old-books

James Gleick on the Future of the Book

magnum

Image credit: Bob Brown’s confident prediction was made in 1931. Sourced from James Gleick’s blog.

Originally written for the Creative Industries Innovation Centre, 2011. 

Closing the 2011 Sydney Writers’ Festival was a plenary address by author James Gleick, whose book The Information has been recently described by the ABC’s Robyn Williams as the ‘best science book ever’.
Detailing the modern history of information technology, The Information tracks how it was that ‘information’ came to be conceived as an abstract quantity, giving rise to terms like ‘bit’ to describe a unit of data. It’s obvious to us now, but it took people like Bell Telephone Labs engineer Claude Shannon to imagine that everything from the morse code to thermodynamics to jungle drums might have a measurable scientific quantity, before the information age we now live in could emerge.

But while The Information offers readers insights into how the abstraction of data has created what he calls an ‘information flood’, Gleick’s SWF address, titled ‘Perish the Thought’ was far less inclined to treat books as mere ‘containers’ of ‘content’.

“The separation”, he suggests, “is not entirely satisfying – we interact with a book in a more complex way”. A book is not merely a container for content, in the way that a wine bottle holds the wine. It is, he suggests, a “peak technology – one that is ideally suited to its task”. That means, contrary to the deafening roar of technology boosters and bloggers, the book will never die.

To support his case, Gleick took us on a journey through the many moments of the book’s anticipated demise. In the 1930s, for example, a relatively obscure American author Robert Brown wrote a manifesto declaring books “antiquated word containers”. We were reminded of Marshall McLuhan’s impassioned embrace of print’s demise in the early 1960s – the potentials then offered by fuzzy black and white television were, to MacLuhan, portents of new participatory forms of literacy in the coming ‘electric age’. Nicholas Negroponte was calling for an end to the book back in 1996, just as he claimed in 2010 that “the physical book is dead” – that digital books will replace physical books as the dominant form.

So it’s not that the claims are new. It’s just that the e-book is now a reality, and what’s more it’s splendid. Jacob Weisberg wrote in Slate in 2009 how much he loves the Kindle as his “cool new literature delivery system”. Audiences agree: last week Amazon announced a new milestone, now selling more Kindle versions of book titles than print. Forget the future – the death of the book is clearly happening right now.

Not so, says Gleick. As someone who has thought a lot about the relationships between ‘containers’ and their ‘content’, Gleick is more inclined to think of the value of the book as lying in its print form. It’s the human instinct to collect objects of value that makes us love the book as an object, he suggests, and he quotes I.A Richards, who thought of the books as ‘a machine to think with’.

Like other treatments on the subject, such as John Thompson’s Merchants of Culture, Gleick tends to think the bigger problem at hand is not in fact the demise of the book – after all 2010 saw the publication of 316,000 new titles, and that’s not including the nearly one million titles borne of ‘internet-driven’ non-traditional publishing – but rather the publishing industry itself. Gleick contends here that the trouble may be less about digital formats and more to do with the short-termism of publishers and their insatiable greed, chasing after block busters and leaving the backlists for dead.

It’s these characteristics that are only letting the e-books down too, he claims. Sloppy editing, too many widows and orphans, charging readers too much, paying writers too little – they all stand in the way of creating a satisfying e-book experience. ‘Enhanced’ e-books offering readers embedded video and applets may be well and good, but don’t, he pleas, start embedding hyperlinks into text, and don’t start introducing social bookmarks! In other words don’t introduce anything that will take the reader out of the book.

This may be a fanciful desire on Gleick’s part, but it also goes to the crux of the matter. The word not mentioned in this address was ‘narrative’, and it seemed a strange omission – after all, isn’t the only thing distinguishing ‘the book’ from ‘the internet’ in an age of e-publishing the coherence of the narrative perspective? And that old authorial voice?

