Laura Drewe 10394967
Assessment 1: Sound/Interaction Research Report
The Wireless House, Glebe
On 23rd November 1923, Australia saw the much anticipated, first public radio broadcast. Before this date, radio had been used predominantly for communicating at sea, allowing ships to contact each other and people on shore. This served as an aid to navigation, as well as allowing ships to send emergency distress signals. Radio had also allowed for communication in remote or difficult circumstances, such as fire services, lighthouses and isolated communities.
But it was in broadcasting sound to the general public that radio has had its biggest influence. Despite the excitement surrounded the advent of radio broadcasting, uptake was slow due to the cost and license fees charged to listeners. The Great Depression of the 1930s saw many families facing poverty and unemployment, and many could not afford such a luxury.
However, in 1934 the Wireless House was built in Foley Park, Glebe to provide radio broadcasts to the local community. Commissioned by Glebe Council, it was a public listening place – and in a local park. This was the only free, listening space of its kind at the time. The Wireless House operated from 10am until 10.15pm on a daily basis[i]. It was immensely popular and because of the open space, could cater to large crowds. People embraced this new medium that was now freely available to them. No wonder they were so responsive. The Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan, Susan Douglas says, “sound transmitted over radio envelops us, pouring into us…including us, involving us”[ii]. In Glebe, people would gather and enjoy daily music, news and entertainment programs. Small boys at the time, Tony and Frank Galluzzo describe what it meant to them, “We’d go to the park, and there would be about 50 people, sitting around on the benches. There were three sides to the box, and three speakers. It was the place where we all used to meet… we would have a game of football, and gather around. The radio was a very important part of our day”.[iii] During the Depression, men would often listen at dawn for reports of where work was available at the docks in Darling Harbour[iv]. Roughly 40 per cent of the male population was unemployed at this time.[v] Noeline Reddy, who was born in Glebe, remembers those days. She says, “You would get coupons for the butcher and the grocer…and you would go to Glebe Town Hall twice a year, the men would get boots and pants, the women would get underwear and dress material.” She also remembers going to the Wireless House, then called ‘the radio shack’, with her brother at 4pm to listen to a serial about “a little Aborigine boy”. And she remembers the local men gathering there on a Saturday afternoon to listen to the races and play dominoes.[vi]
With the development of television and the automobile, the Wireless House gradually lost its popularity and in the early 1950s the structure was converted to a council tool shed. Despite its decline, the Wireless House has been heritage-listed by the National Trust. In 2008, Australian-based sculptor and sound artist Nigel Helyer breathed new life into the place by creating the Wireless House project – a contemporary version of its predecessor. His aim was to reclaim the potential for sound to produce a communal space within the park – a sonic activation. As people approach the structure, a sensor is triggered and a historic audio archive is randomly selected. These archives are provided by the National Sound and Music Archives. People can, in effect, be taken back in time and relive the news and events of a past era. FM radio reception can also be received by mobile phone and standard FM radio receivers.
Stainless steel screens have been fitted to the building’s walls to depict a representation of the relative field strength transmitted and received by a radio antenna. A transparent polycarbonate panel has replaced the original steel door. The interior has been refurbished with the required equipment to deliver different forms of radio content; there are also sculptural references to 1930s radio technology such as valves and antennae.
