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WHITE ON WHITE: a film noir — admin
rufus corporation


In 1915, two years before the Revolution, the renowned Russian national painter Kasimir Malevich abruptly stopped painting things. In their stead he painted a Black Square on a white canvas and demanded that painting and Western art in general be through with representation. Literally, be finished with representation, as in: cease to render things, real things, reality, or any way in which we imagine reality to be. Stop making pictures of things. This occurred, briefly, for two reasons. Painting, he deduced had already done everything that was possible for it to do. And second, the camera and the cinema could do it now better. Rather, he demanded, painters and artists must, without alternative, render fundamental form as it is, the Platonic metaphysique – eidos: paint Truth. And this expressed itself as a Black Square. While he was at it he leveled his dictum at filmmakers as well, accusing them already of the soap-operafication of everything. Sounding the alarm, warning of the simulacrum, the doppelganger, parallel reality, Reality TV. His manifesto was brilliant and insane and impossible, but somehow correct – that the end form of aesthetics would be the virtual reality. He found this as nauseating as space itself, and so he chose space. Which of course cannot be kept like a lizard in a jar. In failing to maintain the impossible vacuum of non-representation on Earth, he could not have been more prophetic. But before he failed, he painted the Black Square and hung it between the Earth and the Moon as a chameleonic reflecting device, perpetually shifting as an opaque mirror according to our projections of what we think anything is. Inspired in part by the abstract feeling of aerial photography he declared, “I am the Ambassador of Space.” Then he promptly went back to radical figurative portraiture like any good cosmonaut who makes it out alive.

In 1968, in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clark reinvented the Black Square in four dimensions as the Monolith and planted it on the Moon. This was their solution to the problem of “imagining the unimaginable.” Marking and sparking each stage of human development from the dawn of tool-usage to our arrival at the outer reaches of the Galaxy, the Black Monolith catalyzes astronaut-Dave’s evolutionary leap from man to super-man. Again, as an opaque reflecting device, the monolith mutely culled from his consciousness projections of both collective memory and his most transcendent (psychedelic) aspirations. The possibility of mind is imagination. As Cosmonaut – absorbed in the unlimited possibility of his own mind, reflected by the nothingness of the Monolith – Dave is Star Child, cell, Earth, consciousness, idea-life-seed, omniscience, time-space, enfolding proto-hologram projected within his interior as everything. The monolithic black square is the imagined blackboard upon which we project our imagining of the existence of everything. A metaphor for the metaphor.

The Monolith is impressive and forbidding, if not perfect. But I prefer Sputnik. Sputnik I. A silver ball about the size of a middle-class television with four spidery punk-rock spindles extending back at wind-blown angles. The R-7 launch vehicle had previously been intended to carry nuclear warheads. Sputnik, alternately, means “traveling companion,” or, “satellite”. To behold Sputnik I is to feast your eyes on what I believe is the most beautiful object ever made. Rivaled perhaps only by the North American canoe. A design vision so elegant it must have seemed alive, sentient, hurling through orbit, communicating something. Peal back the skins of Sputnik’s hulking contemporaries and you will find piles of car batteries. Parts and glass tubes. Volkswagen-sized conductors that Tom Waits might have plugged something into and catapulted at the mountain just to hear the sound of it exploding. But Sputnik was a glistening jewel.

It is possible, reflecting on the torture that one must endure in the effortlessness of space, it is possible to imagine an inverse of Malevich’s all-reflecting and annihilating Black Square. That is, by annihilating oneself, and one’s attachments to the most fundamental elements of life: gravity, atmospheric pressure, endemic supply of oxygen and nitrogen… by annihilating oneself, we may attain the most iconic, aerial and representational vision possible: the Earth, real and abstract. Slaying all our warring demigods. Our horrendous biblical history mute and infantile. Earth-bound, for a brief time, Malevich sought the view, the supreme vista, by annihilating our perception of everything. In flight now, the view itself is life, illuminating everything we have destroyed.

by Jeff Wood


There’s a confusion in going. Stepping out into the black and blue morning before light, the wet streets and the cold damp air, before the black birds; a violence of destroying something; a rawness in ripping the body from bed, from warmth, from loved ones, from all the familiar skins, and going. I shudder and panic, and go. And exorcise it later, weeping like a lamb, when I know it will have been worth some cost, and not just fear, before the black birds. On the train listing somberly inside the rising light, even and gray, and then the inhuman machinations of the airport. The yellow signs and bells and the soft spongy crackle of German over hidden loudspeakers. A primal comfort in the forming and shifting masses of others, hurried and embracing, gathering broods, advancing in packets and lines. There are other people here. Absurdly exiling themselves like me at this brutal milky hour. Mothers and babies and surrendered fleshy husbands. Fluid spindly antelopes, all elbows and sinew. Domesticated action figures commuting to Frankfurt. Affordable supermodels, hyper-eyed, with ornaments and Turkish tans, somehow. Bewildered adolescents breathing through their mouths like turtles without shells, looking into a mental space devoid of things, corneas just functioning as the flow of bodies moves them toward the metal detectors and x-ray machines. Everyone stripping themselves. No one creature should be accused of resembling any other. Every object, every system, is painfully unique. The opposite is impossible, and systems presuming this, erroneously and myopically, collapse and burn out. Just people described poorly, blurry colors and nerves, packed into vacuum sealed cylinders, and launched; I am comforted at this hour by our common strangeness. Burning, and after-burning. On the plane I purge the adrenals with coffee, and sleep. I don’t remember it. I am flying.

by Jeff Wood


Was it among men? Or in the lines and shapes, in the dust and colors. In the things blown and blowing. The shallow waves moving over pebbles and coarse grains where once great things stood. In the hazy sky and the memory of grand architectures. In the blunt and illegible forms stood like crude arithmetic against the shimmering playa. What did you seek to retain and hold dear in the palm of your hand like a creature in the safe pool of your deepest sympathy, in your nostalgic future. The thing that you were looking for. Is invisible. Awaken from your slumber.

When I returned, I spent days inside, wrapped in blankets and furs, with very little in my brain and nothing on my voice; chemicals that don’t know what they are yet, just sounds and some words that are not in any proper order. Very alone, with all the time and real coffee that I could want, and no idea what to do with myself. But I feel I owe it, because it is not enough to be a phantom; a scorned and dishonorable affliction, the brujo, whose mismanaged tempers and discontents drive him down private godless lanes from which it is impossible to return to a state of grace. It is too late to be a white devil. Believe it or not, that world is over. The world is absorbing, everyone, as it ceases to astonish. I wish to be in a room with tobacco, but that room is gone. The place I am from is not that place anymore. I have no name, and I come from nowhere. This is true and not true. But in that space, it is true. Out on the open lands, where the fires are built.

On the Kazakh Steppe there is the legend of the Mankurt. A strong, young man who is captured in battle by Mongols and taken out into the desert. There he is beaten and starved, but not killed. His head is shaved. A nursing milk camel is executed and her udders are brutally sliced off. The flesh of the camel breast is stretched over the fallen warrior’s head like a skull-cap where it dries in the desert sun, tightening and constricting about the man’s cranium, sealing itself permanently to the living. His hair grows but the camel dermis, which is now like a second layer of grafted leather, does not permit the hair to grow outward, so it turns back on itself and grows into his own scalp like dental syringes, afflicting him with unimaginable pain. This added to nakedness, beatings, starvation, dehydration, sunburn, sunstroke, heatstroke, bites, infections, infestations, sleep deprivation and isolation reduce the once-man to a primal state of perpetual agony and with it, absolute madness. If he survives the ordeal, as though passing through fire, his memory has been erased, and with it his identity, he has no more self. He is no one. And good for nothing, or anything. A slave; a laborer, or selfless herdsman, wandering and blank.

by Jeff Wood


holz builds something VIDEO


There was a number and then a dash. 
That meant he was still alive. 
One, nine, seven, eight, dash (1978 –)
Its true, he wasn’t dead yet.
But it felt prescient. The dash seemed to intimate something.
He tried not to think about it. He tried not to dissect why someone would have referred to him on the printed page as: not dead yet. 
He is the one supposed to be plotting.

The horizon is everywhere. An obstacle to plotting. Everything is in the offing.
He spoke in a whisper and had since the time he learned to speak. 

He thought of himself as adept. He could walk through a hall of mirrors without once looking at himself. He is annoyed that his name and birth year have appeared on a piece of paper.

Nothing is charming. Nothing in the city could be classified as describing that attractive quality. To the unknowing outsider there seems to be no magic. He finds this a disappointment and then a massive relief.

The logic-defying horizon is everywhere.
“how do you live in such a big place?” he was once asked.
“Well, ya can’t see it all at once.”

The place has numerical charms but that will take a while for him to comprehend. He moves into 3-66-12. A rented apartment off the main road, the only street with a name, up against every other combination of 3 numbers that delineates one’s location in the city.

3rd ‘mycroregion’, 66th building, 12th door
(an architect’s premonition of the digital age?)

The current empire and the last empire have met and become conjoined. One swallowed up by the other like a boa ingests a mouse. The erosion of one is described in its crumbling concrete and the gilding of the other. There is a run on mirrored glass and chrome…and .

The drunk Scot in the local expat bar asks, “so you pro or against?”
“They don’t call it late capitalism for nothin’”, he says.

In this place it’s still early, albeit born mature, senior even, as if a wily old goat had just seen the light of day through the labors of a young woman. It has the teething lust of a teenager, and the knowing gaze of a dirty old man. “What happened to late communism?”. It ate itself up from the inside out. Choked itself on brackish water.

