Artists: Tekla Aslanishvili & Giorgi Gago Gagoshidze, Mariyam Medet*, Yevgenia Belorusets, eeefff, Anna Engelhardt, fantastic little splash, Uladzimir Hramovich *, The Museum of Stones editorial collective *, Oleksiy Radynski *, Alicja Rogalska, Sabīne Šnē *, Nomeda & Gediminas Urbonas, XYANA *
Curators: Aleksei Borisionok, Antonina Stebur
* Star marks presentation of new works, co-commissioned by The National Gallery of Art
The exhibition If Disrupted, It Becomes Tangible at the National Gallery of Art explores the political context of extractivist and logistical infrastructures, digital and information technologies (IT), affected by wars and political uprisings in the geography and temporality that goes beyond the post-Soviet condition.
Based on the ruins of the Soviet system of technical education, research and production—lately deregulated and mainly privatised — the development of IT introduced ex-Soviet countries to the global economic and labour market with its geographical unevenness. This process could be described as a specific form of IT colonialism that operates through the exploitation of a highly qualified and inexpensive labour force. However, the material base that we refer to as ‘cybernetic ruins’ was not neutral: historically, scientific knowledge and IT were developed as a part of the military-industrial complex, extractivist logistics and transportation, as well as the development of post-Soviet fossil capitalism with its neo-imperialist infrastructures.
The exhibition derives from the notion of infrastructure, which is understood as a way of distributing and organising power relations. Networks of infrastructure such as railways, gas pipelines, internet fibre optics, Telegram channels, video monitoring systems and so on remain intangible in everyday functioning. At the same time, their breakdown, disabling and interruption exposes the work of the whole infrastructure and their interconnectedness. In a literal sense, power and its materiality become visible, mundane and embodied through breakdown and interruption.
The geography and temporality of various artistic practices presented at the exhibition stretch far beyond the post-Soviet condition. The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine and recent political protests in various ex-Soviet countries—Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia and Armenia among others—demonstrate the activist and voluntaristic potential of the technologies themselves. Digital activism and militancy such as hacking, disruption of automated cybernetic systems and leaking of databases became a crucial part of social movements during the protests and an essential characteristic of warfare in Ukraine.
The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine can be seen through the lens of cyberwarfare. Ukrainian scholar Svitlana Matviyenko states: ‘The war tension oscillates between two poles […] — AI and nuclear.’. Entangling digital technologies and the kinetic use of weapons, cyberwar becomes one of the most important notions that comprises complexities and infrastructures of contemporary imperialism and warfare. The imperialist configuration of war with its logistics, seizure of nuclear power plants, cyberwar and AI technologies should be addressed from the decolonial perspective and set new configurations as a process of ‘exodus’ from the post-Soviet condition, as proposed by Olexii Kuchanskyi. The exhibition highlights various forms of resistance towards invasive military infrastructures and the creation of new spaces and temporalities of solidarity. The exhibition presents practices that not only represent current developments in tech warfare but also produce various tools that can perform and embody current resistance.
If Disrupted, It Becomes Tangible is divided into 4 sections:
The Ruins of Infrastructures reveals ideas of power relations behind infrastructures and features of the IT sphere in ex-Soviet countries as having been built on the ruins of Soviet military institutions, as well as the connection between digital and industrial production, detected through the ideas of resourcification, colonialism outsourcing and externalities.
Cyberwar and Imperial Imaginations shows the digital ‘frontline’ of the war and how kinetic and cyber weapons are interconnected. It delves into the history of Soviet cybernetics and cyberweapons, the growth of the game development industry and its connection to imperial and post-colonial imaginations.
Disruption as Method analyses how the rupture of infrastructures manifests by exposing the work of power, ultimately highlighting its fragility and vulnerability. This chapter covers various gestures of disruption—hacking, cutting off internet access, cyberattacks—as a method of resistance.
Algorithmic Spaces of Control and Resistance explores the creation of the ‘data subject’, increasing algorithmization and their political effects. It also investigates how new alliances and political mobilisations can be both facilitated and controlled by the use of contemporary technologies.
The disruption of infrastructure as a subversive mechanism of resistance and solidarity has been embodied in the architecture of the exhibition through a discontinuous metal structure that runs across the entire exhibition. On one hand, it exposes gaps in the infrastructure but on the other hand, it links artworks and contexts together. The exhibition is also supplemented by a glossary generated by the curators and artists that can be used as an orientational tool in this complex and layered configuration of technologies, infrastructures and cyberwars.
The Ruins of Infrastructures
The section ‘The Ruins of Infrastructures’ comprehends how various types of infrastructures—transport, logistics, information, military, Internet and so on— establish particular configurations of power, forms of economic exploitation and social exclusion.
