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“Cross Cultural Chairs” Summer Workshop - Report by Ryanne Flock

News from Aug 30, 2022

Date: August 7-21, 2022

Venue: Almaty, Kazakhstan

Organizer: Matteo Guarnaccia (creative freelancer, Institute for Postnatural Studies, Cross Cultural Chairs), Zhanna Ee (freelance designer) and Vlad Sludsky (Eurasian Cultural Alliance)

Report: Ryanne Flock (researcher in the project Social Worlds: China's Cities as Spaces of Worldmaking)

From 7 to 21 August, Matteo Guarnaccia (creative freelancer, Institute for Postnatural Studies), Zhanna Ee (freelance designer) and Vlad Sludsky (Eurasian Cultural Alliance) organized the "Cross Cultural Workshop" in Almaty. Guarnaccia has been making a name for himself since 2017 with his project "Cross Cultural Chairs" (CCC), where he tries to understand social differences through modes of sitting. Thus, he immerses himself in a locality's cultural history and design world and creates a chair representing these connections. Previously, he had visited the most populous countries in the world for his project – including India, China, Indonesia and Japan. A study connection through the Istituto Europeo di Design (IED) Barcelona drew him to Zhanna Ee in Central Asian Kazakhstan and eventually this workshop was born.

Twelve creatives from Germany, Italy, Spain, Greece, Canada and Kazakhstan with backgrounds in art, design, photography, film and architecture followed the invitation (Anna Ziegler, Belen Cabello, Timur Aktai, Nomundari Munkhbaatar, Helena Postigo, Elena Ianeselli, Daria Kokonja, Elena Demetria Chantiz, Kayla Welsh, Lucas Momparler). I was also given a place in this multidisciplinary, international group as a social scientist specializing in the sociology of space and dwelling. Accompanied by the filmmaker David Leon Fiene's interest in the Kazakh way of life on horseback, the workshop aimed to contrast the sedentary with nomadic culture and to redesign the saddle as the latter's ultimate expression.

We were introduced to Almaty's creative scene, composed of new and well-established artists and intellectuals (e.g. Said Atabekov). Many are at home in the world but have returned to Kazakh soil in the wake of the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war. The workshop participants were brought to saddle-making artisans, to remote villages in the mountains and the steppe, remarkable by their fragrant flora, huge and friendly families and herds of horses. All of these were, in their own way, connected to a nomadic life whose traditions were severely disrupted by the Soviet Union. Timur Aktai (industrial/interior designer, artist) explained, "I have been looking for our culture for 20 years, but I find nothing. While other countries and cultures accumulate knowledge year after year, layer on layer, our songs, our stories and customs have been lost. What remains are the stereotypes of Kazakh nomads created by the Soviet Union".

In this context of a search for past and present, the challenge for the participants was not only to gain local knowledge quickly but also to conceive and execute a new design idea for a saddle with the help of the artisans. In 5 groups of 3 people each, we and the organizers worked on our interpretation of nomadism in the 21st century and the saddle as a carrier of modern, multiple or no identity. The workshop was also an experiment of disciplines, where art and design, with their questions of function, form and aesthetics, clashed with much-discussed concepts of the social sciences such as "tradition", "identity", and "nation". But in the course of the two weeks, it became clear that design is not only about the perfect result but is a method of engagement – entering into dialogue with artisans, artists and other Kazakhs, sometimes despairing at the difficulties of communication and yet gaining new perspectives. The workshop culminated successfully in a well-received exhibition of five saddles on 21 August at the Kasteyev State Museum of Arts.

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