The Invisibility of Hi-viz

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Urban archaeology with the Origins of Doha Project

Over the weekend, hundreds of thousands of people protested in France, demanding that French President Emmanuel Macron resign over increased fuel taxes. These protests have become increasingly violent and draw from anarchist and extremist far right factions, all aligned in working class struggle. The banner that these disparate groups have used to signal their solidarity is the gilets jaunes, the “yellow vest,” a ubiquitous piece of clothing worn by those in construction and industrial labor. Also known as high-vis or hi-viz these vests are part of what is called “PPE,” personal protective equipment and is mandated in jobs that deal with heavy machinery and protect the user against hazardous working conditions. In France, it is mandated that drivers carry one in their vehicle.

Wikipedia states that Scottish railway workers in the 1960s were the first to wear “fluorescent orange jackets, known as ‘fire-flies’” to keep them safe. Since then, motorcyclists, cyclists, cops, hunters, even chickens wear the reflective vests to direct attention to their presence. Which is ironic, as I’ve often noticed an increased invisibility as a result of wearing hi-viz. (Though this invisibility can help, as previously mentioned, with a bit of productive urban exploration.)

That the protestors are wearing hi-viz is no accident. This uniform codes the wearer as working class, and hides and homogenizes identity. As Elaine Glaser notes, politicians often don hard hats and hi-viz while simultaneously eroding workers rights, but the contrast between the expensive wool jackets of Macron and his colleagues is stark when compared to the black and yellow worn by the protestors. As an archaeologist, I wear hi-viz while working on construction sites that have active, heavy machinery present. Yet this measure of safety while on construction sites can also contribute to a surprising invisibility while wearing hi-viz on the street. I have never felt so reviled as when walking through the City of London, amongst businessmen in suits, as when I was in hi-viz, carrying a hard hat and walking in steel-toed boots covered in Victorian excrement. Okay, being a punk in Texas might have occasionally come close.

The protests in France continue. The #giletsjaunes have published their list of demands and have been joined by students and ambulance drivers, amongst others. The list is a mixed bag with a bit of racism thrown in for good measure. The protests stay in France, but perhaps people in hi-viz will be a bit more visible in the future.

Update: I’ve been told that they’ve moved beyond France, so look for a hi-viz jacket in a locality near you.

Teaching They Shall Not Grow Old

Peter Jackson’s collaborative documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old was released for the centennial anniversary for the end of WWI. Using archival footage from the Imperial War Museum, Jackson and his legion of effects wizards stitched together a 99 minute long take on soldiers’ experience of the front in color, filling in frames to smooth out motion and adding a voice-over that was drawn from oral histories. Happily, miraculous restoration of archival footage was released the week before my “digital futures” lectures in Communicating Archaeology (second year undergrad) and Analysis and Visualisation (Master’s module). I switched up the syllabus (don’t tell teaching committee) and added the documentary.

The purpose of assigning the documentary was to incite discussion around three major points:

  • The creation of narratives with archival materials–whose story is being told and for whom? Who is being omitted and why? How is this similar to the ways we tell stories using archaeological remains?
  • What can we do with digital technologies to tell stories about the past and are these effective? Should we just leave it to the professionals, ie forming collaborations with Peter Jackson instead of trying to do it ourselves?
  • What are our responsibilities to the people that we are digitally resurrecting? As these technologies become more accessible, it is easier to use dead people in ways they have not imagined or authorized.

The students were up to the challenge, and we also discussed the “Wizard of Oz” moment when the soldiers arrive at the front and suddenly transform from ragged, black and white figures from the distant past to full-color, real people with faces and names. Archaeologists are familiar with this feeling of the past becoming more real to us through our multiple encounters with traces of the past, and Peter Jackson was able to bring that feeling to general audiences.

To accompany this discussion I also played this “making of” video:

The video shows the painstaking process involved in colorizing the footage, and the creation of the sound effects–my postgraduate students, deeply involved in creating multimedia interpretations of the past for their assessment, groaned in recognition. Peter Jackson’s description of retiming the footage, of the excitement of the filmmaker in the field as they cranked their camera and the unscientific way that they had to translate this irregularity was an excellent lesson on learning how to look for embedded meaning in media archives. Finally, will Jackson’s “restoration” of this film be seen as a new archival standard, sought after to meet our HD standards for the visual record?