Now that has become divisive – how to define the water. Is it a sea or a lake?
Politicians and geologists argue the point endlessly. One thing is for sure. It is saline.
Brackish, not potable. But it’s the only water around. Purified through splitting atoms.

There are prospectors, wildcatters and con men. The people he ends up trusting most are the con men. Clearly, the best and the brightest in the region…

“so you pro or against?”
“its like being against air” he says, he chuckles softly and moves away.
, a bunch of hooey” says the wildcatter.

He hires a local teenager as a driver.
a number plate keeps reappearing.
He finds his must reset his watch often. 
How could it be that there are no longer 60 seconds to a minute?
It’s 23:17, 2016.



The most beautiful object in the history of humankind is Sputnik I. The first human-made object to be put into space. All of history turns on this object, this deco orbital signal beacon that spent three horrifyingly lonely months circling the Earth and then burned up like a comet as it descended toward California. It’s form was sublime.

Moscow is just monstrously big. Big and wide, fat, monstrous and low, brash and intimidating. Like a bulldog in a thong and heels. The Humvees and the money pumping. Times Square and Vegas scattered throughout the Soviet blocks. Parallel retro-future in the accelerated progress of decline: rusty caged elevators; padded double-doors; strange magnetic-coded locks; underground street-crossings so the traffic never stops. Every car is a taxi-cab: you hail down anyone and pay them to take you anywhere. The subways descend to howling depths and grand subterranean dance halls illuminated by Victorian and Nouveau tube lights and chandeliers. God was great; God was good; now we go to work. Over-sized garbage cans hurtling through the black future-tunnels. Underground, underground, all we all go down and live inside the night of the new life. The new light. The white nights. Light speed now.

by Jeff Wood



Every morning we descend to the port from the Velodrome and seek passage across the Caspian Sea. Every day we are denied. A regular ferry sails to Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan. But we wish to go to Aktau, the Soviet planned-city of the retro-future on the remote western shore of Kazakhstan. This ferry is still untamed. It goes when the cargo goes, 18 hours across the silver Caspian to Aktau, and no one can tell you when that will be. We follow the steel wall on the south side of the street and turn down the poorly marked alleyway following the railroad to the ferry port. Everyday the first guardhouse waves us in and we follow the tracks for several hundred more meters to the second and final guardhouse before the boats like building are docked and the rotund guard in his starched uniform and costume hat greets us and communicates no boat. He sends us back to the casas, the ticket office where every morning we begin to enter and a man directs us to the unmarked entrance next door which I begin to suspect has something to do with the clean white tile on which they don’t want our boots trampling until we figure out that this marked door is for cargo only while the unmarked door is for passengers, rare as they may be. Without fail every last person to whom we inquire regarding alternate or outmoded forms of transportation such as boats or trains begs us in astonishment, why don’t you simply fly! Of course you know there is a plane! It is faster, and guaranteed! And our answer is simply that we want to take the boat. We want to cross the Caspian. Or that the train is more comfortable, more humane. We want to see! And the kind woman of the casas who by now is acquainted with our odd inquiry can only shrug her shoulders and say no boat. Maybe four days. Maybe ten days. She points to the empty cargo containers sitting on the railroad tracks. When is cargo, is boat. No cargo, no boat. No boat to Aktau. Turkmenbashi, da. Aktau, nyet.

Across from the port, facing the sea, is the front line, the new face of Baku. Like so many re-emerging cities, a promenade of construction sites promising the finest luxuries, conveniences and indulgences a city must offer in order to be a city. For your consideration. The parade of elite boutiques and garishness, the Paris, London, New York, or Rodeo Drive of everywhere that is a city’s ticket to the show. A stroll through the magazine along the wall of glass. The glitterati of an economy, the spoils of oil. At the end of the strip along the serpentine shore is SOCAR, State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic, a highly secure vanilla-toned Victorian palace where we are able to arrange a visit to the Caspian Energy Center. Driving south-west out of town, the new gloss of Baku quickly dissolves again into dust and real life. Teeming village outskirts, desert and industry. And then more desert, leading all the way to Iran. In the van, passing mile after mile of pipeline, we meet Rick, a congenial yet cautiously demure productivity analyst from Houston. He is making his daily commute from the BP gated-community to the desert processing plant where oil is transitioned from the off-shore platforms, visible out the van windows, to the new Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline which pumps oil from the Caspian to the Mediterranean.

So what’s it like working here?
Well it’s a heck of lot different than Houston. But the people are super. Really very, very friendly. And the food is great.
But you live in an apartment, in the city?
Well no, they’ve got us in a compound. They really like to keep us all together.
And what do you do here?
Well, I look at productivity levels, and rate them. Looking for improvement and increased productivity of course. Particularly at the new technician training facility.
BP is training a local labor force to be technicians?
Yes, absolutely, a couple hundred a year.
They speak English?
Well that’s the first thing we teach them.
And are things improving? In productivity, I mean.
Well we hope so. Honestly, no. Not really. But BP has certainly turned things around significantly. There is certainly less waste then there ever has been in the history of the region. This is just more technologically feasible than what was possible under the Soviets. And of course there’s an environmental consideration that was needless to say grossly absent in the past.

This is a research trip. For an art film about extreme combinations. Architectures. Economies. Landscapes. Personalities. And although I don’t know exactly what kind of movie we’re making yet. Rick here is exactly the kind of deceivingly extreme character that I’m interested in, the kind of character that I dream of becoming, precisely because he seems completely uninteresting. He is totally normal in every way. And yet there is something so specific about his utterly banal and congenial American mannerisms that he seems quite odd against the extraordinary backdrop of the Caspian region and the international oil business. Rick is friendly. I notice immediately his possession of a striking and unnerving talent for absolute professional politeness. He answers our questions directly and efficiently. He offers just enough personal information to lead us to believe that he is human. Yet he offers no information without inquiry. And he doesn’t ask us a single question about ourselves. He reminds me of Matt Damon’s uncle. Older, bald, fatter and wearing a synthetic fleece vest. I am therefore convinced that he works for the CIA. Which is the standard explanation for anything remotely odd, or significant in any way, odd or not. He talks with his hands as though he’s baking bread. Indulging our layman’s self-important curiosities with total ease. And then he looks back out at the sea with gentle steel blue eyes.

The Caspian region is speculated to be the most important emerging reserve of oil and gas on the planet. The Absheron Peninsula itself is the historical center of the global oil industry, dating back to the 3rdcentury, and most significantly exploited by the Soviet Union which managed operations here until the 1960’s. Then for lack of deep off-shore drilling technology they directed their attention elsewhere but continued to utilize the region for petrochemical processing. When the USSR collapsed and Azerbaijan gained independence, it’s production dwindled even more, but has steadily and significantly increased since the early 90’s with foreign stakes and management. The region is predicted to eventually surpass the Middle East in productivity. At the Caspian Energy Center, an educational center at the BP plant, we learn about the diverse kinds of oil, locating methods and methods of extraction. The incredible pressure-physics of a drill hole; the ironically simple Newtonian physics of guided drilling. The insectoid labor-force of drill heads themselves. Slurry. The concrete industry. The layers of gas, oil and water. Turning natural gas into a liquid so that it may be pressurized enough in order to pipe it. Or hydrogen sulfide, that familiar gaseous emission which smells of rotten eggs and which at over 300ppm will induce pulmonary edema and at over 1000ppm will induce death in but a single breath and which we may see from the sky or from the interstate burning in flames in the night from our narrow towers. And from a layperson’s perspective, as with most industry, the technology required to extract oil from deep within the earth, retrieve it, and put it to good use, is so impressive and extraordinary that it seems an incredibly bewildering and stunning circumstance that nearly every last instance of our contemporary lives relies on this hellishly complex integration of science and labor. I stood before these children’s educational demonstrations with my jaw-dropped, nauseated with vertigo before the interdependent black-hole of it, understanding that nothing as we know it happens without this drilling. Without this opaque magical substance as powerful in our arcane ways as any substance that we could ever wildly imagine. Bear with me, but I cannot exaggerate the boggling experience of simultaneous enlightenment and profoundly naïve superstition with which I laid eyes on this coveted substance and the mega-industry surrounding it. Like peering into some cosmic cauldron. It sounds pretentiously poetic to wax: that looking into the crude felt like looking deep into our common civilization, and into our bargain. But it is so. The oil, the hydrocarbon, like coal, like methane gas, is comprised of dead organic matter, highly pressurized dead stuff. It is true that we are what we eat. Oil is us; prehistoric plankton and algae, earthly organic matter reconstituted as potential energy. It is not outlandishly literary to infer that we are engaged in the most massive recycling in the history of the earth. But it is to engage in the primeval cycle itself and the psychology of the affair would not be without its shamanic implications. For what would be primeval would be to engage in the deepest of sacrifices, for what in the round would not require it, for what in Heaven would not come without cost on Earth, and who would so ignore Lucifer in the pantheon of archetypes would be to deny that very Leonardo whom brought us to the view of this precipice. And this is written in the black lava that is become our currency. And to see it is to see into it. And were it not also for what we saw next, in the north, it would be somehow to live blind and not awakened to these pillars of fire.

