By: Clemens Poole
AIR ALARM CAMERA ROLL
Keywords: Ukraine; Lviv; war, war photography, digital practice
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine plays tricks with time. War compresses aspects of the past and flattens expanses of the present.
There are, of course, the grand narratives; the past is brought back, or projected into an imperial future of a new “Russian world” [Русский мир], a concept which merges the history of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the current Russian Federation into one seamless expression of manifest destiny. Consider the invaders’ chillingly atemporal slogan “we can repeat” [можем повторить], which affirms an endless capacity for the glory of victory realized in “The Great Patriotic War” [Великая Отечественная война]. This slogan is an almost perfect affront to the rest of Europe’s common chant of “never again”, which emphasizes the horrors, rather than the glory, of World War II (even the episodic character of the common title “World War II” anchors its referent in history, in contrast to the superlative and timeless implications of its Russian counterpart).
There are personal narratives, too. Anxiety, truth, ambiguity and misinformation can coexist in a simple phone call from a loved one. Everything is simultaneously at a distance and right beside you, keeping you awake at night. An estimated twelve million people, in a country of more than forty million, have been displaced — seven million inside Ukraine itself, and five million abroad. These numbers are unimaginably large, but also minutely personal. Unless you talked to a friend yesterday, it is often impossible to say where they are today. At any given time they might call you from wherever they are, and you might answer, and if you do, after enduring the torture of the Telegram “connecting” tri-tone jingle, you might connect. And then they might be in tears or they might just want to shoot the shit. Unlike the mythos of the grand narratives, personal narratives are hectically charged with uncertainty. Will today be the day? Will tomorrow? Will this air raid siren be the one? At times the simple act of coherent thought becomes heroic.
The war partly collapses time by ruthlessly curating our experiences, selecting insignificant moments from the continuum of our lives and attaching grotesque meaning to them. A photo’s frame might capture the visual space of a personal moment, but the invisible brand of the image’s metadata timestamp might describe an impossibly vast moment of vital significance to someone, somewhere. Platforms like Telegram paradoxically house up-to-the-minute information from official channels like that of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine [Верховна Ра́да України] and propaganda accounts dedicated to Kremlin disinformation. These channels merge together with messages from friends in cluttered timelines of public and private experience, making contemporary social media a space where acts of war insert themselves into both sides of our experience, occasionally with spooky simultaneity.
Many contemporary lens-based art practices shrug off the arbitrary in favor of the investigative. Data sets become important for their combined significance when cracking a forensic visual code (more often than not with the help of a placidly Harun Farocki-style narrator intoning dry, clinically incisive descriptions). While this tactic yields powerful critical work, its aim is often to clarify the mayhem of 21st century armed violence by uncovering causality and conspiratorial logic. Such works productively order Hito Steyerl’s “poor images” by moving the aesthetics of war away from iconic and fetishized decisive moments like Robert Capra’s Falling Soldier (1936), and towards Forensic Architecture’s crowd-sourced composite arguments. While the elegance of the the previous century’s captured horror is still dredged for contemporary pathos and reflection by works like Nikita Kadan’s Pogrom (2016–17), 21st century horror is more likely to find its most poignant forms in sleekly lo-fi and impersonal works like Christoph Büchel’s AC-130 Gunship Targeting Video (Afghanistan 12/6/2002) (2004).
The emotional experience of Russia’s war in Ukraine, however, seems to defy many of these tendencies. Mykola Ridnyi’s various photographic works made in the early phase of the war under the title Blind Spot (2014–2015) contain an ambiguity that seems to describe the violence with more clarity than, for example, Forensic Architecture’s belabored Russian Strike on the Kyiv TV Tower (2022), which simply applies excessive detail to a bare fact known by all (that a Russian missile struck the Kyiv TV tower). The blatant attack can hardly be called a conspiracy, and causality is far from occulted by the aggressors — in fact, Forensic Architecture’s conclusion seems to largely coincide with Russia’s official statements (the strikes were meant to knock out communication systems). Activist tactics developed to deal with dirty wars and atrocities crafted for plausible deniability somehow come up empty-handed when a state conducts a war of aggression with outright genocidal aims. In such cases, artists find more truth in the ambiguity of war than in the concrete accusations. Yarema Malashchuk and Roman Khimei’s recent piece The Wanderer (2022) finds the artists posing themselves as mangled Russian casualties, physically contorted in their violent ends. These images of death need no evidence or discovery — their randomness is both explainable and arbitrary (and likely sourced from one of the many grisly Telegram feeds the war has birthed).
