Capturing the Moving Mind Mobile Conference :: Alan Schacher

7 – 20 September 2005, Helsinki-Moscow-Novosibirsk-Beijing

The conference on the train travelled from Helsinki and then on the Trans-Siberian Railway (Moscow-Novosibirsk-Beijing) between 7 to 20 September 2005. Starting in Helsinki (Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art) and stopping in Moscow (Moscow Institute of Architecture), in the capital of Siberia, Novosibirsk (Novosibirsk State University) – and in Beijing (Qinghua University).

Subsequently I observed the last days of CAR CITY, the Porosity Studio Beijing, at CAFA University, Beijing, (Beijing Central Academy of Fine Arts) led by Australian Artist
Richard Goodwin for College of Fine Arts, University of NSW. I then remained in China on an unrelated residency through Asialink.

From Helsinki to Beijing on board the trans-Siberian train, I joined the mobile conference “Capturing the Moving Mind : organization and change in the time of permanently temporary war”, with activists, artists, researchers and mobile media communicators, to propose, investigate, formulate, new logics of economy and (theoretically) to generate forms and practices of resistance to global control. The event was organised by the journals Ephemera and Conflitti Globali and was co-presented and observed by the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki.

What are the politics of academic tourism? I was one of 7 Australian participants, in a group of nearly 50, with only one Asian participant, from Taiwan, to break the overwhelmingly white northern European caste. Originally sharing a hotel room and then train compartment with a New York based Theatre Director, Peter Petralia, some reconfigurations left Peter sharing with British artist Elly Clarke, and myself sharing with London-based filmmaker Joram ten Brink. With Joram I had not only age in common, but also a cultural background, with shared Jewish roots in Romania and Poland. Joram filmed me in body-positions I took up in the train for incorporation into a film he is currently making. My issues, to do with diaspora, displacement and the production of communities-in-exile, were difficult to realise in this physical way, but trains of course do move and displace people. Communities (such as the Jewish ones) are increasingly empowered and privileged and rather than displaced have made enduring homes around the world. The tourist, however, frequently passes temporarily through extremely under-privileged communities, as we did on the train journey. It was interesting to hear at the closing conference in Beijing that world focus on the Tibetan issue in China has drawn world focus away from the plight of the many other Chinese minority groups.

Viewing the landscape without, framed through windows, whether from inside train compartments, end-on to the seating, or whilst walking down narrow corridors and turning sideways to pass other standing passengers and train guards, was reminiscent in sensation of the endless passageways and returns we encountered in the Kafka-esque Hotel Rossija in Moscow before boarding the train. Down the train passages people would be leaning against the windows, standing in ante-chamber between carriages, or huddled in each-others’ cabins. Seated in the (relatively) more expansive public territory of the dining car, with full windows and cafŽ-like tables, afforded a view through most of one entire space, or, if you made your way to the very end carriage, you could view through its portal the hypnotic endlessly receding tracks. Less apparent, within the toilet cubicles, a circular window to the moving ground below when you flush, a frosted shadow of life outside, and a reflection of yourself amidst this new experience. The landscape within the train consisted of views into semi-private spaces. One had to intrude to participate. Space was claimed through stance, through partially blocked doorways, or by an array of sleeping bodies, extended legs, partial states of undress or a spread picnic, card game, or in our case, equipment and paraphernalia amongst beer, wine and vodka bottles, cigarettes, cheeses and sausages, watermelon, whatever.

These overlapping yet clearly demarcated zones on the train acted as the compacted reflection of the real spaces encountered between fixed locales and the apparently new affective sites of change, interaction, open negotiation and reconfiguration that the various participant projects entailed. Our moving conference of non-organization, privileged tourist status, western academics, artists and activists, variously enjoying or enduring our diasporas, entertaining vistas of communities-in-exile, indeterminate public spaces and zones of transience through constant movement. Brief and exultory moments of release at train station platforms and mini-shopping sprees, exchanges and glimpses of tantalising and exotically harsh worlds beyond our reach. We visited places of dispossession, of changing power structures, of reformation and reconfigurations of control. On the train our motivation was towards small organised gatherings, and mostly impromptu ones. There were stratas of power between us and the railways staff, to customs and immigration or transit officers, like the elegant Mongolian border control guard in mini-skirt, lipstick and high boots.

