Somewhere along the A2 in Kazakhstan, their plans changed.

GSAS students Benny Shaffer and Justin Stern, and GSD visiting PhD Fellow Xiaoxuan Lu, MLA ’12, had sketched out a project back in Cambridge that would study the impact of the 1,100 mile Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline on the natural environment, urban areas, and local population. While their thought had been to consider how the area known for being part of the Silk Road had become the Gas Road, as they began their journey in summer 2015 it quickly became clear that would be difficult.

“After crossing the border into Kazakhstan, we discovered that the pipeline traveled almost entirely underground, coming above the surface every few hundred kilometers,” explains Justin Stern, a PhD candidate in architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning. Instead, they turned their attention to the objects and “everyday monuments” lining the A2 highway, which included abandoned businesses, bus stops, shipping containers, and Soviet-era statues. “The highway itself became a conceptual thread that could structure the entire project, and gave us a clear direction for how we wanted to document the linear landscape from the Chinese to the Uzbek border across southern Kazakhstan,” says Shaffer.

Diverse Beginnings

The idea to follow the pipeline grew out of a meeting over coffee at the GSD. Lu was studying for her PhD in human geography at Peking University, focusing on the transboundary region between Xinjiang and Central Asia. Stern studies urban planning and is a Graduate Student Associate at the Weatherhead Center. Shaffer, a PhD candidate in media anthropology, is a Film Study Center–Harvard Fellow and a member of the Sensory Ethnography Lab. 

It is a part of Central Asia that none of us were familiar with and that way we had the truly unique opportunity to learn collectively on the ground

“It didn’t take long for us to realize that our different disciplinary backgrounds and familiar methodological approaches could be put to use collaboratively on a project,” says Stern. After some discussion about what they wanted to focus on, they eventually decided to follow the Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline. While a great deal of existing scholarship on similar undertakings covers issues from the environment to economics, little work had been done in their fields of specialization, “despite the enormous human, urban and ecological implications of large-scale oil and gas infrastructure projects,” says Lu. It also provided a chance to get to know an area they knew little about. “It is a part of Central Asia that none of us were familiar with and that way we had the truly unique opportunity to learn collectively on the ground,” says Stern.

Funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign and travel grants from area institutes at Harvard, they developed a series of questions to guide them as they set out for Central Asia: How does new energy infrastructure funded through China’s multibillion dollar “Silk Road Strategy Fund” impact communities on the ground? What is the human dimension of the pipeline, including urban implications and social processes? What, if anything, does this new infrastructure mean for historic preservation? Being there, however, introduced hurdles they hadn’t predicted.

On the Road

Once Lu, Shaffer, and Stern realized that the pipeline was mostly subterranean, they began combining their differing academic backgrounds in new and productive ways as they reevaluated and redesigned the project on the fly. “This often involved a lot of disagreements about where to focus our attention,” says Stern, “but ultimately, it allowed us to produce something that none of us would have been able to do independently.” The project became one that took into account the A2, the pipeline it parallels, and the objects and people they encountered on the road.

Crossing Kazakhstan - A2_ZC

Photography, video, and sound recordings became key elements as they began documenting what they saw along the way. They began to think about how to share these sounds and images with others. “We often found ourselves thinking of the large rectangular wall in the basement of the Center for Government and International Studies (CGIS), where we envisioned an exhibition,” shares Stern. “That wall is massive, and it gave us the freedom to really stretch our conceptual focus.” On returning to Cambridge, the team secured funding from the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, the Harvard University Asia Center, the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, the Harvard Mellon Urban Initiative, and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs to develop an exhibition in CGIS South that allowed them to showcase all the material they collected.

Lasting Impact

The trip had a powerful influence on their work. “I have long been amazed by the fact that the historic Silk Road is being transformed into one of the most important energy corridors in the world,” says Lu, who has been conducting research on transboundary landscape in the region for more than three years. “As I advanced my doctoral work, I recognized a gap in public consciousness and scholarly discourse, and the need to supplement existing literature with audio-visual materials. This collaborative project allowed me to reveal the ‘hidden actors’ of this contested landscape through the language of visual documentation.”

Through my training in the Sensory Ethnography Lab, recording images and sounds has become a crucial part of my work

Shaffer found that the trip added dimensions to his research, which considers the concept of spectacle in Chinese independent cinema, contemporary art, and popular performance. “Through my training in the Sensory Ethnography Lab, recording images and sounds has become a crucial part of my work over the past few years, though this project introduced new challenges,” he shares. “Because it was carried out over a relatively short period of time—several weeks, rather than the months or years that anthropologists often use for research—it gave me a greater sense of urgency and forced me to work more efficiently and spontaneously to improvise as the project unfolded in real time while we were in Kazakhstan.”

Crossing Kazakhstan - Hill 2

For Stern, who is studying rapidly urbanizing regions in East and Southeast Asia with an emphasis on the spatial manifestations of Manila’s Business Process Outsourcing industry, the project demonstrated the importance of visuals in communicating information well. “Large scale infrastructure projects like the Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline are fascinating in the respect that a lot of people are writing about them in books, journals, and op-eds, for example, but such work is rarely accompanied by images,” he says. “Before this experience, I never even thought of bringing a video or sound recorder into the field with me, but on my upcoming trip to the Philippines over winter break I plan to bring both—to think more critically about how I visually represent the spaces that I study and write about.”

The Old and the New

The exhibition, titled "Crossing Kazakhstan: The Monumentality of Linear Landscape," immerses visitors in the experience of standing roadside as cars speed along the A2. Through high definition video, you can hear the sounds of tires over gravel and the conversations of local vendors. On the concourse’s large rectangular wall, dozens of images document the varying experiences of those who live next to the Gas Road, the descendants of those who once lived along the Silk Road. But Lu, Shaffer, and Stern documented more than the present. Some of the photos—rolling grasslands bordering snow-capped mountains, young boys riding horses, herds of goats and sheep—evoke that earlier time, when travelers like Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta traveled to the East. 

"Crossing Kazakhstan: The Monumentality of Linear Landscape" is on view until September 28, 2016, in the Japan Friends of Harvard Concourse Gallery, Center for Government and International Studies, South Building, 1730 Cambridge Street, Cambridge.

On the Road