Pausing, staring out the window at the desert, with remote erasure, like Rick the productivity analyst and his sea-foam eyes, just outside the center, a community of tortoises hulk inside a concrete pen, salvaged from construction in the local dirt. The Caspian nations are developing at a visibly astounding rate with delirious aesthetic effect. But the still-present history of Soviet negligence, or perhaps even the standard sacrifice of horrendous industry in any nation is still very much visible on the hinterlands of Baku City. So we drive to the north.

by Jeff Wood


Midnight 07/02/07 Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Renato and Jean-Mark are a visual and aural force to behold. Two white men burned the color of fried chicken. They bare all the signs of years in the desert, excruciating thinness, lots of lines, and a sense of deeper wisdom that instantly shows us up as the neophytes we are. Hit with a barrage of heavily accented italianate English the first half hour of our meeting is completely incomprehensible.

Geo-archeologists, they do not, as they put it, “dig for trinkets”. They study the history of water and by extension the history of mankind. They are celebrities in Almaty, commanding massive respect from locals and foreigners alike. Three facts seem to account for their reputation:
1) they set up their Central-Asian headquarters in town.
2) they own a plane
3) they arrived in Kazakhstan 15 years earlier having walked from Vietnam and in spite of their Belgian and Italian citizenship, have not touched European soil for 25 years.
They possess venomous contempt for what they see as the overly domesticated pet that is Europe. More important than these facts is that every inch of the Central Asian steppe has been burned into them. They are human maps of the desert.

They peruse us curiously at first as if we are weird animals so far out of our depths that our turning up in their office at midnight has been the result of some natural anomaly that requires scientific study. “What are you doing here?”. “We were told you were the ones to meet…that you can advise us….tell us where to begin a journey”. “But what are you interested in?”. “Everything, Nothingness, as it applies to everything…” we try to explain haltingly at first the transference of art into life, the synthesis of Malevich’s 1920’s idea’s about a new freedom supplied by the realization of non-objective art making and how we might be able to manifest these ideas anew in a film about space shot in the desert. We hint at an itinerary that spans the 3000 kilometer length of the country in under ten days. Renato openly scoffs at us. He treats us momentarily with cynicism just short of disdain, for what he sees as our superficial tourist objective – exploitive, lacking in depth or research. He has taken the lead now, we are quiet. Jean-Mark – easily ten years his junior – is quiet. We inquire meekly to see some of their aerial photos of the desert.

“When we know you are serious we will show you something”

We try to say in the most serious tone possible “Yes, we are serious”

“I do not understand what you are doing.” Renato comments, in the sharp staccato that punctuates everything that comes out of his mouth, “but we will show you some things.”

They begin to open up. They unfold maps and bring out books and vodka. They start opening a few of the thousands of photographs that chart each square meter of the Mangyshlak plateau.

“You must go to Aktau, from there follow the pilgrims to Beket-Ata and Shopan-Ata, the holy shrines in the desert. Aktau is an shithole, a horrible place, don’t waist your time there, but the people, ah, the people are really very nice.”

They continue giving us the requisite advice about entering the desert in July. Four liters of water per person, per day, wrapping the water properly, covering our skin, the symptoms of heat stroke, etc. They let us know that if we break down in the desert we should not worry, the pilgrims in their Waz minibuses will find us.

And then Renato adds in his thickest most ominous tone – picture Peter Lore as an aging Italian archeologist –, “But beware of the blaaack deeeath”
“The black death?” we query.
“Yeeeees, the black death, you know the plaaaague.”
“The plague?”
“Yeeees, in the west of Kazakhstan there is still the plaaague.”
“You know, the rats they carry the plague, the plague is under ground for thousands of years, the rats they live underground, they build a ‘muli-etage’ apartment in the ground in the desert and then, you know, the rat it comes up, the rat bites your dog, the dog comes home to you, the flea is on the dog, the flea bites you, you get the plague.”

We sit their wide-eyed and dumb founded and feeling lucky that are chances of getting bit by a plague infested flea is considerably less as we were not traveling with a dog that could get bit by a rat that had come to the surface from its underground ‘multi-etage’ apartment.

We leave their office at 2am, delirious.
The next morning we fly to Aktau.
At first sighting it certainly seems to be the shithole that Renato and Jean-Marc promised.
But the people are really very nice.

by Eve Sussman


A fog of sand and dust and light. A haze and behind it black and forms silhouetted in the muted glaring. Filtering light, forms moving and shadows. Shadows, forms themselves. All things in the dust bleeding together in the dark black. Just dust everywhere and lights and shadows and forms. Approaching what we would learn to be the outskirts, pre-dawn and chaotic ribbons of concrete, automobiles, minibuses and workers, all in the haze and dust. Enveloping everything. And headlights passing through it like searchlights, ghost lanterns. The city bending like a ghost ship. Warping and refracting as light splitting and cutting through dust. I feel it on my tongue, in the dark. I taste the city. As it lurches sideways and rolls and wants to stay hidden in the long approach of undulating waves, the interurban expressway now local and decrepit now new and flowing above the endless stacked apartment boxes and even more radically arising legions of skeletal brick construction sites, empty, looming and hungry. Our taxi descends out of a cloverleaf into a swirling vortex of machines, a roundabout beneath arched overpasses, sucking everything into it. We slingshot around the outside, whipping that little Lada, dirty-white, and then jam the damn thing right into the oncoming ventricle adjacent. He skirts it across in fits, on the fins, almost moving it sideways like a ferry upstream, and pulls into an odd complex eddying off of the massive extropy. Standing masses of black leather jackets clustered in amorphous pods and darting through the veering headlights like swinging flashlights. The market stands just opening and ladies and men in sweaters in the bright white bulbs hanging from the stalls in the thick charcoal mist. The Hotel Velotrek is a workers’ hotel and something of an enclave inside the composite of an arcane mini-mall. Everything market stands, coca-cola bric-a-brac, electronics, strange candies and bags of odd puffed flavors, bananas and dates and almonds and dried cranberries beautifully piled and bulging from their cobra coiled baskets. Döner kebab stands wedged into illumined jerry-rigged porticos and white-tiled, wet-mopped cafés. A glowing two-chaired barber behind steaming glass cracked and frosted like a Christmas menagerie. The city buses and private minibuses charging, stunting up and conglomerating in lines and angles with their paper number signs and lists of alien stops. A boggling amoeba of taxis gathered and idling with their lights all aimed at each other like dogs sniffing on a sort of landing strip, a shallow waiting area just outside the whorl. And hundreds of men, incomprehensibly groomed and so alive, untouched by the fumes and filth, the raw time. All of this, so much life in the dawn spanning shortly along one arcing quadrant of the roundabout in the magical dust.

Inside the gate, on the backside, the air is damp and quiet and the fog thickening and restless, shifting in billows and rising and hurrying off at the top with the light broadening over the wall. A few small Russian cars parked in the blue light with smoky windows and hollow interiors such that somehow I think there might be exhausted men sleeping in the back seats but they’re aren’t and nothing is moving but for the fog and an emaciated cat curling along the corner and there aren’t even any dogs.

The Hotel Velotrek is so named, as it is hinged alongside the living market and the life of the traffic roundabout, the hotel is also the keeper of another sort of cyclone, a Velodrome. And such a thing I realize I have never actually seen before. A long-distance and high-velocity cycling ring with treacherously steep embankments formed of concrete. Blanketed in fog and illuminated by powerful lights diffusing through it, the arena is strange, and uncanny, and mesmerizing as though sentient and out of place, crouching like an incandescent egg, hollow and alive. We film it. And watch it heave in the fog, like a bullfrog. I walk in the light surrounded until I can’t see anything and I search for the outline of my hands against the dark morning sky. An unkempt winners circle of ratty grass at the center and here there are dogs, three of them loping about a 3-tiered winners podium of painted wooden boxes. They follow me like horses in the field.

Though the concrete track is cracked and in some places sprouting weeds a cyclist emerges from the awning mouth of the tunnel protruding like a squid’s beak from the center of the bowl. The rider begins turning the single gear laboring coldly against the chain and there is an obscure moment in his speed where it seems that the angle of his bike has exceeded his centrifugal velocity, and that he might tip over. But he pushes through it and smoothly rounds the elongated course until he is circling steadily with the light still coming on and the day not yet breaking and that brief timeless hour of morning that we sometimes wish would never pass for it’s bewitching peace and reverent musical breathing like a call to prayer.

The lobby to the hotel is behind long panes of cheap shuddering glass as though some sort of cheap jewelry box used to keep minnows for bait. And the lobby appears more spacious than its dimensions allow for it is near entirely empty. Two very long couches, or couches lined up end to end are pushed back against the black marbleized walls on either side, and men are asleep on them. Against the end wall is a television and a football match and a round clock high above it on the wall that seems massive. For a moment nothing happens, and we stand there as though in a room of an altogether different reality. Then two men rise upon their elbows in delirium and brief panic having finally heard us enter in the delay of their sleep sensing. Salaam. A man moves behind the counter and tells us that there is no room. We say that we have called. He says there is no room and we say that there must be a room because we have called and we are here now. A woman appears from behind a partition with a bucket and he communicates to her and she disappears upstairs. He says for us to wait and we have no other recourse and she reappears shortly and he tells us that there will be a room in two hours. It was then that we went to communicate with the Velodrome. And I returned and sank into an enormous easy-chair at the end of the couches and watched the muted football game while the men slept in white and sweaters and barefoot with blankets about them on the couches and a tea service on the coffee table and a few empty bottles of beer. And the face of the clock high above them while my American associate and the Bavarian went about to procuring some bread and kefir and water.

