[un]public spaces and the ethnographic [un]imagination

by Jessica Bradley, University of Sheffield

Children playing in a field

I’m an ethnographer and my current research (paused for the moment) considers linguistic landscapes (words and images on signs in public space) and young people’s engagements with these in everyday life. It explores how people move through spaces – spaces that are theoretically public (but often not). It’s a project that, although I was undertaking this research only very recently, I can no longer seem to imagine. I am interested in how the languages around us in these spaces, visible on signs, audible as people pass by, affect our understandings of place. And therefore how they affect our understanding of belonging, of being, of connections to place. I am fascinated by the mundanity and extraordinariness of the signs around us as we carry out our daily lives, and how they often remain unremarked on, as a backdrop we drift through and past. We pass these signs daily, many of them, maybe a few times a day, but we don’t necessarily see them. We experience them fleetingly and often unconsciously. Until and unless we need something which might link to what these signs communicate. A connection based on a future transaction, perhaps, or a need, a desire, to purchase. I want to know what happens when we engage with different ways of seeing these signs and when we step back to notice and to think. This kind of focus on the everyday, on the mundane, on the unnoticed, is what ethnographers do. But I argue it’s also what everyone does. Ethnography itself is an everyday and mundane practice. 

I’ve been reflecting on how my own banal everyday practices  practices that I never really stopped to interrogate seem so far away from my current life. How what used to be banality has become unreal, how what used to be banality seems almost like science fiction.

Earlier this year, on the 9th March, at a time we might just about categorise as ‘pre-C19’, Louise, the artist collaborator on the project and I carried out what has turned out to be our final project workshop. We had been working with a group of students in a school in North Manchester since January 2020. These young people, ages 12 and 13, had been talking with us about research in linguistics, multilingualism and how and why researchers explore questions of belonging and community through investigating signs in public spaces. Together we had walked through the neighbourhood taking photographs with iPads and talking about the languages – and the images and colours  on the signs around Cheetham Hill. We worked to engage artistically with different ideas coming from these explorations and discussions of language in the street. During this last workshop we made prints, using the linguistic landscapes of the area, gathered collectively through our walking explorations, as our inspiration. 

And yet on 9th March, the day of this workshop, things generally had started to feel more than a little weird. We knew about this new virus. A novel virus. We heard about different lockdowns taking place in Italy, in Spain, of the virus spreading beyond borders, of people returning from skiing trips ‘infected’. We knew the fears of our own university students from countries which had already been affected, many of whom were wearing masks in class and some of whom had been unable to return to campus after the winter break. So we were aware of a looming and dangerous thing that existed but yet was invisible. Invisible and existing and dangerous and looming and a thing that we might easily get and transfer. New phrases were coming into everyday conversations, phrases like ‘self-isolation’ and ‘social distancing’. During our visit a couple of weeks before, I’d noticed signs in the school alerting students to the virus, explaining the process if they had been to an affected area. Listing the areas: Wuhan Province, China, then later on, Lombardy, Italy. They mirrored the ones in my own institution. Wash your hands. Wash your hands. Wash your hands

My research requires me to travel from my home in West Yorkshire by train and tram to a school in North Manchester. I leave the house at 8.30am with both my children and drop them at their primary school. On the way to school we might see a couple of families we know and walk with them, the children ahead or behind, the parents talking. At the school gate I see more families. If I’m not running late I stop and chat to parents and grandparents as the children walk down the drive into the school. I then walk roughly a mile to the railway station where I might see another two or three people I know, fellow commuters. The trains are thankfully quieter after 9am and I usually get a seat. But any earlier and I stand in a tightly packed carriage, holding onto a rail or onto the seats beside me. I’m small, under 5 foot 2. So people look down onto me and I’m often standing next to someone’s arm, or worse, under an armpit. At Leeds I change trains. I queue for a coffee at Starbucks, meeting with Louise as arranged on the station bridge. We then travel together to Manchester. It’s the airport train and it’s often busy. It can be too full to even get on. I sometimes sit wedged on my bag in the luggage area. At Victoria we grab another coffee (Starbucks again) and talk about the afternoon’s workshop. We buy day tickets and take the tram to the school. On this occasion as we reach the station, the tram doors malfunction, trapping half of me and my bag. I disentangle myself from the doors, but before I can get off they close and the tram sets off again, and I end up traveling one stop further, before crossing the bridge and doubling back to walk to the previous station. 

