Inbound and outbound are two code words that a traveller must learn to navigate the San Francisco metro system. On my first day, I took a wrong train, having mistakenly assumed that inbound and outbound meant coming in and out of the city centre. Then I realised that San Francisco, a city located at the tip of a peninsula at the edge of the continent, has a different geographical perception: while inbound trains carry passengers to the mainland, outbound trains are directed towards the enchanting and mesmerising vastness, which is the Ocean.
I found it interesting that this terminology not only reflects on the relationship between the city and the country but, intertwined into common language, might also shape people’s sense of belonging throughout their everyday travels to and from. So in this text I would like to focus, first of all, on the journeys that we take, both physical and mental, and in particular my own little journeys in San Francisco in Bay area.
One of my goals for this residency is to meet with members of Kazakh diaspora in the United States. Namely I look for people whose family histories trace back to Stalin’s terror in Kazakhstan in the first half of the XX century that provoked an exodus of people who fled the country to escape starvation and oppression. I hope that listening to their stories might help me to understand better the work of individual and collective memory.
Diaspora is an interesting phenomenon. It presupposes that the person holds on to attributes of their culture of origin; they carry and nurture its symbols and messages within themselves. It is a continuous mental journey inbound. People bring from their homelands little messengers of cultural identity – sounds of a traditional musical instrument, taste of favourite tea, an ornamented headscarf, a line from a poem that they learnt by heart, a language… I have been told that in San Francisco, there are bakeries where people from Russian diaspora who moved to the US in the 1980-s bake delicious pastries with recipes from the late USSR. In this case, the pastry becomes the point of belonging, a stable station in the flow of time where one can always return.
In Berkeley, there is a Silk Road house, an organisation that promotes Kazakh and Central Asian culture in the region. It is a small, cosy and friendly place that I loved from the first sight. On my first visit, there was a screening of a documentary film ‘In the footsteps of Marco Polo’ that told a story of two American guys who decided to repeat in 1993 the journey of Marco Polo to China through inner Asia. The film showed their adventures in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia among other places, but what I found interesting was their enthusiasm about the very idea of a remote land – this exotic place of unknown, that kept them going.
Last week, my host Prof. Jeanne Finley and I watched the newly released film ‘First Man’, a biopic of Neil Armstrong, the American astronaut who became the first man to step on the surface of the Moon. The film focused on Armstrong’s personal life while narrating the story of “the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked”.1 The Moon is the most remote land that human eye can see, and its presence on the sky teases the human mind with the desire to explore it, to reach beyond own limits.
What we see as the unknown – the other continent, the other planet, the sky or the ocean – directs our gaze outwards and gives an impulse for departures, including artistic departures. For me, each new art project becomes an encounter with the unknown, with the chance. But what I find important is the very existence at this border. The land that is now known as San Francisco used to be the land of Yelamu Ohlone, a native American tribe. They had a song that had a line that I find very beautiful: I am dancing, dancing at the Edge of the World. This is a dance at the border between the stable land that gives the sense of belonging, and the unknown that excites the mind. And not necessarily one should live at the Ocean beach to perform this dance.