Director Ivars Zviedris describes his film as follows: “An absurd game of ‘finding happiness’ is being played by local Latvian coyotes (people who smuggle others across the border) and illegal immigrants on the Russian and the European Union border. It is a game with no winner – all participants are driven to play by a sense of despair. While one side leaves home and undertakes a perilous journey to the other side of the globe, hoping to spend the rest of their lives in a free country, the other side risks freedom to earn a chance to stay right where they are, in their homeland.”
The film takes place in the borderlands, overlapping with the locations of our Emptiness project. Along with its human characters – Pepe, Guna, the border guards, and the border crossers – the film features empty houses, crumbling wallpaper, and left behind photos. Upon release from prison, where Pepe served time for smuggling, he is given 2 euros. It is not enough for a bus fare to the emptying borderlands.
The film is the winner of the 2020 Ji.hlava festival and the recipient of the 2020 Latvian National Cinema prize “Lielais Kristaps”.
My project is an exploration of the liminal space through the medium of analogue photography.
Through hand-developing film negatives and collaging the subsequent images, I have built imaginary landscapes that show the interplay between man-made objects and nature sharing the same space.
I worked as a photojournalist in Georgia for two years, where I covered assignments in former Soviet countries, including Kazakhstan, Armenia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.
Like many foreigners, I was drawn to these visually arresting scenes of the past. I became fascinated with the physical remnants of the communist era: abandoned hotels, disfigured statues, aging mosaics. Initially my work focused on entropy in a more superficial sense: photographing ruins for the sake of photographing the drama of dereliction.
Over time, I became more interested in the interplay between man-made buildings and the natural realm. I became drawn to the tension between these forces – the sense of buildings relinquishing their dominion and nature encroaching amidst this – together in a spatial limbo.
Above is an abandoned tea factory in the town of Tsalenjikha in the subtropical region of western Georgia. In 1985, Georgia was the top producer of tea in the Soviet Union.
Through photographing the presence of nature in scenes like this, I learned to see that emptiness is not always a finite endpoint but it could also mark a transition to another state beyond abandonment or dereliction.
In this particular scene, I could see the complexities of the situation – that the sense of emptiness isn’t just a reminder of ambitious ideals gone bad, but also the promise of fresh grass for cattle. Emptiness can hold feelings of decomposition and of gestation in the same space.
The steel and concrete manifestations of humans that blend with the stubborn vitality of nature gives rise to a sense of liminal space: a transition between two states of being.
I’ve explored the idea of liminal space through the writings of Professor Jeff Malpas of the University of Tasmania. In his essay The Threshold of The World, he writes that the liminal is “that which stands between, but in standing between it does not mark some point of rest”.
These are spaces, he says, that are “characterised by dynamis than energeia”.
And in building these imaginary landscapes, I want to emphasise the plausibility and potency within these spaces.
This ambiguous state of betwixt and between is embodied by Janus – the Ancient Roman god of beginnings, ends and transitions. This puts forward a question: how different are these three concepts from each other?
Initially I began my project of showing liminal space through using the technique of double exposure, whereby I’d shoot two scenes without winding the film on in my camera in order to get two different elements stamped onto each other.
Above is a scene of an abandoned house shot in the Karoo, a vast, semi-arid region of South Africa, superimposed against an image of branches from a nearby bush.
This double exposure was shot in Stratford, London of remnants of art outside a stadium from the 2012 Olympics and then exposed against the trees alongside a river.
But in order to add nuance to the tension between the artificial and the organic, and to create more of a sense of space than just showing two contrasting subjects, I decided to arrange multiple double exposures into collages to create fictional landscapes.
The images were shot in London and throughout South Africa. Since film developer is difficult and expensive to get hold of in South Africa, I was able to develop my negatives in a concoction of instant coffee, Vitamin C tablets, pool cleaner and salt.
Diverging from my documentary photojournalism work that was centred on photographing people, I’ve shifted towards making pictures of trees on analogue formats.
The darkroom is especially relevant to the concept of liminal space – with its chemically induced gestation period – and so too are trees.
Dr Mary-Anne Potter of the University of the Witwaterstand describes trees as “straddling the line between being and becoming – being rooted and static, but also growing and diminishing.”
I’m interested in the mysticism that we imbue trees with, and analogue photography helps to emphasise this with the abstract and ambiguous images that arise from experimental darkroom techniques.
In a liminal space the elements of nature and machine or machine-made objects in these scenes co-exist amongst – or perhaps in spite of – each other, neither overwhelming the other one entirely.
But the difference is one of lifespan versus life cycle. A single tree might not outlast an ideology of a government, a religion, an economic model, or a dependence on technology, but its offspring can. With its ability to reproduce, a tree can replicate future versions of itself in the way that corporations, faiths, and political powers cannot.