While this brand of snuff may captivate both us and the artists working to articulate the emotional truths of this moment, our aesthetic impulses still betray us. The “better” the image of war, the more we wish that that image had never had occasion to exist. In some sense the banal brings us to a more poignant mode of horror than the exceptional. The cutting honesty of Oleksandr Halishchuk’s drawing untitled (2022) is scrawled in school-desk-carving hand: “Я БОЮСЬ Я ТРУС Я ТУТ” [I’m scared I’m a coward I’m here], and speaks of a gnawing fear that is absent from the perfect media images of explosions. And yet, these fears — raw or aestheticized, unprocessed or doctored, illegible or illustrative, detailed or obscured, pixelated or hi-res — flow together through the confluence of curated social media channels. We submit to this curation wildly and desperately, because we have no choice, and because wild desperation itself is sometimes the most sane reaction to our circumstances.
AIR ALARM CAMERA ROLL is an excerpt from the war’s curation as it cuts across time and space. The project documents the coincidence of my phone’s camera roll with alerts from a Telegram channel devoted to air raid sirens in Lviv, Ukraine. The piece starts from the moment of the first attack on February 24, 2022 and goes comprehensively up until 27 March, 2022. The choices of periodization and location are personal, related to my own circumstances at the time and those of my loved ones, but I could have chosen any period or city since the Russian military set foot in Ukraine for its full-scale invasion. Sirens are still heard regularly across the country, likely somewhere in the moment you read this. Artists in Ukraine work under these conditions, and many have become inured to them, silencing the siren app on their phone with a deftly automatic gesture and going on with their day. For me the data supporting this experience of anxiety is not meaningless, but it is also not a detective story. The crime is known, the intent is stated. The only question is when and where.
The moments shown are not pictures of crucial evidence, or aesthetically spectacular violence, or even useful context for a grand narrative. In most cases they are not even moments of great personal significance. The potential air strikes and rocket attacks against Lviv that trigger the air alarms for the region have failed to find a compelling curatorial thread. Instead there are simply images of Telegram chats, artist friends, a protest, selfies, my partner’s grandmother having breakfast in Warsaw after fleeing Donbas, a supermarket queue, a friend’s dog, documents for crossing the border in a borrowed van, trips with humanitarian aid — but also: an air strike. And another one. A smiling selfie sent to someone without knowing a missile had just struck nearby, in her neighborhood in Lviv. All true, all arbitrary, and all endless — for now.
Clemens Poole is a US American artist based in Kyiv. Since 2014 he has been active in Ukraine, working both with various Ukrainian arts organizations and independently. Recent independent projects in Ukraine include the exhibitions ( ) (2020) and Casual Colonizations (2021), The Desperate Tone is an Act (2020), Entangled Transposition (2021), Closed Futures (2021), and the film Dima, Dmitry, Dmytro. Glory to the Heroes (2021).
 On the tension between personal experience and the digital information space, see Milena Khomchenko’s article “The Digital Fog of War” in Spike Art Magazine, March 23, 2022. https://www.spikeartmagazine.com/?q=articles/milena-khomchenko-digital-war
 Hito Steyerl. “In Defense of the Poor Image”, e-Flux #10, November 2009. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/10/61362/in-defense-of-the-poor-image/
 RIA Novosti, a Russian state media outlet, published a text attributed to Timofey Sergeytsev called “Что Россия должна сделать с Украиной” on April 3, 2022. It appeared the following day, April 4, 2022, in a translation by Mariia Kravchenko under the title “What should Russia do with Ukraine?” on Medium. https://medium.com/@kravchenko_mm/what-should-russia-do-with-ukraine-translation-of-a-propaganda-article-by-a-russian-journalist-a3e92e3cb64. Timothy Snyder referred to the original article as a “genocide handbook” on Substack, April 8, 2022 https://snyder.substack.com/p/russias-genocide-handbook.