Sensing the City — 

March 2016
Out in the Field – Comics for an Urban Anthropology

In early 2015 Anja Schwanhäußer approached me with her work on an Urban Anthropology Anthology focusing on methods of participant observation and ‘hanging around’. I was immediately interested when she invited me to contribute accompanying illustrations. We started an ongoing discussion on how the academic work of city researchers could be transformed into drawings that add an independent artistic view to the content. We did not want decorative vignettes separating chapters. Comics, very short graphic novels, we agreed, could be an appropriate medium since they allow text and time to be added to the drawings. Comics would make it possible to include dialogues and anecdotes of the actual fieldwork, which forms the basis of most contributions in the book. We chose six essays dealing with diff erent sites and cities. Thus the novels would show a broader
diversity of ‘fields’.

As I started working on the storytelling, I realized that the content of each single text was complex and multi-layered enough for a comic of its own. Altogether,the amount of information was really growing out of hand. We had to tie things together, find and agree on a focus that unites all six essays. The layout did not allow more than three pages each, so the story had to be short and to the point. Eventually, the notion that the researcher’s personality cannot be left out in the peering process of fieldwork became the conjunctive element in all the works. The ‘Researcher’s Fear of the Field’ as Rolf Lindner once coined it. Why not bring this aspect to the center of the comic and to the attention of the reader?

Historically as well as in mood and atmosphere, the emergence of the Chicago School of Sociology is connected to the hardboiled era and film noir. Film noir is associated with low-key black-and-white visuals, derived from German Expressionist cinematography of the 1920s and 1930s. Much of the attitude of classic noir is rooted in the hardboiled school of crime fi ction that emerged in the United States during the Great Depression. It generated a stock character, hard as bone, a lonely wolf out in the big cities’ rough streets. This became the aesthetic foundation for the short novels. Once this formal decision was made, I sent sketches of first storyboards to the authors. Instead of explaining the project verbally, I presented the drawings as an invitation for a dialogue. Sending a storyboard out to someone I had never met or talked to was quite a challenge, since my comics tell a moment of the person’s life as I imagine it. Certainly I would deliver an artistic interpretation that presumably will be very different from what really happened. Yet knowing the protagonist of my comic will also be its reader, a reader who would know the original situation better than I, the author, did make me anxious. All six academics agreed immediately when I confronted them with the idea of creating a comic about their personal tenseness in the fi eldwork. The fi rst storyboard I sent to Les Back was about him meeting his brother Ken in a football stadium in south London. The comic was a reference to his text ‘Inscriptions of Love’ and touched the issue of writing about a sensitive family topic, tattoos in this case.

Les did not agree on the setting I chose for the comic as he never went to Millwall stadium with Ken. ‘So’, he wrote ‘I think the context seems not quite right. Also, the dialogue between us jars a little – it isn’t how we would talk to each other but I could help you with that if you’d like me to. I could re-write the dialogue so that it would feel more like the way we would talk.’ We agreed the novel should take place at a trailer park in Norman’s Bay, where they often used to go with the entire family. Les sent me a couple of family photos and a scripted dialogue two days later. Photographs, the analytic essay ‘Inscriptions of Love’, and the text Les wrote are fragments that have actually been said and documented. Additionally Les included personal inner confl icts in the siblings’ relationship as part of the dialogue. As a result the comic got very intimate. The brotherly diff erences are details connected to Les as a researching personality and an aspect I would not get to know by reading his book or interviews. Combining, interpreting, and redrawing the elements, adding the windy atmosphere of the British coast to the emotional conversation of two brothers led to a result that can be called ‘true fiction’, as Les has put it.

The medium of comic allows to leave space for the unspoken. Being able to print this silence in a book off ers space for the reader to interpret the interpreted. The ‘Researcher’s Fear of the Field’ is interesting substance for novelists. It shows two worlds touching that seem to be quite far apart sometimes: academia and ‘real’life. Peeling out the researcher’s relation to the object of interest brought a subliminal and very personal net of correlation to the center of the short graphic novels. Collaborating with ‘real’ protagonists and drawing their stories made it clear to mehow easily the fi ne line between truth and fi ction blurs and that academia is also part of this ‘real’ life, after all.

In October 2015, Nele Brönner
Sensing the City
A Companion to Urban Anthropology

Hrsg. von Anja Schwanhäußer
Reihe Bauwelt Fundamente 155

Flip through the book

Die Stadt ist mehr als Architektur und Demographie, sie ist auch Idee und Vorstellung. Verschiedene Gruppen, Szenen und Subkulturen prägen diese Vorstellungen und werden auch von ihr geprägt. Stadtanthropologen tauchen in dieses Bedeutungsgewebe ein und erforschen das Leben, wie es in der Stadt 'wirklich' vor sich geht.
Das Buch bietet eine Einführung in die urbane Feldforschung, die als Schlüsseldisziplin des 20. Jahrhunderts maßgeblich das Nachdenken über Stadt bestimmt hat: Es enthält Beiträge von führenden Vertretern ebenso wie vom vielversprechenden Nachwuchs. Comics der Künstlerin Nele Brönner kommentieren die Arbeitsweise des Feldforschens.

Mit Texten von Peter Jackson, Les Back, Ruth Behar, Moritz Ege, Rolf Lindner, Mirko Zardini, Margarethe Kusenbach, Loïc Wacquant.