23 MAY 2019, 3-5 pm

“The Natures of Infrastructure” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 001 Episode 004

Venue: Progr, Zentrum für Kulturproduktion, Waisenhausplatz 30, Bern

On 23 May 2019 we will met again in one of the ateliers in the Progr Gymnasium Bern for the fourth meeting of the interdisciplinary reading group “The natures of infrastructure” devoted to discussing the recent publications in the field of infrastructure studies. For this meeting we are going to read the Introduction, Chapter 1 (Zone) and Chapter 6 (Extrastatecraft) from Keller Easterling’s book Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (Verso, 2014).

If you’d like to join, please email us at agnieszka.joniak-luethi@uzh.ch and ignaz.strebel@unil.ch

13 MAY 2019, 3–4.30 pm

Hildegard Diemberger: “A Transhimalyan Route in Time: Connectivities, Cultural Heritage and Change along the Kyirong-Rasuwa Corridor”

We warmly invite you to a talk by Hildegard Diemberger (University of Cambridge).

Venue: Seminar room, Ethnographic Museum, Pelikanstrasse 40, Zurich

Synopsis: Sometimes considered a branch of the Silkroads, the Kyirong-Rasuwa corridor is one of the historically most significant transhimalayan routes. Trade, religious connections, diplomacy, military operations and kinship relations shaped its history in time. Recently re-opened in form of a tarmac road it has become the main link between Lhasa in Tibet and Kathmandu in Nepal with a far-reaching impact on the surrounding areas. Building on twenty-five years of ethnographic and historical research, this presentation looks at ancient sites and recent transformations along this ancient route as it turned to a modern international road.

2 MAY 2019

Book launch of Repair Work Ethnographies: Revisiting Breakdown, Relocating Materiality edited by Ignaz Strebel, Alain Bovet and Philippe Sormani

Participant: Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi
Venue: University of Lausanne

Agnieszka was invited to give an intervention on the newly published volume Repair Work Ethnographies(2019, Palgrave Macmillan) edited by Ignaz Strebel, Alain Bovet and Philippe Sormani. The book is a collection of ten praxiological studies of repair work on such different objects as mobile phones in Uganda, vintage trains in Belgium, public bicycles in Paris and fragile old books in the Austrian National Library. It is a fascinating read!

17 APRIL 2019, 3-5 pm

“The Natures of Infrastructure” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 001 Episode 003

Venue: Progr, Zentrum für Kulturproduktion, Waisenhausplatz 30, Bern

On 17 April we met in one of the ateliers in the Progr Zentrum für Kulturproduktion, Bern for the third meeting of our interdisciplinary reading group “The natures of infrastructure” devoted to discussing the recent publications in the field of infrastructure studies.

During the meeting we discussed Chapter 2 (“Fixed Flows: Undersea Cables as Media Infratsructure” by Nicole Starosielski) and Chapter 4 (“Deep Time of Media Infrastructure” by Shannon Mattern) from the book Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures edited by Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski (University of Illinois Press, 2015).

11-14 APRIL 2019

Highland Asia Workshop

Venue: Bad Gastein, Austria
Participants: Zarina Urmanbetova and Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

Zarina, with the paper “The Alternative South-North Road in Kyrgyzstan,” and Agnieszka, with the paper “Following pathways, producing knowledge” participated in the workshop concluding the main phase of the highly-successful ERC project Highland Asia (http://www.highlandasia.net) based at LMU Munich. These were three great days, thank you Martin, Aditi, Marlen, Matthäus and Alessandro for organizing this productive event!

Program Workshop Bad Gastein

APRIL 2019

Publication of the essay “Orbital” by Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi in Society and Space

The essay “Orbital” on the global travels of satellite and rocket debris written by Agnieszka has just been published in Society and Space: http://societyandspace.org/2019/04/09/orbital/. It is part of the forum Volumetric Sovereignty edited by Franck Billé. The forum comprises twenty-five contributions divided into five themes: Cartography vs. Volumes, The Subterranean Realm, Turbulence, Bodies and Beyond the Earth. Agnieszka’s essay is part of the Beyond the Earth theme http://societyandspace.org/2019/04/09/volumetric-sovereigntypart-5-beyond-the-earth/

Check out the whole forum here: http://societyandspace.org/2019/04/10/volumetricsovereigntyforum/

