Aleksei Borisionok and Antonina Stebur: "If Disrupted, It Becomes Tangible. Infrastructures and Solidarities Beyond the Post-Soviet Condition"
On March 31, 2023, the National Gallery of Art in Vilnius opened the exhibition project "", curated by Aleksei Borisionok and Antonina Stebur. The concept of the exhibition aims to draw attention to the infrastructures (both material and immaterial), inherited by post-Soviet countries from the Soviet Union and to trace how these networks function in today's political context. KALEKTAR asked curators about cooperation, plans and aspects of solidarity and care in current historical circumstances.
Antonina Stebur and Aleksei Borisionok open their curatorial project "If Disrupted, It Becomes Tangible. Infrastructures and Solidarities Beyond the Post-Soviet Condition" at the National Gallery of Art in Vilnius, 2023 / © photo: Katsiaryna Miats
Tell us about your exhibition in Vilnius. What are the main topics it addresses and why does the exhibition bring them up in the complex modern contexts? Which specific infrastructures are being explored in the exhibition, how has their impact and possibility of their "disruption" been identified and why do you believe it's important to draw attention to them today?
The poetic title "If Disrupted, It Becomes Tangible. Infrastructures and Solidarities Beyond the Post-Soviet Condition" actually carries a strong political context, as we're talking about the understanding of infrastructures and how they operate in the distribution of power, as well as how tactics of resistance and lines of solidarity are organized in the temporal and geographical setting that we've called "Beyond the Post-Soviet Conditions". The exhibition explores the political context of extractive and logistical infrastructures, digital and information technologies, all of which have been affected by wars and political uprisings. The exhibition has its own backstory. In 2021, the National Art Gallery invited us, Aleksei and I, to analyze the protests in Belarus at the intersection of migration processes and information technologies. We started thinking about how certain groups are included or excluded at the level of infrastructure. And here I'm referring first of all to the instrumentalisation of the people stuck at the Polish-Belarusian border, whose access to crossing the border was closed. To this day, there is a terrible ping-pong game with dozens of people stranded on the borders of Belarus, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. There are resettlement programmes for Belarusians, especially those working in IT companies, but I think it's important to take this structural inequality into account. We were preparing the exhibition, but after russia's colonial invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, we realised that we couldn't focus only on Belarus and that it was crucial to include the voices of artists from other countries whose political, economic and social systems were built on the ruins of Soviet infrastructures and are now affected by war and/or protests. For us, it was essential to think and talk at the level of infrastructure, which means understanding how the relationship between power, authority and resistance is not organized as isolated, random efforts, but has a structural nature. This is how this exhibition came about, with voices from artists from Belarus, Georgia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Kazakhstan and others.
Infrastructure networks like railways, gas pipelines, optical fiber cables, Telegram channels, video monitoring systems and so on, remain intangible in their day-to-day functioning. However, their breakdown, disconnection and disruption disclose the entire infrastructure and its interconnectedness. In a literal sense, authority and its materiality are becoming visible, grounded and embodied through decay and interruption. Architectural researcher Keller Easterling examines how the concept of infrastructure is built through common standards and ideas that extend control from technical objects to modes of control. Infrastructure space is based on protocol and algorithmic calculations. In the exhibition we were interested in two types of infrastructures: invasive, which serve as the material basis for colonial and extractive domination, and fugitive, which contribute to destabilizing actions and the formation of new solidarities and possible configurations of solidarity . This is why they are at the center of our attention. On one hand, through an infrastructural lens, we can understand what and how is happening with Russian imperialism and the authoritarian regimes connected with it. On the other hand, we can understand how to resist them more effectively.
The exhibition's glossary also introduces the contemporary concept of "cyber warfare" – how is it specifically manifested in the project? And what is your position as cultural workers regarding the ongoing war in Ukraine? In your view, what is required of us in terms of actions and reflections in relation to Belarus' position in this war?
According to researchers Nick Dyer-Witheford and Svitlana Matviyenko (Svitlana participated in the exhibition's public program), the concept of cyber warfare "emphasizes 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 characterize all social relations, including war making, in the twenty first century" . Decisive comments regarding the nature of cyber warfare are also made by these researchers – they refuse to juxtapose "cyber" and "kinetic" weaponry during times of complex asymmetric warfare. They rather emphasize "the ways in which they cross over and complement each other until it is difficult, if at all possible, to distinguish between them" . Within the symposium we proposed a close examination of one of the objects that stands at the intersection of digital and kinetic forces in the conduct of war and is central to the temporal invasive and fugitive infrastructures – the railway control cabinet, destroyed by Belarusian railway partisans. We were interested in how raw materials, such as minerals and metals, find their way into the highly technological space of cyber warfare; we wanted to trace their path across borders, logistics, and geography.
