Walk and draw, map and tell! CartoGraphic strolling in Arcella (Padua)
In the previous chapters, we discussed the close relationship between comics and cities (Fraser 2019): as noted, the graphic novel as a genre was born in a specific urban historical context in the New York stories drawn by Will Eisner and, for the same reason, the geoGraphic novel as an hybrid research-genre is also particularly useful for narrating urban research. As seen in Chapter 2, not only are comics stories often set in urban environments, but the ‘spatial architecture’ of the comics page also reproduces urban assemblages and rhythms, which involve both authors and readers in proper spatial practices of orientation/disorientation, movement/stasis (Dittmer and Latham 2015). Moreover, as Dominic Davies has recently demonstrated in his volume Urban Comics: Infrastructure and the Global City in Contemporary Graphic Narratives, comics ‘reveal that the built environments are not static, banal or depoliticised, but rather highly charged material spaces that allow some forms of social life to exist while also prohibiting others’ (Davies 2019). Furthermore, they also impact on urban infrastructures through their forms and content, as well as through the networks of people they bring together to create a community of authors and readers, who recognise themselves in the same conditions of urban inhabitants and citizens. As seen in Monica Bellido Mora’s site-specific installation in the train station of Padua, A Station of Stories: Moving Narrations, realised for the Street Geography project (Chapter 2), comics provide us with a constructive and reparative exercise for urban intervention. They represent future-oriented stories that are able to ‘recover forgotten uses of urban space’ and bring them back to life (Davies 2019, p. 249). In this case, if cities themselves can be interpreted as spaces constantly assembling, disassembling, and reassembling, then the form of the comic book anthology (namely a collection of short stories about different geographical areas) also somehow replicates the ‘play between stability and change, order and disruption’ (McFarlane and Anderson 2011, p. 163) that characterises both urban spaces, as an object of study, and assemblage thinking, as a mode of understanding it.
Walking with characters
Adriano and I imagined our comics story as a potential site of intervention which could become part of the broader network of counter-narratives, creative interventions, and cultural initiatives in the area. The first step was necessarily a negotiation between our interdisciplinary perspectives: whereas my focus was on the construction of a research path that would resonate, from the beginning, with a potential
FIGURE 3.6 Walking with characters: during a walk-along interview, 13-year-old Somrat guides us to his favourite place in the neighbourhood, a bridge over the train rails connecting Arcella with the city centre of Padua. Authors illustration in Quartieri, 2019. Reproduction by permission of BeccoGiallo.
narrative structure for the comics story, Adriano was more concerned with the coherence of our fieldwork from an urban sociological perspective. We shared a mutual interest in social phenomena, especially in the bottom-up and place-based processes recently emerging in the area, and in the possibility of integrating comics in our research practice. From the beginning, we knew we were keener to work on future-oriented visions of the neighbourhood, on its potential social forces: Arcel- las past, from the medieval era to the industrial development of the area, and the effects of the Second World War bombing on its urban assets, were not at the centre of our research. Our aim was not even to reveal something ‘new’ about the area: we preferred the idea of listening rather than discovering. Thus, we did not draw our personal blueprint about how the neighbourhood should be in the future; rather, we opened our eyes and ears to different voices, encountering private citizens, shopkeepers, members of the local associations, and single activists to understand how they envision the future in the area from their very different perspectives. For this reason, the first person we interviewed was a boy from Bangladesh, Somrat, whose vision of the future starts from the perspective of a young inhabitant of non- Italian origins (see Figure 3.7).
Our scope was to work as urban mediators, to be interpreted by interviewees more as facilitators for spatial stories to emerge, rather than as experts of the neighbourhood that could offer a specific interpretation of its socio-spatial phenomena. Voices of ‘old inhabitants’, including owners of historic local shops, elders, and members of local committees and associations, were alternated with those of‘new inhabitants’, such as activists and students, young migrants, migrant women, and ethnic shopkeepers and restaurateurs. We also wanted inhabitants’ relations with the physical environment of Arcella to emerge during interviews: the scope was to let people as well as streets, squares, parks, private houses, shops, and abandoned buildings speak for themselves. In fact, both human and architectural presences in the neighbourhood find a visual representation in the story, which means they occupy a physical space on the comics page with their bodies. Since the neighbourhood needed to be part of the story, not simply as a spatial background but as an actual character, we primarily collected our ethnographic material on the move. During go-along interviews, we walked around the neighbourhood, guided by various key informants and embracing, step by step, interview after interview, different perspectives on the same area (Anderson 2004; Evans and Jones 2011; Jones et al. 2008; Kusenbach 2003). In fact, this methodological choice was to encourage interviewees to share their own daily relationship with people and places in the neighbourhood. When walking was not an option, we reached our key informants at work, as in the case of many local shopkeepers: interviewed in their workplaces, they were often interacting with customers while answering our questions, thus giving us an opportunity to trace their daily rhythms, gestures, and social relations.
