Annual Conference 2021 and networking event Padua - Royal Holloway - Konkuk

MOVING FORWARD: A CONCEPT-BASED CONVERSATION ON MOBILITY AND THE HUMANITIES

Co-organised by:

Centre for Advanced Studies in Mobility & Humanities, University of Padua (MoHu Centre)

Centre for the GeoHumanities, Royal Holloway University of London (CGH)

Academy of Mobility Humanities, Konkuk University (AMH)

Online event reserved for the members of the three organising Institutions

 

Mobility as a concept-based methodology stimulates the conversation between diverse humanistic domains. This event is aimed at forging connections between critical ideas of movement across the humanities, as well as feeding the existing exchange between three Institutions that have embraced such a humanistic perspective in engaging with mobility research.


THE CREATIVE COMMISSIONS 2019-2020 SHOWCASE: VARIATIONS ON MOBILITY

May 13th 2021

3.00 - 4.30 PM (CEST)

This event will feature a presentation of the work of four artist-researcher teams who explored the potential of art and creative methodologies in the study, imagination and expression of mobility issues. ‘Variations on mobility’ is the joint edition of Creative Commissions 2019/2020 hosted by the Centre for Advanced Studies in Mobility & Humanities (DiSSGeA) of the University of Padova and the Royal Holloway Centre for the GeoHumanities.

Open event. Zoom registration link:

https://unipd.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZYscuGurj8qEtWB5eZtrMk7220nlSoodO_A

 

The Creative Commissions 2019-2020 Committee was composed by: Sasha Engelmann, Veronica della Dora and Harriet Hawkins (Centre for the GeoHumanities, Royal Holloway University of London), Giada Peterle and Tania Rossetto (MoHu Centre, University of Padua).



Of Steel and (Un)stillness | Progress Post #2

Playing with ‘Variations on Mobility’, the four Creative Commissions teams in 2019-2020 have developed their projects along different trajectories traced by the unfolding movements of People, Objects, Texts and Ideas across times and spaces. As small groups composed of academics who have embraced art in their research practices, or artists working in collaboration with scholars across various disciplinary backgrounds, the Commissions engage different Theories and Methods of mobility, working with ethnographic, archival, historical, anthropological, geographical and creative methodologies. The following text and original images represent a short abstract realised by the team to help us follow the path of their creative work.

Of Steel and (Un)stillness | Progress Post #2

Reboleira, Amadora (Lisbon outskirts). In this geography, individuals from different nationalities and their specialised car workshops, open-air or otherwise, all co-exist symbiotically. Once repaired and loaded, these old vehicles are ready to depart. From Reboleira, routiers often head to Senegal, Mali, or Guine-Bissau, connecting the several places they call home. 

 

This set of images depict some of the items to be (re)signified and (re)assembled into a kinetic-sound installation. While we wait for the end of the lockdown to return to work, you can have a glimpse of what might come up here [https://vimeo.com/213166938], here [https://vimeo.com/45555878] and here [https://vimeo.com/231225689].

38°44’57.0″N 9°13’13.3”W (©Google Maps)

Spare parts to be reassembled (©commission team)

Spare parts to be reassembled (©commission team)

Spare parts to be reassembled (©commission team)

Spare parts to be reassembled (©commission team)

Spare parts to be reassembled (©commission team)

 

Of Steel and (un)Stillness team:

Pedro Figueiredo Neto (anthropologist, filmmaker), http://pedrofneto.com/

Ricardo Falcão (anthropologist, filmmaker)

Paulo Morais (sound artist),  https://vimeo.com/paulomorais


The Former State Project | Progress Post #3

Playing with ‘Variations on Mobility’, the four Creative Commissions teams in 2019-2020 have developed their projects along different trajectories traced by the unfolding movements of People, Objects, Texts and Ideas across times and spaces. As small groups composed of academics who have embraced art in their research practices, or artists working in collaboration with scholars across various disciplinary backgrounds, the Commissions engage different Theories and Methods of mobility, working with ethnographic, archival, historical, anthropological, geographical and creative methodologies. The following text and original images represent a short abstract realised by the team to help us follow the path of their creative work.

The Former State Project | Progress Post #3

On representing Yugoslavia: the case of Spomenik

The Former State Project: A Journey through Yugoslavia studies mobilities and the geo-humanities, the textual landscapes represented in a travel-guide and the project team update the form through a novel take on the travel-writing genre: a multi-media travel-guide about a place that is no longer. The project team (as stated in progress report #2 on the academic output from this project), were unable to trace the journey taken in a travel-book written prior to the formation of a socialist Yugoslavia. Yet while static we produced a paper to be published in Dialogues in Human Geography (co-author Carl Dahlman), and two creative outputs that were funded through this commission, with each artist receiving the funding to complete this work. The first creative output is a series of poems that will make up a collection called Spomenik, and the second creative output is a lyric video that considers mobility and text.