This section centres on the acknowledgement that infrastructures of modernisation, primarily related to high technologies, are based on existing or ruined Soviet industrial and post-industrial heritage, research and education, production and the military-industrial complex. Consequently, they have certain logic embedded in them originating from the time of the Soviet Union (Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas; Oleksiy Radynski ). The capitalist organisation of new institutions based in abandoned or ruined facilities stimulated the development of unequal relations and processes associated with IT colonialism and resourcification in ex-Soviet countries (Tekla Aslanishvili and Giorgi Gago Gagoshidze ).
This section also reflects the connection between contemporary high technologies and the externalities in the region (Sabīne Šnē ). Traditionally, industrial and post-industrial spheres are portrayed as fundamentally different models of economic and labour organisation. However, IT technologies turn out to be as rooted in the material world as heavy industries, where outsourcing is one of the variant forms of ‘pumping out’ resources, material or intellectual, from a certain territory.
Cyberwar and Imperial Imaginations
According to scholars Nick Dyer-Whithford and Svitlana Matviyenko, the notion of cyberwar ‘emphasises the new centrality to war of digital technologies, thus pointing back historically to origins in Second World War and Cold War cybernetics and forward to the new levels of networking and automation likely to characterise all social relations, including war making, in the twenty-first century.’. The crucial comment on the character of cyberwarfare is delivered by the same scholars—they refuse to oppose ‘cyber’ and ‘kinetic’ weaponry in times of complex asymmetrical warfare. Instead, they stress ‘the ways in which they [cyber and kinetic weaponry] cross over and complement each other until it is difficult, if at all possible, to distinguish between them.’.
‘Cyberwar and Imperial Imaginations’ untangles the history of Soviet cybernetics and cyberweapons (Anna Engelhardt ) and the way they are connected to the development of machine vision, automatisation of data processing and their use in Russian/Soviet colonial wars. The section also traces how imperialism constructs and represents historical and digital space/landscape through examples of the game development industry, academic drawing and GPS systems (Uladzimir Hramovich ). Lastly, one side of cyberwarfare—information war as part of a media apparatus—is investigated through the fake news, multiple conspiracy discourses, propaganda and counterpropaganda that emerged after the annexation of Crimea and occupation of Donetsk and Luhansk by Russia in 2014 (Yevgenia Belorusets ).
Disruption as Method
Etymologically, the term ‘infrastructure’ has the prefix ‘infra’, meaning ‘sub’ or ‘under’, standing for an invisible and stealthy characteristic. This invisibility and even the feeling of dematerialisation are particularly essential for IT infrastructure. Breakdown, disabling and interruption exposes the work of the infrastructure. Power and its materiality, in a literal sense, turn out to be visible, mundane and embodied through destruction and interruption (eeefff ).
The section ‘Disruption as Method’ highlights multiple tactics to resist the totality of infrastructure and its invisible power. Such disruption can manifest as an accidental breakdown (Alicja Rogalska ) or through a series of planned sabotages, hacks, disruptions and suspensions (fantastic little splash ). For example, during Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the sabotage of railways by the Belarusian Railway Guerrillas or the demolishing of navigation systems by Ukrainians impeded or partially blocked the Russian army’s locomotion. Digital hacking and physical attacks of elements of cybernetic systems blur the division between cyber and kinetic, digital and material, visible and concealed.
Algorithmic Spaces of Control and Resistance
The original concept of the exhibition derived from the specific context of Belarus where the vast and rapid creation of solidarity and resistance networks was launched in the course of the popular uprising in 2020. Even though social upheaval is being gradually suppressed through state and police violence, various social and political initiatives—including those mediated by digital interfaces—are active and adjusting to current events: Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine through the use of Belarusian territories and infrastructures.
The section ‘Algorithmic Spaces of Control and Resistance’ explores various conceptual and speculative topographies that are clinched in the violence and emancipation of algorithmic calculations. The artistic works refer to imaginary and real spaces that show the contradictions between political agency and control such as the High Technology Park in Minsk, an important location on the map of protests in Belarus directly connected to IT labour and digital resistance (XYANA ).
The anonymous editorial collective of cultural workers The Museum of Stones has been publishing digital newspapers through a Telegram chatbot . For the exhibition, they present a new issue on anti-war resistance in Belarus and beyond. Mariyam Medet subverts John Searle’s algorithmic thought experiment ‘Chinese room’ from 1980 and questions the racist implications of the thought experiment by referring to facial recognition systems and re-education camps for Uighurs in China. In general, this section investigates how new alliances and political mobilisations can be both facilitated and controlled by the use of contemporary technologies.