Luana Kaderabek, UCL Digital Anthropology
This documentary has been created as part of the Digital Anthropology (MSc) program at UCL. The filmmaking module, led by the visual anthropologists Vikram Jayanti and Richard Curling, challenges anthropologists to incorporate digital media as a research tool in their ethnographies.
The Minstrel has been nominated one of the three best films in the autumn/winter class in 2012. It is about Ozan Figani’s life, a hairdresser originally from Turkey, Anatolia, who owns a traditional Salon in East London. Little by little he starts to reveal his true first job (music and poem writing).
He is an Alevi. In Turkey, Alevism (considered by many to be a religion similar to Buddhism or a simple way of living) is a popular belief embedded in many political conflicts. It has been oppressed and forbidden for many years in Turkey and only nowadays it is a bit more acceptable. That’s why the culture is based in oral practices such as traditional sayings and poems in the form of songs and through the teachings of the chosen Minstrels (called Ozans). So, in order to keep Alevism alive, Ozan Figani follows the journey as a minstrel: carrying the messages from the past and transmitting it for the future generations.
By Marta Vilar Rosales
Centre for Research in Anthropology, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, UNL, Portugal
The project “Atlantic Crossings: materiality, contemporary movements and policies of belonging” is a quest to follow the objects in particular, and “things” in general. From surveys in Lisbon, Oporto, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to ethnographies of transnational families spanning these contexts, the project will unpack the lived experiences of Brazilians and Portuguese circulating between their respective home countries. The goal is to understand the difference materiality makes in dynamics of international mobility. Instead of asking “what’s in a name”, we ask “what about what’s in a suitcase?” And, for that matter, what’s in the packages sent from home? What will be bought with remittances money? What will be acquired and fashioned to decorate one’s new home? In short, the project explores how “things” can frame, organize and produce social reality in the specific context of international mobility.
The routes, temporalities and patterns underlying the traffic and appropriation of objects compose the lens from which to take a fresh look at the lives of the people in question. The moment in time is of the essence, as clearly reflected by the coverage of the flows of people and capital connecting both countries in their respective national media. The current economic crisis, and subsequent soaring unemployment rates in Portugal, hit the most qualified population the country has ever had. In turn, Brazil attracts attention because it has been emerging as an economic player that is looking to enhance the labour market through recruitment of specialized workers. Furthermore, it will be holding main sports events in the next few years (namely, the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2015), which promise work opportunities. The story, however, is not that simple. Massive protests concerning, in part, these very sports’ events have recently startled policy makers and have been ushered the world to pay attention. Moving across the Atlantic to try one’s chances in a rather hermetic labour market is also not the most affordable option either. Some Portuguese are indeed managing to get their qualifications recognized. They are the ones feeding the narratives of successful emigration both through interpersonal social networks and through “Portuguese across the World” -like shows in mainstream media.
Yet, in truth, little is known about Portuguese abroad since the country became an immigration context in the late 70s – researchers focused on the transformations taking place within borders. It is still unclear how the current moment features in the long-standing, inter-connected histories linking the two Portuguese-speaking countries. How the post-colonial relationship re-articulated in the 21st century? More concretely: what consumption habits change when Portuguese engineers, architects and managers have to cope with living in extremely expensive cities? What do unemployed construction and domestic services’ workers who reach their limit bring home when s/he wants to impress friends and family (and keep some of Europe with him/her) but there is little s/he can afford? What business strategies do entrepreneurial Brazilian beauticians take in order to endure the crisis and keep alluring customers to strive for a Brazilian-like body? How do the material surroundings of Portuguese men who find themselves in the small hometowns of their Brazilian wives, whom they met in Portugal, change their view of Brazil – and of their own life-projects? How do the Portuguese wives who travel on the work visas of their husbands reinvent their daily routines, and the rules of conduct they teach their children, in cities that are often talked about as very dangerous in Portugal? We’re counting on “things” to tell the stories.
