The Chrononaut

Ukrainian-born artist Lesia Vasylchenko on image politics, predictive technologies, and the burial of the future.

Lesia Vasylchenko. Foto: Jacky Jaan-Yuan Kuo.

A lot of new technologies are initially developed for military use. Once they’ve had their share, capital moves in, commercialising and weaponising them for its own ends. On the outskirts, the creative class skulks about, waiting for their turn with the new toy. Artists’ access to sophisticated, new technology is largely limited by economy. But given the opportunity, they’ll pounce, examining alternative purposes that novel inventions might serve, their perks and consequences. Technologies not only discipline our minds and bodies, they shape our imaginations.

A particularly sleuthy artist surveilling technological developments is Lesia Vasylchenko. The Ukrainian-born, Oslo-based artist and curator graduated with an MFA from Oslo National Academy of the Arts in 2022. For years, Vasylchenko has worked with technologies and how they shape our perception of time, as well as their roles within the military industrial complex. Vasylchenko’s investigations are mediated both as artworks and through Struktura. Time, an interdisciplinary discursive platform for research and practice she founded in 2019. 

Vasylchenko’s AI-assisted video work Tachyoness (2022) is currently on view at the Munch Triennial The Machine is Us. The work’s scale gives Edvard Munch’s monumental painting The Sun (1916) a run for its money: situated on the first floor, Vasylchenko’s video consists of hundreds and hundreds of sunrises, played on a large LED-screen. 

Currently, the artist is busy at work with several large new projects, including ones for Sparebankstiftelsen DNB’s Art Award 2022 and Sandefjord Kunstforening’s Art Award 2023. In 2023, Vasylchenko will also be one of the artists in Henie Onstad Art Centre’s triennial for new media and photography New Visions. Despite a tight schedule, she welcomed me to her studio at Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo for a conversation about her practice.

 Shall we start with Tachyoness, currently on show? Can you tell me what went into that work?

I started working on Tachyoness half a year before the war escalated. My work had been dealing with politics of time for years. The video represents thirty years of history as one single event. The Munch Museum commissioned the work after I’d shown a test version of it as part of my graduation show. The idea was to collect images of sunrises that had been shown to a public in some form. I collected images from 1990 to summer 2022. 1990 is the year I was born, around events like the – I wouldn’t say collapse, but – dissolution of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall. I collected around 1000 images. 

Lesia Vasylchenko, Tachyoness, 2022. Still from video.

The material in Tachyoness is sourced from media archives, correct?

Yes. Sometime in the mid 90s, cameras became more available to people, so it’s easier to find footage after that. But from the first seven or so years of the 90s, it was very hard to source the images. So I was looking into archives of news, television broadcasts that were published back then. Up until 1998, the images are of extremely poor quality; many are VHS-stills or other analogue images. After that, you can see how the photographic medium was developing, see the advent of digital photography. TV broadcasts were of higher quality, advertisements were as well, and there’s the emergence of CGI. I had collected very different image qualities, which is an important layer in the work. I’m not sure if I’m always using media archaeology as a method, but I’m always thinking about the medium I’m working with when I’m making a project. I would never use an analogue picture without knowing why I’m using an analogue picture, what exactly I’m referring to. 

Why is that referencing important to you?

I think in terms of visual culture and visual media, technology refers to its time, and thereby offers a certain context. If I use cyanotype or early photographic techniques for my project, there needs to be a reason behind those choices. 

And the title of the work, what does it mean?

Tachyoness is based on the term tachyonic data, which I coined. [Tachyonic data is “predicted information extracted from pattern recognition,” according to Vasylchenko’s own writing.] The title came before the work. I often work like that, inventing a term or phrase I believe is relevant. I have felt like I can’t say what I want to say because there is no term for it – that I needed to use three sentences to say what I actually mean. I thought: maybe I should just make one word, and just start using that instead, to shorten it. 

I had a thousand images of different qualities for the project. My best friend from Kyiv, Yurii Tymoshenko, often helps me out with technical stuff. He helped with training an AI to realise the idea of Tachyoness. He’s a programmer and musician. His music project is called Mokri Dereva; he plays experimental electronic music. Now he’s at war. He volunteered and joined the army without previous training or military background. I’ve suggested maybe we shouldn’t be talking about art and videos and sound right now. But he says it’s the only thing that brings him any pleasure during downtime. 

To produce Tachyoness, I used similar technology as is used for technological prediction purposes. AI like this is usually used to generate still images. But I needed it to work with moving images. So it had to learn not just what the sun looks like, but to recognise its movement, how the rising sun changes its color, shape, and surrounding sky over a particular time. The order in which the images were fed in was completely non-linear; it depended on the position of the sun in the image and not on the chronology of when the images were from. It was the most time-consuming issue. To teach an AI what the sun is, is no problem. But for it to learn that the sun is supposed to rise and move a certain way posed challenges. The rising sun is also a reference to the broken promise of the bright, capitalist future that the previous generation was feeding us. 

Lesia Vasylchenko: Simulated Sunrise: March 3rd, 2021. CCTV footage, screen, metal. Photo: Istvan Virag / KUNSTDOK.

And a pretty unapologetic death metaphor.

Yes. In Soviet culture, the idea of a bright future was the ultimate symbol of state propaganda. The sunrise has a very particular history for those who know that propaganda. Our generation, on the other hand, doesn’t feel like there is a future, firstly. Secondly, there’s a sense that we don’t know what there will be in place of the future. And that’s scary. The sociopolitical conditions tell you that you’re not safe. There’s nothing to support you in terms of healthcare or housing. You’re on your own because there is no system in place to support you as a human being. There aren’t even human rights that could back you up if something happened to you. 

The feeling that there is no future is terrifying, and it’s a massive, collective, generational fear. All of us growing up in the 90s were exposed to state propaganda. It hadn’t been dismantled yet after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But when the Maidan Revolution happened in 2014, it was a time when people in their twenties and teens stood up and asked: “So what are we inheriting?” Instead of having a vision of a bright future ahead, we felt nostalgia for the future that didn’t happen. While our parents were looking forward, we were looking backward. And we found more future in the past than in the future that is supposed to be ahead.

From there, an interest in shadow histories arose, working with colonial politics and looking into narratives that were outside of the master narrative. Not just in Ukraine, but in general, all over the world, at different times. I feel it’s sometimes more interesting for me to look into blind spots than to try to imagine what is going to happen in the future. 

Technological predictions of the future are constructed by analysing patterns in data from the past. So, instead of a linear past-present-future structure, we are living in a past that constructs an idea of a future, and then it affects our present. If our present is dependent on a predicted future, then it is appropriate to ask what kind of past is being used to generate that future, 

Lesia Vasylchenko and Yurii Tymoschenko, In search of stars that can bring them home, 2020. Still from video.

Sounds like a heady mix of historical materialism and counter-factual, poetic justice.

Yes. If we’re not going to make space for the narratives that are unheard, if we’re not going to talk about the existence of these gaps in our pasts, then I don’t know what we’re supposed to do. It doesn’t seem like there are many other fields that are investigating these histories. 

A few years ago, Yurii Tymoshenko and I did a project together called In search of stars that can bring them home [2020]. It’s a video game environment for a very, very large projection. There was equipment connected, so the audience could actually interact with the work. The audience could visit seven different spheres. Each of the seven spheres’ skies were video documentation of the same event documented from different parts of the world. The event was SpaceX’s Starlink sending the first train of satellites into space. The satellites were visible all over the half of the globe where it was night-time. People were documenting what they saw, not understanding what was happening. I found a lot of You Tube videos, where people are asking: “Oh my God, what is this?” Then I started looking at the different locations where the videos originated, and found it interesting how all these videos are synchronised through the same event happening in the sky. And that event was Starlink satellites. 

Technology, synchrony, and events in the sky seem like common denominators for both Tachyoness and the video game environment.

A lot of the works I’ve made in the last two or three years are based on research I was deeply involved in on digital temporalities. I was especially interested in how photographic images have a cognitive effect on people. For example, the first montage in film was made by the filmmakers cutting up time. The very first films were documentations of reality that didn’t interfere with the flow of time. But then filmmakers started with montage, cutting out bits of the film and juxtaposing the images. It sounds very simple now, but it was revolutionary back then. 

It still is.

Yes. It had a huge effect on how you remember things, cognitively. But we won’t get into montage theory.

Why not?

Can we?

We can do what we want.

OK! So, basically, by “shrinking” time the way we do when we do montage, we also “shrink” the way in which people remember. Memory is shortened into briefer sequences. Reversing, speeding up footage, flashforward, all of these techniques of juxtaposing different times in film, had a crucial cognitive effect on people back then that for us now is totally normalised. 

I started looking into what kind of montage techniques are in use today and what roles technologies play in them. I ended up researching how photography as a medium is used, for example, for technological prediction of events. 

CCTV footage of Russian missile fire near Zaporizhzhia, Europe’s largest nuclear plant.

For military use? Market predictions?

I can give an example of how it could function technologically. Satellite imagery is used for something called next-frame prediction. By analysing the sequence of images, algorithms can observe the changes that happen over time in the particular space those images are capturing. And from that analysis, they can produce the next frame and document realities that exist sometime ahead of now. Images of states that don’t exist yet. 

Richard Grusin wrote a book called Premediation: Affect and Mediality After 9/11 (2010), where he contextualises this idea of preemption, prevention, and prediction to make society more secure. To do that, however, we need a lot of your data. And there aren’t laws that protect you from people wanting your data. 

I understand you’re working on a project called Mourning for the Future for Sandefjord Kunstforening. Will it delve into the same themes as your previous works?

I am working on the first part of a feature film, which I am planning to produce by 2024 in collaboration with artist Ørjan Amundsen. Here I will look into the concept of the future and the politics of time. For example, different time-measuring techniques that existed across the non-Western world, before the master clock appeared. In the past, time was local. Capitalism began with the invention of the tower clock, which was made to tell people to go to work. From there we have industrialisation, acceleration of technologies, and the celebration of speed that was supposed to take us into the imaginary future. Also, synchronisation of time became necessary with the railroad, to schedule when trains would be at different stations. And then there’s the International Meridian Conference, where colonial states like the UK needed to figure out where their ships were. Time is deeply rooted in colonial practices and capitalism. 

I will look into these structures and explore an idea of a mourning ritual for the future, as if it actually died, and trying to figure out how to live without the future as a concept. What would the burial of the future look like? It will also capture these different predictive technologies which are taking away the idea of the future because they’re based on the past. 

You seem preoccupied with time. I would like to know more about your discursive project Struktura. Time.

Struktura. Time is the outcome of my artistic research. It’s about method, the way in which I work. It’s not the first time I’ve made a public program dealing with the things I’m looking into as an artist. So, whether I organise an artist talk or a reading group, it’s always about the politics of time and how the roles of visual culture and technologies intersect and blend with that topic. It’s important to me to have a discursive element in my works. 

Lesia Vasylchenko, Looted Liminal, 2022. Installation view from Sol Nexø, Bornholm. Photo: Brian Kure.

What are you looking into right now?

I’ve been reading a lot on nuclear politics, temporalities, and the notion of geological deep-time, including the article ‘Nuclear Cyberwar: From Energy Colonialism to Energy Terrorism’ [2022] by Svitlana Matviyenko and the book Radioactive Ghosts [2020]by Gabriele Schwab. And I’m doing a lot of witnessing work by following what is happening in Ukraine. And there’s a personal component in there, which has followed me all of my life. As part of her job for the State Emergency Service, my mother worked at Chernobyl. She went back and forth to the site and collected dirt samples, bringing them back to Kyiv to examine them. For many years, she couldn’t conceive, but suddenly she discovered she was three or four months pregnant. 

You’re born in 1990?

Yes. This was four years after the disaster. I grew up with stories about this. My grandmother came down to the maternity ward, and the first thing she asked when my mother announced that she’d had a girl was: “What does she look like?” They weren’t sure if I’d be OK, so that was the main concern. Throughout my life, I received crazy, almost Münchausen Syndrome levels of care because of it. My mother said it usually skips a generation, fearing that her grandchildren will be disabled. This has also influenced the way I perceive my own body.

When the nuclear scare started in this war, I was totally terrified, thinking that history is going in a loop. It’s something I had never imagined happening again. Every 26 April, every pupil from the first to the eleventh grade in Ukrainian schools goes through drills on how to survive if Chernobyl blew up again. Everybody has this trauma. Everybody knows what they should do, should something happen. When the nuclear threat became real again, it provoked me on so many levels. 

I found some CCTV footage that was originally four hours long, that I edited down. It captures how Russians are dropping missiles into the territory of the biggest nuclear power plant in Europe. The footage is extremely interesting to me. Also because of the simultaneity of it, which is new. That literally as it was happening, people were online watching it. Somebody tweeted something like: “It’s crazy that we’re watching Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant being bombed, and to watch the feed you need to watch a Peppe’s Pizza advertisement first.” There’s something about this montage of images we are fed every day that’s so disturbing. My Ukrainian friend’s social media feeds show: a cat, dead bodies being dug out of rubble, a dinner party, more dead bodies, somebody’s selfie, then three dead bodies.

Lesia Vasylchenko, About the Ruins, 2022. Still from video.

