More and more academic journals these days are fully or partially published on the web. Few journal publishers and authors, however, take full advantage of the technological potential of the web to make their work multimodal. In an effort to combine scholarly writing with audio and video Phillip Vannini teamed up with Jonathan Taggart in the spring of 2011 to produce a unique journal article with six videos embedded in it.
The article has now been published in Cultural Geographies.
At first glance the article looks like a traditional written piece with six pictures. But when you click on the pictures six 15 second audio-visual "evocations" of the written content play for the reader/viewer. "Jon and I wanted to use the camera to give a sense of movement," explains Vannini, "with an intent that traditional still photos--the staple of much journal-published visual ethnography--cannot achieve."
Their article describes how sense of place is experienced and practiced on islands. Their words and videos aim to capture a complex idea--islandness--and argue that islandness resides in the unique ways islanders move. The article is slated to make an important contribution to cultural geography and arts-informed research--they hope.
You can check out their visual evocations on YouTube, and read excerpts from the paper below.
The Ferry Terminal
Visualize a billboard ad along the side of the highway, as you zoom by. Perhaps visualize the very last one you saw, on your way to the office. Can you tell me what it said? Did you slow down to read it, to take it all in?
Visualize a bulletin board now. Its cork-like texture. Its multiple colorful thumbtacks. The panoply of old signs posted weeks and months ago, now buried underneath newer ones with less rugged edges, with more hope of catching your attention. Visualize it hung up on the paint-yearning wall of a small island ferry terminal. Well, “terminal,” hardly. More like a garage of sorts: stuffy and unkempt inside, full of old cheesy furniture and bad plumbing, and surrounded by dusty cars and old bikes on the outside.
Visualize your attention not needing large letters or flashing neon lights. You’re close enough to read, you live near enough to care. And the ferry’s unhurried pace has gifted you time to read. “Mystical escapes through sound and vibration.” “Looking for a ride to Victoria from the 7:40 ferry.” “We will work with dreams, music, movement, ritual, and interpersonal relations.” “Boat for sale.” “Local BC shrimp.” “Guided kayaking adventures.” “Giant Garage Sale.” “Run away to Gabriola: Cozy retreat for rent.” “Drivers beware: Newborn fawns on the road this month.” Everything seems to be moving differently around here, on its own pace. Old clothes re-circulate. Local delicacies stay close to home palates. Outsiders escape and retreat here. Locals hitch rides, gingerly dodge deer, and float together on kayaks and ferries.
As the ferry docks and her traffic unloads, the foot passengers waiting to board look at the drivers heading uphill to see who is coming. Visualize a few smiles and waves, as the deckhand attending to the gate seems more focused on catching up with his buddies going to town, than on directing drivers or holding footsies in place. After all, they both know how to find their way. Visualize Julie, suddenly arriving to the waiting area, scrambling out of her car, as the insistent “ping” reminds her to buckle up a seat belt she doesn’t need. “Is anyone going by the library in Nanaimo?” she hollers at no one in particular. “I forgot to return this book, and it’s due today,” she pleads. Someone you don’t know picks it up—they’re going downtown anyway. Julie thanks the couple with a hug. Even books circulate differently around here. Visualize how islanders do that. Visualize what this way of moving does to a place, to an island.
The Seaplane Pier
Picture yourself undulating, left to right, left to right, with every wave, every ripple bumping into the floating dock. You catch your feet shuffling, your centre of gravity shifting, as the damp, wooden walkboard oscillates with you and the ocean, as if it were inviting you to move, compellingly, along with them. Picture yourself feeling the urge to fly—off to the mainland, on to the big city airport, on to far, bigger places. Your nerves telling you it’s time to check in, weigh the baggage, grab your boarding pass, load your luggage, and take off.
Picture the wristwatch you don’t carry hollering at your subconscious for your attention. It’s time. Another second flies by. It’s time. Picture your skin curling up with every waft of ocean breeze, as if the water’s cold breath were whispering in your ears. So you unzip your carry-on. You unfold a carefully packed sweater and hurriedly slip it on. You are alone. You have a seaplane to catch. You have your island, your home, to leave behind. It’s only a few days away, but picture yourself aching in anticipation of your return. You feel the pain as if your stomach gasped for island air with every puff you take. But every breath is a struggle—as if you inhaled to devour more and more of the tasty, moist ocean particles lingering in the atmosphere. Picture every one of those tide-scented particles jammed in your throat, weighing you down, as if with each gasp you bore the progressively unbearable, expanding weight of island gravity.
