Double trouble at the TAPI pipeline in Turkmenistan/Afghanistan

Creating and running two different live events on the same day is tough, but when you add in two very difficult environments, it creates huge obstacles for the integrator to overcome. Paul Milligan reports.

All AV projects have logistical issues, solving these problems is a major part of an integrator’s skillset. For Alex Samokhin, founder and MD of Russian integrator Tribar Imagineering, this project in Turkmenistan and Afghanistan suffered logistical hurdles at every turn. Tribar had to plan and run two live events, on the same day, in two different countries. One country is one of the most remote in the world, and the other is one of the most war-ravaged in the world. In charge of all content, design, planning, installation and execution, Tribar also had to ensure heads of state were satisfied with the final result, and put it all together in less than two months, for an immovable deadline. This was no ordinary AV install.

Afghan TAPI 5

The background to this project lies in the production of energy, gas to be precise, as Samokhin explains; “Turkmenistan has rich natural gas reserves. The problem is other countries with big reserves surround it, so it's difficult for them to export it.  Because of this the only direction they can sell it is via Afghanistan.” The TAPI pipeline, which began construction in December 2015, and will cost $9.6bn (€8.3bn) in total to build, will carry 33 billion cubic metres of gas a year from the Galkynysh gas field in Turkmenistan all the way to India. The pipeline takes it name from the four countries it runs through; Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. 

To celebrate the pipeline reaching more than 250km in length, well into Afghanistan, it was decided to hold two ceremonies on the same day, one in Turkmenistan and one in Afghanistan, in late February this year. And that is where Tribar enters the story, it had previously worked on a multiple award-winning event (including the Best Live Event project at the 2018 InAVation Awards) to celebrate the inauguration of a rail link between Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. It was while Samohkin was in Turkmenistan to give the client one of the trophies that he was invited to supply a full turnkey project for the two ceremonies. The original brief to Samohkin for the Turkmenistan event was to ‘do something the President hasn’t seen before’, the President would also have to approve any final plans first. Samohkin, says he specialises in working for clients “who don’t know what they want to do”.

Afghan TAPI 8

The end result was an event in the morning in Turkmenistan to approximately 500 invited guests, including VIPs from all four TAPI countries, and another in the afternoon in Afghanistan to 1,000 people (only the VIPs, who were helicoptered from one event to another, attended both).  Each event had to look different, had different content, were held in different surroundings, and featured very different AV technology.  While both sites used technology to create an immersive spectacle, the sites differed in structure and execution. The Turkmenistan site featured curved LED technology across floors, ceiling and walls, with Afghanistan exclusivity using projection to create a 360-degree screen, which was more than 100 metres in length.

Each site had it own logistical issues (detailed further down), but a joint problem was getting AV kit to each site.  Because Turkmenistan is so remote and Afghanistan has been in the midst of heavy conflict, getting an AV company (or delivery firm) to supply the right equipment proved tough. Eventually most kit was sourced from Russia, from companies Samohkin had work with before and built up enough trust for them to loan him the kit.

Turk TAPI 4

A major logistical problem on the Turkmenistan side was the very remoteness of the ceremony site. It was 40 minutes drive from the nearest village, with Samohkin joking once you got to the village it was still “five years drive” from the nearest city. “The location meant you had no chance to forget anything, if you forgot to bring a screwdriver with you one day you would have to go without, there are no shops nearby.” The initial idea to build a temporary structure to house the ceremony proved to be unsuccessful, as three tents were blown away in the harsh winds, so a decision was made to build a concrete structure (Post-event this building now has a life as a meeting room for TAPI staff). Despite the vague brief given to him, Samohkin says there were still rules he had to follows to the letter; “Whatever you come up with still has to fit into a lot of limitations and protocols - the carpets have to be this colour, the podium has to be this size, flowers have to be positioned here, the flags need to be here etc. In Turkmenistan traditionally the room has to be white, so we had to keep the space completely that colour.”

