Lost Cause: How the Cultural Heritage of the Past Saves the Future

27 december, 2023

by Kateryna Turenko

Concrete letters are pressed into the poster's three-dimensional and pliable pink background, like splinters cutting into soft flesh: Lost Cause. Under this title, a two-day program of events unfolded in the attic of the FHXB Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Museum in late November. This program presents a set of reflections on the prospects for preserving cultural heritage in Ukraine and the international context.

The project was developed by Ukrainian curator and art historian Valeria Shiller and art manager and art historian Liubov Dyvak as part of a scholarship grant from the Berlin Senate for Ukrainian cultural figures.

The metaphor "Lost Cause" not only personifies what has been lost but also shapes the contours of the future: how the emptiness and absence of today affect our future development. The bitter irony of the title seems to allude to the loss of hope and the absence of practical ideas to counteract the violent destruction of cultural heritage. It prompts the question: Have we lost the battle to preserve a complex heritage to simplistic political narratives? Can we create a space in which we can actualize the impact of past losses on our present?

Day 1: Preserving memories

Preserving the memory of the past is like creating a kaleidoscope of experiences, a collage of events of our collective and individual destiny. The first day of the "Lost Cause" series began with a lecture by Ukrainian curator and cultural manager Lina Romanukha, "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: The Process of Losing Cultural Heritage in Ukraine During the XX Century and Now," dedicated to the loss of Ukrainian heritage over the past century. Her presentation focused on the analysis of the systematic destructive interventions of the Soviet government in the Ukrainian cultural heritage, which included active censorship, restrictions, destruction, and replacement of cultural objects, and influence on educational and cultural institutions.

Lina Romanukha at her lecture “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: The Process of Losing Cultural Heritage in Ukraine During the XX Century and Now,” Berlin, 2023. All photos courtesy of the organizers.
The speaker details the history of losses, starting with the Soviet Union and ending with the present, where Russia has inherited the legacy of the Soviet regime. Romanukha connects these processes, revealing the relationship between past events and the current situation.

Initiated during the period of independence, the decommunization in Ukraine peaked after the Russian invasion in 2014 and in 2022. This initiative involves rethinking objects associated with Soviet ideology. The measures include renaming streets, dismantling monuments, replacing symbols, and creating new national norms.

This was the topic of the next lecture by Ukrainian historian and co-founder of the DENEDE project Zhenia Moliar, "DENEDE: Preservation of Cultural Heritage in the Context of Ideological Shifts." Since 2015, the DENEDE team has been studying in detail the processes of decommunization and analyzing changes in the urban environment as part of "ideological shifts," offering a critical rethinking of Soviet heritage as part of regional history.
Lecture by Zhenia Molyar “DENEDE: Preservation of Cultural Heritage in the Context of Ideological Shifts,” Berlin, 2023.
The third episode on the program list, “A CITY WITHIN A BUILDING: The Russian airstrike on the Mariupol Drama Theater,” an investigative film developed by the Center for Spatial Technologies and Forensis & Forensic Architecture. Maksym Rokmaniko, a Ukrainian architect, designer, and director of the Center for Spatial Technologies, notes that the film uses 3D modeling to recreate the testimonies of survivors of the air strike on the Mariupol Drama Theater. When the city was under siege, the theater turned into the main shelter of the city and epicenter of humanitarian activity, where people set up places to stay, organized an improvised kitchen, and cared for the wounded. This film is an important testament to the story of endurance, solidarity, and self-organization in times of crisis.

The final chord of the first day of events was a performance lecture, "Physical Tactics for Digital Colonialism" (2019), by Iranian artist of Kurdish origin, Morehshin Allahyari. In her artistic research, she considers digital colonialism as a means of reproducing power relations rooted in the colonial past. For example, the use of 3D scanners by archaeologists to preserve artifacts and cultural heritage from the Middle East. Describing the device as "an instrument of witchcraft and magic," Allahyari reinvents the idea of 3D scanning, presenting it as a performative, embodied act with unlimited political potential.

Day 2.The utopia of equality and solidarity

The next day's program suggested distancing ourselves from reality through reflections on a utopian future world where the values of security, equality, and solidarity are finally realized. The authors of the selected works split the pain layer by layer, building a dialog between the present and the past.

The program began with an artist talk by Ukrainian artist and filmmaker Yuri Yefanov and the screening of the film “We Will Definitely Talk About This After the Last Air-Raid Alert Stops” (2023), as well as the premiere of the series “Future Talks” (2023). The first work is a 3D visualization of a utopia, where the main character, a garden gnome, experiences a metamorphosis of his status as an object in the context of blurring the boundaries between the concepts of culture and nature. The film creates a space for discussion about possible future scenarios, the role of technology, and cultural change.

