ESR 10 Blog August/September 2023: Anna Fech

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During my secondment in Sweden, I had the privilege of meeting Madina Tlostanova, who is a prominent scholar specializing in postcolonial feminism at Linköping University. Her book, titled Gender Epistemologies and Eurasian Borderlands, [1] played an integral role in shaping my curatorial work in Baku. In her work, she adeptly applied feminist discourse to the socio-political landscape of the Caucasian and Central Asian regions. I found myself repeatedly returning to this book, drawing inspiration from its profound insights.

At the onset of the pandemic, when international travel restrictions began to emerge, I hastily packed my belongings and embarked on what I believed would be a temporary departure, carrying only a small suitcase with me. Regrettably, Madina’s book was left behind, as I had assumed a swift return. The airport staff informed me that it was the last official flight from Azerbaijan to Germany. Later on, I followed the news reports about embassy-organized repatriation operations. Unforeseen to anyone at the time, this trip would come to signify a turning point in my life, as well as in a broader context.

My meeting with Madina in Sweden had an informal character, encompassing a wide array of topics, spanning from personal to political discussions. Despite her well-known expertise in Russia’s colonial discourse, she surprised me by sharing her current endeavor – a new book. However, this time, her focus was not limited to the post-Soviet space and its colonial legacies; instead, she delved into the theme of ‘Narratives of Unsettlement’ [2] on a more global scale.

Reflecting on this conversation, I found myself resonating with the idea. It struck me that, regardless of the terminology employed, whether it be the Global North or the Western world, we are currently undergoing a period where the once-privileged geographic regions no longer provide the sense of security they once did. While it may appear to be a simplification, I can draw a parallel between the present condition of the Global North and the tumultuous period that post-Soviet states underwent during the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

“The privileged global North consumers, who used to know exactly what their future vector was pointing to, are starting to feel this treacherous rotten softness and to experience first-hand the unpredictability of the bending curves and temporal folds of the limbo in which the world have been forced to puddle since the early 1990s. (…) Similarly to Hamlet, the confused conditionally privileged subjects are caught into a temporal paradox in which the visible acceleration of time, the flickering of life, is directly linked to the hollowness, lethargy, aimlessness of human existence, which an underlying lack of any hope. Hopelessness then becomes the main trope of contemporaneity, and the true meaning.(…).” [3]

In my article discussing the summer school in Latvia, I explore a collective sentiment inspired by Boris Buden’s work Zone of Transition: On the End of Post-communism. Buden delves into the notion of emptiness, where the future remains shrouded in uncertainty.[4] This feeling is precisely what drove my parents to emigrate to Germany in the early 1990s. I vividly recall the journey my mother and I undertook, flying from Almaty Airport to Ukraine with an overnight layover in Moscow. Our mission was to secure visas for the rest of the family and relatives who awaited us in Ukraine. This period was marked by protests on Red Square, and my mother grappled with grave doubts about our ability to depart safely amidst the unrest. All I can recollect is a prolonged wait at the airport, our collective exhaustion nearly causing us to miss our flight as we fell asleep on a bench. These are strange childhood memories blurring the lines between dream and reality.

During times when I grapple with a sense of unease, I’ve discovered that the initial step towards inner equilibrium involves isolating myself from the deluge of external negativity. Above all, I find it difficult to watch the relentless images and media narratives, each depicting a new disaster. Some may call it ignorance, particularly for us, researchers engaged in socially engaged art that revolves around critical hotspots. At such moments, my Netflix watchlist often comprises nature documentaries. There’s an inherent serenity in the unhurried cadence of these visuals and the emphasis on elements beyond the human realm.

You might be familiar with the film My Octopus Teacher, a work that has etched a lasting impression in my mind. The protagonist, grappling with a personal life crisis, resolves to embark on a daily sea-swimming regimen, where an unexpected encounter with an octopus transpires. In a peculiar way, these two creatures develop a bond, and this connection aids the protagonist in regaining equilibrium. [5]

What’s interesting is that as I watch this documentary, I can’t help but relate to the octopus. It’s a creature with numerous arms managing a multitude of tasks simultaneously. It occurs to me that having several arms, metaphorically speaking, might be beneficial in academia, where one can handle multiple writing projects at the same time—be it a journal article, a blog article, or, of course, the ever-present doctoral thesis. I can also relate to the fact that octopuses can adapt visually to their environment, becoming nearly invisible to their enemies. This phenomenon brings to mind Homi Bhaba’s concept of mimicry.

In my research, I stumbled upon the term ‘third culture children.’ These are children who have grown up in diverse cultures, mastering the art of adapting to various environments. While this is undoubtedly advantageous, facilitating the ability to embrace diverse perspectives, however, this situation can lead to an ongoing struggle with identity. Questions like “Where do I truly belong?” and “Where is my home?” persist without clear answers.

Tlostanova suggests ‘be a bird, not a tree.’ It reflects the profound impact of historical experiences, such as the case of the Circassians. Soviet policies had nearly obliterated local languages and cultures, leaving behind unhealed colonial wounds. [6] This history is not unique; numerous ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union, including my own family, continue to grapple with the lasting effects of a painful chapter, affecting multiple generations.

The concept of ‘being a bird’ has often resonated with me, fostering a sense of comfort as a perpetual wanderer. However, it’s a different story when circumstances hinder that freedom.

“From my childhood, I was instilled with a believe that everything will be fine, that I will grow up, get the best possible education, will be doing the things I love for a job and will gain success and recognition, then I will retire and switch entirely to creative work, I will lead a good life and will never get sick (…). And this believe has crumbled instantly.” [7]

I think this is not just evidence of personal stagnation, but also, especially in the global context, a question of: what if things no longer go better, faster, or further? When we experience our own vulnerability in recent years?

The octopus also goes through this phase; after an injury, it has to retreat and remains motionless in the cave for a while until its injury has completely healed. This time is difficult because of course you don’t know what will happen next. And I think I’m not the only one thinking: what other options are available to me if I can’t secure a place in the fiercely competitive art world job market?

The book offers some inspiration in one of the fictional stories. For instance, one could find fulfillment as a ‘pillow straightener’ in a furniture store, a ‘breath taster’ at a chewing gum company, or even a ‘dog investigator’ for the Swedish tax agency. The latter role involves scrutinizing whether dog owners are concealing their pets’ actual size to evade taxes.[8]

These disconcerting thoughts about my future invariably draw me back to my dissertation, a work waiting to be resumed. I find that the most challenging aspect of a dissertation lies in preserving an idea conceived three years ago, even as the world evolves and I undergo transformation.



[1]Tlostanova, Gender Epistemologies and Eurasian Borderlands. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

[2]Tlostanova, Narratives of Unsettlement. Being Out-of-Joint as a Generative Human Condition. Routledge, 2023.

[3]Tlostanova (2023), 33–34.

[4]Buden, Zone des Übergangs. Vom Ende des Postkommunismus. Suhrkamp Verlag, 2009.

[5]My Octopus Teacher. Craig Foster, 2020.

[6]Tlostanova (2023), 85.

[7]Tlostanova (2023), 24.

[8]Tlostanova (2023), 28.

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