They Shall Not Grow Old was not uncontroversial; this excellent discussion from Historian Alice Kelly highlights the film’s use of the propaganda magazine The War Illustrated to illustrate battle scenes. Kelly also rejects the word “documentary” for the description of this film, which I found a bit curious. From my experience in making interpretive media about the past, I wondered what her threshold was for authenticity in these narratives–was Ken Burns okay, even though his “animation” of still photography, (now a staple of documentary filmmaking) instills these photographs with a sense of urgency and life? If you let me film you for an hour or so, I could probably recut it to make you look incredible or despicable just through editing,  not to mention using cutting edge technology:

They Shall Not Grow Old was timely and good to teach with and it was nice to be able to take advantage of very current popular media to discuss the use of technology to make interpretive media.

Inktober 2018

With no particular plan or preparation, I decided to participate in Inktober this year. Considering it is right in the middle of term-time, I feel pretty good with managing half of the prompts. Some of these small stories I’d told in other forms, but I really wanted to convey illustrated snapshots of my time as an archaeologist–the moments that somehow add up to years, that shine up in your pocket after turning them over and over until all the details are gone.

I find it interesting that I didn’t include any digital work it in at all, considering that’s apparently what I do. Perhaps the medium didn’t lend itself. In an ideal world, they’d all be the same shape, size and color, but that they are irregular shows that they were rushed, time stolen after Tamsin’s bedtime and before I fell over each night. It was also a good reminder of how rusty I am at drawing, and how risky it feels to put work that you are not completely confident with out in the world. This is particularly relevant as I teach students to engage with media that they’re very unfamiliar with.

Anyway, thanks to Katherine Cook for the prompts, and to my fellow (much better) artists. It’s good to be reminded to have fun and to have fun collectively and creatively. I’ve included these all below, I can’t imagine anyone would want them higher-rez, but let me know. I also combined them together in a pdf here.

New Publication: Teaching Resistance in Maximum Rocknroll

Maximum Rocknroll began in 1977 as a punk rock radio show and became a long-running zine–basically my teenage bible. In it, John No of the Fleshies and Street Eaters has been editing the Teaching Resistance column and I knew him through a class at UC Berkeley, so I thought I’d contribute. Some of it is cribbed from my Teach-Outs and the Progressive Stack blog post, but it’s considerably expanded.

I’ve posted my bit below, but John No has a great introduction to the piece so you should pick up a copy of MRR at your favorite record store, or online. Want to write your own? Email John No at teachingresistance@gmail.com.

Continue reading “New Publication: Teaching Resistance in Maximum Rocknroll”

Anarchotourism in Barcelona

Sant_Felip_Neri_-_Barcelona, by MarcelloScotti

The Plaça de Sant Felip Neri is quiet, despite the constant flow of tour groups. I perched on the edge of the fountain and watched the pigeons, people sipping their coffee at the cafe, the wind in the spindly trees actually audible over the crashing thunder of Barcelona. I had wandered through a few slender lanes, almost missed it once, but backtracked and found myself at the plaça. And sat.

The plaça was bombed by Franco in 1938 during the Spanish Civil War, killing 42 people, mostly children, including orphaned refugees. The shrapnel scars attest to the intensity of the blast. Like Berlin, Barcelona bears its architectural wounds for anyone who cares to notice. I’m constantly crafting a patchwork understanding of history after a thoroughly mediocre American-jingoist public school education.

I half-heartedly took a few snaps of the pockmarked facade, but knew they wouldn’t look like anything in the chiaroscuro sunshine. I didn’t take many photographs at all in Barcelona. I was constantly wading through people shrieking with drunken glee while I was looking for the leaden weight of history. I was unexpectedly consumed by the Civil War and Catalonia’s history of anarchism, and vicious acts of government oppression as remembered in place names and bullet holes. Between sessions, keynotes and dinners for the EAA in Barcelona, I walked between 15-20 km a day, trying to make my own map of the place.