In the end, for Gleick, it came down to a bit more than narrative consistency, and the trusted authorial voice nourished by publishers committed to the task of connecting writers with their audiences. The book as a ‘peak technology’ was key. Technology barriers limit the time horizon of video to around 100 years. For the internet, the time horizon is around 20 years; Facebook give or take a couple of years. The genius of the book as a peak technology is its ability to break through the technological barriers of the past, with a time horizon dating to the beginning of human history. In the antiquity of the book, then, lies its future. To Gleick: “When we find ourselves living in the perpetual present, books become the furniture of eternity”.

James Gleick is an author, journalist and biographer whose books explore the cultural ramifications of science and technology. His most recent book, ‘The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood’, is being hailed as his crowning work. Gleick is also the author of the bestselling books ‘Chaos’, ‘Genius’, ‘Faster’ and a biography of Isaac Newton. Three of these books have been Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalists, and have been translated into more than 20 languages. James divides his time between New York City and Florida.

Originally published at Creative Innovation.

Sarah Barns gets excited by digital publishing, but judging by the unwieldy pile of books stacked up by her bedside, remains stuck with the antiquated habits of what Ben Ehrenreich would call a ‘biblio-necrophiliac’.

Listen to Robyn Williams interview James Gleick at the 2011 Sydney Writers Festival.

Exeter Place Surry Hills, c1906.

Street Haunting: Sounding the Invisible City

I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and the degree of the
arcades’ curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know that this would
be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between
the measurements of space and the events of its past.

—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, 1974

In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities fluid assemblages of signs and images litter a subterranean landscape which mark the destinations to which Marco Polo has travelled. Polo recounts these destinations to his Emperor Kublai Khan without recourse to a map or a wayfaring guide; we are given little by way of their geography, or any sense of the spatial connections between each recalled location. Instead there are only fragments, the improbable exceptions of remembrance and experience. Calvino’s invisible cities are all given names, women’s names like Irene, Chloe, Raissa, Adelma: Irene, for example, “is the city visible when you lean out from the edge of the plateau at the hour when the lights come on” (1974: 112). There are many cities, but always the one: Venice. This is the Venice collapsed or hidden behind its contemporary, over-exposed tourist façade, whose ‘invisibility’ is cultivated as the imaginative potentiality of everyday encounters with a familiar space. Of this Venice there are no general claims made, instead, from the singularity of this one city, are teased provisional cities that capture a mood, a memory, a fleeting gesture, the tracery of a half-glimpsed pattern…

What might Calvino’s peculiar treatments of urban spatiality offer to today’s practitioners of urban computing? M. Christine Boyer (1996: 142) has noted the way Invisible Cities represents a network “much like the matrix of a hypertext, in which the reader can select multiple routes and draw a variety of conclusions”. During the 1960s Calvino was interested in what the combinatory complexities of cybernetics meant as a way of perceiving the world, one that could divide it into a series of discrete, divisible parts, rather than continuous in form, a shift he considered radical in the way it altered the theoretical image of our mental processes. Invisible Cities sees this recombinatory logic of cybernetics in action, allowing for an imaginary projection of urban space via a set of algorithmic relationships that enable places to exchange their form, order, and distances, as qualities assorted “like the letters in a name” (Calvino 1974: 164).

In Invisible Cities this recombinatory logic incorporates not only discrete spatial entities, but also “the measurements of space and the events of its past”. An imaginative projection of the city’s spatiality is thus evoked as intimately temporal – but again, this temporality is not continuous, as in the steady passage of time, but is rather experienced as discontinuous and elliptical. Just as there is no clear linear passage through the spatial environment of the city of Venice, so too there is no clear passage through its shifting temporalities, or the discrete stages of Marco Polo’s journey: “all the future Berenices”, for example, “are already present in this instant” (1974: 146). For this is a temporality that figures like the experience of memory, in which recollections emerge without warning, as discrete, embodied moments, which might flash up at any given time – such as, perhaps, when you lean out of a window in the early evening.

