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Reporting from Magadan: Films by Strelka researchers explore ‘The New Arctic’

In March, an expedition of Strelka students arrived in Magadan — a declining port and mining town on the eastern edge of Russia founded in the Stalinist era — to explore possible future scenarios for the region in the age of automation.

Photo: James Kubiniec

‘The New Arctic’ was the first major project for this year’s intake of Strelka students, allowing them to work together with a group of coursemates for a period of three weeks. Shaped and guided by architect and filmmaker Liam Young, it attempted to speculate on possible future scenarios for Magadan in the wake of the inevitable automatization of industry and decline of human labor, as well as the ecological challenges of global warming. In contrast to last year’s field trip that focused on the West – California and tech culture – this project attempts to explore the global shift to the East, specifically Sino-Russian relations. The complicated past of this region and its very uncertain future, the decay of the once booming industry and the permanence of both a magnificent and threatened arctic landscape, made Magadan a perfect location for this futuristic exploration of possibilities that aimed to be applicable both to the Russian context and universally. Furthering their exploration of the Eastern shift, the group will also go on a field trip to Hong Kong and China.
“We encouraged the students to be open-minded, trust their preliminary research and look for clues to build narratives out of the local context. We were interested in ‘system storytelling’; an approach of which Liam Young is also a proponent of. It doesn’t follow the traditional character "hero journey” arc – rather it attempts to depict the system of which characters are part of, using them as entry points into it. And obviously it’s difficult to represent systems such as supply chains, logistics, or automation – as these don't necessarily have anthropomorphic qualities or scale we can intuitively relate to – but it's still important to communicate stories about them to make them legible,” said Nicolay Boyadjiev, program tutor.

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Photo: James Kubiniec

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Photo: James Kubiniec

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Photo: Anna Paukova

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Photo: Paul van Herk

Remote and cold, Magadan may seem like the ultimate “middle of nowhere” experience. Yet the researchers agreed that the city’s inhabitants were open to dialogue and willing to share their stories and debate the future of their city, giving a much needed perspective on the social, political, and ecological dimensions that the researchers aimed to study.
The film production process was closely intertwined with analytical work and concept design: one of the reasons for the the strict time limitations imposed on students was to put them into a position where editing, modelling, writing, and other activities would become their analytical tools and not simply representational strategies. The production work carried out by researchers together in a shared space also led to a curious overlapping of sounds, imagery, and ideas, further contributing to the “world building” ambition behind the project. In these conditions, students found the active involvement of designer, filmmaker, and storyteller Nathan Su – a researcher at Forensic Architecture – and former student of Liam Young particularly invaluable.
The three-week project resulted in six short films presented below.
 

LUXURY OF LIFE

By Lukáš Likavčan, Alexey Orlov, Katya Sivers, Leo Stuckardt, Ivan Puzyrev,  Anna Tokareva 

‘Luxury of Life’ is a poetic exploration of strategies for human existence in a post-labor world. Intentionally focusing on just one particular activity — fishery — and only hinting at other aspects of the world view it represents, it nevertheless manages to clearly position humans and underline the nature of their role in the world of total automation. Using a paraphrase of George Bataille as its starting point, the film argues that once machines become a completely integral part of the functioning of the world, humans— no longer active participants in the labor and production process — will have to resort to unproductive and often cyclic activities not aimed at a particular result or gain, in what Bataille referred to as “squandering of energy.” Fishery is seen as a perfect example of such an activity. The familiarity of the lifestyle that the film aims to depict (the team met with several fisherman who have already cut ties with the outside world to focus solely on their favourite pastime) helps the viewer relate to this futuristic projection. Uncomplicated-looking underwater “machines” producing pink light zones – to help fishermen find better locations – make it easier to shift attention away from the particular technological aspects of automation, allowing a better focus on the human experience. The film, which isn’t accompanied by a voiceover narration or interviews with fishermen, leaves viewers to do their own guesswork. It also intensifies the silent totality of the Arctic landscape of Magadan, which is only interrupted by the occasional drilling of ice or cracking of snow under boots.
“From the very beginning we wanted to do a poetic film — simple in its concept, focused on one thing, not presenting a very large narrative, avoiding voiceover and being as subtle as possible — and I think we succeeded in that,” Lukáš Likavčan said of his team’s film.
 

SIREN

By Asia Bazdyrieva, Tomas Clavijo, Paul Van Herk, Solveig Suess, Daria Stupina, Anna Paukova  

‘Siren’ features the story of a ‘supply chain archaeologist’ who goes to Magadan in 2050 to piece together fragmented archival data that has been left behind by a systemic shift towards total port automation. She finds the data by accessing ‘xenoboxes’ (which feature throughout the film as abandoned containers in the icy landscape). The archives contain evidence of the lives and communications of workers (avto-provodnitsas) who lived in xenoboxes at the semi-automated stage of the labor transition to watch over advanced machines. The film is complemented by archival footage and fragments of early Soviet films, especially the works of innovative director Dziga Vertov ( The Eleventh Year, 1928 and Enthusiasm, The Donbass Symphony, 1931), providing the viewer with parallels to the political and ideological context of the region and the early Soviet avant-garde concept of ‘alienation.’
“We discovered that the management of the port is actively cutting the staff, and the work that was once done by several people is now delegated to just one person, and oftentimes this person turns out to be a woman. Employers take advantage of single mothers and young unqualified women: for a wage that is far beyond minimum they have a responsible and reliable workforce. We took these discoveries as a point of departure to speculate on the future of labor and logistics from a xenofeminist perspective," Asia Bazdyrieva said of her team’s initial observations.
‘Siren’ shows a vision of the future, seen as an archive rather than as a projection. Inspired by a series of interviews with local women working in the port and service industries of Magadan, the film invites us to contest the equalizing effects of technological disembodiment, and the potential for immense systems of automated flow to be fundamentally shifted by fragments, fossils, and flawed bodies within.
 