In a digital age, the former Yugoslavia holds a place in the imagination through the images that we are subjected to through social media. Mostly these are images of giant concrete monuments in various states of repair, and they fit the retro-futuristic aesthetic that we view the former state through. Simon Barraclough began to research these monuments and to engage with them, writing a series of poems, each involving a different process of looking at these objects and crafting words to describe them. Jack Wake-Walker then spent time experimenting with new technologies to make a film using the words from one poem to reflect upon the movement of words, with the film itself resembling a virtual Spomenik experience in a landscape that is void – perhaps getting at precisely the issue at hand, this landscape is more than representational, and there is a lived landscape of the former Yugoslavia as we explored in progress report #1 and progress report #2.

 

Spomenik I: Ink Poems

Spomenik II: Found Poem

Spomenik III: Eyebombs

Spomenik IV: Clickbait

Spomenik V: Mostar Random

*

Spomenik III: Eyebombs (Lyric Video)

 

This final progress report marks the end of this stage of The Former State Project which could be considered the remote, distant, static stage prior to the embodied, present, and mobile stage that will take place in early 2022 when the project team finally trace the journey made by Rebecca West in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon – now, however, we do so with a greater understanding of what is at stake in such travel writing about the Balkans, which is the imperialism of the geographical imagination as represented in travel writing on this region. These concerns are explored in the first academic output from this project co-authored with Carl Dahlman which focuses on a contested riverscape between Serbia and Croatia. It is called, ‘Montage space: borderlands, micronations, terra nullius, and the imperialism of the geographical imagination’ and is forthcoming in the journal, Dialogues in Human Geography.

James Riding, March 2021


The Former State Project | Progress Post #2

Playing with ‘Variations on Mobility’, the four Creative Commissions teams in 2019-2020 have developed their projects along different trajectories traced by the unfolding movements of People, Objects, Texts and Ideas across times and spaces. As small groups composed of academics who have embraced art in their research practices, or artists working in collaboration with scholars across various disciplinary backgrounds, the Commissions engage different Theories and Methods of mobility, working with ethnographic, archival, historical, anthropological, geographical and creative methodologies. The following text and original images represent a short abstract realised by the team to help us follow the path of their creative work.

The Former State Project | Progress Post #2

On imagined geographies and the gaze from afar

The Former State Project: A Journey through Yugoslavia studies mobilities and the geo-humanities, the textual landscapes represented in a travel-guide and the project team update the form through a novel take on the travel-writing genre: a multi-media travel-guide about a place that is no longer. The project team aimed to trace the journey taken in a travel-book written prior to the formation of a socialist Yugoslavia. Yet as the world stopped due to the pandemic the ways in which academics have approached their research has inevitably changed. At the end of progress report #1 the team envisaged that we might still be able to travel to the former Yugoslavia before the end date of this grant. Yet this was not to be, and as such we worked on three outputs. The first is a paper about the former Yugoslavia that is soon to be published in Dialogues in Human Geography (co-author Carl Dahlman), the second is a series of poems that will become a collection called Spomenik, and the third is a lyric video which aims to get at mobility and text, fitting the theme of our project. In this second progress report, we consider the academic output from this project by focusing upon a contentious borderscape that reveals a lot about the region and its post-socialist, post-conflict transition.

 

*

This article extends work in human geography on thinking space relationally and topological space, arguing for a relational conceptualization of space that employs montage in small seemingly confined spaces to tell big relational stories. Empirically it explores a micronation projected onto watery western Balkan no-man’s [sic] land and reveals an exploitation of Balkan history and geography that underpins perceptions of the southeast European peninsula. Liberland is a new right-libertarian unofficial country that claims a disputed tract of middle Danube riverbank in a contested riverine borderscape between Croatia and Serbia, where the fantasy geography of emptiness and terra nullius reappears in a new imperial present. The hackneyed performances that self-proclaimed micronations undertake to legitimize themselves are placed alongside a relational story of regional cultural landscape and more-than-human geographies in this fluvial political-ecological borderland in order to undermine alt-right libertarianism, Balkanism, and imperialism.

