Is it convenient to know?
This conversation between the artist Vlada Ralko and the researcher Milena Khomchenko was finished on May 13, 2022. To be more precise, it happened on the 79th day of the war, following Vlada’s note on the way Ukrainians perceive the time since February 24. That day the Azovstal plant, cities of Mariupol, and Kherson were still under the occupation; Russian soldiers were continuing shelling and fights in Izium, Krasnopillia, Horlivka, Velyka Novosilka, Siverskodonetsk, Rubizhne, Vuhledar, and other cities of Ukraine while also using cluster munitions in Korabelnyi district of Mykolaiv. That day, as well as the other days, these names of the small Ukrainian peripheral towns or villages were left on the outskirts of the international communication channels. However, these events continue being the foreground of all even detached discussions of those who are attached.
M. Vlada, in the new Danarti’s edition we have the opportunity to speak to its readers in three languages––for the first time in Ukrainian, while also in English and Georgian. This is the capacity of language that I would like to begin a conversation with you as an artist. The artist, who writes poetry, collects a big library and accompanies her life during the revolution with Vasyl Stus’s books. After reading your texts for a long time, I constantly notice the weight of your language, its particular length, and partial resistance to translation. Do you think that foreign readers of this publication will lose something important in our conversation? What can they also gain in these linguistic transformations?
V. The further I go, the more clearly I see that language is not only the home of a philosopher, but also of a citizen. In order to be not a separate human, but a part of humanity, it is not enough to defend common values. Despite their universal character, valuable things must hold on to something and base on some ground, otherwise, they become an abstraction. They are stored in language, in simple and obvious words, and they are tested in translation. Sure, each interpretation implies losses, but also clarification of the content. The statement seems to change the configuration, but the meaning survives in this illusive uncertainty. When we clarify the meaning of a word by translating it within the conversation, this is as if we are sharing gifts.
M. What about poetry? It seems to me the structure of configurations is crucial for it. You are also writing poems, you have published your poetry collection Mouth and Cross at the end of 2020. Recently, at the end of April 2022, you posted your translations of poems by the book publisher Dmytro Shandra, in which he appeals to the events of the current war, the murders and rapes in Bucha, Irpin, Hostomel, etc. What was this experience like for you? What exactly prompted you to create a Ukrainian translation from the original version in Russian?
V. My poetic texts almost always begin with a word, literally one word; the way it sounds and begins to cling, to entail other words. Even when a topic comes to my mind, it still sounds like a word or a composition of words. Poetic thought is able to be short. Now, during the war, this is an advantage. Also, words gain strength within the poem, and the poem's fabric is very strong by itself. I would even say it is alive. In poetry, language returns to its nature, it recharges and returns what is lost in speculative usage. At this terrible time, language gives me strength. But now I can hardly speak or write. Actually, that's why I started translating poems, they expressed the anger I felt by myself. Also, translation gave me the courage to return to so much-needed language experience. The language in the poem brings my voice back. After Bucha, Irpin, Hostomel, during Mariupol and Kherson, the accuracy of poetry is able to speak about specifically these crimes, without making any historical parallels or hiding them among the other horrors of the past.
M. On the other hand, your visual language seems very capacious, it accurately conveys the contemporary reality of war. It undermines and brings to the surface all the previously scattered elements of our life––the archetypes of Ukrainian culture, religious allusions, post-Soviet experience, imperialism and colonialism, cruelty and physical violence, propaganda––and further collects them in one place with no way out.
Since 2013, during and after the Revolution of Dignity in Kyiv, this reality has existed in your series of drawings called Kyiv Diary (KD). Now, since the beginning of Russia's full-scale war against Ukraine, it is re-emerging in the Lviv Diary (LD) series, which you started during your stay in Lviv in February 2022. What was your experience of these repeating events? How did you build your relationships with them?
V. Due to my departure to Lviv, a series of paintings, which I started in Kyiv at the end of last year, was interrupted. You think differently with painting, that is why the transition to drawing on paper was one of the difficulties. Of course, starting from February 24, everything seemed as if it was not really happening to me, whereas the possibility of artistic practice instantly receded as something meaningless. The whole perception of reality has changed so much that it was possible to act only automatically for a while. You reasonably mentioned the Kyiv Diary, because as I started working on new drawings, I immediately realized that everything had already been said about the war in KD. Therefore, the beginning of work in Lviv was a kind of violence against oneself, a forced exit from the immobile state, of sobriety. I didn't have any art materials, I just received a stack of office paper and someone else's watercolors. In LD, drawing has also become a physical exercise as the ballpoint pen must be pressed, there are many lines. Now, as I continue the series, I think that by hatching I am digging into what I can't understand.