In 2001, a group of artists founded Tactical Tourism, “organizing interventions in public spaces drawing on the practices and language of tourism” to rescue secret histories of Barcelona. Their most famous intervention was the Route of Anarchism, a route “conceived as a guided tour to a hidden Barcelona, silenced and out of tourist view, the ‘red and black city’ of the anarchist movement, a Barcelona that is also known as ‘the Rose of Fire’.” This quote is from Pau Obrador and Sean Carter’s short article, Art, politics, memory: Tactical Tourism and the route of anarchism in Barcelona, which discusses the tactics of the group.

I spent a lot of time in the neighborhood El Raval, at the site of an infamous women’s jail, stopped by La Rosa De Foc, an anarchist bookshop, wandered by lots of mosques and read up on George Orwell and the Myths of the International Brigades. I could feel the voyeuristic spectre of difficult heritage hovering just outside of my eyeline. So I did what any good tourist would do and bought a poster:

Ricard Obiols 1936  Barcelona CNT-AIT

Ultimately, I failed as an anarchotourist. I focussed on the oppression, destruction and brutality and did not engage (as much) with the joyful noise of the situationist-led play that characterizes anarchism, “Tourism here is not seen as a passive spectator activity but rather as an active, playful form of engagement with the city.” Instead of visiting squats, I went to the Museu d’Història de Catalunya, which covers the continual Catalonian resistance but also has a fancy rooftop cafe overlooking the harbor. I couldn’t afford the drinks, sadly. So I continued to wander through Barcelona, soaking up as much as I could.

The Archaeology of Peepo

“…and the nursery rhymes are different!”

I was commiserating with another translocated mother; she’s British and raising a son in Hawaii with an American husband, while I’m exactly the opposite. (Yes, I’m fairly sure that York is the opposite of Hawaii, alas.) We had been speaking about the subtle but substantial differences in nomenclature for British and American babies–everything from nappies vs. diapers to how the wheels on the bus go round and round, either all day long or all through town. London Bridge is rebuilt with different materials (silver and gold??) in the UK, whereas in the USA you take the key and lock her up…my fair lady. Needless to say, this all feeds into my shonky, blinkered ethnography of the UK, with this particular instance falling into the chapter on raising children.

Many of Tamsin’s books are from her grandparents who amassed a wealth of literature through teaching and having four children of their own. These are well-loved, disintegrating, and taped-together but remain compelling and most are still in print today. My favorites are the decidedly psychedelic Meg and Mog books (late 1970s):

From Meg’s Veg, sorry for the tipsy photos, I was battling a toddler

Though The Tiger Who Came to Tea (1968) is a close second–its ambiguous (anti-fascist?) narrative of a very large furry tiger who eats all the food and all the drink in a house occupied by a little girl and her mummy while daddy’s away is oddly chilling, and requires a greater literary scholar than I to unpick.

OH GOD WATCH OUT FOR THE TIGER AAAAAAHHHH

Janet & Allan Ahlberg’s Peepo (1981) is another classic British children’s book that I was not familiar with. Without getting too much into the literary devices in the book, it is told from the perspective of a little baby boy who peeps through a hole cut into the next page at various scenes of family life.

While it is not stated, the book is set during WWII, yet portrays a happy domesticity during a devastating war. This would have probably been obvious to any British readers, with the barrage balloon/anti-aircraft blimp in the background of an image of a park, a bombed-out building in the distance, gas mask on the bed, and the father is shown in uniform toward the end of the book.

This is obviously a idealized, heteronormative vision of the British past, one that probably feels true and right and comfortable. Dan tells me that a lot of children’s books are set during this time; my sample and experience are still relatively limited. What caught my attention is the architecture–we live in a similar Victorian terraced house that backs onto a small, paved yard with a tiny garden.

I started noticing the period-specific features of the house, ones that are mostly gone from ours, like the big stove in the kitchen and the outhouse tacked onto the end of the shed. The traces of these remain in our house, and some of our neighbor’s houses still have the back shed.

