18 July 2019

Siobhan McHugh is an Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of Wollongong who specialises in the aesthetics and impact of crafted audio storytelling, to capture ‘the power of voice’. Her research is concerned with the power of sound, the production of intimacy, and the new knowledge that is accessed when oral history and journalism are creatively adapted for an aural format, such as in a documentary or podcast.

As part of an ARC-supported project at the University of Wollongong, led by art historian Professor Ian McLean, and including Ms Margo Neale, Senior Indigenous Curator at the National Museum of Australia, Professor McHugh has been using oral history techniques to explore the production of Aboriginal art from the perspectives of its producers.

Professor McHugh has recorded 35 oral history interviews with Indigenous artists, art centre staff, gallerists, curators and others who were involved with the Buku-Larrnyggay Mulka art centre in Yirrkala in North-East Arnhem Land and Warlukurlangu centre in Yuendemu, on the Tanami road to the North-West of Alice Springs. An urban Indigenous arts collective, proppaNOW in Brisbane, was the third organisation researched for the project.

“We wanted to bring in Indigenous knowledge about Indigenous art practice—normally Aboriginal art is framed by art anthropologists or historians. By bringing in the oral element, we were able to put Indigenous voices front and centre.”

Professor McHugh says that the oral history methods she has developed over 30 years of crafting audio encompass a ‘deep listening’ that differs from a journalistic approach. “It is culturally absurd to parachute in and stick a microphone in front of someone, expecting to get a credible story,” says Professor McHugh.

The craft of storytelling through an aural medium is likened to that of a film director by Professor McHugh. She describes the process of setting up recording circumstances, building trust, and later choreographing the recorded sound so as to achieve its full affective force, as a craft that is gaining increasing attention and impact in the wake of the proliferation of podcasts online. Over 700,000 different shows with about 28 million episodes are currently available for download from the iTunes catalogue.

“With the podcast, you can have confidence and take liberties that are not possible with a broadcast medium. For instance, you can control the pace with silence—silence is a big ‘no-no’ for radio—but silence allows you, as a listener, to actually take in what you are listening to.”

Professor McHugh has conducted experiments that show when two pieces of audio information are played with a six-second musical gap between them, they are more affective than when played with a two-second gap.

“There is a science around the use of timing in audio—and when creating oral histories you can understand and deploy that,” says Professor McHugh. “Audio has its own grammar, its own rules, and its own logic.”

One of the outcomes of the current research project is a podcast called Heart of Artness, ‘a journey into the cross-cultural stories that animate the Aboriginal art world’, which was devised and produced by Professor McHugh and draws on interviews that were recorded as part of the ARC-supported investigation. Episode two of the podcast achieved significant international recognition, receiving Gold for the Culture and Arts Category at the 2019 New York Radio Awards.

In the episode, Professor McHugh explores the art and stories of three Indigenous artists—Garawan Wanambi, Gunybi Ganambarr, Yinimala Gumana—from Yolngu country in North-East Arnhem Land, whose art is sold by the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre.

“We were walking by the river bank, and the men just sat and started talking. In that moment they wanted to talk. We were looking ahead, over the river, and they told their stories of a massacre that had occurred at that place,” says Professor McHugh.

“I’ve noticed so many times that the pauses contain meaning... audio can implant so much that isn’t verbal. And when putting this podcast together, I made a conscious decision to mainly use audio I had recorded on site. The sound of children playing, birdsong, the ambience of the river, supplemented by Yolngu songs (‘Manikay’) recorded by the community for different ceremonies.”

“That commitment to listening is something that had been missing. And at the same time the three artists were committed to telling. In its reception, we could see that art critics were sitting up and taking notice—and [Project leader Professor] Ian McLean was thrilled by what this different approach yielded.”

Ever since non-traditional research outputs (NTROs) were included as part of the ARC’s Excellence in Research for Australia in 2010, Professor McHugh has been championing NTROs such as crafted oral histories, which can be audited alongside traditional books, book chapters, journal articles and full conference proceedings.

A speaker on podcast formats at the 2019 World Journalism Education Congress in Paris, Professor McHugh says that researchers are interested in examining the growth of audio as a media format. “A podcast is not just people talking… you have to be audio-literate to get the best stories.  It’s like film, you can’t just knock together a (great) film, unless you are the Coen brothers.”

Professor McHugh is teaching her students to ‘leave the pauses in’ and ‘think through their ears’ and says that a new wave of audio scholars is fast approaching critical mass.

“Everyone is now trying to figure out what kind of research would benefit from an audio treatment, to uncover new knowledge, a new synthesis, and new meaning. And we are leading the way.” 

Images (from top):

Yolngu artists (L to R) Gunybi Ganambarr and Garawan Wanambi at the site of the 1911 Gangan massacre, NE Arnhem Land, where their interviews were recorded for the Heart of Artness podcast, 2016. Credit: Professor McHugh.

The ARC-supported research team that made the award-winning Heart of Artness podcast on a field trip in Alice Springs, 2015: Margo Neale, Senior Indigenous Curator at the National Museum of Australia and Adjunct Professor, The Australian National University; Professor Ian McLean, Hugh Ramsay Chair of Contemporary Art, The University of Melbourne; Siobhan McHugh, Associate Professor of Journalism, University of Wollongong. Credit: Professor McHugh.

Field recording for the Heart of Artness podcastSiobhan McHugh accompanies employees of the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala, NE Arnhem Land, as they cut bark for Yolngu artists, 2016. Credit: Professor McHugh.