MARCH 2019

First Edited Collection of the New E-Journal ROADSIDES

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi is one of the founding editors of the new open-access journal Roadsidesdesigned to be a forum devoted to exploring the social life of infrastructure. The first beautifully-designed issue titled “Infrastructural Times” was edited by Agnieszka and published in March 2019 at https://roadsides.roadworkasia.com/ejournal/

The first collection also contains an introductory article written by Agnieszka titled “Infrastructure as an Asynchronic Timescape

DECEMBER 2018 – MARCH 2019

Zarina Urmanbetova’s podcast channel on social/cultural anthropology, urban and memory studies in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia. Listen to the last three episodes…

20 MARCH 2019, 10-12 am

“The Natures of Infrastructure” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 001 episode 002

Venue: Bern

On 20 March we re-convened in Bern, half-way between Zurich and Lausanne, for the second meeting of the interdisciplinary reading group “The natures of infrastructure” devoted to discussing the recent publications in the field of infrastructure studies. The aim of the monthly group is to establish a regular meeting platform for social sciences and humanities scholars conducting research on infrastructure at various Swiss universities. Join us!

During the meeting we discussed Chapter 3 («Surveing the future perfect» by Kregg Hetheringon) and Chapter 6 («River basin: The development of the scientific concept…» by Atsuro Morita) from the book Infrastructures and Social Complexity edited by Penny Harvey, Casper Bruun Jensen and Atsuro Morita (Routledge 2017).

18 MARCH 2019

Screening of the Rough Cut of the Film «Murghab» by Martin Saxer and Marlen Elders

Venue: Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies, University of Zurich

On 18 March 2019 we hosted two film makers, Martin Saxer and Marlen Elders from LMU Munich. Martin and Marlen showed the rough cut of their beautiful film “Murghab” and discussed the making of the film with Department’s students and guests.

The film was officially selected for Dok.fest Munich. Congratulations Martin, Marlen and Daler!

Film synopsis: A generation ago, Murghab was well taken care of. As the highest town of the former Soviet Union at 3600 metres above sea level and close to the sensitive borders with Afghanistan and China, the town enjoyed ample provisions from Moscow brought in via the Pamir Highway. It featured electricity around the clock, an airport with regular flights, a movie theatre, and a hospital with central heating. Since then, Murghab and its people have weathered several storms and many of the Soviet hallmarks are crumbling away. Yet, life goes on and, with wit and improvisational skills, the ruins of Socialism afford a plethora of new but precarious ways to make do.

The film provides a window into contemporary life in Murghab. It offers glimpses into people’s daily routines, inviting the audience on a journey to the Pamirs. It follows a group of men harvesting shrubs on the windswept high-altitude plateau, a nurse keeping regional health statistics, a passionate teacher inspiring a sense of history and purpose in her class, and a welder building stoves from the scraps of Soviet modernity. A winter film of hardship, work and hope.

Website “Murghab”

26-28 FEBRUARY 2019

RoadWorkShop 1.0

Venue: Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies, University of Zurich

The nearly-complete ROADWORK team convened in Zurich for the first time to discuss our research so far and plan the coming  years. Thanks everyone for coming and joining us via Skype. RoadWorkShop 2.0 is planned for early December 2019.

Program RoadWorkShop 1.0

26 FEBRUARY 2019, 4.15-6 pm

Richard Irvine:  “Deep time is where we live: on the intersection of geological and biographical temporality”

We warmly invite you to a talk by Richard Irvine (University of St Andrews) on “Deep time is where we live: on the intersection of geological and biographical temporality”.

Venue: Department of Social Anthropology, Andreasstrasse 15, Zurich, room AND 4.06 (4thfloor)

Abstract: What is the span of a human life in relation to deep time – that is, in relation to the timespan of the geological processes which shape and reshape the terrain under our feet? In this talk, I argue that the life cycle is never readable on its own; it exists in relationship with other biographies. Human stories of life, of production and reproduction, are not only situated within wider genealogies which expand the life history in time through kinship, but on an active, constitutive relationship with the resources upon which we depend, whose formation stretches over time-spans which appear to dwarf that of a human life and yet are necessarily present – either recognised or unrecognised – in our own economic and social activity.

I will explore this argument through material from recent fieldwork in Orkney, an archipelago off the north coast of Scotland. The action of the sea is constantly reshaping and reducing the islands here, eroding the glacial till and the underlying sedimentary rock. A continuous gnawing, but with moments of drama that thrust deep time into the full glare of consciousness. From this vantage point, I will attempt trace out a biography within the materials of the coastline: sandstone, uranium, and concrete.