Via Fred Myers, NYU
Linguists and indigenous communities in the Northern Territory have launched an online dictionary for indigenous sign languages.
The Site, iltyemiltyem.com/sign/, contains several hundred video clips of signs for public view.
You can listen to a radio program about the initiative here: Indigenous sign language on the web – Bush Telegraph – ABC Radio National (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).
Graham H. Roberts, Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense,
The aim of this contribution is to contribute to the growing literature on material culture and nostalgia in Russia and Eastern Europe. In particular, I should like to take up the central themes of two articles published recently on Material World by Makarenko and Borgerson (2009) and Glass (2012). I wish to build on these studies in two ways, however. First, I intend to look at alcohol, at how certain post-Soviet Russian alcohol brands use packaging to appeal to consumers’ patriotism. Second, I wish to draw parallels between the material culture of packaging on the one hand, and the immaterial culture of social media networks on the other.
It could be argued, of course, that packaging is not ‘material culture’ in the usual sense of the word. In some sense it is a hybrid phenomenon, neither immaterial (like the brand), nor material (like the product: see Manning 2010). Torn between the ‘semiotic’ world of brand and the ‘functional’ world of the product (Manning, private comment), it is the crucial ‘commercial interface’ between brand and consumer (Heilbrunn and Barré 2012, 10).
On the contrary, we would maintain that packaging is indeed part of material culture in the sense described by Woodward: ‘In its popular scholarly usage, the term “material culture” is generally taken to refer to any material object (e.g. shoes, cup, pen) or network of material objects (e.g. house, car, shopping mall) that people perceive, touch, use, handle, carry out social activities within, use or contemplate’ (2007: 14). Packages are indeed objects, since they are handled, and – especially in the cases which I shall be looking at – they are aesthetic objects designed to be contemplated (see for example Borgerson and Schroeder 2008).
Packaging in Russia has almost always been ideologically and politically loaded. In her excellent book on Russian retailing from 1880 to 1930, Marjorie Hilton (2012) mentions the fact that in the late Imperial era, many Russian companies displayed the Romanov eagle on their labels. Later, in the 1920s, Rodchenko and Mayakovsky designed sweet wrappers around such themes as industrialisation or the Red Army. The politicisation of chocolate wrappers continued throughout the Soviet era with, for example, the ‘New Moscow’ range of the 1960s (examples of Soviet and post-Soviet packaging design can be found here: www.moscowdesignmuseum.ru/en/exhibitions/2035/). The product category where the Great Russian Past is most prominently displayed is not chocolate, however, but vodka (for a more detailed discussion of this phenomenon, see Roberts 2013). This is perhaps to be expected. First, for Russians, vodka is not just ‘a pervasive mediator and sign of relations of sociability of all kinds’, as in neighbouring Georgia (Manning 2012, 183); it is the national drink par excellence. Second, Kravets (2012, 363) makes the important observation that ‘the official ban on mass advertising [of vodka in today’s Russia] makes other techniques of branding, such as naming, labelling, and packaging, a primary mode of promotion for the industry.’ Third, vodka is an alcoholic beverage which tends to be relatively uniform in colour, smell and taste. To quote Hine (1995, 4), ‘it is no accident that vodka, the most characterless of spirits, has the highest profile packages’. With over six hundred different vodkas on the Russian market, eye-catching Russian-oriented design can help a brand both establish legitimacy and differentiate itself from the competition. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that so many Russian vodka brands exploit iconographic Russian images in an attempt to sell themselves.
