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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4 Responses to Hidden in plain sight

  1. It is interesting how we choose between a sign or symbol that affects us and one that does not. The polysyllabic chemical ingredients in our packaged products, magnetic credit card strips, the dyes on the printed material we touch, and so on. Using a very loose interpretation of ‘signs’ to classify these, we choose to keep them incomprehensible. We look at these things all the time and know a bit about their overall functions. However, for me at least, since I am not a chemist or technology manufacturer these elements become more symbols than anything else. I could do some investigation and find out all the horrors associated with these things, but choose to sit back and be consciously ignorant.

  2. Zeke says:

    Mark Twain wrote about this in a slightly different bent, wrt noticing and knowing. He writes about his trips on the Mississippi River as a youth and enjoying the sun and the wind and the ripples on the water, experiencing them as natural phenomenæ unconnected to anything else. As he learned the River more and became a boat pilot in his own right he learned to infer important information about how to maneuver the vessel: the ripples signified a sand bar, the color of the sun going down implied certain weather ahead.

    His point was that there is a superficial level at which we experience the world around us that is based only on looking, and then another level (or levels) of understanding based on synthesizing what we see with what we know. As Joshua noted above, we choose how much we want to know about the world we experience visually, and about how much we gloss over.

    My experience has been that anything that contains new visual information, or information that is presented in a way that is not immediately understandable, automatically gets ignored by most people. So often our brains move through the world with a preconceived notion of what is important or what we “should” be seeing that we see a tiny fraction of the information out there. Which also makes me think of “The Purloined Letter,” which if you haven’t read you should.

  3. jsnyder says:

    Thanks for commenting, Josh and Zeke. So glad to have a dialogue opening up….

    Zeke, you reminded me of one of my favorite aids to navigation: dead reckoning. (Having just looked it up, thanks, wikipedia, I realize that I should clarify: I mean traditional dead reckoning and old school navigation techniques like the south pacific islanders used…)

    One of my fantasy research projects (yes, I have them) is to compare dead reckoning practices with more technology-enhanced methods of navigating. What exactly do we lose when we stop using our bodies (vision, balance, touch) to locate ourselves in space? Someone once told me (reliable source? not sure) that the Navy was actually interested in funding this kind of research. The skill of dead reckoning is a dying art, but when fancy systems fail, it’s nice to have someone on board who can get the multi-gazillion dollar vessel back to dock.

    Josh, I guess that’s kind of the point I was trying to work through: the blissfully (?) ignorant aspect of visual literacy. I’m not really advocating obliviousness, but I guess I just want to recognize that it is a real, viable (though maybe not admirable) way to go through life, and that this state of being and that I am kind of fascinated and entertained by people who exploit it. I guess I was thinking about situations where the very thing that is neglected by the “information overloaded” masses is recognized as valuable by a “resource-poor” subculture. And all the social dynamics that go along with that sort of shift of empowerment.

    Another example just came to mind. At some point in the last year, I heard a presentation about the information behavior practices of children with autism and their families. One of the things that struck me at the time was how the researcher described how high functioning these kids were when information was presented in a visual format. Her talk focused on the limitations of this group and the challenges faced by their families as a result of communication difficulties. My question to the her and to the audience: “Instead of focusing on the limitations of this group, why don’t we study them as an example of best practices with regards to the use of visual information? Why don’t we view them as expert users?” The researcher liked that idea. I liked that idea, too.

  4. Hellen Clark says:

    Thanks for the share!

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