The room is a workers’ quarters with five beds divided between two rooms, several small nightstands, a fiberboard cabinet, a wardrobe and a disgusting shit-hole of a bathroom that while even though we are on the 4th floor we must keep the door shut for the smell of sewage backing up into our carpeted pension no less than if we were on the ground directly over the open hole. There is no TV. Which I could care less about but it makes you wonder of five beds and that void. The bulbs are bare. It is neither warm nor cold, thick and damp like the fog outside. I’m afraid to stop moving for the humidity but I have my emergency sleeping bag and the windows open upon a view of the Velodrome some starlings singing and finally the city itself emerging in half-light orange and golden and mucus colored. Pigeons aloft. Doves and crows. Common house sparrows on the window ledges and spruce boughs. And a falcon marking a straight line across the balconies, antennas and rooftops dense and infinite the populace focusing and fusing out of the blur. And I see for the first time the city of Baku which is entirely strange to me and I could never have before imagined it. As if until this moment of awakening it had for so long been shrouded in darkness and dust with the beams of flashlights cutting and swinging at the hands of searchers with swollen cataracts glowing in the haze like spiders’ eggs. Or had not existed at all.

The streets of Baku run like a cirque with the Turkic tones and diesel and the waste and fumes and the commerce of corrugated aluminum-sided trucks, packed jelly-green jacked-up mini-buses and dented-up Russian taxis putzing rabidly like clown cars running down to the promenade and port on the southern shore of the Absheron Peninsula that extends like a wolf’s claw into the Azerbaijani Caspian. Off-shore cumulonimbi towering with Olympian light, under-bellied murky and pink against the waters of the sea in March the color of iron filings. More art nouveau, again explored by the Russians brings a lovely incongruity to the dust covered city, the stone walls, the carpet sellers and the old stone Virgin’s Tower which legend tells of a princess’ containment rather then of the warring view that was certainly its purpose. And there is another lady, again atop an obelisk. Another messenger of liberty. Slender, strong and mesmerizing, calmly gazing down the mountain, down the fuming streets from an intersection of jackhammers and scaffolding, a mute refuge within the thicket of bricks and lattice-workings and urban swarm. She seems neither to be a pacifist nor of any other allegiance, but simply looking inside the war inside you and your violent constructions, facing out from the city the unchanging line where the water meets the sky.

by Jeff Wood

The Kid

“You need nine eyes to drive around here” the kid says “almost ten”
The kid is also good at cracking locks.

When the Kid arrives at his apartment to collect him, the man notices how at home he feels, how comfortable the Kid is moving through the place. The Kid seems familiar with everything. He knows where the light switches are, where the cups and the tea are kept, where to find the matches. He opens the fridge. Puts the kettle on to boil. He sits on the sofa like he’s sat there a thousand times, as if it is his own sofa, as if he lives there. And in fact, he does live there. He lives in the man’s apartment.

Just like every teenager in the city, lives in every apartment. The apartment where the Kid grew up is identical. The stove, the sofa, the propane, the matches are the same. He and all kids in the city live in all apartments. They are equal and they are at home.

The kid prays five times a day. The man learns to work this into their schedule.
The kid taps him on the shoulder and says “I must pray now”. It’s an imperative. (the way someone stops the car and says “I need to pee”). Although never a believer, bemusedly the man starts to pray too. As he waits for the kid to return he finds himself, five times a day, staring into the space where he knows nothing. A hiatus from the code that runs in his head.

In ten days the Kid will leave the man. He will go to the capital to become a petro-engineer. They don’t give degrees in con artistry. Petro-engineering will have to do. All the teenagers living in all the apartments are all studying petro-engineering. Almost.

The man likes the kid. He likes that he only asks essential questions. He notices a change in the Kid. 

One day the Kid asks, “can you get me a visa?”
“A visa?” the man asks, “a visa to where?”
“a visa to the place you come from.” (this should be obvious, is in the Kids tone)
“I don’t know”
“I don’t know if I can do that”
“this is your home, you will go to university here, things are fine here”
“Yes, but can you get me a visa?”
“Maybe….I don’t know…”
“You can try” says the Kid.


In Almaty we meet a pair of extraordinary gentlemen. Tanned and sinewed as weasels, Renato and Jean-Marc have walked from Vietnam. North across Southeast Asia, traversing the Tibetan Plateau via Lhasa, crossing the Himal, navigating the ex-Soviet conglomerate of Stans and eventually arriving in Alamty, on foot. Here, in the former capital and modest cultural center of Kazakhstan they have grounded themselves in a dimly lit office dormitory adorned with the antique carpets of nomads, sheep’s skulls and glowing computer monitors where they run freelance operations in hydro-geologic archaeology. They have not returned to Europe, or the West, in 25 years. The regional authorities on the ways of these Central Asian desert peoples and the accompanying prehistory of their desert milieu, Renato and Jean-Marc are experts on water. They have scoured nearly every square meter of the steppe and deserts to the south from their ultra-light aeroplane, making stunning aerial photographs of the vast and shifting terrain. And through the orchestration of their excavations on the ground, and in the ground, their knowledge of Kazakhstan is unsurpassed. With confident precision and candid speculation they may inform you with some bit of useful or entertaining data pertaining to every oblast and every village, every cultural, religious and economic inflection, every railway departure time, every flight, every transfer, every roadway, every remote ridge and possibly every last dried up wash. Not only do they know what lies above the ground but they know the invisible layers that are stacked up beneath it and the millennia of history human, animal, plant, geologic and mythic and that have built us up and eroded away to expose the thin skein of present that we wish to explore for a few weeks. So we seek them out for advice. They feed us real coffee and beautiful vodka. Wiry and fit from a diet that I can only imagine to be desert yoga and oranges, Renato paces and pauses in long mesmerizing monologues, energized with colorful Italian explosions while Jean-Marc in his languid Belgian French offers calm punctuation and clarification from behind his desk illuminated in the blue light of an antiquated monitor occasionally rising to retrieve a map or a document from the library against the wall. These are men of another time, and of the movies. We’re making one. And these guys are one. The kind of men in the movies of childhood that inspired you to do everything you have ever done. That have brought me here, before them.

“If you want to see the desert you must follow the pilgrims. To the Sufis. If you want to see the desert you must not go by car. From behind a car window you will see nothing. From behind a car window you will look at the desert gong by for one maybe two hours and then you will sleep. You will see nothing. This is not your fault. This is the fault of the desert. There is nothing there. And the fault of the car which will put you to sleep like a baby. I do not understand what you are doing but if you want to see nothing, you will find it. There is all the nothing you could ever want to find.

“You must go to Aktau. There you will find what you are looking for. Aktau is a shit hole. Is very hot. The sea it smells like a toilet. Is a city only for oil. Aktau is a piece of shit but there you will find all the emptiness that you can bear. The desert is very beautiful. Yes. Is what you are looking for. But they don’t even know it is there. They try to build now for tourist, but they don’t even look to the sea. They look inside, to their pocketbook. Like people must do. Is very very hot, it smells like shit… and then there is the plague. Yesss. The Black Death. Is here. Is buried under the ground for many thousand of years. But then the rat come to build an etage and the they build an etage down under the ground to the plague and they bring the plague up to the surface and they bring the plague to the flea and the flea bring the plague to your dog and the dog bring the plague into your home and then you have the plague. Yessss. Aktau is a shit hole. But the people are very nice.

“In Aktau you follow the pilgrims. Out into the desert. In Aktau you catch a cab driver he take you to the pilgrim tour and you buy a spot on the pilgrim. The pilgrimage. Very cheap. These are pilgrims. Minibus in desert you see. The bumping of the bus keep you awake. You see desert. Many days. You see desert like pilgrim. Not like tourist. Bring water, enough water is 3 liters for each person for each day. Keep the water on the roof of the minibus wrapped in a wet towel. Bring more water for washing. Brushing teeth, etc. Keep covered but stay out in the breeze. Better to be in the sun in the breeze than inside in the dead air. But just keep covered. Then maybe you find what you want. I don’t know what that is.”

“The Sufi master spend his whole life on death you see. He dig his own grave. He build a hole in the ground and he goes to it. He goes into the hole and he does not leave. Ever again. He retires to death before death. In the hole, in his grave, he sit and wait and he speak the poetry of his life, of his death and these two things become one thing. The thing that was being sought. And his secretary sit above the hole recording his poetry flowing out of this hole of death in the ground. Yesss. Death must have a secretary.”

Renato smiles broadly like a small boy, his round lizard eyes probing radiantly from his gaunt skull, looking like a master himself, and we are rapt before the archaeologist. Sitting beneath the maps and the carpets of nomads. The spiraling horn of the ram, grooven and involuting. Like the serpent, the labyrinth, the seashell, supercluster. I am marveled at these bone rail thin men of contemplation and research and action in their dimly lit loft before the whole of the Central Asian desert. As if their wandering expertise of time has folded them within time itself and between the worlds of nations and continents and mores that we comprehend. Renato regards us, our strange trio and our beguiling endeavor as though from the position of a benevolent cobra. Sitting on the hardboard pew sipping coffee and vodka, listening, this cross-roads meeting seems so extraordinary that I can’t imagine whether it happens to them everyday, disturbed from their researches, or whether it is happening at all. Is it when you make your poetic resolves, or when you fix yourself, what was broken, is this when you learn. When you become yourself? I ask him about Tibet and tell him I had been there 18 years ago. Renato raises an eyebrow.

