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.  

At the National Digital Forum

New Zealand’s National Digital Forum has quite a reputation among cultural heritage & museum types internationally, for the quality of its speakers and the integrity of its focus – and for good reason. This is a place that values speculative thinking, applauds technical prowess as much as imaginative concepts, and celebrates the work of big institutions with big budgets as much as small, community-driven initiatives. Like, wow!

I was invited to give a Keynote Presentation to the 2012 NDF when I was doing some consultancy work for Historypin earlier this year. Given the Forum’s reputation this was a great honour, but it also gave me the chance to reflect on where my own practice is heading. One gets so caught up in the day to day busyness, it’s always a treat (and challenge) to step back and consider the broader currents of change and chance.

Having now completed two fairly large scale public installations for the City of Sydney’s Art & About Festival, I was quite conscious of how energised I’ve been by the chance to work in a more collaborative, community-oriented way, rather than being led purely by my own research pursuits. Working as part of this public platform makes you accountable in different ways – one needs to be able to speak to your city, not just your peers. It’s also become increasingly clear to me how archives-led installations can act as interventions for community-led urban activation and place-making, as much as they can help to showcase the possibilities of creative and digital archives innovation. More on this below.

In the end, attending and presenting at the NDF was inspiring in so many ways – probably the enthusiasm and commitment of the people I met was the biggest highlight, but also inspirational was the chance to witness just how much change is sweeping the cultural heritage sector, and how ripe this time is for new creative practices to emerge.

Having said that, it was also interesting to hear the war stories of some attendees and presenters who, it appears, seem to experience a fair amount of institutional malaise and perhaps downright disinterest from within their organisations about how audiences might engage with a museum or library through digital platforms. I’d like to hope this is not the predominant experience of the Forum’s attendees. The opportunity to present again at the Auckland Museum with Nate Solas from the Walker Art Museum in fact highlighted some really exciting digital strategies being developed or implemented at the present time.

Below are the slides alongside the associated notes I spoke to during the presentation. This was one of the first presentations I’d given to a very active Twitter audience (yes I’ve been quiet for awhile), so I’m embedding some of the commentary along the way as well, just for, umm, fun.

Past Forward: Speculative adventures in the city’s archive

Hello, I’m Sarah Barns, I live in Sydney, and I work independently as a digital producer and researcher at the moment. ESEM Projects is the collaborative venture I’m Co-Directing, partnering with visual artist and designer Michael Killalea. We make site-specific installations about the history of a place. We draw extensively from both public and community collections, we use lots of different platforms, some of them digital, some ‘post-digital’, we work sometimes for clients and sometimes initiate our own projects.

I realised the other day that I’m one of these people whose professional lives has been completely shaped by the Internet. My first real job was working on policy advice for the Minister for Communications & IT advising on broadband applications. That was about 12 years ago and we were telling the minister about all the amazing things that were going to happen when people got smartphones and pdas and so forth.

Since then I’ve worked for the ABC, the Arts Council and helped set up something called the Creative Industries Innovation Centre and more recently have been doing work with Arup.

Across all these areas I’ve been thinking, researching and advising on how digitisation is going to impact our lives, our artists, our media landscape, our cities & regions. But while I’ve been working and advising people on the near futures of technology, I’ve become increasingly interested in how the near futures of digital technology is changing our relationship with the past, and specifically with how we come to experience a historical moment, in time and place.

I’m therefore a bit of a different creature of person here in the sense that I don’t work for a museum or gallery or archive. I’m an independent producer and researcher who approaches collections as active resources that help me to tell stories about the city, creating engaging and immersive experiences of place and space. I therefore have the pleasure of approaching archive collections not as objects to define; I don’t have to worry about meta data and promoting audience access. I am interested more in the experience of a particular recording, and how we use different mediums of today’s digital technology to creatively promote and encourage different interactions with past moments in time.

The notion that we’re living in the midst of a big data but also, dare I say, ‘big archives’ phase has been touched on a bit. We have this sense that we are living through a digital deluge: how do we we make our way through it?

I believe one of the points raised here at the NDF in 2011 was a paraphrase from Melvyn Bragg that ‘the 20th century has released us into history through technology

Quote:”We call what we do harvesting or cataloguing, digitising or preserving, data visualising or crowd-sourcing, community management or customer service, or whatever the latest round of restructuring has deemed our job to involve. But what we’re really doing is working with people to create and share back our collective and collaborative history.”

There’s a lot being said here, but one them surely is that we have a whole lot of new ways of interacting with the past. We we may previously felt a bit like we could peer through a window into another world, from a contemporary, fairly static vantage point, we now have this way of working with the past that is probably more akin to a remix, blending, curating, repurposing, re-using.

