Among the many podcasts to showcase a museum’s collection, the Powerhouse’s Oscillations stands out for its multiplicity and depth. By Fiona Wright.
Here is the one-liner, that self-description at the opening of each episode that every podcast relies upon: Oscillations is “about things that pulse and fluctuate, from heartbeats to brainwaves and economic cycles to cosmic orbits”.
If that sounds vague, it’s because it’s also spacious. Across this series there’s so much variety in subject matter and story, as well as in approach and style, that trying to narrow and condense it into a tagline must have been a challenge. Each episode feels like something entirely its own, and could easily stand alone. The different directions in which each contributor takes this sweeping theme are surprising and the real pleasure of this podcast.
These contributors, in a one-liner of their own, are described as “artists, journalists, poets and curious people”. Each is tasked with responding to a single item within the collection of Sydney’s Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, which is better known as the Powerhouse Museum after its original site, a converted electric tram power station in Ultimo.
This premise, of course, isn’t uncommon among podcasts, especially those created by museums and galleries. A History of the World in 100 Objects, a British Museum–BBC collaboration, is an early and much-loved example. The format really took off and reached its current prevalence during the pandemic, when so many of these institutions were closed to the public and unable to operate as usual. This object-based format makes sense as a means of showcasing an institutional collection: it operates as a catalogue in audio form, albeit one idiosyncratic in its organisation and selection.
It’s also a format that allows new audiences and new creators, or “curious people”, to interact with the collected items – even when they aren’t physically accessible – and interpret them in different contexts. This is, of course, the very task of museums and galleries in the first place, and what these kinds of podcasts allow is an expansive narrative, and an in-depth exploration of resonance and meaning for each selected item. They are unbounded by space, and so they have more room.
The objects at the centre of each episode of Oscillations are wonderfully strange and they are connected with very different scales of social life and history. There is a camera lens once owned by Amelia Eve Wong and Henry Wong, two Asian–Australian photographers working at the turn of the 20th century. A piece of space junk from the Skylab space station, discovered on a remote cattle property more than a decade after it fell to Earth. A brass button from the uniform of an unknown Native Police officer from the very early years of colonisation, and a homemade, electrically charged healing device designed to pass radio waves through the people seated within it and thereby cure them of their ills. Personal items, amateur inventions, professional tools and parts of uniforms sit alongside objects that are scientific, political products of industrial design.
It’s understandable, then, that the collaborators’ responses to these items range widely across scope and style. John Jacobs and Jane Curtis, for example, dedicate their episode to the “Audio-Tactile Pedestrian Detector” button, or pedestrian button – an item so ubiquitous and unobtrusive in city streets that it seems part of the fabric of the world. In part because of the item’s complex and very human history – it is the result of some of the earliest disability activism in this country – and because of the pair’s shared background as radio producers and reporters, their response is straightforwardly journalistic. Omar Musa, in contrast, responds to a radiesthesia pendulum, a device used as a means of divination, with a love poem.
The musician and sound artist Alexandra Spence’s episode on the piece of Skylab debris blends its narrative elements and philosophical inquiry with recordings of plasma waves and electromagnetic emissions from the atmosphere and space. These “sonified emissions” have an eerie, glitchy quality, a low-key humming that enhances the uncanny oddity of Spence’s chosen item, and they serve as a beautiful and effective interface between its physicality and the incorporeal audio form in which she is working.
In a similar vein, Sally Olds’s brilliantly bolshie exploration of the history of unemployment and dole-related media panics in Australia – which uses a poster made by the Unemployed Workers’ Union as its starting point – includes recordings of tabloid television and the automated responses of the Centrelink phone line in a contradistinction to her argument that’s at once terrifically funny and deeply sad.
Two of the strongest episodes – Jinghua Qian’s response to the early camera lens and Dakota Feirer’s reflection on the Native Police uniform button – combine a very personal kind of storytelling with complex and difficult questioning about the role of collections in curating official histories, about power and collusion. Qian’s episode in particular has a thrilling cogency and boldness to its argument – no small part of which is their cheeky use of a camera lens as the foundation of their thinking through of invisibility, inscrutability and what these might afford.
Both Qian and Feirer are interested in possibilities and resistance, and keenly aware of the kinds of stories that are not or cannot actually be contained by objects. This kind of complication, multiplicity and depth of thinking is precisely what makes Oscillations feel different from other podcasts that share its format. There is a real sense of risk and provocation to many of the episodes, as refreshing as it is exciting.
The quality of the writing and the complexity of the stories that unspool from each of these objects are the real strengths of this podcast. That these writers have been given the space and freedom required is a credit to the editorial and production team. Oscillations touches on histories of identity, wellness, violence, economics, exploration, music, media, art and labour – all of which are as large-scale as they are local. These are expansive stories – often playful and occasionally angry but always questioning and deeply curious. So too do the quirky, quiet details that each episode uncovers offer deepened, wider and stranger visions of these objects and their worlds.
The Oscillations audio series is available from the Powerhouse Museum website, Spotify, Soundcloud and Apple.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 11, 2023 as "Object permanence".
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