Marcus Clark profile projected on the ANU School of Law Building for Thinking Spaces, Esem Projects 2013.
How many things the night recalls, and how we weep for them though they never were! Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet.
The nights are playing their tricks on us.
Come sundown, large-scale illuminated projections are transforming cities into magical caverns of light and magic, colour and spectacle. Melbourne’s White Night attracted some half a million nocturnal gatherers, Sydney’s Vivid Festival is ‘like New Years Eve’ for two weeks in July, Sydney’s coldest month. Public light shows are proliferating across cities and towns, in steets and back alleys: I Light Marina Bay (Singapore), Lux (Wellington), City Evolutions (Newcastle), Melbourne’s Gertrude St Projection Festival, every year New York’s Materials & Methods produce projection festivals in partnership with local artists and lighting designers.
This Nuit Blanche concept is not new: in recent years, the success of Paris’ Nuit Blanche, which began in 2002, has inspired a pan-European event called “Nuits Blanches Europe” involving night festivals across cities like Brussels, Rome, Madrid and Bucarest. The Son Et Lumiere concept, credited to Paul Robert-Houdin, was a form of nighttime entertainment usually presented in an outdoor venue of historic significance and first held at the Château de Chambord in France in 1952.
This night-time immersion of the arts has been hosted in more than 120 cities around the world including Brussels in Belgium, New York in the US and Amsterdam in the Netherlands. One of the most popular ‘Nuit Blanche’ celebrations around the world with tourists and residents in early March is in Montréal, Canada. It antes up some 180 mostly free indoor and outdoor activities including installations, exhibitions, live performances and screenings that light up the night in the city. The cities exchange experiences, projects and artists and new cities become candidates each year.
Spectacular in their scale and dazzling in their brightness, artists, lighting engineers, and audio-visual mavericks design these installations by using the surfaces of built spaces to sculpt visual masterpieces of light, form and colour. Their tricks of illumination exploit technical tools – 3D architectural mapping, sensors, software-enabled visual distortions, real-time image manipulation of the ever growing, luminous flux of data – to introduce into public spaces a sense of the ‘technological uncanny’ (1), a phantasmagorical urban world in which anything, seemingly, is possible (2).
To see the image of a woman splayed out over the sails of the Sydney Opera House, her hands reaching out towards the harbour, or the surfaces of a warehouse building peeled back to reveal a forest beneath, is to see the familiar transformed into the strange, the impossible revealed as if it might really be true.
For creators of projection artworks, the topography of the built environment becomes a material to incorporate into the programming and design of urban interfaces(3). Digitally-projected, luminous information is in this way mixed with the ‘data’ of material spaces – it’s the disjunctures between the two that can be exploited to provoke the greatest of surprises. We think we are seeing a wall, but suddenly we are seeing a forest. Architectural dreams become hyper-real surfaces.
Such is the dynamic nature of projection art today – and, indeed, the size of the commissioning budgets attached to them – that we can now see unfolding a proliferation of genres and approaches to working with light and data in public space. I’ve started to think about how we might begin to frame these approaches (early stage thoughts, please bear with me).
In City Life, Sydney-based projection agency Electric Canvas transformed a historic customs house into a living, breathing community of city workers. Here, the digital agency edia architects use digital projection to reveal complex interactions existing, real-time, within localized audiences, making use of harvested information gleaned from mobile devices and other sensors, thus illuminating patterns of mobility, complexity, and flux. Technically, the piece mixed high power digital projectors with use of large-format “PIGI” projectors, filling the walls of the building with spectacular, bedazzling colour and light. Everybody will look up in wonder.
Projection mapping is fundamental to most projection artwork, playing with the sense of uncanny produced by remapping the dimensions of a building and then layering it with completely different visual animations and effects. The field is vast and diverse, the aesthetics sometimes, dare I say, dubious, driven by a shock and awe mentality at times.
Here is a recent event in Maastricht, the Netherlands, which did explore a temporal dimension to projection mapping in a historically sensitive way. Vrijthof, one of the best known squares in Maastricht, was lit up for one week in November 2013, from 13 to 20 November, featuring a 20 minute ‘show’ projected onto the facade of the ‘Hoofdwacht’, a military guardhouse with a history dating back to the 17th century. Here was an impressive 3D mapping projection that offered audiences an overview of the turbulent history of the city.
