ALEX FISHER THE TACTICAL TACTILE
Dana Kavelina’s stop-motion animation ‘Mother Srebrenica, Mother Donbass’ (working title) narrows in on extant images of the 1941 Lviv pogroms. The one-minute and five-second clip addresses the images’ susceptibility to manipulation and, by proxy, that of the facts and legacy of the Lviv pogroms themselves. Curator and writer Alex Fisher produces an analysis of Kavelina’s animation by focusing on the tactility of her work; for Fisher, “the pictured past is terrific in its enduring tactility.”
What’s next needs what’s done, since what’s done is never really done.
The near past is palpable, and pliable—in contact sheets, film strips, sutured slides, and prints of a spectrum of (usually) progressive saturation. Because the images have been manually processed, the pleasure and pain of the pictured past is so pronounced, punching, and pinching.
The integrity of the pictured past is perilous, prone to poisoning. A significant proportion of the culpability for its faltering clarity is ours—neither mine outright nor yours. Responsibility for the other proportion is partially ours too. Deterioration occurs as documentation is stained, smudged, and scratched; stored in a setting which warps that which is shown to an extent that it can never be seen straight again; or, even worse, subjected to a light so harsh and bright that the scene softens and, ultimately, vanishes.*
*Content warning: some images might be jarring, they are the documentation of tragedy.
Power is sourced from the properties and imprecisions of the pictured past. The practice of the Melitopol-born, Kyiv-based artist Dana Kavelina articulates that these properties and imprecisions are personal—intensely, hauntingly human.
Kavelina, who trained as an illustrator, works with narrative-driven films and installations that montage archival footage, found images, and figures of varying fiction. A historiography of hypotheses, her portfolio deals with militarist, feminist, and familial optics of fractious exile, confrontation, and sacrifice.
This text was initiated in response to an unfinished stop-motion animation by Kavelina dedicated to a series of events which the artist returns to regularly: the Lviv pogroms of June and July 1941. These consecutive massacres of approximately three to six thousand Jews were perpetrated by uniformed members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and local residents with the aid and abetment of the just-arrived German occupants. Though Jews were not the primary enemy of the OUN, they were seen as pro-Bolshevik and subsequently anti-Ukrainian. Historians have argued that another deciding factor in their slaughter was that the OUN sought to earn the support of the anti-Jewish German authorities in their quest for nationhood. In the post-Soviet moment, those responsible for the genocide, particularly the heads of the OUN, have, to weaponize Lviv’s designation as the ‘City of Lions’, themselves been lionized, memorialized in renamed streets, hulking granite monuments, and holidays. This fraught revivification was furthered in the midst and wake of Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan revolution. (The contrariness of this heightened exaltation is compounded by the fact that Ukraine is one of the few countries outside of Israel that currently has a Jewish head of state.)
Kavelina’s stop-motion animation, which the artist intends to include in her upcoming feature film ‘Mother Srebrenica, Mother Donbass’ (working title), narrows in on the extant images of the atrocity, which were predominantly taken by German paramilitary officers. The one-minute and five-second clip addresses the images’ susceptibility to manipulation and, by proxy, that of the facts and legacy of the Lviv pogroms themselves.
Kavelina’s manipulations are handmade and homespun. The animation opens onto a white-painted hand pressing a black button positioned amongst cables, sockets, a doll’s leg with a black shoe, and a doll’s arm. In other words, the first frame is full of spare parts that retain functions. In the eighth second, the viewpoint switches from the side to the top. The viewer looks down on a printed image pinned amidst the parts, which rotate laboriously, pulling scarlet, veinlike wires. The image shows a naked woman with a stern expression hemmed in by a crowd—mostly men in collared shirts. The woman’s eyes are shadowed and averted from the lens. The figures surrounding her smile and smirk. They largely look towards the camera. No one is striking her, but it is obvious that she is in duress. She is bare, and they are bearing down. A hand reaches out in the middle of the image. The hand’s thumb brushes the woman’s left arm, but doesn’t settle there, appearing to seek a different target. A moment passes and three triangles are cut out of the image in the spaces extending above the hand’s pointer, middle, and index fingers. More figures fill the gaps. Two wear helmets and fatigues. These soldiers are younger than the rest, looking little like leaders and more like less mature members of the majority. As soon as the second soldier turns into view, the rotation seizes and a shadow casts over the scene, subsuming the scene in darkness.