Our fascination with ruins is archetypal: our primitive ancestors buried their dead 300,000 years ago. Whether it’s in Chernobyl or the Acropolis, humans have an innate fascination with the entropy of erstwhile empires. Perhaps it’s a similar perspective that staring at the stars brings: confronted with of the enormity of the universe and the inevitable endings of the our ideas, our creations, and ourselves.
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” declares Ramses II in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias.
The next line – written from Shelley’s contemporary perspective – reads: “Nothing beside remains”.
It’s this memento mori within the rubbles of ruins that reminds us of our dust-ward trajectory. But the idea of an endpoint at the extremity of this arc is something I want to challenge in my work through showing the presence of nature that our artefacts share a space with.
Eventually, one of these forces – artificial or natural – surpasses the other, and the threshold of liminal space is crossed. Above is a photograph of a girl in Kampot, Cambodia picking lotus flowers.
This scene speaks of a human venturing into a natural realm with a vast field of lilies, shuffling in the knee-deep waters of a floodplain.
However, the lotuses are growing on the remains of what is sardonically referred to as an “American pond”.
Almost three million tonnes of bombs were dropped on neutral Cambodia from 1964 to 1973, leaving the countryside peppered with eerie perfectly circular craters.
Eventually water trickled into this particular man-made depression. Lotus lilies found their way inside it, blooming and dying, but not before multiplying.
For several years, that American pond would have looked the picture of liminal space: two forces hovering in limbo – the colluding chlorophyll and the gash marks of the military-industrial-sized divot.
In this photograph, the organic overthrew the man-made: crossing the threshold and returning the space back to nature – the floating field of lotuses looking decidedly pre-industrial, except for their uncanny circular appearance of the body of water that they bob in.
While developing these negatives in the darkroom and arranging these landscapes, the question that arose was: If we – with our preoccupation with production and obsession with convenience – are sharing a liminal space with nature, which one becomes the afterthought when that threshold is crossed?
Ecologies of Emptiness
The Ecologies of Emptiness project is a collaboration between Sandra Jasper, Adam Searle, and Jonathon Turnbull. It asks the question: how can scholars theorise emptiness across species, scales, and causal agents? Drawing on fieldwork in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Ukraine, abandoned spaces in Berlin, and the St Kilda archipelago in the Northern Atlantic, which have diverse relations to emptiness, the researchers are exploring how nature is viewed, valued, and experienced differently at each, developing situated understandings of the varieties of emptiness across species, spaces, and scales. The project attends to the intersections of political economy, political ecology, and the uneven experiences – human and nonhuman – of emptying spaces, and their varying relations to capital.
The Soviet government exploited natural resources and human resources with little consideration of the environments in occupied lands, and transformed whole regions, cultures, nations and economies. Maximal industrialisation of the Soviet Republics was enabled through accelerated labour recruitment, education, building infrastructure, and whole new cities and settlements in the newly occupied Soviet territory. Mining was the most targeted sites for industrialisation and urbanisation and this went hand in hand with the promotion of Soviet-style modernity (sovremennost). A city such as Shurab in Tajikistan was built around a coal mine in 1952, while Janatas in Kazakhstan was constructed around phosphate mines in 1964, and Chiatura in Georgia – where manganese was found in the 19th century in Tsarist times – was rebuilt by the Soviets in the early 1900s in order to extract this precious resource. Strategic cities also received special Moscow attention under the separate channel of moskovskoe obespechenie (Moscow provisioning). Through this channel special products and services were delivered directly from Moscow to the strategic cities in the Republics. These cities then became attractive to a wider public who came to work, to shop, or just to have a short holiday, as these cities had been built not only with basic infrastructure, but also to be attractive to live in, with rich cultural programs and entertainment facilities. The average working-class Soviet citizen or engineer was eager to move to and work in these newly built mining cities in order to enjoy the privileges of relatively high wages, special consumer goods, and a well-developed social and cultural infrastructure.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union it became apparent that such mining cities and similar industrial complexes were organized so that supply and trade were dependent on the purchase contracts of other industries in other Soviet Republics. The end of the Soviet Union also meant the end of provisions from Moscow. The economic webs were cut as newly independent Republics struggled to build up their economies autonomously. After the end of the Soviet Union, economic units and industries were left to function on their own, relying on local and national resources and governance. Most industries which were under Soviet state control were either privatised or taken under the control of newly independent post-Soviet states. Cities with low value or less important raw materials were hit harder than others which still offered attractive products such as oil, gold, and fertilisers. Former cities which found themselves uncompetitive in an open market functioned at only 5% of operations during the Soviet Union. This led to the economic collapse of these cities, to massive demographic change due to outmigration, and consequently to infrastructural decay. Prosperous during Soviet times and now ghost towns, emptiness is a post-Soviet reality for many cities which enjoyed moskovskoye obespechniye during Soviet rule.