The Wireless House project invites members of the public to interact by sharing their personal stories about Wireless House, radio in Australia, audio recordings, videos, texts and historical photographs from this period to be incorporated into the House itself and online. A large proportion of the content comes from the establishment of a Glebe local oral history project that aims to generate an audio portrait of the community. Oral historian and content producer Julia Burns has engaged extensively with community members by recording oral histories as well as training and working with Glebe residents in digital audio and video technology so that they can take control of the production and publication of their own stories[vii]. In an interview with ABC Radio broadcaster Deborah Cameron, she said that public listening facilities in Australia, and worldwide, are quite rare and that the Wireless House is an important contribution to the Glebe community. In the same program, Cameron spoke on air with a listener Vincent, who recalled going to the Wireless House in the 1940s: “There were a number of men gathered there listening to the radio. My grandmother explained that during the Depression, men used to walk from the wool stores (in Pyrmont) up to the Wireless House and have a rest. The park was then called Rest Park, before it was renamed Foley Park.”[viii]
What makes the Wireless House interesting is that it is more than a memorial to the past. Equipped with a wireless internet node, the site has become Sydney’s first official free outdoor hotspot. While it provides visitors with internet access, it also provides a comprehensive website featuring oral histories, and archival sound materials. In the Wireless House, Helyer is capturing the sounds of the past, incorporating the technologies of the present, and enveloping the viewer in the work; in 2010, Helyer created a similar project called GhosTrain at Carriageworks, a performing arts centre based in the old Sydney rail yards at Eveleigh, in which he offers oral histories from former rail yard workers, an audio installation and an interactive iPod app. GhosTrain, like the Wireless House, presents a preserved building complemented by a resurrected audio history[ix].
While yesterday’s community gathered around the radio transmitter, contemporary wireless presents many more forms of social and community engagement and interaction. Today, sound broadcasts don’t always have to be listened to at the time of the broadcast. Websites now offer recordings for people to download at their own convenience, such as podcasts. The emergence of podcasting in 2005 has been revolutionary. Sound artists and research academics Virginia Madsen and John Potts say this development occurred for two reasons: ”time shifting, which allows users to listen to audio items when and where they choose; and mobility, due to the portability of the iPod and other MP3 players.”[x] No longer is this medium a one-way street – podcasts, websites and digital radio offer a range of choices for individual listeners where sound can meet text, image and moving image. The audience becomes part of the interaction. As Madsen and Potts say, “Much of the early excitement surrounding podcasting then concerned the use of these new technologies to challenge or bypass traditional communication and media channels. Podcasting in 2005 was about ‘reclaiming the radio’, ‘refreshing the radio’, ignoring the hierarchial ‘gate-keeping’ role of mass media, and developing instead a ‘horizontal’ media form where consumers were also producers”.[xi]
So, the relevance and social value of the Wireless House project brings back a sense of interaction, openness and community that Nigel Helyer believes are important at a time when portable audio technologies are thriving. As he says, there has been a “cultural shift away from the collective and personal and toward a valorization of the individual and the privatized… iPod users enact a ‘serial withdrawal’ from public space, into ‘micro-acoustic-ecologies’, an audio world of one’s own.”[xii] The Wireless House is an important evolution in sound communication because it brings old media and new media together, catering to a new dynamic sound environment. It is, as Madsen and Potts say, “Where ‘old’ media offer passive consumption, new media offer interactivity”.[xiii]
[ii] Susan Douglas, Listening in: Radio and the American Imagination: from Amos ‘n’ Andy and Edward R.Murrow to Wolfman Jack and Howard Stern (New York, N.Y.: Times Books), 30
[v] Max Solling (author of Grandeur and Grit) interview, http://pool.abc.net.au/media/wireless-house-audience
[vi] Noeline Reddy interview http://pool.abc.net.au/media/memories-wireless-house-noeline-reddy
[viii] Julia Burns and Deborah Cameron on The Wireless House http://pool.abc.net.au/media/wireless-house-abc-702-local-radio
[x] Voice Cast: The Distribution of the Voice via Podcast from Neumark, N. Gibson, R. & Van Leeuwen, T. (eds), 2010, Vocal Aesthetics in Digital Arts and Media, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, p45
[xi] Voice Cast: The Distribution of the Voice via Podcast from Neumark, N. Gibson, R. & Van Leeuwen, T. (eds), 2010, Vocal Aesthetics in Digital Arts and Media, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, p45
[xii] Voice Cast: The Distribution of the Voice via Podcast from Neumark, N. Gibson, R. & Van Leeuwen, T. (eds), 2010, Vocal Aesthetics in Digital Arts and Media, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, p46
[xiii] Voice Cast: The Distribution of the Voice via Podcast from Neumark, N. Gibson, R. & Van Leeuwen, T. (eds), 2010, Vocal Aesthetics in Digital Arts and Media, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, p20