How to see the shadow? It sweeps in from the upper lefthand corner, drifting from the northwest to the southeast. In this way, the shadow is not a lid or shutter slamming shut by reflex or routine. No, it is a curtain being closed, a storm settling in, and a total solar eclipse. It is also, of course, an authored effect—an imposition from above.
In second twenty-two, the shadow ceases. Kavelina returns us to the guts and gears of the machine. This time, the viewer encounters it from a higher altitude. The cables, sockets, leg, and arm are jointed with a disembodied toy face, one of the faces from the madding crowd, a grey-blue eye, a yellow star, and three cherubs. The white-painted hand presses the black button again and then tugs on the arm, setting the machine in motion once more. The camera cuts to the toy face, whose beady eyes blink twice—long, exaggerated, waking blinks.
Kavelina’s machine for revis(it)ing history is a machine with a lowercase ‘m’—not a branded, packaged product, but a product of elbow grease and individual intuition. The artist speaks of it as a machine of and for the victim in that there is no manual for its use. Since there are neither dictated instructions nor troubleshooting tips, the machine is an extension of the machinations of its maker, who thus averts a prosecutorial, monolith-endorsing authority.
To be sure, the intimacy of the labor in Kavelina’s animation can be uncomfortable. The film’s cinematography makes the viewer the temporary master of the machine, an apprenticeship with reverberating moral ramifications. These ramifications are rooted in the characteristics outlined in the preceding paragraph; in the absence of automation, the machine must be manhandled—pressed, pushed, and toggled. Hands-on control of a handmade machine for handling evidence of atrocity is compulsory. Noting that many of the pogroms’ atrocities involved physical beatings, a pull of a plastic leg implies a pulsating complicity.
Just when the weight of this responsibility settles in, the animation pivots to a less malevolent picture, which shows a street scene in the Kleparów district. The street is Horodotska, a main artery in Lviv, and the precise position is where Horodotska begins to bend left as Vulitsa Nalyvaika breaks right, traveling towards the city centre. The sweeping, cobbled street is almost empty, with only one sidecar motorcycle plowing forth. A few shadowed pedestrians dot the sidewalk, the majority are in the distance barring the exception of a single, solitary shadow with crossed arms standing in the foreground. The sky is flat and featureless, unobtrusive, and unflattering. Put shortly, the sky is non-sky.
As with all the documentation of Lviv during the pogroms, the Horodotska image is shot in black-and-white. In the animation, it has a burgundy tint. (It is important to emphasise the distinction between the artist’s chosen rouge and rose; via her shade selection, Kavelina avoids the cliché of ‘looking at the past through rose-coloured glasses’.) There is nothing bright about Kavelina’s burgundy; it doesn’t emit heat or halt you in your tracks. Perhaps the best analogy of its aura is that it diffuses through the air in the manner the juice of a beet seeps into the pads of your fingers. In the animation, the shade works orally, fumigating your palate.
The benevolence of the Horodotska scene lasts a tad short of a second, finishing when a flap opens in the centre of the frame. In the flap, the madding crowd fleets by, albeit this time as slivers—a dotted shirt, a grin, a bouquet of flowers strapped to a vest, a glance, a head of freshly-curled hair, a glare, and a printed summer dress with a deep v-neck. They tick by and their image reaches its edge. Another image follows; a face the viewer has not yet seen fills the gap, a face for which the technical description deigned on the crowd would be an affront. The face is that of a terrified young woman. Her pupils are dilated past a point of foreseeable possibility and her mouth is agape. She is panic-stricken by who she sees and what they are on the cusp of doing. Her fear does not only fill a flap, it fills a story-and-a-half of a building flanking Horodotska. Subsequently, the scene broaches a startling truth: the murderous beatings in the streets were only a fraction of the violence enacted during the pogroms. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Jews were killed behind the walls of official buildings.