The moving mind, a captive of the self-organising event, transported with its nonmoving body. Always an occupier of space, the body “I” communicates with the outside through osmosis and transposition. All of us jiggling like so many Baikal dried-fish on their collective thread, and what fish! And what party-goers the participants were! Smoking, drinking, dancing, discussing. The small p’s and c’s politics of public versus private spaces, of tourist and capitalist. Politics of shared spaces, of co-occupation of cabins, or of sharing the dining car with other travelers, or about the ethics of respect versus understanding of intent. Such an issue emerged at the end of the journey in Beijing in relation to the respect to be shown to artworks and artists (present and absent) and issues of loyalty to our own group, when visiting a gallery space in Dashanzi Artists’ Village. Was there really a choice to be made between retiring to catch up with morning’s light on the next new landscape, or rather to stay awake until early morning to engage in the kinds of in-depth discussion that only tiredness and the wee drunken hours solicit? The hardiest and wisest did both. And was it really a choice between day and night, seeing and not seeing, when to converse in daylight hours meant anyway that one’s attention was drawn away from the ever disappearing vistas. Disappointment at not seeing sunrise as the train hit the plateau above Lake Baikal affected quite a few.

Siberia and Mongolia were vast, and yet they rapidly passed by, 7 or 8 thousand kilometers eaten up in a matter of a few days. In travel is it not the aspect of being-inmotion, rather than arrival, that is the transformative moment?

The moving mind, at core definition, describes the brain in its skull encasement, transported by an all but obsolete organic body, merely a slave vehicle to the higher thinking organ. When constricted for a period as a passenger on a long journey this limit becomes quite apparent. With the body limited, the mind enjoys that sense of stretched and indeterminate time that does not yet anticipate arrival, nor awaits it, a time that floats, that is freed of personal history. The moving mind is a thinking body, a total and incorporated body-mind which does not transport either one or the other part without consideration of the whole, of the balance of bone mass and slushing fluids, of centrifugal and centripetal forces, body organs and pumping actions. What would it mean to entrap and limit this metabolising organism capture, photograph and freeze it in time? Squish it between panes of glass, document it as a slice of life, a frame of time?

The body is a territory that transports its own interior space and sense of exterior limits, yet by moving we were also escaping, and the body is escaping itself, continually moving, stretching beyond its physical confines and spatial configuration, only to morph into the shape of newly occupied space, to again become ‘itself’. My “body installations” were merely rest-positions taken up in a way that a passenger would normally not envisage. However to engage physically with the rapidly changing external landscape proved quite difficult to envisage. Somewhere in this journey I had hoped to realise a dynamic and imaginative exchange between moving body and moving place, a reading across space. I cannot say I did this, but perhaps I have yet to arrive.

And finally, you will still ask, but what was the Trans-Siberian Journey about? I still don’t get it, and will have to reply that it simply began with the idea of a journey, one which would catalyse the imaginations of many, that it would propose not a community but a “multitude”, that it would enable me to reflect on the experience of zones, travel, passing through and traversing place. And further you will ask what did you actually do on the train?. Well, I moved with it, moved around in search of a home, homeless on a moving non-home, at home in this tightly restricted and borderless place. Not so much anticipating arrival as relishing the passage. I sampled the different momentary communities which formed and to which I felt some claim of belonging, I took up certain postures and positions in the train, in the compartment and in the corridors and in the spaces between carriages, attempting to become an unlikely passenger. I hoped to reflect the moving landscapes without. In short I stumbled, rocked, swayed and then, blinking in disbelief, arrived in Beijing.

The 7 Australian participants were: Gillian Fuller , Helen Grace , Sophia Lerner , Brett Neilsen , Ned Rossiter , Alan Schacher, Jess Whyte

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