[This text is an expanded version of the talk given as a part of transmediale 2023]
Anna Engelhardt is an alias I use as a research-based media artist and writer. In my practice, I examine war as a technology, looking into the hardware and software behind Russian invasions. Interested in topics from military cybernetics to cyber warfare, I conduct investigations that take on multiple forms of media, drawing from my MA in Forensic Architecture from the Centre of Research Architecture, Goldsmiths.
In this text, I aim to reflect on the core method of my practice, which combines open-source investigations and para-fictional narratives to deal with instances of Russian colonial violence. Having worked against Russian colonial violence before the recent escalation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I am currently rethinking my practice to address the new context of the full-scale war. As you will see from this text, Russian expansion before 2022 was undertaken as a covert operation, every aspect of which has been extensively denied. Proving that the Russian soldiers invaded the country was a task in itself. This military strategy has been surpassed by the highly mediatised war crimes in which Russia publicly takes pride. What is the new role of an investigatory art practice in such an environment? What does it mean to reconstruct a crime scene, the perpetrator and the process of which is known?
Investigations are frequently characterised by a detached, sterile perspective, in which embodied experience is dismissed unless verified. Together with Mark Cinkevich, we tried to make sense of the mismatch between such distanced perspective and the reality of graphic horror it aims to represent. We explored this tension in the new film “Onset”, recreating a horror movie’s embodied, limited perspective. A viewer/protagonist of the film, radically vulnerable to the unknown threat, follows the narrative of the satellite images investigation. To achieve this effect, we crafted ‘infrastructural horror’, a genre that amplifies inherent dread hidden within extractivist infrastructures. This genre aims to create discomfort, repulsion or suspense by exposing the architecture of dispossession and destruction as a foreboding.
In the film, a demon roams through an ominous synthetic environment, reconstructed from satellite images of Russian air bases: Khmeimim in Syria, Baranovichi in Belarus, and Belbek in Ukraine. Passing through their deserted corridors, interrogation rooms, and electricity substations, this parasitic force sprawls out from the military structures. Devastation follows in its wake. In Onset, we crafted an unholy alliance of medieval demonology, open-source intelligence, and CGI animation to uncover the secret life of these military outposts. Over the course of the film, the true horror of Russian colonialism becomes manifest in the process of possession – the imposition of external control that gradually destroys an organism from within.
We show that in all the cases we discuss, the onset of invasion is eerily similar to that of demonic possession – quiet infiltration that aims to uphold the image of seeming normalcy while corrupting the system. In demonology, a demon always seeks to obfuscate and hide its name since it grants power to an exorcist. In an eerily similar vein, Russian troops always come unannounced, hiding their insignia and destroying any proof of their presence. They spread throughout the country from within, taking control over and destroying its vital infrastructure. They weaponise these structures to aid their advance, replacing civilian functions with military ones–turning the sovereign states against themselves.
The invading force reconstructs the destroyed infrastructure only to the bare minimum needed to protect and serve the invasion, without any regard for those living under the occupation. The resulting political state of the occupied territories can be understood as ‘undeath’ – obsolete political structures artificially maintained by Russia. One call recall here the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Overthrown by a Syrian revolution, he has been artificially preserved by the Russian troops ever since. Similar events unfolded in Ukraine, where Russia occupied the Crimean Peninsula and the East of Ukraine, conserving its control overthrown by the Revolution of Dignity. Again, the Russian occupation secured the regime of Lukashenko in Belarus from the country-wide revolution. The mortality of these political regimes and their already occurred deaths, effects of which have been artificially delayed by the Russian forces, gives way to thinking about their endings. When one extracts Russian occupation from the equation, it becomes apparent how fragile these cadavers are, compared to the life force ready to take over at any point, as they were meant to prior to Russian invasions.
The clue for those endings could also be seen in demonology. One of the critical insights demonology gave us was that the medieval understanding of possession was embodied and material. A demon would be located in a particular limb and then exorcised through connection to that organ. In the body, demons specifically locate themselves in the spinal column, nervous system, and deepest nervous centres, through which they control the whole being. It led us to the clue that a demon, taking control of the body from within, becomes entangled with the body it possesses. We found that the physical connection between seemingly immaterial demonic force and the body it harvests holds true for the way the Russian army is connected to the countries it aims to destroy. Investigating this connection as the Russian army’s core weakness became the film’s focus.