Once at the school we sign in, receive our printed ID photographs on stickers (are you happy with your photograph or do you want to retake?, the computer asks each time, and I laugh, each time, at the absurdity of retaking and the absurdity of asking) and wait in reception until we are met by the teacher, S, who then takes us up the three flights of stairs to the classroom. We pass teachers and students in the stairway. We collect our materials from the EAL office and set up the room for the workshop. Today we need pieces of styrofoam, cartridge paper, inks, trays and rollers. The art classroom is light with wide, long windows, floor to ceiling. While we’ve been carrying out the workshops, week by week, the displays have developed with GCSE and A Level artwork emerging, gradually. A collage peacock dominates one wall. S reminds us that the classroom is booked out for the art and design practical examinations a fortnight later. This brings back a sudden memory of sitting in my own school’s art room more than twenty years ago, way up in the building’s attic, drawing and painting and collaging for my own GCSE in art and design. And this memory then shifts to the Easter holiday preceding that in which we, as privileged fifth years, were allowed into school to work on our portfolios. Being in the school building during the holidays in our own clothes we had felt so grown up. I remember the promise that this short allowance offered of a future into which we were soon to tumble.

The workshop begins. Our group is made up of students who have been selected to participate in the programme. A number of these are young interpreters, engaged in community work within the school. The languages spoken within the group are diverse, with some students speaking Italian, having lived in Italy for a few years before coming to the UK. Some of the group have been selected due to being gifted artists. One of the outputs of our project is going to be a large scale artwork, inspired by the linguistic landscapes of Cheetham Hill, co-produced with the students, which will be displayed in the wide corridor which connects the modern languages, EAL and art departments. The art classroom in which we’ve been working lies at one end of the L shaped corridor space with languages at the other end. 

In the classroom I begin to be conscious of the surfaces we’re all touching. The workshop is built to be collaborative  the art processes and the resultant artworks are shared. We share the rollers, the trays, the inks. We pick up each other’s artworks to appraise and assess them. We pass round the paper workbooks and pens and pencils. It requires close working, the students sit in small groups and work with each other. At the end of the workshop Louise and I wash up each tray, each roller. I wonder about traces of different hands on each item. It’s not something I’ve considered before, at least never more than superficially. Invisible traces left by hands on the art materials seem symbolic of the nature of creating artworks together, of collective creativity. But it seems that the collaborative nature of the workshops we’re doing, the ‘onto-epistemology of the research’, as we might describe it in an academic publication, means our practice, ordinarily mundane, is now potentially risky. High risk even. When we leave the workshops we don’t expect that we won’t be coming back, that this is the last time. However we do wonder what will happen, given the unfolding situation. We wonder when, not if, schools will start to close as they have done in other countries across the world. Even the school run, my regular commute by train, buying a coffee, chatting to a neighbour, all now seem high risk. How many people do I come into contact with each day? 10s, definitely, 100s, potentially? 

We take the tram again, then the train back to Leeds. At Leeds I run for my connection back home. It’s rush hour, the train is packed. My children have been in after-school club. I walk from the station to pick them up to bring them home. My eldest daughter has a piano lesson. The piano teacher has circulated some hygiene rules for her pupils around hand washing and sanitising. She sends round an email survey to ask if we would be happy with a shift to online lessons. I see her outside the supermarket the next day and she tells me she’s worried about infection, about contamination, about fingers transferring traces of virus onto the piano keys, about invisible transmission. In my head I move my fingertips across piano keys.  

As the week progresses, my youngest daughter starts to cough, so I keep her off school. She’s asthmatic, so I think it’s the right thing to do, but I’m not sure. By Friday my eldest also says she feels ill, and so I keep her away as well, while continuing to question my decision-making. At the weekend we stock my parents up with supermarket food and tell them to stay inside. They are worried about the idea of staying inside, it’s not a concept they are familiar with as active pensioners. They don’t stay inside, at least not at first. They haven’t learnt how to stay inside. 

The previous weekend, 8th March, I had taken my eldest daughter to buy shoes to wear for my little sister’s forthcoming wedding in April (subsequently postponed). We try on shoes and dresses in John Lewis, we have cake in the cafe, and later we have pancakes in a little hipster coffee shop by the station. We browse the comic shops and ask the shop assistants to help us find manga comics for pre-teens and they show us the categories applied to books so we know what to look for. But I have the feeling of shopping at the end of the world and suddenly want to be home fast. We catch the train and for the next few days I go over the things we’ve both touched, the ticket machines in the station, the communal water jug in the cafe, the comic books we opened and then put back on the shelves, the shop doors, the taps in public toilets. My eldest daughter often explores through touch, trailing her hands across surfaces, shop counters, clothing rails, stone walls, railings. I wonder how much invisible virus is soaking up onto her hands and spreading through her fingers. During the last two summers in Spain when we walked more slowly and looked at things (as holidaymakers do, as ethnographers do when they’re not too busy rushing) we watched as her fingertips trailed the different textures of buildings as she walked. We didn’t think of a virus then, instead I worried about stray rusty nails or sharp edges cutting into her fingers.  

I make a decision to cancel the following week’s workshop. It’s hard to do, we have so much to finish for the project. But things are closing down, closing in. Plus both my children are at home with me and I don’t think I can ask my mum to come and watch them, given the circumstances. Articles are circulating around the academic-heavy bubble of my social media to which I also perform my own rising anxiety through the posting and sharing and liking and not-liking of texts. I stand in a queue and feel too close to the people around me. I watch a shop assistant cough on his hand, then, with the same hand, take the bottle of milk I’m buying to scan, before passing it back to me.

