Walking at The Rocks in Sydney – The City of Forking Paths “Blends Timelines”

“An artwork made in 2014, walking it today in 2019, we question how things change and how different the places have become"

City of Forking Paths at the Custom House
Image by Vivian Wu; City of Forking Paths at the Custom House

You may walk in The Rocks like a visitor, shopping at small booths, dining at classic European restaurants and enjoying the atmosphere with its long history. But have you ever walked there guided by a story?

The City of Forking Paths allows you to walk, from hidden alleyways to main streets, into another world of The Rocks. You will be guided by an iPod touch and a 3D audio headphone in the tour. While the headphone plays narration to guide you, sounds to confuse you from reality; the iPod touch plays a video walk with fictional scenarios.

According to City Art Sydney, City of Forking Paths is commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney in 2014. Canadian artists Janet Cardiff and George Miller were invited specifically to produce it with the intention to become a permanent legacy artwork in the City of Sydney art collection.

Broadsheet stated the Canadian artists are famous for their audio tours which have an entirely 3D effect. It stated the artists use binaural audio with layers of sound effects, music, and voices across the main walking track to create another immersive reality as you stroll.

Once you start walking, you will be guided by artist Jane Cardiff voice that brings you to another reality.

As you walk along the water at Circular Quay, Cardiff in the audio said, “That’s the worst thing about doing this art piece, walking around the city alone, having to figure out where to go for dinner.” She addresses us being alone to work on this piece of art with a sense of isolation.

“Don’t go too fast along here, try to keep the image in sync.” She guided us to walk into her reality by making sure the image on the device synchronizes with our surroundings. The distant train horned, footsteps, background chatter, and noises were parts of the audio. They further confused us from sounds in our reality.

Once you hear “excuse me…,” I bet you will look around. However, no one seems to be talking to you, well, because that comes from the headphone.

Music in The City of Forking Paths 

The walking tour also touches on other forms of audio art — music, As you walk through some hidden areas in The Rocks, such as Greenway Lane and Foundation Park, you hear and see music performances played by different instruments.

Since the hour-long walk is meant to start at dusk, the dark and quiet environment together with the suspenseful music raises your feelings of disorientation.

“Blending Timelines” 

City of Sydney Art Manager Heather Tralaggan said the tour was all about questioning realities and blending timelines together. “An artwork made in 2014, walking it today in 2019, we question how things change and how different the places have become. We want to know what is real and the history of this place.”

The crooked streets of The Rocks marks the early settlement of British convicts, particularly public housing for poorer citizens. Now, these houses are redeveloped and represent the oldest history of Australia. The video captures all these cobblestone alleyways and places that are bound to change over time.

  • Man in Duck Tape
    Image by Vivian Wu; Man in Duck Tape

When asked about the challenges of delivering this type of artwork, Miss Tralaggan said there were certain risks of having it done in the dark but it was inherent in the nature of this artwork. “Some people may find it confusing and disorienting, but the risk is integral to the work,” she said.

“That’s why we have waivers to be signed by participants required by the council,” she said. “If it rains, we cancel it, we do not want to have participants walk on slippery floors.”

This historical walk is meant to be done in the dark. It is suspenseful yet meditative. You will encounter the narrator’s fictional scenarios, like drowning in the water, stumbled upon suspicious strangers, and other seemingly dangerous situations in the dark. You will experience these as though you were sucked out from your own reality to immerse in other timelines of the Rocks.

Occasionally, characters in the video muse over one another existence. They discuss parallel universes, which is a problem raised and experimented by this walk — the impossibility of being in two times and places at once.

The Walking Routes

The following interactive map shows the walking route of the City of Forking Paths.

Purple pinned locations mark the start and end of the journey. The walk starts at the Custom House and ends at Bridge stairs. Red pinned locations mark where some major events happened. The line shows the route of the walking tour.

Some climatic events happened at:

  • Steps to the water at Circular Quay – the narrator struggled to almost drown in the water
  • Foundation Park – where one of the music performances took place
  • Trinity Avenue Playground – an old man talked sadly about his experience of separating from his family in the past
  • Low Fort Street – Remix of radios news played in the houses from the 1950s to present times

These are just some examples. The map shows more details but there are many other more events covered in the tour.

Wondered if some paths will be added or changed in the future for the walking tour, Miss Tralaggan said we would always refer it back to the 2014’s. “We may compare the differences in 2019 to the record of places in 2014, similarly, we may look at what changes in 2025 compared to 2014,” she said.

As I walked past George street under Sydney Harbor bridge in the tour, I saw a poster in the video, trying to figure out which film is being advertised there in 2014. An image of Pokemon instantly flashed at me in my reality. That was the very moment when I felt the difference. I wondered how many posters had been changed between 2014-2019.

Future Trend and Audiences

Miss Tralaggan said audiences could experience the walk through an app in the past few years since its launch in 2014 but had been taken down soon afterward. “Since the app size is very large that takes up lots of phone memory, not many people were using it,” she said. “That’s why I am here to get in all the hardware for people to book in.”

She said most audiences were artists who were doing reviews about it when it was a downloaded app, but the booking system now invited new audiences which include tourists, architecture students, and theatre people. She said the feedback was generally positive.

That said, the app will be relaunched soon.“Having it taken offline three to four months for us to do digital conservation, we will launch it as an app again in late May, possibly after Vivid,” she said.

“The app, however, was GPS lock, which means audience could only do it here at the Custom House, and it was only time lock to sunset because it’s the artists’ intention to do it in the dark.”

Our feelings of uncertainty experienced in this walk of darkness and suspense echoes to the theme of this artwork — the uncertainties of our reality, universe, and existence.

One participant concentrates on the video at his walk in the Rocks
Image by Vivian Wu; One participant concentrates on the video at his walk in the Rocks
Participant Kim Lam starts her walk at the Custom House
Image by Vivian Wu; Participant Kim Lam starts her walk at the Custom House

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