Events 2020

14 DECEMBER 2020

Eccellenza Panel – promoting women in science
Organized by the Office for Gender Equality and Diversity, University of Zurich

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

As one of the few women scholars at the University of Zurich to have been awarded the professorial grant in the last years, Agnieszka was invited to participate as a speaker in this panel that aimed at encouraging women to apply for the high-profile Eccelenza fellowships.

It was such a pleasure to speak in front of more than fifty women scholars planning to apply for the fellowship at the University of Zurich in the coming years. Good luck to everyone!


“Infrastructure and Life” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 004 Episode 003

Israeli checkpoints and Astana`s magnificent buildings, these were the topics of our previous reading group session. We had the pleasure to read Helga Tawil-Souri`s text “Qalandia Checkpoint as Space and Nonplace”, Space and Culture 14.1 (2011): 4-26, and Mateusz Laszczkowski`s “‘Demo version of a city’: buildings, affects, and the state in Astana”, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 22, (2015): 148-165.

With pandemic travel restrictions still applying we continue our meetings on zoom.


Ethnic Disconnectivities: Mundane life of transport infrastructure in northwest China
Lunch Colloquium, Department of Social Sciences, University of Fribourg

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

Two weeks after her farewell lecture in Zurich, Agnieszka had the pleasure of giving her first talk in her new Department at the University of Fribourg.

Thank you, Sylvain and Louis, for the invitation and for your effort to establish this new lecture series!

17 NOVEMBER 2020

Maintaining Relations: Life with and without Roads in Northwest China
Lecture in the Social Anthropology Colloquium, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Zurich

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

Agnieszka gave her farewell lecture in the Department’s Colloquium. Many thanks to the audience for fantastic questions, and Daniela and Esther for coordinating the event!

In February 2021 the ROADWORK team is going to move to the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Fribourg.

26 NOVEMBER 2020

Roads that Unite and Divide
Conference held at the Kalmyk Scientific Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi and Thomas White

On 26 November Agnieszka and Thomas participated in an online conference hosted by the Kalmyk Scientific Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Agnieskza gave a paper entitled Maintaining Relations: Life with and without Roads in Northwest China, while Thomas’ paper was entitled Roads, herders, and the state in Inner Mongolia.

Conference program


“Infrastructure and Life” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 004 Episode 002

In this edition of the reading group we are again discussing two articles:

Julie Chu’s “When Infrastructures Attack: The Workings of Disrepair in China,” American Ethnologist 41.2 (2014): 351–67
Brenda Chalfin’s “‘Wastelandia’: Infrastructure and the Commonwealth of Waste in Urban Ghana,” Ethnos 82.4 (2017): 648–71.

We’ll convene for the next reading group on 4 December, 10am, on Zoom. Send an email to if you’d like to join the conversation.

30 OCTOBER 2020

Interview for the UZH Magazin

Emilia Sułek and Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

Emilia and Agnieszka met with Mr. Ganz, a journalist writing for the quarterly UZH Magazin (Journal of the University of Zurich), for an interview on the ROADWORK project.

The team’s aim is to circulate our knowledge as widely as possible and also reach non-academic audiences. The always beautifully curated UZH Magazin (published in 20,000 copies!) is the next step in this direction.

28 – 30 OCTOBER 2020

The 2nd International conference Esimde-Dreams of Mankurt
A presentation of interdisciplinary journal Nemononmif

Zarina Urmanbetova

Zarina Urmanbetova edited the second issue of the journal Nemonomif and presented it at the second international conference Esimde – Dreams of Mankurt. The presentation was carried out over the internet, while the conference took place in Bishkek on 28–30 October.

Nemonomif is an interdisciplinary journal with a decolonial slant that covers diverse approaches to exploring the past of the Eurasian region. The conceptual framework for the second issue is a metaphor: Dreams of Mankurt. The authors and thinkers who have contributed to the journal built their essays around this metaphor. The journal also includes exciting interviews, one of which is with prominent decolonizing author Madina Tlostanova. Soon the online version of Nemonomif will be available at:

22 OCTOBER 2020

Mining and the BRI in Mongolia

Emilia Sułek

Emilia moderated the webcast “Mining in Mongolia: How Long Can It Boom? Winners and Losers, Conflicts and Solutions.”