It should be pointed out that politically charged references were generally rare on vodka labels produced during the Soviet period. In the post-Soviet era, however, there are countless examples of ideologically loaded vodka labels, bottles and boxes. When it comes to vodka packaging design in Russia today, there are few examples more impressive than ‘Legenda Kremlya’ (‘Legend of the Kremlin’). This vodka is marketed as a premium brand, or rather as an ‘élite’ vodka, as the label itself tells us. Its long-necked bottle comes in a hollow black and gold box designed to resemble an imposing medieval manuscript (www.klimov-design.ru/vodka/legenda/upakovka_e.shtml). When one opens the ‘manuscript’, the first thing one sees is the portrait of ‘Monk Isidore’ above the date ‘1430’, written in an ancient calligraphic style. As one leafs further through the pages of the ‘manuscript’, one learns all about how Isidore stumbled across the recipe for the first Russian vodka one night working alone in his cell in the monastery that once stood on the site of the modern-day Kremlin in Moscow – the ‘legend’ to which the vodka’s name refers. There is a reproduction of an ancient map of the Kremlin, as well as a story about the bottle itself, purportedly designed by an ‘unknown craftsman’ in the late eighteenth century. Last but not least, there is a brief account of how the makers of ‘Legend of the Kremlin’ vodka ‘miraculously’ stumbled across Isidore’s centuries-old recipe, and were thus able to revive this great tradition. In sum, the story behind this brand (con)fuses the origin of vodka and the centre of Russian political power; mythologizing the brand and sacralizing the State go hand in hand in Russia.
Francisco Martínez (EHI, Tallinn University)
- Palm down or thumb up: the fare depends on the gesture you do by the road.
- In Russia, even Lenin seems to hitchhike, standing with a hand in his pocket and the other pointing up towards the future.
Fig 1. Terje, the walk between rides. Hitchhiking in Russia.
Hitchhiking is a way of travelling by charity, a sort of begging tourism. This practice of mobility is gaining popularity in Russia, paralleled to the disappearance of traditional ways of travelling cheap in the country.
There are indeed multiple modes of hitchhiking in Russia and not all of them legal. We can of course find the traditional one, idealised by the ‘Beat Generation’ and the ‘Hippies’. I mean the one of rising up the thumb and moving through hundreds of kilometres, crossing cities with impossible names and listening to truck cabin philosophy.
This is the mode of hitchhiking that the writer Igor Saveliev describes in his novel ‘Off the Beaten Track: Stories from Russian Hitchhikers’, in which he affirms that a new golden era of hitchhiking is happening… in Russia.
“Once I was hitching myself to recall the good old days. I had to take off my wedding ring and tell everyone I was 22 and not 28. If you are picked up by a long-distance truck driver and it turns out that you’re the same age, it’s a bit embarrassing: It looks as if he works to feed his family, spends his fuel on you and you’re, well, a slacker”, writes Saveliev.
Huge distances, hostile weather, unpopulated areas, difficult language – this sounds serious enough to dissuade any adventure in Russia, or – maybe not. According to Patrick Laviolette, this could indeed be an incentive for hitchhiking explorations, since it intensifies the ‘intimate-sensing’ of the activity.
Moreover, this anthropologists of Tallinn University holds that technologies are crucially conditioning the practice of hitchhiking yet not killing it. In his view, multiple technologies determine the way people prepare for the adventure. And even during the trip in itself, for instance, by facilitating communication with distant people or acceding to information. Nonetheless, hitchhiking (as any adventure) is about finding oneself and breaking with quotidian patterns. Hence the ubiquity of the technological world might equally be one of the reasons to escape and disconnect from routines.
Hitchhiking is an activity that brings about moments of loneliness as well as clear ruptures of the solitude it engenders. Likewise, to adventure entails a starting point and certain behaviours. Similarly, the fact of depending on others feeds humility and respect. So hitchhiking is always a unique experience, in which we encounter different people, moods, smells, sounds, accents and landscapes along the road.
As confirmed by Terje Toomistu, curator of the exhibition ‘Soviet Hippies’, hitchhiking was already an important part of the ideology of the Soviet Hippies in the 70s. They even had a supporting ’systema’ parallel to the official one and in which the drivers could use tickets to get extra gas after picking up hitchhikers.