The idea was always for the room to be immersive, so a cube shape was chosen. This idea remained until one week before sign-off before being rejected by the President, so it was back to the drawing board.  The final design involved 1000sq m of LED, installed in curves on the floor, wall and ceilings. As mentioned already, getting AV kit into Turkmenistan was difficult, so Triabr had to make use of what it could get. The LED panels used were not the same size or the same resolution, with a mix of Lightking 4mm, 7mm and 8mm and 10mm pixel pitch tiles sourced to do the job. Not being able to use the same size panels caused another issue says Samohkin. “The biggest problem was the difference in sizes of the LED tiles, some were 64x64cm, others were 50x50cm. The walls used 3x64cm tiles, the ceiling was 4x50cm, so we needed to hide 8cm on the ceiling.”

Turk TAPI 5

A solution was found by using light boxes to fill the gaps to unify the sizes of the tiles. The need for white background also caused an issue. “We had to put the LED screens behind a white fabric, so when they walked in the room they didn’t know where the screens were. When we attached the fabric over the LED we had to test how visible the image was, would it be sharp or would it be blurred? We also had to figure out how we would attach it over the LED modules,” adds Samohkin. The light boxes had another useful purpose, which was to hold the chosen solution, a ShowTex PolyStretch matt white fabric, tight and in place. To stop the fabric overheating on the LED tiles the fabric actually curves over the front of each tile in a dome shape. Why not look for another technology, if LED was so fraught with difficulties? “LED was only option (at Turkmenistan), we couldn’t use front projection because we would need too many projectors, and we couldn’t do rear projection because we had limited space,” says Samohkin. “We had to fight for every centimetre of space because the space had to fit 500 people. It wasn’t a question of having lots of choice for the AV hardware, the sites were a puzzle, and we just had to fit cool stuff around it.”

The second event of the day, held in the only conference centre in the city of Herat was to publicise the opening of a nearby compressor station for the pipeline. But again, this was not without logistical problems. “The issue we had with the conference centre was the electricity supply. They had 400kW for the whole building, our hardware needed 300kW.” To solve the problem a diesel generator was brought in to supply more power.  In this room Tribar built a 360-deg projection screen using 22 Christie Boxer 4K projectors, which filled a 122x4m custom screen fabric curling around the room.

Turk TAPI 6

Tribar received no overall brief for the Afghanistan side, so proposed its own idea which was eventually used in the final show. It wrote a 10-minute cartoon about a boy from Afghanistan who dreams about the country recovering from its troubles, with the pipeline playing a part of the rebuilding process. Samokhin takes up the story; “We based it on a newspaper story that Turkmenistan had invited students from Afghanistan to study at its universities. The boy reads the newspaper, goes to Turkmenistan to study and he sees how beautiful that country is. When he returns after five years Afghanistan has changed, it is peaceful now. He hears construction vehicles, and it cuts to the compressor station.” Another logistical issue was the quality of the internet provision in Afghanistan, which was so bad Tribar had to send staff with the finished rendered cartoon loaded on a hard drive via a flight from Russia just so the staff on the ground could run it.

The timeline of the two projects was another major challenge says Samokhin. “We started working on the concept in November, by designing a metal structure within the venue which we could then fit projectors and LED around. We got final approval for budget in early January, just six weeks before the event.  An almost impossible timeline,” he says.  Given that the core team of Tribar is just six people (it hired 40 freelancers to help complete the jobs) it must be congratulated on what was a Herculean effort, in two very difficult environments.

Kit list

BlackMagic Mini Converters
Chamsys MagicQ100 console
Christie Boxer 4K projectors
Disguise One 4x4pro media servers
Electrovoice loudspeakers
Gefen DVI 1x4 splitters
Glux 10mm BAtn10C LED tiles
Hippotizer Boreal, Taiga ,V3 media servers
Grand MA2 console
LightKing LR4, P7, P8 LED tiles
Lightware MX 16x16 DVI matrix
Sennheiser wireless simultaneous interpretation system
ShowTex PolyStretch P8 CS matt fabric
TV One TVC-2355A scaler
Uniview 6mm BO-6.2 LED tiles