AAA Cargo: an interview with Solveig Suess and an online screening of her film

Рита Соколовская
11:52, 10 сентября 2021
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The Tashkent-Tbilisi project presents the online premiere of a film AAA Cargo by researcher and filmmaker Solveig Suess alongside with her interview to Ari Cho about this project. AAA Cargo is a documentary film essay about the New Silk Road promoted by the Chinese government that changes logistic strategies, creates new forms of migration, topography and infrastructures.

The film screening will be available from the 11th until the 17th of September.

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I’ve watched your film ‘AAA Cargo’ at the transmediale 2019 in HKW. It was so interesting how you connect the way that changes in logistics distribution are changing the geographic terrain and human life physically as well as the nonmaterial influences and changes through the China’s One Belt and One Road Initiative. Firstly, I wonder how you brought China’s One Belt and One Road Initiative to your work. Is there a specific reason for it? What attracted your interest in making this film?

I arrived to the Belt and Road Initiative very unintentionally. My first encounter was through a WeChat conversation with a Door-to-door distribution service. It was actually their pseudonym that had inspired the title for this film, AAA Cargo. They had been advertising their capabilities to deliver products, ordinary, copied, battery, liquids, food, sensitive materials from China to any country beyond, by means of different forms of transport, and for a very cheap price. I spoke with a friend who had been working as a logistician in Beijing, mainly between Central Asia, Russia and China and we discussed how new trade and border policies and protocols were being introduced through what was previously called the New Silk Road in 2016. As someone who had been working in the import and export industry, he walked me through some of the methods that informal logistical services were deploying, sometimes made possible through the finding and using of extra spaces in legitimate containers of DHL or UPS- depending on who they knew. At that point, the New Silk Road had begun as largely an effort to crack down and control the production and distribution of goods. But when looked at with more detail, it continued to create new opportunities for quasi-legal cargo mobilities. ‘Paralogisticians’— logistical labourers who work in parallel to the official networks— found ways to occupy and organise along them despite not being considered as ideal ‘users’ within their new, commercial logistical routes. So this was my starting point into what is now a mammoth of a topic. The Chinese state-led main foreign-policy project, later went on to lead billions of dollars worth of investments into construction of transnational infrastructures. Under the promise of global connectivity, telecommunication lines, oil pipelines, railways, highways, and ports are built stretching across Asia, Europe and Africa. While I was based in London for the duration of this research, I had been trying to think about the conditions of post-socialist transformations in 90s China and its transition into the global market which had shaped so much of the geographies I was familiar with while growing up in industrialising China, and at the same time, to understand its relations across distance through specific commodity supply chains. The film became a way for me to narrate the scales of complexities of the research, the conversations, the experiences, while trying to find entry points into this planetary scale project which always feels too large and totalising to begin with.

When I look at your work, I see that many issues are melted in it. Environmental issues, social issues, immigration issues etc … I think the amount of research must be huge. How do you conduct research concerning these issues? How long did you spend researching before working on it?

Yes, the filmmaking coincided a longterm research interest into infrastructures of migration, trade and optics across geographies affected by increasingly dissonant weathers. The research developed over two years, through a series of encounters, footages, interviews, field recordings, found WeChat videos and collaborations; such as with parts of the script written by Ming Lin and the sound design with Josh Feola. To evoke something that feminist scholar Donna Harraway put into words; storytelling is a process of thinking. It does not conclude but instead the process is part of the practice. And this resonated a lot with how I think about filmmaking which is very process-based, not just in how the story is crafted but also in the time and spaces which are being connected through moving image, or the people that I organise and share the research, experience and work with. This demands multiple levels of attentiveness and articulation— from the frame, to aesthetics, sounds, pace, movements across time and space. It becomes a powerful tool when trying to articulate the different scales of connections with something so abstract like global capital, where the distances between sites and their relations are very blurred, convoluted and planetary. There is an absolute necessity to think about environmental, social, migratory and many more issues, all together. For me, documentary has been an embodied method in researching, mapping, and sometimes ‘unmapping’ the complex relations of global capitalism.

For this work, I know you went to China and filmed it. The filming location looks so wide that I thought you might had been shooting for quite a long period. I’m curious what the actual shooting scene was like and a overall shooting process. In addition, it would be good to tell us the shooting locations and how you follow the shooting route.

