Interview: Scott Conarroe – The Great Eastern

To celebrate the release of Scott’s book The Great Eastern with The Velvet Cell, we asked him a few questions on his experiences shooting the project, his views on China’s rise and what the future has in store for him.

1. I’d like to start by asking you what led you to begin ‘The Great Eastern’. What inspired the project?

When I first went to China, I was working on a study of North America and its railways. I saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime trip though so I spent the fall of 2008 in Beijing. The next year, my project By Rail was part of  a festival in Zhejiang province, in Eastern China. I tagged along. Then, in 2010 I had work on display at Canada’s Shanghai World Expo pavilion. China was no longer some impossibly distant place but part of my world now. The West in general was experiencing this. Not only did this grant me license to go look at China, it felt necessary in order to develop my own understanding of it.

As my “first mature body of work”, almost everything I’ve done since By Rail has been in response to it. Part of me would’ve liked something subtler than “By Rail China”, but it made sense. I’d framed North America – or more correctly Anglo-America – as a British Empire outpost and the remaining Cold War superpower. I’d given a lot of thought to the relationships between influence and infrastructure. There was an easy symmetry between empires in stages of decline and an expansionist China. North America tends to see railroads as a heritage technology while they are central to China’s ongoing modernization. This may or may not be a coincidence, but it’s a useful motif for drawing comparisons. 

2. What was your practical approach to working on ‘The Great Eastern’?

The first step was finding support. The Great Eastern would not have been possible without grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and the BC Arts Council. TIME Magazine and SONY Canada also contributed, and their involvement made me see art making in different terms.

I also needed communication skills to venture beyond tourist routes. I took a night class in Mandarin and parroted podcasts for a winter. I acclimated on Hainan with another month of language lessons. Then it was immersion, pointing and pantomime until I was sufficiently intelligible. I did the first few weeks with a young Dutch photographer, Jeroen Bruggenwirth. After that I was on my own until my wife joined me in the fall.

For shooting, I tried to find cities that were substantial enough to have amenities but minor enough to walk across. This wasn’t always easy. In 2012 at least, information was patchy. Entire suburbs could exist online but in reality only be construction sites or simply abandoned. Mostly though I followed a straightforward routine: I’d check into whatever hotel was nearest the train station, load film, and walk around, scouting locations until dusk. My film lived in insulated bags with frozen water bottles. Exposed negs were sent home for processing every week or so. 

3. Your work ‘By Rail and By Sea’ deals with infrastructure and its scale in America. What was the biggest difference for you between that project and this?

One difference is that I didn’t ride a single train for By Rail while for The Great Eastern I rode only trains. Travelling and sleeping in my own vehicle allowed for greater autonomy, and I was able to immerse myself in North America’s landscapes more. In China I could only move within existing currents of people. I suppose this formulation supports a range of assumptions.

It was interesting to see how much expectations coloured my impressions of each place. Before turning up in New Orleans or Newfoundland or Cleveland, I had ideas of what they were. I knew them from the news and movies. I grasped their roles within larger narratives. My foreknowledge of China on the other hand was extremely general and flawed. I’d never heard of most of the places I depicted nor have I since. My vast nebulous concept of “China” was punctuated by direct encounters. 

I gleaned understanding from food and maps and ambiance, and from coming into contact with people. To a much greater extent than in the West, that contact was physical. I remember sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, knee-to-knee in a cluster of passengers for hours. We could feel each other’s pulses and taste one another’s breath, and no-one said a word. I got used to strangers petting my beard when I fell asleep. Where By Rail and By Sea oscillated between familiarity and déjà vu, The Great Eastern swung me back and forth from total anonymity to utter intimacy.

4. China’s ‘The One Belt, One Road’ initiative is currently a subject of much controversy and intrigue in Western media. Based on your experiences shooting ‘The Great Eastern’, did you have any special insights into its future?

I’ve really reduced my media intake over the past several years. I just lost my appetite for its reliance on controversy and they win, we lose dichotomies. If the question is What do I think of China expanding its influence through business and development projects? then the answer is that I’m somewhere between neutral and hopeful. I see accelerated climate change as the greatest threat to the planet, not whether this nation or that one dominates in finance. 

The BRI will result in moments of great triumph as well as abject failures, but so has the last few centuries of Western predominance. We’ve failed to adequately resolve nuclear proliferation and growing inequality. We’ve gone out of our way to ignore global warming. I don’t expect China to fix everything, but framed as a democratic equation it does make some sense that the country with a fifth of the world’s population has a significant say. In terms of market ecologies, isn’t some degree of competition supposed to be healthy? If nothing else, I’m curious to see how the coming decades play out.

The only Chinese person I spoke with about a mega-project was a Yangtze River tour guide. His home had disappeared when the Three Gorges Dam was built. He said his grandparents were sad to see their village go, but the apartment he’d been provided with in turn had since tripled in value. His stated position was he was pleased to have moved from quasi-peasant status into the middle class. I wouldn’t be surprised if he felt compelled to sugar coat his perspective. Nonetheless, I think I’d rather be a tour guide with my own apartment than a subsistence farmer with a communal toilet.

5. What are your plans for the future? Do you have any other projects about infrastructure in mind?

My project right after The Great Eastern was based on the moveable borders Alps nations devised in response to permafrost melting and watershed drift. I’m working on a companion series to it at the moment. It looks at how those same regions were militarized throughout the last century. On one hand it’s a tidy little conceit about our transition from Cold War to global warming anxieties, but there’s also something profound about the ways we conceive of and perform autonomy. It’s also a pleasure to shoot. I like being in the alpine, and these structures are kind of bonkers. I’ve been describing them as Dr Strangelove meets Caspar David Friedrich.