Re-imagining Whanganui-a-Tara through augmented reality

Department of Conservation —  01/03/2021

Oliver Devlin talks about Hidden Tracks, an augmented reality art project funded by the Wild Creations collaboration between DOC and Creative New Zealand.

Hidden Tracks can be downloaded on phones, allowing users to follow a path in the Wellington CBD and experience what it might have looked like prior to settlement.

Hidden Tracks trailer
🎥: A video-walk by Joel Baxendale and Oliver Devlin.

Oliver Devlin:

In 2018 Joel Baxendale – my friend and collaborator – got in touch with me about applying for the Wild Creations grant. We had just finished a show at Q theatre called Yorick, a mammoth work by a very talented group of theatre artists. It was a 90-minute experimental post-dramatic meditation on Death and Hamlet – with big musical theatre song-and-dance numbers, and elaborate and magical set and lighting design.

So, as you can imagine, the idea of an artistic retreat to a remote area of natural beauty was very appealing. 

Joel and I had been making headphone-based audio works with the company Binge Culture for several years. Given the opportunity to create art anywhere in Aotearoa, Joel and I both responded with our earnest love of this country’s unique environment. We started to approach some thornier questions about the impact our modern life has had on it. 

Joel distributing devices in Wellington city.
📷: Oliver Devlin.

Joel became excited about making a video walk: a video on a device that guides the audience along a path through town, matching the video’s movements. If the video turns left, they turn left. The idea we developed was to guide an audience member through Wellington city, along the former shoreline, intercutting their view with video and sound from Kāpiti island – a view of what it may have been like pre-settlement, before the city was built. 

Our most direct inspiration for this experience is the brilliant Canadian sound artist Janet Cardiff. She pioneered this genre of video and audio walks alongside her husband and collaborator George Bures Miller. I had studied her binaural audio works while at the New Zealand School of Music and Joel had taken part in her Alter Bahnhoff video walk in Kassel Germany.

We’d been experimenting with these kinds of effects in our headphone works. The thought for the Wild Creations project – Hidden Tracks – was to use video and audio from Kāpiti island and from Wellington City to create an immersive and haunting experience, taking the viewer outside their reality for a moment – disrupting the city they take for granted.

A different perspective – what Wakefield Street could have looked like pre-settlement days.
📷: Oliver Devlin & Joel Baxendale.

We were circling some big questions – what’s our individual relationship to the land we live on? How can we best care for and nurture our native flora and fauna? What damage is irreversible? What modern conveniences can we not live without?

To help consider the possible answers to these questions, we included several interviews within Hidden Tracks: the DOC ranger we met on Kāpiti Island Lee Barry, a permanent resident of the island Manaaki Barrett, and Wellington Landscape Architect Anna Gilbert.  

Having different voices proposing a range of perspectives and insights, we had hoped to create a space where the viewer could make up their own mind. 

Oliver recording sounds on Kapiti Island.
📷: Joel Baxendale.

As this was our first time creating a video work, there were lots of lessons to be learned. As a two-person crew travelling to Kāpiti Island, Joel focusing on video footage and me recording audio, sometimes we were pulling in different directions:

“Ooh I’m getting a beautiful shot along this shoreline!”

“But Joel, can you please step quietly? I can’t hear the waves anymore!” 

There was also the challenge of being overwhelmed by our senses and our failure to really capture Kāpiti’s beauty faithfully in a microphone or through a pair of headphones – you can’t really translate how gorgeous it is, or the feeling of being immersed in nature. There was this conflict of trying to make the most of a valuable opportunity, rushing to capture as much as we could, but also feeling the need to take the time to actually just sit there to try and genuinely take it all in.

We did have a few special moments like that, like sitting at the very top of the mountain, after taking a few hours to climb and record sights on the way. Another gorgeous time was sitting out by myself in the early evening, waiting in the bush til it was dark, and hearing the kiwi waking up – a tiny moment of which we included in the video walk. 

At the top of Kapiti Island.
📷: Oliver Devlin.

It’s been a long process pulling this project together – so it really is a thrill now seeing people take the journey, pulling their headphones off afterwards with a bit of a dazed look, like they’re coming out of a good movie, or have maybe just had a bath.

I don’t think we’ve come with any neat solutions to the questions we raise in the work. There is a kind of mournfulness to seeing illustrations of historical landscape bowled over by a city bus. Then again there is pride in this city as a home for us in 2021 – a sense of what could be accomplished, in the huge potential of Predator Free New Zealand and the Zealandia Eco-Sanctuary.

Through viewing this work, I hope it’s possible to see Wellington a little differently and imagine how things could be different – what kind of future we want to create.

For information on how to experience the video-walk in full, please visit: