Siberian Deal: a realization of the virtual and a virtualization of the real
A project by Eva Wohlgemuth and Kathy Rae Huffman
The travel project Siberian Deal was a real journey to find out what Western goods are worth in Siberia (not for money but for trade), and a virtual journey of information and personal connections. 1 The contribution of real objects provided a link to real people who we might never meet otherwise, and gave the people who traded with us the final measure how the project would ultimately be determined. A plaster replica of each of the objects traded in Siberia remained in Vienna, and can be juxtaposed with the objects brought back. The connection to Russia established a new context to explore intercultural communication practices between artists, and between East and West. Our journey was planned as an investigation into a place that everyone had an opinion about - that it was terrible, maybe the worst place in the world.
Through investigations on the World Wide Web, we found many references to the rapidly changing political situation, and an immense cultural history of indigenous people that had been almost wiped out by the Communist ideal. We set out to validate or repudiate the propaganda that had been a consequence of the cold war, and what could be the fate of such a large geographic area in the era of post-Communism, an era that was supposedly over. Our goals and ideas were carefully calculated around our small budget and short travel window. We knew we were setting out to explore a place that was known to be dangerous and uncomfortable. We hoped to find out about the people, and how their spirit had survived during the long isolation from the West. At the beginning of the journey, we wrote:
We (will) observe the historical images made famous during the Cold War, and either validate or replace them with our findings. Siberia is the traditional land of banishment and exile. It symbolizes being lost, entirely. The Soviet system of trading, established in the Communist era, was a system of goods for goods between the capital and the outer regions that brought security to people (living) in Siberia. With the decline of the USSR, this trading system fell into chaos, and is now defunct. We hope to understand on a practical level, how this affects the individuals - especially the women - we meet.
Siberian Deal began in spring 1995, soon after I returned from a month-long stay in Moscow. Discussions about travel and, laughingly, a "vacation" to this far away place started quite spontaneously, while eating together with friends from the USA and Russia. Eva applied for funding, and in late summer learned that she would get a small grant from the Austrian Bundesministerium (arts council), which provided for basic travel costs, and insured setting off before winter. We were immediately engaged in the project, investigating the historic references, such as images of prison camps, giant production centers, and vast cooperative farms (with women on tractors) made famous during the Cold War. We also examined our own feelings, and discussed with our friends and colleagues what Siberia symbolized. As a political setting, we had not realized until then, that it actually demonstrated the failure of the Soviet style, and was a drain on the suffering Russian economy.
We also had great fantasies about a frozen Siberia (remembering Dr. Zhivago), and considered possible meetings with scientists creating new virtual landscapes in an unfamiliar sense of time. Our colleague Tatiana (who had originally planned to travel with us) had visited Siberia, and told us wonderful stories of the warm hospitality, and the beautiful hot springs we would encounter. We poured over maps and Internet websites that indeed showed vast distances and exotic landscapes. We used the Internet to make connections with strangers, and several of them became our Russian connectivity contacts. Without them we could not have involved the Internet as part of our journey. Throughout the research phase, we built a picture for ourselves of a great land, undergoing reconstruction and connecting to international commerce. Exchange included communication links and the exchange of information in virtual space, as well as the trading of objects in real space.
The 10 objects (for System 10) which Eva selected to take for barter were chosen very subjectively, as emotional purchases. They are everyday things used widely by Austrian people. The objects were not calculated so much for their value, but for their usefulness and potential to engage people in communication. They are the kind of things most teenagers would buy without thinking. Eva writes:
My idea was to buy things not for myself, but to trade them in Siberia. Thus it was actually more fun to shop - I was completely free to choose, it was just the appeal of the object I could follow - I didn't have to matter about sizes or how things would match with others. I bought 10 objects in 2 hours - and felt really good after that. (illustration of objects)
After arriving in Moscow, we realized we had no clue about how to communicate about the trading part. We began to make a systematic observation of buying and selling. Moscow is the powerful center of the former USSR/Soviet Bloc, where people from all over the East (and especially the former USSR) come, traveling great distances hoping to earn enough money to live in better circumstances. Unemployment is widespread, and the enforcement of law is marginal. Buying and selling is a common practice and takes place everywhere: on the street, in shops, gallerias, and especially in kiosks. The small pre-fabricated plastic huts line most major boulevards (or prospekts) and surround Metro stations. They sell everything except fresh food, and are open late into the night.
On the streets, women are the predominant traders. They stand in long lines, single-file, facing the pedestrians while holding up something to sell: one pair of shoes, a sweater, or some cheap goods. They often stand the entire day. Their presence was a curiosity to us. We were told they are called Chelnok women (like the weaving implement, or the Shuttle women). They are a kind of 'middle (wo)men' who work for the male members of the family (who travel to China or Turkey to buy the cheap goods). The widespread presence of Chelnok women throughout Russia is alarming, and in fact, illegal. We wondered how we could enter the trading process with our ordinary Western items, all of which were available (in some form) in kiosks.