LIMITLESS SKY

By Katya Bryskina, Qiao Lin, Nikolay Nikolaev, James Kubiniec, Liudmila Savelyeva, Joy Zhu, 

The team behind ‘Limitless Sky’ stresses that their film is not a speculation but rather a representation of discourses which are already present and active in Magadan. The production is dashed with excerpts from interviews with two environmental scientists: a biologist looking at bird migration patterns with an overabundance of data, and a geologist researching the last Ice Age with a scarcity of data. Both are attempting to draw competing conclusions about complex and immediate issues facing the region, such as climate change. The film interweaves mythical narrative with this scientific reporting to explore the space beyond the rhetorical limitations of both scientific and poetic speculations. The narrative is delivered by Nikolay Nikolaev in his native Sakha tongue.
“Instead of constructing our own standalone fiction, we tapped into a strong rhetoric already present in Magadan in the discourse of the local scientists. We realised that the narratives that they presented us allowed us to explore the area beyond the limitations of data, be it in a state of overabundance or scarcity. Whether through mythological poetics or the presumed rationality of science, our methods of rhetoric cannot offer us a complete understanding of our environments,” says Qiao Lin.
 

RAZNOS

By Mikhail Anisimov, Thomas Grogan, Paul Heinicker, Artem Konevskikh, Nataliya Mezhetskaya 

‘Raznos’ is formatted as a promotional video produced by a fictional start-up company to sell a particular concept to the local government. Arguing that Magadan is not yet ready for full automation to take over, it proposes a scenario based on contemporary technology to be applied during the transitional semi-automated period.
“What we experienced in Magadan was that it was nowhere close to being fully automated, so we became interested in this semi-automated stage and how could a semi-automated by-human become profitable nationally,” said Thomas Grogan.
The film first highlights the challenges that Magadan is currently facing, such as a shrinking population and lack of jobs, as well as Siberia’s future when it comes to Sino-Russian relations. It also mentions that Magadan is getting closer and closer to exhausting the natural resource it was once so famous for – gold. In order to preserve Magadan as a Russian city in light of these future developments, the team proposes to gamify labor. This creates occupations for citizens and a potential for international exposure for the local culture. Based in principle on live streaming platforms such as Twitch.tv, the game allows external users to interact with players by making comments, requests, and even by paying them. The meaning of the Russian word “Raznos” reflects the juxtaposition of the ordered and controlled distribution associated with automation and the sporadic and uncontrolled human nature.
 

ON HOLD

By Huey Chan, Yulia Gromova, Konstantina Koulouri, Vsevolod Okin, Tom Pearson 

Introducing a similar approach to ‘Luxury of Life’ — trying to imagine a lifestyle of the post-labor worker — this film intensifies the familiarity effect by introducing a fictional character posing as the link between our present and the hard-to-imagine future: once a crane operator at a port, he is no longer involved in productive labor and is devoted to mediative pastimes such as fishery and observations of the natural world. However, in order to stay in Magadan, this ex-worker needs to apply for a special “permanent residency” program running as part of larger efforts at what makers of this film refer to as “retention of population in fully automated areas” — this a reference to the state of permanent transience experienced by many inhabitants of Magadan who often feel detached from both the town (often called “island”) and the rest of Russia (referred to as “mainland”). “When researching the so-called ‘syndrome of delayed life’, we developed a hypothesis that just stuck in our heads and we applied that to what we saw in Magadan. Undoubtedly it became a limitation for us too, but it helped focus our research,” said team member Vsevolod Okin. While focusing on the poetic and existential side of potential developments, this film manages to offer a convincing speculative model for the survival of Magadan in the future.
 

RETRACING THE ENDLESS EDGE

By Dana Baddad, Christopher Burman, Denise Luna, Pedro Moraes, Andrey Zhileikin

‘Retracing the Endless Edge’ attempts to imagine the kind of person that would be in charge of an automated city and takes it to an extreme: a fictional Magadan mayor whose voice is booming and echoing throughout a psychedelic mix of filmed footage and computer-generated visual effects presents his message as something between the ravings of a Bond movie villian and the more familiar rhetorics of some of today’s politicians describing their designs for a brighter future. The idea to introduce this character came after a chance encounter with the actual mayor of Magadan by one of the teammates. According to the film, automation will allow for the concentration of formidable infrastructural resources and data in the hands of one person. It is uncertain how exactly the region will be transformed — the films tagline cryptically claims that “the future is bright, but only one man could see it.” It underlines the challenge of developing an adequate management structure for future automated administrative units and points out the potential risks and political mutations that this process will inevitably entail.
“By 2050, there will be no need for public education and healthcare, supermarkets — in a couple of years all of these institutions will be replaced with localized services attached to a particular industry. Since each enterprise will be fulfilling its own social and political program, the only job left for the mayor would be image-making: he will become the artistic director, trendcaster, and international representative of his city,” said Andrey Zhileikin.

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