What this means, in some ways, is that we have this much more direct experience of a past moment in time – not only photographs made with incredibly high resolution – but actuality footage being made increasingly available. Not only is it available to see, we can also re-contexualise it in different ways.

An example is this original video footage of London just after the London Blitz, uploaded by the Imperial War Museum to YouTube.

Original video on You Tube

Here we have the same video geo-tagged on Historypin, capturing the London Blitz, to see it in Streetview.

The Historpin platform enables us to view the past within the present using Google’s streetview capabilities, fading in and out of time. This is free for anyone to use and publish to. Amazing. On one level it’s a great example of what can be done with Google Maps these days. On another level, I think it’s also this really quite incredible way of experiencing a past moment in time.

As well as actuality footage from the 20th century, we also have every kind of television show that ever existed becoming available. Along with this, we have this sense that we are making these kind of deep, emotional connections back in time with our former selves. The directness and immediacy of the platform encourages this idea.

Here we have Bert & Ernie, who want to say hi. Say hi to Bert & Ernie! They speak to that former you, as though you were still in that moment, at home watching television and eating peanut butter sandwiches. Hi Bert

Is there something also about the popularity of Instagram and particularly the nostalgia filters, that we’re playing out this archive fever and letting it shape the way we capture our present day lives? I’m not sure. Is it just that the colour filters are better?

All the scanning, geo-tagging, harvesting, crowdsourcing – it’s not only a digital practice, or just pinning a recording to a google map, it’s also a quite altered way of engaging with recordings, not just as objects but as experiences, ingredients, resources for making things with.

I’ve come to be thinking a lot about this increasing dexterity of time in the digital age, as a kind of Past Forwarding through and within time-spaces. Is this experience of the past in the digital age that fascinates me and has driven much of my work these last few years.

Today I’ll be presenting on these projects, but before I do I just wanted to give a bit of background about the different approaches I combine here.

In terms of the conceptual terrain, there are these four key areas – essentially questions for interrogation.

1. Archives. As I’ve been saying, I approach archives as a kind of landscape of noisy events, and as a way of trying to get inside and experience a past moment. I use actuality recordings to try to create an approach to the past that is less about telling an overarching narrative and more about providing experiential interactions with a particular moment in time. When it comes down to it I suppose I’d like to create a more affecting, emotional sense of a space in time, rather than a more objective view of time.

2. Digital A particular orientation towards the digital. Specifically interested in how the digital impacts our experience of space and place. This connects to a whole lot of location-based technologies, locative arts and also the concept of responsive environments.

3. Place. A lot of the projects I’ll be talking about have been led by the meaning of a particular place. More often than not they’re driven my an interest in telling a story about a particular place it’s broader meaning, to a person, to a city, to an idea. I’m one of these unfashionable people who thinks that places actually define us in important ways, I’m not only a global citizen, I’m also someone who lives in Sydney and is from a place called Fremantle and these are not incidental to my character. This interest in place means I tend to bring a geographic angle to my interest in historical collections.

4. Public space. Pretty much all of these projects have been created to be experienced in the public domain. I’m interested in doing things in public. I have post graduate degree in urbanism and mostly I gravitate towards sites that tell something about the history of urbanism in the 20th century. And I’m interested in how it is that we define the ‘digital public space’ of today’s media age.

I have a lot of favourite quotes, and a lot of people inspire me, but this one is one from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1974) reflects pretty fundamentally what I’ve been trying to do with place and archives.

Calvino when he wrote this was interested in how cybernetics was changing thought, there is a theory that Invisible Cities was exploring a kind of hyper textual version of the city. Apt in so many ways. I think of this quote as a reminder that while we may try to map objectively the dimensions of a place, we will always be caught out by what we miss when we miss the temporal shifts and dimensions of a place that give it character.

Today this idea of invisible cities is oftentimes expressed in terms of the language of visualisation. We live in a world that is part physical, part digital. What are the kinds of visualisations techniques we can use to engage us differently in the world around us – here we have some speculations from urban engineering firm Arup.

I’m interested in the different kinds of approaches to highlighting what we can’t see about an environment, not always using visualisation techniques, but other forms of experiential interaction.

For the next little while I’m going to introduce the practice I’ve been creating and how I came to be interested in this. My interest in location services and archives goes back a few years now, I thought I’d walk through some of the terrain I’ve covered.