See: http://www.agenda.uzh.ch/record.php?id=41490&group=19

Around the table, from the left: Moritz Fürst (Uni Lausanne), Lena Kaufmann (Uni Zurich), Zarina Urmanbetova (Uni Zurich), Maud Chalmandrier (Uni Lausanne), Ignaz Strebel (Uni Lausanne), Alice Hertzog (ETH Zurich) and Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi (Uni Zurich)

20 FEBRUARY 2019

Inaugural meeting of the reading group “The natures of infrastructure”

Venue: Bern

Today we convened in Bern, half-way between Zurich and Lausanne, for the inaugural meeting of the interdisciplinary reading group “The natures of infrastructure” devoted to discussing the recent publications in the field of infrastructure studies. The aim of the monthly group is to establish a meeting platform for social sciences and humanities scholars conducting research on infrastructure at various Swiss universities. For the first meeting we read two chapters from the book Infrastructures and Social Complexity edited by Penny Harvey, Casper Bruun Jensen and Atsuro Morita (Routledge 2017).

The next meeting takes place on 20 March 2019 in Bern. If you’d like to join, please email us: agnieszka.joniak-luethi@uzh.ch and ignaz.strebel@unil.ch

16 FEBRUARY 2019

Spuren im Sand – Tracks in the sand

Verena La Mela and Fabian Geiger are going tell the stories and show breathtaking photograps from their 7-month roadtrip in a camper van in 2014 on which they embarked after graduating from the university. In total, Verena and Fabian travelled 29500 kilometers through eighteen countries starting in Germany, via south-eastern Europe, Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Xinjiang, Pakistan and India. The trip was one important reason why Verena decided to do a PhD with the focus on Central Asia and how she got interested in the anthropology of roads! The blog from this trip can be viewed here.

23 JANUARY 2019

Lecture „Fragile connectivity: The New Silk Road and the fluid landscapes of Sino-Inner Asian borderlands”
Lecture series Borders and Border Spaces, Geographisch-Ethnographische Gesellschaft Zürich

Participant: Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

In 2013, President Xi Jinping formulated China’s vision of Eurasian connectivity: The Silk Road Economic Belt. The strategy envisages the construction of infrastructure networks that will engulf the Eurasian continent and form an interconnected space of exchange. Since the plan was announced, the Economic Belt has attracted much academic and media attention on the infrastructure being constructed and its future potentialities. At the same time, questions about the sustainability of this infrastructure in a dynamic Sino-Inner Asian borderland with a highly «fluid» terrain and socio-political geography has been virtually absent from the debate.

The inevitable decay, maintenance and social ambiguity surrounding transport infrastructure lack the appeal associated with new construction projects; yet discussing them is crucial in the context of the Silk Road Economic Belt. It is important to bring this mega-project back down «to the ground» and into more mundane terms. By zooming in on a single «desert road» in northwest China designated as a crucial conduit in the westward arc of the Economic Belt, this article draws attention to the social complexity and ecological vulnerability of transport infrastructure in the Sino-Inner Asian borderlands. At one scale, this infrastructure is part of China’s vision of globalisation, at another scale, however, it is firmly embedded in local contexts. By pushing the political, ecological and material complexity of roads in northwest China to the centre of our inquiry, the article offers a radically new perspective on the current construction boom and its sustainability.


17-19 JANUARY 2019

Mapping Asia Workshop

Venue: Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich
Participant: Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

At this amazingly productive workshop organized by Galen Murton, currently a Marie Curie Fellow at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at LMU Munich Agnieszka gave an intervention on “How to draw ethnographic maps?” and discussed the challenges of drawing “thick” maps of roads that would go beyond their usual cartographic representations as smooth lines. How to cartographically represent the social un-smoothness of roads and the ways in which exclusions, precariousness and uncertainty remain inherent elements of mobility along roads?  It was really instructive  to discuss these questions with human geographers, social anthropologists and GIS specialists who convened in Munich for this interdisciplinary workshop. Thank you so much, Galen, for facilitating this event! 