M. Do you notice that you can talk about something new or completely different, facing this particular cycle of events?
V. At the moment, I am too close to what I do as an artist to evaluate my own work. I only see that while working on KD I used to rely on media materials from the latest events, such as reportage photos or videos, and now, although I keep a lot of documentary photos, I rely more on my own memory, imagination, and intuition. I need every picture to turn into a sign, or rather a construction that has its own durability, something that can be trusted.
M. Is it due to the fact that the war is becoming more and more media? Is that how you experience it today? I remember your comment on Kyiv Diary about the reality of the revolutionary events of that time, which seemed to surpass itself; a history that raced at breakneck speed accompanied by a continuous uncertainty of facts. This time, in early February, I was observing as facts themselves began to negate other facts. The war started becoming virtualized in its nature and filled with digital militaristic tools. In some cases, personal memory and intuition are really better archives than virtual databases. Can we reappropriate such a hyper-fast information space?
V. Pushing the war into the media space is a gesture not only of the villain, but also of the so-called good person. I would call the reaction of intellectuals and the vast majority of civilized politicians to war hysteria of a "good man" who is continuing to think abstractly about war, like a computer game, who wants justice but is not ready to kill or does not want to "admire the war” like Judith Butler.
War has exposed the nature of choice, it is impossible to hide behind a neutral status. Procrastination or inaction becomes a crime. When you do not choose personally what you should do, you can instantly and even insensibly become a criminal. You are talking about the contradictory nature of reality and the complete uncertainty of the facts. Oh, yes. It is very convenient to pretend to be a foreigner and not recognize this war as your own because of doubts and misunderstandings. Russia, which has successfully adapted the inherited methods of the Soviet regime to modern times, surprisingly and successfully manipulates the Western thoughts, distorting not only facts but also concepts. The Western world has lately been largely concerned with its own security and well-being. It has proved to be catastrophically blind in the face of this cunning monster, which it has been feeding all this time.
If we talk about the importance of the archive today, the problem is not so much about how to deal with the flow of information, but it is that trust and conscience remained under the rubble somewhere in the old archives. How to get them out? This is the question!
M. Speaking of the uncertainty of the facts, I referred to your recollections of the Revolution of Dignity, and later to the rather specified virtual weaponry, which is designed to manipulate even those who do not participate in the battlefield. For example, Russian propaganda has created deep fake, an algorithm for replacing the face in digital content, with Zelensky's request for capitulation, which, fortunately, due to its blatant improbability turned out to be more a weapon of the enemy against itself. Alternatively, Russian soldiers continue shelling after they agreed to a ceasefire for evacuating residents. How do you deal with a barrage of fakes when the news feed often becomes the only source of information about those forcibly distanced relatives who are disconnected from the network, utility services, or even food and water?
Continuing this theme, I do not compare the centuries-old manipulation of Russian propaganda with the notion of fact. The current war has demonstrated the certainty of historical narratives as never before, and you have noted the position of the "foreigner" right because in this context it seems impossible to be applicable.
V. There is no separate "notion of fact." To put it simply, war is caused by the tendency of a good person with critical thinking to carefully consider a combination of facts without making a moral effort. This can be called a profanation of the law when its understanding is narrowed to bureaucratic procedures. I have already said that real facts are usually contradictory, so it is very easy to manipulate them, even in spite of the open information space. Lately, too much attention has been given to information as well as to the care of one's own and others' emotions. In peacetime, we have built a kind of speculative value line. We have happily fooled ourselves.
M. Is it possible to break this speculative circle of values? To act without delay and, more often, to act at all?
V. We act even when we are totally calm. The only question is what effect our activity or inaction has. The war leaves no one behind and makes the picture extremely clear. If the statement that every step is a matter of life and death may seem an exaggeration in a peaceful life, it is now obvious reality.
M. The wars in Ukraine and Georgia have some similarities, as Russia has long committed war crimes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. When I meet with your works, they often tell me about shared experiences. Despite the fact that the stories of Ukrainians and Georgians are not the same, we share a lot, so how can we rely on each other's experiences? How can we help each other?
V. It is not enough to rely only on experience. Especially since the experience of another person does not provoke trust automatically. Once again, various sources repeat that the victim's rhetoric is hardly trustworthy because a person who has encountered evil closely is too anxious and too emotional to soberly assess events. I read that fugitives from Nazi camps were often distrusted as if they could not be the “real case”. At the moment, our countries are facing the most important question of how to talk about what is happening to us. Or how to ask a foreigner who is used to carefully considering everything? How to ask a person with a short memory who does not recognize Soviet technology under a new guise? This is a challenge to us and a task for us, otherwise, such a familiar evil will move forward.