Mobility and the geohumanities
Graphic narratives, such as literary ones, do not simply represent mobilities but rather contribute to their production. As Peter Merriman observes, recently there have been many ‘attempts to rethink movement and mobility as not simply occurring in or across space and time, but as actively shaping or producing multiple, dynamic spaces and times’ (2012, p. 1). Here, he partially recalls Creswell’s idea that mobility ‘is not just a function of time and space, but an agent in their production’ (2006, p. 6), with social mobilities defining the shapes of space and time beyond their abstract conceptualisation. If ‘non-representational theories are inherently concerned with movement and mobility’ and, Merriman says, ‘they are, or perhaps it is, “a theory of mobile practices’” (Merriman 2012, p. 10), then it is not by chance that the doing of comics looks like a research practice so much connected to mobilities. This is the reason why the final chapter of this volume moves from the critical practice of reading to that of composing mobile stories in comics form. Of course, the example I provide in Chapter 5 is just one of the infinite possible ways to embrace comics as a research practice to explore urbanscapes as complex scenarios of multi-layered mobile subjects, practices, and bodies.
As we all know, both mobility and the city had a central role to play in the definition of modernity. When thinking of public transport, we should not forget that there is a close connection between the city and the development of new means, practices, meanings, and ideas of mobility. Also, the diffusion of new modes of travel changed significantly the way we dwell in, understand, and move through the city, from modern to contemporary times. Moreover, mobility seems to play a significant role in both the literal description and metaphorical depiction of what the urban is: namely, the city is often defined as a fluid, mutable, unsteady, changeable, and nomadic space. Avoiding binaries, I place the city along the fluid continuum that connects (rather than separate) mobility and immobility, movement and stasis, past and future. Therefore, urban space is a prolific laboratory to explore contemporary (im)mobilities; at the same time, the observation of everyday mobilities represents a fundamental entry point to understand contemporary cities. Bodies on the move and landscapes of movement represent privileged perspectives on contemporary cities, and they provide us with useful narrative triggers to build our urban comics.
Drawing stories of public transport for the PUTSPACE project
Mobile stories have something to tell us through both their content and form (Ghobrial 2019): for this reason, the practice of composing mobile narratives as a research practice represents an opportunity that should be explored more in depth, especially from a comic book geographies perspective. With this idea in mind, in late 2019 I submitted a geoGraphic creative proposal for the project Public Transport as Public Space in European Cities: Narrating, Experiencing, Contesting (PUTSPACE) with the aim of realising a short comics story as part of a post-doctoral fellowship. The proposal started from recent research in cultural geography, urban studies, geohumanities, literary and comic book geographies, and literary and cartographic theory, with the scope to bring these interdisciplinary perspectives into the analysis of public transport. The story and fellowship had to be based in Turku (Finland), one of the cities of the universities involved in the project, and was supposed to be able to move across time and space as well as between an historical and geographical perspective. Moreover, the narrative had to consider the cultural heritage of the tramway that crossed the city of Turku until October 1972, but also to represent the meaning and practices connected, nowadays, to public transport in the city. Yet, before coming to the composition of the story and to the actual ‘doing of comics’, which will be at the centre of Chapter 5,1 need to introduce the PUTSPACE project more thoroughly. More generally, in this final section of Chapter 4 I would like to trace the theories that helped me move from the reading to the actual doing of graphic mobilities.
PUTSPACE is a project financially supported by the HERA Joint Research Programme (www.heranet.info), which is со-funded by AKA, BMBF via DLRPT, ETAg, and the European Commission through Horizon 2020. The project has a deep interdisciplinary approach and involves members from Tallin University in Tallin (Estonia), Abo Akademi University in Turku (Finland), the Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography in Leipzig (Germany), and the Universite Libre de Bruxelles in Brussels (Belgium): with project leaders coming from both geography and literary studies, the project involves scholars working on mobilities and transport across different disciplinary fields, from comparative literature to cultural history, regional, transport, and urban geography, and fine arts.2 PUTSPACE wants to analyse public transport as one type of ‘public space’ that is also able to challenge existing definitions of what is understood under this label: as team members affirm in the online presentation of the project, in public space and thus also in public transport we are confronted with social diversity, social norms that are challenged by social practices, and different types of ownership, control, and subversion. All this is conceptualised in the PUTSPACE project through different objectives, mentioned on the project’s website, by which the team aims, first, ‘to critically conceptualise and analyse what kind of public space public transport is’, exploring how much our conception of public space can be enriched by observing it from the mobile angle of public transport. Second, the project aims also ‘to understand urban transformations of public space in European cities by attending to public transport as a particularly intense and contentious set of public spaces’. Thus, public transport functions as an observational lens, through which we are capable of observing significant changes that have occurred in the society over the past centuries (and before), in the social, cultural, political, and economic assets of our cities. Third, the analyses of public transport from a specific humanities approach aims ‘to offer a located and historicised perspective on the transformation of public space by examining narratives, experiences and contestations connected with public transport in different European cities’. This interdisciplinary approach proposed by the PUTSPACE project contributes to transport-related concerns and hopes to involve an audience beyond academia, ‘to intervene in civic mobilising, planning and policy via a humanities-led analysis and conceptualisation of public transport’.3 Indeed, the latter was especially interesting from my own narrative geoGraphic perspective. Bringing researchers in different disciplines together with transport enthusiasts, practitioners, activists, and citizens using public transport regularly, often on a daily basis, PUTSPACE gave me the opportunity to explore the possible entanglements between the geohumanities and mobility studies, using comics as a creative research practice to conduct geographical research.
