13th Gwangju Biennale — Minds Rising Spirits Tuning

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Eurasian Geo-fictions: Models for Transformations

By Mi You

Eurasia is a geographical and geopolitical space that transgresses the division of Europe and Asia to open up intercontinental connections and polycentric worldviews. The size of this landmass extends beyond the popular imagination, and has existed in the conceptual imaginary since the Greek Classical period, expanding with the conquests of kings and khans through the eras. In the post-Soviet era, Eurasia is defined by Russian and Chinese powers on either side. At the same time, Eurasia is a geological and geopoetical space, which invites us on a never-ending time journey, backward and forward, transcending fixed territories, undoing and remaking the norms that structure modern thought.

During my travels around the continent, the time-space of Eurasia prompted me to ask: How do we imagine—and more tellingly, experience—that which is beyond individuality, nationality, and temporal specificity? How can we think and feel with the deep time of the Earth’s elements and movements to understand our worldly place, existence, and significance? This questioning follows what French anarchist geographer Élisée Reclus expresses as “forming one body with the planet itself.” Eurasia emerges not simply as an object of study; rather, the expansive place, and its practices across time, encompass an ethics of narrativization from the ground. What follows is a selection of mythological stories, archaeological findings, personal encounters, and speculative theorizations. The objects I come across summon geo-fictions—stories about Earth and the traces of the Earth—across vast time spans and (extra-)territorial spaces, transmitted generation by generation.

Udmurtian Family Tokens. © Historic and Cultural Museum of the Udmurt Republic http://xn--80aakpmqy.xn--p1ai/vystavki/v-muzee/pus/

The Whales 

On an excursion to Vladivostok, I visited the public museum Artetage, where I came across Petroglyphs (1993), a painting depicting whales and deer in a prehistoric style, by modernist artist Igor Dony, from Magadan in eastern Russia. The deer is a typical motif of nomadic tribes across the steppes, carved into stones as early as 2,500 years ago. Reindeers are believed to be a medium of communication between the human and the realm above (“Tengri”), due to the shape of its antlers. The whale is a traditional symbol among tribes along the Northeast Asian coastline; it could be considered an anti-modern mammal since it resolutely returned to the ocean although its ancestors once lived on land. 

What is striking about Dony’s painting is how the deer and whale are depicted side by side. Siberian shamans drank the urine of reindeer that had digested fly agaric mushroom (amanita muscara) to enter into a trance. Could it be, as cultural critic Namsoo Kim claims, that the deer jumped back into the ocean and became whale? In the perspectivism proposed by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, nonhuman agents and humans equally perceive the world; what varies is the world that they see. Perhaps the deer and the whale embody different perspectives within the same process of transformation, and the shamans gain a glimpse of this process in their trance.

The metamorphosis legend of the deer and the whale is not an anomaly. The first passage in the 4th-century-BCE Daoist classic Zhuangzi describes a northern darkness in which a fish called K’un measuring some thousand li becomes a bird called P’eng, whose back also measures many thousand li across, making his wings appear like clouds “when he rises up and flies off.” According to the text, P’eng takes flight for the so-called southern darkness, the Lake of Heaven, “when the sea begins to move.” The transformation of the K’un fish into the P’eng bird is commonly taken to be a fantastical metamorphosis of forms. Mythologist Yuan Ke interprets the K’un fish as a whale (鯨, jing), since the original character for 鯨 was 䲔 (jing or qing), coinciding with 禺疆 (yujiang)—the god of sea and wind who is usually rendered as a human-headed bird. Scholar Yang Rur-bin suggests the P’eng bird is a phoenix, since the original characters for wind (風, feng) and phoenix (鳳, feng) were used interchangeably, and are pronounced similarly. This renders the arch complete: the K’un fish and the P’eng bird are different forms of the same being, and this being is Qi (energy, ether) in transformation. It follows that K’un could represent water energy (yin), and P’eng could represent fire and wind energies (yang), so that the transformation happens on the level of Qi rather than of material form. 

Whether the whale’s metamorphosis is interpreted via perspectivism or the extension of Qi, the idea of a transformative process prevails. The fact that such tropes exist in diverse cultures seems to suggest something beyond mere make-believe. Can we, on a broader scale, view geography and space as belonging to a grandiose transformation? At the dawn of time, people used to tell Earth stories, where humans observed the world in awe. Over time, storytelling came to focus more on the moral and social realm of humanity. One tradition that has maintained a connection to the Earth is shamanism. The various shamanic traditions in Siberia and Greater Central Asia focus on the spirits of the land—a geographic consciousness of ancestral protectors. Between mythical and real, these spaces and metamorphoses are one. Speculatively speaking, if laws governing space-time dimensions can be transgressed, then all things and beings are in continuous transformation. In the style of 1,001 Nights, Ted Chiang’s novelette The Merchant and the Alchemists Gate tells a story of how the past and future are the same. Here, one’s doing in the present may be the undoing of oneself in another time period. In Eurasia, a multitude of inherited time-travel tales cast us into a swirl of time-spaces.