“Where in the world is Harry?” Twenty minutes to your flight. No one there to check you in, no plane at the horizon. Picture yourself dialing his number in anxiety. Only to hear his forgotten phone ring inside the shack on the pier. No one there to answer it. Picture anxiety making space for dread. Dystopian thoughts assault your mind and body. They can’t be late. You can’t be late. Another second goes by, mercilessly. And another. And with every feeling that it’s later, and later, picture yourself exiting island time, getting sucked into the vortex-like timescape of the mainland. Picture yourself breathing faster—no longer to absorb island air, but to exhale its rhythms. To let it go.
And there’s Harry. Fishing rod in one hand, bucket in the other. Picture him ambling down the dock, smiling, as he babbles a word to Jenn, parading alongside him strolling her suitcase. T-tock, t-tock, t-tock—her suitcase wheels utter while rolling on the dock, as they hit the gaps between each plank of wood. Picture Harry and Jenn greeting you. Calmly. Still on island time. “You’re here early, today”—you’re told. You’ve got somewhere important to go, you answer. “Oh yeah, that conference overseas you were telling me about”—Jenn acknowledges.
Picture having no boarding pass to collect. Picture Harry eye-checking, then lifting your suitcase with one hand instead of weighing it with a scale or scanning it with x-rays. “Twenty-two pounds,” he guesses. Picture having to show no ID because Harry and your kids play soccer together. Picture John, the seaplane pilot, apologizing to you and Jenn upon arrival for being “a couple of minutes late.” Picture having no glossy magazines to buy on your way to the gate. Or having no gate at all—indeed, nothing but a big watery abyss separating the dock from the five-seater. An abyss dismembering and yet connecting your island with the rest of the world. Picture the raucous engine of the plane drowning out your melancholia, as you stretch your neck to catch a last glimpse, for a while, of your island.
On the Road
Imagine a road as twisted as an islander’s imagination. A road as scrumptious and as uneven as a piece of Gruyere cheese—with each pothole collecting the changing signs of the seasons: leaves, snow, water, and sand as the year goes by. Or a road as enchanting and as narrow as a deer trail—with Bambi and his siblings curiously ogling at you as you drive by, calmly munching salal on the roadside. Or a road normally so lonely that whenever five or more vehicles appear all at once, even children realize that the ferry must have just let out. Or imagine a road as intriguing as a piece of woven cloth stitched together maniacally, with some threads as smooth as silk interlacing others as coarse as sandpaper, together bending and winding in a quixotic pattern made of twists, cracks, humps, and bumps.
Now imagine yourself driving on those island roads. While on the mainland you roll in your “town car”—the nicer, newer set of wheels (not too nice, however, as never trust those “vandals” out there!). But on your island you cruise on your beloved “island car,” the vehicle you keep exclusively on the rock to shuttle from the ferry terminal to your home and vice versa, and everywhere in between. Your island car is not just an automobile; it is an embodiment of island roads.
Imagine the moss growing on its bumpers. Imagine the random pieces of driftwood in the trunk—which one day you will actually use for that project you set your mind to. Imagine the floorboard ripened with sand, gravel, twigs, and leaves. Imagine the dashboard littered with ferry tickets, to-do lists for your trips to town, and a ferry schedule that you have not consulted since a Liberal was the Prime Minister. Imagine the faded out stickers adorning it: the “Slow down: This ain’t the mainland” one. The “Wild salmon don’t do drugs” one. The “I ♥ losers” one. And the “Save our ferries” one.
Imagine stepping on the gas of your island car to reach the speed limit of 50km/h in less than twenty seconds. Then wondering what time it is. Time to follow patiently the senior driving 10 km/h below the speed limit in front of you? Time to rev it up to 70 km/h and cope with the anxiety that your neighbors will lament your speed fetishism in the weekly island paper? Or time to make that ferry and throw caution to the wing, alongside with everyone else on the island?
Imagine waving at cars driving the opposite direction, regardless of whether you know the driver. Imagine using one or two fingers if you don’t really know them, the entire hand if you do, and even smiling and waving if you call them friends. Imagine respecting the social norm that hitch-hikers must be picked up, almost at all times. Imagine feeling the need to apologize to hitch-hikers in circumstances when you just can’t pick them up: you raise your hand over your head to show them you’re full; you point right or left by bending your wrist to indicate you’re about to turn off the main road; you curl your index and thumb to explain you’re just going a short way. But you never point to your watch—as if you carried one—to excuse yourself for being in too much of a rush. If there is a ferry to catch, after all, they are in a rush too. And if there is no ferry to catch, why be in a rush? And then, imagine yourself finally getting a new car. And realizing that everyone on the road, for at least a month, will think you’re a tourist and greet you as such, or simply won’t.
