Lesia Kulchynska: Dark Matter of Image

(Lecture, presented at Transmediale in Berlin on February 2, 2023)

This text is a subjective reflection on my own relationships with the images of war in my home country, Ukraine. As these images now become the dominant part of my visual experience and I feel massively impacted by them, there is an urgent need for this kind of self-reflection in order to track how my feelings, perceptions, and, first of all, self-perception are being shaped by them.

First, I must admit that my direct visual experience of war is quite limited. I left Ukraine immediately after the first bombing on the night of February 24th. So, besides the sounds of explosions, the only signs of war I witnessed with my own eyes were the long lines of military vehicles on the roads of Kyiv and along the way as we travelled to the Romanian border.

Although I was lucky enough not to directly witness active hostilities, I have a lot of very spectacular dreams about them. Most of these dreams are about my attempts to hide from the enemy. In some of these dreams, I am trying to hide from searchlights, in others –  from the Russian troops invading the city, in others –  from the drones flying above my head or military planes shooting from the sky. The predominant feeling is a fear of being discovered and detected. In those dreams I am always a target, and the main protagonist is a hostile gaze tracking me from above. I am always detected and at this point, I wake up. Eventually, those persisting dreams became a point of departure in my thinking about the visuality of war.

It is obvious that the imagery of my dreams is based on the media images of the war, not my direct visual experience, as I didn’t see Russian aeroplanes or drones above my head or anything else that happens in my oneiric visions. Yet, those visions don’t reproduce the war scenes from the media images either. What they reproduce is a certain gaze directed at me. Passing the war media imagery I consume through my oneiric filter, I discover that the only information I actually grasp from it is a message of being seen as a target.

Since the beginning of the war, my mom has been engaged in the volunteering practice of weaving camouflage nets. Those nets are aimed at covering Ukrainian soldiers and their military equipment, that is to protect them from being detected by the enemy surveillance systems and from being shelled, and they have proved to be quite effective. This kind of invisibility shield is something I am craving for in my nightmares: I am trying to hide somewhere in the shadows, in the grass, or merge with the earth to become indistinguishable.

But unfortunately, for now, there are no analogues to such protective nets for civilians. During WWII  blackouts of the cities were used to prevent crews of enemy aircrafts from being able to identify their targets on the ground by sight. At the beginning of the Russo-Ukrainian war, civilians still relied on darkness as protection. Ukrainian artist and writer Yevgenia Belorusets wrote in her war diary on March 20: “All the windows are blacked out and the lights are off… One tries to make oneself invisible, to hide one’s house and sink into the darkness of the night, so as not to become a target.”[1]

Now the Russian military is using darkness against civilians because military detection devices don’t need light to hit a target anymore. Or, because the precision of targeting is not the goal of the Russian army. The randomness of the missile strike is now a Russian military strategy endowing the aggressor with the power of fate.

Invisibility doesn’t protect anymore from being a target.  Does this mean that resorting to blackouts as a military measure is a way to exclude the human gaze from the field of vision, keeping it accessible exclusively for military tracking devices? Or, as Andrew Hoskins and Shona Illingworth put it, “we are in a critical sense coming to the end of the era of the human eye”?[2] Or, does it simply mean that in this war to be detected by the enemy’s gaze it is enough to be on the territory of Ukraine, as the whole territory of Ukraine is a target?

This exposure, I would even say, accessibility to violence is what I witness in the myriad of media images presented as a fact.

In his book The Visible and the Invisible, Maurice Merleau-Ponty shares a very important observation, that facing the gaze of the other, I painfully face the fact that I never really know how I am seen. The gaze of the other can penetrate into my universe “only by breaking into it as a radical doubt”[3] says Merleau-Ponty. It is a radical doubt and uncertainty about my appearance and my place in the broader picture captured by that gaze. The gaze of the other possesses a mystery about myself, claims Merleau-Ponty.

When I am thinking about my nightmares through this phenomenological perspective, I realize that war introduced to my experience a very special kind of gaze that brings no doubt and no uncertainty about my appearance. I know very clearly that this gaze sees me unequivocally: as a target victim. The only mystery that remains is whether I am already detected or not. This gaze reducing me to the target is, of course, a gaze of the invader or the gaze of military killing devices.

But what strikes me when I think about my relationships with the media imagery of war in Ukraine, is that the friendly and empathic gaze of the observer or eyewitness of the war I face in those images strangely coincides in my perception with the gaze of the aggressor. What is the mechanism of this weird condensation?

Our incapacity to know how we are seen by others is a permanent source of anxiety, following the logic of Merleau-Ponty. To deal with this painful anxiety, we usually start posturing, trying to take control of our own image; we are trying to show ourselves in the right way. Creating a spectacle is a way to control or at least influence the vision of the other. This opacity of the gaze is actually the origin of the spectacle. That is why, in particular, the public field is structured as a spectacle, as it is the space where we are always visible and observed by others.

“The whole world is now looking at Ukraine” – you can encounter this phrase here and there in Ukrainian media, from the speeches of president Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials to the news reports, essays, or exhibition texts. It is true that Ukraine experiences a rapid rise of attention because of war. In order to convert this attention into victory or at least survival we need to expose our victimhood. To get the protection you need to show and prove that you are endangered, that you are vulnerable. Your victimhood should be clearly visible, accessible, understandable, and accountable, it should be exposed.