By 20th March schools close except to key-worker children. And so the project pauses. We can’t continue the workshops, obviously. We are suddenly unable to complete our plans, unable to produce our outputs. The promised outputs, including the artworks, remain suspended. As the crisis escalates the University bans all face-to-face research and schools no longer allow visitors in any case. It’s no longer my decision to pause. In late February I’d watched my youngest play football with her team, without thinking it would be the last game for a long time. I should have focused on the game more instead of chatting to the other parents on the touchline.

Over the last three months I have collected no linguistic landscape data. My children are at home with me all day, everyday. My husband – a primary school deputy headteacher – is in school. The children cannot attend school because I am at home, although I am working, working full time. I move between the house, the garden and the park and meadows close by. I walk with the dog, my children on their bikes ahead of me. They have agreed checkpoints where they must stop and wait for me. One is by the wooden bridge in what used to be a cricket pitch. We have arrived at a collectively approved route of the park into which we drift, unspoken, each time. It starts with the downhill path to the stream and ends with the secret pathway through the trees by the railway track, through the clearing which is used for both family picnics and, as we’ve seen when we visit in the late afternoon, for teenagers smoking pot. I go to the park once a day as a minimum, often twice or three times. When I’m on my own with the dog I walk further, I go where it’s harder to cycle, through fields of wildflowers and woodland. The dog runs through the long grass.  

The landscapes I have access to at the moment include signs in windows of neighbouring houses in the street, child-painted rainbows and instructions compelling us to ‘stay safe’, once bright and now faded, curling at the corners, sellotape yellowing. The house behind us has an NHS flag in the garden. Gardens are neater, more colourful. Lockdown gardens. Skips appear and disappear. There’s some kind of a controversy with a neighbour involving an illegal skip hire company, accusations of flytipping. Our walk to the park takes us down the hill, under a railway bridge (some ‘graffitiscapes’), through a narrow path divided from the railway track by a green metal fence interlaced with honeysuckle. In the park a sign points to meadows and promises lagoons, but it is deceptive and the lagoons are not, in fact, lagoons but swamp-like ponds, with murky water, inviting only for dogs. I notice a developing etiquette: some people give way to each other and nod to say thank you to those waiting. My children have learnt to circumnavigate other park-users, cycling wide onto the grass away from the paths. The dog, still a puppy, never learns. 

In mid-May the lagoons and path are covered with white fluff and dust as blossom and seeds from dandelion clocks blow about in the wind, eventually landing. It looks like thickly woven spiders webs. We agree it’s spooky. I’ve never noticed this before, maybe I didn’t look. Before the weather turns, the seemingly never-ending sunshine lends more otherworldliness to our lockdown lives. It’s the kind of sunshine which makes you forget it could ever not be sunny and warm. Until it finally stops. At least the yellowing grass will recover. 

The local car showroom empties its carpark of cars at the beginning of lockdown and we, along with other neighbourhood families, use it as a skatepark, probably illegally. When the cars fill up again in early June, my youngest daughter makes her own sign, a flag with a car with a line through it and a skateboard with a tick. She’s outraged that our skatepark has been taken away, who even wants to buy a car right now, she argues, but lots of people want to skate! She wants to campaign, to start a demonstration.

I haven’t been into the city centre, just half a mile away. I haven’t been to the railway station, much less travelled on a train. The only evidence that this even still exists is the trains which pass by, more and more regularly than in late March. I can see them from one angle from my living room and from another from the park. I assume Manchester still exists, Leeds and Sheffield too. But I couldn’t say for sure. Our geographies are infinitely smaller now and the landscapes in which we carry out our everyday lives are suburban and almost rural. The number of people I come into contact with, the number of things I touch, the opportunities to spread the virus, all infinitely diminished. My eldest daughter trails her hand along the stones on the path as she sits under the railway bridge and waits for us to catch up. The risks are mundane, of dirt and of broken glass, not virus. The incongruity of my new everyday banality and what I previously categorised as ‘everyday’ and ‘banal’ is ever present, jarring. And it seems that now, my research into the everyday is more inward-looking, more reflexive, more small-scale. It frustrates. Yet as with any research, the more we focus in, the more we can see, and hopefully I’m beginning to be able to look again.

I settle into the new smallness of our lives, a smallness which is actually so big, so vast. I get used to it just in time for things to start to open up again.

Thanks to Izzy, Emmy and Luna the dog. Thanks also to Pat Sikes, James Simpson, Louise Atkinson and Tim Bradley for reading earlier drafts.

Published on the PanMeMic project website (30-6-20). PanMeMic is a space for collective research, observation and conversation on how communication and social interaction are changing during the global pandemic, to envisage possible futures.

To contact Jessica, email jessica.bradley@sheffield.ac.uk or follow @JessMaryBradley on Twitter. 

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