by Ellie Ga
Ugly Duckling Presse 2009
Reviewed by Bryan Stokes II
Beneath Our Feet
Drawing upon the trappings of rigorous, scientific research – data logging paper, rigid categorization systems and stark photographs – Ellie Ga gives an air of legitimacy to a landscape of historical records beneath our feet. Classification of a Spit Stain examines the amalgam of chewing gum, urine and deteriorated concrete common to urban streets and sidewalks and finds not only depth, but beauty.
Although the press release proclaims Ga as a photographer by trade, the opening images do little to boost this reputation. The photographs are reproduced with little contrast in a violet-blue ink atop a reproduction of found scientific notebook paper, providing an output similar to that of the old duplicating machines once favored by schoolteachers. Despite lacking in quality, the images nonetheless offer a practical reference point for the descriptive text woven in the pages between.
The textual portion of the book, written to resemble the specific and formulaic phrasing of a geology textbook, manages to accomplish this with a vaguely poetic cadence. The first page stumbles to describe a spit stain (“The spit stain is a / The spit stain is a natural / The spit stain is a natural occurr”), retaining all of Ga’s restarts and handwritten revisions to produce a text that evolves naturally into its conclusions. By continuing this organic voice throughout the book, Ga invites the reader to explore this world with her in a way that embodies the scientific method.
True to its title, much of Classification of a Spit Stain focuses on the characteristics of varying stains, resembling in many ways a field manual for the identification of birds or exotic insects. The reader is introduced to round raised stains produced by gum, free-form stains from urine or gasoline and “other categories of underfoot materialization,” including sidewalk cracks and graffiti, which Ga misspells as “graphitti” on one occasion. What initially seems an unmerited investigation of the mundane transforms into an exciting scavenger hunt. The low quality of the images is rendered moot because Ga has provided the readers with the tools to find and classify on their own.
In addition to her foray into garbology, Ga offers some insightful observations about the sociological implications of her two years of sidewalk stain research. Round raised spit stains, she tells us, “tend to form clusters of polk-a-dot patterns around doorways and bus stops since the tendency to discard increases where people exit, enter and wait.” The further tendency of unsuspecting pedestrians to scrape gum from their shoes yields the “thin, wirey offshoots” found in some stains. Of all of the forms of underfoot materialization, only “decorative elements,” such as graffiti and litter, serve as an “unequivocal sign of human presence and intervention.” Again, Ga provides a detailed framework not only for interpreting her work, but for drawing one’s own conclusions from local stains.
Ga’s creative acuity shines towards the latter half of the book. She manages to find beauty even in “the piss stain” which “if they are discovered within minutes of inception…will glisten and form a variety of curvilinear shapes.” Perhaps her greatest strength lies in her ability to detach herself from the origins and composition of her subject, using a photographer’s eye to focus solely on visual elements.
After amassing her descriptions of the many and varied stain types, Ga turns her attention to contextualizing these disparate sidewalk droppings into what she refers to as “the stained landscape.” A spit stain, she tells the reader, “does not always exist independently from its cement host.” To prove this point, she presents a sort of grand unifying theory of stains, positing that the uniqueness of paved surfaces is as much defined by “uneven applications of cements or the pedestrian disturbance of drying cement” as by those elements which collect upon them.
With the introduction of this theory, the pictures take on a more surreal and intriguing quality. In lieu of dark violet dots on a slightly lighter violet background, Ga offers expressively detailed photographs such as figure #9, which in its richer contrast and combination of visual elements creates a portrait of the stained landscape which resembles an overhead image of a jagged coastline. The individual stains which previously seemed so meaningless are now essential elements to a vast visual ecosystem.
And so it is with Ga’s work itself. Fleshed out by a detailed appendix, rife with even clearer images of the stained landscape, Classification of a Spit Stain exceeds its original vision by becoming something greater than a collection of annotated photographs. Instead, it proves that the standard of useful research is determined by its ability to contribute to our understanding of our environment. In crafting this work, Ellie Ga has substantially expanded our view of the world by pointing to the exciting narratives hidden beneath our feet and explaining how to read them.