In about 2003 I was working at the ABC in the digital services area. We were trying to work out what people might do with something called 3G phones.
I was going to conferences where people would be getting up and talking about how exciting the world was going to be when they could watch TV on their phone. Quite frankly, It made me want to scream. Clearly the networks were keen that we see this new technology as something to push their product on. Having studied my media history, I knew the press titans had done the same during the early days of radio, as did the early opera performers when the telephone first arrived in the late nineteenth century.

Just to let you in on a bit of media history, when the telephone was first introduced such things as â??telephone occasionsâ?? were common â?? when telephones were used to broadcast theatrical and political events. The ‘theatrophone’ was a smash hit at the Paris Exposition of 1881, enabling listeners to hear live performances of the Opera.

In this slide we can see a musical program being transmitted over the Hungarian ‘Telefon Hirmondo’ network from Budapest in 1901. People would listen to Hirmondo’s ‘telephone occasions’ through small earpieces mounted to the wall. In the end the financial models of this form of broadcast service didn’t stack up, and the telephone occasions made way to wireless radio broadcasts.

This knowledge suggested to me that the TV networks might have gotten it wrong, and that how people might use smartphones could be as yet unknown to us. At this time, mobile platforms became an exciting conceptual terrain for me to start thinking about new forms of communication and experimentation.

Around this time I discovered that a bunch of people were making various kinds of art using these early mobile devices.

I met someone called Fee Plumley visit from the UK, and she was working on something called a ‘phone book project’, which was basically encouraging people to write little text message stories with their phone. The project was exploring the potential for mobile technologies as a creative platform. There was a crazy sound artist called Nigel Heyler who was using a GPS sound platforms to get to know graveyards.

I discovered there were artists who called themselves ‘locative artists’ and they were interested in how they might be able to use location-aware devices equipped with GPS tracking to create new kinds of public experiences of space. The slides you see (above) are from a group called Proboscis in the UK, public authoring platform using smartphones.

Oftentimes these artists were working with some fairly clunky technology, by today’s standards. Here is Jeremy Hight working on his PDA project called Narrative Archaeology in LA.

In this work, participants walk the streets of Los Angeles with a GPS device attached to a TabletPC. It is a sort of “narrative archeology” unearthing the stories of forgotten lives in the urban space. Visible on the screen is a map with easily identifiable trigger points for story segments performed by voice actors. Trigger points for sound effects are hidden, left to be discovered as the user walks through the city. In this way, the landscape becomes the interface and the participant’s movement becomes input.

“Imagine walking through the city and triggering moments in time. Imagine wandering through a space inhabited with the sonic ghosts of another era.”

These artists opened up this new horizon of experimentation for me, particularly in the way they encouraged new ways of interacting with a physical space, combining an existing environment with layers of people’s own contributions, stories, histories.

But the more I got interested in this kind of location-based art, the more perturbed I became, about two things.

Firstly, while the focus was on the street, the actual experience of interaction was very device centric. You can see this in the picture. Were these projects doing enough to really engage with the user experience as you found yourself out on the street. Did people really want to walk around with these things? Would they learn more that way than they would by simply buying a guide book?

Subsequently, the focus of what participation meant was often the specific data that people had contributed. I wasn’t so sure that the assemblage of meanings, traces and stories built up over time in this kind of place were necessarily less worthy of attention that what people might contribute using one of these platforms. There seemed a kind of deafness to the existing resources of the street, and a new kind of forgetting, which said that only the contemporary data was worth listening to. Coming from the art world, works often generated their own new meanings, stories and artworks.

I realised I wanted to do something quite different. Taking these ideas from locative art, I wanted to find out if I could listen in to the cityâ??s archive. I had this image in my mind of one day the phone being some kind of homing device to the history of a place.

I wanted this experience to be very open to the world, not device centric but an experience that might frame, rather than dominate. Using sound on a mobile device, I imagined that a site specific recording could enable this truly unique interaction with the past, where the sound of another time frames a visual experience of the present.

As I learned more about this area I found I wasn’t alone, and that there were lots of people interested in using sound to create a different experiences of a place.

Hildergaard Westercamp A walk through the city (1981)

A Walk through the City is an urban environmental composition based on Norbert Ruebsaatâ??s poem of the same name. It takes the listener into a specific urban location – Vancouver B.C.’s Skid Row area, with its sounds and languages. Traffic, carhorns, brakes, sirens, aircraft, construction, pinball machines, the throb of trains, human voices, a poem, are its ‘musical instruments’. These sounds are used partly as they occur in reality and partly as sound objects altered in the studio. A continuous flux is created between the real and imaginary soundscapes, between recognizable and transformed places, between reality and composition.