The paper is about a self-proclaimed micronation that occupies what they claim is terra nullius between Serbia and Croatia. Gornja Siga is an island, orphaned by competing boundary claims, lying beyond the winding cadastral border – which Croatia asserts – and beyond the main channel of the Danube – which Serbia asserts. The result is a small pocket of riverbank and a narrow point bar that neither Croatia nor Serbia claim lest they undermine their possession of other more desirable Danubian adas or river islands on the east bank. This territory becomes the site through which we understand the former Yugoslavia and the former state in the present. We were unable to visit the site and as such pieced together what we could find on the internet about the small river island:

Gornja Siga lies in a flood-prone borderscape that was once the southern Hungarian counties of Baranya (Croatia’s Baranja) and, across the Danube, Bács-Bodrog (Serbia’s Bačka). The historical cohabitation of Hungarians, Danube Swabians, and various Slavic peoples has given rise to layered toponyms that belie the now official Serbo-Croatian signage. Nearby are the villages of Zmajevac (H: Vörösmart), Mirkovac (H: Keselyüs), Suza (H: Csúza), and Zlatna Greda (H: Bokroshát) in the Croatian municipality of Kneževi Vinogradi (H: Hercegszöllős; G: Weingärten), while Bački Monoštor (H: Monostorszeg) sits directly across the Danube in Serbia on the way to Sombor, the closest city. ‘Gornja Siga’ is a mix of the Hungarian word for ‘island’ (sziga) and the Serbo-Croatian word ‘upper’ (gornja). It was once the site of a village whose residents fled a major flood in 1722, rebuilding across the Danube at Bački Monoštor in Serbia, which today has a majority Croat population. Kneževi Vinogradi, the Croatian municipality that abuts Gornja Siga, is a rural landscape dominated by arable farming, viticulture, livestock breeding and dairy farms. It is the only municipality in Croatia today with a majority of Hungarians, slightly outnumbering Croats; the once numerous Germans now just 1.8% of the community (DZS, 2013: 45). Since 1991 the area has lost 20% of its population and was targeted for development as an ‘area of special state concern’, not only due to its demographics but primarily because it was under rebel control during the Croatian War of Independence (1991–1995).

This material landscape was under threat from a textual colonisation. As such we began to think about this place as a site that was bombarded with fragments of representation. Borrowing from literary montage we worked to undermine the textual colonisation by remembering the material landscape and the politics of this landscape. This approach neatly fits with the final aim of the wider DiSSGeA project to become a research hub for the humanistic study of mobility, meaning the movement of people, objects, ideas and texts in space and time. In terms of how we went about doing this, we draw in the paper from literary montage, and go back to the work of the geographer Allan Pred (1995) who was inspired by Walter Benjamin (1982) by

using a fragmentary literary technique to display juxtaposition by representing space inherently as a montage of ‘things, meanings, and practices’ (Cresswell, 2019; Pred 1995). Thinking beyond the discipline, we extend debates on space and relational thinking, or ‘thinking space relationally’ (Jones, 2009), in a borderland, intertwining flow-like takes on space, and more fixed takes on space. We express sociospatial relations from a topological stance and acknowledge relationality yet insist upon ‘the confined, sometimes inertial, and always context-specific nature of geography’ performing a ‘moderate relationalism’ (Jones, 2009: 487). We extend the conceptualization of ‘phase space’ (Jones, 2009) and place a renewed emphasis in a virtual present upon digital representation, reanimating ‘the symbolic life of landscape’ (Cosgrove and Daniels, 1988).

Space we argue is played-out ever more so as montage in an era of mass digital image-making and we use montage to describe space as images affect how we witness, experience, and understand spaces in a now more virtual reality. Increasingly human engagements with space occur through digital encounters, processes, and technologies, from data ‘harvesting’, to platform urbanism, to smart cities, as smart-phone apps direct humans through space and digital interventions reconfigure our encounters with space (Kitchen, 2014). Cyberspace is no longer viewed as separate from everyday life, rather the ‘digital turn’ has led to theorizations of the virtual and physical realms, as entwined (Ash et al, 2018a). Building upon a nascent ‘digital geographies’ in this article we argue that new epistemologies and ontologies are needed to reflect a digital revolution (Ash et al, 2018b). Here montage is enacted and could be further exploited – through diverse media (writing, film, photography, gaming, mapping) – as a metaphor, a description, an epistemology and an ontology (for a classic example of montage see Benjamin, 1982). 