Place-making & Urban Interventions
During recent years I’ve become more and more involved in projection-based artworks, which reflects partly the growing demand for this genre of work, whether from local councils, universities, urban developer clients and public art commissions. Working with Michael Killalea through Esem Projects, this practice has been continually evolving to incorporate different ways of working with communities, their stories, local historical collections in projection-based outcomes.
There are multiple layers to this work. In the first instance, each projection project is knitted closely with stories of place: who has lived here, what has changed, where are the strongest attachments and how are these expressed, what has been documented? Why is this project being funded, and what role is it to play in connecting with a community or audience? Each of these questions shape the given response to a commission.
Here, for example, is our work ‘Eyes on the Street’, projected onto the United Services Club on Watt St in Newcastle nightly from June 2013 to April 2014. The film loop incorporates visual recordings and documentation of Watt St from its earliest European habitation. It is deliberately confined to the acts of documentation, and the ways in which these are co-opted to represent the ‘image of a city’ to a wider audience.
For the work of Esem Projects, digital projection allows for a different kind of engagement with digital collections and archives, enabling some playful interventions (and sometimes difficult negotiations) in the spaces of the city. The public canvas allows for a recorded archeology of a collection to be surfaced back into the present day in a more spectacular fashion. We bring community contributions to this practice, allowing members of a community to see their own memory pieces writ large. By doing this, new communities are in turn forged. Working with the site of the former Hotel Australia for the Last Drinks project for Art & About in 2012, we spent an evening with community contributors from across Sydney, who all had known the way the precinct used to be, but would have no cause to ‘visit’ the historical site now, because all is dust. Reinscribing documentation of the past back into the present is to work with the possibilities of temporal layering, in situ, and of ‘creating’ historical sites once edited out of the modern city.
In this image below, a man is seen closing the curtains of his window at University House, ANU. The man was filmed in 1956. The footage is being projected onto University House in 2013.
This is not technically complex, but I do believe it has a role to play in extending the possibilities of projection artworks in public spaces. There is both the selection of site, and the location of documentary footage, that underpins the affect of such a work which, while not technically difficult to achieve, does rely on fairly extensive research sluething, quite some chance, and ready access to the site. But such playful layering of past and present spaces can be used not just fancifully, but also to more political ends.
The ‘Latent Souls’ project, for example, arose from a series of smaller activities by the “Niño Viejo” (“Old Child”) Collective in Valencia. The artists state: “Our aim was to use the city as an audiovisual format to express various proposals which criticise urban development in the city. Small, playful actions which interfered with the urban space and aimed to alter it, were sarcastic about it and transgressed it, thereby offering a critical and personal vision of ‘public space’.
“Box” was released by Bot & Dolly in September 2013 and seemed to reset the boundaries of projection mapping for the next little while at least, incorporating never-before-seen robot-powered projection mapping on moving objects. “Box”, launched to widespread acclaim, resulted in the synthesis of real and digital space made all the more alive through the sense of fluidity and movement, of machines, of man, and of movable objects (er, a box), the culmination of multiple technologies, including large scale robotics, projection mapping, and software engineering. As said by the makers: “We believe this methodology has tremendous potential to radically transform theatrical presentations, and define new genres of expression”.
And then, there is Little Boxes, by artist Bego Santiago. This is perhaps my most favourite piece of all, with its playful use of scale and movement, and its dedication to a timeless, iconic song, that puts us all in our places.
Aside from inventing the world wide web, that’s pretty much the core of Berners-Lee’s message, and undoubtedly the motivation behind Pia Waugh’s hard work in bringing him to Australia this month: to ensure the web stays open and accessible to all.
At his City Talks speech to a packed audience of nerds and wanna-be nerds at Sydney’s Town Hall last night, Berners-Lee explained how in 2009 he spent most of his time trying to persuade people to be more open with the way they were publishing their data online.
Why Open Data?
