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<nettime> Tracing Translocality
Felix Stalder on Sun, 29 Oct 2006 15:40:39 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Tracing Translocality

Tracing Translocality: BlackBenzRace

[The project BlackBenzRace (BBR) was initiated as a commissioned work
in 2005 in Zurich to re-examine the classic question of "art and
public space". Knowbotic Research invited Osman Osmani, Arben Gecai,
Faton Topalli and me to collaborate. The project has not been realized
in its original conception (the city didn't like it), though pieces
have been transformed to fit other contexts. This text "appeared" in a
catalogue for an exhibition at Skuc Gallery in Ljubliana about a month
ago, though if you are outside Ljubliana chances are small you will
ever see it. Such is the cruel fate of analogue self-publishing.]

BlackBenzRace (BBR) is a semi-fictional car race from Zurich to       
Pristina, Kosovo, and back again to Zurich. A convoy of black cars,   
decorated with Kosovo-Albanian iconography and stylized as improvised 
racing cars, starts the race at the international bus station,        
located downtown, next to Zurich's main train station. This is a      
highly public event with cars, music, food, and information stalls,   
put together by the artists as well as the Kosovo-Albanian community  
in Zurich. The race leads along one of Zurich's main exit/entry       
roads, onto the highway, south into Italy, all the way to Bari        
where the ferry is boarded. Once landed in Durres, Albania, the       
race continues to Pristina. Here, at the turning point, a series      
of events are being staged, in collaboration with Dokufest, the       
international documentary film festival in Prizren. After that the    
race returns, via Macedonia and Italy, to Zurich. The more direct     
route via ex-Yugoslavia cannot be taken, partly for security reasons  
(in Serbia), but partly because the visa requirements for people who  
only hold an UNMIK passport are more than onerous in these countries. 

At the end of the race, one of the cars is removed from circulation.
It is exhibited for one year on a public parking spot and washed every
week with a mobile car-washing unit, like the one that can be found
every where in Albania under the name of Lavaz. During the race, LED
panels are installed along the last few hundred meters of the main
entry/exit road to Zurich, where, on the weekends, the tuned up-cars
coming into town from the suburbs are stuck regularly in traffic jams.
On the panels messages, sent in via mobile phones by the racing teams,
are being displayed indicating the advance of the race. On the project
website, small video clips from mobile phones are being uploaded
showing scenes from the race and the stops along the way.

In this project, the black Mercedes serves as a vehicle to examine
public space in a place like Zurich and trace the outlines of an
emerging translocal space. Traditionally, public space is thought
as something entirely local, the proverbial village square, which
in Switzerland has accumulated semantic layers. To this day, direct
democracy takes place in some cantons in the form of assemblies on
village squares, the Landsgemeinde. People coming together in one
place, discussing public affairs in the open and making decisions
on the spot, in full view of all elective members of the community,
is the oldest from of democracy, originating ancient Athens. Modern
forms of democracy, developed in the 18th and 19th century, governed
societies far too great to assemble physically in one spot. The mass
media took the place of the village square, making sure that everyone
could listen, though not speak, to the elected representatives who
deliberated public affairs. Despite very significant differences
within and between ancient and modern forms of democracy, the notion
of public relating to a unified, contiguous territory is constitutive
for both. In the first case, the space of the village square is
covered by the medium of the voice of the speaker, in the second, the
space of the national territory is covered by the mass media, first
print, then electronic.

BBR rests on the assumption that this notion of public space is being 
challenged by a new type of space that must be conceptualized quite   
differently. Rather than being local, contiguous and based on mass    
media, this new space is translocal, distributed, and based on what   
the sociologist Manuel Castells calls â??the space of flowsâ??. The   
space of flows consists of three layers. First is the physical layer, 
the material nodes of the network that create and administrate the    
flows. This includes specific buildings, roads, dedicated computer    
machinery, airports, communication wires, and so on. The second are   
the things that actually circulate, including people, materials and   
information. The third is a particular culture that facilitates the   
coordination of these elements, without which they would not coalesce 
into something stable enough to create space.                         

