Against “Special Operation” Images

An Ukrainian woman confronts Russian soldiers in Henichesk in the Kherson region. She asks them why they came to our land and urges them to put sunflower seeds in their pockets (so that flowers grow when they die on the land of Ukraine), screenshot from a videoclip disseminated via Twitter, February 25, 2022

Rosa Mercedes 05: Invitation to contribute

How to account for an event as catastrophic as an all-out war next door— soon to be inside the building? How to speak from a place at which, as many assert, “we” failed “you”? How to respond in a timely, critical, empathic way, considering one’s own limitations? How to find a place to speak from and to act in—(not only) for and as artists, cultural workers, researchers, activists, theorists?

This is a time to show support and solidarity with those facing the terror of cluster bombs, shelling, and sniper fire, of days spent hiding in shelters, the utter distress of displacement, the loss of everyday life, the mourning of the dead. Adding to the enormous physical and psychological pain, prolonging and relocating them, the current war is also “epistemological.” Attacks are not only launched against Ukrainian civilians and military (as well as against activists in Belarus, Russia and elsewhere), their homes and their lives, but against their (and “our”) ways of knowing and feeling. Besides being a straightforward war of aggression, this is a propaganda war against truth in the name of “truth,” producing a new “unreality” (Timothy Snyder)—often cynically drawing on the very (deconstructive, feminist, decolonial) criticality that enabled the revisionist engagement with the truth claims of (Western) science and epistemology in the first place. Cognition based on rational choice, evidence, historical erudition, critical reflection, generous discursivity, shared expertise and the knowledge commons is systematically discredited, policed and suppressed by the aggressor. And even beyond the reach of Putinist state propaganda in the name of Russia, a tendency to assert an ultra-presentist now, deplete of any before and after, prepares the ground for decisionist speech and a new normal militarism in the “West.”

The catastrophe in Ukraine marks the irruption of an otherwise routinely disavowed, distanced, and denied reality into an environment sometimes called “Europe,” sometimes called “the West.” This reality of war and violence is always specific, and yet it is also distributed and shared. The experiences of people living, working, fighting, starving, and dying in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Gaza, Mali, Sudan, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Mexico, Amazonia, Belarus, and countless other places (and now in Ukraine), are entangled, yet different (and thus in constant need of reciprocal mediation and translation).

While avoiding undue equations, these experiences could and should be brought into relations of solidarity with each other, across time and space. For they are deeply intertwined in histories of colonialism, imperialism, fascism, and racial capitalism. How can we rehearse a vocabulary, and an understanding, for such a solidarity connecting  people across differences in which an “analytics of raciality” (Denise Ferreira da Silva) reveals the inseparability of struggles? Contrary to often misleading policy terms such as “humanitarian crisis” which tend to homogenize situations of conflict, authoritarian rule, the brutalization of minorities, destruction of civil society, blatant absence of humanity, etc., translocal and transhistorical solidarity attends to the specific genealogies and communalities of suffering and survival and the struggles fought to refute and overcome these predicaments.

In 2015, as part of the Kyiv Biennial that took place in the wake of the revolutionary Euromaidan, the annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine, a temporary “School of Image and Evidence” was set up by the Visual Culture Research Centre in Kyiv, “founded in memory of Harun Farocki who kindly agreed to lead the project before his sudden death in 2014.” Participants such as Serhiy Loznytsya, Hito Steyerl, Ruti Sela and Maayan Amir, Artur Zmijewski, Haim Sokol and Nataliya Gumenyuk were invited to contribute to this two-months educational project that aimed “at deconstructing the status of image in current propaganda wars by using film production as an instrument for critical analysis of the war in Ukraine.”

Obviously prescient of the current situation, but also and importantly, critical of Ukrainian mainstream media and politics, the program’s organizers wrote in 2015: “Documentary image production became a defining political factor in the Ukrainian turmoil. While Russia is deploying its forces of information war and propaganda to further its military aggression, Ukraine is responding with attempts to create a propaganda machine of its own. Documentary evidence is becoming hostage to opposing and irreconcilable narratives. At the same time, user-generated online video is profoundly changing the ways the war is documented and perceived.”

