The Young Scholars on the Silk Roads interview series seeks to empower young people, by giving youth a platform from which to transmit their often-unheard voices. Via this series young scholars hailing from different countries across Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia are interviewed sharing their research and reflections on the ancient Silk Roads.
Brought up both French and British, Robin started learning languages early, first with Spanish and German and, later, Russian at the University of Edinburgh. As an English Literature graduate and passionate about theatre, he recently started an apprenticeship as a carpenter-joiner with the French Journeymen (Les Compagnons) in Lyon, his hometown.
What do the Silk Roads mean to you, as a citizen of Lyon?
Robin: When I consider the Silk Roads, I contemplate the way the silk trade affected the history of my town and my cultural heritage as a citizen of Lyon. This means the silk making tradition of Lyon but also the class struggles linked to the silk industry, the ‘Canuts revolts’.
Secondly, the Silk Roads enabled Lyon to export its artisan heritage around the world: from the luxurious silks exhibited in the textile museum to tapestries in the palaces of Saint Petersburg, Russia.
And what, more generally, do the Silk Roads mean to you as a young person?
Throughout my youth, I have travelled extensively across Europe. The concept of the Silk Roads has always had the same appeal to me as ‘Route 66’ has for many North-Americans who dream of travelling westwards as an adventure to find their roots.
As a carpenter you must know that traditional craftsmanship was a major facet of the Silk Roads. Why have you chosen to study these century-old techniques in Lyon today?
The carpentry skills I am currently learning make sense to me in confronting the world around me and teaching me how to improve it. Of course, since the era of the Silk Roads, craftsmanship has evolved significantly and The Journeymen’s century-old techniques have had to adapt to new times (and did so successfully: they were the ones who erected the Eiffel Tower!) but the mentality remains the same as in centuries gone by.
You mentioned that in your spare time, along with your partner, you also run a small theatre company?
That’s right. We’ve carried out several projects with our theatre company, ‘The Modern Day Minstrels’ (‘Les Ménestrels des Temps Modernes’). In 2017, as part of our project, ‘Travelling Lanterns’, we travelled by bicycle from Turin to Athens for four months with our puppet theatre: our aim was to discover the stories, songs and characters of each region through which we travelled and how they help understand the people who live there. By collecting as many tales as we could along this 2,500 km journey across Europe and merging them together, the idea was to offer a portrayal of the diversity and shared heritage of Europe’s cultural identity.
What challenges did you encounter in communicating with your audiences across barriers such as language and culture along your journey?
Puppetry as a non-verbal medium for communication speaks to all of us, no matter the time period, the public’s age or culture. It enables intercultural communication as it encourages the viewers to form their own interpretations as to what the story tells and acts like a mirror: it reflects the audience’s own story into the one that they are told by us.
Really interesting! Though I’ve never experienced puppetry in Europe, I recently watched a shadow puppet performance in Xi’an, China. Storytelling is a core example of intangible cultural heritage. Can you talk a little more about this?
Well, myths and legends translate so easily into other languages that they can travel thousands of kilometres and be adopted and appropriated by another population who, generations later, will use it as a cultural marker of their own. On our journey, we experience countless examples of the common cultural heritage between the stories we were told in one particular community, which differed only in minor details, in neighbouring countries hundreds of kilometres away.
Do you have any future plans for this travelling puppet show then?
We are planning a puppet show and exhibition that will travel around Europe: from Turin to Athens, back to the route where we began, but also in France and in the UK. In the instable social context the UK is presently going through, it is very important to us to help people reconnect with our common cultural heritage and this is exactly what we intend to do with our show.
It sounds like your travelling puppet show encapsulates a lot of the spirit of the Silk Roads. How do you think young people can get more involved in the Silk Roads today?
These historical trade routes could be used as an itinerary by youth today as a means to meet people along it and engage in continuing to build this common cultural heritage.
Do you have any suggestions for how the Silk Road Online Platform could be used to promote such activities?
I wonder if the platform could help coordinate youth, and most notably artists, artisans and students, across Eurasia to meet along the Silk Roads? This might mean localising the road very accurately with ‘hotspots’ or meeting points at key locations along the Silk Roads and creating short-term residencies where these people could link up at.
Note to reader: If you are interested in learning more about the project ‘Travelling Lanterns’, please check out the Facebook page here.