In this way Calvino animated invisible cities as topologies of moments, whose recombinations and recollections continue to haunt imagistic projections and abstract modes of knowledge. Released two years after the publication of Invisible Cities, Jonothan Raban’s Soft City (1974) offered a similar treatment of the urban terrain as intimately personal, and therefore malleable and indeterminate: “Decide who you are, and the city will again assume a fixed form around you” (Raban 1974: 1). The fractured identity of the modern condition was mirrored in the malleability of urban space, as Raban’s narrative itinerary teased out the many from the singular, navigating agitated spaces of illusion, myth, aspiration and nightmare. The dynamic of cities was presented as “plastic by nature”, criss-crossing both the real and the imagined, the voice of commentary mixing it up with the musings of a wondering, wandering traveler. Dense with labyrinthine alleyways of possibility and happenstance, Soft City presented urban spaces “in our images; they, in turn, shape us by the resistance they offer when we try to impose our own personal form on them” (Raban 1974: 1-2).

Both writers offered their accounts of the city not as scholars of urbanism but instead as conjurors of stories. Jeannette Winterson (2001) has written that “[r]eading Calvino reading Venice is a reminder of how often the controlled, measured world of knowledge fails us. So much of life resists the facts. Imagining Venice is imagining yourself, as Khan discovers – an unsettling exercise, but necessary, perhaps.” At one point in his account of invisible cities, Calvino describes the way Kublai Khan had focused so narrowly on a chessboard of black and white squares that the game’s meaning had eluded him, as it had simply become an abstract piece of wood (Boyer 1996: 143). But when Marco Polo reminded him that this chessboard was “inlaid with two woods, ebony and maple” Khan’s imagination took flight. As Boyer has suggested, in this way Calvino teaches us a lesson: we might reduce events to abstract patterns that facilitate the procedures of logical operations, or we can work to engender or revive imaginary projections – in this case, making words reveal the very tangible qualities of a given object – which in turn might allow for the continued presence of the unfathomable, the invisible (ibid).

This Chapter considers some of the ways in which we might continue to encounter the elliptical invisibilities of contemporary ‘real-time ‘ cities. Today, the ability to graphically enhance our imaging of cities as multi-scalar, networked environments offers profound potentials, introducing an array of new urban management and design techniques using more detailed, real-time urban data. Just as a shapeless dust cloud invaded the continents of Invisible Cities, today’s real-time cities are underpinned by an information architecture of sensors and applications, whose databases express the mutating, multi-scalar complexities of the material world. The ability to visualize these interactions in real-time radically disrupts our conception of the city, by representing urban spaces according to their everyday uses as much as by their physical, built structures. Real-time usage patterns can, for example, be applied to predict the impact of new developments, replacing of out of date census data with predictive models more closely attuned to the complex interactions and spatial flows of the city. Embedded sensor networks reveal that which might otherwise be invisible to the naked eye; like coins rubbed over waxpaper, they make visible a myriad of fluid, complex exchanges between material, social and informational universes.

For many, this computational intensification of the material world retrieves hidden, hitherto banished possibilities, and can be put to disruptive uses (Foth 2008: 19). To Foth, practitioners of urban informatics can act as ‘urban anatomists’, dissecting urban environments and infrastructure by “trying to microscopically uncover the connections and interrelations of city elements”, seeking to “picture the invisible and to zoom into a fine-grained resolution of urban environments”. Peter Hall and Janet Abrams have suggested “[m]apping has emerged in the information age as a means to make the complex accessible, the hidden visible, the unmappable mappable” (2006: 12). The application of hyper-local, multi-scalar and real time mapping techniques, it is argued, present opportunities to expose ‘hidden’ or hitherto invisible relationships, including the relationships between centre and periphery, power and influence (see Sassen 2008; Boyer 2006).