Scientists, he explained, shouldn’t just publish articles, they should also publish the data behind the articles, because then this data can be better used by others. A published journal article is, in the language of the web, not a very useful piece of data, unlike raw data which can be linked through open data protocols (which go by curiously impenetrable sounding names like ‘Triple RDFs). That’s the logic of the Semantic Internet, a set of standards promoted by the World Wide Web Consortium (WC3) to describing common data formats that enable the contents of published articles, stories, media and so forth to be properly describable in common languages, and in other words able to be re-used, shared and connected to other stories, articles, media, data published online.
It’s a re-assertion of the fundamental values of the internet, and, as Berners-Lee has said, “it’s huge: When you link data, not just documents, you get this really huge power out of it”.
So Berners-Lee was brought to Australia to bring us this word: the word of open, sharable data.
Open data policy hits academia
The shift towards open publishing formats is now well under way here, with the Australian Research Council announcing in December that publicly-funded research needs to be available through an open access journal within 12 months of publication. The ARC’s Open Access Policy released in January this year, is huge. It is huge not because it is going to completely and immediately re-write the rules of academic publishing (it won’t), but because it acknowledges that work directly funded by the taxpayer should be accessible to those who funded it: taxpayers.
Note the underlying logic here: to maximise the benefits of Australian investment in research for wider public benefit.
At this point we can see how the open data movement is not only about machines being able to better read and re-use data from other machines, but also about giving the public access to the outcomes of public investment. It’s a kind of marriage of convenience between nerdy programmers who want to be able to build better programs, and advocates of good public policy in the digital age who want to promote Australia’s culture of innovation and learning (of course the two aren’t mutually exclusive).
Recognition that the public have the right to access publicly-funded works has all kinds of ramifications for public investment programs across many diverse spheres, not only university research. You may care to cast your mind over the many different ways in which government funding is explicitly provided for the objective of generating private gains for commercial enterprise.
But you may also care to wonder how this concept of the public accessing publicly-funded works might apply to our cultural and media organisations. The ABC, for example.
What about Our ABC?
In 2012 the ABC celebrated its eightieth birthday. For 80 years the ABC has been funded by government to create radio programs, and then also television programs, and then also digital programming, that informs, entertains and educates all Australians. It is our national treasure, and indeed it is the ‘public square’ of our digital life.
The public value of the ABC stretches not only to its central place in the contemporary media landscape, but also to the public value of its past programming: the documentation of Australian life over 80 years which has captured the extraordinary changes to Australia’s way of life during the twentieth century and beyond.
I’ve had the pleasure of researching Sydney’s history using the ABC’s archives, and I have experienced first hand the wonder of listening to the euphoric sounds of VP Day in 1946 as recorded by Talbot Duckmanton in Martin Place, the chants of the Vietnam protesters as they congregated outside the Commonwealth Buidling (now Chifley Square) in 1968, the crackling of John Curtin announcing a war loan campaign at the Sydney Town Hall in 1942; the thousands and thousands of voices of everyday Australians, now passed from this world. I’ve been able to integrate these sounds into new works, to reflect on their place in the contemporary spaces of Sydney today, to share them with others.
But this first hand experience of exploring, sharing and re-using recordings capturing moments in Australian history is not an option for most Australians. The ABC has no remit to make its publicly-funded content available to the public after its initial broadcast. In the majority of cases you need to be a producer working for the ABC, or you need to pay sums of money to access an archival program. If you want to use a piece of this public recording in another work (that’s most likely also been publicly-funded) you will usually not only need to get permission from the original creator of the work (fair enough) but you will also need to pay the ABC for the ability to access and license the recording. ABC Commercial will not give access to highly sought after recordings easily. The same process will usually apply to other publicly-funded ‘memory institutions’, so behind the scenes we get these situations whereby publicly-funded institutions charge each other fees to access each other’s publicly-funded works.
It’s not an ideal situation but it’s a state of play cultural producers and historians get used to, in a way. There are small scale initiatives designed to open up access but they lack organisational reach and, importantly, secure funding. But need it always been this way?
Digital Public Space: Towards a better cultural archive
The BBC has spent the last five years working hard to address this very issue with other UK cultural organisations like the British Library, the British Museum and the British Film Institute. Together these organisations have been collaborating to find the best way to provide the widest possible access to the complete range of digitised material that they create or curate. The initiative is called ‘Digital Public Space‘.