Currently, there are 10 clubs of hitchhiking in Russia, the oldest being founded in 1978. Terje has hitchhiked several times in Russia, visiting the Caucasus, Urals, and North-west region:
“Every moment, when I raised the thumb, it was an open point which could settle in an infinite number of ways. Each stopping car, which I climbed in, took over the lead of my destiny, opening doors and with them new realms. The good old Russia should be a paradise for each hitchhiker. It also seemed to me that Russians like to share their life, emphasizing what they value, what they like and dislike, making them often sounding like philosophers, but from real life, not from some drowsy libraries”, shares Terje.
She was travelling with two friends – all girls. “So that made it a bit more complicated, as not so many cars can fit in three travellers. But we surely felt more secure than hitching alone or in a pair. Well, at another time when we were hitchhiking in Komi towards Moscow, we were also three of us until it came hopeless. Then we had to divide and I was alone. I got a ride with a truck driver and we had amazing conversations all along the night towards Moscow. I was also sleeping at the back towards the morning. Although he gained my trust, I was still cautious enough to have a pepper spray in between my underwear. Of course, nothing bad happened, he was very friendly and nice to me”, remembers Terje.
In her view, “hitchhiking in West-Europe can be more complicated, as hitching on highways in not allowed and you have to run between petrol stations. However, in Eastern Europe you rarely have huge highways, so you can stop the cars wherever, which makes it more flexible and perhaps enjoyable”. She concludes: “Probably people still remember the old times when hitchhiking was favoured with a sense of collective environmental responsibility and support for vagabondage, hence drivers keep picking up travellers by the road”.
Nonetheless, neither hippies nor the beat generation invented the thumb-up exploration. This practice was already common in Britain and the United States before World War II. There is even a Hollywood film of 1934 in which Clark Gable appears hitchhiking with a gorgeous woman: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ar-hnj5Zsk4.
Further on, the practice of hitchhiking in Russia is much more varied than the rise of the thumb and fantastic long travels across the steppe. For instance, urban hitchhiking has been a crucial way of commuting within post-socialist cities. Palm down or thumb up: the fare depends on the gesture you do by the road.
Fig 2: Reuters / Vostok Photo.
It is of course possible to move for free within Russian cities. I mean to practice the classic hitchhiking based on the charity of the drivers. For instance, I rose up my thumb in St. Petersburg with my friend Nastia, who loves unexpected encounters, risk and the experience of different speeds. I tried to tell her that I had money to pay a taxi, but she rather preferred to explore the taste and elasticity of time.
The two other alternatives of (paid) hitchhiking in Russia are the ‘bombily’ (illegal taxis) and the spontaneous drivers who give you a drive if it’s on their way and need some money. Still in Russia there is no proper collective system to share a car, like for instance the German Mitfahrgelegenheit. There are in Moscow over 40.000 unlicensed taxis, which give you a drive after seeing your standing by the road with the palm down. These taxis are of course cheaper than the 9.000 official ones. Nevertheless, since September 2011 there is a municipal campaign to erase the ‘bombily’ from the cityscape. Police controls and fines of 150 euro are more and more frequent in the Russian capital. For instance, between March and September 2012, 680 drivers got fined and 416 cars were confiscated.
It was in 1925 when Muscovites saw a taxi for the first time. Already in 1932, the fleet of Renaults and FIATs was substituted by the locally produced GAZ-A, a Soviet car co-produced with FORD. The described (paid) urban hitchhiking was the norm indeed when I lived in Moscow. Everyday I jumped into a car to cross the huge megalopolis, accumulating incidents and anecdotes. Once I went out of the Propaganda, a club in the city centre of Moscow. It was around 3:00 am and I had no more than 120 rubles in my pocket (3 euro). To make things worse, it was raining and I got a bit tipsy. I stood by the road for half an hour, trying unsuccessfully to convince someone to give me a drive to Prospekt Vernadskogo (south-east) for that price.