For Dan Hill, there is the potential to avoid grand infrastructural interventions which become “hardwired into the urban fabric” for subsequent generations, and to instead develop a more “iterative, responsive field of ‘urban acupunctures”. Location-aware computing has in such ways been seen to greatly expand the range of possibilities for artists, architects and designers to “re-enchant the world”, offering “a way of making visible all these hidden stories of place” (Crang and Graham 2007: 815). The embedding of microprocessors via sensor web networks in physical environments also enables the informational life-worlds of millions of ‘users’, human or otherwise, to be made visible, such that needs not only of humans but also natural environments can be revealed as diffuse, complex systems of interaction.

But as practitioners of urban computing seek to actively to disrupt established views of the city, visualizing that which has hitherto remained hidden from view, a return to Invisible Cities also prompts us to reconsider the enduring presence of that which still remains out of view in today’s real-time cities. In a sense, many of the potentials associated with real-time mobile networks are predicated on making visible that which might otherwise remain unseen. But the twentieth century has already witnessed many costly lessons associated with relying too heavily on technologies of visual abstraction and representation as a means to progress urban reform. So when we today assess the potentials associated with enhanced, contextually-aware spatial representations of the real-time city, Calvino’s writing reminds us of the need to be remain mindful not only of what this capacity for spatial measurement reveals, but to consider also how we might continue to enfold the ‘the events of its past’ within these emergent, distributed networked configurations.

READ MORE: Chapter in Digital Cities publication From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen. By by Marcus Foth (Editor) , Laura Forlano (Editor) , Christine Satchell (Editor) , Martin Gibbs (Editor) , Judith Donath (Afterword).

Street Haunting SBarns Final-1

The title for the chapter was inspired by reading Virginia Woolf’s Street Haunting, in which she takes her readers on a walk through London one winter’s eve in search of a pencil. Happily, it’s available online now, and can be read below.

Another inspiration for the piece are the Lost Laneways of Sydney – one of the images from this fine collection is below. It captures a man walking down Exeter Place in Sydney, 1906. Exeter Place was obliterated as part of the Wexworth St Resumption.

Exeter Place Surry Hills, c1906.

hoxton_park

NSW Suburb Labs

NSW SuburbLabs is a pilot project connecting historical content in government and public archives and institutions to the testbed locations of the National Broadband Network in NSW.

The project was funded by the NSW Government in 2010 as part of its Broadband Testbed Trials. Two of the test-bed locations feature here: Middleton Grange and Kiama.

The project differed from some other recent digital archives projects, in that it focused on what you could do with widely-accessible publishing platforms like WordPress and Flickr. It also benefited a great deal from Trove, launched by the National Library of Australia in 2010.

As I pieced together collection materials drawn from vastly dispersed collections relating to highly-localised sites, whose significance rested primarily on their having been chosen as broadband test-beds (rather than their particular historical significance), I was once again reminded of the the importance of storytelling, context and interpretation. The tools of the trade for curators and historians, whose work remains vital even as the data – in the form of digital archives – becomes accessible to many in ways not seen before.

And what stories!

Middleton Grange was only given its name in 2005, but explorations of the archives reveal many a fascinating tale about this perimeter suburb of Sydney. Hoxton Park, for example, has long been a place to which struggling inner-city types fled in search of easy money through property – a not unfamiliar tale to residents of the city today.

Living on the Fringe – Hard Times in Hoxton Park tells of what became of these small-time investors, with some wonderful maps of these subdivisions dating back to 1887.

It also happens that Australia’s first published poet, Barron Field, took up humble residence on the 2000 acres known as Hinchinbrook – publishing his much-maligned ‘Kangoroo’ while employed as a judge on the NSW Supreme Court.

Suburb Labs

Image Credit: SENSEable City Lab, Network & Society Project, MIT 2010

The Death and Life of the Real-Time City

Much of the archives work featured on this site has contributed to a PhD I’ve been undertaking through the University of Technology Sydney. It’s been a long and winding journey – starting out in the Faculty of Computing and IT and ending up in Public History – and finally submitted in August 2010.