“Ah. Very lucky. Was almost still Tibet. Not quite but almost. You saw Potala. Eees very very beautiful. Unsurpassed. The Chinese they will leave eventually. There is nothing there for them. Just land. Just dust. And they know it. All big talk now. But they know it. Problem will not go away. Eventually bigger and bigger headache. Eventually nothing there for them but problem.”

My American associate asks him if he considers himself a Buddhist.

“Yes of course.” This is the only sensible answer for anyone. “Of course I don’t like to call myself anything. But you ask, and of course I must answer that I am a Buddhist. I am a mathematician, so I must be. This is the only logical response. Yes, this is what I must answer if I must answer.”

And my American associate who is also the director and principal 16mm camera operator of this film then asks Renato if he will be in our movie.

“Yes of course. You just tell me what you want me to do. And I will do it. Eees not so difficult. Acting. Yes of course. Eees not so difficult. I used to act all the time. Many films. In Hong Kong. In martial arts films. I was a ninja.”

In the far southeast corner of Kazakhstan near the borders of China and Uzbekistan, Almaty sits against the Alatau Mountains, a front range to the Tian Shan, the Hindu Kush and the Himal beyond it. The Tibetan Plateau further to the southeast. The former capital of the former Soviet state, Almaty is developing rapidly, like everywhere. But they’ve had the good sense to not cut all the trees down as everything is rebuilt. What must have once been an almost lovely outpost between the mountains and the desert, at the center of the geo-political map of Earth, Almaty is choking itself with traffic and fumes. An inefficient network of traffic lights keeps cars lined up from intersection to intersection like the avenues of Manhattan during rush-hour. The post-Soviet oil boom has flooded the streets with SUV’s and the funny arrogant posturing that goes with them. Since I’ve spent a good deal of life on the road and behind the wheel I’m interested in how people express themselves in that theatre. The road structures its own way of seeing, and our behavior, our interiors are filtered through its mandibles. Working as a truck driver in Manhattan is an extraordinary experience that comes with it’s own semiotic vocabulary: the subtle codes and inflections of a massive and flowing complexity inscribed and listened as a peripheral array, while the nerve endings of your body as the operator extend into the far reaches of the vehicle which must be felt and maneuvered like a bull passing in ballet with a school of sturgeon through a cockfight. We take it for granted now the degree of intensity to which an automobile is capable of manifesting an expression of our ambitions and our very immediate feelings, but seated in it’s cockpit, it is literally an extension of ourselves. It is us. We understand this in one sense of course, familiarly, as road rage, but the projection, and the very injecting of yourself into our automobile can reshape an entire perspective. In boomtowns, as the streets brim to the limit with confidence, aggression and an exponential multiplication of oversized vehicles, the cars themselves become the new character of the city. In Almaty they’ll run you down and run you over for a spare five feet of turning radius around the next corner. And they’ll honk the horn off a rhinoceros at a line of traffic that has nowhere to go. Pedestrians are second class-citizens on the street. The black mass of steel and the unconscious hairless arbiter of it’s motion heave it forward with the blunt recklessness of a stampeding buffalo. It’s as though the quest for upward mobility may be expedited by unhindered lateral mobility. And while it’s true that money is time, and that time is space (or space multiplied by change), there is a ghost factor to the arithmetic that is a response to an inversion – a psychological waste. Because while it is our objective to travel more quickly, with more ease, and in a more whimsically individuated style, the more cars that flood the street, the less this is possible. So while we wish to be able to do whatever we want, whenever we want, as quickly as we want, the more we achieve this possibility, the less it actually becomes possible. The car is what we want to be confused with where we thought it might take us. The promised ecstasy of flow, and flotation, bridled and repressed into a retarded, idling, and stagnant pool of sweat and fumes. What a grand betrayal. A ferocious resentment. And the object of that resent are the armor-less objects just outside the steel bubble. Other people. The behavioral psychology of automobiles in developing boom cities is comparable to placing grenades in the hands of love-scorned adolescents. When I can walk across town faster than you can drive in your Cadillac Escalade you’d sooner be convicted of vehicular manslaughter than slow down while I cross the street in front of you. That’s just the way the math is. Things don’t get better, they just get. And we adapt our methods of exorcism. But the trees are very nice.

Quickly ascending into the hills, just beyond the outskirts of town is the Sunkar Eagle Farm, a raptor breeding, training and hunting center where falcons are hunted in the traditional manner from horseback and fine breeds are sold at extraordinary price-tags to Emirate sheikhs, emirs and sons. The birds are exquisite. All variety of the compact and deadly saker, bred to pure and assorted racing patterns. Peregrine falcons, Hobbies and kestrels. Golden and Steppe Eagles chained to stumps like dinosaurs. A perplexing and murderous quadruplet of gigantic Eurasian Eagle Owls. Nearly 3 feet tall, perched in line on a thick twisted branch in their Adirondack-style hutch. Amber eyes and narrow squid-like beak set into their queer angry faces, they attain wingspans of up to 7 feet. A novel collection of extraordinary vultures craning about like horrific animations. Behind the well-kept tableau of royal birds is the death-chamber. An infirmary of rats. Thousands of rats born to feed the raptors. And beyond the vermin barn a coral of beautiful walnut donkeys. When I ask about them I’m informed that they are slaughtered to feed the dogs. The Kazakh falcon trainer demonstrates the method by which a Steppe Eagle may bring down and carry off with a fully grown wolf. The eagle descends upon the hindquarters of the wolf at a tremendous rate, a force that may well approximate a cinderblock being dropped from an airplane. When the wolf turns around to howl and snap at the bird, the eagle quickly grabs the wolf snout in it’s other claw, locking the mouth shut. Then in one swift final action, the eagle releases the hindquarters and wraps it’s first set of claws around the rip-cage, hooks it’s razor-sharp ‘thumb’ beneath the wolf’s sternum and pierces it’s heart. Just like that. 1-2-3, earth and sky, more dramatic and storied than any fable.

Up above the stinging diarrhea-stained smog of the city we eat lunch at a remote roadside yurt stand. A semi-circle of traditional yurts on a concrete pad cleared of snow like a rest area. The air is clear and the beautiful fat Kazakhs are smiling. We sit at a picnic table with tea, bread and plov, a mildly spiced rice dish and hacked chunks of horsemeat on the bone. The air is clear. The thick and pungent one-room yurts are gorgeous and a delightful proposition for living. The men with their axes and the firewood. The blackened cauldrons. Tobacco and sparkling light. And the city below them, in reach, but just out of sight. Above the Falcon Farm, above the yurt stand, the valley quickly turns to snow and the red rock talus slopes crushing and tumbled into fields and fields of crisp hollow concussions, turning up through the bowls and rivers of stone like Mars on Earth, but ascending toward space, as close as we may come. And to the north, to the west, the Steppe, careening like a great disc of dirt and cropped grasses, asking.

by Jeff Wood


Lenin’s tomb is fantastic like a Christmas tree in Alcatraz National Park. A red granite marble pyramid with a miniature Parthenon on top. Inside the red velvet, a perpetual stream of silent pilgrims to the man who brought down the Kings and buried the History of the World. Could he know he would make way for the sunny nightmare of the free market? He has no legs. A blanketed torso of skin and sewn shut eyelids. Every two weeks he descends into a secret underground laboratory to have his taxidermal skin wiped down. Then he slowly floats back up into the glowing red vitrine for the unending funeral. Millions of us shuffling by the hairless animal; the dead idea. The one who wanted us to live humane, dog beside dog. And failed, the paranoid system destroying them murderously. Crushing them with the weightlessness of the idea. Crushing them, crushing them. And now, every night, every comrade’s daughter, is a fireworks display. What we’d rather live with – the labyrinth of contradictions; the ferocious quests for identity, nationalisms and possessions; a place in the strobing black-light of famousness; and to not grow old never. Buying a beer out on the sidewalk two girls ride by on horseback. It’s after midnight. It’s just gotten dark. The street is screaming. There’s nowhere to go on a horse.

Star City, outside of Moscow. You put your cameras away until you get inside. You are permitted to take pictures inside. But the guards outside don’t know that. The place is deserted. The splotchy brown grass is long, ratty and gone to seed. The edges and hedges are not trimmed. The sidewalks cracked and buckled. Several windowless buildings are ambiguously teetering between renovation and demolition. I can’t hear anything happening at all. This is the facility where they train men, women and dogs to ride the tip of a warhead out of the atmosphere and into the colorless, odorless heavens. They just don’t give a darn how it looks. The goal is to get there and get back. Nine minutes of sheer, bone-pulverizing terror. The adult animal body crammed into an asbestos coated pea-pod outside of which is immediate cardio and cranial edema, followed by a sickeningly bloated and silent death. At the end of two days, finally, a symphonic docking with the floating hunk of metal that is the International Space Station. Docking literally means that this piece of metal fits into that one, and is secured with a lever. In space. The rationale of course is that you cannot work on RAM with a monkey wrench. If your OS freezes up you go at the damn thing with your toothbrush and some fishing line and you get the damn monkey back inside. The fine clothes of rocket science. And yet I think “cosmonaut” must be one of the most lyrical words in any language.

The zero-gravity simulation tank is empty. But again, naturally, I imagine a family-man with a leak in his suit. Panicking momentarily as his helmet fills with water. Hauled up limply at the end of a crane. A demonstration monitor is yelling descriptions of stuff in heavy English while the tour guide is augmenting these descriptions with loud descriptions of his own in heavier English. The ISS simulator is covered in tarpaulins while the hall is being renovated around it, giving the place the look and feel of Boy Scout Jamboree. It is a possibility that it might rain inside the building. Laptop computers are lying around on the floor in the dust, hooked up to stuff. The most extraordinary thing about the interior of the International Space Station is that there really is no floor. There’s the indication of one, for the general sanity of it’s socialized occupants. But for all practical purposes, there is no floor or ceiling, up or down, or side to side. The nauseating sensation of practical relativity begins to creep into the mind as an intolerable condition.