Just imagine: an online space in which much of our publicly-held cultural and heritage media assets and data can not only be found, but also connected together, searchable, machine-readable, open, accessible, visible and usable in a way that allows anyone – individuals, institutions and machines alike – to build new stories, add new material or context to or connect to other media, indexed and tagged to the highest level of detail. You can start to see in the image below that there’s been a little bit of thought put into how the public can access digital cultural content more easily.
The Digital Public Space initiative has been spearheaded by Tony Ageh, BBC Archives Controller and the man credited with the creation of the BBC’s iPlayer, the model for ABC’s iview. Like Berners-Lee’s Semantic Web, this is a hugely ambitious and is no less than about remaking the Internet. The work put into redefining access to our public culture today may be hard, but the public benefits are, to paraphrase Berners-Lee, limited only by our imagination.
We need to move beyond thinking about open access as destroying value, through lost licensing opportunities, and start thinking about how new open access models will create new value.
It may not be for everyone, this desire to not only read about the people and events of the past, to also have the sense of experiencing and engaging with them directly online, through original documentary recordings – with history as it has unfolded.
But we should have no doubts that our children will expect to have their history and their public culture at their digital fingertips.
Not taking steps to be more visible, sharable, re-editable and indexable by tomorrow’s digital natives surely risks diminishing the value of our cultural institutions for future generations?
Image credit: Rory Fink: Reflections in a Distorted Landscape. From the RetroFlective exhibition.
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?
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.
@_sarahbarns talking about the device taking up the engagement, rather than the experience being about the cultural artefact/space #ndf2012
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.
Access to field recordings problematic. The ABC only gave @_sarahbarns access because they hired her for a project. #ndf2012
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.
Prior to the launch of these installations we ran call-outs inviting people to share their own archives – images or stories – for incorporation into projections, as captured below.
These contributions were then used alongside recordings I’d located through partner organisations. The outcomes were both a web platform containing ‘hyper-local’ collections and recordings about a place, sourced from a number of different cultural collections, loungerooms and basements, as well as a series of site-specific installations. Installations include large scale video projections and sound, which are featured out and about in the streets after dark for the month of the Art & About Festival. For Last Drinks, we also included a mobile site and additional print based signage, and a tie-in with the Sydney Morning Herald’s AirLink service.
Here are some of the Flickr slideshows from these projects. You can also explore more video, soundscapes and more through the ESEM Projects website and associated project websites.
Unguarded Moments Slideshow, Art & About Sydney 2011.
Last Drinks Slideshow, Art & About Sydney 2012.
The different ‘speculative adventures’ I’ve been discussing with you today have all been a lot of fun, and the experience of being able to uncover and explore recorded archaeologists of place in the way I’ve been doing is hugely rewarding. Perhaps I was a private detective in a former life, who knows. I’ve received a lot of support from particular institutions, not least the National Film and Sound Archive, the State Library of NSW, the City of Sydney and the ABC.
But I should warn you, should you be interested in navigating such a journey through your own city’s archive, the path is rather convoluted and remains full of obstacles.
Not least, mounting a project in the public domain isn’t easy. Building owners may be happy to support you, but they have less ‘skin in the game’ than one would sometimes wish for. You can’t measure your audiences, who are often incidental passers-by, like you might at a gallery or museum. But perhaps the biggest of these obstacles remains the thorny matter of digital access.
At the beginning of this presentation I spoke about the sense of ‘big archives’ – that we are overwhelmed by archive fever – but in fact we are still a long way away from being able to seamlessly navigate an urban historical environment through its digital archives. This is partly because many collections items, in particular broadcast recordings, are not usually valued for their ability to document a changing city, and are usually catalogued for their relevance to media history, not urban history. So this means there is a lot of auditioning involved!
But there remain a number of obstacles to actually being able to view, audition, and re-use these recordings for public installations. I can be tenacious and stubborn but others less so would give up on trying to create a ‘cross-collection’ archive based on the history of a place. And so I do find it interesting that our collective past as captured by our public media, and preserved by our collecting institutions can be so inaccessible at times. Many of the recordings of the past -as captured on film and publicly-funded television and radio- do remain mostly closed to the ‘woman on the street’ so to speak.