Titled The Death and Life of the Real-Time City: Re-imagining the City of Digital Urbanism, this is a somewhat ‘non-traditional’ PhD which traverses a number of different fields and takes in ideas relating to urban computing, utopian images of the city, urban activism during the 20th century, sound practices, and the digital distribution of media archives today.

If you’re wondering how all those ideas fit together, you best have a read. A copy of the unpublished dissertation can be downloaded here.

The Abstract begins like this:

Information and communications technologies are becoming increasingly diffused within the material spaces of the city, generating novel ways of representing complex, hitherto ‘invisible’ urban behaviours in real-time. Many digital urbanists are inspired by the capacity of these network technologies to radically transform our perceptions and experiences of urban space. But how ‘new’, really, is this emergent vision of the city?

My primary interest has been to critically interrogate how it is that digital urbanists approach the space of the city – not only in descriptive terms, in terms of the ‘what is’, whether that be current GPS-enabled bicycle trips or mobile phone usage patterns, but by projecting a kind of anticipatory urban imaginary which agitates for ‘what might be’ and in doing so, is implicitly critical of the status quo.

By digital urbanists, I basically mean those practitioners and researchers who are excited by the potential for urban computing – wireless networks, mobile devices and so forth – to alter the way we use and understand urban spaces. Just as the term ‘urbanism’ is sometimes used to denote a passionate interest in, or engagement with, the vicissitudes of urban life, I’ve used the term ‘digital urbanism’ to capture a largely optimistic engagement in the potential for urban computing technologies to reform cities.

MIT SENSEable City Lab 2010. Project: Network & Society

I’ve been fascinated with the rise of digital urbanism because it stands quite apart from the orientation of many cyberspace cheerleaders of the 1990s, who predicted the demise of the city. Where previously the anti-materiality of this post-urban fantasy had looked to the Internet as a kind of utopia of pure space â?? where a virtual world of pure information served to ‘decontaminate’ natural and urban landscapes and annihilate geographical constraints, today’s real-time communications are instead championed as potentially enhancing the behaviours of the city.

The concept of the real-time city is only one of the many ways in which ‘the city’ is being re-visioned using contemporary network technologies. It’s associated primarily with the work of practitioners of urban informatics, a discipline championed by researchers such as Marcus Foth, Anthony Townsend, and Howard Rheingold, along with industry practitioners like Carlo Ratti, head of the SENSEable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Dan Hill, Senior Consultant at Arup and creator of cityofsound.com.

In my thesis, I approach the concept of the real-time city a bit more broadly than it is usually understood within fields like urban informatics, because I’m interested in it not as a functional term but as an aspirational term. The real-time city, I argue, serves to project a particular vision of the city, one whose performance rests on the capacity for distributed computing to ‘enhance’ representations of cities as complex urban systems, often using data visualization techniques to capture otherwise ‘hidden’ data flows between distributed computing devices, including mobile phones.

My central concern with this vision is its reliance on technologies of visualisation, which are used to offer better representations of urban complexity. Despite the emphasis on urban complexity, my contention is that this vision nevertheless progresses particular, and in fact quite restrictive, notions of the urban. I’ve found that many of the claims of digital urbanists tend to pivot around the revelatory capacity of real-time networks to ‘make the invisible visible’. In its approach to the city, this entrenches an intensely visual agenda which is evident across much of urban studies, setting certain parameters around what can be ‘seen’ and what remains ‘unseen’ in the life of the real-time city.

I treat the emphasis on visual abstraction as a concern, not only for its tendency to privilege the visual over other sensory modes of urban experience, but also for its privileging of a formalistic, design-led approach, which tends to engage with systems design at the expense of social process. Such tendencies have not gone unnoticed; the architect Peter Eisenmann recently decried practices associated with digital urbanism as a ‘new, virulent breed of formalism, more virulent because it [is] posed under the banner of a neo-avant guard technological determinism’ (cited in Anthony Vidler’s Histories of the Immediate Present, 2008).