Yuri Yefanov, still from the series Future Talks, 2023
Yuri Yefanov, still from the series Future Talks, 2023
The next two films, “What the Heart Wants” (2016) by Cécile B. Evans and “It Can't Be That There's Nothing That Can't Be Returned” (2022) by Dana Kavelina, construct an image of the future where the interaction between humans and artificial intelligence is permeated with deep hope for joint progress and mutual understanding in a utopia where technology becomes part of our emotional and social lives.

In “What the Heart Wants,” American-Belgian artist Cecile B. Evans analyzes the impact of new technologies on feelings, actions, and economics, exploring the merging of man and machine as a key aspect of the future state of society. The diversity of topics covered by HYPER, the narrative protagonist of the film, ranging from stem cell research to terrorism, creates a mosaic landscape that is periodically interrupted by dairy product advertisements, news headlines, or the appearance of characters from the artist's previous works. This landscape, where contradictory information data intertwine, serves as an allegory of the World Wide Web and giant data warehouses growing by the minute. Meanwhile, the HYPER system, becoming autonomous due to its "humanity," gets the opportunity to gain agency and feel.

The science fiction film “It Can't Be That There's Nothing That Can't Be Returned” by Ukrainian artist Dana Kavelina proposes a utopia where citizens, struck by the pain of the past, begin an experiment to restore history through a computer model. To restore the lost equality between the past and the future, they decided to resurrect all those who died in Russia's war against Ukraine. The only way to heal their emotional wounds is through prolonged collective grieving. Thus, people begin to collect painful memories — now, they can be disconnected from their memory and archived into a living monument.
Dana Kavelina, It can’t be that there’s nothing that can’t be returned, 2022. Courtesy PinchukArtCentre © 2022. Photographed by Sergiy Illin
The second stage of the event was focused on the thoroughness of working with history and the testimonies of victims. Thus, the program included a screening of “Lemberg Machine” (2023) by Dana Kavelina, an animated film about the 1941 pogrom in Lviv and the subsequent unfolding of the Shoah in the city during the Nazi occupation. The author utilizes animation not only as a medium but also as an image of resurrection — the movement of inanimate material, the movement of a lifeless doll's body. The film begins with an episode where a masked figure resembling a living doll enters a laboratory and hears voices broadcast by a fantastic machine. She approaches the machine, which broadcasts a set of bizarre animation stories directly or indirectly retelling someone's memories. In each scene, the characters seem to have the opportunity to go beyond their fate, which history has imposed on them. Voices speaking the five languages of the city (Yiddish, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, and German) recount stories based on eyewitness accounts of survivors of the Shoah and those who were agents of the Shoah. The film covers the story of the crime and its background and consequences for the country. The focus is on the historical violence and the complex culture of Galician Jewry, which suffered betrayal from outsiders and cohabitants in once-common territories.

Nnenna Onuoha's lecture focuses on her work-in-progress, “Baby Picture,” which examines childhood photographs and home videos of a generation of southeastern Nigerians that are almost absent from family albums but ubiquitous in humanitarian archives. Aspects of the experience of those who survived the Bafana War in Nigeria in the late 1960s remain unexplored due to the colonial approach to the creation, storage, and display of these testimonies in the media and on television. Conversations with current elderly survivors of the Biafran war allow us to analyze the possibilities of using the images and highlight the importance of an ethical approach to the use of photographs of war victims. However, instead of showing the photographs, the author built her presentation around explaining why she refuses to show her film, created using archival materials, to a European audience.

The presentation of the “Wall Evidence” project by art historian Roksolana Makar is the event that concludes the two-day program and, like Onuoha's lecture, draws attention to an important aspect of archiving and representing the brutality of war. This project avoids the immersive shocking effect that comes from showing photographs of mutilated bodies. Instead, the research team focuses on archiving inscriptions and graffiti left by the Russian military in the de-occupied territories. This provides an opportunity to preserve and analyze important traces of the occupation and determine its impact on the cultural landscape and collective memory. The creation of such an archive is a step towards studying the reflection of war in modern history.

The “Lost Cause” series of events was born out of a desire to shed light on the dark spots of the history of destruction. Like many other countries, Ukraine faces challenges stemming from a complex past and political mythologies. Talking about memory preservation is a productive act that influences our present and gives shape to our hopes. Studying our own ruins and understanding historical events helps to create a foundation for building the future.

In the context of discussing losses in a military conflict, it is important to create an emotional distance for a constructive dialog. Different mediums and approaches to discussing it create tools for comprehending and interacting with the tragic reality, allowing for a deeper understanding and building a lasting dialogue between the past, present, and future.

The article was prepared thanks to the support of the Fachbereich Kultur und Geschichte des Bezirksamtes Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg.

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