We made sure to return the materiality of this landscape beyond the merely representational too, as this was the only way in which to undermine the textual colonisation by a self-proclaimed micronation:

The act of claiming territory, of planting a flag, suggests Gornja Siga is dry land and it is distinct from the waters that bound it. Yet the island lies barely above the Danube in a floodplain. The ‘land, marshy and prone to seasonal inundation, is choked with unregulated scrub, with here and there the lone tongue of a poplar or the gentle shag of a willow’ (Lewis-Kraus, 2015). Flooding of 2.5 meters or more has regularly submerged the ground of this little isle until it has become part of the riverbed (Hrvatske Vode, 2020). As territory it is fundamentally permeable, consisting of recent Holocene alluvial sediments that formed fluvisols and gleysols in riverine paleochannels, a legacy of repeated flooding visible in the complex terrain of meander scars and oxbow lakes (Bogunović et al, 2018). Just upriver, at Bezdan, the average discharge of the Danube can range from 992m3/s to 4788m3/s, a nearly fivefold difference (Sommerwerk et al, 2009). This section of the middle Danube was a wide marshland made legible as land and water only in the nineteenth century with the advent of levees, drainage, and transportation canals.

In addition, we began to pull apart the representational acts that this self-proclaimed micronation had bestowed upon this landscape:

A right-libertarian political movement has begun a performance of space that is captured in the digital map of Gornja Siga (Branch, 2014; Kitchen and Dodge, 2007). Ground-truthing this performed and represented space by travelling through this Balkan riverscape, reveals something rather different. Gornja Siga is difficult to access by car from Zmajevac, driving along Ulica Maršala Tita (E: Marshal Tito Street) until it becomes Ulica Dunavska (E: Danube Street), before turning south onto Ulica Siga (E: Siga Street) though a flat floodplain kept dry by drainage canals. The final part of the journey must be taken on foot, entering the northern tip of the disputed drop where it clings to the Danube’s western bank. A Liberland Settlement Association provides assistance to cross the border but to do so, you must first visit a base camp about three kilometers from Bezdan, across the river in Serbia. After arriving at the base camp, you are required to join the Liberland Settlement Association and must volunteer during your stay. Once on the deserted island, a winding single-track trail takes you to a clearing where a yellow house with a roof yet no windows or a door nestles in a clasp of trees (DeSilvey and Edensor, 2012). A yellow and black Liberland flag hangs beneath the gable end and the Liberland motto – ‘to live and let live’ – is scrawled above an arch in black spray paint, a reminder of a fleeting memorial presence constellated here (DeSilvey, 2007). Provenance unknown and abandoned thirty years ago, the ‘hunting hovel’ was later demolished in September 2017, and the first unofficial Liberland dwelling in Gornja Siga is no more (Lewis-Kraus, 2015).

We concluded the paper by deconstructing the imperialism of the geographical imagination and the use of travel writing, and in a sense questioned again the project of following an old text by a British travel writer:

Reportage and travel narratives about apparent ‘geographical oddities’ is a shop-worn imperial genre, which includes atlases of ‘improbable places’ (Elborough and Horsfield, 2016) and ‘countries that don’t exist’ (Middleton, 2015). Liberland certainly fits the mold of the sort of place that once surprised readers of National Geographic and that now appears in the Atlas Obscura franchise (Sack, 1959; Schulten, 2001). Edging between stolid and sideshow, this genre recounts the strange and uncanny alongside the serious and solemn: displaced peoples are presented on the same plane as remote lighthouses or archaeological excavations. Displaying the idiosyncratic in encyclopedic detail, the visuals are sublime achievements of image and map, yet the effect is to objectify a world for discovery by the reader’s knowing, metropolitan eye. In Keating’s (2018) journeys to the ‘edge’ of nationhood, Liberland is featured as just such an oddity to take seriously, placed alongside other ‘outlier states’ in an inquiry as to what makes a country. Its exposition alongside Abkhazia, Kurdistan, and Somaliland, a Mohawk reservation, and an island nation threatened by climate change leads to a conclusion that the borders of earth may be emerging from a period of ‘cartographical stasis’ and that examples such as these reveal an international order that may not hold (Keating, 2018).

Yet it is perhaps this paragraph from the paper that reveals what is at stake when outsiders write about the former Yugoslavia, as this is not a blank space to be filled. There are political questions at stake in this landscape that are yet to be resolved and this space is perhaps symbolic of the difficulties that remain after the collapse of socialist Yugoslavia in the early 1990s:

In the geopolitical terms used to describe the political-ecological spaces in the Croatia-Serbia border dispute, the disclaimed territory of Gornja Siga is a ‘pocket’. This hybrid socio-natural boggy pocket was created in the late nineteenth century when Austria-Hungary cut a wider, straighter path for the main channel of the Danube from Bezdan/Batina south to Apatin, and again through the marshes at the Danube’s confluence with the Drava River (Klemenčić and Schofield, 2001). The old Baranja cadaster, which Croatia claims, runs with the old meanders, now just scars and oxbow lakes thus crisscrossing the main channel of the Danube, which Serbia claims as its frontier. Control of the pockets was a significant issue raised before the Đjilas Commission in Belgrade in August 1945 after the liberation of the region. Here during the third session of the Anti-Fascist Council for the National Liberation of Yugoslavia (AVNOJ), the administrative boundary between Croatia and Vojvodina was to be set. The decision was made more delicate by wartime expulsions and competing post-war policies to resettle new majorities of Croats and Serbs in the area following the ‘withdrawal’ of Hungarians and Germans (Zečević and Lekić, 1991: 24-27). In the end, the Commission could only recommend a provisional settlement using ethnic and economic criteria and, like other Yugoslav borders, left precision for later, producing roughly 10 adas on the Danube from Hungary to the Drava River.

