Image courtesy City of Sydney

A wrinkle in time, a City of Forking Paths

The City of Forking Paths. Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller.  Audio/video walk.  Commissioned by the 19th Biennale of Sydney (2014) as a City of Sydney legacy artwork as part of the City Art Collection.

So this is how it goes.

You are at Customs House, down at Circular Quay, at dusk, or shortly after. You must be there, at Customs House, at dusk, or shortly after, otherwise the whole thing won’t work.

Janet Cardiff has been here, at Customs House, before, and you are now using your smartphone to see what she has filmed for you to see. What she saw, what you see through the camera view of your smartphone, is quite a lot like what you see, although what she saw was different, too, because it was at another time, though not another space. So different people were milling about in the foyer, they were peering down at the giant model of the city sunken below the surface of the glass floor, pretty much like people now are doing. The model, quite a spectacle, is always itself intriguing and slightly unnerving, with or without a smartphone to look at it through. Janet thinks so too.

Janet is talking to you, she has constructed a soundscape for you to listen to while you follow the journey she has made from this point, around dusk or slighly afterwards, into a city of forking paths. Janet wants you to turn around, to walk towards the building exit, paying particular attention to a man in a dark jacket, leaning by a column, who she saw and she filmed when she was here, before you were here, she wants you to look at the same column and see where the man who is no longer there was standing.

She takes you outside, to the steps of Customs House where a great wide expanse of grey windswept tiles will always be there to greet and confound you. The great wide expanse of grey windswept tiles confounded her too, when she was here. You are now standing on the steps of Customs House, holding a smartphone up and looking through it as though about to take a photo, with headphones on.

The soundscape you are listening to features Janet’s voice, but also the sounds of the space you’re in, when she was here, which she recorded binaurally, in order to sound life-like. A crowd of kids passed Janet by when she stood here, surveying the expanse, they pass you by, too, aurally that is, from the top right of your vision to behind your right shoulder. You can hear them so clearly, and the life-like sounds of these chatterers passing makes you want to swivel around and catch them. But of course they’re not there.

Janet plays these tricks for you. She uses the gaps in time between her being here and you being here to knock at the surfaces of what we see, loosening the tightness of reality into something that might be recomposed just a little. Is it time, or space, that she’s unravelling? A bit of both, perhaps.

This is her art of ‘physical film’ making: using the space of the city, your passage through it, as filmic substance. This is different to making a film about a city, about a place, about a person; her medium is the physical inhabiting of a place as filmic substance. The trick here is that what is mostly making this film is not so much what we see but what we hear. It is the sound that sculpts our physical film, just as a film soundtrack will always establish the dramatic pretext of a visual narrative.

Janet conjures from this space here a performance. What could be? Rollerbladers spinning in action, street musicians, perhaps? Let’s see them. They come, they go. Edits in the filming are not smooth. Time and its possibilities are sliced up, orthogonal. Your intimate space is part of this too: a man is seen approaching, he comes a bit too close, he is close to your field of view now, his voice is close to you. It is time to move on. Janet tells you it is time to move on, to follow her steps, keeping the view you see through your camera view matched as much as possible to your own position.

You wander slowly, stiltedly, like a person idiotically trying to walk with a smartphone held up in front of their face, towards Circular Quay, now amongst the flocks of people going about their business at dusk, or slightly afterwards.

You have Janet telling you she’s an artist, she’s alone here in this city, she tells you she’s always an artist alone in a city, somewhere, trying to find some place to eat. She sounds lonely, a bit bored too. She’s seeing tourists here, this is a tourist place, she’s wondering about the networks of travel and mobility that could be mapped here, lines of flight fanning out from this point to many myriad destinations across the globe.

Talking to you, she’s your fellow traveller, we’re both here together, we can share this space, this space fractured by time but knitted back together as filmic space. We encounter the man again: he is the antagonist she created for this physical-film, he is speaking to us now about multiple realities, the multiverse, he asks what if all this was only one sliver of reality? What if there were many more?

We are now becoming the trick. The time in which we’re standing here, at Circular Quay, slightly after dusk, watching this man, through the camera view of our smartphone, listening to Janet tell us to walk to the harbour master’s steps, we’re only one of these slivers of time, too, with no greater claim to know this space than any other of these characters, past or present.

We are standing at the very place where Europeans first settled in Australia. Janet tells us this. The harbour master’s stairs, so different in scale to the ferry docks, the city skyline behind us, feel like a trace from this other time of early settlement. She takes us down the stairs, the stairs are covered in water from the harbour. Is this allowed? Can we get wet feet? She takes us down to the bottom of the stairs, so we stand below the promenade. We can’t see him, but we can hear behind us the man we encountered before getting agitated now, then suddenly somehow Janet has fallen in to the harbour, he has likely pushed her, for a second, in our camera view, there is only water, a view back up to the Quay, to where we are standing. She quickly recovers, it seems, and we are asked to move on.

And so there is real drama in this city-film, but only a little. The falling-in incident goes unremarked upon for the rest of the walk. We are led into the Rocks, taken down some of the more enchanting little streets and alleys one can encounter in this oldest part of Sydney town. Janet knows how to pick a route.

She lets us look with new eyes at the work of historians, curators and landscape architects who have crafted little enclaves within the city here that let the past speak for itself; the little colonial house with no walls but a door and a frame, wooden furniture left to mark the former uses of spaces, we hear the echoes of tour guides as we step gingerly down the uneven sandstone stairs, we hear torrential rain falling, as is so common in Sydney, though it is not falling as we walk this evening.

We encounter more performers: people who make music out of the textures of the alleyways, the bins, the rock faces, discarded metals, steps. Our antagonist continues to visit us, threatening and slightly agitating. He is a loose canon.