Newly independent post-Soviet economies, which were mismanaged or suffered from corrupt authoritarian regimes that continued Soviet-style governance, faced both economic collapse and political conflict. This led to mass outmigration, most obviously from formerly prosperous mining cities. The demographic change resulting from outmigration, the downsizing of most Soviet-built industries, infrastructural decay, economic collapse, and the fading out of state presence and state social support: these factors were the basis of the visual and discursive results of emptiness (Nasritdinov 2015). Emptiness filled not only the cityscapes of the ghost cities but also the content of important fields, both material and non-material. Empty buildings – at times high-rise buildings towering next to each other in their magnitude – were a reminder of the great past, while their current emptiness showed the empty and impoverished present. Eventually emptiness filled the promises of the new post-Soviet states in the eyes of the ghost cities’ residents. Empty houses, empty places filled with ruins, empty pipes with no water, empty budgets with no money, empty bank accounts, or the empty pockets of the residents of ghost cities: each manifestation of emptiness pervaded a certain atmosphere and attitude among the residents. Mixed feelings arose about the great past and poor present, which was meanwhile riven between efforts to survive and a hopeless existence.
Emptiness was not only the concern of those who had to make ends meet and to make sense of the places in which they lived. The ruins which filled the emptiness impacted the natural and physical wellbeing of both the living and non-living beings of the cities. Ruined buildings, infrastructure, and nature (in form of dark, black-coloured rivers and air pollution); the ruined health of living beings in these locations: ruins of everything filled the emptiness. The empty flats and houses created further problems, adding to the process of the general infrastructural decay and compromising water supply and heating systems, particularly in the five- or nine-storied apartment buildings in all of the three cities that I describe below. The average occupancy rate of these houses has fallen to approximately five to 10 percent.
Such ghost mining cities are by now found not only in the post-Soviet space but also in the West, in the USA, Germany, and in China where deindustrialisation has turned cities largely into ghost cities (e.g. Bontje 2004, Pallagst et al. 2013). Mining cities where companies stopped working or reduced their capacities are found all across the former Soviet Union: in Russia, Georgia and Central Asia. The cities we studied within the framework of the project Mining Cities in Central Asia and the South Caucasus: Survival Strategies under Conditions of Extreme Peripheralisation (during 2015–20, coordinated by Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography in Germany) include Janatas in Kazakhstan, Shurab in Tajikistan, Chiatura in Georgia, and Angren in Uzbekistan (2015–16).
The results of this research are in the process of being published as an edited volume which will include working papers and policy briefs. Our research shows the wide array of residents’ economic survival strategies in these abandoned places. In Janatas, for instance, we witnessed informal economic networks based on mutual debt employed by inhabitants in order to afford basic foodstuff from small shops. In Shurab mardikor labour (informal labour) make up a large portion of local residents’ income, including the mine workers who are mainly hired on the basis of informal employment (cash-based and sales-based salaries). In Shurab, due to the absence of running water, water for all purposes has to be purchased and is the item on which most earned income is spent. In Chiatura, people survive partly by relying on state welfare, agricultural sustenance, and bank credits (even for normal daily expenses people borrow money from the local banks, creating another debt system popularised in Georgia) and by entrepreneurship. Still, mining has retained some importance – in spite of its economic and environmental hazards – while at the same time a diversification of revenue-generating activities and new forms of solidarity are emerging.
To give one example of such entrepreneurial efforts: in Chiatura an older man who worked all of his life for the state has spent the last 15 years devoted to making a small paradise corner out of the abandoned mountainous part of upper Chiatura. He discovered a very deep cave where he grew mushrooms and organised small ponds for growing fish. He has built a small infrastructure to enable him to stay in place, reliant upon his own efforts and with minimal investment. He recalled that he had to re-purchase the same land several times with each change of government and has not given up on the idea of making this cave an attraction for tourists while further developing his small business to make it profitable. He has an entrepreneur’s confidence in the local government which plans to make Chiatura into a tourist city and invest in the cable cars for which Chiatura is known.
The hope demonstrated by such entrepreneurial individuals in empty places such as Chiatura and in the other ghost cities we studied over the last several years is a broader token of hope for the many empty places across the post-Soviet space. It indicates that these places need more systematic engagement not only of the scholarly kind exemplify by the Emptiness project, but also by local politicians. Although Chiatura was one of the better places among the cities we studied, in other cities residents showed innovative efforts to survive and deal with the emptiness, each in their own ways.
Bontje, M. (2004) “Facing the challenge of shrinking cities in East Germany: The case of Leipzig”. GeoJournal 61(1), pp. 13-21.
Pallagst, K., Wiechmann, T. and Martinez-Fernandez, C. (eds) (2013) Shrinking Cities: International Perspectives and Policy Implications. Routledge.