Finally, a clapped-out Lada stopped and the driver, a middle age man with golden teeth and dirty clothes, accepted to drive me home. Noteworthy, he was not talkative and opened his mouth only twice to repeat: you got the money with you, isn’t it? We haven’t even come out of the boulevard ring of Moscow when the car ran out of fuel. The driver, unruffled, told me that he had no money so in order to drive me home I had to pay in advance. Not only that, we had also to pull the car for half an hour to the next petrol station.
Popsovy music and Russian chanson dominate in the bombily. The drivers are usually immigrants who strive to survive as better as they can. Ksenia, a friend from St.Petersburg, describes as an adventure her trips from Kupchino to the city centre. If the choffeur says ‘there’s no need to wear the seatbelt, I’m a good driver’, he’s just trying to hide that the seatbelts do not work. Ksenia also told me how she entered with six friends (four seated, two laying) in an official car with two agents. That was the first surprise, the second one came when the agents asked for money once they arrived.
So hitchhiking is indeed part of the Soviet/post-Soviet road-scape. As writer Sergei Dovlatov says, in Russia, even Lenin seems to hitchhike, standing with a hand in his pocket and the other pointing up towards the future.
NB This article is a revised version of the one recently published in Spanish in the newspaper Russia Hoy:
Christopher Pinney, UCL Anthropology
Salman Rushdie once suggested in an interview that in India you can traverse several centuries just by crossing the road. Perhaps another way into the same question was provided by Malraux, (inevitably) more poetically in his Anti-Memoirs (“…in war, in museums real or imaginary, in culture, in history perhaps, I have found again and again a fundamental riddle, subject to the whims of memory which […] does not recreate a life in its original sequence. Lit by an invisible sun, nebulae appear which seem to presage an unknown constellation…Often linked to memory [certain scenes] sometimes turn out more disturbingly to be linked to the future too”). I’ve always understood Rushdie’s observation to be an affirmation of Kracauer’s argument about diverse materially embedded temporalities which was difficult to reconcile with, for instance, Appadurai’s argument about modernity being simultaneously present, everywhere. Appadurai, I imagine was responding in a Saidean mode to those Orientalists for whom the several centuries that co-exist outside EuroAmerica positions certain regions, if not outside of history, then in a different kind of history. But Appadurai’s assumption was vulnerable to the argument Bhabha makes against the (originally Herderian) claim for a stable national time.
Bhabha’s questions about time-lags and disjunctures, and the manner in which temporality might be materially and technically embedded, and hence fragmented and disseminated, came to mind recently in central India. An old photographer friend was discussing the history of his studio and assembled all his old cameras on his studio front desk as concrete embodiments of passing time. His first was a Yashica 120, then a (now battered) Nikon 35mm analogue camera and then his current working kit of two digital Nikon SLRs. These were all placed together on the desk and manipulated as though they were actual slabs of time. Later that same day I visited Prakash Talkies one of the two remaining cinemas in Nagda Jn, a town which now has a population of about 200,000. When I first started to work here in the early 1980s its population was less than 50,000, four cinemas thrived and it was in Prakash Talkies that fell in love with Reena Roy and Sridevi while I ate freshly roasted peanuts, throwing the shells on the floor.
Prakash Talkies is the local fleapit. It specialises in action movies and when full can seat 600 people. The 6pm show at Prakash Talkies had been cancelled because of lack of customers but this did not prevent the manager, Mr. Porwal from putting on a private test screening. The cinema was built in 1965 but has a peculiarly ancient and well-cared feel to it, stained with the friendly patina of small-town dreams. Design-wise it is very art-deco and if you didn’t know it was built in the 60s you would think it was a survivor from the 1920s. He was keen to show me the latest cinematic technology, a direct satellite link with his distributor in Mumbai. But to get to that you first have to negotiate two vast hulking machines in the projection room which also seem radically out of time. They were made in 1981 (not 1931 as I first imagined). Mr Porwal knows this because they formerly belonged to another cinema, Kiran Talkies, and he personally installed them in their current location. These vast impressive beasts, having something of the colossal majesty of huge steam locomotives, take up almost the whole of the projection room. It is clear that they are later imports into a room originally designed to house much smaller equipment. To the right side of the room is a wondrous space where film spools hang from the wall like fossils suspended in blue lias, coiled remnants of an ancient epoch. A hand-winder sits, long neglected, on a thin table, like detritus from a Dutch still life, barely illuminated by the bare electric bulbs that hang down from the ceiling.