The mining boom in Mongolia, its economic importance, environmental and social effects as well as the role of the Belt and Road Initiative in this phenomenon were the main topics dicussed. Emilia’s guests were Byambabaatar Ichinkhorloo (Gobi Framework) and Beibei Gu (Zoï Environment Network), the latter of whom presented two recently launched reports: “Greening the China-Mongolia-Russia economic corridor” and “Greening the Belt and Road Projects in Central Asia.”

The webcast was hosted by Asia Society Switzerland.

21 OCTOBER 2020

Infrastrukturalne powiązania: codzienne życie wzdłuż dróg na pograniczu Chin i Azji Środkowej
Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan, Poland

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

For the first time in more than fifteen years I gave an academic talk in my mother tongue. It was quite an experience – thank god for DeepL! Without this tool it would have taken me days to translate my thoughts into Polish.

The lecture inaugurated the new academic year and the founding of the Institute – a merry occasion that I was very happy to be a part of. A big thank you to Tomasz Wicherkiewicz for orchestrating the event. It was a lovely experience to return to my alma mater and see my teachers and colleagues again after such a long time.

1 OCTOBER 2020

Greening the BRI

Geneva International Environment House 

Emilia Sułek

Emilia Joined the official launch of Zoï Environment Network’s new synthesis report “Greening the China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor.”


Beginning of field research

Verena La Mela

COVID-19 changed all plans. Kazakhstan is still off limits and so Verena started her research in Germany. Unexpectedly, she found herself doing anthropology at home. Her first destination was the port of Nuremberg, where once a week a train arrives from China. The train carries containers around 9000 kilometers along what logisticians colloquially refer to as the “Iron New Silk Road”. The line crosses several borders and undergoes gauge conversion twice. In Nuremberg, the containers are loaded onto trucks before departing for their final destinations and the train is sent back to China with different containers and a new load.      

Verena expected to witness this mighty freight arriving with a great ballyhoo, only to find that in its last meters the train is pulled into station by a perfectly ordinary diesel locomotive. No Chinese flags, no red banners, no blaring music. The “China-train” is just a normal train after all. What is it then that makes trains from China to Europe so special for the logistical actors involved and why is rail an attractive transport option in the context of the Belt and Road Initiative? Verena explores these questions in her, well… the schedule of research is somewhat different from what she had originally planned.


“Infrastructure and Life” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 004 Episode 001

In today’s reading group we are discussing two articles: Asta Vonderau’s “Scaling the Cloud: Making State and Infrastructure in Sweden” (Ethnos, 2019) and Christina Schwenkel’s “Spectacular Infrastructure and its Breakdown in Socialist Vietnam” (American Ethnologist, 2015).


Multimedia stories


Over the past few months, we have continued our collaboration with the creative collective Gonzo Design from St. Petersburg, developing storyboards for two multimedia stories that we will produce within the team as yet another non-academic output.

The purpose of this project is to learn to tell our stories and convey our knowledge through means other than just text, to help reach new audiences: journalists, artists, school children and more.

4-6 SEPTEMBER 2020

Meeting of the editors of the open acccess journal Roadsides
Dorfgastein, Austria

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

Agnieszka and the other editors of Roadsides convened for a few days at the house of our own Matthäus Rest in Dorfgastein to discuss what the ethics of being open access mean to us and what an ethical review process might look like, as well as to plan the future of Roadsides and brainstorm solutions to the challenges that arise in running the journal.

For many of us who participated in person, it was the first non-virtual academic meeting in months; we truly enjoyed the unmediated conversations and the creative energy, which no Zoom or Teams could ever convey!


Call for contributions to an online contemporary art exhibition Asphalt – Lines and Lives


In early September we published a call for contributions to the online art exhibition Asphalt – Lines and Lives, which is going to be one of the main non-academic outputs of the ROADWORK project.

The call is addressed to artists from selected Asian countries who feel inspired to contribute to this interdisciplinary online art project focused on roads and their social, cultural, political and economic impacts.

The curatorial team – Gosia Biczyk, Aida Sulova, Ulan Djaparov and Philipp Reichmuth – invites you to check out the blog that will accompany the making of the exhibition over the coming months:

22 AUGUST 2020

A night at a construction site in the Bergünerstein Tunnel
Bergün, Switzerland
Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi and Jonas Gort

Jonas – an MA student at the Department of Social Anthropology in Zurich, whose research focuses on how engineering knowledge is generated and transmitted – and Agnieszka participated in this event organized by the Rhaetian Railway (RhB) in the mountainous Canton of Grison. During the four-hour tour and highly informative conversation afterwards with the head of the project and the chief engineer, we learnt a great deal about the new standard method (Normalbauweise) developed by RhB to renovate tunnels more than 160 years old which are still in use.