Emptiness and Rural Educational Imaginaries
This project, led by Professor Alis Oancea and involving Dr Mariela Neagu and Arzhia Habibi, is funded by the University of Oxford’s Department of Education small grants scheme. It pilots digital and remote ethnographic educational research in rural areas affected by demographic change where permanent school closures occurred. Emptying – the disappearance or radical reconfiguration of material and social relations that constitute a place (due to demographic change, migration, economic situation, COVID-19, etc.) – is an increasingly common global phenomenon. The project aims to describe how small or isolated rural communities and individuals in places that are ’emptying’ continue to live and become after permanent school closures – in order to understand and theorise the different senses of emptiness at play and their material, social, and cultural entanglements. The empty school buildings, objects emptied of function, and lost routines and calendars, together with the disappearance of part of the local labour market and community services and support network, do not only open a keenly perceived material and social hiatus within the community, but school closures also transform its rhythms, aesthetics, self-understandings, and imaginaries.
Arzhia Habibi is a DPhil candidate at the Department of Education, University of Oxford, conducting research on global and world citizenship education in Chinese higher education under the supervision of Professor Alis Oancea and Dr Nigel Fancourt. She uses ethnographic methods to engage, in Mandarin, with educators, students, and researchers in Chinese higher education institutions. Arzhia received her master’s degree from National Chengchi University, Taipei, and her bachelor’s degree from the University of Nottingham, UK. As a child, Arzhia lived and attended kindergarten in Fuzhou (Fujian province), China, for five years. These early childhood experiences inform her interests into how memory, belonging, longing, family, and community weave into a personal relationship with education and with Chinese-speaking communities. More broadly, she is interested in the intersection of anthropological debates and practices, and philosophical concepts, as well as the relationships, frictions, tensions, silences, and gaps that exist between the two fields of inquiry. You can find Arzhia on Twitter.
Black Box East
Even decades after the official end of the Cold War, ‘the East’ remains the Other. Only because of this reinforced Othering of what Western media now designates ‘post-communist’ space can it so comfortably function as a black box of the West’s ethical imperialism: the much-invoked opacity of ‘the East’ can be presented as a lack of transparency and hence a legitimation for the West’s ostensibly ‘civilizing’ therapies and impositions; meanwhile, that very opacity can be used to veil privatization processes of state-owned enterprises, for instance, in obscurantism, that is, beyond the light of rational comprehension and democratic accountability. Black-boxing ‘the East’ in this way makes it possible to conceal abuses of power, wide-ranging mechanisms of exploitation, and privatization-related aggravation of structural problems. Moreover, it provides the perfect conditions for the misuse of subsidies, white-collar crime, and organized crime.
Scrutinizing the double standards underlying capitalism’s post-1989 expansion, the Berliner Gazette (BG) project takes Germany as a starting point: a nation-state whose entrepreneurial agenda (“first we take East Germany, then we take eastern Europe and beyond”) has reached a critical limit. The most obvious signs of this would be the increasing precariousness and radicalization in ‘the new states’, as BG founding editors Magdalena Taube and Krystian Woznicki show in their introductory essay. Read it in English or in German.
Pavel Otdelnov’s Russian Nowhere
Artist Pavel Otdelnov’s latest work invites reflection on ways of seeing Russian nowhere that is also anywhere.
“I would like to revisit my reflections on nonsites that I began in Inner Degunino and Mall. Both series were informed by direct observation of the changing landscapes on the outskirts of major cities. The new project that I started during lockdown deals with virtual images. As captured by Yandex and Google streetview cars, landscapes are completely devoid of any idealization or an author’s view. These pictures have no author or author’s attitude towards the seen: the lens of an automated camera is perfectly impartial and disengaged. I based by paintings on the most banal and typical images that could be made anywhere in Russia.”
Pavel’s previous project Promzona is on the entanglement of industrial ruins and family history.
Ivars Drulle’s To My Homeland
Latvian artist Ivars Drulle’s 2017 exhibition was dedicated to the vanishing landscaping of his homeland. As put by the artist himself: “My home is in the rural countryside and the landscape is rapidly changing. The houses are being abandoned and left to decay. For some years there are ruins and then they disappear from the face of the earth. I drew a circle around my home with radius of 15km and counted at least 350 abandoned homes. For years I tried to document them before they vanish.”
A local resident explores abandoned houses in rural Latvia
Abandoned World is an interesting YouTube channel, where a local resident goes on expeditions to abandoned houses, including to his own great-grandmother’s house, in rural Latvia. This is an example of how abandonment and emptiness are observed and represented by those who live in it or live nearby to it.
Collaborate with us
If you would like to find out more about the project or contribute a blog on a resonant aspect of your own research to the Field Reports section of our website, please get in touch by writing to email@example.com.