Having Wine, Playing backgammon with Friends,
and Taking Care of Customers
I would like to thank GeoAir and the resident artists who let me to join them as an observer.
My special thanks go to those who work at the market and gave me the opportunity of recordings their work, interactions, and friendships. I observed how they perpetuated their bonds and produced their place/space on a daily basis, in (for the majority) precarious conditions. They were doing this in a particular urban public space, in a market site, in Tbilisi, with a post-soviet history, and imbedded, in multiple ways, in the complex and dynamic global neoliberal capitalist economy.
Meaning is context-bound, but context is boundless.
Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory, 1997: 91
Below, I post pictures I took at the Eliava market in Tbilisi to discuss a framework for doing urban visual studies in this site, particularly from mobilities/immobilities and production of space perspectives.
Eliava, GeoAir, and the Images
I took these images in a section of the Eliava market that offers second-hand car parts, as well as some new parts. Second-hand tires that are brought from Europe, as well as parts of Soviet-era cars, and parts of non-Soviet cars that are damaged in car accidents, predominate the commodities exchanged in this corner of Eliava. There are also some new car parts.
The pictures were taken during late spring and early summer of 2014. I also made a short visit to the market in 2017.
In 2014, I accompanied four GeoAir resident artists who were doing their art work under a project called Discover Eliava. There were two conceptual artists, who did most of their work on in one of the market stalls on the ground level, and two sculptors, who did their work on the second floor of a structure under construction. I stayed at both places in order to observe, interact with people, and take pictures. I also moved around the market and took photos.
This was not the first time this part of the market was a site for artistic encounters and exhibitions. In 2012, it became a location for
“a grassroots, multi‐disciplinary, cross-cultural and site-specific public art laboratory. It consisted of an open-ended exchange between Georgian and North American artists and curators as well as Eliava’s community members, and took the form of an evolving contemporary art exhibition, a series of art/design workshops in various cultural and educational venues, and a day-long open house Streetwise: Discover Eliava Festival at the marketplace.”
In 2014, one could still observe of a previous artistic intervention in the market.
Limitations of the Study
This was a preliminary visual study. As a visual study, it needs to also include film/video in the future.
The pictures were taken in a specific period of the year. Visual data from different seasons of the year should also be incorporated.
Visual forms of data gathering in the field should be combined with other forms of data gathering, like listening/observation, and individual and group interviews. Other sensory data, like noise, and temperature, are also important.
I carried out a solo ethnographic image gathering. In the future, team work, particularly as participatory research, should also be relied upon.
Use of archival sources is also important.
In addition to seasonal changes, the inquiry should also investigate transformations over years.
The study was carried out, mainly, in a specific corner of the market. In the future, one could also cover other parts of the Eliava market.
The focus of the study was the sellers of merchandize and labor, not the customers that come to the market to purchase parts. In the future, the customers should also be included.
Below, when I use the term Eliava, or the market, I mean, mainly the corner I focused on.
I have posted both B/W and color pictures. Color pictures may provide more “ethnographic” informations.
Eliava is a contested (semi-)public space.
Three connected, and sometimes contradictory, set of changing processes and practices are forming and reforming the market’s space:
1) Capital – as a global process, as value in motion and its cycles
2) The State’s involvement – flexible and changing, related to national and municipal politics, with
3) Economic actors – practices by the stall and shop owners, mobile sellers, workers, and customers
Categorizing the Images: Mobilities/Immobilities Framework
I have organized the pictures with a mobility/immobility framework in mind.
As the text below indicates, the (im)mobility framework has its advantages and challenges:
“We argue for the importance of anthropology to “take on” mobility and discuss the advantages of the ethnographic approach in doing so. What is the analytical purchase of mobility as one of the root metaphors in contemporary anthropological theorizing? What are the (dis)advantages of looking at the current human condition through the lens of mobility? There is a great risk that the fast-growing field of mobility studies neglects different interpretations of what is going on, or that only patterns that fit the mobilities paradigm will be considered, or that only extremes of (hyper)mobility or (im)mobility will be given attention. The ethnographic sensibilities of fieldworkers who learn about mobility while studying other processes and issues, and who can situate movement in the multiple contexts between which people move, can both extend the utility of the mobilities approach, and insist on attention to other dynamics that might not be considered if the focus is first and last on (im)mobility as such.”
