Finding hope through transnational infrastructural solidarities

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Berlin-Tbilisi-based Georgian artist and filmmaker Tekla Aslanishvili, has combined her interests in infrastructure, geopolitics and urbanism to create an experimental documentary film that addresses a different angle on the existence of railway lines in politically complex contexts. Her film can be seen at WIELS from the 21st of September.

Can you briefly introduce yourself and your practice as a filmmaker?

I’m an artist and filmmaker working mainly with experimental documentary, video art and writing. Nowadays I live between Berlin and Tbilisi. In my work, I focus on transit, energy and extractive infrastructures and analyse them through the lens of design and politics. In addition to that, I also look at the disparities between governments, people, their land and private corporations. 

I focus on transit, energy and extractive infrastructures and analyse them through the lens of design and politics

From what I could see, the subjects you choose to explore are very political and involve diverse fields. How did this start in your practice as a filmmaker?

I have always been interested in architecture and I believe it started from there. More specifically, how political transitions shine through the architectural form and, in general, through aesthetics. Later on I took part in an art residency at Casino Luxembourg and started a project about smart infrastructures and urban studies. At that time, the physical art installation I wanted to realise didn’t work out due to social anxieties existing on site, and I decided to hold a conference about the subject to start a conversation about it. 

At this specific moment, I was reading a lot about smart cities and infrastructure, taking part in various scholarships and meeting a lot of other female artists and researchers studying the same field in different parts of the world. It helped me to situate my interest and tacit knowledge within the broader studies and artistic research on Infrastructural politics. In the end, one failed project grew into my current obsession with infrastructures. [laughs]

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In the end, one failed project grew into my current obsession with infrastructures

When did you start researching the BTK train route, the subject of your film A State in a State? How did you come up with this idea?

Basically, one research led to another. My first documentary film project was looking at the development and failure of a smart city and port on the black sea shores in West Georgia. When working on this project I met Evelina Gambino, with whom I collaborated for the film A State in a State shown at WIELS, and with whom I had very complementary research.

Back then, through exchanges with Evelina and my personal research, I found out that one German architect whose sculpture had marked the foundation of the failed smart city had designed many other key points for logistics operations in Georgia, including the station building for the BTK line in Akhalkalki. This curious fact got me interested and I went to see the project in 2018.

I gradually realised that this railway was more than just a way of transporting goods and people. It acted as a means for geopolitical sabotage and for negotiating political relations between Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia and Turkey. 

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From what I understand, A State in a State is a deep research built with the help of specialists in different fields. Did you know from the beginning the direction that the film was going to take?

I knew from the beginning that the BTK railway line was a politically complex project. The foundation of it was the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that took place in the 90’s between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In the aftermath of this war, Azerbaijan and Turkey closed their borders with Armenia and isolated the country. However, both countries still needed their alternative transit route and since Georgia is located between them, they started investing in this new railway link.

When working on this project, it was extremely difficult to get information through official state organisations. None of the state institutions in Georgia, Turkey or Azerbaijan were willing to cooperate. More than that, Covid happened and Azerbaijan was in a complete lockdown, which made it impossible for me to even visit and see those infrastructures.

Also, it’s important to say that, at first, my focus was this geopolitical aspect of the function of this railway road. When Russia invaded Ukraine, I started to link our fieldwork findings, regarding the fact that in the Soviet Union a railway was a state in a state, with some of the contemporary events. At the time, I didn’t really know what that phrase meant, but I decided to dig to discover more about it.

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What exactly does it mean to be a state in a state?

When me and Evelina went to Armenia at different times, the local railway veterans kept mentioning that due to its advanced social and technical infrastructures, a railway in the Soviet Union was considered a state within a state. It has its own phone codes, connections and technical language. It even has its own kindergartens, schools and shops! All the networks of the railway worked more efficiently than in the state outside of it, which created a sense of kinship between people who lived and worked around it.

This infrastructural consciousness of a State within a State in the context of post-Soviet conflicts was the foundation for the solidarity between the railway workers of different republics. There were a lot of cases where they, ignoring the state orders, helped each other and did what they thought was right.

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How would you like the public to receive this film? Do you think it creates some sort of awareness regarding a different angle of this topic?

I hope so. Some of the political and technical aspects addressed in the film are specific to the South Caucasus and Caspian regional context and might resonate more with the people directly affected by these processes. However, infrastructures are transnational entities and constructed as part of broader techno-economic phantasies. This makes the film relevant to people from different geographies as well. I have an impression that the film is well received in different places, maybe because it goes beyond the narratives of violence which dominate infrastructural spaces and focuses more on hope through transnational infrastructural solidarities.  

<div class="editorial-banner"> <div class=“editorial-credits”> @tekelson / @wiels_brussels <br/> Tekla Aslanishvili: A State in a State at WIELS, Brussels (in collaboration with Han Nefkens Foundation). <br/> 22/09/2023.- 29/10/2023. Free for everyone the film starts every hour between 11.00h - 18.00h <br/> Different Class is a platform that makes exploring culture in Belgium easy. <br/> Our membership connects you to your new favourite artists, events, promoters or venues. </div></div>

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