The very real possibility that if one panics, in space, due to the plain and simple conditions of space, there is nowhere to claw your way out of your own skin to. One must live with oneself, in the vacuum, unadorned, as the seconds tick, and the seconds tick, and sleep comes to the corpse of weightlessness, hanging there, without even the pressure of a baby blanket to comfort the terror that a single fearful thought is the heaviest and loudest sensation for light years in any direction.

The centrifuge is an inspiring contraption. With a concrete shed built around it, a smooth blue arm capable of gracefully warping the body in four simultaneous directions until the monkey’s eyes roll back into his head and his grip goes limp on the emergency-systems-down red-release button on the joystick. Limp animal is once again dragged from hell-machine, eyes skewered, capillaries bursting, lungs heaving and heart wrapped around spine like a pig in a blanket.

by Jeff Wood


In the mid 1980’s when the imagination of Berlin without the wall was just that, John Powers attempted to cross Checkpoint Charlie dressed as a big, red tomato. His “Grosse rote Tomate” performance was a light on the idiocy of it all and the German penchant for classification, couched in an argument of qualities. The tomato confounded the border guards who could not see fit to let it pass, in spite of it being in possession of a US passport. He was too big for the pedestrian walkway, and lacking four wheels and an engine, did not qualify as an automobile.

Waiting outside the whitewashed concrete wall of the forbidden town of Baikonur, that houses 5000 keepers of the Cosmodrome, the diamond pattern of the wall began to take on a quality of pearly gates. I imagined John there in his gigantic tomato costume trying to cajole the guards and talk his way through those gates. I could only envision a flattened, splattered tomato.

These people were intimidating. And they had our passports. (the fantastic power imbued in this silly symbolic little book)

Hours go by. The car is hot and cramped. Jeff cracks the door.

My NYC instinct snaps, “don’t touch the ground!”.

“Don’t step from the vehicle, sir” does not need to be stated in a common language. Any of NY’s finest would of taken the cracking of the door as an incentive. Jeff closes the door softly.

Claudia is still a smoker. A beautiful Portuguese woman jonesing for a cigarette is too much for our hosts – or captors, neither they nor us are sure – to bear. East of New York nicotine is like music, a shared language. They offer her a smoke and a chance to get out of the car. The cigarette is magic. Nothing like fucking tobacco. We are pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock. The sun has gone down and the gloating 22 year old with our passports has removed the mirrors from in front of his eyes. These guys clearly don’t have a clue what to do with us. They cannot let us in and they cannot let us go. Luckily there are more cigarettes and the shy scratching of dead earth that people resort to when at a loss for words.

A civilian appears. A plain clothes guy. Pale, skinny and awkward, he does not harbor the xenophobic attitude of his uniformed compatriots. He seems perfectly friendly as if he’s coming to welcome his foreign guests, as if we had an invitation, as if he was expecting us. Anatoli speaks nine words of English: Yes, No, maybe, go, come, now, tomorrow, police, FSB. He’s nice. He smiles a lot. He wishes he spoke more English. We wish we spoke Russian.

Through the nine words and sign language we understand Anatoli will drive us back to the train station in Turitam, the Kazakh town that surrounds the little piece of Russia, where we disembarked four hours earlier. We have failed at our mission to see a rocket, but are relieved that the hours of limbo seem to have reached an end. We throw our packs in the trunk and pile into his black Ford [made in St. Petersburg]. Anatoli takes our passports.

He starts the engine and drives in an ark that looks like its heading to the main road. He has the wheel hard to the left as if testing the turning radius. The car makes a perfect semi-circle in the dirt. We are no longer heading in the direction of the train station. He hits the gas and we pass through the gates. Anatoli has driven us into the forbidden city.

We are inside Baikonur.

by Eve Sussman


Abandoned beaches with charred concrete pads and picnic tables gnawed and smoothed at the ends like driftwood. Filament beaches of igneous grains, rubble, gravel and all manner of coughed-up lithic grind, glass beads and glass bottles, glass shards. Sloth and slush and strewnings of fabric weeds and muck compressed into a poultice of wound drained down from that cirque and lapped upon impotently by the sickened sea. Odd indiscernible objects and parts of objects and rusted objects and piles of burned papers and clothing, utensils, halves over lumber, leaves and strange cones. A few slick loons diving. Some kind of building, the former cabana rotting and piled with mountains of green glass bottles. Sewage running from pipes as though straight from the train and water running rusted from the roof and the shack seems to be dripping itself, weeping and bleeding from it’s pores. Ripped and sheets hung in the wet from the blown-out sun-room windows and a body moving across the dank interior. Somebody living in there, on the shore. They look and wave and disappear and I don’t see them again. And I don’t know whether my presence is clandestine, or whether theirs is. There is no sun, only a thin layer of rainy soot. No light or light source. Just an open sort of humming glow like a painter’s illumination of an ashcan. Palm frond umbrellas lined up in the sand, tattered and pitiful and just plainly unbelievable as though again sketched by some post-apocalyptic satirist. And beyond them, in the rendered depth of field, the off-shore platforms, crouched in the gloom their knees bent darkly to the inhuman floor, shoulders hunched staunchly hunkered on the field of liquid against the horizon like desperate visionary cities. A deep loneliness, these off-shore platforms. The loneliness of drones with no reprieve, the salt spray corroding away at everything and cold steel, these contraptions, the vastness of it as in the summoning of the dragon Alaska and the architectures of our remotest fears suddenly irrupting into fully individuated existential panic like a mad dog frothing and tearing ravenously at our temporary mortal comforts. It’s cold March and not a sound. A few seagulls over the water. I sit at the picnic table at the still-birthing sea, covered in the thick layers of my winter gear and goggles, watching it, through the looking glass of a Hopper holiday just after the blast. A white, black and white light. This moment, this flash of colorlessness, of metallic film, never ends. I pull an orange out of my pocket and peel the orange with my gloves and eat it slowly, to taste that exploding color at the edge of the end of the world. And I skip some smooth ovular stones. They travel quiet, spinning gently across the monochrome surface like one note of a piano pressed softly and evenly as they might be skipping in a vacuum once set in motion a chain reaction against the governing laws of gravity and entropy might skip forever and with equal force neither increasing or diminishing. Like a signal formed of stone. Behind me the TV tower planted on the crest of the hilltop on the jagged ridge crumbling and rusty. Like a thing from space from the future bombed and reversed. As if our understanding of our lives is lived backwards and determined by the future that has already ended it, and is remembered. That time is actually flowing backwards and the thing that has happened or become is actually lived away from itself toward those causes and conditions which led to its happening and becoming. That at no time was I more whole than as a whole child, and have since been unraveling. And at no time was I more whole than that, then when was I an idea that had not yet existed, and that is the moment that I remember now, like a gemstone, the projected total memory of myself after I have ceased to exist, which I remember collectively by myself, as imagined to be remembered by everyone, as I unravel in pieces around the whole memory, flowing backwards away from it in time, into the fragments that composed it.

Beneath the TV tower a squat pod-like building, which looks to me like a small bombed-out television studio of reinforced concrete now some windowless bunker, a pentagonal star of bare corners absorbed of dog-piss and the foul stench of urine of other men. And I stay in there for a time in the front room and build fires inside, behind the front wall facing the road, the fire glowing about inside the shelter like an enflamed temporal lobe, visited by the furies, orange light flickering in the cyclopean eye of the building like a skull. And I sit up on the wall and follow strange vehicles along the road full of steam and forget that I am in any country at all and search out pale stars in the asthmatic night sky and I think of Sputnik ensnared in cobwebs strewn across the atmosphere. I watch the square and angular forms of animals cast about the walls and dancing like the half-mooned projections of a solar eclipse refracting and replicating everywhere in broad lysergic daylight. And the populace of an Aztec city-state engaged in the commerce of the pueblo and the random patterns of life from an aerial view like ants in their megalopolis spread out across the concrete floor flickering with shadows in the firelight, spelling out some code which if I could decipher would answer those to things that cause me to wish that it never be morning.