The final paragraph of the paper which is the first output from The Former State Project is key and describes our motivations:

In the absence of an ‘intimate geopolitics’ of bodies residing in this small island space who embody this little territory as a lived experience, we trace relational stories from the region to resituate this contested space in the human and more-than-human geopolitical landscape of a post-conflict, post-socialist, post-Yugoslav, western Balkans (Smith, 2012; Smith, 2020). Extending relations beyond the proximate, we trace lived and embodied geopolitical relations to represent this right-libertarian colonization across various state boundaries to elsewhere in Europe and on to the U.S., to reveal their individual and collective political agendas and affiliations (Ahmed, 2000). Balkanism provides the grounds for colonial violence, and as we show here by montaging the connection between space, nature, and politics (Catz, 1995; Ekers et al, 2013), it is possible to reorient, subvert, and sink a Balkanist imaginary, gaze, and claim. Liberland is a discomforting imperial act of planting a flag in the ground and in the imagination; an imaginative, textual, cyber colonization described by Todorova (1997) in Imagining the Balkans and Goldsworthy (1998: 211) in Inventing Ruritania as

the way in which an area can be exploited as an object of the dominant culture’s need for a dialogue with itself.

The final progress report will describe the creative outputs from the project and to conclude the academic outputs progress report, we wish to restate our desire to undertake this journey through Yugoslavia and yet, with the world trauma of the pandemic and immobility, we have given much thought to what this journey should look like. While we envisage tracing the journey made by Rebecca West in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, like in the first academic output, key sites along the way will be exhausted, and the horizontal, thin, floating across space done in much travel writing will be deconstructed through static, slow, intimate, grounded, and vertical geographies of symbolic sites. Thanks to this initial research the British Academy and Leverhulme Trust funded extension of this project will begin moving from a more thoughtful footing.

James Riding, Jan 2021

 

 

Ahmed, S. 2000. Strange encounters: Embodied others in postcoloniality. New York: Routledge.

Ash, J., Kitchin, R. and Leszczynski, A. 2018a. Digital turn, digital geographies? Progress in Human Geography 42(1): 25-43.

Ash, J., Kitchen, R. and Leszczynski, A. eds. 2018b. Digital geographies. London: Sage.

Benjamin, W. 1982. Das passagen-werk. Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag.

Bogunović, I., Trevisani, S., Pereira, P., and Vukadinović, V. 2018. Mapping soil organic matter in the Baranja region (Croatia): Geological and anthropic forcing parameters. Science of The Total Environment 643: 335-345.

Branch, J. 2014. The cartographic state: Maps, territory and the origins of sovereignty. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Catz, C. 1995. Major/minor: Theory, nature, and politics. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 85(1): 164–168.

Cosgrove, D. and Daniels, S., eds. 1988. The iconography of landscape: Essays on the symbolic representation, design and use of past environments. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Cresswell, T. 2019. Maxwell Street: Writing and thinking place. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

DeSilvey, C. 2007. Salvage memory: Constellating material histories on a hardscrabble homestead. Cultural Geographies 14(3), 401–424.

DeSilvey, C. and Edensor, T. 2012. Reckoning with ruins. Progress in Human Geography 37(4): 465–485. Dewsbury, J.D., Harrison, P., Rose, M. and Wylie, J. 2002. Enacting geographies. Geoforum 33(4): 437–440.

DZS. 2013. Popis stanovnistva, kucanstava i stanova, 2011, Statistička izvješća 1469. Zagreb: Državni Zavod za Statistiku Republike Hrvatska.

Ekers, M., Hart, G., Kipfer, S. and Loftus, A. eds. 2013. Gramsci: Space, nature, politics. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Elborough, T. and Horsfield, A. 2016. Atlas of improbable places: A journey to the world’s most unusual corners. London: Aurum Press.

Goldsworthy, V. 1998. Inventing Ruritania: The imperialism of the imagination. London: Yale University Press.

Hrvatske Vode. 2020. Karta Opasnosti od Poplava: za veliku vjerojatnost pojavljivanja – dubine. Zagreb: Hrvatske Vode.

