Artistic License: VR Sydney Cove circa 1800

Every heritage visualisation has a degree of informed speculation/artistic license. The historical record is rarely if ever complete. Historic visualisations are based on incomplete and sometimes contradictory evidence, archaeological and archival. They are a best guess, on the available evidence at the time they were created, of what the past was thought to be like. Artistic License: VR Sydney Cove circa 1800 is a liminal work that foregrounds the conundrum that lies at the heart of heritage visualisation.
Missing Image
A View of Sydney Cove Circa 1804
National Library of Australia
Call Number: PIC Drawer 16 #S45

Artistic License: VR Sydney Cove circa 1800 was created as part of the Australian National University Vice-Chancellor's College Visiting Artist Fellows Scheme (VCCVAFS). I was a successful applicant in 2017 and an exhibition of the resulting works was held from the 22nd June to the 13th July 2018 at the ANU School of Art and Design Gallery in Canberra. The work re-creates in VR (Virtual Reality) the view shown in an engraving titled A View of Sydney Cove, New South Wales (1804). The engraving was done by F. Jukes from a drawing done by Thomas Watling (1762-1814) that was coloured by Edward Dayes (1763-1804) of a picture painted at the colony of uncertain date and authorship nd since lost to history.

While the image may be exactly what it purports to be, it may also be a collage assembled by the artist. A number of possible tropes have been identified in the picture. The first is the large ship under sail. Paintings which were commissioned by captains or ship owners would always include their vessel somewhere in the view. The second visual trope may be the man with the cattle, which may have been included to show that the land was bountiful. They may also have been included as a way of contrasting with the aboriginal group, to show the ‘industrious European’ versus the ‘idle Native’. Finally, the Aboriginal group in the foreground is definitely a trope. Numerous views of early Sydney by different artists include an Aboriginal group in the foreground. This was probably for several reasons. It was common to see Aboriginals throughout Sydney Harbour in the early years of settlement so including some would make the image more ‘authentic’ even if they were not on that particular rock on that particular day. Picasso describes Art as ‘the lie that tells the truth’ and they may have been included for that reason. They may have been included for their exoticism (to Western eyes) and the ‘local colour’. As mentioned earlier, they may have been included as a comparison with the cattle herder. And finally, they may have been included in a ‘noble savage’ context but, in this case, one would expect to see them in a natureShould setting.

Missing Image
Artistic License: Sydney Cove Circa 1800
Kit Devine 2018

Artistic License: VR Sydney Cove circa 1800 is a passive work that locates the user within the landscape of the print. The experience is that of a person at a lookout and is intended to be a work that encourages a contemplative engagement the content. The user is located at a position that matches the viewpoint captured in the print, but they can move their head freely to look in all directions. They are able to walk a couple of paces in any direction but that is all. The Aboriginal group, the herder and cows and the ship are all included, though the ship is at anchor not under sail. There are two additional tropes that the artist has added to the scene, one visual and one audio.

The visual trope, taken from film production, is the addition of a flock of cockatoos that loop through the landscape, at one point passing over the head of the user. The audio trope, taken from film audio production, is the inclusion of the sound of kookaburras. The audio of this work is obviously completely speculative as there are no audio records from 1800. Yet audio plays a critical role in the re-creation of a place. The audio directly engages with the interpretive/speculative nature of heritage visualization. The sound is made up of different tracks, some of which are triggered, some of which play continuously, and some of which play intermittently with a random delay between repeats. Together they create a dynamic soundscape that entwines with the visual to evoke a sense of being in a particular place and time in users.

The work is delivered using a tethered HTC Vive, with the tether suspended above the centre of a three-metre square space. Next to the work is a small board with the artist’s statement and instructions. There is a chair in the middle of the space and, on the floor next to the chair, are the Vive headset and a pair of headphones. Following the instructions, users sit on the chair and put on the headset first, followed by the headphones. They are able to stand up if they want to and walk a pace or two in any direction. There is a chair in the virtual world that matches the position of the real chair, so users can always orientate themselves in both the virtual and real worlds. When they have seen, and heard, enough they sit down and remove the headphones and headset and leave them for the next user.

Artistic License: VR Sydney Cove circa 1800 is a work that fosters conversation and broadens debate about heritage at individual, institutional, academic and societal levels. Given the current state of knowledge about Sydney’s early history it is a plausibly accurate re-creation, so it could simply be described as a heritage visualization. However, in its very title it declares itself to be an artwork that foregrounds the assumptions that underlie heritage visualisations. The work is contradictory and therefore perfectly encapsulates the conundrum at the heart of heritage visualisation. As such, it offers a novel interpretation model for museum settings that will engage with different audiences and encourage wider debate as to the nature and uses of heritage.


Artistic License: VR Sydney Cove ca. 1800 was created as a direct outcome of the 2017 Australian National University’s Vice-Chancellor's College Visiting Artist Fellows Scheme (VCCVAFS). Thank you!
The artist would not have been awarded her VCCVA Fellowship without the support of Professor Laurajane Smith (ANU School of Archaeology and Anthropology) and Dr Ben Swift (ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science). Thank you!
The artist also wishes to thank Dr Chaitanya Sambrani (ANU School of Art and Design) for his introducing her to the ‘lazy native’ and the ‘Colonial Picturesque’.
The artist also wishes to thank Professor Denise Ferris (Head of the ANU School of Art and Design) and the ANU School of Art and Design for her support.

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