British Library Sound Archive: Unlocking Audio

In 2009 I presented the Sydney Sidetracks project to a British Library conference called Unlocking Audio – Connecting with Listeners.

Here’s a copy of the presentation plus a bit of a potted summary of what I said.

Sydney Sidetracks: Exploring a city of lost sounds

View more presentations from Sarah Barns.

The central focus of the conference was the uses of online platforms for sound archives and their listening audiences. With participatory or social media being the current buzz, many of the presentations dealt with ways to incorporate and present sound archives for use in social networks.

My presentation was a little different – I was there to present some emerging opportunities that mobility and context awareness offer to sound archives, as listening platforms.

My presentation focused mainly on the outcomes of the ABC Sydney Sidetracks project. This is a pilot multi-platform initiative that provides map and mobile access to the archives of the ABC, along with the archives held by a number of other organisations like the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) and the Powerhouse Museum.

Working with the conference theme of ‘connecting with listeners’ offered the chance to present on the listening aspects of this project – these are central to the doctoral research from which this project has arisen, but have often been overlooked to date.

So while the initiative looks a bit like what one blogger called ‘an intriguing twist on the mash-up genre’ and Seb Chan from the Powerhouse Museum has called a ‘mobile heritage project’, this conference gave the opportunity to discuss more of the project’s audio aspects, rather than the visual map interface or the specific technology issues.

The ‘street as platform’ idea

Moving on from the well-charted territory of Google Maps mash ups etc, I used Dan Hill’s excellent piece on the street as platform to describe some of the ways that context awareness and mobility are not just creating new visual maps for internet platforms, but are perhaps more significantly offering new explorations of the surfaces of urban environments beyond physical to include the immaterial, multi-scalar and responsive environment of pervasive computing.

Dan’s piece nicely captures what it means for the internet to drift from computer interfaces that we slovenly sit at to become a much more mobile, embedded experience that shapes our interactions with local environments. My interest in this field is to explore this emerging hybrid datascape by excavating its archived data-sets in the form of audio-visual archives.

‘Auditory looking’

I drew on historical approaches to radio to explore the whole phenomenon of ‘auditory looking’ which recognises the role that sounds play in framing a visual experience. The relationship of sound to vision has been heavily theorised in film studies, but has only relatively recently been addressed in the context of contemporary mobility, with people like Michael Bull exploring the way ipods are changing the nature of the urban experience.

While Bull is pretty critical of ipods – and iphones – as privileging an intimate playlist over more public, less-technologically mediated forms interaction, I find that despite his ability to draw on histories of critical engagement with the ‘dainty headphones’ (Kracauer) of portable sound, nevertheless in more recent work he seems to not be very interested in how particular sounds and soundscapes interact with environmental spaces.

So a bit counter to this approach, I spoke about my own research methodology, which has been focused on locating archival sounds specific to a physical place. Embedding these sounds in-situ via mobile platform in turn offers a different kind of interaction – rather than being screen-based, it explicitly uses the built environment as a spatial context or platform from which to experience elements of its invisible history.

Reproduced courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

Reproduced courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

To give an idea of what I’m talking about here I played an excerpt from the ABC’s recording of the sounds of VP Day 1945 in Martin Place Sydney, contrasting the then and now photos of Martin Place. The recording is here on Sydney Sidetracks and is also one of the highlights of the Sidetracks I’ve previously discussed here. Have a listen now if you like.

I consider this a unique kind of interaction, one that connects the visual present with its auditory past – and the built and recorded history of an area. This of course taps into the kinds of collective memories that are held both in significant recordings and events, and in more ‘traditional’ monuments and plaques – so it’s also a placing of collective memories within an intimate playlisted soundscape.

I explained my approach as being a bit different from many audio tours and soundwalks in that it offers a direct experience of the events of the past as they were originally recorded on location, rather than through a contemporary narration or oral history, or to use sound effects or references to generate a sense of the past.

So the â??sidetrackâ?? is a journey that charts locations and events that are largely invisible to the naked eye.

Listening to a recorded event as it was originally documented in-situ affects a certain displacement â?? being from another time and capturing what can no longer been seen â?? just as it revisits the event â??hereâ?? as it â??really happenedâ??.

Iâ??ve come to describe the auditioning process here as a kind of archaeology of recorded action, not surviving artefact. The outcomes is less soundscape, more sound documentary, or audio film, where the visuals are provided by the contemporary environment.

Lost sounds

One of the main outcomes of my research so far is probably pretty obvious – but nevertheless needs stating. It has found that are very few recorded sounds of historical environments, comparative to film and photography. The reasons for this are technological – for most of the twentieth century it just wasn’t that easy to get out and record sound as it was to record vision.

But it also points to a visual bias in our culture, which has also meant the loss of many sound recordings obtained through film/television recordings. I found when researching the ABC’s archives that a lot of the vision was mute – the sound tapes were lost, damaged, burnt. This didn’t seem to matter so much to anyone, because the the footage was mostly dubbed over by contemporary commentary.

I used this recording held by the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) by way of example. Amazing, street level footage that captures life on George St before traffic gridlock set in – but no sound, of course (hence the new audio recording added by the NFSA).

George St 1906 from sarah barns on Vimeo.

So that’s how I’ve come to be retrieving – scraping off – the available sounds from visual sources, to in turn make these available as audio files for ipod playlists and the like. It’s a funny process – Andy Powell thought it a bit odd, but Tony Ageh from the BBC archives expressed bemused enthusiasm. (It was nice also that Andy made special mention of the approach of Sidetracks in his keynote the next day…)

As I said earlier, it’s the audio interaction with streets I’m playing with here, rather than screen interactions with mobile phone or computer interfaces. That’s the main point, really, as it opens up different kinds of archival research and production methods.

Outcomes?

The presentation seemed to be well received. I’m not aware of too many other projects that are working with broadcast archives on mobile platforms in this way. While my research interests in this field may be pretty obscure to some, ultimately the use of distributed devices as distribution platforms for cultural heritage items is only going to increase, and so hopefully my projects can help to establish some signposts for the collection and use of archives in the context of these platforms…

What remains as yet unexplored here is the way these archives can be re-used today. As I wrote elsewhere in this blog, the ever proactive Dan Hill used the George St footage from the NFSA to sketch his vision of Sydney in 2020. This sort of response is possible because all of the Sidetracks material can be directly downloaded from the site. While Sydney Sidetracks includes a Your Stories component, it’s not yet been used, which I think indicates clearly that facilitating these kinds of interactions can take a bit of work…

There will, I hope, be more opportunities to explore how these ambient, street level recordings can be used to reimagine contemporary environments – to become more oriented to today’s social media networks that might enable listeners to respond imaginatively to the audio experience on offer.

Additional comments on the conference to come – but the short version is I loved it.

Thanks for reading.

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