In a 2020 interview for e-flux with the Kyiv-based essayist Oleksiy Kuchanskyi, Kavelina spoke of her desire to “let the dead witness [their past] for themselves.” ‘Witness’ is a weighty word with ‘wit’ at its core. If you ‘have your wits about you’, you will be commended for your acuity and composure. If you are a witness, you are a perceiver. Your testimony has tremendous capability. Whether your testimony has teeth depends on whether you can be trusted beyond a reasonable doubt. Undoubtedly, it is difficult to develop trust in a past when trust was broken, battered, and buried in blank graves.
Who gets credit and is the credit credible?
Who gets a tribute and what is the tribute attributed to?
Who gets retribution and is the retribution an act of absolution?
These are but some of the questions that Kavelina’s animation poses. Her stop-motion animation method propels the viewer on the path to answers. The prefix ‘anima’ comes from Latin, meaning ‘soul’, ‘breath’, and ‘spirit’; the artist’s production enlivens. Noting that ‘anima’ is likewise the root of ‘animal’, the enlivening is not robotic and the enlivened is not implicitly obedient or scrutable. Rather, the wills, attitudes, and behaviours are the enlivened’s own.
Alas, one should be hesitant to oversimplify the relationship between the enlivener (the director/operator) and the enlivened (the subject). In the animation, the complexities are connoted by the presence and proliferation of doll parts. Dolls are children’s toys. Whole fantasies are wrapped into them—whims of decadence and diligent decorum. They assume genteel and revolutionary roles. Put briefly, dolls are dressed in dreams. The dolls in Kavelina’s animation do not share the same fate. They are undressed and de-bodied.
The scene that comes on the heels of the Horodotska scene is a detail shot of the machine, whose components, particularly the limbs, have been rejiggered and compacted. A now-familiar face from the madding crowd has been glued to the back of a circuit board; the face stares statically at the camera (i.e. you). A beige torso flecked with black paint, a boy’s head heretofore unseen, and a muscleless arm turn. The grey-blue eye takes stock of the situation. The scene reinforces that the machine does not sit beneath a protective shell. There is no hood one must prop up to access its entrails, and so there are no undercover ‘inner workings’. The machine’s exposed nature is one of its essential traits, signifying that its maker demands ready access to its details and that it must be kept somewhere dry.
What sound does the machine make? Probably something grating, but the viewer does not know. The sound of static flows throughout the animation—the white noise the record player makes when the record is finished. The sound is soothing, lending a gravitas that blankets instead of crushes. Occasionally, a few notes from a piano mingle with the static; they combine in post-climactic chords. Hearing these chords, the viewer realises that the past can be processed at different paces. In the animation, the pace is plodding, a rebuttal to the pogroms’ frenzy.
The grain in the source images are kin with the static. Grain equals grit, giving the pogrom pictures a sandpaper-esque quality. If you were to rub them up against a surface, you could wear that surface down; the lower the resolution, the greater the grade of wearing potential. Just as it shares a connection with static, the grain is bonded to the molecule, the smallest elemental unit. Kavelina thinks about molecules a lot, philosophising about them at length. Specifically, the artist is interested in the trajectory of molecules, wondering what could be achieved if “we could calculate from where (which star, blade of grass, or dead person) [a molecule] came from and how exactly it took this position: as an integral part of your blood.” She continues, saying that if we could “rebuild these trajectories,” we would “get a complete model of human history. An unimaginable archive of everything that happened in every part of the world in every moment in time.” These trajectories would provide evidence of everything, but “only then will the real work of historians begin: to link, understand, and describe the bottomless archives. To choose a perspective: feminist, queer, or even Marxist. […] There will be so much work to do that […] every person will become a historian and researcher: nothing else left to do in the utopian world.”