Walking across Arcella, we used mobile methods as a research tool that could help us discover the micro-geographies of place (Holton and Riley 2014, p. 60), and learned how place can be ‘used to allow research participants to narrate their lived experiences of everyday’ (p. 59). Walking on a street ‘means that both researcher
FIGURE 3.7 Drafting the narrative map: from the first page of the comics story, mapping practices play a central role and contribute to the construction of a cartoGraphic narrative. Authors illustration in Quartieri, 2019. Reproduction by permission of BeccoGiallo.
and participant are more exposed to the multi-sensory stimulation of the surrounding environment’ (Evans and Jones 2011, p. 850), and thus, the practice of talking while walking permits a more spontaneous set of interactions between interviewees and their everyday environments - but also, I would argue, between them and the researchers. Following Somrat’s walk across the neighbourhood towards his favourite place, namely a bridge over the train rails, we crossed many points of interest that were then added to our map of the neighbourhood, for example, the already-mentioned football pitches that are spread throughout Arcella. Translated into geoGraphic form, these places have been drawn in the pages of the comics story as meaningful spatial archives, where daily practices take place, encounters happen, and personal stories unfold beyond the main characters. For these reasons, the practice of walking was a methodological tool to conduct our research and also became a narrative thread to develop the comics story: the narrative map of our research process was there, ready to become a plotline to be followed, creating a visible and readable connection between research practice and its representation in the geoGraphic narrative.
Mapping the plotline
When imagining the structure of the comics story, as a geoGraphic author- researcher I knew the plot needed to be structured along a walking path across the neighbourhood. From a geographical perspective, this choice mirrors the research path we followed, mostly by foot, and the methodological choices we made during fieldwork; from a graphic and narrative point of view, it gives the necessary linearity to the narration of a research path that was, instead, made up of interruptions, gaps, and interviews that happened in different moments at different times. The search for a narrative structure is partially suggested by the sequentiality of comics, but also by the need to build a narrative frame around research findings that are not narrative in nature (Kuttner et al. 2020, p. 9): tracing the line of a hypothetical walking path through the neighbourhood permitted me to move from one place to another as well as from one encounter to the other in the story, turning fieldwork interviews with key actors into encounters with characters in the storyline. Following the narrative path of our short 24-page comics, readers meet different characters, whose stories, little by little, compose a complex mosaic of everyday life in Arcella. The organisation of the storyline along a walk gives readers the opportunity to follow the research process and navigate different areas in the neighbourhood.
Before we began to walk around, our fieldwork practice started from a mapping process. The original map we drafted comprised key actors, key places, and significant types of spaces in the neighbourhood and functioned like a kind of research blueprint that guided our choices, discussions, and actions during fieldwork. Yet, that initial blueprint was constantly rearranged, and likewise, the same happened with the walking path we followed and the story we told. We always shared our map with the people we encountered, being ready and open to challenging our initial cartographic projection by adding new points of interest, transforming apparently meaningless spaces into significant places through stories, and exploring new urban centralities according to informants’ experiences and practices. This way, our ethnoGraphic research soon became a cartoGraphic process of narrative mapping (Caquard 2013; Caquard and Cartwright 2014), in which ditferent spaces were gradually embedded with content and meaning through both the intimate stories we were told and the photographs I collected while moving across the neighbourhood. The idea of exploiting the narrative power of maps is certainly not new: as Caquard and Cartwright assume, ‘“internal maps” (Ryan 2003) appear in films and novels and are used to ground the story in real places, to help the audience follow the plot and to play metaphorical and aesthetic role’ (2014, p. 101). Also, in our case, the constant presence of the map as a visual rhyme and recurring visual metaphor in the story plays a double role: it helps readers to orientate themselves throughout the narration and the neighbourhood, through narrative and real space; it also metaphorically represents the idea of an ongoing process of research, which has never finished and is constantly enriched, even today, by new meanings and encounters.