The people in full afternoon dissipating as we push on through the northern outskirts of Baku city and the hordes of traffic in brown clouds cleaving off and paring down to single lines in the dust and the road opening to a long pluming ribbon. And with it the city changing perceptibly but not quite dissolving. Lying low like fat dogs at siesta the interminable block housing spreading out on either side of the road. The houses go on forever in waves over the brown barren hills of incendiary dust, as if it might ignite and explode and vaporize, neither desert nor steppe nor dump, but of one vast conglomerating construction site on the land once something else now razed and long ago rooted and embanked of house after house after house of block upon block. And it must be one big mudfuck when it rains like hell of dogs roaming wildly down streets, map-less and without name. Rounding over the carcinogenic hills. Broad carotenoid breasts of fossilized oceanography. Mountains of seashells piled in crustacean epochs, molluskan kingdoms sheaving off and disintegrating into the airs, unmaking themselves. We are inhaling a prehistoric ocean in the dust of the taxi and sweeping over the top of a rise, a gaping maul in the earth. A craterous valley yawning out into the haze. An ethereal light as though forced through a gauze. I squint to see into it, for miles. The land is like a mummy. Thick diesel strata in choking pigments. The road following down into the bottoms. A noxious lake. Oil derricks pocking the hillsides for as far as the eye can see. Autonomic pumps cycling their mechanical arms. Steel urns and domes and untellable lattice-works of wires and cables and lines leading everywhere in some great conspiracy of Promethean conductivity. The landscape is so war-torn, so razed and seared, so churned with smog and vapor that it is difficult to imagine exactly what is happening here. Winding and crisscrossed roads, paved and earthen, and railroad stubs rusted and buckled containers and tankers. Activity in the distance and miasma of trucks rumbling silently and churning rigs melding into total sonic din, constant and thunderous and discreet like a tinnitus of the ears. The earth itself is howling and the scale across the clay-tinted terran expanse is like a children’s geography set, or train yard, or diorama: apocalypse. There is no sky. Oddly positioned buildings wherever they need be, in confusing states. Are they being built or demolished? Are they inhabited or abandoned, for living or industry, family, company or state? The effect is disorienting and sinister. Children there, barefoot and shirtless riding bicycles along the gas lines and the gas fires with goats and sheep. So overwhelming is the total milieu that it wholly defies my comprehension. Like opening up oneself for vivisection and seeing what was not meant to be seen. It is rapturous. Herzog’s Faust. Swarms and swarms of blackbirds in vast operatic whorls. Blackbirds, starlings and magpies, two-toned Eurasian crows and ravens black as pitch hounding the ground, splattering the open like ink. Innumerable black feathered wings sweeping like stained psychiatric cotton swabs inscribing a chaotic thicket of mad lines and trajectories, a pattern of indecipherable visual code as if to reformat the mind and encrypt it with a demonic confusion of illegible scrawlings. Thousands upon thousands of them like locusts blighting, alighting on the ferric branchless acne, tormented and stirred to feverish agitation as if the earth itself were pained and maddened with contempt, bitterness and jealousy. And the strangest, most specific littering of trash I have ever seen, as far as the eye can see, plastic deli bags. Millions of plastic deli bags blanketing the land at random yet even intervals. As if placed there, by all symphonic forces. Every color, but mostly translucent white plastic deli bags. Having blown from every corner store and every other last business on earth, from every corner of the planet, drifted, sank and eddied and found their basin, here. All like things gravitating. How can I explain, that as far as is possible to see, I see plastic deli bags. It is spectacular. I am mortified, and deeply saddened, and ecstatic with sheer bewilderment. And taking brief refuge in abstraction, I remember Sputnik again and reconsider. Perhaps the plastic deli bag is the most far-reaching and poignant icon of human achievement. But the landscape is heavier than metaphor and the air is leaden, deeper than sadness, sharper than melancholy, and shallower, looking inhuman into the inhuman of that vivisection.

Walking among the bags and the blackbirds, covered still in my layers of winter canvas and wool, goggles and gloves, my boots sinking into the spongy sphagnum of gunk. Acidic, acrylic pools resinous with oily iridescent orbits, like the varnished wood grain in a cross-section of giant grandfather sequoia. Miscellaneous sheets of plastic spiraling sculpturally through the muck. Masses of indistinguishable collage, like fiberboard gelatins of degrading organic matter, food-stuffs perhaps, body-masses of things. A searing lemony drip in the back of my throat. Mucus also oozing from some collapsing brick wall. Bright moving clay-earth substances like Play-Doh. More pools painted of temperature and minerals like sulfurous heat-vents rich with sideshow organisms and mutations. And a mammal, behind the soaked and wilting cardboard boxes, a dog pulling itself on it’s forearms and lying still, with no ears. I pull some crackers from my pocket and he wails a penetrating moan, stay away from me. I circle around, and stack the cracker’s on a stone and I choke. I vomit a little, drawing tears at the corners of my eyes. And spreading out from my fingers a sensation drawing nerves across the nerves of the boiling land like some great reef, sentient and throbbing, and diseased. Cancerous acrid mist in my sinuses and a dull whine in my molars. I am faltering. Something moving slowly. The coins in my pocket are oxidizing. Spine twisting. Curling. Curdling. It smells sweetly of burnt opium. I am polishing myself. I am metallic and mercurial clean. I am what I see. It is a shining mirror. It is shining. I have dreamed that I saw the new city. The mountain parting. Splitting open with gemstones and geodes The new city sparkling of jewels and cyalume. Electric and benevolent. I dreamed everything was beautiful.

I am erasing myself.

Pipes running along the road, always pipes along the road, against the bitter waste and the block buildings and the lumbering incidents of livestock. And down the road, along the pipes, tombstones.

I am from that future for we have made it.
For we have remembered ourselves.

A cemetery sprawling against the buildings behind he pipes along the road, beneath the smoking towers.

What was your cultural matrix. I mean, what did you remember. What industry made you. I mean what industry gave you who you are. Look into that vivisection. Remember it.

A cemetery of tombstones beneath the smoking towers against the pipes running along the road. Behind it, beyond the valley of haze, the city of Baku.

I have remembered pictures of the future.

A children’s cemetery.
Broken stone pieces.
Small broken stones.
Pictures of children.

I will not describe these pictures on these stones
of petrochemical children.

We have passed through the end of the world now.
And the world has not ended,
it outlives itself.

Remembering it in reverse,
I refuse to be from.

Because in the justice
of empathy and interdependence
at the end of the world,
we are from here.

Sumqayit, on the north shore of the Absheron Peninsula, and the valleys between, cradled against Baku, were listed in 2007 among the top ten most polluted places on Earth by Time Magazine, Scientific American, and the Blacksmith Institute. Some kilometers away is the Atashgah Fire Temple where in the 18th century Hindus built a wall of stone around flammable gas leaking from the ground. They set it afire and they worshipped it for purification, clarity and the pictorial poem of the living destroying fire itself. Now of course, the local women care-taking the temple will feed you tea as the question your intentions to take pictures. Then they will turn on the gas for you, light it, and if you pay, you may take a picture, away with you, of the fire.

by Jeff Wood


Joseph Campbell speculated that a society’s ethos might be ascertained from the purpose of it’s highest structure. His example, I recall, was the Salt Lake City ‘skyline’ which featured the Mormon Church, City Hall, and then a bank, in ascending order, and in time. At the end of this journey I would find myself at the base of the tallest planned structure on earth. Currently, the world around, the tallest structures are TV and/or radio towers. If the ubiquitous TV (or information) tower suggests an integrated global ethos, independent of localized values, the Burj Dubai tower will, present finally a total living environment, including the obligatory communications tower. A fully habitable desert careening toward the heavens. It has long been my suspicion that we are practicing for outer space, as it were. A space ship is in one breath a refuge and a death trap. Interestingly, not far at all down the list of the world’s tallest structures is the Petronius off-shore oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. And while it is partially supported by water, disqualifying it from some contests, it still ranks as one of the significant structures on the planet, albeit, perhaps, rising downward toward some collective id.

Driving in from the airport and crossing the Daugava River, the Riga TV Tower is striking, as it is in all cities. The third tallest in Europe, with a tripod base, the Riga tower occupies a shallow island in the river and resembles an Eiffel Tower imagined by Giacometti, broad and formidable in its base, while splindling off into an impossibly ethereal anime finger, like Lucifer reaching for Michelangelo. But in the center of town there is something fine. Amid the lovely, rainy pedestrian streets, the Jugenstil architecture and the mysteriously cropped trees is the Freedom Monument honoring soldiers killed during the War for Latvian Independence. A smooth white obelisk rising from a red granite base. Dramatic relief in white granite around the base dramatizing Latvian historical, cultural, labor and military instances. Then the almost luminescent white pillar elevating ideals above the round. A patina copper lady, a statue of liberty triumphantly grasping a gilded halo of stars above her head in both hands extended as high as her arms will reach. She is looking down at the square, at the street, at anyone, not at some metaphysical horizon. Her posture is almost yogic; slender yet unassailable. She is gorgeous and moving; not to possess, but to behold. She puts a fear in you, moves around inside you at will and then returns to her eternal position like a tesseract. The monument is both grave and sexy. It is riveting. I don’t believe that we believe in the human form anymore, in humanity, enough to commission objects of this precise scale and power. Our aspirations are elsewhere, and our suspicions, in the gargantuan and in the minutia, in the phantasmagoric and in the maddeningly ephemeral; she is a reality TV show now that nobody watches and a phantom of shimmering skin just outside the frame in the click of the shutter. A thousand clicks cascading down the runway. The runway is everywhere. And she is gone. We never saw her.

Along the river, alternately, the obligatory Soviet socialist realism monument puts an absolute terror in me. A real fear, just perhaps exactly as it was intended. Cutting razor noses as though of a ship’s prow or the blade of a shovel. Jaw lines and cheekbones and helmets and ferocious scowls of man’s Nietzschean savagery against all things within and without. A bottomless heroic suffering against the elements and the cowardice of indiscipline. Nothing but cold wind blows against those hardened faces. Frigid, frigid airs. Mother do not shield me from these rains and snows, this ice and hailstorm, this maelstrom, this blistering heat and sun for what I have forged of this earth I have clawed and pressed and smelted with my own two hands and made in my own image the image of history that has been laid out before me on which I will storm the past that has been deserved to me for my earned and righteous sufferings; for I have suffered; and for these charts of stone and glass and wire that you tread have been laid by my suffering as in war and war without end. And my face is against all that is pressed against it. I am a battering ram. I am all that has been achieved for I have achieved what man has been set out to do which is among these folds lay smooth a plate of iron to polish and shine and clean into a mirror’s sheen for this reality is nothing but mine and ours and us, and no one had died for your sins because there are no sins, sin is but chaos and chaos is what I see, before me, encroaching relentlessly, on all sides, pulling at my jowls, dissolving me in the wake of falling stars. I am God’s tool for I have imagined my labors in the womb of a black hole. For who would keep my brother but me, for I am my brother, and who would keep us but all forces gathered and intensified and focused upon this void that I have had but one will to enter and arrange and conduct as an opera of torches upon snow. I am howling. I am an arrow. I am screaming backwards. Now. My god what men suffering. What cold, cold, cold, cold, cold.