Kitchen, R. 2014. The data revolution: Big data, open data, data infrastructures and their consequences. London: Sage.

Jones, M. 2009. Phase space: Relational thinking, geography, and beyond. Progress in Human Geography 33(4): 487–506.

Keating, J. 2018. Invisible countries: Journeys to the edge of nationhood. New Haven, CO: Yale University Press.

Kitchen, R. and Dodge, M. 2007. Rethinking maps. Progress in Human Geography 31(3): 331–344.

Klemenčić, M. and Schofield, C.H. 2001. War and peace on the Danube: The evolution of the Croatia-Serbia boundary. Durham, England: International Boundaries Research Unit.

Lewis-Kraus, G. 2015. Welcome to Liberland, the world’s newest country (maybe). The New York Times Magazine, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/magazine/the-making-of-a-president.html [last accessed June 08 2020].

Middleton, N. 2015. An atlas of countries that don’t exist: A compendium of fifty unrecognized and largely unnoticed states. London: Macmillan.

Pred, A.R. 1995. Recognizing European modernities: A montage of the present. London: Routledge.

Sack, J. 1959. Report from practically nowhere. New York: Harper Collins.

Schulten, S. 2001. The geographical imagination in America, 1880–1950. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press.

Smith, S. 2012. Intimate geopolitics: Religion, marriage, and reproductive bodies in Leh, Ladakh. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 102(6): 1511–1528.

Smith, S. 2020. Intimate geopolitics: Love, territory, and the future on India’s northern threshold. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Sommerwerk, N., Hein, T., Schneider-Jakoby, M., Baumgartner, C., Ostojić, A., Paunović, M., and Tockner, K. 2009. The Danube river basin. Rivers of Europe, 59–112. London: Academic Press.

Todorova, M. 1997. Imagining the Balkans. New York: Oxford University Press.

Zečević, M., and B. Lekić. 1991. Frontiers and internal territorial division in Yugoslavia. Belgrade: The Ministry of Information of the Republic of Serbia.


Pearls from China | Progress post #3

Playing with ‘Variations on Mobility’, the four Creative Commissions teams in 2019-2020 have developed their projects along different trajectories traced by the unfolding movements of People, Objects, Texts and Ideas across times and spaces. As small groups composed of academics who have embraced art in their research practices, or artists working in collaboration with scholars across various disciplinary backgrounds, the Commissions engage different Theories and Methods of mobility, working with ethnographic, archival, historical, anthropological, geographical and creative methodologies. The following text and original images represent a short abstract realised by the team to help us follow the path of their creative work.

Pearls from China | Progress post #3

Combining empirical evidence with a bit of creative imagination to fill in the gaps in the historical record, we wrote this progress report in the form of a script for our short movie production. It focuses on a specific period of the journey that will lead a group of Zhejiang Chinese to Europe during the second half of the 1920s. Given the dearth of direct evidence and with few documentary sources available, we came up with a possible reconstruction based on the individual characteristics of a few protagonists of this migration, people that we know well because of their subsequent European exploits, and the traces they have left behind in the memory of people we interviewed.

What if…

SHANGHAI 1924-1925

 

Between late 1923 and early 1924, the entire contingent of Chinese people in Japan was repatriated in Shanghai. Their names are listed in a Japanese language publication documenting the operation of the Narashino refugee camp (Narashino Internment Camp for Chinese and Coreans. Relief and repatriation of affected Chinese, Volume IV).

Among these men, anti-Japanese feelings ran high, because of the harassment and brutality that had targeted them following the Kantō earthquake and fire. The Japanese arrogant display of power was all the more a source of chagrin as it followed them to Shanghai, were the Japanese had the upper hand in the section of the International Settlement beyond Suzhou Creek, particularly in the Hongkou district, where most Japanese businessmen and settlers had taken up residence ever since the first Sino-Japanese war of 1895.

In fact, following the Boxer Rebellion, foreign powers had gained further territorial concessions within China, where they enjoyed extraterritorial rights, shielding them from Chinese law. Shanghai was then a foreign-controlled metropolis, a city that all diplomatic missions and business interests of the great colonial powers of the day had made their own. In that world populated by yangren, or “foreigners from overseas”, the fledgling Republic of China struggled to make its voice heard while the Japanese, inheriting the German sphere of influence in Shandong after the Great War, were gradually extending their influence over vast regions of northeastern China.

Lishan, Sichung and Susan, back from Japan, were looking for a new job abroad. In Shanghai, among the guests of the hotel where they were staying, they had met an old friend who also hailed from Qingtian, their home district. Like them, he also had been a maisan, a peddler of umbrellas and other trinkets, in Japan: his name was Tschang Nudin.