Counterpoised with this sheer machinicity, the fantastic corpulent image-delivery apparatus of the steam-engine projectors, on the other side of the room, is a tiny air conditioned cubicle measuring about two and half feet by two feet. In this sits a new digital projector together with two servers and satellite equipment, all of which hums efficiently. This tiny intrusion is the end point of a digital superhighway down which the Mumbai distributor, UFO, streams satellite content directly to dusty, crumbly, ancient, Prakash Talkies, hallway between Mumbai and Delhi. Everything that the vast lumbering dinosaur projectors once did is now delivered with superior fidelity by this minute, cool, space. Here in this tiny room, at the top of a deserted provincial cinema, was something like Rushdie’s street, something akin to my photographer friend’s materialisation of time. Cinematic ammonites glinting in the light cast by the latest, quietly purring, UFO.
Blanca Callén Lancaster University,
Behind the images and narratives of progress, effectiveness and innovation of electronics that make us believe in dematerialized technology without consequences (Gabrys, 2011:57), there is something dirty and ‘forgettable’ (Hird, forthcoming). That is electronic waste (e-waste).
Over the past November and December, I followed a group of informal waste pickers in Barcelona to study how they re-materialize and re-purpose discarded computers. What I found is that e-waste is not merely about dirtiness and forgettable materials. It is also about innovative everyday practices that compete to establish and negotiate different ontologies of value and functionality as waste moves across different legal regimes.
A common European Directive, the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE), currently regulates the Spanish system of e-waste management. As a legal tool, the WEEE defines a new scenario where agents are more interconnected with their (contaminating) activities and responsibilities. Institutionally, the circuit of e-waste management lies on the so-called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). This means that, at least theoretically, producers are responsible for the collection, treatment, evaluation, and, if applicable, elimination of waste related to their products. However, as Queiruga et al. (2012) argue, this is not what actually happens. In practice, fines and responsibilities are divorced, and the ‘polluter pays’ principle’s core is corrupted.
Although citizens pay (through an invisible tax that doesn’t appear on bills) for sustaining the treatment of the WEEE, only producers (through the EPR) and recycling companies have the right to deal with waste and to make a profit from it. Producers pay municipalities for the collection and temporal storage of waste and then companies make a profit through the dismantling and recycling of waste, which is sold and returned to the production industry.
This European-wide legal framework is supplemented by different municipal laws. In Barcelona, where I conducted my ethnography, the Municipal Ordinance regulates the use of urban public spaces establishing that “the selection and extraction of waste placed in the public thoroughfare” is a minor infraction that is fined with up to 450,76€. This means that recovering things from the street in order to reuse them is penalized.
A (g)local detour in the e-waste flow
Different agents defy these legal dispositions, like the illegal migrants, most of them sub-Saharian, who have been living off waste collecting for almost one year in a squatted industrial complex of warehouses. Most of them get up early in the morning and scour the city with a ‘shopping’ trolley looking for scrap and all kind of materials and objects, which then they bring to the warehouse, where everything is separated and classified.
Dealers buy scrapped computers and electric and electronic components from these waste-pickers and check if they work. If they don’t, they are dismantled into different pieces, such as metal cages, motherboards, or materials, like copper from wires, and are then sold by weight to scrap-yards; functional pieces, such as hard-disks or memory RAMs, are recovered and sold to companies or personal contacts which use them for assembling “new” old computers. Other computers just need to be repaired and have their OS reinstalled. Working electric and electronic appliances are sent by trucks and vans to Africa. Both content and container, appliances and trucks, are then sold in African second-hand markets.