So that’s where Jane Jacobs comes in, with her seminal text The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1965). Urban planners during the 1960s were enchanted by the potential to introduce greater order into the city – think of Le Corbusier’s Radiant City – and put forward models of ‘urban renewal’ which could be easily replicated across other cities. Death and Life was essentially a tirade against these practices of post-war American planning, mourning the way American cities were being transformed into forests of high-rise buildings, leaving their citizens ostracized and isolated, and subsequently undermining the vitality of American public culture.

Jane Jacobs on her bicycle, New York 1960s.

Aghast at the impersonalized urban landscapes transforming modern American cities, Jacobs urged that greater attention be paid to the values of locatedness and connectedness to place. In a strong but gentle polemical style, Jacobs argued that urban spaces worked best when strangers could easily encounter each other, when children played on the street, and when planning decisions could be made at a local level, rather than through centralized planning bureaucracies and the imposition of abstracted ideas about cities.

The challenge Jacobs presented to modern urban planning was therefore not just about the particular technique of urban renewal being promulgated by the American planning profession at that time. It also concerned, more fundamentally, its claim to be reviving urban spaces through new approaches to urban development, which relied heavily on techniques of urban abstraction. To Jacobs, such techniques famously represented ‘the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served’ (1965: 25). Rather than resorting to a plan, a grid, or a highway network, Jacobs reconceived cities as disorganised collections of haphazard incidents and accidental encounters between strangers.

Robert Moses’ plan for the Lower Manhattan Expressway

Across contemporary urban planning and architecture today, Jacob’s target of post-war modernist planning tends to be framed for its tragic failures, a product of the over reliance on the urban spatial form as a basis from which to alleviate social ills, seeking to reform or renew built environments while leaving social relationships intact. Jacobs’ polemic is required reading for today’s students, who are taught of the failures wrought by these modernist regimes, and the geographies of single-use enclaves and far-flung highways they spawned. Indeed, the criticisms she waged against the profession might today be considered planning orthodoxy: in particular, the need to avoid widely-replicable, abstract urban schemas, and to instead take into account the local conditions that give rise to productive diversity.

In recalling its title, my thesis is not so much interested in what Death and Life had to say about the ideal conditions of urban form, the length of city blocks, the presence of mixed industry, etcetera, as its symbolic and now historic project of re-imagining ‘the city’. In challenging the conventional wisdom about how to understand cities, part of the radicalism of Death and Life was its steady insistence that the trickiness of cities can be as evident in everyday interactions on downtown sidewalks as it is in the abstracted representations and codifications of specialised disciplines. So the title of my thesis draws from Jacobs to affirm the continuing importance of this central challenge as it applies to the emergent fields of digital urbanism today.

Somewhat working against the grain of conventional approaches (if you can use a term like ‘conventional’ in relation to a relatively nascent field of practice!), my PhD has gone on to retrieve some different practices and perspectives, drawn from the fields of critical spatial theory, cultural geography and sound studies, to re-imagine a ‘real-time’ experience of the urban terrain. Through a practice-led response, I’ve re-imagined the digital terrain as a historical topology that enfolds within it different time-spaces – what I’ve cheekily called the ‘real times of space‘.

This practice has made tactical use of the mobile device as a listening platform, capable of retrieving the substrata of today’s digital terrain through its archival audio traces. Working in Sydney, Australia, I’ve retrieved the ambient resonances of particular moments in the life of the city in the way one might navigate a memori topi, using archival sound traces to facilitate experiential audio-visual interactions with the past-presences of an urban space.