We hear residents of Millers Point whose public houses are now being sold off. We hear Janet’s co-creator George talking to Janet sometimes. He says: “think of what we could play here – all that stuff we listened to while researching for this piece” and we here a selection of random old recordings that must be related somehow.

Janet loves the little old terraces that look down on Pottinger Place, so enfeebled in their domesticity against the dramatic sandstone rockface they sit upon. They prompt her to remember the nightmares she experienced as a child; she looks up at the windows and wonders what deeds of wrongdoing could be placed there, in a spooky film.

There are generations of families going back in time here; the alleys are layered by memories of childhood, kids swimming out into the harbour from the wharf. We depart the scene, the forking path takes us away, back to the Harbour Bridge, Janet is noticing the tree roots in the standstone rocks as we clamber up stairs, then she leaves us at the entrance to the foot tunnel under the bridge.

We are left alone, with our smartphone. The smartphone is still playing the film, it takes us now through the illuminated fluorescent walkway, the view tips upside down, perhaps we are the ones underneath the harbour now, alone here, with our smartphones, in the city, at night.

The work of Janet Cardiff and George Bueres Miller has spanned cities and continents, forests and galleries, small boats and abandoned filing cabinets. These artists are in the business of making magic spaces.

They come from the line of Borges, they return again and again to his stories, his metaphors, this city of forking paths is a map that has become as big as the world. For this Sydney project, Janet and George worked on and off for about a year, commissioned by the City of Sydney as the ‘inaugural artwork’ within its ‘permanent art collection’.

How strange for a work such as this to be classified a permanent artwork. Whether an app is a permanent thing is one thing. But the experience conjured is also the very antithesis of what we would ordinarily describe as a ‘permanent artwork’: an experience of time, fractured by spatial passages, layered and forked and stacked without end.

The work is also described as ‘Augmented Reality’, aligning with the tech-boom taking the ad world by storm. We are all going to be augmenting our realities all the time, soon, likely not with clunky smartphones but watches, glasses, earpieces. How quaint all of our glowing rectangles will soon become!

This artwork riffs of our curiosity with what augmentation might feel like, but this is not really ‘digital art’ in a technical sense, there is no geodata underpinning it, but there are loose references to its conventions. You can only access the app that drives the tour at Customs House, from dusk. Any other time or place and you are locked out.

The artists seem to be tricking up the technology conventions here: augmented reality is not only about space as code, it is also about space as a remembered, fractured, haunted territory. At one point we see in the crowds only people walking, looking at their glowing rectangles, talking on them, for Janet this feels ghastly, you know she wants people to see beyond them, just as she uses the device to show you this.

In 1996 Janet made a soundwalk for London’s Brick Lane called The Missing Voice and you could listen to it using a walkman; you had to borrow the tape from the library. She’s added video now and the sound is better but her tugging at the possibilities of space and time plays with the same basic toolset: the re-sculpting of embodied experience using the ultimate augmented reality that is sound, using her voice, urging intimacy, speaking loneliness, placing the strangeness of our urban natures back into our immediate view.

We here in Sydney will know our streets to be a little bit different now that Janet’s been here.

This is the first of two pieces reflecting on The City of Forking Paths.  

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

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


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

Picture 25

Sydney Sidetracks

Sydney Sidetracks is a multi-platform initiative supported by ABC Innovation to explore the distribution of the ABCâ??s audio-visual archive using map and mobile interfaces. The site was launched in November 2008, featuring over 50 stories about Sydney, which represent â??points of interestâ?? on a map that users can explore either online or out and about in Sydney using their mobile phone.

You can read an interview with me by Seb Chan of the Powerhouse Museum here.

I’ve also reflected on some of the highlights of the Sidetracks collection here.

In 2009 Sydney Sidetracks was awarded Best Cross-Media Content project in the ABC’s Digital Innovation Awards.

Sidetracks collection – highlights


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

Reproduced courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

Reproduced courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

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

Listen in to VP Day, 1945


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

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

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



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


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

Reproduced courtesy of the City of Sydney archives

Reproduced courtesy of the City of Sydney archives


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

The pieces selected for inclusion here include:

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


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



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

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

Outside Broadcast Van on Kellett St, Kings Cross c1958

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

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

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



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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

Contacts, comments, criticisms, suggestions, more stories…

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


Jaywalking Sydney

Jaywalking Sydney was a Research Fellowship undertaken through the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) Centre for Scholarly and Archival Research in February-March of 2007.

This was an exploratory exercise to identify how archival recordings about specific Sydney locations could be made available in-situ using mobile devices (ipods, mobile phones etc).

The essential idea was to test how use of audiovisual archives in this way could offer the opportunity to experience decisive and transformative moments in an areaâ??s development over time, to experience what happened ‘right here’. More broadly the research would establish new ways to explore and experience Australiaís audiovisual archives by new and existing audiences.

Outcomes included a soundwalk dealing with Victoria St Potts Pt, a Google Map featuring extensive audio-visual archives of Sydney’s film history and an essay called Jaywalking Sydney. More details can be found here.

Research for the Fellowship was framed by a particular focus on Sydney’s urban development, on stories and features about changes to the built environment itself. With this in mind, research was focused on the following questions:

  • What exists? What kinds of archival material is available that relates to specific locations around Sydney? What kinds of sound recordings are held by the NFSA that contain ambient archival recordings of key locations? Here I was testing feasibility of actually embedding ambient archival audio into a present environment, starting by locating what actually exists of this nature.
  • What motivated these original recordings? Why have sites and sounds been documented, and what motivates their preservation by the NFSA? How in particular does the NFSA identify audio recordings of significance, and are there different motivations at work to its collection and curation of arhival video?
  • How can existing archival recordings be made available on location? What technologies are available, what platforms? What are the opportunities and challenges of working in this way?