One of the first things we mapped were landmarks, iconic spaces, and buildings, areas that have become of Arcella’s spatial imaginations both in and outside the city of Padua. The illustrations of these landmarks in the geoGraphic narrative aim at stimulating a process of recognition and orientation in readers who live in the area and helping readers in other cities to build a mental (and visual) map of a neighbourhood they may have never visited before. The reiterated presence of the blue tram crossing panels and pages; the bell tower of the church of Sant’Antonino with the statue of Saint Anthony of Padua; the building of the Bingo (see Figure 3.9); the ‘Arcella Palace’- an empty building that used to be a school and that is now at the centre of many projects of reuse by associations working in the area; the presence of religious icons and shrines on the roadside - all together they represent visual clues I have spread throughout the geoGraphic narrative to give readers a glimpse of everyday urban spaces and life in the neighbourhood.
Through the complementary use of words and images, the peculiar multimodal language of comics is an opportunity' to represent the sense of place through composing different layers of meaning: these layers can be accessed according to the attention readers pay to the single visual and textual elements in the story', their combination in a single page, and the relations they construct throughout the whole composition. Indeed, as we are reminded by Thierry Groensteen, the ‘spado-topical system’ of comics (2007, p. 27) works at different levels of linear and translinear relations within a single panel, between different panels articulated in the same page, and between panels in different pages. This cross-panel, associative meaning-making is what Groensteen calls braiding, and was described through different metaphors, including architecture, music, a network, a rhizome, and the ‘fourth dimension’, to mention only a few (Kuttner et al. 2020, pp. 9-10). Beyond cartographic elements, many other visual clues are disseminated throughout the pages in order to provide readers with small details of the Arcella’s sense of place that are not mentioned in the
FIGURE 3.8 Walking on the talking-map! The map introduces itself as the non-human narrator. Authors illustration in Quarlieri, 2019. Reproduction by permission of BeccoGiallo.
text: for example, the names on the signboards of the shops and restaurants on Arcella Boulevard (‘Driving School Arcella’, ‘Bar Arcella’, ‘Leather Shop Arcella’, even ‘Sushi Arcella’) function as a clue of the local sense of belonging in the area; a sticker of the CSO Pedro placed on a pole of the traffic light is a reminder of the 30-year anniversary of this long-lived, occupied community centre in the neighbourhood.
I would like to make some other geoGraphic choices explicit, in order to provide examples of how many decisions about the comics story were made through a geoGraphic and spado-centred lens. We know that ‘the potential of maps to both decipher and tell stories is virtually unlimited’ and that the narrative power of maps functions at different levels, taking a variety of forms (Caquard and Cartwright 2014, p. 101). Elsewhere, I have also explored the specific potentialities of ‘comic book cartographies’, rethinking both maps and comics from a performative point of view (Dodge et al. 2011) observing the map-like traits of comics as well as the comics-like features of maps (Krygier and Wood 2011; Peterle 2017a, 2019): for example, ‘comics’ alternation between representation and non-representation within and between the panels, between the “visual and the anti-optical”, and the choices the author has to make about it, resemble the decisions the cartographer has to make about what is depicted on or discarded from the map and the resulting holes the map user has to fill’ (Peterle 2017a, p. 49). Maps can be used in comics to ground the action in a specific location, to deepen the realistic dimension of the story, and to give readers an idea of the geography of the area. Beyond these locative functions, which create connections between diegetic and extradiegetic spaces, maps serve also as spatial metaphors, aesthetic elements, and narrative guides that help readers to follow the characters’ paths, stimulating and supporting narrative processes (Caquard and Cartwright 2014, p. 104). In the short comics story on the Arcella neighbourhood, as a comics author I have attempted to explore some of these narrative potentials of maps, combining them with the specific opportunities offered by the comics language. For example, in the first page of the comics story (see Figure 3.7), the automatic connection between the textual and visual level deliberately leads readers to make a wrong interpretation. In fact, the voice speaking is not that of the female character, who is drawing the map, as many readers suppose when reading these words:
They have taught me to be precise.
You always need to know where you are - they said.
Start from the centre, draw what’s all around, find the limits, what’s left outside, beyond the margins.
They told me that it’s always better to start with a few lines, tracing the borders. A first step, to draw a neighbourhood.