It was great to hear how innovation happens at the construction site and to begin to understand the challenges of maintaining rail tunnels in this unstable mountain environment.


New team member

Verena La Mela

As of 1 August, a fifth researcher has joined our core team in Zurich! We cordially welcome our dear colleague, Verena La Mela, and look forward to collaborating over the next two years. Verena’s project will focus on the question of logistics at a few key junctions along the railway line now connecting China and Europe. We hope that she will also be able to return to Kazakhstan next year, where she plans to continue her research on new and old roads in the regions bordering China.

MAY 2020

“Visualizing Memory in Bishkek” – a multimedia story publication

Zarina Urmanbetova

Zarina Urmanbetova participated in May 2018, in the pilot workshop of the project “Visualizing Memory in Bishkek.” Participants of the workshop had the opportunity to attend lectures on urban memory and various visualization approaches. Furthermore, they collected visual and archival materials on historical sites in the city of Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, and shared own reflections on the sense of those places. Follow this link to enjoy the multimedia story “Visualizing Memory,” which presents the results of this pilot workshop.

“Visualizing Memory” is an ongoing project that seeks to explore the multi-facetted and multi-layered landscape of urban memory in the post-socialist space. The project is conducted by the NIDID.


ROADWORK team meetings on WHEREBY

As we are all stuck in our homes, and three of us had to give up the plan of conducting fieldwork in Central Asia this spring-summer, we decided to focus our energy on developing two multimedia stories that will make our research accessible to non-academic (and also academic) audiences. One of the multimedia stories will make use of images, sounds, texts and videos to explain what anthropological fieldwork is about. The second story will focus more explicitly on infrastructure and Central Asia.

We are looking forward to developing the storyboards and collaborating with the amazing artist collective Gonzo Design from St.Petersburg ( on this project!

24 APRIL 2020

“The Natures of Infrastructure” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 003 Episode 003

Our reading group is growing – a warm welcome to the new members!

On 24 April we met on Zoom to discuss the concept of assemblage in its two emanations: as developed by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in One Thousand Plateaus (1987, University of Minnesota Press), and by Manuel DeLanda in Assemblage Theory (2016, Edinburgh University Press). After this exceptional reading group – with only male authors – we’ll be back to our usual gender-balanced mode of reading in May with Kim Fortun’s and Bruno Latour’s takes on the concept of assemblage.

The next meeting will take place on 19 May on Zoom. If you’d like to join, please email

27 MARCH 2020

“The Natures of Infrastructure” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 003 Episode 002

On 27 March we met for the first time virtually to discuss two engaging articles: Hannah Appel’s “Offshore work: Oil, modularity, and the how of capitalism in Equatorial Guinea” (American Ethnologist 2012) and Gastón Gordillo’s “The Metropolis: The Infrastructure of the Anthropocene” (in K. Hetherington (ed.). Infrastructures, Environment and Life in the Anthropocene, Duke University Press, 2019).

The next meeting on 24 April will also take place via video conference. We’ll advertise it on the website shortly. If you’d like to join our group, please email

6 MARCH 2020

PhD Day at the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Zurich

Verena La Mela, Emilia Sułek, Byambabaatar Ichinkhorloo and Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

In the good old days, when social gatherings were still possible (even though already maintaining a significant social distance), we participated in the PhD Day organized by the fantastic Esther Leemann, the PhD coordinator at the Department. The aim of the PhD Day was to encourage the graduate students to discuss their research with both their peers and senior scholars at the Department and gather – hopefully useful – feedback. While Verena presented a draft of one her dissertation chapters, Byambaa (from our partner project GOBI FRAMEWORK), Emilia and Agnieszka offered their feedback on Verena’s and other presented drafts.

2 MARCH 2020

Book Launch Apéro at the Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies, University of Zurich

Emilia Sułek

Emilia organized, together with Clémence Jullien, a Book Launch Apero to present and discuss the newest publications of social anthropologists from the University of Zürich. All four newly published books dealt with contemporary developments in Asia, with a focus on infrastructure, human agency, and state-citizens’ relations.