In this way, one might imagine a complex network of superintelligence in and of Eurasia. This is not something personifiable, reducing the entire continent to one sentient being, but an aggregate of many perpetual transformations. Think of the Silk Road: an example of an historical decentralized trade network. The decentralized networks that birthed the contemporary networked age descend from American military communications, with Paul Baran’s design for a “survivable” network for the Rand Corporation during the Cold War in the 1960s. It’s not enough, then, to see the Silk Road as a pre-modern decentralized network, as if what motivates diving deep into the past is simply to find early models for structures that exist today. Rather, the Silk Road and the Eurasian continent provide a context in which time-spaces move forward and backward, folding into each other and creating mythical transformations, which seem fantastical from one perspective and entirely logical from another. Returning to the Silk Road as an emblem inspires the rethinking of practices around movement, nomadic subjectivity, distributed agency, and responsibility, which may harbor transformative potential for future societies. Although speculative and allegorical, the stories that emerge from this imagination may hold the tools for remodeling and reprogramming our social forms. 

The Dunhuang star map of 940 AD. Ursa major, sagittarius and capricornus are recognizable. The three colors (white, black and yellow) indicate the schools of astronomy of Shih Shen, Kan Te, and Wu Hsi https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dunhuang_star_map.jpg

Udmurtian Family Tokens

In Izhevsk, the capital city of Udmurtia twelve hours on a slow train from the Ural Mountains, the regional museum exhibits the cultural artifacts of the Udmurts, a community of Finno-Ugric language speakers. Among them is a series of tokens, Udmurtian family signs. 

The museum’s archeologist told me that these family signs are related to property and possession: if someone finds a tree with wild bees in its hollow, they mark it with their family sign so that the tree becomes their property. The tokens are used for marking land and animals; on traditional fabrics, carpets, and even gates. During the building of Izhevsk factory in the Soviet era, the signs were used to mark the execution of work. They were also used as signatures on documents, and could be sold as part of the property—you sell the sign, you sell the property.

The origin of family signs goes back to the names of the mothers of the female prophets who protect a clan. They are amulets. While the family tokens still function as a substitute for money, the exchanges they facilitate encompass something beyond money’s function: not a standardized unitary measurement of value, but the histories, stories, and sensations that circulate around families. Family tokens can also be carved onto trees, designating natural resources as something between private custodianship (not actual ownership) and the commons. The abundance of trees in the Siberian taiga makes this non-monetary “wealth” prolific; with this practice, responsibilities toward nature and the community at large are also marked. 

Legends have it that in the past, all family signs were known by every Udmurt. As a result of punishment from the gods, people now only remember the sign of their own family. What would their society have been like when everyone knew every family token? Were exchanges then based on different principles; or can they even be characterized as exchanges? The subjects engaging in exchange-like activities would have been very differently constituted. 

After anthropological studies on the gift economy of traditional societies, value can be traced as starting with the inalienable circulation of things among “dividuals” through money-mediated, alienated transactions among individualized agents. The exchange of family tokens would have likely looked more like ritual than exchange, enabling as it did the passing and assuming of various roles and functions in the community through its performativity. The parties involved were dividuals, not mutually foreign individuals. The performative constitution of roles, rather than individual identities, is the key to building intricate ties that hold a community together over time. In this sense, the gift exchanged is not a medium of transaction but an index of sociality.

Again, this index is decentralized, and moreover, distributed, in that everyone engaging in community activities belongs to the same index, which arranges who gets what and how—by taking on which temporary roles. One could call such a social form a “pre-modern blockchain,” for the contemporary development of the blockchain maintains the veracity of a log of global transactions, not by creating a centralized auditing authority but by distributing the log so that every participating node has a copy of the same ledger. Although analogous to the everyone-knows-everything social form, this is an automated computational process, and hence without the affect and performativity of embodied community making. In a way, the pre-modern exchange of family tokens performs a ritualized commons, built not on the shared ownership and stewardship of resources by individuals, but as a growing social index of exchangeable roles in an ever mutating society. 


Kulay Cauldron

Movements and transformations take place both physically and metaphysically. Often, the former overshadows the latter. Throughout Eurasia, I have encountered metallic jewelry and ornaments produced by historical nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples of the steppes. In the local history museum of Tomsk in Siberia, I came across objects made from bronze, crafted by people of the Kulay culture between 500 BCE and 500 CE. One object was particularly interesting: a small cauldron for casting metal. It is a meta-object that conditions the production of all the other bronze objects. The nomads, write Deleuze and Guattari, attached:

fibulas, gold or silver plaques, and pieces of jewelry … to small movable objects; they are not only easy to transport, but pertain to the object only as object in motion. These plaques constitute traits of expression of pure speed, carried on objects that are themselves mobile and moving.

The continuous motion of travel and the constant necessity to recast according to needs place the objects beyond the fixed form and content of art history’s records. These objects instead existed in a process of mutual mutation and rebalancing of material elements. Keeping this idea of being part of a continuous flow of matter and energy in mind, as well as the idea of how the process of individuation works as a metaphor for the social, we might ask: What if the individual is not conceived as a discrete entity, but rather as a changing composite of social forces? How can one meaningfully engage as part of a larger community beyond individualist interests, without being struck by a fear of losing oneself? And indeed, why, in the developed capitalist world, are we afraid of losing ourselves, when in contemporary society, we seem so lonely?