“Capital is not a thing, but rather a process that exists only in motion. When circulation stops, value disappears and the whole system comes tumbling down.”
Eliava as a site for mobility and realization of capital – and?
As a market, Eliava is connected to the global capitalism. It is a concrete geographic location, a small node in the global spiral movement of capital.
Lecture 1: Capital as Value in Motion September 12, 2016, The Graduate Center, CUNY (City University of New York).
“My purpose [in setting up such a grid] is to find some point of entry that will allow a deeper discussion of the shifting experience of space in the history of modernism and postmodernism.
The grid of spatial practices can tell us nothing important by itself. To suppose so would be to accept the idea that there is some universal spatial language independent of spatial practices. Spatial practices derive their efficacy in social life only through the structure of social relations within which they come into play. Under the social relations of capitalism, for example, the spatial practices portrayed in the grid become imbued with class meanings.” ; 222-23
Accessibility and Distanciation
Appropriation and Use of Space
Domination and Control of Space
Production of Space
Material Spatial Practices (experience)
Representations of Space (perception)
Spaces of Representation (imagination)
Soviet builders marching with models of avant-garde houses, USSR, 1931
“Piles of objects and products in the warehouses, mounds of fruit in the marketplace, crowds, pedestrians, goods of various kinds, juxtaposed, superimposed, accumulated – this is what makes the urban urban.”
Lefebvre, Urban Revolution, (1970) 2003: 116
Eliava is, mainly, a market for car-related and house-related commodities. These commodities come from different industries, and have different networks of mobilities related to what is referred to as planetary urbanization.
The Soviet mass apartment building project started in late 1950s. This type of housing, called Khrushchyovka, can be seen on the other side of the street to the west of Eliava.
It is often said that by the 1980s having an apartment and a car became highly dominant desires in the Soviet Union. Eliava is a space to offer and purchase “parts” needed to maintain such a desire for ideal and coupled material assemblages of im/mobility in a post-Soviet context.
Post-Soviet Urban Markets
Eliava is one of those markets that emerged suddenly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some of these markets, like those in Bazorba, around the central train and metro station, emerged as extensions of a previous formal or state-sponsored market. But, in those years, Eliava emerged in an “empty” (socialist state) space in a central part of Tbilisi as an “informal” market. Now, it is a space for intermingling of “formal” and “informal” market practices.
Creation of such markets were “urban movements” in spatial, economic, and social terms.
These were revolutionary movements, in the sense of their sudden emergence. They continue to be a site for urban daily resistance movements, in the sense of their negotiated continuation after the liminal years of transformation to a capitalistic era.
Spatially, they are about taking over of soviet state/public space and its contestation in the post-soviet era by people who became full-time or part-time members of a growing population who took over public/state space for their economic activities —such as sidewalks, areas around metro or bus stops, or areas either in the cities or their peripheries that were not under usage, like the Eliava market.
Economically, they represent an informal, or from below, movement away from the formal soviet economy, towards a neoliberal economy, practiced both informally and formally by petty commodity owners.
Socially, they have become a new urban site for places of both work and sociability, that is production of “second and third places” in dynamic and precarious post-soviet integration into global capitalist economy.
Garage & Car Repairs Building – close to the Elieva market
Built in 1970,
Architect: G. Kurdiani, V. Aleksi-Meskhishvili, G. Mebuke
Categorized as Socialist Modernism
Most of the pictures were taken in the area below where the shops with red roofs are around the stalls with small gray and brownish roofs.
Many use the roofs of the stalls are used for storage
The stalls are spaces the emerged by (informal) practices of citizens in the immediate post-soviet years.
Some of the people who operate at the stalls sell second-hand items made during the soviet times, they sell the soviet past.
But, there are also those who sell new car parts (but mostly of soviet-era cars), or a mixture of new and second-hand parts.
The stall and shop owners come from different educational backgrounds. Many stall-operators have university degrees, mostly acquired during the soviet period, but, for some, during the post-soviet years.
Some don’t even have a whole stall for themselves, and use tables between stalls, or the side of stalls to sell their commodities. They could have a storage space in the back of somebody else’s stall for themselves.
In addition to the stalls, there are newly constructed shops that sell second-hand tires, or new parts.