15 DECEMBER 2018

Roundtable “Chinese politics today: Ambivalent Ambitions”
Symposium China behind the Media

Venue: University of Oslo
Participant: Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

In Western media China increasingly comes across as an ever more authoritarian state. At the same time, the country is taking the responsibility to help address climate change and global poverty. We hear that China is a global economic miracle, as well as a potential threat to democracy. In this publicly open seminar, some of the world’s foremost experts on Chinese society, politics and environment discuss what China looks like behind the media images.

Organized in three panels, scholars will debate short- and long-term developments in the political system, which global ambitions the Communist Party is cultivating, the human rights situation in Xinjiang, feminist activism, and how the government and the public are responding to environmental degradation and climate change.

The seminar is organized by the research project “Airborne”at the University of Oslo (UiO).

22-23 NOVEMBER 2018

Conference panel “Beyond Engineering – Anthropological Knowledge on Infrastructure”
Annual Meeting of the Swiss Anthropological Association

Conference program

Venue: University of Zurich
Participants: Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi and Madlen Kobi (Academy of Architecture, Mendrisio)

Infrastructures such as roads, buildings, railways, heating systems or power lines are complex social-material-technological formations. Anthropological research into the meanings and workings of the built environment has demonstrated that materials, technologies and built structures are inherently social and dynamic. Moreover, though knowledge is often framed as something invisible—existing in discourses, ideas and cognition—the anthropology of infrastructure makes clear that it also is manifested in and thus has to be studied through materials such as concrete, steel, tarmac or sand and their use in the construction process. This is evident in anthropological studies that engage with the role of infrastructure as a built and building part of society. For example, houses can embody remittances entangled in migration histories or serve as real estate investment. Mobile phone-enabled connectivity expands networks of social relations. Mining of materials for infrastructure construction is embedded in the complex political ecology that stretches far beyond the actual construction site. Roads are platforms for projecting political agendas, expectations, fears, and claims to power. Ethnographic research on infrastructure meaningfully contributes to infrastructure studies by exploring infrastructure’s mundane social life and highlighting its inherent dynamism. Social anthropology thus balances out the focus on engineering, technological advancement and construction manifest in glossy images from opening ceremonies by contributing knowledge on the social life of infrastructure, the often neglected impact of time, the processes of social-material decay, and the complex work of maintenance.

Hence, anthropological knowledge contributes to understanding infrastructure beyond its normative function and rather as dynamically-evolvingsocial relations between materials, humans, discourses, knowledge, environment, the state, capital and more, relations that stretch across place and time.Social anthropologists have demonstrated an explicit interest in combining different scales of knowledge in their research, e.g. the scale of political decision-making, the scale of engineering knowledge, the knowledge of technologies and materials, the knowledge of the mundane lives of the workers, and the knowledge of power relations which manifest in infrastructure, among others. Anthropological research on infrastructure has thus also substantially, though often implicitly, contributed to destabilizing the notion of an anthropological ‘site’ or ‘field’, and has also sought to reflect it in its methodology.


Moritz F. Fürst and Ignaz Strebel, University of Lausanne
Why our cities don’t fall apart: Ethnographies of repair work

Dalila Ghodbane, Università della Svizzera Italiana
Heat and dust. The ethnography of a house in historic Cairo

Luisa Piart, University of Fribourg
Istanbul’s (post)-industrial infrastructures: An urban exploration

Seraina Hürlemann, University of Lausanne
More than transport: Contesting ethnic culture on the ancient tea horse road in Lashi Hai (Yunnan, China)

Matthäus Rest, Max Planck Institut für Menschheitsgeschichte, Jena
Do it for the culture. The infrastructures of milk preservation

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi, University of Zurich
Input presentation: The social life of infrastructure – existing and emerging debates

10-12 OCTOBER 2018

Roundtable “Where are we? (in Central Asian Anthropology)”
Conference “Ideas and Practices: Exploring Social and Economic Transformation in Central Asia”

Conference program

Venue: Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle
Participant: Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

Infrastructures of change
Since 2000, when China launched its Open up the West campaign, and at an even greater pace since 2013 when the One Belt One Road initiative (OBOR) was initiated, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China has been subjected to rapid social-material transformations. Huge amounts of funding have since been invested in road and railway construction. This significantly changed the spatial organization of the region and had all sorts of social, cultural, and economic effects which further complicated the already tense political situation in the region. While the focus of Chinese and international media is on the spectacular opening ceremonies of new roads, in my talk I instead explore what happens after the construction teams pack up, ceremonies end and the newly built infrastructures begin their complex social existence. I propose to theorize roads as complex social-material structures which concurrently exist on a number of spatial and temporal scales. In Xinjiang, the new roads inscribe themselves onto a highly charged political terrain and overstrained ecosystems. This complicates their social effects and deserves a nuanced analysis to understand their ambiguous ramifications.