All together, they were looking for a way to turn their lives around.

They were walking along the Hongkou pier in search of inspiration and new opportunities.

 

Lishan: There are Japanese devils everywhere. They seem to be kings in this part of the world…

Sichung: I think that if we want to remove Japan from our lives, well, we have to go to Europe; there will be no Japanese down there …

Nudin: If you decide to leave for Europe, I will be happy to go with you… Will it be like the Bund?

Susan: Probably. Or maybe more like the Ginza in Tokyo, with smaller buildings, but modern public transport, and more cars…

Sichung: A friend of mine told me that many Chinese are going to Paris. There they work as street vendors… After all, that’s what we ourselves did in Japan.

Nudin: Are you serious? Are we really leaving?

Susan: Well, wait a minute! We first need to understand a couple of things. For instance: how much does the trip cost? Then, how do we get a passport, a visa, and a ship ticket…

Lishan: Ship? No way, I would rather travel by train, I’ve had with ships, I get seasick all the time.

Sichung: Don’t worry Lishan. Let us figure out the routes and costs of the trip, then we’ll see whether and how we’ll leave.

Only Lishan already had a passport, Nudin and Susan had to buy one from fellow Zhejiang migrants that had just returned home to attend their father’s funeral, or the birth of their first male child. There were agencies in Hongkou that could provide them with such papers, though they weren’t cheap. These agencies also provided financial services, useful to get remittances to their families once they were abroad, or to borrow money for the trip. Some could also provide easier access to visas and train or boat tickets.

They went back to the inn where they were staying in the Hongkou district, near the river. It was a typical Chinese two-story building, with a shop front and an upper story where you could rent a room. Quite different from the modern architectural marvels strewn along the Bund which, in only a few years, had deeply altered the city’s skyline. Some of the tallest buildings could rival London, or even New York.

 

Lishan: I have a proposal, it’s a bit risky, but if all goes as it should, it could help us change our lives forever.

Susan: Let’s hear it.

Lishan: If all of us pool our money together, I could gamble it and see how much we win. That way we could raise the money we need for the trip…

Sichung: Typical Lishan, any chance is good for a little gambling… but maybe it’s not a bad idea… After all, that’s why you are known as “the Professor”!

Susan: There’s four of us, we all have stashed away some of our earnings during the internment… and Lishan really is good at winning. Ok, I agree!

Nudin: Me too, sure. So… Do you really mean to pool all of our money?

Sichung: If we have to risk it, well, then let’s do it properly. If we all bet a hundred pieces of silver dollars, it won’t be too big a loss if we lose and we might win a tidy sum. We could go to Europe as gentlemen, how about that?

Susan: And how are you going to gamble our money, Professor?

Lishan: Mah Jong, obviously! But I haven’t decided where yet.

Susan: Well, that’s up to you, but I will go with you. I want to be there when you win for us.

Sichung: Yeah, me too, we all come and if we strike gold, then we’ll go celebrate together!

 

Mah Jong is a card game with great symbolic value. It has a strong relationship with Feng Shui and it hides many meanings in the features of its tiles. It is a game that requires great skill, strategy, decision making and a little luck. To play Mah Jong you need a pair of dice, 144 tiles and at least four people.

 

Gambling was officially prohibited in the foreign concessions. As long as it remained a habit of the wealthiest class, in the city it was played in private homes or in tea rooms. Yet as the custom spread within the middle class, many city brothels adopted it as “complementary” entertainment.

Lishan and his friends reached the house of Li Yangchun on foot. It was only ten minutes away from their hotel near the Hongkou Old Dock on the Huangpu river.

Their host let them in and showed them a table where other people were already waiting, standing up near their chairs. Then he shuffled the tiles producing the typical rustling sound that marks the start of the game.

Seats were assigned with a first roll of the dice.

When Lishan sat down, his friends stood behind him.

 

Sichung: Stay focused Lesà, please!

Nudin: Come on Professor, take us to Europe!

 

Friends were whispering behind his shoulders while Lishan stared silently straight in front of him. The game had begun, and he didn’t want to get distracted.

The man sitting in front of him had not spoken yet, but he was looking at them with an open smile, as if he were aware of a funny detail. Something that only he knew.

When he opened his mouth, he silenced them all.

They thought that speaking their own local dialect, no one in Shanghai would have understood them. The city was a crossroads of different people and nationalities: there were Chinese from all over the country, each one with their own tongue. They too had formed a group precisely because of their common origin, those mountain villages along the river Ou, just beyond the town of Qingtian. Yet as it were, the man sitting in front of them, was a fellow villager!

