encouraged us to work with the community to not only create works of art in the public domain, but to also work with the public in a collaborative way.
This has introduced a new dimension to working with archive collections in public environments, helping to foster what might be described as the ‘living archives’ of a community.
(For the purposes of this web version of the publication, I am not covering the two installation projects in detail as I did in the presentation. You can explore these projects through their respective websites: Unguarded Moments and Last Drinks – One More Round at the Hotel Australia).
Prior to the launch of these installations we ran call-outs inviting people to share their own archives – images or stories – for incorporation into projections, as captured below.
These contributions were then used alongside recordings I’d located through partner organisations. The outcomes were both a web platform containing ‘hyper-local’ collections and recordings about a place, sourced from a number of different cultural collections, loungerooms and basements, as well as a series of site-specific installations. Installations include large scale video projections and sound, which are featured out and about in the streets after dark for the month of the Art & About Festival. For Last Drinks, we also included a mobile site and additional print based signage, and a tie-in with the Sydney Morning Herald’s AirLink service.
Here are some of the Flickr slideshows from these projects. You can also explore more video, soundscapes and more through the ESEM Projects website and associated project websites.
Unguarded Moments Slideshow, Art & About Sydney 2011.
Last Drinks Slideshow, Art & About Sydney 2012.
The different ‘speculative adventures’ I’ve been discussing with you today have all been a lot of fun, and the experience of being able to uncover and explore recorded archaeologists of place in the way I’ve been doing is hugely rewarding. Perhaps I was a private detective in a former life, who knows. I’ve received a lot of support from particular institutions, not least the National Film and Sound Archive, the State Library of NSW, the City of Sydney and the ABC.
But I should warn you, should you be interested in navigating such a journey through your own city’s archive, the path is rather convoluted and remains full of obstacles.
Not least, mounting a project in the public domain isn’t easy. Building owners may be happy to support you, but they have less ‘skin in the game’ than one would sometimes wish for. You can’t measure your audiences, who are often incidental passers-by, like you might at a gallery or museum. But perhaps the biggest of these obstacles remains the thorny matter of digital access.
At the beginning of this presentation I spoke about the sense of ‘big archives’ – that we are overwhelmed by archive fever – but in fact we are still a long way away from being able to seamlessly navigate an urban historical environment through its digital archives. This is partly because many collections items, in particular broadcast recordings, are not usually valued for their ability to document a changing city, and are usually catalogued for their relevance to media history, not urban history. So this means there is a lot of auditioning involved!
But there remain a number of obstacles to actually being able to view, audition, and re-use these recordings for public installations. I can be tenacious and stubborn but others less so would give up on trying to create a ‘cross-collection’ archive based on the history of a place. And so I do find it interesting that our collective past as captured by our public media, and preserved by our collecting institutions can be so inaccessible at times. Many of the recordings of the past -as captured on film and publicly-funded television and radio- do remain mostly closed to the ‘woman on the street’ so to speak.
When we live in a digital age, when our expectations of learning and experiencing a sense of the past involve not only books but media recordings and artefacts, YouTube and StreetView, I think we also need to consider a broader concept of what public space means, to include considerations of how it is that we access and participate in sharing and re-using our ‘digital public spaces’. What might the different forms of access be for different kinds of uses, whether as a student, a historian, or a documentary maker, or a city council, and how might we define the public values of our digital archives in the future – not just as ‘memory institutions’ but also as resources for future creativity and innovation?
That’s a near future I’m speculating about right now.
Some Twitter love…