The presented books are:

Emilia Sułek, Trading Caterpillar Fungus in Tibet. When Economic Boom Hits Rural Area. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press

Clémence Jullien, Du bidonville à l’hôpital. Nouveaux enjeux de la maternité au Rajasthan. Paris: Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme

Wahyu Kuncoro, Burmese-Muslim Social Networks in the Borderland: A Case Study of Islam Bamroong Muslim Community in Mae Sot, Tak Province, Thailand. Chiang Mai: Chiang Mai University Press

Georg Winterberger and Esther Tenberg (eds.), Current Myanmar Studies: Aung San Suu Kyi, Muslims in Arakan, and Economic Insecurity. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing

28 FEBRUARY 2020, 10-11.30 am

“The Natures of Infrastructure” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 003, Episode 001
Effinger, Caffeebar and Coworking Space, Effingerstrasse 10, Bern

We convene for the next meeting of our reading group “The Natures of Infrastructure”. This time we are reading Nasser Abourahme’s “Assembling and Spilling-Over: Towards an ‘Ethnography of Cement’ in a Palestinian Refugee Camp”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 2014, and Antina von Schnitzler’s “Traveling Technologies: Infrastructure, Ethical Regimes and the Materiality of Politics in South Africa”, Cultural Anthropology 28 (4), 2013.

Reading group cordially invites colleagues to join us. If you are interested, please email

20 FEBRUARY 2020, 6.15 pm

Vortrag “Infrastruktur an der Grenze zwischen China und Zentralasien”
Geographie-Gebäude, Klingelbergstr. 27, Hörsaal 5. Stock, Basel

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

Agnieszka will give a public lecture titled «Infrastruktur an der Grenze zwischen China und Zentralasien» in the series «Chinas «Neue» Seidenstrasse». The lecture is hosted by the Geographisch-Ethnographische Gesellschaft Basel.

The link to the lecture series:

12 FEBRUARY 2020

“Tibets Geschäft mit Millionen-Dollar-Raupen”
Neubad Lecture, Luzern

Emilia Sułek

In a popular lecture series Emilia talked about her research on the economic boom in China as well as the impact of SARS and today Coronavirus on the natural medicines market. SARS epidemic promoted caterpillar fungus as a medical celebrity. What wonder drug will become a market hit after the current Coronavisrus outbreak?

12 FEBRUARY 2020

Das Geschäft mit dem “Wunderpilz”
Radio 3FACH, Luzern

Emilia Sułek

Emilia was invited to talk about the caterpillar fungus boom and its impact on the ethnic minority populations in China, their economy, infrastructural development, rising criminality, and the position of women:


“Caterpillar Fungus. Gold Rush in the Tibetan Mountains”
Talk at the Library, Asia Society Switzerland

Emilia Sułek

On 4 February Emilia was a guest of the Talk at the Library, a members-only event at the Zürich headquarters of Asia Society Switzerland.

Emilia spoke about the recent economic boom on the Tibetan plateau and its similarities to the 19th century gold rush in America. How does a Tibetan pastoral society – who lived almost entirely without any money for centuries – react to the new wealth? What investments are they making? What infrastructures are they developing? What other social effects does this phenomenon have?

After the Talk Emilia signed her new book, Trading Caterpillar Fungus in Tibet. When Economic Boom Hits Rural Area (Amsterdam University Press).

31 JANUARY 2020

“Matter out of place? Livestock, road infrastructure, and the political ecology of a Chinese borderland”
eue Kulturgeographie conference at the University of Bonn

Thomas White

On 31 January Tom gave a paper on the “More-than-human geographies of infrastructure” panel at the Neue Kulturgeographie conference at the University of Bonn, together with colleagues from the UK and Germany. Tom has developed some of his arguments into a short essay on the theme of road ecology, which will appear online soon. 

24 JANUARY 2020, 10 am-12 pm

“The Natures of Infrastructure” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 002 Episode 006
Café Oscar, Zurich Central Station

On 24 January we convened in Zurich for the sixth episode of the reading group “The Natures of Infrastructure.” For this meeting we read AbdouMaliq Simone’s “People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg” (Public Culture 16(3): 407–429, 2004) and Penny Harvey’s classic “Cementing Relations: The Materiality of Roads and Public Spaces in Provincial Peru” (Social Analysis 54 (2):28-46, 2010).

The next meeting in February will be advertised on the website shortly. If you’d like to join, please email

12 JANUARY 2020

«unterwegs mit…»

Emilia Sułek

«UND» Das Generationstandem Thun invited Emilia for a talk closing a series of meetings with travelling women. Emilia spoke about her research with Tibetan pastoralists and the tremendous transformation of traditional lifestyle and economy observed in western China.