GOING AGAINST THE CONVENTIONAL
London. Full of tourists. Full of attractions, world-famous sights and landmarks. It is no wonder that a whole industry of souvenir production and trade has risen to make money out of that. Everyone wants to take a small memento with them to remember their trip by or to show to people back home. And we all know what those souvenirs are like because every single shop in London sells the same kind of items: Big Ben, London Eye, Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace, the Queen, London tube map; printed on t-shirts, postcards, done in miniature size, molded into magnets, you name it. In fact, those are the forms of souvenirs you see wherever you travel, only the topics change according to the country/city. But what if you could find a souvenir more interesting, more meaningful, one that reflects something often not seen about the city: an alternative souvenir of London.
Before discussing what an alternative souvenir could be I think it is essential to discuss the conventions that the common souvenirs use and are built upon. Like said in Life’s Little Instruction Book you must first know the rules well, so you can break them effectively (Brown 1991). Mostly those rules have to do with reduction of size, nostalgia, and representation of an experience or place. If you go to any of the countless souvenir shops, for example on Oxford Street, the scale in which the objects are made is immediately apparent. They are all small and light, made to nicely fit into the purchaser’s bag in order to be easily carried around during the day or to be easily packed into suitcases without taking a lot of space. In other words, “the souvenir reduces the public, the monumental, and the three-dimensional into the miniature” (Stewart, 1993, p.137). Most often these kind of souvenirs are small key chains, sculptures or other objects in the shape of a double decker, Tower of London or any of the other recognizable features of London. This representation of an attraction in a miniature size is tied to another important aspect of conventional souvenirs: the value.
The conventional souvenirs usually are not very useful. As objects of their own they hold very little material value or use value, if they have it at all. They are small sculptures of famous attractions or other odds and ends that you bring home from a trip to gather dust on a shelf. They are objects that you buy just to remind you of a place or experience. As Susan Stewart puts it, “the souvenir (…) is not an object rising out of need or use value; it is an object arising out of the necessarily insatiable demands of nostalgia” (Stewart, 1993, p.135). So, the souvenirs themselves conventionally don’t hold the value, the memories that they are tied do.
Actually, the concept of memories or experiences bringing the value to the object is probably the most core aspect of souvenirs. If you haven’t had the specific experience that the object is supposed to represent, it is completely worthless to you. For example, you would not buy a London Eye refrigerator magnet if you have not seen London Eye in real life. And if you did buy it regardless, it would not be a souvenir to you, it would be just a normal magnet. It would not hold the value that the original experience would have, only the value of a 15-gram piece of plastic.
Also all these conventions, (being small, light, predictable, of little value) together allow one more important thing: mass production. Like mentioned in the beginning of this essay, all souvenir shops in London sell the same things, same themes, for the same price. Whichever conventional souvenir you may think of, they are all mass produced and found in a hundred other shops.
Now that we have determined what the traditional souvenirs usually are like it is easy to move on to talk about what my alternative souvenir is about. The souvenir that I have created is a brick on which I have attached and painted different cultural symbols and labels representing Brick Lane’s history, the present and my personal experience. (See picture 1 below.)
To me Brick Lane and the surrounding area is one of the most unique places in London. It is a place that I have visited dozens of times in the two years that I have now lived in London and a place that I associate with certain characteristics. Multiculturalism and street art are high on that list. However, I did not want to use street art as my main theme because since the beginning of this project I found the idea of palimpsest much more intriguing.
According to the definition of New Oxford Dictionary of English, palimpsest is “something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form”, and this could not be more fitting description of Brick Lane. If you look at the history of the area, you will find how it has had many different functions along its time of existence. It has been a home for silk and brick productions, different religions, and different cultures. The street has existed in the same place since the 15th century, starting as a small trail and developing into the street we know it today. Another example of similar setting is Berlin that “as a palimpsest implies voids, illegibilities, and erasures, but also offers a richness of traces and memories, restorations and new constructions that will mark the city as a lived space” (Huyssen, 2003, p.84) .The same way there are still old buildings in Brick Lane that have been used for all kind of purposes along the way, like the Jamme Masjid first as a synagogue then as mosque. And all these eras have left their own mark of “lived space” on Brick Lane that are still visible today, (see some of the symbols in picture 2 and 3). The souvenir that I have created echoes those same qualities and themes at the same time adding my personal experience of the place as the final layer of the collage.
The reason why I made the souvenir using collaging has two parts. Firstly, I think palimpsest is a kind of collage of all the marks made and piled up over time. And secondly, if you look at all the street art everywhere in Brick Lane, the walls are collages of graffiti, posters, stickers and scribbles, (see picture 4 below). I also decided to paint everything by hand (except for the Bengali and Hebrew) it represent better the authenticity of Brick Lane than just printing pictures and gluing them on. That same reason applies to my choice of using a real brick that I collected from behind the house where I live. However, it was white, so I painted it to look like an iconic terracotta brick. Also the heaviness and hardness of the real brick gives off the feel of permanence which is a part of palimpsest.
The layer that represents my personal experience consists of graffiti and a chocolate wrapper from a curry restaurant. When I think about Brick Lane I think of how it looks which to me is all the street art covering walls, doors and trash cans. But I also think of the feeling and memories that the place raises in me. I have been there countless of times with my boyfriend and friends eating and spending time and those are warm and happy memories. So to convey all this, I created graffiti using the words “street art”, “warm” and “bubbly”. I also attached a mint chocolate wrapper to the souvenir form the restaurant where we always eat. (See pictures 5 and 6 below.)
All these techniques and features are also what make my souvenir an alternative to the conventional souvenirs discussed in the beginning. Already the subject alone is very different from conventional souvenirs. Representing Brick Lane as a palimpsest and my personal thoughts about it is not a direct representation of any famous landmark or a touristic experience like traditional souvenirs are. Also they are usually about currently existing places or things, whilst my souvenir is also about the past and abstract concepts. The methods (hand-painting and a real heavy brick) used in realizing those concepts also go against the disposableness and mass production of traditional souvenirs. This alternative is a heavy-duty unique item unlike the plastic key chains and mugs sold in the normal souvenir shops.
If my souvenir was actually for sale, I would still like it to be hand-painted to preserve the exclusiveness. That would mean the target group for it would probably be people who value art and handcraft and be motivated to carry something a bit heavier, but also more meaningful, home with them on the basis of artistic and symbolic value. It would be sold in the art galleries around the Shoreditch-Whitechapel area because of the connection to a specific location.
As common as conventional souvenirs are they do not offer a lot of variety as discussed in this essay. However, after first thoroughly determining how those souvenirs work I have showed, how based on that knowledge, it is possible to create a more unique souvenir that has more depth to it. An alternative souvenir of London that goes against those conventions and showcases important concepts about a small vibrant Brick Lane.
BROWN, H. Jackson, Jr., Life’s Little Instruction Book: 511 suggestions, observations, and reminders on how to live a happy and rewarding life (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 1991)
HUYSSEN, Andreas, Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and The Politics of Memory (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2003)
STEWART, Susan, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993)
PEARSALL, Judy (Ed.), The New Oxford Dictionary of English (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1998)
NANCOLLAS, Tom, ‘The Brick Lane Mosque and Minority Religions in London’, http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/story-of-england/modern/1780690/ (accessed 12 November 2016)