The Voice of a City - Tbilisi, Georgia
Research residency hosted by GALLERY NECTAR
5th-28th of April 2017
Local assistant: Nadia Tsulukidze
panorama view from under mother Georgia's skirt
Once in Istanbul I face yet another security check but against my expectations and previous experiences of Turkish security, the men and women who check me and my bag seem rather harmless, much like the ones in Zaventem airport in Belgium.
Desperate for a cold beer I briefly contemplate getting one but finally decide against it. My bag is full of warm cheese sandwiches, melted chocolate, crumpled nuts and warm bathroom water (I forgot that Turkish airlines is one of the few where you still get served food…what a delight).
Big bosomed masculine women, well-groomed men with big rings and big bellies and children with eyelashes long enough for a bird to rest on. These are my companions on the Turkish airline flight to Istanbul. Under the dark bushy brows and layers of make-up (one lipstick line almost reaches a nose) the hostesses seem genuinely kind while clouds appear and disappear above, under and around us. My mind wonders and the light shifts as we pass from noon to afternoon to evening.
As a smoker I am attracted by the terrace sign above my head. I follow the arrow and find a strange cage like space. Indeed there is only a net separating us from the outside air but this terrace is not quite what the word promises. As I am smoking, cramped up in this cage with numerous other addicts, for a brief moment it feels like I am in a prison where the buses filled with passengers hurrying past us are new prisoners arriving to the camp. Yet others are guided on board big planes, transferring to other prisons in other lands. But this feeling is fleeting and I am quickly back in the land of excitement about finally having reached this moment, about to embark on this new adventure, about to discover new people and places. The butterflies in my stomach testify to my eagerness and joy. The start of a project always feels like a present to be unwrapped, very slowly so as to make the pleasure last longer.
I look for Thomas, I know he is here somewhere. But airports are like stadiums filled with flies, you think you know the logic but the ongoing movement around makes you dizzy and navigation difficult. The big Austrian will surely be found once we start boarding.
Sabiha Gökçen International Airport, Istanbul,Turkey
A few hours later we land in Tbilisi. It is night and I struggle to find the energy needed to battle the language barriers and gesticulation required to get me and Thomas to our Tbilisi apartment in a taxi. Outside the airport we are met with a handful of overly eager taxi drivers wanting to take us in their cars. They try to sneakily wheel away our suitcases and we have to be firm; No, no taxi! Not now!
Finally we chose for a slightly quieter man who approaches us. He takes us to his private car parked up the hill. We follow him and our surprise is big when we notice that he has his steering wheel on the “wrong side” of the car. Later we are told that this is because cars with the wheel on the right hand side are cheaper as they have come straight from Japan, where cars were sold in a quick manner after the Fukushima incident a few years back. Japan wanted to sell, the Georgians wanted to buy. There we go. This simple and straightforward exchange of needs being met means there are now cars with the drivers sitting at times on the left and at others on the right.
Half an hour later, up on the 11th floor of a building we put down our suitcases and smile knowingly to each other. Here we are now. This is our home for the next 4 weeks. Perfect! This is it! Let the journey begin!
Nada, 5th of April 2017
Construction site outside our kitchen window
tag on a wall near the Technical University
We have now been in Tbilisi for almost 2 weeks and slowly this city is beginning to feel like a home.
One big step was mastering the bus network – finding out the bus routes and memorising the numbers.
By the middle of week two we were even ready to be adventurous and board buses whose numbers and routes we can only guess. We know about directions now. We now know the different parts of the city – the styles of each district. Saburtalo, Vake, the old town…
We collect information in the meetings we have – selective but vital – information about the contentious urban planning initiatives, the divide between rich and poor, the feeling of looking towards Europe without filtering it through the local experience. We meet a young lawyer who works with NGOs that are occupied with the non-existing workers rights. We meet a teacher who has just been awarded a prestigious PhD scholarship in Frankfurt and who will leave soon. We meet a builder who fixes people’s old houses to make sure they don’t collapse. We meet a female taxi driver, one of only 8 in the city, who works 7 days a week, cruising the streets at night from 9pm to 11am.