When the invasion of Ukraine started in February, I went on Live UA and watched. The updates on confirmed impact and battle action kept rolling, with context being linked almost instantaneously. Part of the discomfort, apart from the obvious, was the strong sense of unreality when watching a live map of war as if it were a game.

It’s interesting to mention the role of satellite imagery here. We’re circling back to the video game environment we talked about in the beginning now. I’m making a work that will be shown at New Visions, the New Media Triennial at Henie Onstad Art Center, opening 14 April 2023, where I’m looking into planetary observation technologies. Maybe more planetary remote-sensing than planetary observation. Because the whole point of this observation is that they started using non-optical technology, so it’s not a photographic image anymore. And this is something new in the history of photography.

What kind of non-optical imagery?

It’s called SAR-imagery [synthetic aperture radar]. Remote sensing technologies are sending the radar signal down to the ground and then recording the information bouncing back. Afterwards, multiple clusters of collected data are translated into an image, scaled down and adjusted to the human perception. Most of the data stays behind, invisible, unprocessed. It is part of a very complex and extractive data infrastructure that is harmful for the planet, situated in between low orbit and the planet surface. I mean, with this technology, it doesn’t matter anymore whether it’s day or night, cloudy or not. You can get an image 50 cm from the ground commercially. If you’re military, you can get images 20 cm from the ground, covering up to 20 km, almost in real time. The war in Ukraine contributed a lot to the commercialisation of remote-sensing data and the citizen-led engagement with it. 

Where is this technology being developed?

When I started working on it, it was the US, mostly. For the past year, it’s been developed in Canada, India, Japan, and, one should mention, Norway. 

Norway makes weapons like oil is going out of style.

The manufacturers didn’t want to talk to me.

Of course not.

How this infrastructure functions is really exciting. I am interested in tracing an analogy of the colonisations that happened on the planet and the territory-grabbing that is happening above the planetary surface, in low orbit. What’s happening is that once you reach a certain altitude, there is no law, it’s kind of free territory. 

Lesegruppe i regi av Struktura. Time på Galleri BOA i Oslo, 2021.

Table set for theValladolid debate from the 1500s. [The first moral debate in European history to discuss the rights and treatment of Indigenous Peoples by European colonisers.]

Happening again! Space agencies see free territory. And they took this space to develop technologies, which now have become commercialised. The information for the map images you mention that look like a video game are from thousands and thousands of satellites covering the territory. There are a lot of European countries who’ve been doing the same. Before, it was about owning land – having land, physically. Now, it’s about having the power to observe this land, extract data from the surface of the planet, and to trade it. And there is still no law regulating this, saying: “You have no right to do this.”

I wonder what that legislation would look like. 

I’ve thought about it. In the future, I would like to develop a video essay where I will try to use historical references and juxtapose different communication technologies to tease out their sociopolitical similarities. For example, SAR and camera obscura: how it was used to measure distances for cartographical purposes. The camera obscura was a tool for colonisers who’d been sent all over the world by the French Empire to map out what was out there. To measure distances, to create maps, which later were used to colonise lands. 

You’re also making a work for Sparebankstiftelsen DNB’s Art Award exhibition in November. To wrap it up, can you tell us briefly what can we expect to see there?

The Russians have occupied the Ukrainian nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, and people are trying to measure the scale of a possible disaster, the duration of its consequences, comparing it to Fukushima and Chernobyl. But how to measure something that is incomprehensible on a human scale? This exhibition deals with these questions, with what is beyond a time horizon that we can relate to.

The work consists of sculptures, photographic prints, and video. First, the frames are made from clay with photographic images embedded in them, then podiums are made similarly. On top of the podiums, I have small sculptures made out of Trinitite, a glassy residue left after the first nuclear bomb test Trinity on 16 July 1945 in New Mexico, before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  

While the sculptures refer to the past, the photographs have more of a speculative future in them. When it comes to photographs, my first reference was atomic shadows: the imprints left on the ground after nuclear blasts. I realised that analogue photography has this quality like a nuclear bomb on a very, very tiny scale. It’s a micro-version of how light emitted from an atomic blast makes lasting images on surfaces. It happened that the darkroom I worked in had a machine from the Cold War era, and there I developed three images. The images are exposed to light for 0.01, 0.02, and ten seconds, respectively. Ten seconds is the time it takes for an atomic bomb to reach its climax after detonation, before it collapses and radiates through distances and time.

Lesia Vasylchenko, Zaraz, 2022. Still from video.