Adapting the conceptualization of “film work as a tool for critical analysis of the war in Ukraine and the role of the image in the propaganda machines that instigate it,” we propose to take the lead from the open-ended “Mutual Aid” issue of HaFI’s online journal Rosa Mercedes (RM 02) by way of which we started responding to the Covid-19 crisis almost exactly two years ago. Thus HaFI will open a forum of listening, caring, diagnosing, and connecting. It is supposed to facilitate the publication of probing essays, audiovisual commentaries, dispatches from the war zone, etc., to oppose the epistemological assaults of the current war and the rule of operational images.

The contributions to such a new issue of the journal (RM 05) will attend to the present “frames of war” (Judith Butler)—to the visual and media strategies activated and the ontologies of war deployed by the various state and para-state actors. Particularly as Putin amplified and redirected his own assemblages of “unrestricted,” “liminal,” “hybrid warfare” and manipulative narrative framings—such as the interdiction of using the term “war” rather than the official phrase “special military operation”— when he invaded Ukraine with undisguised, brute force. He thereby proffered a militaristic turn in language and thinking, far beyond the Kremlin controlled media— a new (or rather very old) normal of “strategic” reasoning complete with grandiose geopolitical semantics. The often cited “weaponization of thought” has ceded to be a metaphor, if it ever has been one.

Acting responsibly implies a resolute de-weaponization of language, the carving out of new capacities for affect and reason. RM 05 could develop into a concerted effort of mapping the manifest and potential responses to the crisis (which is very much a crisis of crises) by cultural workers of anti-war, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-colonial, anti-capitalist persuasions, inside and outside Ukraine, insisting, among other things, on the possibility of a radical incommensurability of thought, theory, and “action.” This said, it is urgent to not fall prey to the subliminal or open calls for disengagement that will inevitably follow the current breaking news-fueled attention for the war, a disengagement and compassion fatigue that has already caused so many hot wars and so called low intensity conflicts to continue without anyone outside the immediate war zones paying much attention any longer.

Contributions may address (a highly tentative list of possible approaches)

– the current state of the “operational image” (Harun Farocki)

– the visual politics of nationalism and imperialism leading to the war in Ukraine

– the entangled relations of documentary and propaganda

– the tactical and strategic deployment of images in full-on war and in “non-linear” warfare (the type of “hybrid” war waged across various platforms and in many disguises time that preceded the current invasion)

– the translocal and transhistorical dimension of counter-imperialist struggles

– the specific place and role of cultural workers and visual practitioners—from contemporary artists to war photographers—during war in the age of online media

– the production of counter- and anti-operational imagery in response to hegemonic media warfare

– the epistemological operations of post-truth politics and the systemic manufacturing of unreality

– the gender and class politics of the war, and the images they entail

– the ecological dimension of war and how climate change politics and the visual culture of transformation are being affected

– the economy of war—from dark finance to “Kriegswirtschaft”, from a booming arms industry to NFT-funded resistance

– the political and economic asymmetries in Europe and the differences they cause in the ways visual cultures, contemporary art and film, as well as literature and theory are conceived and practiced

The contributions do not have to fit a specific standard or style (however, we will adapt and edit them to conform to the limited design template of our website). You may submit written text, visual essays, podcasts, video and film works, etc. We accept contributions in any language that we ourselves master (preferably English, German, Italian, French), but we’d be ready to publish as well in (or translate from) other languages, such as Ukrainian, Russian, Arabic, etc. Unfortunately, we don’t have the funds to compensate you financially, but we will try to show our gratitude in other ways. Please direct ideas, proposals and requests within the coming weeks (there’s no definite deadline due to the arguably long-term nature of the predicament) to

Harun Farocki Institut, March 9, 2022


March 9th, 2022 — Rosa Mercedes / 05

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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