Janet Cardiff uses a layered narrative that deals with the physicality of memory in different places. Well known for her work in the 1990s The Missing Voice. An aural dream through the back streets of Whitechapel and Brick Lane. In no way obsessed with historical details but instead a journey into the memories of the female narrator and the sounds of East London. Cardiff’s work is filmic.

None of this particularly technologically advanced, but more about using the properties of mobile audio, which has been with us for a few decades by now.

So I set off on this speculative adventure, to explore sound archives as a medium to promote new kinds of interactions between the built and recorded history of a place

I came to this understanding of the potential of a medium: that listening to a recorded event as it was originally documented in-situ could affect a certain displacement – being from another time and capturing what can no longer been seen – just as it revisits the event ‘here’ as it ‘really happened’. My approach aimed to exploit the qualities of listening as a framing device, creating a sense of presence in a place, and giving a more experiential version of the past.

So this was coming up to 2005, I enrolled in a PhD to explore this proposition further, while working at the Australian Arts Council. From there I went on to undertake my speculative adventure #1, in the form of a research residency through the National Film and Sound Archive’s Centre for Scholarly and Archival Research.

Through this research I wanted to help create encounters with a siteâ??s documentary history that enabled a very strong sense of ‘co-presence’ with another time. This wasn’t about me doing something using sound effects, I wanted the direct contact with ambient recordings of the streets, capturing different moments in time.

When I commenced my research with the NFSA, I thought I’d find a lot of recordings. But I quickly came to understand sound archives didn’t exist in the way I’d expected – recorded on the street, that is. I honed my focus to period of development politics when documentary makers were active, and much change was occurring to Sydney’s built environment.

Competing visions of the city produced a great deal of urban unrest, of which lots of documentation exists. In particular, documentaries such as Wooloomooloo and Rocking the Foundations produced by Pat Fiske provide intimate insights into what the experience of this time was like, on the streets of Sydney.

Rather than focusing on better known locations, such as the Rocks, I ended up working with Victoria St, Potts Point (you can read about the events occurring on this street in the 1974 elsewhere on this site), and drawing extensively from the recordings made by Pat Fiske to produce a soundwalk down the street. More on the soundwalk can be found here.

At this point, I then approached the ABC to ask if I might be able to research their collection in this same way – as a kind of recorded archeology. The ABC had at this point been thinking about what they might be able to do with Google Maps which had recently been released, and so they suggested I could produce a maps-based platform for them rather than simply undertake a research residency.

The outcome was ABC Sydney Sidetracks – a cross-platform experience of Sydney’s history through its broadcast archive. You could access recordings via mobile and interactive maps. There’s lots more about Sidetracks on this site.

The ability to access the ABC’s archives meant I could locate many more actuality recordings of the particular moments and events in Sydney’s past. One in particular stood out, capturing the sounds VP Day 1945 in Martin Place, recommended to me by ABC Radio archives researcher John Spence. I have since cleared this recording for creative re-use through ABC Pool. This was in fact the first ‘post-war’ example of a mobile recording studio in action; recordings like this were really emphasising the new ability to record on location and distribute the sounds to listening audiences at home.

While the Sidetracks project was a success in many ways, and indeed won the ABC’s Best Multi-platform Content Award for 2009, at the time I felt it had many shortcomings. It was released prior to the iPhone being released which meant people had to sideload the mobile content to their phones – I had thought basically no-one had done so, however at the NDF discovered that wasn’t true!

Ultimately at the time there was a relatively limited audience for the mobile experience. (Sadly the ABC has not yet updated the platform, despite the increasing popularity of mobile as an urban history platform). I realised at this point that perhaps we needed a more spectacular way for people to engage with the recordings, and so in 2008 began to explore ways to project archival images onto the surfaces of associated buildings. After a few failed funding bids I partnered with Michael Killalea to lodge a successful application to mount a project for the City of Sydney’s Art & About Festival.

Hooray! Speculative Adventure No #3 was now underway!

These recent installation projects have been very focused on creating site-specific experiences of a location’s history using archival recordings. They extend the methodology I developed through previous projects such as Jaywalking and Sidetracks, by not only including the element of projections but also by including the community in sharing and development stories and content for the installations. For both installation projects we have received support from collecting institutions, in particular the National Film and Sound Archive. But it’s the ethos of the Art & About Festival, as led by Director Gill Minervini, that has encouraged us to work with the community to not only create works of art in the public domain, but to also work with the public in a collaborative way.

This has introduced a new dimension to working with archive collections in public environments, helping to foster what might be described as the ‘living archives’ of a community.

