Introduction: Sunflowers and Social Media

Source: AP
Johan Andersson introduces the dossier on the war in Ukraine.
[Ed. note: this article is part of a dossier on the war in Ukraine.]

In War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, his long essay on the intertwined technologies of cinema and modern warfare, Paul Virilio suggests at one point that the siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War of 1854 could be viewed as a starting point because of the “abundant use of… modern techniques: repeating weapons, photographic records, armoured trains, aerial observation.” 1Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (London and New York: Verso, 1989), 68. The war raging in the same part of Europe today seems strangely archaic and hyper-modern at the same time: the indiscriminate use of artillery has been described as a throwback to WWII (although Russia used the same tactics in Grozny and Aleppo), while the unmanned drones, infrared-guided antitank missiles, and satellite-guided rockets reinforce Virilio’s argument about the interconnected developments of war and image-making technologies.

The geographical scales at which these technologies are deployed and through which this war is mediated range from the planetary to the body. The visual evidence of war crimes in Bucha compiled and forensically analysed by the New York Times, for example, consists of satellite imagery, aerial drone footage, street level CCTV, and eyewitnesses filming on their personal devices. Hack-and-leak campaigns have subsequently used some of this material to identify and publish information about soldiers involved in war crimes, illustrating how work traditionally associated with government intelligence agencies is now carried out by open-source intelligence groups such as Bellingcat or Forensic Architecture. Computer-savvy hackers and investigators aside, civilian mobilisation also clearly extends into the virtual realm: David Patrikarkos’s chapters from Russia and Eastern Ukraine in his book War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century analyse the roles of “Facebook warriors” and “trolls”; armies of foot soldiers “fighting a narrative battle at the discursive level of war.” 2David Patrikarkos, War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Basic Books, 2017), 148.

On the first day of Russia’s full-scale invasion, a film of a Ukrainian woman confronting an occupying soldier in the town of Henichesk in the Kherson province went viral: cursing and swearing, she asked him to “Put sunflower seeds in your pocket so they grow when you die”. Ukraine is the world’s largest sunflower oil producer, and the sunflower is its national flower: the subliminal image of its yellow petals growing through the uniforms of dead soldiers is one of national survival but also taps into a dark poetic register of decomposing bodies on Europe’s fertile soil. While the poppy as a symbol of WWI appeared in a poem published over a year into the war (“In Flanders Field” by Canadian soldier John McCrae), the sunflower seeds video reached a mass audience overnight. Shared on Twitter by Ukrainian media organisations, the clip was seen by millions and contributed to the early framing of Ukrainian resistance, punctuating the misconception that Russian troops would be greeted as liberators, with flowers rather than seeds.

In international media this expletive-filled confrontation tended to be presented as a spontaneous act of fearless defiance, when, clearly, it is also an elaborate piece of amateur filmmaking: the woman confronting the soldier is walking towards him with her camera on, while an accomplice is filming the scene simultaneously from a long-distance angle behind her. Presented in split screen, we see the street confrontation on one side, and close ups of intimate details such as the soldier’s dirty boots, on the other. Yet the creative labour that went into the making of this film – both with regards to its form and poetic content – typically went unremarked upon in media coverage framed in emotive terms about individual courage.

In different ways, the five essays in this special dossier approach the war in Ukraine and Russia’s totalitarian turn through the lens of visual culture and various forms of media. Rebecca Adelman analyses news reports about Ukrainian women making camouflage, which again have tended to use emotive rather than rational frames, to show how women’s labour is often described as therapeutic while the technical and practical purposes of camouflage are downplayed in favour of its gendered discursive meanings (“similar to behaviors that women naturally engaged in, like wearing make-up and deceiving men with visual tricks”, as Adelman puts it).

Equally interested in the tension between the material and the symbolic, Catriona Kelly returns to Sergei Parajanov’s Kyiv Frescoes (1966), a fragmented and incomplete art film commissioned to celebrate the “Great Patriotic War” that ultimately fell foul of the Soviet authorities. Kelly discusses how the meaning of objects is transformed by war and argues that such symbolic transformations are also integral to cinema as an artform: in the domestic interior sequences of Kyiv Frescoes, she identifies a set of uncanny objects (a gun, boots, diagonal crosses) that, when watched today, “seem to parallel the present”.

Since the war started, military attire including camouflage and boots have become an essential part of Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s wartime presidential persona. Kelly McGee analyses the similarities between Zelenskyy and the fictional Ukrainian president Vasily Petrovych Goloborodko played by Zelenskyy in the TV series Servant of the People. McGee argues that this peculiar overlap requires a rethinking of existing concepts in celebrity studies since Zelenskyy is not just an actor-turned-president; his “fictional role informs his real-life celebrity narrative.” Moreover, several of the people who used to work for the production company that made Servant of the People are now employed in the presidential administration overseeing its wartime media operations.

Finally, two essays by James Gregg and Maxim Alyukov turn the spotlight on Russia’s totalitarian turn. While international media has tended to view the invasion of Ukraine as a geopolitical mistake, domestically the war has consolidated Putin’s power after independent news organisations and social media were shut down and the regime took full narrative control over how the “special military operation” is presented. In his piece, Gregg contrasts the sanitized, disembodied representations of the war on buildings in central Moscow – including its abstraction into the symbol Z – with how Ukrainian media is portraying the conflict focusing specifically on events in Volnovakha, a town in Donetsk.

Meanwhile, Alyukov explores the phenomenon of digital vigilantism, previously understood as bottom-up, which is now actively encouraged by Putin’s regime as a way of using social media and open-source material to inform on fellow citizens opposed to the war. While both Gregg and Alyukov paint a dark picture of political repression, they also show how propagandistic symbols and technologies can be subverted and turned into tools of resistance: Z graffiti in support of the war can easily be altered into a swastika, while the same techniques used on Telegram to identify dissent can be used to shame and condemn the practice of informing.

Virilio’s pre-internet argument about the parallel technologies of warfare and cinema was essentially pessimistic, drawing comparisons between film directors and war-prone dictators. Published before the first Gulf War, Virilio’s book spoke to the heavily controlled imagery of the so called “CNN war”, which turned night vision and laser guided bomb footage supplied by the military into abstract spectacles. Representations of the current war in Ukraine are also experienced in real-time, but the range of images and messages discussed in this dossier suggests instead a cacophony over which nobody has full authorial control.

Notes[+]

Andersson, Johan. "Introduction: Sunflowers and Social Media." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 7, no. 2 (June 2022)
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