Slices of Time

By Linda Carroli
Arts Hub, August 2009

The relationship between representations of places and the places themselves is slippery and evocative. They are locked in reference to each other, tokens of each other. The art and culture of the city, as an archaeological undertaking, always involves an unearthing: either an uncovering or a flight. A representation is a rendering that is ordinarily removed or taken away: an impression is elsewhere, perhaps resituated as a painting in a collection, and a sound, even when recorded, is fleeting. New stories of art, experience and the city can be sifted and lifted out of the archive or collection.

The National Gallery of Australia’s new publication, McCubbin: Last Impressions 1907 – 1917 by Anne Gray, landed in my post office box recently. The book accompanies an exhibition running until 1 November. The cover features a street scene of Collins Street, Melbourne, and this struck me, from vague memory, as atypical of McCubbin’s work. This then prompted me to look again and think again. Reacquainting myself with these works, as I flip through the book, I note other cityscapes and industrial scapes. While painting of the late Victorian era is often referred to as capturing and romanticising the bush and rural life, there are signs in McCubbin’s later paintings of an emerging modern urban and metropolitan identity. Indeed, McCubbin was one of the first Australia artists to produce Australian work in the image of the modern world and in the decade to 1917 produced many urban, industrial and city views. In his introduction Ron Radford points out that the turn McCubbin took in this decade, attributable to influences from European Impressionism, saw a turn away from sentimental and nostalgic narrative works. Instead, progressive Australian cities casting into the future and imaged in these paintings: the cities of the new century were cities of light and hope.

It seems significant that we should reflect on such historical artworks capturing Australia’s growing cities and industry as somehow formative of the ‘archaeology’ and culture of our cities. While riding to prosperity on the sheep’s back was oppressively constitutive of the national identity until well into the 20th century, other, more rancorous cultural ruptures claimed the national imagination and led to urban expressions of culture, people and architecture. In Australia, tensions between city and bush have been played out repeatedly since white invasion particularly in the nation’s story systems and cultural formations. The notion of archaeology – in the sense that the philosopher Michel Foucault has described - draws a relationship between our knowing and our archives (our collections). It evokes a search. Interestingly, though, the history and significance of the city is ordinarily imbued in the materiality of the place: a structure or a monument. The McCubbin publication appears as a kind of re-search – searching again – to seek out new resonances and significance, to reflect anew about how artistic freedom can reinvigorate our seeing and telling of place and experience. The ‘scapes’ that McCubbin captures are experiential: not still, sombre and somnolent but alive and bustling, like Princess Bridge, or burgeoning and labouring, like Shipping on the Yarra. However, for all their life and enchantment, they remain silent reflections of urban history, of something that was.

Our archives have double lives: collecting and organising objects over time, they are also provide a place to study and examine their holdings. If, as Karl Marx once proclaimed, history does nothing, what answers are we seeking from history when we explore it with seeming method and intent? Marx may well have a point on this question of history. Is history merely dormant waiting for someone to do something with it or about it? Perhaps to activate and enliven it from its slumber, to force us to face it in some way or other, to grasp at fleeting insights that so easily slip from view, to free us from its sometimes ruinous and shameful legacies. History, like the city, is there for the keeping, making and telling.

So in this weave of archives, archaeology and the city, from which we can rediscover or recast the past, I turn to a more contemporary and more familiar exploration of these themes. And a century or so on from McCubbin’s negotiations of Melbourne, Sarah Barns’ Jaywalking Sydney seems to invert the exploration of site. Honed on the changing street life of the city, she does not represent the site in order to remove it but rather restore the representation to the site. As McCubbin challenged our ways of seeing place, Barns challenges our ways of listening in place. She describes her process as “as using archives to excavate an area – an archaeology of recorded action, rather than surviving artefact”. Jaywalking Sydney has evolved into an ABC project, Sydney Sidetracks: Exploring a city of lost sounds, which 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. The project makes historic audio, film, text and images accessible via an interactive map, which can be seen on a mobile phone or online. It also has a user content contribution capability.

Speaking at a conference in Brisbane a couple of months ago, she discussed her interest in ‘auditory looking’ and “how archival recordings about Sydney locations could be made available in-situ using mobile devices such as mobile phones”. Initiated as a Fellowship with the National Sound and Film Archive, Jaywalking Sydney aimed to use archival audio recordings so that a user’s experience of a site could be framed by sounds from another era. That is, using a mobile device, you could be in Martin Place, Sydney, and be prompted to listen to the exuberant ABC coverage and field recordings of VP-Day 1945. In this reconnection of the ‘auditory past’ with the visual/physical present – or reassembling the soundscape with the landscape - through the magic of informatics, the history of the city is recontextualised. Less of an artefact and more of an event. In reconnecting – perhaps re-enchanting - a place with its past, history is more than a shadow, a ghost or an echo. Some histories can never leave us. We might find ourselves in the midst of Redfern’s outbreak of resistance to police brutality or the thousands who first walked across the Harbour Bridge in the name of a then unspoken word, ‘Sorry’. As the cities of last century were bathed in hope and light, the cities of this century may well be imaged as recombinant and fractious.

Our art and our history tells us much about our cities and it seems a great loss that planners, engineers, policy makers and designers aren’t more engaged with the cultural formation of the city. Perhaps it’s because those practices, as institutionalised practices, tend to inscribe, erase or overlay rather than unearth. It also seems a shame that paintings like those of McCubbin are now remote from the history they capture. In opening and exploring the archives, the gates of the city should be thrown wide open, spilling the mixed realities of past and present across the cultural and informatic landscape. As cultural geography becomes increasingly composed of flows, and site specificity is understood as convergence or reverberation, erasing cultural history from and of the urban environment isn’t going to be as easy as it used to be.


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