Fragments of the exhibition "If Disrupted, It Becomes Tangible. Infrastructures and Solidarities Beyond the Post-Soviet Condition" at the National Gallery of Art in Vilnius, 2023
It is well known that our curatorial and civic stance is anti-war and anti-imperialist. Without anti-imperialism it is impossible to resist war today because pacifism would preserve old colonial hierarchies. The work on this exhibition was carried out based on this foundation – a fight against fascism and colonialism, solidarity with Ukraine and other spaces colonized, polluted and destroyed by the so-called Russian Federation. On the other hand, our approach also showed how economically Russia is connected to Western Europe and how deeply these connections are visible at the infrastructure level.
Our platform focuses on Belarusian art, so could you tell us about four statements or expressions created by Belarusians within the framework of your international exhibition?
In the multimedia installation concludes her research on the specific terrains in Minsk, most of which now belong to the High-Tech Park (HTP). Besides offices of various IT companies and startups, this area also includes the Museum of Stones, an open-air geological museum and recreational zone and also the buildings of the Academy of Sciences, some of which were abandoned and used for raves and punk concerts in the early 2000s. Since 2005 these objects have been partially transformed into the HTP, which generates tax revenues and a legal structure for the development of IT technologies in Belarus.
© XYANA: video installation Excursion to the Hi-Tech Park, 2020–2023
Initially founded on the idea of outsourcing high-skilled IT work to a significantly lower-cost labor force in Belarus, it has evolved into a cluster of several hundred companies operating extraterritorially and conducting research in artificial intelligence, software development, gaming and applications for the healthcare and financial sectors, including cryptocurrency and blockchain research. However, it remains under strict ideological control and is state-controlled. In 2020 the HTP became one of the key locations in the topography of the protests. Many IT workers participated in the protests, developing various technological solutions for alternative voting systems, political mobilization and solidarity actions. Combining various visual artifacts, 3D renders, IT works, political protests and stories of characters of punk and rave subcultures, XYANA takes a tour through the history of the HTP, which has become entangled in the complexities of historical and contemporary conflicts of emancipation and control.
© Uladzimir Hramovich: installation "Usio zabyta, što ziamloj zaryta" ("All That is Forgotten is Buried in the Ground"), 2023
In his artistic practice, draws on the history of modernist art and architecture, the history of ideology and political movements and urban space transformations. Hramovich, who received professional artist-graphic education at the , alludes to an increased demand for realist drawing skills in the 3D modeling and CGI market Until 2020, one of the main employers in the IT sector was the company called Wargaming, which developed the online game World of Tanks. Historically, the game recreates tank battles through a multiplayer online structure and is highly popular in Eastern Europe. This game is part of what Hramovich calls "spectral temporality", where different historical narratives blend with imperialistic perceptions of space, 3D modeling and elements of contemporary cyber warfare. His installation "" ("All That is Forgotten is Buried in the Ground") borrows its title from a Belarusian folk saying. He utilizes various fragments of 3D models (in collaboration with Andrii Akhtyrskyi) depicting landscapes on the borders of Belarus with Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine and Latvia. Over the past three years, the Belarusian border has become a site of a place of crossing and historical "rifts". The border has been crossed by political refugees from Belarus, refugees from other countries (instrumentalized by the Belarusian government) and Russian forces that invaded Ukraine from Belarus on February 24. Numeric, speculative and real maps adhere to a logic of disorientation, where political boundaries of sovereignty agency are obsolete. The border has now become a kind of "rampart" because Ukrainian forces have blown up roads and bridges and EU countries have fortified their borders. The paper scrolls refer to the dialectics of visibility and opacity in the ongoing cyberspace, as well as to the imperial and post-colonial production of space.
The work of the group, , is a series of computer-supported exercises centred on digital memory and scattered events that need to be forgotten due to their confidential nature, or more precisely, for the safety of the community. At the same time, the work also serves as an algorithmic interactive archive of narratives unfolding in various temporal and spatial dimensions: documentary footage of labour inspections at a major Minsk IT company developing military computer games, content that disappeared from the servers of Internet portals, the recent use of Belarusian infrastructure by russia in the war against Ukraine, partisan diversions on the railways in Belarus, fragmented memories of participants in revolutionary and partisan actions, fictional desired economic strikes. Referring to the aesthetics of offices and computer clubs, the installation invites the viewers to go through an educational program.
© eeefff: interactive installation Tactical Forgetting, 2021–2023
By navigating through buttons labeled "again", "good", and "easy", users determine how much they want to remember or forget the materials they have just viewed and listened to. Despite the fact that we typically characterise memory as a practice of political concern, eeefff reevaluates the role of forgetting in the political practices of the Belarusian protest. New protest infrastructures use "forgetting" as one of their resistance tactics; for instance, the automatic deletion of all messages in Telegram chats is a security principle for their participants.