We know a lot and very little.
Yesterday we were invited to Nadia’s home – she is one of the most important persons in this endeavor here in Tbilisi as she connects us to the people we want to meet and also translates when necessary.
It felt good to be in someone’s personal environment. To get out of the semi-neutral spaces that are the Nectar gallery space where we work and the apartment we stay in, which is comfortable but feels like a holiday apartment, with no one really living there permanently.
Just to learn about how someone lives in this city and how it feels to walk on someone’s floor. Nadia’s flat is in a very old beautiful house – vines growing on the outside walls – weaving their branches through the intricate ironwork of the balconies.
It has 2 rooms and a beautiful wooden floor, painted red and quite rough.
She has prepared mountain tea she has picked herself and we are eating a variety of stuffed breads and a typical Easter cake as we talk to her.
It is exciting to explore this city from our perspective, we talk about how selective it is though, and how short a month is to get deep into it. We are aware that being here we can only get a glimpse of how it is to live here, and we perceive it through our very limited viewpoint.
It is the only way we can perceive it.
The next morning I am on the phone with my daughter and she asks for a monster story – I am sitting on my bed here, which is a children’s bed in the children’s room of the apartment where we are staying and I tell her of the adventures of the monster family in Tbilisi. Making up stories and transferring real events and impressions to fit them to the idea of the monster setup.
It is another reality, which enters and where I become aware of the different levels we are operating on and our attempt to weave them into each other.
There are still challenges ahead like mastering the network of marshrutkas – that’s what the small yellow mini vans are called that operate as a smaller version of the bus network and whose route system is hard to understand as it is not written anywhere. Apparently there are forums where one can investigate, but they are in Georgian.
We are working on it…
Thomas, 15th of April 2017
Easter ceremony (Saturday) in Jvaris Mama (Georgian Orthodox church), near Freedom square in the old town
view of a house
And so week 3 of our grand tour.
Another week of finding places and finding and finding a little more.
Some streets now familiar and others just being drawn as we walk and talk the city.
5 OLIGARCHS MAKE A MESS PLAZA
STREET OF DUST
EX FOREST VIEW AVENUE
GEORGE BUSHS’ CHEWING GUM STREET
NOISY NIGERIAN PLAZA
Some of these will never make it to a real cartographers’,
but they really do exist now.
Meetings and conversations, writing and typing and drawing and planning…filming and recording in digital movies and stills. All set down in a hard drive and a triptych of laptops, waiting for review and re-absorption and manipulation in the future, or when our time to leave this place comes around.
And it’s coming quick, quicker than the wheels spinning broken BMW as it hurtles at top speed in first gear to the tail end of the next traffic jam or the next red light only 40 metres ahead with its engine close to blowing up and then a screech of brakes and stop. It will continue like this through the city.
One day, Giorgi “Niki Lauda – Mika Häkkinen” Tukushivilli, dreams he will reach second gear.
This is not a metaphor for this city.
This city appears to have little to stop it both hurtling and lurching into the future.
wine, cake and stories with Levan in the upper Vake district
Some steps measured, others, those of a child with a coat over his head, tentative, yet confident, convinced he can see a path made by others, exploring, casting weak hurried bridges over pit falls, a spectacle of optical and sensory amphetamine for us during our stay.
But forward it is going.
And it will grab whatever it finds there and consume it, digesting it eventually, disagreeable or not, it will be consumed.
This week we have dabbled with religion, we have boiled in sulphurous vats, we have spoken in German about the Bolshevik Revolution, we have eaten cakes and cakes, Easter cakes, dry cakes, wet cakes. Please no more cakes.
We have drunk Georgian wine, Georgian beer and Georgian Vodka, Georgian tap water and Georgian stories full of flavour and humour and love.
We have eaten and drunk the whole of Georgia.
Well, not quite yet.
We have accused fossilised tree stumps of being concrete models, we have ordered mystery foods from a menu in Georgian script (and conquered them) we have seen Oligarch’s spaceship-like constructions on hilltops in the gardens of kings, we have been bought bus tickets by strangers when our passes have failed, we have given directions to strangers to the Metro, to shops, to streets.
fossilised tree in Marta's garden
This place is now inside us, a part of us has already embedded here, a part of us will never leave, it is way too late for that now.