In the forty-eighth second, heads roll. Three of the heads of the figures in the madding crowd have been incised; they revolve on a loop. They do so after a brass hand starts the machine. This moulded hand appears in lieu of the human hand that did the job in the first and second scenes; man and machine have synchronised. The heads roll to the left. As everyone who has opened a jar will know, right is tight and left is loose; the rolling of the eyes, ears, noses, and mouths of the madding crowd is a loosening—the antithesis of a locking down. Rolling to the left is also a turning counter-clockwise—a turn that is a return to that which has already been. This synthesis of opening with returning is striking. Moreover, each head is made to roll at irregular rates. The two which bookend the frame rotate quickly. The familiar one in the middle is less expeditious.
The irregular rotation rates reiterate that the machine works in opposition to unilateral uniformity. No, it exists to be tinkered with and adapted through trial-and-error. The abrupt end to the animation drives this point home. The last scene, which lasts five seconds, is one the viewer has already seen before—the overhead view of the machine’s guts and gears with the blinking baby. This repetition underscores that Kavelina’s animation is not a tutorial, and suggests that the clips can appear, and be assessed, in alternate orders.
Kavelina’s sixty-five second animation is not a dissertation on the depravity of the Lviv pogroms, but an introduction to a means of dealing with the depravity in a tactical, tactile manner. Her machine with a lowercase ‘m’ does not make puppets of the past; however, it places an insistent premium on touch. The images of the pogroms that the machine engages were mostly made by agents of an empire which was defeated and disgraced—the Nazi regime. The images document instances of horrendous, fatal touch on film. The film was developed through much hand wringing, and images deemed suitable for printing were transferred onto photo paper. The photo paper was prodded in a vat of chemicals until the developer deemed the contrast to be correct. Once dried, the printed image was stacked, filed, tacked to the wall, and passed from palm to palm. Copies are still handled today, and, since the Nazis’ defeat, they exist in the public domain—replicated too many times to be deleted, covered in too many fingerprints to be attached to any one author.
Not all touches are alike, yet touch is touch is touch. Kavelina’s animation indicates that the pictured past is terrific in its enduring tactility. This tactility must be upheld here, there, and elsewhere—today and tomorrow. Because when touch is lost, continuity collapses, as does our commitment to what should never be treated as inconsequential collateral.
 Kavelina, Dana. Interview with Oleksiy Kuchanskyi. e-flux, 15 July 2020, https://www.e-flux.com/video/339843/dana-nbsp-kavelina-nbsp-letter-to-a-turtledove/. Accessed 28 November 2020.
 Kavelina, Dana. Reflections have led me to this fantasy, 2020, unpublished letter.
Dana Kavelina is an artist and filmmaker primarily working with the mythic, propagandized elements of industry, orthodoxy, and the environment. She was born in Melitopol and is based in Kyiv, Ukraine. She is a graduate of the Department of Graphics at the National Technical University of Ukraine (Kyiv). Her works have been exhibited at the Kmytiv Museum (Kmytiv), Closer Art Center (Kyiv), Voloshyn Gallery (Kyiv), and Sakharov Center (Moscow). Her film Letter to a Turtledove (2020) was recently included in “War and Cinema,” a programme curated by Oleksiy Radynski for e-flux. She has received awards from the Odesa International Film Festival and KROK International Animated Film Festival.
Alex Fisher is a curator and writer from the U.S. based in Kyiv, Ukraine. He has spent the past year researching developments in Ukrainian contemporary art as a Fulbright scholar affiliated with Mystetskyi Arsenal and IZOLYATSIA. His writing has been published in the likes of Kajet, THIS IS BADLAND, C-print, Blok, Flash Art Czech and Slovak Edition, TransitoryWhite, New Translation, ArtsLooker, Krzak Papier, Danarti, VONO, GUEST R00MS, PIN-UP, and Monocle. He was a selected participant in the 2020 edition of the Tbilisi Architecture Biennial “What Do We Have in Common?”