The interest in building upon the tension between the open source investigation and fiction became the core of the project “Intra-structures”, on which I collaborated with Sasha Shestakova. Together with the eeefff collective, we developed a Telegram bot that enacts a mundane chat of Russian propaganda workers, allowing users to see the information wars from within. Hence “intra” in “inra-structures”—an attempt to look within the infrastructures themselves. Via the link https://t.me/intr4_bot, you can access an internal chat between Russian propaganda workers that will go on for about a week. Our project merged confirmed cases of circulating fakes and ecosystems of Russian Telegram chats used by propaganda journalists with fictional backstories. We imagined what the conversations of propaganda workers could be when they engage in violence, which they obscure and distance from themselves and their everyday life in Moscow. One example of the stories exchanged in the chat is narrated by a Moscow-based fashion designer who worked for a fashion brand designing clothes inspired by and promoting the Russian military. In the messages, this designer laughs at the weirdness of parties that mix creatives and high-ranking troops and shares how to omit the military aspect of his design brand in small talk. The story escalates when he gets closer to an army service officer—the latter contacts him to edit some imagery in Photoshop. He reveals that the images he photoshopped “went viral” since Russia used them to deny its involvement in the downing of MH17 on the occupied Ukrainian territories.
Adversarial Infrastructure (2020) investigated the volumetric history of the Crimean annexation employing deepfake technology to assemble a new image of Russian logistical warfare. The project’s core focus was the Crimean Bridge, completed by the Russian state to control the material networks and semiotic space in Crimea, making the occupation of Crimea irreversible. The term “adversarial” in the project’s name stems from the fact that the Crimean Bridge was constructed with contradictory functions, similar to the architecture of the neural networks. Adversarial networks learn through competition–combining seemingly contradictory functions, the architecture unites and reinforces the resulting structure.
In the case of the Crimean Bridge, the seemingly contradictory functions of a border and a bridge tend to reinforce Russian control over the area. While it was created as a connector to facilitate the flow of settlers into the Crimean Peninsula and stitch the peninsula to the Russian mainland, it was also designed as a border hidden in plain sight, meant to disrupt the flows and impose a blockade on the region. This structure devastated the local ecology, disrupting the flows between the Azov Sea and the Black Sea. It was intended to impact the logistical routes through the Kerch Strait, and since Ukraine has critical harbours in the sea, Russia has attempted to impose a blockade on those harbours. Russia has effectively halted the Ukrainian logistics of the region, using the Crimean Bridge as the reason for the disruption.
The core method of my engagement with this adversarial infrastructure was producing deepfake footage rooted in the qualities of Crimean Bridge as a “poetic infrastructure”, to use the term coined by Brian Larkin. Poetic infrastructures can loosen their technical function and evoke desires and fantasies that can take on fetish-like aspects independent of their technical function. Poetic infrastructures are often found in colonial regimes, existing as means of semiotic control regardless of whether they are capable of material control. In the case of the Crimean Bridge, it didn’t lead anywhere because Russia never constructed the roads connecting it to the road network within the peninsula. Still, the bridge was heavily circulated online as a media event, extended through an architecture of Telegram channels, Instagram accounts and YouTube blogs. There were exhibitions in Moscow that toured throughout Russia, allowing people to experience the bridge in 360, fly over the bridge using VR glasses, and get to know the project’s mascot, a cat of the bridge.
A resulting hybrid that spans both physical and digital landscapes exemplifies how the materiality and propaganda of an infrastructure project are intertwined. The concept of intra-action, proposed by Karen Barad, helps to explain how these two elements of the Crimean Bridge are mutually constitutive. The construction process itself was influenced by the discourse surrounding the bridge. Based on the premise that it was necessary to connect Crimea and Russia, this discourse led to changes in official engineering norms and practices, exemplifying how the materiality of propaganda can influence the matter of the resulting infrastructure. Propaganda is not simply a discursive dimension that becomes materialised but exists through the mutual constitution of various material-discursive agencies. This means that the entanglement of propaganda and infrastructure exposes propaganda to the vulnerabilities of its matter. As the infrastructure of the Crimean Bridge becomes part of the media infrastructure, it is possible to exploit the symbolic power concentrated in the bridge as a material object – something I tried to do by deepfaking the project’s announcement.