And so we continue…
Mark , 22nd of April 2017
journeys in, journeys out
Tbilisi the final countdown
Our time here is nearly completed and only a last day to prepare our little presentation. We look and read through the work and think of things we have forgotten, things that make us feel slightly uncomfortable on the re-reads.
Sound recordings of sinning. I like that, even though it was supposed to read singing. Maybe we caught both in digital finery.
Anyway, tube trains and singers echo through the place now, an essence of Tbilisi in the air here, along with the smell of already packed fenugreek, coriander, cumin and Svanetian salt.
Our suitcases are going to cause quite some excitement to the sniffer dogs of the airline world as we spread far and wide on Sunday. Me to Zurich via Kiev, Thomas to Italy via Istanbul, and Nada via Istanbul to Brussels.
Dogs in the airports here must already have a nose for such things as travellers take a taste of home with them on their travels.
We visit the station to film and record trains leaving.
Only one does.
The rest of the carriages that fill the station remain still and rusting, windows smashed or absent. One carriage has a hole in its roof surrounded by heavy looking lumps of concrete. I’m taken back to the miner’s strike in the UK when concrete was thrown on to trains and buses from bridges, the ones carrying police from the south to the striking north back into the 80’s. Unwelcome guests receiving a bitter welcome to a different world.
Our trains here have suffered from failing concrete of Soviet times I imagine, the under-side of a bridge succumbing to concrete cancer as the exposed steel rusts further with every shower of rain and burn of frost.
Parts of the language now becoming familiar, words falling onto the table from the unfathomable soup that the language was on our arrival.
We practice between ourselves the words and noises we remember and explain what we think they mean to each other.
A certain noise to stop a marshrutka, another to offer encouragement in a conversation.
We don’t share our secret language with the others. Our version of the language is for us only.
We ate again in the familiar chain restaurant last night, too tired for walking and adventure, a bread based creature.
A blast of hot air from the wood fired oven fills the plastic and mock wood neon lit space briefly with the authenticity of the Caucasus cuisine. The cigarette smoke from our neighbour, smoking and eating, also adds a little flavour to the mix.
Tired, but still eating with our hearts and minds and bodies, taking it all in, until our very last seconds here.
Mark, 27th of April 2017
view from the train station
view of a house in the old town
the fluctuating currency market
Leaving a place after several weeks of roaming through places and people always feels like leaving home. And leaving home always comes with the slight sting of sadness.
As I stare out of the window in the smoking area of the Istanbul airport (straight back to where I started four weeks ago) I ponder on the strange yet natural cycle of leaving and arriving, of departures and returns. Leaving home to find another home. Thomas is already in the land of basilicum and Mark is soon to arrive in Zurich for his next mission and the bank vault silence of his borrowed apartment.
Our trio of travelers caught in an ongoing cycle of transition between here and there.
finally a break in the 7 day a week work schedule
bus nr 150
tired trains at the train station
view from Gallery Nectar
I easily feel at home in every place I visit and somehow this should make leaving easier, less painful, but as I stand here I cannot but wonder if this will ever stop, if I want it to stop. The impermanence of belonging. The never-ending ticking of time and humming of machines that take us from one home to another home.
Goodbye and hello, goodbye and hello, goodbye and hello….places becoming others as we retrace our steps simultaneously with the forward motion of time.
I miss the bread, I miss the place, I miss the attitude, I miss the traffic, I miss the buses, I miss the people. I’m certain to miss the construction noises too.
Everyone should live in Tbilisi for a while, where a bang is a bang and a boom is a boom and a story is a story and a smile is a smile.
Here today, somewhere else tomorrow but at least I still have the smell of Svanetian salt on me, on my clothes, in my hair…in my bag….ready to be unpacked and repacked in an endless dance of moving between worlds.
Mark and Nada, 30th of April 2017
old or new? arriving or leaving?