GeoGraphic narratives of public transport lines

Giada Peterle

DiSSGeA, Università degli Studi di Padova, giada.peterle@gmail.com, www.narrativegeographies.com

GeoGraphic narratives of public transport lines: doing fieldwork and drawing comics in the city of Turku

As an Italian cultural geographer with a background in literary studies, my research is mainly focused on narrative geographies: these are the stories embedded in places and spaces, of course, but also all those narrative practices, products and languages that help us not simply to describe but also to live in, understand, imagine and shape space. But how can we, as academics, learn from and engage with these narratives in order to conduct research in more creative ways? How can these creative experimentations help us to communicate our research beyond academic boundaries? As a scholar with an interdisciplinary background, with a specific interest in contemporary cities and urban mobilities, I have always been interested in the relationship between artistic languages and cities. Therefore, in my recent research projects I have been experimenting with creative and narrative methods for geographical research. Being inspired by many existing creative research projects –in Italy like in other European countries, I have first collaborated with artists and then tried myself, as a comics author, to experiment with urban comics as artistic interventions in urban space. Indeed, I am particularly intrigued by the potentialities of ‘urban comics’ to act upon cities (Davies 2019), to communicate research outputs in more accessible ways, and to involve wider audiences in the processes of urban change.

Starting from this background, as a PUTSPACE post-doctoral research fellow, I worked on a project titled GeoGraphic Narratives of Public Transport Lines: Creative Methods to Explore Urban Complexities Moving Across Space and Time. My research questions were: can I use comics as a research practice? If so, how can we realise a comic book that starts from the observation of the present public transport system in Turku but wants to embrace a stratigraphic perspective, to see how this has changed over the years? And moreover, how do people remember the past tramline and what expectations do they have, today, for the possible futures of the tramway in the city? What practices and encounters happen along the public transport network? What stories are embedded in the routes followed by Turku yellow buses?

The Föli – Turku Region Traffic map. Photograph: Giada Peterle.

This blogpost is only a brief account of the methodological approach and research process I have embraced to reach the main goal of my project: the realisation of a short comic book story about public transport in Turku from a diachronic perspective. I am sharing these reflections almost three weeks after coming back to Italy, when my one-month fellowship has already come to its end but my drawing and writing process is still ongoing. So, these reflections are part of a broader research process that will proceed over the months to come. Moreover, this experience will be at the centre of further reflections and publications, and will certainly be part of the book Comics as a Research Process: Drawing Narrative Geographies Beyond the Frame (Routledge 2020), on which I will work in the coming months to address the ‘doing of comics as a research method’ question more thoroughly.

Here, I want to provide you, readers, with a short account of my intense fieldwork experience in Turku, Finland, presenting the main research activities I was involved in from 18 January to 2 February 2020. The people I met have been a fundamental part of this process, not just because they helped me overcome the linguistic barrier, communicating with me in English and translating information and texts but especially because they generously shared their experiences, memories and stories, feelings, concerns and hopes connected to the public transport network in Turku. Meeting these people, from scholars and colleagues at Åbo Akademi University to the archivists at the Museum Centre of Turku Archive, from tram experts to private citizens living, working, studying in the city, has been a significant part of my fieldwork experience.

A map of the bus network in the urban region of Turku. Photograph: Giada Peterle.

My research started with a simple question: what if we think of the geoGraphic novel as a way to combine images and words, fiction and facts, but also the representation and ‘doing’ of geographic research through comics? Can we interpret doing comics as another creative method at our disposal for geographical research? To answer this question through practice, I decided to work on an original comic book about public transport in Turku, from a diachronic perspective. From the beginning, I wanted the tramline, together with the iconic bus routes of Turku, to become the real protagonists of the story. The electric tramway in Turku was inaugurated in 1908 and permanently closed in 1972: yet its iconic yellow tramcars are still alive in the imaginaries of people living in the city, from elders, who personally experienced the use of the tram, to younger citizens, for whom the tram represents a symbol of the past of the city. While this way of moving across the city is still recalled in citizens’ memories and visual culture, the tramway as a transport means has been completely replaced by buses and private cars, but also bicycles and other green ways of urban mobility (like the very recent kick scooters!). From a narrative perspective, I wanted the comics story to develop along the lines of the public transport network and to follow the trajectories of different users, from young women to older men and vice versa. I had many polyphonic novels in my mind –like the modernist urban novels Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin or Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos. My goal was to provide them with a reading experience in which public transport means emerge from a multifocal perspective, embracing the perspectives of different users but also of different times and spaces. From the beginning, I wanted the story to be built on the interconnections between a plurality of time-spaces and voices! These multiple perspectives and multifocal narration should become a narrative tool to invite readers to focus on the importance of mobilities in urban space and daily rhythms as well as of co-existence (of people, languages, cultures etc.) in public space. This is the reason why I have tried to meet and interview as many people as it was possible in such a short period of time and, in general, to take a dialogic and open approach that could help me collecting narratives about public transport in the city from very different ‘urban actors’.

Tram postcards in a souvenir shop in the covered market of Turku. Photograph: Giada Peterle.