When we live in a digital age, when our expectations of learning and experiencing a sense of the past involve not only books but media recordings and artefacts, YouTube and StreetView, I think we also need to consider a broader concept of what public space means, to include considerations of how it is that we access and participate in sharing and re-using our ‘digital public spaces’. What might the different forms of access be for different kinds of uses, whether as a student, a historian, or a documentary maker, or a city council, and how might we define the public values of our digital archives in the future – not just as ‘memory institutions’ but also as resources for future creativity and innovation?
That’s a near future I’m speculating about right now.
It’s been awhile between drinks. So a few updates to follow with news of what I’ve been up to and projects a’happening. Most noteworthy for now is the latest installation featuring as part of the City of Sydney’s 2012 Art & About Festival. The success of Unguarded Moments in 2011 led to funding for a major project for the 2012 Festival.
Last Drinks – One More Round at the Hotel Australia
Imagine a hotel so grand that famed French actress Sarah Bernhardt performed at its opening night in 1891; an establishment so glamorous that it was the hotel of choice for Hollywood heavyweights Katharine Hepburn, Shirley Bassey and Sir Robert Helpmann â?? and you will be recreating the famed Hotel Australia.
The video and sound installation project, Last Drinks: One more round at the Hotel Australia, is part of the City of Sydney’s 11th annual Art & About Festival running from 21 September until 21 October 2012. A series of night time installations will re-inscribe the hidden history of the precinct back onto the buildings and laneways of the precinct, enabling memories of sophistication and style to collide with the present day.
If you plan to make it along before the Festival finishes – do consult the map before you go. There are also signs and maps around the site and an msite to help you around. But to be sure, here is a map of the installations.
WHAT IF faces from the past were visible again, watching us in our streets and laneways?
This question was the premise of Unguarded Moments, a series of site-specific video installations featuring in selected locations throughout Walsh Bay and Millers Point during Art & About Sydney 2011. The project was supported by the City of Sydney and the result of a collaboration between designer Michael Killalea of killanoodle and myself as researcher and producer.
Projections drew from documentary films and photographs, featuring past & present residents and workers. In this way, the history of the working port, its waterside workers and its residents were re-inscribed back into its present day environment – exteriors of buildings, interiors of shopfronts, sandstone walls, and even the underside of a wharf. The website was also developed to provide more in-depth coverage of the many different films, photographs, and people that featured in the film projections. An intensely fascinating project, with incredible support from the City of Sydney and past and present residents of Millers Point.
Here’s a selection of videos projected as part of the installations. Produced by Michael Killalea and edited by Gabrielle Dowrick. Generous support from the National Film and Sound Archive.
‘Views’ – excerpts.
This projection features landscape imagery of Millers Point, rear projected through the front window of 44 Argyle Place Millers Point. Projection one of nine featuring as part of Unguarded Moments Millers Point, for Art and About Sydney 2011. Original photos sourced from a number of collections including the City of Sydney archives, the State Records Authority and the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority.
Local Lives – Abraham Mott Hall.
Projection featuring community photos featuring as part of Unguarded Moments Millers Point, featuring as part of Art & About Sydney 2011. This is a close-up of the projection shot from the roof of the Abraham Mott Hall.
Girl Eating a Sandwich – Walsh Bay
Video loop, 2011. Rear projection Shop 12, 23 Hickson Rd.Video loop, 2011. Sourced from Rupert Kathner’s Australia Today: Customs Officer’s War Against Drugs (1938). With support from the National Film and Sound Archive Australia.
Big Industry – Hickson Rd Millers Point
Video loop, Hickson Rd, Millers Point. Sourced from archival film footage shot on location. Credits include Waterside Workers Federation Film Unit The Hungry Miles (1955), Pensions for Veterans (1954) and November Victory (1953).
Power, Pickups and Protest
Projected onto Pottinger St, Walsh Bay.
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.
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.
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.
GEORGE ST 1906
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.
DOCUMENTARY HIGHLIGHT: LIVING ON THE FRINGE
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.
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.
WHEN OLD TECHNOLOGIES WERE NEW…
FIRST TELEVISION BROADCAST
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.
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?
In 1990Margaret 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 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!).
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.
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 AustraliaÃs 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?
This essay was written in August 2007. It outlines some of the possibilities of working with archives in site-specific ways using digital platforms, following on from my residency at the National Film and Sound Archives.