I realized that you could figure out the interior of the house and the location of the various rooms from a generalized knowledge of the architecture of these houses. This is how ingrained and ubiquitous these terraced houses are in the UK. In fact, after reading the book at least 1,000 times, I reckoned it was close to this set up:

This layout is from a house a block away from ours, stolen from a real estate website.

In this modern version the back shed has been converted into a kitchen and the former kitchen is now a dining room.

The interior scenes in Peepo are remarkably consistent, with objects (artefacts) appearing and reappearing as the everyday things interwoven into life. I wondered if the house was based on one from the Ahlbergs’ past, or if terrace houses were so generalizable that elaborate planning of the various scenes was not required. Of course the kitchen is there, with the stove just so, and the clothes horse in the corner.

I also love the book as potential inspiration for archaeological illustrations and reconstructions. It’s not messy, just full, rich with materiality and every object has a used and purposeful feeling to it. Small piles of toys are a playtime interrupted, but not quite cleared away. According to an interview in The Guardian, the illustrator Janet Ahlberg used The Army and Navy Stores Catalogue, 1939-1940 for reference and “would get waylaid in it and sit for ages looking at bread-bins and kettles.”

The book is from a baby’s perspective, watching his family move around him and the details he picks up that might go unnoticed by adults. It also evokes the “daily round,” of waking, daily activity, then bath and bedtime. Out in the back yard he sees:

A bonfire smoking
Pigeons in the sky
His mother cleaning windows
A dog going by

Here’s a video of Allan Ahlberg reading Peepo:

Teaching with the Archaeology Data Service and Internet Archaeology

It’s fairly well-known that I’m a fan of the Archaeology Data Service, lauding their efforts and crashing their parties whenever I can. It is amazing to be right down the hall from the hive of archival activity, and Internet Archaeology is just up a couple of flights of stairs. I’m always happy to publish in Internet Archaeology, as the journal’s Open Access ideals and flexible data formats work well for digital archaeology.

What didn’t occur to me, at least at first, was the powerful teaching tool that combining the two would represent. This year I led on Accessing Archaeology, a module that our entire first year cohort of undergraduates takes. Students are introduced to basic concepts of Archaeology, including sessions on Landscape, Material Culture, Excavation, Archaeology & Science, etc. Each week students are in seminars wherein they discuss these concepts, using a textbook (available online through the library) and, importantly, present in small groups on a particular case study that shows the application of these concepts.

Some of case studies that the students present are from Internet Archaeology, and many of these articles have backup datasets stored at the Archaeology Data Service. For example for the seminar on Excavation, we use:

Prehistoric:

Wickham-Jones, C R and Dalland, M (1998), A small mesolithic site at Fife Ness, Fife, Scotland, Internet Archaeology, vol. 5

Historic:

Richards, J D (2001), Anglian and Anglo-Scandinavian Cottam: linking digital publication and archive, Internet Archaeology, vol. 10

The Cottam excavation is archived with the ADS and students are encouraged to find out more about the site and excavation techniques by investigating the archive.

I did not design the module–the heavy lifting was done a few years ago by my colleague Dr Steve Ashby (of Real Vikings fame), but I find that the way it integrates teaching the basics of archaeology with specific case studies presented by students to be an excellent method of engaging students with the material.

The module culminates (as many do) with an essay, and this year I set the question to draw from two different lines of evidence (say, analysis of structures + zooarchaeology or human remains + environmental sampling) from a single site to make an argument. Sorry I’m being a bit vague–I’d like to use variations on the theme in the future!

The students were able to pick one of six sites, five of which were archived with the Archaeology Data Service. This way they could access not only the associated official publications, but they could really dig into (sorry) the excavation data to query the methods used at the site. One of these sites was Sutton Hoo, which has a huge amount of data archived at the ADS. Students can access field reports, images, specialist reports, maps, and other archaeological gray literature to build their arguments.

I’m fairly new at teaching with archives, but I hope to integrate more of the materials at the ADS into the courses I teach as it’s an incredible resource and evokes both the desk-based assessments that archaeologists must perform before archaeological investigation and reveals how archaeologists make arguments with archaeological data–for better or worse!