Construction of new buildings and infrastructure was going on during the time I took photos.
Materiality of Historical Changes in Cars and Shops/Stalls
Two set of connected material assemblages and their associated transformations are noticeable at the market :
1) Transformation Related to Cars (mobile assemblages and their parts) – A transformation from a soviet-cars to a post-soviet cars, run by petty merchants that are connected to the capitalist global economy.
For different reasons car accidents are frequent in Georgia.
2) Transformation Related to (Immobile) Stalls/Shops – a transformation from stalls created after the collapse of the soviet union (by independent individuals), to newly constructed buildings (started in the twentieth century), rented as shops.
One could, perhaps, talk about the market as a site for multiple ambiguous temporalities.
Mobile/Immobile Economic Actors and Gender
Furthermore, those who make a living in the market could also be categorized into two groups:
1) Those who operate via (Immobile) stalls/shops.
These are mostly males, except females who have their stalls cooking or making coffee/tea and could also deliver – their stalls are around the edges of the market.
2) Those who sell their commodities or labor by being mobile at the market on foot (carrying their products or pushing modified baby carts, mostly sell their commodities to the first group above).
Most of mobile sellers are female. The push-cart operators that carry loads are males.
Eliava as a site for Visualizing Post-socialist Precarity
Production of Space and In/formality
Play and Production of Space at Work
Playing Nardi Im/mobilities
Nardi is a popular board game in the Caucasus, and countries around that region.
It is a game that is played by males in urban public spaces (like markets, parks, sidewalks, street corners) by those whose work time is filled with long periods of waiting for customers, or those who are retired. It is also played at homes, in rooms and courtyards.
It is an ancient game, similar boardgames have been found by archaeologist in the Mesopotamia (Ur) and south eastern Iran (Burnt City).
It is considered to be the classic game of skills plus chance, and thus representing real life more than chess.
It is a game played by two, but others join as involved audience.
In the market it is played by neighbors-friends; those who work in shops or stalls situated close to each other.
Playing nardi (or observing it played and occasionally participating) forms a particular punctuated and varied time-period of “play/leisure/social activity/waiting-for-work” that is part of the workday of those involved.
Not everybody at the market plays nardi. Some play more than others, and there are some who don’t play at all.
There are people who are interested in other board games, like chess or dominos.
People at the market do not bet playing nardi (or table boards). Monetary transactions are not involved in these game/play activities.
During the play the bodies of the players (and even spectators of the game) get closer to each other. Playing nardi has its own form of embodiment, skills/knowledge, and materiality.
Punctuating Work day with Nardi (Play/Leisure)
Work – Changing Tires
Playing backgammon is stopped by arrival of a customer.
The shops and stalls are operated by small mercantile owners.
The shop-owners could employ wage labor to complete their transactions with their customers.
Changing the tires is a labour intensive activity with its own skills, and forms of knowledge/skill, materiality, embodiment, and masculinity.
Exchange if information and ideas among neighbors when dealing with technical issues is common.
In a hot and slow day workday could be punctuated by siesta immobility.
A supra (feast) also means a halt in playing nardi
Playing Chess Im/mobilities
Even when it rains people can find a shelter to play their chess.
A new passage (road) is constructed next to the a building under construction, yet the checkers players continue their game next to the working bulldozer.
The mobile sellers register their credit-based transactions.
One sells food items and is mobile carrying her commodities, the other has a stall to sell (mainly) cigarettes, but has to be mobile too to fetch debtor’s money, carrying her credit notebook and mobile phone.
One sells cigarettes, the other socks, they are Georgian-Armenians, very close friends. and are usually moving around in the market together.
She got the order, now going to her stall to prepare coffee.
Carrying coffee to the customer
Sunflower Seeds Mobilities
She was a truck driver during the soviet times, and drove even to central Asia.
Now, walks in the market and sells sunflower seeds.
Seasonal (Items of Desire) Mobilities
Khachapori is something desired in all seasons, but there are also seasonal items of desire.
Other mobile sellers
Requires skills and knowledge about the products gathered, and demand for them.
A mobile gatherer and a mobile seller
Transnational Mobility of Customers
Mobile Between Europe and China
Car owners come to this part of the market to change their old tires with second-hand tires brought from Europe. It is said that he old tires, like those in the corner, are sent to China.