When researching geographies of distribution ushered in by the bourgeoning New Silk Road, now labelled as the Belt and Road Initiative, I learned that the infrastructural project had actually been inaugurated by transnational company Hewlett Packard in 2014 through one specific rail-line. This immediately struck me as something very strange, since it was not between the different nation-states in which this rail route had criss-crossed through, but rather it was with a private US tech company that had negotiated the building of a private railway between their production warehouses in China, to their consumer markets in Europe. The company’s justification was that the alternative rail-route allowed for two weeks-worth of transportation time to be saved, while offering an alternative to the Pacific Ocean which was filled with chokepoints and increased risks. Faster than slow ocean, cheaper than airfreight, this rail route from Chongqing cuts through the Xinjiang Province into Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, and Poland, before reaching its destination in Germany, 11,179 kilometres later. This negotiation coincided with the moving of manufacturing factories of Hewlett Packard along with other companies such as Foxconn and Volkswagen from the coasts of China inland, under state-led encouragement offered to develop the country’s western provinces. With more speed and less cost of transporting Chinese-made goods to Western markets, large incentives allowed transnational corporations like Hewlett Packard to leverage these geopolitical conditions in their favour. During the summer of 2018, I went to Urumqi as the first place to begin filming for the documentary. I was lucky that my two uncles had already planned to go there with their car. I tagged along and they agreed to make detours to accommodate a few locations on the drive back to Beijing. I had asked for my uncles to follow in parallel to this H.P. route, along fresh new highways which were built shortly after the construction of the railway. We stopped at a few of the route’s key docking stations. In the end it was only 10 days of filming, which is very short for the distance we travelled. We were pretty much on the go for the whole duration. Along the route, shifts in space and time relations became noticeable on many registers. Toll fees had been introduced which made the road more exclusive and largely empty despite a few long haul commercial trucks. The disturbing amount of police checkpoints dissipated the closer we were to Beijing and the further we were from these regions. The pressures from past material processes of large socialist-modernist experiments resulted in many dried up lakes across provinces of Xinjiang and Gansu, where their arid beds feed into the uptick of sandstorm occurrences which travel across the country and sometimes all the way across the Pacific to California. There were many impressive and sisyphean operations of maintaining these long distance infrastructures, designed to prevent the sand from slowly deteriorating them. While new pop-up cities around the resource-rich region or the abandoned ghost-towns in Inner Mongolia made visible the ongoing effects of global industrial capitalism. Questions kept resurfacing; what was ‘development’ or what did it mean to be ‘developed’ anyways? Who is actually granted the advantage of cost and speed? What can be seen with this rail-line and new highways are sharp lines drawn between those who benefit and those who are erased by it, never mind granted access to it. How does the abstraction of cost calculations which directly influence the designs of space, geographies, cities, populations, geologies, get away with or obfuscate their massively material and socially repressive repercussions? Even when spoken under the rhetoric of sustainability?

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As I mentioned in the first question, the work discusses the construction’s effect on natural topography, but as the video continues, on the other side of the coin, there is nonmaterial data exploitation not just a material/physical change. What do you think of the relationship between the material world and nonmaterial one? Maybe to elaborate more from the sense that sometimes this physical world is the base and resource of the data one (in the case of origin and resource).

I think this is an important question. There’s a feedback loop between the material and digital so to say, and I see it less about one being the main over the other. Take some of the processes which fold into this rail-route; credit ratings, access to e-commerce platforms, predictive advertisements— each maintain a hierarchy of who deserves to be served by the rail-route and maintain the stimulation of desire to keep these electronic products flowing. And since the route has become one of the most monitored areas within China, an algorithmic oversight of the rail-line operates by feeding data through numerous types of radio systems, inventory histories, and the internet of things, which in turn translate back into risk assessments and security protocols informing management procedures. Over the years, the uptick in occurrences of sandstorms affecting the area pose as a looming threat to these logistical networks. Simultaneously, the Uighur population are increasingly surveilled as a risky population group in the region. All of these continuously intersect and influence how the route has been constructed, and how it continues to function. The theorist Paul Virilio writes, “modernity is a world in motion, expressed in translations of strategic space into logistical time, and back again”. So there is this constant back and forth between the ‘physical’ and ‘virtual’, which renders any distinctness between them as redundant.

The way of viewing personal data as natural resources, such as oil, is widespread. It is as if the era of big data sees a new form of capitalism or a new frontier for capitalism. On the other hand, if we look at colonialism and capitalism as both continuation and expansion, and the inevitable expansion of existing capitalism, what is happening under data colonization will only be an extension of capitalism. I would like to hear your thoughts on these opinions and widespread data colonization, and what do you think about how data exploitation influences our lives in the digital world and physical world.