I have endured labors and trials but I am not a man of this fabric. What men and women even of this century I cannot fathom. I am a lazy coward and an altogether lesser animal. How do things happen now? How did it happen at all? What species have we crossed over. Already the world is foreign as Egypt and Mars. What force builds?

Upriver something humane. A shelter for people. A kitchen. Rooms. Beds. A table. Tea with milk. Coffee still, not Nescafe yet. A bright yellow-washed building among the brick factory-studios and warehouses. The old Admirals Offices Of The Port has been renovated as an artist residency/travelers hostel. With the fog laid low and chilled. A tunnel beneath the river where rat-people once escaped the collateral costs of evolution. The rooms are wallpapered with mid-century educational charts, graphs, and picto-grams the kind that go for top-dollar in American vintage shops, reminiscing how we learned things, a crude and cute mythology of when things were briefly comprehensible, or rendered. The fire brigade. Soviet buccaneers with buckets and ladders. Friendly anatomy. The layers peeled back. Newtonian chain-reactions. Billiard balls, ramps and mills. Donkeys. Levers. My room is covered in atomic bombs. All kinds of atomic, nuclear, thermo-nuclear, hydrogen bombs. What they do. How they do it. What they do to you. And what to do. Emergency rehearsal. Assess. The physics at ground zero. 300 suns. Time-wave axioms. Particle deceleration wavelengths. Cancerous ambulations. A shadow is moving across the mountain. A shadow the size of a mountain. The mountain is moving. You feel the blast. Sudden. The ground-shake. The heat coming on. The white light. On. Pretty. Many species. Above ground. Underground. Over water. The ocean. The Pacific island kind. The American kind. Atmospheric. In the sky. Angels. Singing. Listen. Run. Get down. Roll. Cover. Burn. Get underground. Go into the rat tunnel. Put on the mask. Wear the mask. The kind you wear goggles for. Science goggles. This kind makes the skin fall off horses. This kind makes the crops go away. How do you rearrange the sky? I sleep in bunk beds, surrounded by atomic blasts. The room turns like a mobile of softly tilting Armageddons. The floating clouds are full of blood, hanging like bloated ticks. The lawn is on fire. I dream of a tiny mushroom cloud I can hold in my hand.

When I awaken there’s camera gear all over the floor. Super-16mm. HDV. Tapes and film cartridges. Wires and cables and stacks of film that we’re gonna haul with us for thirty days. Lenses and microphones. And different colors of tape for different reasons. Gear exploded everywhere. I assemble my little tools. Leatherman™. Opinel. Multi-purpose western-style bandanas, 1 red, 1 blue (coffee filter, tourniquet, tear-gas mask, etc). Portuguese silk handkerchiefs. Lens cloth. Eye-glasses. Aviator glasses. Mountaineering glasses. Contact lenses for identity change. Zip-lock bags, use unknown but possibly for coffee. Plastic bottles with capsules: Fish oil. Ascorbic acid. Ascorbyl palmitate. Citrate. Glycinate. D3. D-alpha tocopherol succinate. Thiamine HCL. Riboflavin. Riboflavin 5 phosphate. Niacinamide. Inositol Hexaniacinate. Pyridoxine HCL. Folic acid. Methylcobalamin. Biotin. Pantothenic acid. Potassium iodide. Magnesium citrate. Picolinate. Selenomethionine. Glycinate. Manganese. Polynicotinate. Molybdenum. Potassium. Boron. Vanadium. Mixed Carotenoids. Andrographis. Echinaccea. Holy Basil. Garlic. TOA-free extract of the South American vine Una de Gato. Binoculars. Digital photo chips. Traditional 5-layer system for sub-zero temperatures. Carhartt desert shell-unit. Flip-flops. Useless, illegible photocopies of passport. Some US dollars. Moleskine™ notebook. Ink ball pen (favorite kind, secret, always stolen). Mini Maglight™. Duct-tape. Emergency down sleeping bag. Doxycycline. Rabbit-fur hat. Aspirin.

There is a guy upstairs, an actual guy, from Paris, France who has come here on ‘work vacation’ which means that he has brought with him five female intern-age interns and has occupied a room with hisself and they all networked together upon laptop computers, in their underwear, smoking joints, drinking wine and ‘developing’ some kind of human-performance system/suit that the wearer of which suit/backpack/thingy can transmit pictures/sounds/text/coordinates to someone else in another suitpack somewhere else, within a certain number of meters. The hyperreal purpose, use, and/or novelty of this is completely lost on me in particular in light of the proximity of the very real joint-smoking team hard at work on their laptops, in their underwear. This is happening upstairs. My American associate in the next room is compromised and spoon-feeding kefir and soda water. The Bavarian is out looking for Russians in stilettos. And we are beginning to enter further into it. When it hits your bloodstream and there’s nothing you can do about it. There is a traditional Latvian smorgasbord buffet in Riga that will absolutely knock your socks off. And a buffet is like an oasis and survival tool to be noted because there is no menu to read.

by Jeff Wood


09.07.07 – 17:05 Kizl Orda, Kazakhstan. We bribe our way onto the Almaty-Moscow train. The conductor pockets a 500T note from each of us to go as far as Turitam, the train station for the town of Baikonur, a Russian territory, a walled enclave, in the midst of the Kazakh steppe. Kazakh trains do not have closed cabins – its one long moving picnic. We are thrown in with of a group of college kids returning to their villages from university in Almaty, all studying to be petro-engineers. The only westerners on the train, we immediately become the center of attention, the entertainment for the next leg of the journey. Kazakh people are curious and helpful and friendly to a fault. With varying levels of English proficiency they ascertain our destination. Baikonur. “Baikonur?” they question, as if perhaps we’ve made a mistake. Why Baikonur? Jeff makes a gesture with his index finger pointed up and raises his hand toward the sky while making a long slow whistle. The boys laugh. Crazy Americans.

We can’t believe our luck. One of our moving picnic companions lives in the mythic town and will also disembark at Turitam. After a much longer confusing mix of sign language and English we realize there is the question of documents. We produce passports with double entry Russian visas. The boys pass them around, examining every page. Everyone in the near vicinity wants to see. After some debate it seems with the words Двукратная от all are convinced we should have no problem visiting our new friend Alan and his family inside the walled city.

Turitam is a one bar dustbowl. The train station is the most appealing place. We are met by Alan’s uncle who is yelling into a cell phone at some other relative about being late with the car. Finally the car appears. We pile in for a ride that takes a number of hard turns but lasts only five minutes. We could have walked. We are at the Russian version of Checkpoint Charlie, but the wall is whitewashed instead of grey. Russian guards approach both sides of each vehicle in front of us to check IDs. We sit motionless in the car. Alan and his uncle seem to be preparing their story to explain why they have two Americans and a Portuguese ‘friend’ in the back seat. “No problem, No problem” Alan reassures, before hushing us. One round-faced Slav wears the requisite mirrored shades. Alan hands off the two Baikonur Resident ID cards and their Kazak passports. It seems like it might be possible to brush by unnoticed. All Kazakh cars have tinted widows, to keep the heat out, among other things. Then the mirrored Slav pokes his head in the front window. He eyes first Alan and his uncle almost acting as if he’s going to conspicuously ignore us. And then with a bit too much pomp he slowly moves his eyes to the to back seat and stares at each of us consecutively for a good 20 seconds. He moves his fat round face out of the car and barks “PASSPORTS”. We hurriedly produce our documents and hand them out the open sliver of the tinted glass. His eyes ricochet between the three invaluable little blue books and us, as if he’s watching an imaginary tennis game reflected in the car window. The young Russian is a mix of all powerful and complete confusion. After an interminable silence he stares us down and exclaims with the slowest possible annunciation, (taking an entire second per syllable) in a tone that can only be described as “schandenfreude”: “U–NITE-ED–STAATES–OF–A–MEAR–EECA”. It seems as if he also can’t believe his luck.

by Eve Sussman


Eight months later we are back in their office at Toli-Bi 21 facing Panfilov Park.
This time we are greeted as friends, not naïve hippies. But the two do not hesitate to command another mission.

“You must touch Turkistan!” they demand, “you do not really know Kazakhstan if you have not touched Turkistan.”

They are compelling and persuasive and we deeply consider every command even if they seemingly bear no relation to our mission and are completely impractical. The bottom line is we have only 48 hours left in the country. Not enough time to touch Turkistan and make the plane to Dubai. I am embarrassed to admit to them that we can’t make the trip.

I change the subject.
“Have you ever acted in a film?” I ask Renato
“You mean a film about us, about our work? There have been documentaries made about our research…or as an actor?”
“I mean acting.” I reply.
“Ah, yeeees, I used to act in Kung-Fu movies in Hong Kong” he replies.

by Eve Sussman