This practice has tried to figure out a way of navigating the digital-urban terrain not as a networked space of contemporary connectivity – the perpetual present of real-time interaction – but also as a way of experiencing what Doreen Massey has called a ‘simultaneity of stories so far’ (for space, 2003, p.109). Massey has been influential for me here – in an exhibition catalogue for Olaf Eliasson’s Weather Project at the Tate Museum in 2003 Massey writes of the times of space, , which is not quite totally spatial in its privileging of the present, but open to loose ends, to connections yet to be made. If we shift the concept of ‘real- time’ away from that of the networked connectivity of the present, to the ‘loose ends’ of space’s real-times, what practices might that lead to?

Here I’ve turned to sound, and specifically ambient sound archives of city spaces, as a way of listening in to the resonant traces of past moments. By doing so, I’ve hoped to enrich the spatial imaginary of the real-time city and its digital practices; to not only illuminate the contours of its networked connectivity, but to also listen, and learn, from what we might retrieve when we return to its forgotten spaces.

Ultimately, I’m totally fascinated with the rise of urban computing, and the potential for spatial technologies to re-shape not only the way we use cities, but also the way we imagine them. Nevertheless, I believe it’s time for more critical debate about the extent to which technologies of urban computing can themselves reform the deeper institutional and political practices that underpin the production of contemporary cities. From Web 2.0 to City 2.0 – how might that take shape within institutions of urban governance?

Listening in to the city’s recorded geography might help to answer that question. When we do listen, we hear that the agitations of urban crisis are not so new, we can listen to the mistakes of urban modernism, and can perhaps begin to recall the dangers of believing reform is something to be designed by only a few.

Past Forward

ABC Open Archives on Pool

Through ABC Pool, I’ve been working to publish a number of the archival recordings featured on Sydney Sidetracks through an open access Creative Commons licence. That means they are now available for re-use and remix. The project is starting with the Sydney collection, but will be expanding to include other cities very soon.

The project has featured on the ABC’s social media website Pool. It launched on January 2011 and has since seen the release of a number of additional ABC TV & Radio Archives items into the public domain.

An example of some of the items I have cleared through this project include:

VP Day 1945

Voices

Through this project I cleared a number of voice recordings of infamous Sydney-siders, including the gunman Chow Hayes, the activist Juanita Nielsen and the colourful lady-about-town Bea Miles.

Living on the Fringe

As part of this ABC Pool project I conducted an interview with the director, Gian Carlo Manara, and undertook further research into the ABC’s document archives to uncover some of the unwanted press associated with the release of this once controversial documentary.

Q&A With GianCarlo Manara, Director of Living on the Fringe
Creative Commons License: Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives

GianCarlo Manara, director of the ABC’s 1963 documentary Living on the Fringe, shares some of his memories about the film with Sarah Barns.

SB: What opportunities were there for documentary makers working in Australia at this time? How important was the ABC in supporting documentary production?

GM: At the time we made Living on the Fringe, there weren’t so many opportunities for the few people with sufficient professional skill to make documentaries. The ABC was one of the first institutions to offer that chance, through programs like Big Country.

SB: Was this a difficult film to make within the ABC at this time?

GM: Documentaries like this weren’t very common. It was Allan Ashbolt in the Talks Dept who wanted to use television to make more political documentaries like this one. We worked together on Four Corners – our association grew from there.

SB: What inspiration did you draw from when making this film? (for example, Italian neo-realist films etc).

GM: I graduated in Film Direction and Scriptwriting in Italy in 1955. We all in the school were the products of Italian neo-realism. I personally have been also influenced by other filmmakers such as Grierson, Rota, and Cavalanti.

SB: Did your own migrant story influence this film in any way?

GM: No, I was not influenced by my migrant experience, but by the stark reality of the life of the neglected and the poor. The the media at the time always preferred to ignore this.

SB: How did people on the streets of Sydney react to your filming of them?

GM: Filming in the streets at that time was still a novelty. I often used a “candid camera” approach to catch reality. An exception was when I asked my sexy friend Diana Roberts, now the well know writer Di Morrisey, to walk around some streets in East Sydney. At this time many Italians and Maltese migrants used to hang around on Sunday morning. Migrants at the time were very lonely â?? no social life and above all no women! The “Latin Lover” was not yet a trendy image!

