There I was, standing in the middle of a community in the Shankill Road of Northern Ireland. I was there as an observer of this space in order to try to understand how the murals on the walls may tell the story of this community. I had a camera, a tape recorder, and about a month to figure out if my idea that these political murals were making a visual argument about the Discourse of a community. This was before “tagging” virtually, but these pieces of art were tagged all over Belfast. It felt like a ground-up way of telling a story.
If we think of a mural as a visual representation of a narrative, how we interpret that narrative will be significantly impacted by the meaning that we place on the story that is being told. A narrative or story can be told in different cultural contexts, but we interpret through our lens of understanding and derive meaning from our experiences. According to Lankshear and Knobel (2006), “Understanding literacies from a sociocultural perspective means that reading and writing can only be understood in the contexts of social, cultural, political, economic, historical practices to which they are integral, of which they are a part” (pg.1). Meaningful discourse requires that a reader engage in learning the social practices, beliefs, attitudes and values of a group, culture, or society. As a reader of the murals it was essential to understand the multiple interpretations based on ones “literate immersion.” These were provocative visual texts that told a story within a public space. While not a digital space, by placing the mural in a public space it indicated a value of dispersion, placed in an open space, visible to others and subject to change by the stoke of a paint brush.
When considering “new” literacies, it is not how we find the information, “but, rather, that they mobilize very different kinds of values and priorities and sensibilities than the literacies we are familiar with” (Lankshear/Knobel 2006). The use of these political murals allowed for a diverse kind of meaning making. Some may see a mural as telling a story of opposition, or of remembrance, or of resistance, or of history. Neil Jarman (1998) has argued “that murals are intimately related to place, and that some consideration of their location is required for a broader understanding of their wider power and meaning.” I would argue that the placement of a mural within the physical space undergoing conflict, social disruption, and change is an act of engagement calling for people interpret and read these visual arguments from their own perspectives.
As Neil Jarman (1998) articulates, “place in the fullest sense is not a fixed space, the fact that murals can and are used as part of the political and interpretative process means that they are always being relocated, transposed to new locations, both phenomenological and technological, and therefore open to new sets of meanings.” While, these murals may not fit into the new “tech stuff” requirement for new “literacies,” they do call upon readers to collaborate with the meaning, to participate as they are in public spaces, and to be distributed among the public. If we consider that new technical stuff is meant to, “enable people to build and participate in literacy practices that involve different kinds of values, sensibilities, norms and procedures and so on from those that characterize conventional literacies,” then perhaps the use of murals as visual text was creating a form of “new lieteracy.”
Jarman, Neil. (1998), ‘Painting Landscapes: the place of murals in the symbolic construction of urban space’, in, Buckley, Anthony. (ed.) Symbols in Northern Ireland. Belfast: The Institute of Irish Studies, The Queen’s University of Belfast.