That is how the victim becomes entrapped in the need to reproduce the reductive aggressor’s view of herself. That is how Ukraine’s exposure to violence coincides with its exposure to the observer’s examining gaze. A common denominator of these exposures, according to the feminist theory of gaze, is accessibility to the desire of the other.

My friend, who was born in Kherson and came to work there with the team of journalists after its de-occupation, wrote on her Instagram:

“in the eyes of everyone I met was something that is quite hard to describe. The traces of fear these people lived with for many months… People were talking about hiding their phones in their underwear while going out. About avoiding looking at the Russians – you could be taken only for that. About not feeling safe in their own homes – they could have come for anyone for anything anytime.”

This report perfectly describes the experience of being permanently targeted just because of being in a certain place.

But what strikes me the most is the mentioned prohibition to look at the invaders. The right to look is reserved by the self-proclaimed authorities for themselves, while those who are conquered should remain at the position of the object, exposed and accessible for the gaze but never returning it back.

The inequality of vision established by Russian invaders in the occupied Ukrainian cities mirrors, of course, the structure of panopticon, where the prisoners always remain exposed to the gaze of the power, while the latter remains invisible to them. The metaphor of panopticon is also widely used to describe the operation of modern surveillance technologies inaccessible to human comprehension. Invisibility of surveilling gaze creates the effect of its all-seeingness: as the prisoners don’t know when exactly they are looked at, they should behave as if they are constantly visible, they should demonstrate their obedience all the time. That is how the prisoners become entrapped in their perpetual simulation of subjection.  But doesn’t it mean that the power, by enforcing the spectacle, feeds itself on illusion? Another important thing to remember, the invisibility of power’s gaze in panopticon structure is, first of all, meant to cover its lack.

Anthropologist Eduardo Kohn in his book How Forests Think based on four years of fieldwork among the Runa people living in Ecuador’s Upper Amazon, writes that according to the Runa while meeting a jaguar in the forest it is crucially important to look into his eyes. If you don’t, the predator will see you as prey and will definitely attack. But if you do, he sees you as an equal counterpart, not only a potential victim, but also as a potential danger, and very likely will retreat.[4]

For jaguars, according to the Runa people, as well as for Russian invaders in Kherson, according to the witness of my friend, a gaze directed at them is a signal of danger, because it brings uncertainty about their future.

Before the full-scale invasion started, many international political and war experts of different kinds claimed that Ukraine would collapse in three days. The same was the belief of the Russians. According to the Royal United Services Institute report, before the invasion, several large-scale surveys in Ukraine were conducted by order of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), which allegedly showed that Ukrainian society is mostly politically irrelevant. Based on those surveys they supposed that there would not be much resistance to the Russian occupation and built their plan of capturing Ukraine in 3 days. On the third day of the invasion, even the victory declaration was already published by the official Russian press service RIA Novosti, which claimed that the Ukrainian state does not exist anymore, and the population of its territory has joyfully accepted Russian domination.

But what really happened was not even close to those predictions. Regardless of the accessibility of Ukrainian pre-war information space for Russian propaganda and surveillance technologies, they still miscalculated the vision of Ukrainian people of themselves and the planned invasion. As did western experts. Timothy Snyder, a famous American historian specializing in Ukraine, reflecting on these misassumptions, called Ukraine a heart of darkness, an opaque entity, hard to grasp from the outside.

But what this story is about is that the real heart of darkness of the modern world obsessed with transparency, surveillance and calculation is the mystery of the human gaze. Even if you are totally visible, exposed, observable and detectable, the secrets of your own vision are still yours. Of course, it is exactly this troubling opacity of the gaze that inspires the development of techniques of control, direction and formatting of the human vision. Yet, the constellation of elements that make up the particular vision at a particular point in space in time and in a particular moment in private and collective history is always too complex, too peculiar, and too unstable to be precisely captured, calculated or managed. What can be captured are only the actions that already happened.

So far, if there is a blind spot in the massively monitored reality it is the seeds of the future hidden somewhere at the bottom of the human gaze; what actions will grow out of this certain vision is often a mystery even for the subject of the gaze. So, if there is a way out from the nightmare of being entrapped in the role of a target,  it is daring to look back to your enemies, as well as friends, making the secrets of your own vision part of the game. If there are war images that can make a shift in the balance of power, these are the images that bring the darkness of the gaze arising from the place of struggle, not directed at it.

Lesia Kulchynska is a Kyiv-based curator and visual studies researcher affiliated with the Research Platform of the Pinchuk Art Center. She developed and teaches the course “Violence of the Image” at the Kyiv Academy of Media Arts. She is the author of Meaning Production in Cinema: Genre Mechanisms (Kyiv 2017), founder of the Nomadic School of Visual Education and of the web project Service Website.

Recent curatorial projects developed by Lesia Kulchynska include The Reason Of Disappearance (Kyiv 2021), Radically Different Society (New York 2021) and State of Emergence (Bucharest 2022).

[1] Yevgenia Belorusets, ‘Letters from Kyiv’, Artforum, 04 April 2022, https://www.artforum.com/slant/a-wartime-diary-by-yevgenia-belorusets-88035

[2] Andrew Hoskins and Shona Illingworth, “Inaccessible war: media, memory, trauma and the blueprint” Digital War 1 (2020): 74-82.

[3] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968.

[4] Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human, Berkley: University of California Press, 2013.

Image from Letters from Kyiv: A wartime diary by Yevgenia Belorusets