At the Beach
You won’t find much sand here. Drumbeg is a prototypical Gulf Island “beach;” a secluded cove hugged by massive conifers and held together in one piece by sandstone ledges, laddered like layers descending toward the ocean water. Spheric, penny-sized, shiny pebbles succumb to your footsteps, sounding like hushed maracas as you traipse along the shoreline. Gentle but brutally cold waves both invite you to and warn you against dipping your feet. You won’t find beach balls bouncing around here. You will find kelp with gas bladder balls so big that you could almost use them as bottles, as the First Nations used to do. You won’t find the raucous blare of boom-boxes here, or the frolicking of teenagers chasing their own tails in a frenzy. You will find rock benches. Often empty, at times anchored down by the pensive body of an older man or woman in search of companionship with nature, or by the ravished presence of an absent mind lost in a book or in a half-completed oceanscape painting.
You won’t find sun here. At least not too often. Turbulent clouds, long and slim clouds, streaky clouds, overcasting clouds, puffy and billowy clouds. You will find those. Often. They won’t discourage the one or two kayakers from gliding away toward the seal colony off Kendrick Island. They won’t obstruct the couple of cabin-feverish souls strolling on the other side of the bay, gazing with one set of eyes at the distant coastal mountains on the mainland. Or at their young children learning the art of balancing on a washed out log while eyeing pieces for their next driftwood fort. You won’t find much swimming here, though there is some. The swimming of enthusiastic dogs chasing a tennis ball as far as they can. The sloshing of toddlers prompting everyone to wonder how they can withstand the chill. The splashing of young and old alike, skipping a flat stone on the surface of the water, three, four, five times, till a ripple sucks it in.
You won’t find sex here. You will find purple starfish huddled so tight, piled on top of one another so intimately, that you will think they are either in orgiastic love or they have found a way to bear with the cold ebbs and flows of the water. You won’t find many bikinis, either. Skimpy beach fashion has given way to colorful gumboots for women and hiking shows for men this year. And last year. And the next. But no one cares about looking the part, since eyes have so much more to fixate on. So, you will find yourself ogling at daring skiffs challenging the riptide at False Narrows. You will find yourself scoping for traces of a long sought-after Geocache. You will find yourself smiling at the playful dance of geoducks squirting at each other as in some kind of battle you don’t want to get caught in betwixt. You will find yourself dissecting each island from your view—Kendrick from Valdes, Valdes from Mudge, Mudge from Link, Link from DeCourcy—with a surgeon’s eye precision.
You won’t find sales here either. No coconut, no toys, no margaritas, no grilled shrimp, no snorkeling gear. You won’t find umbrellas—of either the type used to fight the sun or the rain. You won’t find beach chairsOr ten square feet of beach for rent. You will find parking space, though. You will find Steve and Kendra, who are out too today. You will find a corner for a picnic—a corner so wide that for anyone to sit as close as 50 feet to it would just be insolent. You will find time to wonder if that spot of white stuff is sand that has magically appeared, or a heap of broken oyster shells. And you might even find a way to complain about some of this—not warm enough, not quiet enough, not alone enough, and how about those nasty invasive species: Scotch broom and tourists alike.
From the Water
Envision your island from the ocean water, your ocean water. Envision it as your journey to the mainland comes to an end, as your seaplane pilot reassures you not much has been going on since you left. Envision it as a dark green wall, puffy, and shaggy from a distance. Envision it as the tree branches get edgier and the trunks become brighter as you fly closer. Envision it as you fly even closer, so closer you could almost hear the seagulls if the engine wasn’t so loud. So closer you can recognize the blue tarp on the Wilsons’ roof, the large windows on the MacKenzie’s house, the steep and windy staircase to the shore right in front of that new house that was just built last year. Envision spotting driftwood and using it to gauge the tide. Envision, as you step off the plane, hearing from your fellow passenger that “it finally smells like home.”
Envision your island from the snug seat of your kayak. Gripping the paddle with your cold hands, you slow your stroke to see things better: “Is that a seal or the tip of a submerged log?” Suddenly it snorts and plunges underwater, and your doubt dissipates. Envision fellow islanders out on the water. Some with their aluminum boats, angling, others on their sailboat, aiming for nowhere in particular. As the tide recedes your island becomes closer, and the smell of algae becomes more pungent, like spinach left to rot on the sandstone. Islands promise a sense of closure—demanding an encompassing experience of them by way of circumnavigation. That is, until you have to paddle your way around. That is, until you envision that slowing your pace, allowing the current to cuddle your boat, gives you a more patient vision. It’s a twofold sense of openness and closure earned in measure of enumerating moments of quiet, in losing the count of oyster catchers that have flown by. Envision the sun glittering on the water but feeling too damn cold to romanticize about it.