Susan: Where are you from?

Shafò: Renzhuang.

Nudin: And what’s your name?

Shafò: My name’s Wang Xuefang, you can call me Shafò. I guess you want to go to Europe. Well, so do I, and apparently we had the same idea: to win a tidy sum before leaving.

Then, looking straight into Lishan’s eyes he added:

Shafò: Let’s play together, ok? Then we divide up the total.

Lishan: So be it.

 

They played all night long and they multiplied their investment.

Each of them saved 3/4 of the winnings and then they unanimously decided to invest another 100 dollars each the next evening.

They went on like this for a week, and in the end, those one hundred dollars of initial investment had become more than 2500. A real nest egg! In addition, with Wang Xuefang, they had welcomed a new member into the group. Now it was a question of how and when to leave.

Wu Sichung belonged to a family from Wu’an, a big clan with previous migration experience. Some of his relatives had been to Europe at the beginning of the century and, once they returned to China, they had settled in Shanghai where they became business brokers, helping along those who wanted to do business abroad, or even wanted to settle there. They offered various services, functioning both as a travel agency and as a bank, and providing contacts to refer to on arrival in several European cities.

 

Sichung: Hello uncle, we are here because we would all like to go to Europe, can you tell us how it works?

Uncle Wu: So you would like to try your luck overseas, huh? How much money do you have?

Sichung: We do have money. We recently won a lot, but we definitely want to work: we want to do business abroad, work hard and get rich!

Uncle: Have you ever heard of fake pearls?

Sichung: Yes, we have heard that some Chinese work as street vendors in France, selling such trinkets…

Uncle: That’s right, it’s the easiest way to get around and make your way into their markets and business practices…

Nudin: And… How much does the trip cost?

Uncle: It mostly depends on the class you want to travel in. Are you interested in traveling by ship or by train?

Lishan: Both of them. I think we’ll split up because I really don’t want to go by boat. And I choose to travel in second class so that I start saving right away, but I also want to travel quite comfortably since the journey is long.

Uncle: So you’ll need approximately 400 silver dollars. On the other hand, those who want to take the ship can calculate an extra 50 dollars, always traveling in second class. I will get you the tickets and if you leave me the passports I can also take care of the visas.

Nudin: Me and Susan don’t have a passport though …

Uncle: No problem, let me take care of everything. Come back in about ten days and everything should be ready…

The following week Sichung’s uncle contacted them at the hotel. Everything was indeed ready.

Uncle: There would be a chance for you to leave immediately, the destination is Paris, in France. Are you interested?

Were they ready? They did not know if or when they would come back but they didn’t think too long about it. They were more than ready.

 

Nudin: Count as all in. Tell us when and where, and we will be there.

Uncle: Calm down, one step at a time. Let’s start from the train journey: it takes 18 days to Moscow and from there, there are another 3.000 km to get to Paris. I could book a double cabin seat in two weeks.

Lishan: Great!

Uncle: Regarding the trip by ship…

Sichung: The important thing is not to choose a Japanese company, I don’t want to have anything to do with them anymore, even if their tickets are cheaper.

Uncle: No, no… I was thinking of a British company that has just started operating on the Liverpool-Yokohama route. It is about 30 days of navigation. You could embark in Shanghai and disembark in Marseille …

Susan: It would be perfect.

Uncle: Ok. Here are your passports complete with a visa to enter France. Once you get there, you will need to contact Mr. Kung He Chong, at 50 Rue de Gravillers, in Paris.

Susan: But how are we going to deal with all these foreign names?

Uncle: Don’t worry about this, sooner or later you will get used to that. As for Mr. Kung’s address, I prepared a note for each of you.

Sichung: Thanks uncle, really! You organized everything.

Uncle: Those who work well will always have good customers, remember that my dear nephew and good luck!!

 

The fake pearls trade was booming at the time and Europe appeared as a very promising market for these cheap, shiny new forms of bijouterie.

The young friends were so excited that they went to a small river deck restaurant to celebrate the adventure they were about to undertake.

 

Lishan: So here we part our ways, I will meet you again in Europe. Thanks to Mr. Kung I will be able to find you in Paris.

Susan: Yeah. We, on the contrary, will stick together. We’ll take a gentleman’s voyage by ship. It’s the latest fashion, don’t you know?

Lishan: I know, I know. But I have never liked water and, honestly, I think that from the train I will have the opportunity to see a beautiful piece of the world. I must confess, I am a bit curious. I will use the time I will spend alone to reflect and prepare myself as best as possible for our adventure. Maybe I’ll start studying some French, it could be useful.

Sichung: Au revoir, alors, mon ami et vive la France!