A learning experience and the personal connections we made online provided the key for the trading to really begin. We arrived in Irkutsk, our deepest point in Central Siberia, at dawn. It was -3 degrees Centigrade, and sleeting. Snow already lay on the ground (but luckily would melt in the next days). It was our first immersion into the real Siberia. We had gotten many warnings, once it became clear that Tatiana could not travel with us. We felt fear and suspicion were being imposed on us, from every direction. Our first visit to the Baikal Watch, an ecological initiative of local residents to save their famous lake, dispelled all our fears. Irina Dyatlovskaya-Birnbaum had arranged for us to meet a student who would translate for us, and we arranged to take a car for sightseeing, and for insights about how to start the trading.
In Irkutsk, we also realized for the first time that we were cut-off, and were unable to connect via e-mail. There was no direct telephone service, and the International operator did not understand English. We were in the hands of our new friends, and wondered how they had managed to send us e-mails so regularly. We wrote:
We begin to realize that by using the technology to connect to people we had established conceptual links to social situations and possibilities. A shift between the real and the virtual is suddenly necessary. Our virtual connections had been quite easy, but the real is difficult in comparison. Our real connections begin to override everything, and it is necessary to quickly deal with ways to overcome the language barrier, which had been invisible in the virtual ease of the streamlined English messages that quickly and silently criss-crossed electronic paths.
We were lucky. Rodion, our translator and Sergej, our driver for the day, were very engaged, and presented their region earnestly, going out of their way to make us feel informed and at home. Rodion, a student at Irkutsk College, was studying English and Spanish. He understood our trading concept quickly, and invited us to visit his class the following day.
Our first deal, we were to speak English with the class, and he would prepare them to trade with us. The students were very interested, but we soon discovered they had very little to trade, something we had not considered beforehand. They offered money for the objects, but we convinced them to part with some 'thing' and we immediately knew it was sometimes sacrifice. Rodion was first, and traded for the Walkman. We did a brisk business that day, trading the high heels, the kangaroo shoes, the Swiss watch and the parfume-spray. We warmed up to the realization that language was only one way to communicate.
Two of the women students took us on a tour of the market hall, where we could see the local products, cheese, fruits and vegetables. We learned about their family history, and their hopes and dreams to become teachers in their native town Jakutsk (about 2000 km north of Irkutsk!). In the evening, we spent several hours 'talking' to Franya, our 75-year-old neighbor (we stayed in a private house). We traded the porcelain dancing figures to her for a traditional babushka broom, and although she spoke only Russian, we learned that she had once loved an Austrian man. We hummed the Blue Danube Waltz and she danced around the kitchen smiling as she admired her new dolls.
The exchanges provided us a method to involve real people into our investigation. It was quite inspiring to finally learn about the situation from people living there, not from books or propaganda. Our frustration was that everything took so long to accomplish, so much time. The fact that we brought a computer along with us was critical. We would not have been able to use the computers of others, when we could find them. We were conscious of the fact that we stood out like tourists, and we found out that we were considered to be 'hippies' by most of the Russians...because we were not business people, the only foreigners that they had contact with until then. We laughed. Hippies were OK, we didn't want to appear rich (and targets for robbery).
Our en-route connectivity was due to the generosity of Alexei Shulgin (WWWArt Center) and other friends who gave us access to their account passwords and local access numbers. Glasnet, Russia's non-profit provider, is theoretically available throughout Russia. When we did get mails, it was a real thrill. Reading messages from our friends gave us strong moral support and encouragement. We were always conscious of the help we were receiving, from the people we met. Although we travelled as we would in Europe, in the beginning we really didn't know if we could trust anybody. Although we paid one bribe (at the airport), we developed a great admiration of the individual integrity and stamina we observed. Siberia is vast. We covered only a small part in a short time. We had been constantly warned about our safety, and although the real was more dangerous, the virtual remains the real unknown.
Kathy Rae Huffman, Vienna, 1997
Siberian Deal is represented online in two versions. The mirroring of the site at two addresses got more people involved, and made it easier to participate and to keep contact from remote locations.
Presentations and exhibitions:
Ciberrea, Bilbao, Spain, October 1995 (first report)
Chrono Popp, technical support and web development Bundesministerium
für Wissenschaft Forschung und Kunst, Austria
1 The "System" projects are a strategy to place sculpture in geographic locations to build emotional links and create a mental map of surfaces by their placement. They began in 1989 as a collaboration between Eva Wohlgemuth and Andreas Baumann, and are archived on the Internet at http://www.t0.or.at/~siberian
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