To organise my fieldwork practice and movements, and to orient myself in the city, I did not use technical maps but rather ordinary maps. Furthermore, the virtual trace of the tramline functioned as a diachronic thread that could help me to move chronologically from the present days to the past of Turku: this way, the past tram route became a narrative line, along which I could see how much the city has changed and expanded over time, register the various ways in which people used to move in different times, and build my storyline. Given the importance of a spatio-temporal perspective, which enables me to illuminate the different time-layers that have built the spatial identity of contemporary places in Turku, I started to compare newer and older maps. I have compared the old maps of the routes of the trams number 1 2 and 3 with the new ones realised by Föli –the Turku Region Public Transport system– that show contemporary bus routes. Even if no more visible in the physical urban environment, the tramline functioned as an invisible trace and a silent guide, which helped me to move across the present space and past history of the city. I decided to perform the map of the old tramlines mostly by walk, sometimes by bus, and even by bike, searching for traces of the tram’s passage, and collecting memories about its presence. Following these lines, I was able to recognise traces of its heritage. Beyond maps, it was impossible not to notice various visual materials and products displayed and sold in the city’s bookshops, covered market, shop windows and streets. I found traces of the tram in the old postcards that are sold in the more traditional tourist shops; but I have seen the tram becoming a visual element for graphic patterns on textile products and maps sold in more fancy shops run by local designers. The yellow tramcars are not only nostalgic images from the past but also cool visual elements in the present!

The tram is one of the elements composing the printed patterns at Kui design, a local design shop. Photograph: Giada Peterle.

If these are manifest traces of the popularity of the tram memory nowadays, almost fifty years after its closure, what was the reaction of the media and citizens when the tram was closed? With this question in mind, I went to the city library’s archive to leaf through the copies of the local newspaper in Finnish language, the Turun Sanomat, to collect news devoted to the tram on thse three days –between 1967 and 1972– in which the tramlines were closed: indeed, while line 1 was closed on 11 March 1967, both lines 2 and 3 were closed in 1972, the first on 31 May and the latter on 1 October. The fact that I cannot speak a word of Finnish was especially significant in this case, since I could not focus on the articles’ contents, because the translation would have taken too much time. Thus, I focused on images and titles, among which I searched for words connected to the tram’s semantic sphere, like for example ‘raitiovaunu’, ‘ratikka’, ‘raitiotie’. After hours spent using the microfilm reader, and with this linguistic limitations, the only news I could find about the tram closure were just a couple of articles, both dating back to 1972: the first one, of the 31 May, speaks of the closure of line 2 and observes how ‘the tramway disappears from Turku’s street scene’, while the other one, dated back to 2 October, the first day of a Turku definitively without trams, simply affirms that ‘now it’s over’.

I was also able to visit the Archives at the Museum Centre of Turku, where stories about public transport history and use are told not simply by period photos and documents but also by objects and the people working there. Through the information that is written on the archival labels and documents, both objects and photographs are archives of intimate stories that need someone –be it an archivist or a researcher– to activate them. These stories were accessible to me thanks to the invaluable mediation of the archivists at the Museum Centre, whose prior research and selection of materials related to the tramway was a very helpful starting point for me to create the ‘visual imaginary’ I needed for the composition of the visual part of the comics story. Images, postcards and photographs and objects, like bags, uniforms and tram tickets, together with the few tram wagons preserved in the Museum’s depot have stories to tell. What I tried to do was simply to individuate potential visual subjects and narrative triggers for my comic book story. Since comics are made of both images and words, the scenes in the pictures, the shape and colour of objects were as important as the information and descriptions kept on their labels. In some cases, the conversation, activated with the archivists because of the translation process, followed their own considerations and memories, transforming the visit at the archive in a multivocal and intersubjective dialogue rather than an individual practice of selection.

Archivists show photographs of the tram at the Museum Centre of Turku. Photograph: Giada Peterle.

Yet, in order to come to know more intimate stories related to public transportation in the city, I decided to carry out non-structured interviews. In my earlier creative research, I had already worked with interviews: these were a structural part of the composition process of a comics story I have drawn about the Arcella neighbourhood in Padua. This story has then becom part of the comic book anthology Neighbourhoods. Travel at the centre of Italian peripheries [original title in Italian Quartieri. Viaggio al centro delle periferie italiane], a project I curated with the urban sociologist Adriano Cancellieri which comprises five comics stories about five peripheral neighbourhoods in five different Italian cities. In my methodological perspective, interviews are a means of collecting individual memories, feelings, affects and experience. In Turku, I collected memories from people who used the tram in person or who were told by their relatives about their own experience. I have met tram enthusiasts and experts, like Mikko Laaksonen, who is the author or the most popular book about the history of the tramways in the city. I have also heard stories from people working at the customer office of Föli, and members of the Turku Region Public Transport Committee. As far as I know, many of them will become characters in the comics story and their small everyday life episodes, the details about the sensorial perception of sound on the tram they shared with me, the descriptions about how people interact within public transport means, all these information will help me to develop the narrative line of my comics story.

Using maps and navigating the Föli website with a past member of the Turku Region Public Transport Committee. Photograph: Giada Peterle.

If I try to recall and describe my two weeks of fieldwork in Turku, I cannot forget to mention my fieldwork journal and the camera, and the audio recording app in my smartphone, as important parts of my toolkit and research practice. Whereas the photos I have taken represent the raw materials to start drawing the comics story, written notes and audio tapes will help me to navigate gathered materials, connect stories and remember details. Finally, I have searched for other ‘mobile stories’, especially in comics form, in the city of Turku and in Finland. As far as I know, there’s no graphic novel about public transport in Turku, neither covering the past tramline nor the contemporary bus network. However, I came to know that comics on public transport and urban space in Turku –together with many other stories set in other cities– were drawn by Finnish comics artists to decorate the barriers of the building site for the new tramway that will be opened in Tampere between 2020 and 2021. Maybe this is a further narrative line to follow that could help me to connect the history of the tramway in Turku with that of other cities in Finland, and that could to explore not just the past but also the potential futures of the tramline in the city. I know that these two weeks were just a starting point for both my experimentation with comics as a research practice and my creative research on public transport in Turku. The comics story is the next step!