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Nick Tobier: First international artist in residence at Nomadic Red Corner, Mongolia

Kids ger
The Nomadic Red Corner is a collaborative project between the Mongolian Contemporary Art Support Association and Art Space 976+, an initiative that brings art closer to the Ger District of Ulaanbaatar city. Photo: Khuslen Erdenmunkh

Professor Nick Tobier spent June 2023 residing in Mongolia, where he completed a Bus Art Studio in Ulaanbaatar with a team of Nomadic Red Corner resident artists. Tobier journals his engagement with people, places, and the practices of this community.

It took me 46 hours to travel from Ann Arbor to my temporary home in Ulaanbaatar. It is hard to describe fully what the experience was like of arriving or being there. I tell people that Mongolia was very quiet as a way to capture what I felt – that this was a huge country (geographically, it is as large as most of Western Europe) with a small population (a little less than Brooklyn) where the space between people can be vast, and the language itself is filled with space and air. There is an oral tradition in Mongolia called the long song, in which the sounds made are very long. 

Spending time in a country we in the US do not often speak of or hear about, that is sandwiched between 2 countries we often think about (Russia and China), is nothing like I have ever been exposed to. As the first international artist in residence at Nomadic Red Corner, organized by Gantuya Badamgarav, the commissioner of the Mongolian Pavilion at the Venice Biennial, I got to meet incredible contemporary artists, to spend time with a throat-singer and work to transform an abandoned bus into a community artist studio with local artists and craftspeople, and scores of children who spent their days from morning to sundown at the Magic Land Community Center. I also got to experience the capital, eat buuz (steamed dumplings) and khushuur (a fried dumpling that resembles an empanada — delicious) and the best ice cream ever, drink seabuckthorn juice and traditional Mongolian salt milk tea, travel the countryside helping to vaccinate lambs (that is another story.) 

Ger structures in Mongolia.
Ger District of Ulaanbaatar city. Photo: Gantuya Badamgarav

In Mongolia, I was a guest of Nomadic Red Corner, a collaborative project between the Mongolian Contemporary Art Support Association and Art Space 976+, an initiative that brings art closer to the Ger District of Ulaanbaatar city, through arts programs, community development activities, and artist residency projects. The Ger District, where the residency is located, is home to more than 800,000 people, mostly rural migrants and low-income families. The district lies on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar city, with limited access to utilities and infrastructure such as street lighting, pedestrian roads, green space, or public spaces (but a good number of well-loved basketball hoops.) The residency itself is settled in the courtyard of Magic Land Community Center 2, in the Uliastai area of the Bayanzurkh district. The compound where I lived was representative of many throughout the district, including three traditional Mongolian dwellings known as gers. Open to the sky but otherwise without windows, the ger is lined with sheep wool and sheathed in canvas stretched around a demountable wood frame with beautiful hand-painted wooden elements. In our five-wall ger (the number of external walls corresponds to the diameter of the structure, so ours was on the larger size), we had a wood stove inside — even in June, it was quite cold at night — and went to sleep each night looking at the stars and listening to the district dogs call to one another. I shared this simple round dwelling with my collaborator, Мөнхдорж Батдэлгэр Munkdhorj (Bugui), and our two super Mongolian art and architecture student assistants, Khuslen Erdenemunkh from downtown UB and Munkhast Onobayar, from a rural herder family. 

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In addition to Tobier, the team of Nomadic Red Corner resident artists included Munkhdorj Batddelger, professor at Mongolian Radio Television Media Art School, and art and architecture students Munkhnast Ononbayar and Khuslen Erdenemunkh. Photo: Gantuya Badamgarav

Over this time, I got to understand some of what being part of a culture informed by nomads means. Initially, I had conceived of nomadic as akin to wandering, but learned rather of the influence of moving perhaps seasonally, being attuned to the grasses that the animals eat and the sensory properties of these places from the brown grass tea of the winter to the wild onion eaten by spring sheep to the fermented horse milk beer of late June. The open structure and inherent portability of the ger influences both personal space in terms of fewer material possessions and togetherness, alongside Mongolian customs of hospitality (in the open space of the countryside, any ger is, in theory, a place to stop and pause and perhaps to stay on a longer journey) sharing resources and knowledge in forms and languages that had been invisible to me.