13-15 AUGUST 2018

Conference panel “Fragile Infrastructures, Secure Nation: On the Making of Ruins in Highland Borderlands”
6th Meeting of the Asian Borderlands Research Network, Bishkek


Participants: Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi and Alessandro Rippa (LMU Munich)

In the highlands of Asia, construction of roads, railways and airports in previously inaccessible and peripheral territories represent a major element of nation building. The Pamir Highway, for instance, was fundamental to Soviet governance in Central Asia. A similar argument can be made for the roads and railway connecting eastern China and the Tibet Autonomous Region. In Kashmir, roads and airports were for the most part the results of strategic considerations, and the role of the army in their construction, use and maintenance remains crucial. Today the strategic motivations for infrastructure construction are increasingly downplayed by the discourse of transnational connectivity in trade and development which transportation infrastructures, reportedly, automatically generate. Often brought under the umbrella of so-called “economic corridors” such massive infrastructures are, we are told by the proponents of such projects, means for commercial and cultural exchanges, not devices of securitisation.

On the ground, such promises meet a harsh reality, in which infrastructures are conspicuous for their fragility and on-going disintegration. We argue that this intrinsic fragility of infrastructures, as well as the central role of maintenance should be more explicitly addressed, both empirically and conceptually. In this panel, we discuss the implications of such fragility in border regions, where infrastructures have for decades served as the main means of nation-building for border communities.

Conceptually, we contend that infrastructures should be analysed from within their social, material and political environments and entanglements. Construction is from the beginning accompanied by a parallel process of ruination, and maintenance often becomes the main way of engagement for the lowland state. Infrastructural fragility, it could be argued, both reflects the contentiousness of any nation-making process, while also providing the state with an opportunity to secure its presence across contested borderland spaces. A challenge, as well as an opportunity.

Papers in this panel explored this contentious nexus, and discussed the following themes:
– the ontological fragility of infrastructures and how it affects the maintenance of state materiality in the highlands of Asia;
– ethnography-based case studies of the politics of maintenance;
– what happens when different layers of ruins, often the result of different state interventions, co-exist in a particular space;
– how promises of peace, modernity and wealth are inscribed onto infrastructures and navigated vis-à-vis mundane experiences of disruption and decay.


Till Mostowlansky, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva
The Longest Construction: Building and Shattering the Borderlands of the Pamir-Karakoram

Mia Bennett, The University of Hong Kong
Between Permafrost and a Hard Place: Loss and Livelihoods Amidst Post-Soviet Infrastructural Decline

Mustafa Khan, SOAS, University of London
China Coal Roads in Pakistan and the Contradictions of Modernity

Björn Reichhardt, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
Boon and Bane: Fencing off Livelihoods in Ulaanbaatar’s Ger Districts

Discussant: Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

After a series of fantastic conference panels during the day (“Borderland Commodities: In and out of the Legal Shadows”; “Liquid Undercurrents: Infrastructure and the Border Lives of Fuel, Water, and Cash”; “Resurgent Frontiers: Mobility, Regulation and Infrastructure in South Asian Borderlands”; “Hyperbuilding Highland Asia: Ethnographic Engagements with Emerging Infrastructural (Geo)Politics”; “Cross-Border Social Interactions and Tensions in Central Asia”; “Ocean Grabbing and Ocean Re-claiming in Asian Maritime Borderlands” and “Local Responses to Infrastructural Degradation”)our colleagues from anthropology and geography departments across Europe, the US and Asia convened in the evening at the house of our Kyrgyz host Bakytbek for a seriousnetworking event.

Dear Bakytbek and family, we are very grateful for your hospitality, thank you so much for facilitating our gathering.


Research Trip to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan

Participants: Verena La Mela, Zarina Urmanbetova and Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

The research trip to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in August marked the official beginning of the ROADWORK project. The aim of this three-week road-trip was to get in touch with potential research partners and to visit the field-sites in southeast Kazakhstan and southern Kyrgyzstan where Zarina and Verena will conduct their research in the coming years.

Read more…