Then the roads, the tramline, the bridges.
Rather, as readers discover a couple of pages later, this is the voice of a carto- Graphic narrator, a map speaking in I-person (see Figure 3.8):
I’m a map. And I cannot wander.
Incomplete, fragmentary, partial and even arbitrary.
Forgive me, but I cannot simply widen and frame, change scale and then zoom in.
I feel the need to listen to.
And this is how I began to walk.
As said, from the beginning, our wish was to allow the neighbourhood and its inhabitants to speak for themselves, and to imagine ourselves as facilitators rather than omniscient narrative voices. For this reason, we appear as two of the many protagonists of the narrative, while the story is told by an external, non-human, and almost impossible cartographic voice (Rossetto 2019): the voice of a map of the neighbourhood that speaks in first person. There are several reasons for using car- tocentred fictional writing, and especially for doing it with non-human narrators. As Tania Rossetto observes, ‘speaking in the first person, this entity undergoes an anthropomorphising process which creates phenomenological states that are taken by the audience as convincing demonstrations of non-human life’ (2019, p. 72); yet, she continues, ‘it-narrators are “both identical and distinct” from humans’ (p. 73), and it is precisely this distance from our human-centred perspective that was particularly intriguing to explore in my cartoGraphic experimentation. In fact, these fictional expedients permit readers to observe the researchers’ positionality during fieldwork without necessarily embracing their point of view on the area. On the contrary, readers are asked to construct their own critical research path, being in the position of observing the research practice while it unfolds and, thus, of imagining other potential walks to follow and maps to draw. Paradoxically, the use of a fictional point of view unsettles stereotypes and questions the dichotomy between facts and fiction (Leavy 2013, p. 24), creating a deeper understanding of the research process and of actual urban contexts possible: through the fictional lens of the it-narrator, readers access a critical consciousness about how research takes place.
Hoping to question some taken-for-granted perspectives, for example on who tells stories about spaces and places (human or non-human inhabitants?) or who is allowed to circulate stories about the neighbourhood (inhabitants, researchers, spatial objects, or even buildings themselves?), I have deliberately chosen to keep the beginning of the story as ambiguous as possible. Therefore, the narrative voice resembles the one of a human female character speaking in first person of her own experience. The first page has thus been kept as ambiguous as possible: the reader is easily misled by the female hands that move from one scene to the other and is inclined to think that these are the hands of a female protagonist telling her own story. Yet, as said, another apparently silent protagonist is there, at the centre of the page: the map. Only a couple of pages later a splash-page, with two pairs of human legs walking on a cartographic representation of Arcella, reveals its cartographic identity: ‘I’m a map’, affirms the narrator (Figure 3.8). In this way, even the map becomes a character in the narration that needs a sort of characterisation. So, what type of a map is speaking? I decided to stress its provisory, fragmentary dimension, in order to imagine the narrative path like a mapping process: this way, each reader following the reading path retraces the composition of a story about but also a cartographic representation of the neighbourhood. Indeed, at the beginning the cartographic projection of the area is incomplete, and the map remains mute and almost still until it is loaded with stories, voices, meanings, and emotions coming from the different encounters made along the research route (see Figure 3.10).
There is a link between the process of mapping a neighbourhood for a research project and that of composing a comics story. Hoping to involve the audience in an active process of reflection on the meaning of neighbourhoods, on the way in which different stories are told by disparate subjects and perspectives, Adriano and I created a story of/about a research process that openly invites readers to complete the narration with their own narratives, inscribing their experience into the map of Arcella (and of other neighbourhoods) while leafing through the pages. Even for those who do not live in the area, the story' can function as a trigger to start telling their own stories, tracing their own map, and, thus, imagining the cartoGraphic narrative of their own neighbourhood. From a post-representational cartographic perspective, the comics story itself becomes a narrative account of a mapping process (Caquard and Cartwright 2014, pp. 104-105). According to Kitchin et al., ‘moving from a representational to a processual understanding of maps, from ontology (what things are) to ontogenetic (how things become)’ (2013, p. 494), our comics story' can represent a narrative translation of an unfolding mapping and research process in the Arcella neighbourhood. Walking and drawing, mapping and telling, step by step we composed an ongoing map of our research practice, stimulating a polyphonic storytelling practice that is partially reproduced in the content and form of the comics story.