Extent of the Eurasian steppes. © Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. https://www.britannica.com/place/the-Steppe

Star Atlas and Petroglyphs

These little objects not only pertain to the nomads’ movements, nomadic movement is also subject to the natural environment, guided by observations of the terrain, flora and fauna, and stars. This constant reworlding, conscious of the environment, constitutes an ethics of moving around. In this sense, ancient maps represent this ethics of moving. There are rich collections of medieval paper scraps from Dunhuang, Western China, which document divination guides, star atlases, and almanacs—practices of negotiation with divine and astral forces. Dating to before 700 CE, the Dunhuang star atlas is the world’s oldest complete map of its kind. It represents a kind of cosmotechnics, which qualifies as a science while being deeply imbued with the search for astrological omens and cosmological righteousness. 

Five thousand kilometers away, linguistic historian Ahmad Al-Jallad recently deciphered glyphs found in the deserts of the southern Levant bearing Safaitic script, an ancient Arabic alphabet. What were originally thought to be place names turned out to be a set of Arabic zodiac coordinates, places in the sky recorded on stones by the nomads as they moved through the basalt desert. Here, the star atlas was born of multiple movements: the collective movements of the nomads, the dancing movements of stars, and a third kind of movement, communicating in between, to condition the equilibrium of man to Earth to heaven. This third movement situates the traveler in a cosmos that moves with them, rather than rendering space static. This commons is shared between the traveler and the space, activated by movement and extending into both horizontal and vertical space. 

Prehistoric petroglyphs span entire eras—the Bronze Age (3000–1200 BCE), the Iron Age (500 –332 BCE), and the Turkic Khaganate (552–744). They are sometimes re-engraved, with new marks forming an ancient palimpsest, wherein annotations may or may not share semantic systems. Without the formalized discipline of archeology and conceptualization of historical periods that we have today, Iron-Age humans would have nonetheless viewed the human and animal figures of their Bronze-Age predecessors. What happens is a set of self-motivated activities: copying, inventing new forms, and recording them in the rocks. Certain aspects of these cultures may also be passed on through other media, for example shamanic ritual traditions; the first figures of shamans were found in petroglyphs in many parts of the world, and seem to practice similar rituals through the ages. The preexisting engravings condition in some way the world of those who come next.  

To draw another retrospective and speculative comparison, I’m made to think of the interactive, multiuser textual games of MOO/MUSH/MUD culture of the 1990s, where in a virtual reality system, any player could modify and recode the environment for the other users. These textual games were the precursor to digital multiplayer games, but they operated in a decentralized fashion that enabled the self-sustaining design and emergence of the game environment. A collective speculation of worlds and the wording of such worlds. In the MOO/MUSH/MUD games, speculation happens across space, more or less at the same time. The petroglyphs also exist across space and time. In this imagination, the petroglyphs are like a distributed tarot game without a game master. 

This ludic reading of the petroglyphs highlights the creative character of the situation: what one does in a game is related to what one could offer or contribute to the world of game, which inherently has a subjective and idiosyncratic value. Similar to the family tokens, whose value does not follow abstract and universalized pricing theory, these activities link value to our creative agency. Imagining social forms based on such alternative forms of value opens up ways of reprograming exchange in order to create economies of abundance and diversity, not tied to the monoculture of capitalism. This would mean decentralization in terms of all kinds of governance—self-regulation, the creation of meaning and value creation, and distribution.

These Eurasian geo-fictions capture many kinds of movements: vertical, from the spiritual realm to the Earth, and vice versa; implosive, through transformations and metamorphoses of matter and energy; and across time, folding ancient practices into contemporary, perhaps also futuristic, social forms. They form deep-time, deep-space connections with horizontal, vertical, and temporary axes. These diverse movements cannot be mapped or represented in either linear history or modern cartography as they are not spatialized, absolute coordinates. Rather, they sow the seeds of a superintelligent network, out of which mythical and converging stories emerge. What happens if we filter our world through these movements? What is our position in the world of transformations? These Eurasian stories are told as a way of making sense within the flow, and together form an ethics of moving through, living in common with, the world and its objects.  


Mi You is a curator and lecturer at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne. Her long-term research and curatorial projects spin between the two extremes of the ancient and futuristic. She works with the Silk Road as a figuration for old and new networks and has curated programs at Asian Culture Center in Gwangju, South Korea, Ulaanbaatar International Media Art Festival, Mongolia (2016), and with Binna Choi, she is co-steering a research/curatorial project Unmapping Eurasia. At the same time, her interests in politics around technology and futures led her to work on “actionable speculations”, articulated in the exhibition, workshops and sci-fi-a-thon “Sci-(no)-fiction” at the Academy of the Arts of the World, Cologne (2019), as well as in her function as chair of committee on Media Arts and Technology for the transnational political NGO Common Action Forum. She is one of the curators of the 13th Shanghai Biennale (2020-2021). Her academic interests are in media theory, science and technology studies, new and historical materialism and philosophy of immanence.