Data exploitation influences our lives depending on who ‘we’ are, impacting through very uneven processes. These processes are built from very long and connected histories of dispossession, racial subordination, labour across diverse geographies and time periods. So for example, the locations within which these routes traverse, are essential for the runnings of e-commerce. The provinces of Xinjiang, Gansu and Inner Mongolia are each seen to sit at the peripheries of the Chinese nation-state, while Xinjiang, China’s most western province, is the size of France, Germany and Spain put together. It’s huge, and to consider that this was viewed as peripheral had been eye opening to how the geographical has been rearranged due to shifts in industry with profit value reaped for the global cities in the Eastern coasts, expanding cheaper production and labour in the Western provinces. It is also no coincidence that the Western regions are also the location of large amounts of energy and mineral resources, including coal and iron ores from the politically troubled Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region. Since the development of the New Silk Road economic belt, the faster trade through these overland lines meant more restrictions and containment for minorities in the area. In recent years, nation states and international corporations are increasingly turning to logistical innovations to reconfigure geographies of supply and demand as they experience a slow-down of economies. This is to continue a stable ‘growth’, by absorbing cheaper labour and resources in the peripheries of markets, with new logistical networks that assist the drive of states and corporate conglomerates to continuously seek the extraction of capital in places otherwise untouched by its capture. So here, older forms of imperialism and colonialism are survived by supply chain capitalism. Geographer David Harvey frames this as a spatio-temporal fix, while these are only some of the externalised costs to keep global circulation running. Minute decisions made at levels such as inventory lists, scale up to matter in very physical, cartographic, temporal and cognitive ways— further perpetuating formations and expansions of extractive frontiers. Hewlett Packard’s innovations for the New Silk Road aligned with the national interests of the Chinese state in that these joint plans assisted the westward movement of industries. The implications of these logistical calculations are disturbing ecologies as well as societies, which speaks to the urgency to articulate these processes together as two sides of the same coin. Importantly, these issues not only exist within China, but intersects with politics in places connected to the Belt and Road Initiative which now has presence in 68 countries, from Germany to Thailand, and each facilitating geopolitical asymmetries across continents.

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To me, the sound in the video sounded like the data was being transmitted. I thought that the sound blended so well with the video that it increased my concentration. So, I found that it’s made by a sound artist based in China. Why did you decide to collaborate with this sound artist? In addition, could you explain the motive of the sound?

This collaboration happened very naturally. I had gotten in touch with an old friend, Josh Feola, who had been invested in the Chinese music scene through writing, organising and making his own music. We had been sharing interests and exchanged in depth about the current techno-political shifts made in recent years, which made me want to collaborate with him through the film’s score. So we started off with an openness to each other’s inherent experimental nature in how we work. Since I work with sound while I edit the film, there were many extensive discussions before we started producing anything. I sent him concepts and research, then he responded to the concept with his sonic experiments. I gave him field recordings I took while filming along the route and he would find supplementary sounds to them, such as recording the answering machine of Taobao e-commerce service centers. So we were exploring questions such as, how does supply-chain capitalism sound like? What affect do they evoke? What became important was how his sounds of liquidity, of movement, were essential in further animating the material, physical and climatic processes in the video sequences and to push the landscapes as foreground rather than a mere backdrop.

I read the Future-forecast on the e-flux “New Silk Roads” project in 2019. I felt this project was an extension of ‘AAA Cargo. It would be great if you briefly explain this work. If you are planning to work this year or for later, what kind of work you are planning on doing. Will it also be connected to ‘AAA Cargo’ or the ‘New Silk Roads' project?

The article The Future Forecast was co-written with my collaborator, art historian Asia Bazdyrieva, under our collective project, Geocinema. Our project was launched in 2018, where we wanted to organise a series of cinematic inquiries into optical regimes and their modes of representation which distill inherent biases of seeing. Both of us were primarily driven by the need to untangle multiple forms of class, colonial, and ecological violences that reproduced themselves through moving images. The project of Geocinema for us, was a method to expand the notion of an image, as well as the notion of a recording device as being embedded in geological formations as much as in geopolitical configurations. This was intended as a way to understand the scales in which they are being violently instrumentalized, while also exploring the power in mobilising collective affect, imagination and experience that would connect and empower across disciplines. We went into many new directions which exceeded AAA Cargo. Our upcoming short film, Umbra, is based on our fieldwork which navigates the architectures of planetary cinema. In recent years, globally shared concerns have brought representatives of various nation-states, international organisations and scientific bodies to gather in search for an alternative geopolitical model, eager to cooperate with China’s Digital Belt and Road project. One of the main claims of the project is the ability to use Earth observation data to manage climate risks. The two of us were based in Beijing for half a year, where we took this project as a starting point for our next documentary’s research. And during this, we’ve insisted on using an open-ended method of filming as a mode of research. The film recounts the life-cycle of earth-data by charting and following its infrastructures. Starting from within a cinema globe situated at the centre of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the film enters spaces of the Miyun and Sri Racha ground station, the climate research centre of Bangkok, conference halls in Tengchong volcanic district, and the risk-management rooms of Gazprom’s Technopark in Omsk. The film will be released in 2021.

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Text / Translation: Ari Cho

Proofread: Yes More Translation

Originally published at DDDD (www.0000-dddd.com). DDDD is an online platform that is exploring the methodology behind exhibition and distribution of artworks in the digital space.

This publication is organised by the Tashkent-Tbilisi project. We would like to thank The Prince Claus Fund for supporting the project.

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