Hidden in plain sight

Visual literacy, in its most general sense, refers to the skills needed to interpret and use graphical information resources. It means knowing how to read a map. Or having enough sensitivity to social and cultural stereotypes to know when an image in a magazine is exploitative or sexist.

Visual literacy is often discussed in the context of education (for example). How can we incorporate visual skills into information literacy lessons? How can we teach our students to assign appropriate attributes and citations to the images they download off the web? We also talk about visual literacy in terms of the massive amounts of multimedia resources to which we are exposed through the web and the entertainment industry: How do we become more responsible consumers? How can we tell when an image, or film or music video is harmful or discriminatory?

These are important questions and I will write more about them later.  But this morning, I’m thinking about another kind of visual literacy.  I’m thinking about not just having the ability to know how to look at an image, but also having the perspective to understand  where to look.

A few years ago, I heard graffiti artist and painter Tim Clorius (aka Subone) speak at a conference. His presentation documented the historical evolution of tagging and graffiti. The narrative that Clorius brought to this history was guided by his own evolution as an artist and the work he has done building a public art practice in collaboration with at-risk youth in the Portland, Maine area.

Clorius described the ways in which, throughout industrialized times, marginalized, itinerant social groups have communicated with each by leaving messages in highly visible, public locations. He talked about markings made on the sides of box cars that were used by hobos to communicate with each other as they moved back and forth across the country in the early part of the 20th century; and he followed all the way through to current debates and practices associated with what we now know as graffiti art. (Most of us have probably heard about the special police task forces in charge of deciphering tags as a means for keeping tabs on gang activity.)

Subway car, 1973. Downloaded on June 27, 2011 from http://commons.wikimedia.org/

Clorius is not the only one to have compiled such a history, but perhaps because of the way he told the story, what he was saying really struck a chord in me at the time and has stayed with me since. He made a strong connection between a sense of identity and the act of leaving a physical mark on one’s environment. He talked about tagging in a way that evoked the idea of voice, stance and territory. As he decoded various examples of more recent graffiti art, he revealed the mechanisms of empowerment that he saw at play.

Hiding messages in the open is a true feat of visual literacy, requiring a nuanced understanding of the craft of visual communication. The goal is to make the sign undeniable to those “in the know,” while having it remain invisible to everyone else. It’s an interesting information design problem. And it’s an interesting visual design problem.

Hobo or tramp markings at Algiers entrance to Canal Street Ferry across Mississippi River, New Orleans.Downloaded on June 27 2011 from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HoboMarkingsCanalStFerry.jpg

Hiding messages in plain sight, especially when done by an underground movement or marginalized group, is bold. It puts a lot of faith that the “other” (whomever that may be) has a  collective obliviousness to their visual environments. In fact, these subversive communication systems actually depend on the selective attention and tunnel vision that we so often profess to be fighting against. I know that I am constantly trying to get my students to open their eyes, to look around, to report what they see.

These cryptic visual systems rely on an ability to slip through the cracks, to remain left of center, to be on the margins of our field of vision. In these terms, accessibility and universal literacy are not helpful. These signs and symbols get their power in part from our blind spots, having communicative value to those who use them by the very fact that they seem like nothing to the rest of us.

For a while I was reading a lot about Roma (Gypsy) culture and I found a number of examples of this kind of visual literacy throughout their stories of nomadic movement, secrecy and marginalized living. There’s an interesting tale of complicity between the World War II Resistance Movement and the Roma community of Western Europe in the book Crossing: A Journal of Survival and Resistance in World War II by Jan Yoors. The loose-knit partnership, as described by Yoors, centered on the off-the-grid system of communication used by the Roma in order to stay in touch inspite of being in constant motion.

A sign from the French hobo or gypsy sign system, meaning here live kind-hearted women. Downloaded on 27 June 2011 from http://www.symbols.com/encyclopedia/22/2222.html

The system made use of symbols carved into fence posts or hung at crossroads, virtually invisible to those outside the group, but unmistakable to those within. According to Yoors, the Roma shared this system with the partisans and it proved to be vitally important to the Nazi resistance.

True or not, this story illustrates the kind of visual skills that I’ve been thinking about. It reflects a kind of visual literacy that embodies issues of identity, expertise, and creativity, and that is divorced from record-keeping, documentation, and institutionalization. These are living systems, that expand and contract, that respond to the environment, circumstances and situations in which they are deployed. Once they are understood by a larger audience, they cease to function and must change in order to remain useful.

I think this is one of the reasons I’m also intrigued with the idea of the Underground Railroad.  I mean, in addition to the role it played in African-American history, the abolition of slavery, and the development of race relations in this country. I’m really curious about how it actually worked.  How would you know who to trust? How would you know where to go?  You’re scared, tired, hungry. Chances are high you can’t read.

From what I have come across, the evidence for how it really worked is scarce: there are stories about using patterns in quilts to show the way (but these ideas have been refuted); there are accounts describing signals in the form of lanterns, statues, laundry on the clothes line. But there’s just not a whole lot of corroborating documentation, as the whole process was secretive and dynamic by necessity, and visual and largely non-verbal by nature. (Although it is interesting to read about the clues left in song lyrics…)

Downloaded on 27 June 2011 from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Undergroundrailroadsmall2.jpg

The problem that motivates all of these situations is clear: off-the-grid communication is needed; other forms of literacy can not be relied upon, and the  signals being sent need to be undeniably visible to some, while remaining utterly invisible to others. In all of these cases a form of visual literacy evolved that was built on the principle of hiding the message in plain sight. Visual secrets unlocked according to who’s doing the looking and if they know where to focus their attention.

Sure does make me wonder about all the things I’m missing when I walk down the street….

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