Disaster nationalism as geovisual play (Journal of Visual Culture & HaFI, 14)

This is the fourteenth instalment of a collaborative effort by the Journal of Visual Culture and the Harun Farocki Institut, initiated by the COVID-19 crisis. The call sent to JVC’s editorial board, and a wide selection of previous contributors and members of its extended communities, described the task as follows: “There is a lot of spontaneous, ad hoc opinion-making and premature commentary around, as to be expected. However, the ethics and politics of artistic and theoretical practice to be pursued in this situation should oblige us to stay cautious and to intervene with care in the discussion. As one of JVC’s editors, Brooke Belisle, explains: ‘We are not looking for sensationalism, but rather, moments of reflection that: make connections between what’s happening now and the larger intellectual contexts that our readership shares; offer small ways to be reflective and to draw on tools we have and things we know instead of just feeling numb and overwhelmed; help serve as intellectual community for one another while we are isolated; support the work of being thoughtful and trying to find/make meaning…which is always a collective endeavour, even if we are forced to be apart.'” TH


Disaster Nationalism as Geovisual Play

By Eray Çaylı


On 23 April, when both Turkey and the UK had just completed their first month of coronavirus-related measures, a special flight took off in each of these countries. A Turkish Airlines flight numbered TK1920 flew over central Turkey, leaving radar-trackable traces that amounted to “the world’s largest Turkish flag” on occasion of National Sovereignty and Children’s Day. Turkey’s current parliament was founded on this day in 1920 (hence the special flight number). The founders, the story goes, wanted to gift parliamentary democracy primarily to children. As a result, many a child’s playtime every 23 April is infused today with nationalist iconography. In the UK, the Northern Ireland Air Ambulance, outsourced to the private company Woodgate Aviation, conducted a flight on 23 April 2020, which traced out the initials N(ational) H(ealth) S(ervice) capping a heart-shaped trajectory. The idea, said the company, was to offer “a unique way of saying ‘thank you’ for the heroic work being done by frontline NHS staff to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.” There was, of course, nothing particularly unique about Woodgate’s enterprise, except perhaps its sheer geographical scale. The motifs it featured have, over the past weeks, become a ubiquitous sight in much of the UK where they have been drawn on home windows and pavements especially as children’s play.


Flight-tracking image for TK1920 on 23 April 2020


Flight-tracking image for Northern Ireland Air Ambulance on 23 April 2020


Play and aerial imaging correspond to prominent themes in Harun Farocki’s oeuvre, the latter more directly than the former. His manifold investigations into the visuality of violence and the violence of visuality exposed aerial photography and satellite imagery for serving, right from the outset of their military origins, highly selective and often-violent political agendas rather than the objective technicality associated with them. These technologies, showed Farocki, have led military violence to harden into dominant visual regimes that, at every purported turn from war to peace, prove far longer lasting than warfare proper—so much so that, gradually since the end of World War Two, many of these regimes have increasingly become oriented not towards depicting the world but rather towards its destruction. Farocki also charted a convergence between visual technologies of warfare and those of play, particularly in the realm of computer games. Dovetailing with larger processes through which machines of militarized imaging have conditioned the ordinary eye, this convergence has rendered relatable and even playful the act of seeing another as an object to be targeted, monitored and/or surveilled.

The two flight-radar-trackable images drawn this past 23 April in both Turkey and the UK indicate a particularly sinister phase in the visually charged entanglement between play and war that Farocki dissected so masterfully. No longer is a militarized visual technology rooted in violent nationalism simply being made playful or the visuality of play merely being restructured around that of warfare. At stake here, rather, is the pragmatic and programmatic simplicity that characterizes play in its purest form—play that lacks geovisual targets, monitors and surveillance proper, or play, in other words, as nothing else but play even when it may involve the drawing of a national symbol. It is by appropriating play as such that these two images prop up a certain disaster nationalism—a “we’re all in the same boat” ideology—and, in so doing, obfuscate ongoing socioeconomic disparities that mark the way coronavirus is experienced in neoliberal settings such as Turkey and the UK, and the political responsibilities involved therein.

Just in time for the appearance of these images of disaster nationalism as geovisual play, children on my street had made the below drawing on our pavement.


Children’s chalk drawing on a London pavement near where the author lives

Appropriating the simplicity of play, it seems, might come with consequences.

Eray Çaylı is an ethnographer and currently Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow at the European Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE); he completes work on the book The Architecture and Violence of Confronting the Past in Early 2010s’  Turkey while also conducting new research on how Turkey’s resilience policies intersect with its histories of political violence.
May 6th, 2020 — Rosa Mercedes / 02

The Reconstruction of Ukraine. Ruination / Representation / Solidarity, online symposium, September 9-11, 2022. “The Reconstruction of Ukraine: Ruination / Representation / Solidarity” devotes particular attention to cities, architecture, art, culture and psychological trauma – but the scope of the conversations it aims to start is broader. In due course, the discussions held during the symposium may coalesce into myriad projects, initiatives and experiments undertaken by government institutions, municipalities, educational and cultural bodies and other more interstitial actors. The ambition of this symposium is to establish a platform for dialogue, facilitating communication, collaboration and constructive argument between diverse actors and initiatives.