The space of flows is best thought of as a myriad of translocal
networks, held together by continuous circulation of people, materials
and bits, each characterized by a particular make-up of resources, and
developing, over time, a unique culture that defines the boundaries
of that space. The key element about the space of flows â?? which
justifies to speak of it as a unique space despite its constitutive
fragmentation â?? is that it enables to connect distributed entities
as if they were in one place, thus fundamentally affecting social

This sociological concept echoes an older philosophical debate about
the ontology of space, going back to the famous Clarke-Leibniz
exchange (1715-16). Samuel Clarke, who served in this case as Newton's
proxy, defended an absolute notion of space against Leibniz's relative
one. Newton conceived space as an invariable entity independent of
the objects that are placed within it. Such space can be empty or
full and distances are absolute. This is, as seemingly self-evident
common sense, how we conceptualize space today. Leibniz, on the other
hand, conceived space as in-between things. For Leibniz, there could
be no such things as empty space because space did not exist prior
to objects. Thus, space is relative, relating to the in-between of
objects, rather than to an absolute, invariant measure.

In the present context, there is no need to get into the depth of
this ongoing ontological debate about the nature of space. All
that is necessary right now to remember is that we can think of
space differently, as being characterized by the â??in-betweenâ??
of objects. Flows can be seen as the empirically observable
â??in-betweenâ??, as they connect one object with one or many
others. Over the last decades, we have seen the development of an
infrastructure for high-speed, high-precision, high-volume, low-cost
flows substantially transforming the character of long-distance
exchanges that have existed throughout history. While there is a lot
of debate when this process started, it's more obvious that in the
1990s this infrastructure has become accessible to a very wide range
of people and organizations, rather than just the elite, as evidenced
by the ubiquity of cell phones, easy internet access, satellite TV and
low-cost airlines.

>From the point of view of physical urban spaces, the impact of the
emergence of the space of flows is that of a deepening fragmentation.
Physical proximity plays less and less a role in bringing together
different entities that co-exist within one locality. Put somewhat
schematically, the easier it is to create real-time interaction across
distances, the less important is the fact that local co-presence
enables real-time interaction as well. From within the networks, on
the other hand, people and things that are geographically distant
become quasi-locally present for real-time interaction. Thus, we have
two interlocking movements, one is fragmentation (on the ground),
the other is integration (through flows) of social processes and the
particular cultures through which they are created.

However, one might ask, what does all of this have to do with black   
Mercedes racing between Zurich and Pristina? To understand this, it   
helps to get some background on the migration of Kosovo-Albanians     
to Switzerland. During the 1990s, the immigrant population from       
ex-Yugoslavia more than doubled to about 360,000 people. Roughly      
half of them are, in fact, Kosovo-Albanians who constitute now        
the largest immigrant group in the country. While the first were      
called upon as â??guest-workersâ?? in the 1960s, the majority came    
as refugees following the break-up of Yugoslavia at the end of        
the cold war. In many ways, they faced similar difficulties than      
earlier groups in terms of discrimination, uncertain legal status,    
difficulties of integration, economic insecurity, and so on. However, 
in important respects, their experience was also very different from  
other groups. First, contrary to other recent immigrant groups, they  
are Europeans and thus the distances between the place of origin      
and the place of migration was relatively small. One can drive        
from Zurich to Pristina and back over a long weekend. And many do.    
Second, contrary to post-WWII immigration from Southern Europe the    
means for local and international communication, the infrastructure   
of flows, have been widely available. Today, there are numerous       
Albanian newspapers in Switzerland, some produced in Kosovo, others   
in Switzerland, others jointly in both countries. Satellites make     
local TV available in real time, internet portals not only provide    
topical information in great detail, but also enable the connection   
of migrant communities scattered across Europe. Cell-phones and,      
most recently, internet-based phones, support individual, real-time   
communication for people on the move, at low cost.                    

Taken together, an alien and often discriminatory environment which
is making integration difficult and the possibility for connecting,
physically and informationally, with relative ease to people who
either stayed back home and went to other parts of Europe, have been
factors in the creation of a particular kind of translocal immigrant
culture. Thus, one could say, the experience of most Kosovo-Albanians
across Europe is one of a culture created in the space of flows.