SB: What did you hope audiences would learn from Living on the Fringe?

GM: My hope was for the average viewer to understand that Australia was not just the land of milk and honey – that here, just like other part of the world, there were people in need.

SB: Do you think Sydney is a better city today than it was when Living on the Film was made?

GM: Is Sydney a better place today? It is a big question. It is certainly different – there is more social awareness in the area of welfare and help. Of course lifestyles are also very different. Is it better? If I look back at the Sydney of this time I see a child, and today I see an adult. But is the adult of today better than the child of yesterday? It is a big question… I often think about it, about the old beach carnival when the Life Savers were marching like soldiers, when the girls were wearing petticoats and Saturday night was the night of dance at the Trocadero! All gone! However the girls are still beautiful, and the Life Savers are still so important and so Australian!

But one thing is for sure: the “greed” that today is often rampant was not so much at the time, even if everyone of course attempted to make some â??quidsâ??!

The BLF Green Bans

The back of the Theatre Royal in Sydney - near Rowe Lane, site of the demolished Rowe St.

Sounding Sydney

The back of the Theatre Royal in Sydney - near Rowe Lane, site of the demolished Rowe St.

resonant traces of the city: an archaeology of recorded action

A component of my PhD was the production of a number of sound pieces which I’ve labelled ‘sound marks’. These pieces are intended to take the listener back to historical moments and events in the life of Sydney. Todayâ??s listener might chart a course through central Sydney, â??visitingâ?? these moments in much the same way that one might visit a monument or landmark. Theyâ??re not, in the main, attached to visible landmarks.

The sound marks can be accessed here.

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.

The Unruly City

The Unruly City

The Unruly City: Sydney in the 1960s and 1970s

Sydney has long been a city well-known for poor planning decisions, reflecting a historically laissez-faire approach to urban design. Planning advocate J.D. Fitzgerald lamented in 1917 that Sydney was “a city without a plan, save whatever planning was due to the errant goat”. “Wherever this animal made a track through the bush”, he observed, “there are the streets of today”. Sydney historian Paul Ashton has subsequently called Sydney an “accidental city”, because its planning history has been shaped by, at best, opportunistic development and disjointed or abortive attempts at holistic planning. As declared by one frustrated onlooker: “There is no such thing as planning [in the city of Sydney] – [ it is] all opportunism on the part of every agency.”

That can make for some fairly unruly spaces at times, as local residents and activists have intervened to protect their homes from speculative property development, then and now. A particularly notable period for citizen activism in Sydney was the 1960s and 1970s, when a colossal development boom utterly transformed the city. When developers capitalised on relaxed building height restrictions and relatively low interest rates, much of Sydney’s Victorian-era buildings within the CBD were demolished, replaced by commercial high-rise.

Residents, activists and builders’ labourers joined forces at this time demanding the right for greater consultation in planning decisions. In their heyday the BLF Green Bans were successful in holding up more than $300m worth of development across Sydney. They saved many buildings – most notably the Rocks, a tourist mecca today – but not all. They also encouraged the development of stronger participatory planning processes in Australia. But when residents dared to speak out against the loss of their homes, they encountered the darker side of Sydney’s criminal underbelly…

Victoria St, Potts Point

There are a number of sound recordings here clustered around Victoria St, dealing with the tumultuous period between 1973-4 when resident action forced delays to the construction of the Victoria Heights towers overlooking the city.

BLF Green Bans in The Rocks

Listen in to the sounds of the Rocks in 1973, when the BLF were fighting to save the historic Rocks precinct from redevelopment.

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Sounding Sydney’s real times

Reproduced courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

Reproduced courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

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.

Diversions or Diversity?

I used to worry a lot about media diversity. I don’t so much any more. But I do still worry about diversions. This piece was published some years ago (2006) for Metro Magazine.

Metro Article