Tilan lives in a nearby squatted warehouse and he is the guy who repairs some of these computers. He tests them, tries to repair them, or dismantles and reuses the functional components in order to assemble new computers. Then he installs pirated OSs such as Windows 7 or XP. He has learned how to do it thanks to ‘the Czechs’. “They know a lot about it”, he says. The Czechs were his housemates and he has learned by quietly observing how they repaired. He blames some of the waste-pickers, most of them from Romania, who treat computers as if they are just a piece of metal, handling them like scrap. In Tilan’s view they aren’t scrap: dumped computers are valuable and need to be carefully treated in order to reuse some of their components. If they are dropped, the components may be ruined.
Struggling computing ontologies
The growing number of people scavenging bins and pushing their supermarket trolleys full of scrap, attests to the unsustainable patterns of technology’s consumption cycle and problematises utopian narratives of innovation. Importantly, they also hint at the re-materializion of electronics that takes place through their collecting, dismantling, repairing and re-assembling, which keeps these computers in operation and in circulation.
By constantly re-imagining e-waste, these waste-pickers and menders create new forms of value and informal innovation. The innovative character of these practices lies in the fact that they defy e-waste destiny and its ontology: in their hands, a waste-computer is not a singular object defined by its disposal and treatment after manufacture and consumption, instead it is a precarious and temporal knot of heterogeneous assemblages in transition. The key point here is the (possibility of) transition. A computer in the bin, like the boats Gregson et al. (2010) describe, is not valued “for what it is, but for what it ‘might become’” (Ib. 2010:853). Informal waste pickers do not work with certainty and ‘actuality’, but with pure ‘virtuality’ and possibilities of ‘becoming’ which transform brokenness, failures or legal restrictions into productive occasions. When an old computer is considered waste and then dismantled and reassembled, it is being transformed from a static metal ‘black box’ into an open modular object. In this sense, waste-pickers can be easily compared with the Parisian maintenance workers of the transport system followed by Denis and Pontille (2011): both “go through what one would see as the ʻnaturalʼ boundaries of things, and explore and test the relations of components” (Ib., 2011:7).
These waste-pickers operate in a register in which success, functionality and value are not defined by the closure and stability of computers as ‘black boxes’ through manufacturing (Lepawsky and Billah, 2011:135), but by their ability to move across different ontology registers after they have become waste. This movement, however, is not easy. It depends on different technical knowledges, personal networks, and savings, and implies several risks, like defying European and municipal laws or crossing a desert to deliver them in Africa. Success and failure, it follows, cannot be mapped onto different kinds of objects (e.g. functioning vs non-functioning objects). As a matter of fact, the same object, a computer, can be inscribed in (and by) different logics: the logic of the material and the logic of function, which imply two different value systems defined, alternatively, by weight or bytes. This ontological and temporal issue is the reason for Tilan’s complaints about Romanian pickers and also reflects a current tension. The urgency of earning one’s living means that success doesn’t always mean to repair and re-assemble a computer, but can also mean to destroy and take it apart in components and metals that can be quickly turned into ‘fresh’ money. A first inspection of the outward aspect of the object and a quick test to check whether it starts up are ways to calculate the potential profitability of the object. Depending on the result, the waste-pickers will decide whether to take it apart or to sell it as an entire object for being re-assembled and repaired.
The story about Tilan and the others talks about ‘outsiders’ and illegality, and how they intersect, at different points, with the formal circuit: challenging it, when they collect stuff from the bins; dealing with it by symbiotic complicity when they sell the remains after dismantling to recycling and scrap traders; or complementing and polishing it, when they selectively collect stuff from streets and dismantle, classify and sell components and pieces to be later recycled, while earning money throughout the process. Legal and illegal, formal and informal cross over and leak into each other. In this sense, this story shows how we cannot rely on linear and formal accounts to understand the regime of e-waste. This waste regime (Gille, 2010) requires a combination of different scales, circulations and exchanges of boundaries and edges, and a complex meshwork of overlaps, intersections, leaks and detours. It follows that, if we are to understand a particular waste regime it is not enough to pay attention to institutional and formal practices, we also need to pay close attention to those informal, unknown, intentionally hidden or ‘forgotten’ agents and practices that discretely traverse the streets.