Seen from local public space, the most visible element of this        
culture are cars which play a central role in immigrant culture       
generally, and here in particular. Apart from their essential         
transportation role, they are over coded with meaning. Quite          
generally, black limousines represent the weight of power, be that    
political or criminal. Cars can also represent individual freedom     
in a context that allows little such luxury to immigrants at the      
bottom of the social ladder. They also constitute, and represent,     
considerable investment. They indicate a certain status and, when     
driving home, the migrant's success abroad. As investment, cars       
are highly mobile, and turned into cash quite easily. Furthermore,    
cars are often gifts by parents to their children, to whom they       
have sometimes little else to offer. Being poorly integrated into     
a society, in which their children are much more at home, can make    
parents dependent on the children, upsetting traditional family       

In Switzerland, the high-powered car as the symbol of Kosovo-Albanian 
culture became particularly ingrained in the public's mind when a     
sudden media hysteria broke out concerning high-speed car chases      
and fatal accidents caused by them. With overt racists overtones,     
it was not a co-incidence that this media campaign took place a few   
weeks before a general vote on whether to relax Switzerland's very    
restrictive naturalization laws. Characteristically, the treatment    
of these illegal car races was markedly different the favorable       
media reception that, around the same time, â??gumball ralliesâ??     
received. These rallies, named after a 1976 B-movie, are illegal car  
races across Europe, but for international jet setters in fancy cars  
and staying at expensive hotels, full of media hype about the rich    
and famous flaunting traffic regulations, while in the background,    
everything â?? one must assume â?? was well coordinated with the      

For the local population, a car race, unless it's done in circles on
a track, is almost imperceptible, as cars pass quickly in and out of
sight. It's an event that is, almost unavoidably, semi-fictional, and
also participants often are busy creating their own mystique. Scores
of website collect little clips of illegal races, Yet, it's often not
clear to which degree these clips represent real races, or are just
edited for show, or both.

BBR takes the race as a metaphor for the media-saturated translocal
cultures, situated at the border between reality and fiction, between
a self-determined telling of one's own story through do-it-yourself
media and heavy-handed discrimination through mass media. By showing
the cars, on the LCD panels installed long a main artery of Zurich,
and on the website, BBR creates a narrative space in which to examine
both the myth and the reality of translocality, as constructed by
a collaboration between artists and migrants. In this sense, it's
not a documentary project, as the framework in which all of this
takes place, is semi-fictional. This should give greater freedom
to explore the realities on the ground, as the cars moved from one
local to another, with their own rhythm of speedy advances and forced
delays at border, ferry crossing, military checks, and so on. The
exploratory part of observing how the racing cars, and the race as a
whole, changes its meaning according to different contexts, remains,
of course, highly speculative, as the project has not (yet) been
realized. At this stage, the project makes a series of tentative
proposals about how to deal with the transformation of (public)
space, artistically and theoretically, which is being fragmented and
reintegrated under our very feet.


Castells, Manuel (2000-04). The Information Age: Economy, Society and 
Culture. 2nd edition(3 vols). Cambridge, Blackwell.

Khamara, Edward J. (1993). Leibniz's Theory of Space: A Reconstruction," 
Philosophical Quarterly 43: 472-88)

Raunig, Gerald; Wuggenig, Ulf (Hrsg.) (2005). Publicum. Theorien der 
Ã?ffentlichkeit. Wien, Turia + Kant

Stalder, Felix (2006). Manuel Castells and the Theory of the Network 
Society. Cambridge, Polity Press

Winston, Brian (1998). Media Technology and Society: A History from the 
Telegraph to the Internet. London, Routledge

[Published in: Knowbotic Research: Room for Maneuvre. Exhibition Catalogue. 
SkuÄ? Gallery, Ljubliana, Oct. 2006]

----http://felix.openflows.org------------------------------ out now:
*|Manuel Castells and the Theory of the Network Society. Polity, 2006 
*|Open Cultures and the Nature of Networks. Ed. Futura/Revolver, 2005 

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