(For the purposes of this web version of the publication, I am not covering the two installation projects in detail as I did in the presentation. You can explore these projects through their respective websites: Unguarded Moments and Last Drinks – One More Round at the Hotel Australia).

Prior to the launch of these installations we ran call-outs inviting people to share their own archives – images or stories – for incorporation into projections, as captured below.

These contributions were then used alongside recordings I’d located through partner organisations. The outcomes were both a web platform containing ‘hyper-local’ collections and recordings about a place, sourced from a number of different cultural collections, loungerooms and basements, as well as a series of site-specific installations. Installations include large scale video projections and sound, which are featured out and about in the streets after dark for the month of the Art & About Festival. For Last Drinks, we also included a mobile site and additional print based signage, and a tie-in with the Sydney Morning Herald’s AirLink service.

Here are some of the Flickr slideshows from these projects. You can also explore more video, soundscapes and more through the ESEM Projects website and associated project websites.

Unguarded Moments Slideshow, Art & About Sydney 2011.

Last Drinks Slideshow, Art & About Sydney 2012.

Closing Reflections

The different ‘speculative adventures’ I’ve been discussing with you today have all been a lot of fun, and the experience of being able to uncover and explore recorded archaeologists of place in the way I’ve been doing is hugely rewarding. Perhaps I was a private detective in a former life, who knows. I’ve received a lot of support from particular institutions, not least the National Film and Sound Archive, the State Library of NSW, the City of Sydney and the ABC.

But I should warn you, should you be interested in navigating such a journey through your own city’s archive, the path is rather convoluted and remains full of obstacles.

Not least, mounting a project in the public domain isn’t easy. Building owners may be happy to support you, but they have less ‘skin in the game’ than one would sometimes wish for. You can’t measure your audiences, who are often incidental passers-by, like you might at a gallery or museum. But perhaps the biggest of these obstacles remains the thorny matter of digital access.

At the beginning of this presentation I spoke about the sense of ‘big archives’ – that we are overwhelmed by archive fever – but in fact we are still a long way away from being able to seamlessly navigate an urban historical environment through its digital archives. This is partly because many collections items, in particular broadcast recordings, are not usually valued for their ability to document a changing city, and are usually catalogued for their relevance to media history, not urban history. So this means there is a lot of auditioning involved!

But there remain a number of obstacles to actually being able to view, audition, and re-use these recordings for public installations. I can be tenacious and stubborn but others less so would give up on trying to create a ‘cross-collection’ archive based on the history of a place. And so I do find it interesting that our collective past as captured by our public media, and preserved by our collecting institutions can be so inaccessible at times. Many of the recordings of the past -as captured on film and publicly-funded television and radio- do remain mostly closed to the ‘woman on the street’ so to speak.

When we live in a digital age, when our expectations of learning and experiencing a sense of the past involve not only books but media recordings and artefacts, YouTube and StreetView, I think we also need to consider a broader concept of what public space means, to include considerations of how it is that we access and participate in sharing and re-using our ‘digital public spaces’. What might the different forms of access be for different kinds of uses, whether as a student, a historian, or a documentary maker, or a city council, and how might we define the public values of our digital archives in the future – not just as ‘memory institutions’ but also as resources for future creativity and innovation?

That’s a near future I’m speculating about right now.

Thank you.

Some Twitter love…

ABC Archives

Exploring Sydney's history through the ABC's radio and television archives.

ABC Archives are a treasure trove of street level recordings about Sydney’s changing urban landscape through time. These recordings have been accessed through previous creative commissions and residencies. 

Sydney Sidetracks. ABC Digital Innovation Pilot, and winner 2008 ABC Cross-Platform Content Award. Supported by ABC Innovation, ABC 702, National Film and Sound Archive, City of Sydney, Dictionary of Sydney and State Library of NSW. 

Launched 2008, produced and conceived by Sarah Barns. 

Please note the site (web and mobile) is no longer maintained by the ABC. 


ABC Past Forward was a commissioned project through ABC Radio National and the now-defunct ABC Pool platform. 

I negotiated a set of key television and sound recordings for release through Creative Commons licence, making these recordings available for anyone to use and remix (CC-BY-ND). 

Explore the open access resources here

Q&A with Gian Carlo Manara, cinematographer for Living on the Fringe (ABC 1964).  See here

Fresh & New(er) interview about Sidetracks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

British Library Sound Archive: Unlocking Audio

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

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

Sydney Sidetracks: Exploring a city of lost sounds

View more presentations from Sarah Barns.

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

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

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

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

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

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