Christopher Pinney, UCL Anthropology
National Highway One spans the 287km between Dhaka and Teknaf Upazila, connecting the Bangladeshi capital with Chittagong, the second largest city. These photographs, taken over two days in late January 2013, document 26 of the more interesting gas stations on the south bound highway, en-route Chittagong. There are around 9,000 petrol stations and 584 Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) stations in Bangladesh. Most stations on N1 have CNG which is produced in Bangladesh and used by all autorickshaws and many buses and trucks.
These photographs pay homage to Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations published in 1963 which recorded 26 gas stations between Los Angeles and Oklahoma City. Ruscha’s images were shot and printed in black and white although some of them formed the basis for a colour screen-print series.
The images here appropriate the seriality of Ruscha’s book and something of the aesthetics of his screen-prints. Whereas Ruscha’s 1960s documentation of the US automonster might be read as evidence of an increasing homogenization and corporatisation, these Bangladeshi edifices seem to betray a much greater variability. There are also subtle traces of the political conflicts that are driving Bangladesh’s current simmering revolution. In some images there is evidence of the impact of a Jamaat-i-Islami hartal: the systematic breaking of windscreens on trucks and buses that remained on the road led to many seeking refuge on the forecourts of gas stations.
Is this Orientalism, the imposition of an experimental aesthetic protocol from the Imperial heartland? Or does repetition with difference help to transform a landscape of ‘belatedness’?
Clark’s first project, Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out, explored the domestic architecture and environment of the Guantanamo Bay Military Base and tracked this “domesticity” back into the homes of British detainees, particularly following the case of Omar Deghayes who was imprisoned in GTMO from 2002-2007 when he was released without charges. This photographic project explores three ideas of home: the idea that GTMO is home to an American community of military personnel and their families, that it is home to prisoners arrested as terrorists, and the homes where former detainees are now trying to rebuild their lives.
“Control Order House continues my exploration of the use and representation of control and incarceration in the ‘War on Terror’. Following on from ‘Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out’ I use the prism of the ‘home’ to question representations of ‘them’ and ‘us’ and to evoke the impact on the individuals concerned. I see my work as visual histories which bring new perspectives to the wider social, political and legal aspects of these issues, and explores the material and evidentiary nature of images and documents”
In his latest project, Control Order House, Clark lived for several days in the home of someone in the UK living under a control order. Control Order House engages with ideas of control in photography by foregoing the normal process of editing and mediation to reproduce the images, unedited, in the order in which Clark took them, exploring the monotony and claustrophobia of a controlled person’s life. The inclusion of official documents and correspondence also illustrates the weight of state actors against the individual. Control Orders were introduced under the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005. Between 2005 and 2011, 52 men suspected of involvement in terrorism were under Control Orders and subject to various constraints. These included the power to relocate them to a house anywhere in the country,
Control Order House engages with ideas of control in photography by foregoing the normal process of editing and mediation to reproduce the images, unedited, in the order in which Clark took them, exploring the monotony and claustrophobia of a controlled person’s life. The inclusion of official documents and correspondence also illustrates the weight of state actors against the individual.
Control Orders were introduced under the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005. Between 2005 and 2011, 52 men suspected of involvement in terrorism were under Control Orders and subject to various constraints. These included the power to relocate them to a house anywhere in the country, to restrict communication electronically and in person, and to impose a curfew. ‘Controlled persons’ were not prosecuted for terrorist-related activity and the evidence against them remained secret. One man was subject to these controls for more than four years. Control Orders were replaced by Terrorist Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs) in 2012. Nine men are currently subject to a TPIM.
(Images reproduced thanks to Edmund Clark and Here Press).