George Edwards (Zetkin Collective) on war, nationalism and the “anti-climate lobby” (via Arts of the Working Class): “The latest prognosis of this particular war was spelt out in a flurry of reports from the IPCC; the most recent, described as ‘an atlas of human suffering’ by the chief of the UN, demanded ‘rapid, deep and immediate’ emissions cuts in all sectors to ensure an inhabitable planet for all. In step with the science, many wish this conflict to mark the beginning of an intensified programme of decarbonization, ridding economies of not only Russian, but all fossil fuels, wherever their geological source. But whilst political leaders scramble abroad to secure new sources of fossil fuels – sweet-talking sheiks and summoning LNG terminals from the ground – a resourceful and committed cohort, let’s call them the anti-climate lobby, refuse to accept this diagnosis. The partakers in the fossil industry have seized upon this crisis, sensing it as an opportunity to enlarge and entrench economic interests rooted in fossil fuels. As the course of action prescribed by the IPCC imperils this line of business, the attempts to secure fresh investments in fossil fuel infrastructures, to lock-in production and secure profits for the coming decades may feel all the more pressing. The solutions they pose also fit within the national frame and it is with nationalist political forces that they find their most ardent allies.”

July 31st, 2022

The fundamental difference that we face in Europe at the moment between the Western approach characterized by the pursuit of peace and the Eastern one focused on liberation and independence poses a dramatic challenge – in order to survive and progress, democracy as a political regime has to be capable of defending itself also in a military way.” Armed Democracy revolves around the concepts of imperialism, liberation, fascism, autocracy, revolution, and militarization in pursuit of the world to come on Europe’s burnt out land. Conceived by the Kyiv Biennial and Biennale Warszawa from the East Europe Biennial Alliance, this special public program, curated by Vasyl Cherepanyn within the 2nd edition of Biennale Warszawa, the program is a first part of the series organized by the East Europe Biennial Alliance discussing Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine and taking place in Warsaw, Prague, Kassel, and Riga over the summer and fall of 2022.

Olena Lyubchenko on Whiteness, Expropriation, War, and Social Reproduction in Ukraine (via LeftEast): “[…] when we hear on the news that ‘Ukraine is fighting a European war’ and ‘Ukraine is defending Europe’, amid images of fleeing ‘poor white’ women with children prioritized over racialized ‘Others’, ‘Ukraine’ is being made ‘white’ in the global imaginary. That is, “the injunction to ‘return to Europe’ by way of Europeanization is enabled and conditioned on the mythologies of Western civilization, and that Europeanization at once marks (promulgates) and unmarks (naturalizes) racial whiteness” [Nadezhda Husakouskaya and Randi Gressgård]. The paradox is that Europe’s existence as such has only been possible precisely because of the exploitation of global working peoples through expropriation of resources and today neoliberal economic reforms and reproduced by feminized labour.”

Vasyl Cherepanyn about the “inertness, hiding behind the European Wall” (via L’Internationale): “Many Western institutions that have been claiming ‘radical political engagement’ for years, have simply resorted to a white cube radicalism and self-satisfying humanitarianism, too afraid of acting politically beyond their comfort zone and unsettling their publics and authorities by attempting to affect the decision-making process regarding the Ukrainian cause.”

May 28th, 2022

Tatsiana Shchurko on the War in Ukraine, Entangled Imperialisms, and Transnational Feminist Solidarity, via LeftEast (May 2, 2022): “[An] uneven knowledge production and the many implications of the war against Ukraine reveal the dire need to develop a feminist anti-capitalist critique of multiple imperialisms. This language should grow from within the occupied and suppressed communities of Eastern Europe and Eurasia. An anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist feminist positionality grasps that the local is part of a global in an effort to build transnational connections of mutual aid and support against state and corporate violence. For example, statements of solidarity with Ukraine expressed by the International Committee of Indigenous Peoples of Russia and Native American communities along with the anti-war feminist march in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) on March 8, 2022, pointing out that the war in Ukraine should be of concern for a broad transnational community, may serve as instrumental examples of alternative anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist solidarities that stretch beyond state regulations and macro-politics and foreground decolonial perspectives, necessary in addressing entanglements of multiple imperialisms. Such solidarities also bring to light hidden interconnections of the past that allowed for distant communities to survive and support each other against the violence of imperialist intervention and its attendant capitalist exploitation. Thus, the march in Bishkek reminds of the socialist roots of the International Women’s Day to call for internationalist, intersectional, class solidarity against imperialism and militarism.”

Vasyl Cherepanyn on that “It’ll take more than tanks to ease Germany’s guilt” (via Politico): “Since the Soviet Union’s collapse, Germany has been imposing neocolonial optics on its Eastern European ‘peripheries,’ and on the post-Soviet space in particular, where Ukraine was long considered a gray buffer zone about which the EU was ‘deeply concerned.’ Germany didn’t bother itself much with differentiating between former Soviet countries’ pasts. Even until recently, any Ukrainian agenda in Germany was often ‘balanced’ with a Russian perspective, so as to not exclude the latter by any means.”

An unnamed anarchist and art scholar, who joined the Territorial Defense Forces, quoted by Olexii Kuchanskyi in an essay on “Digital Leviathan and His Nuclear Tail” (via Your Art and e-flux notes): “At dawn, Dima and I talked about cinema. Dima believes that cinema is inferior to literature as a means of expression because you spend much more time with a book than a film. It’s a really interesting point, something to dig into. I studied at the department of art theory & history and I never thought of it. Dima served in the military after school and worked at the factory all his life. He listens to rap, smokes pot, and tries to have fun. He is thirty-eight, his child was born last year. He likes Wong Kar-wai and is a fan of Asian cinema in general. Dima communicates by quoting Omar Khayyam, Confucius, and other awesome guys.”

April 20th, 2022
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