As a community-based artist and designer, my work revolves around often unremarkable public places — street corners, parking lots, bus stops, and vacant lots. I construct small buildings and inventive vehicles — real places and real vehicles that are both utilitarian and utopian. in the forms of bicycles, buses, boats, and potential flying contraptions — reflect the imaginative forms that are created by design to be moveable as one moves through the world, seeking an ideal place. These objects call ordinary things into action – a bicycle becomes animated through the addition of a water tower, and the hub generators of a tricycle power the lights of a chandelier. My work on wheels has expanded to include the speculative vehicles alongside community vehicles that share the potential of imaginative empowerment afforded by human-powered vehicles metaphorically, and technically to transform daily places into extraordinary places of imagination and connection. 

Children help paint the exterior of a bus.
Tobier worked to transform an abandoned bus into a community art studio with local artists and craftspeople, and scores of children who spent their days from morning to sundown at the Magic Land Community Center. Photo: Gantuya Badamgarav

The lightweight ger structure and its demountable design were formative in my professional and academic training in sculpture and landscape architecture, through which I have built a practice of designing and building lightweight, transportable structures as community gathering places, outdoor stages, classrooms, and platforms for expression. The bus we worked on together was conceived of as the transformation of a vehicle of utilitarian transit to one of gathering and celebration, laden with metaphors of transforming the energy of physical movement into social movement. Gantuya gets things done and done well, and even though I had just arrived (my luggage had not made the transfer from Istanbul and was hopefully coming on the next plane in four days later), all of a sudden, a tow truck was trying to make the tight turn into the compound. We spent the next two days taking it apart — pulling out all the seats to repurpose, pulling off advertising decals for Fuze Tea, and scrubbing it to get it ready for painting. 

Working with ger builders, decorative painters, contemporary artists, and community youth, we fused traditional Mongolian decorative forms and circulation principles of the open-span ger construction in and out of a vehicle to create a mobile platform for local artists and musicians. Outside, the bus, which had been white with green details, is now a rich pattern of purples and deep turquoise, punctuated with traditional Mongolian decorative cloud patterns (painted by Buyaanbaatar). Inside, there is a luxurious couch/​bed where the back seats used to be, work tables that you can move around to suit your needs, a front side lounge area where the driver’s cabin had been, three hand-painted rugs (by Batsaikhan Soyolsaikhan and Tuvshinjargal Tsend-Ayush), hand made curtains by Chimka who teaches sewing classes for kids at Magic Land along with beautiful hand-painted wooden chests like those that families use for moving their possessions (seen on and off roads strapped together with the components of the ger itself whether on a horse cart or pick up truck). There is a great roof deck, accessible by climbing up a series of Bugui handles fashioned from the handrails, and a lounger built out of old bus seats from which you can watch the sun set over the mountains at night. On the opening night, I was joined on the roof by Mongolian throat-singer Ashid Nergui to inaugurate the bus with a performance. This hybrid vehicle – on wheels but not always moving — will stay in the ger district among transformations of traditionally nomadic Mongolian communities.

Nick Tobier in front of the bus studio.
The old bus was acquired from a bus company and was transformed into a studio within ten days. Photo: Gantuya Badamgarav

For the past 15 years, my practice has been rooted in Detroit, building community places and bicycles with youth in a city formed by decades of migration from the South for manufacturing jobs that now no longer exist. The core of this work in Detroit, as in Ulanbataar, is working with youth in creating skills and opportunity through imaginative portals of art and design, through engaging the hands, mind, and spirit with building agency in designing a world shaped by the automobile, but often experienced as a pedestrian. I confront historical and contemporary questions within a relatively tight time period — roughly 1920-present around the impact of the auto industry and the aftermath of its collapse, as the accompanying systemic racial inequities in access to mobility, power, and resources between races. In Mongolia, I was exposed to a longer arc of time to understand the role of nomadic communities and their accompanying vehicles and mobile structures when exploring questions of urban circulation and transformation as we face climate emergency and variable access to resources.

Interior of the Bus Art Studio, which incorporates traditional Mongolian design.
The newly created Bus Art Studio now has several tables and chairs for work, one big bed for relaxation, and two wooden chests for storing art supplies, ready to be used by artists for creating their artworks and organizing meetings and workshops. Photo: Nick Tobier

As the descendants of southern migrants in 21st century Detroit who were left behind in the relative collapse of the auto industry and are in danger of being left behind in the rise of the information society, I think all the time now of the ger districts of Ulaanbaatar and especially how nomadic populations adapt to and alter the city, how a rapidly growing but largely unplanned metropolis is shaped by informal settlements and the unique questions and tools art and design and community have to respond to these changes in traditions of mobility.

Children pose in front of renovated bus studio.
To learn more, visit https://​red​corner​-mon​go​lia​.com/​?​p​=7984. Photo: Gantuya Badamgarav