A graphic-narrative approach to mobilities
Recently, a closer examination of the manifold theoretical influences, methods, approaches, and disciplinary perspectives underpinning the ‘new mobilities paradigm’ (Sheller and Urry 2006, 2016) has challenged ‘any easy alignment of mobilities research with a neatly demarcated realm called the social sciences’ (Merriman and Pearce 2017, p. 495), making the influence of the humanities in the mobilities debate explicit. As underlined in the project’s website, the PUTSPACE project starts from the idea that ‘public transport research remains dominated by economis- tic and technocratic readings and remains peripheral in the humanities; therefore, it aims ‘to humanise transport research by studying diverse narratives, experiences and contestations of public transport, as they have been unfolding in cities across Europe since the late nineteenth century’. The PUTSPACE project’s idea to ‘humanise transport research’ needs to be contextualised here in this broader field of interdisciplinary research projects, symposia and conferences, journals, book series, research centres, and labs that has emerged in the last decades around the prolific encounter between ‘mobility and the humanities’ (Merriman and Pearce 2017; Pearce and Merriman 2018), starting with the CeMoRe at the Lancaster University and coming to the more recent Centre for Advanced Studies in Mobility and the Humanities at the University of Padua (Italy)4 and the KU Academy Mobility Humanities at the Konkuk University (South Korea), to mention only a few. This perspective is not completely new. Cresswell, in his introduction to the special issue of New Formations on ‘mobilities’ dating back to 2001 (Cresswell 2001a, 2001b), ‘traces a genealogy' of mobility theory and mobile metaphors that is more clearly attuned to humanities literatures than any nascent social science paradigm’ (Merriman and Pearce 2017, p. 495). Within this broad multidisciplinary' spectrum, literary mobilities have a central role to play in the production of metaphorical thinking, with texts at the fore in exploring inventive conceptualisations, beyond representations, of mobile experiences, places, and practices. These ‘variations of mobility’, as Cresswell calls them, ‘have become central metaphors for abstract forms of understanding in cultural geography, anthropology, cultural studies, critical theory, philosophy and the humanities in general’, as they ‘are used to bring into question the apparent fixities of older forms of understanding’ (Cresswell 2001a, p. 9).
Nevertheless, the creative potential of graphic mobilities, with their inspiring use of visual metaphors, is still underexplored and needs to be further considered in this broader dialogue between mobility studies, the humanities, and the creative arts. Comics’ contribution should not be simply confined to a mere representational level, with scholars considering only the figurative potential of comic books; on the contrary, graphic mobilities are also able to introduce methodological and theoretical insights in this interdisciplinary conversation. Following Mimi Sheller’s ‘experimentalist orientation’, I interpret the doing of comics as a ‘research-creation’ endeavour that is stimulated by an experimentalist orientation towards new mobile and creative methods, and the exploration of ‘vital methodologies’ to visualise, narrativise, and understand mobilities differently (Sheller 2015, pp. 130-131). In fact, the ‘kinaesthetics’, intended as the entangled relationship between mobility and aesthetics, are not confined to the representational potential of arts and artistic practices, but rather have a huge generative potential, as Merriman reminds us in his ‘Editorial’ in Transfers (2018) - a journal that, not by chance, has a section completely devoted to 'mobility' and art’:
Mobility aesthetics, then, would not just be concerned with the production, generation, or interpretation of representations of mobility. Rather, it could be seen to encompass all manner of creative processes, practices, and embodied movements that generate aesthetic affects and effects and are apprehended by embodied subjects in different way's.
(Merriman 2018, p. vi)
According to Sheller, ‘this sense of working on the move, and more creatively, has been taken up in more diverse methodologies that seek to engage with the mobile, fleeting moments that make up the everyday’ (Sheller 2015, p. 131): in my opinion, the doing of comics as a research practice could be easily listed among these creative mobile endeavours.
The presence of a growing set of creative practice-based contributions to mobilities studies and the emphasis on methodological innovation and on the potentialities of art-research collaboration, especially within the interdisciplinary' field of the geohumanities (Dear et al. 2011; Hawkins et al. 2015), made it possible to activate an ongoing process of‘rethinking mobile methods’ (Merriman 2014). As Merriman claims, ‘rethinking mobile methods’ neither means to necessarily embrace practices to see with, walk along, move together with objects of research, nor affirms the supremacy of these methods in comparison to more ‘conventional’ and only apparently less mobile ones, like interviews, questionnaires, discourse analysis, or archival research. Rather, he suggests rethinking these mobile methods by expanding and diversifying their repertoire of approaches (Merriman 2014, p. 168), adopting a mobile and experimental perspective, working across disciplinary boundaries, and drawing upon a plurality of methodological, theoretical, and disciplinary approaches (p. 183). As a cultural geographer working in the emerging field of the geohumanities, I suggest the doing of comics as a creative research practice that is able to further collapse the dichotomies between the representation and practice of mobilities. If, as Micheal Dear affirms, practicing the geohumanities means exploring the ‘unprecedented opportunity for a transdisciplinary collaboration’ (2015, p. 32), I have taken this disciplinary plurivocality as a stimulus to develop my own creative research within the fields of comic book geographies and mobility studies. Mobility and the geohumanities thus look like a prolific entanglement that is worth exploring.
- 1 ‘Nick Drnaso on Sabrina, the first comic to make the Man Booker long list’, interview with Nick Drnaso by Abraham Riesman published on Vulture, 25 July 2018. Accessed online 13 August 2020: www.vulture.com/2018/07/nick-drnaso-on-sabrina-his- booker-longlisted-comic.html.
- 2 The list of project leaders and members is available at: https://putspace.eu/people/.
- 3 Excerpts from the homepage of the PUTSPACE website: https://putspace.eu/.
- 4 See the projects website: www.mobilityandhumanities.it/.
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DOING COMICS ON THE MOVE