Envision your island from the bow of your ferry boat. Steadily aiming towards port. Imagine letting your mind wonder not about the finiteness of your rock, but about its mundane fragility. Where is that plum of smoke coming from—is it a wildfire? How come the ferry is always late when you’re in a hurry? Is that a plastic bottle sitting on the shore? How could they have given a permit to those people to build over there? And why do they think that an ocean view gives one the right to cut down so many trees? Envision having the militant courage to answer a tourist question the way you really mean it: “You can drive around the island in twenty minutes, but you could bike around it in one hundred minutes, and yes, it’s five times better.”
Envision how your island might look from the water to a visitor. Utopian. Romantic. Remote. Secluded. Protected. Labile. Cozy. Impractical. Monastic. Finite. Small. Controllable. Now envision how your island might feel to you as an islander. Like your well pump needs a new filter. Like a new fence needs to be put around your garden if your deer are ever to leave your veggies alone. Like some space needs to be found for a larger parking lot at the ferry terminal. Like the new trails still to be traced through the park need volunteers. Like that bus route application with the regional district needs volunteers too. Those are the glimmers of island life you envision as an inhabitant: not abstract spaces of possibility, but concrete places incorporated into your habits, to be made and re-made, by you and your neighbors. Envision not islands from the mainland, or from an island’s own highest peak, but envision your island from your water and your shore, as you labor to paddle closer to your home.
Around the Village
Someone once said that you know you’re an islander when it takes you two hours to go to the village to run an errand, as you have to stop and visit with everybody you meet. That might just be the blessing and the curse of getting around an island, they say: you know everybody, and everybody knows you.
On Gabriola Island the village mainly consists of a semi-circular mall. A mall, someone once said, that is the largest of the smallest wooden malls in the nation. The grayish brown cedar walls give way to a dark green jagged roof, shaped in irregular dome-like angles. Cedars and firs surround the building on its northern, southern, and western sides. On its eastern side are the gas station, the bank and insurance place, the small theater, Robert’s Restaurant, and a handful of coffee shops and retail stores. The village square proper hosts the food store, the pharmacy, two coffee shops, two retail stores, two unoccupied sites, and the local real estate company office. So, yeah, it can get busy. Someone once said that if Gabriolans were ever in the state of mind of installing a traffic light, this is where it would go. But for now this is more modestly the place where the only marked crosswalk can be found. And that alone can be a difficult task to negotiate for most.
Someone once said that you know you’re an islander when you come to the village to take a break from solitude, and when you go to the mainland to re-learn to appreciate the solitude of your island. Granted, you can find almost everything you need here and you shouldn’t need to go off island much. Goods of all sorts—necessities and treats—circulate here daily. And dangerous cargo arrives here too, once a week. So, whether it’s propane or gasoline, a cappuccino or a hippie dress, you will find it here. Unless you need something fancy, that is. Like a toy made in China. Or a Starbucks coffee. Or a piece of IKEA furniture. Someone once said that you can buy those things when you go on holiday.
I was once told that most island cars don’t need a rear gear. You only really need one if you drive to the village. And even then, they say, you don’t have to know how to parallel park in the village. It gets busy, though. On Saturday afternoons you might actually have to look for a parking spot. And on blackout days everyone comes here to talk about the outage and eat at Robert’s—they have a generator there. And good pie that begs for an excuse. Someone once said it’s just the best thing when the power goes out. Even though cars can still work, many people, for some odd reason, just take to the streets on foot or bike, and treat themselves to this or that. It’s like a snow day for grownups, they say.
Someone once said that you know you’re an islander when you don’t know how to give directions to tourists down at the village. “Excuse me, where’s Gabriola Sands Provincial Park?” They ask. But you have no clue, because to you it’s just Twin Beaches. Or perhaps official street names and numbers elude you, and you find yourself telling tourists to turn right “at Arbutus,” or maybe turn left where so-and-so used to run a barber’s store out of their garage.
Someone else once said that the village is also just about the only place where north-enders and south-enders meet. Regardless of the fact that it would only takes twelve minutes, driving all the way to the other end to just visit someone, well, is just too much to ask.