Throughout the discourse on protest infrastructures and their impact on communities, the practice of the anonymous collective emerges. It was established as an extension and speculative proliferation of the self-publishing practices prevalent since the beginning of the Belarusian protests. Notably, these practices continue to exist in the Belarusian space today. The Museum of Stones is based on collective reflections on the protest activities of residential neighbourhoods and alternative support infrastructures in Belarus. It continues discussions on grassroots solidarity structures and provides an opportunity to hear more voices. The newspaper issues are dedicated to the possibilities of organizing care infrastructures and the practices of "cybernetics of the poor", which serve as an antithesis to "high technologies", numerous interviews with anarchists, representatives of the LGBTQ+ community and others.
© The Museum of Stones: interactive installation Museum of Stones, 2021–2023
For the exhibition, the Museum of Stones Editorial Collective created a reading , an underground printing press and a special issue dedicated to Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
In your work many shared research interests become evident, first of all activism in culture, networks of solidarity and care infrastructures. I have personally observed how meticulously you have explored these themes during our long collaborative curatorial work on the project "". Could you also highlight other projects where you have previously collaborated and any other common points of intersection you've discovered?
To be honest, we haven't collaborated extensively in the past. Of course, we've encountered each other and engaged in each other's projects to some extent: I participated, either actively or passively, in "" in 2018, 2019, and 2020 and conducted interviews with the working group, wrote articles about works and activities in which Aleksei was involved in one way or another. What unites us, however, isn't the number of joint projects we've created but rather shared thematic concerns, both conceptual and ethical, interest in art, not as a mere representation of certain issues but an understanding of art as a set of tools that can be used to generate new political activities, explore boundaries and thresholds and create new situations. This means the political potential of art both in terms of creating meanings and in terms of projecting actions. Furthermore, the exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Lithuania addresses the specific theme of the political assessment of infrastructure as a space for the play of power dynamics, the distribution of that power and the search for tactics of resistance and solidarity. These are precisely the themes and concepts that concern each of us, in one way or another. However, this exhibition is our first curatorial experience together.
Fragment of the exhibition "Every Day. Art. Solidarity. Resistance", Mystetskyi Arsenal, Kyiv, 2021
Antonina, the concept of care infrastructure seems to be systemic for you and, in one way or another, it is present in your entire work: in your involvement in the international cultural coalition against the war in Ukraine , your participation in the recent seminar Global Sisterhood: Networks of Solidarity and Infrastructures of Care, as well as your curatorial projects (like the exhibition on inclusion and empathy ). Could you tell us more about these infrastructures, how they manifest in our context and how you continue to explore them?
For me, care is one of the most crucial political categories I've been working with for a long time. I think it's fundamentally important to reclaim it from the realm of low-paid or unpaid women's work, which is closely tied to emotional labour exploitation, often the most invisible form of exploitation, making care labor appear insignificant and unnoticeable. The traditional division between the private and public spheres has excluded care from the arsenal of political actions. This is why it's important to reevaluate the category of care in political terms. The significance of care as a political category is further confirmed by our experiences during the pandemic, as well as the experiences of protests in various countries such as Iran, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, the USA and so on. And, most importantly, our own experience of the protest movement in Belarus, where care, and especially care infrastructures, play a central role. and I discussed this in our article "Be Water. The Dynamics of Belarusian Protest: From the Existing Technical Basis to the Utopian Horizons of Future" . Although the politicization of care, along with the reevaluation of grassroots civil activity, as you've accurately observed, is characteristic of many of my curatorial projects. But the reevaluation of care as infrastructure is something I've only delved into over the past three and a half years.
Antonina Stebur and the eeefff group (Dzina Zhuk and Nicolay Spesivtsev) during the presentation of the antiwarcoalition.art project at the exhibition as part of DOCUMENTA 15, Documenta Halle, Kassel, 2022
What do care infrastructures even mean? When we talk about the politicization of care, it's essential to recognize that care isn't a collection of isolated individual activities; care is structurally organized. Thinkers like Sara Ahmed, Judith Butler, bell hooks and others approach the human being as fundamentally particular corporeal actors, not rational subjects, but individuals who are inherently fragile and vulnerable. Hence, the necessity to build and politicize infrastructures of care and support. When philosophers, such as Thomas Hobbes, viewed society as an entity formed to cease the war of all against all, today we reflect upon the idea that humans cannot exist outside of the infrastructures of care. We are so interconnected and dependent on infrastructures of care and support that it's even evident on a biological level. For instance, consider cases of so-called "wild children", those who were raised by animals and deprived of human contact. If such children lived in the company of animals for the first 3.5–6 years of their lives, later they were not able to learn human language. This means that as human beings we are in a state of interdependence with one another and with the infrastructures of support. The necessity and importance of building such infrastructures at the grassroots and civil initiative levels are demonstrated by the experiences of the Belarusian protests and revolution, where care has become and continues to be a central political characteristic. However, our current exhibition isn't directly linked to care infrastructures. But the works of fantastic little splash, Mariyam Medet and the Museum of Stones in some way or another refer to care infrastructures. Nevertheless, in the Vilnius exhibition we are more intrigued by the materiality of infrastructures: how they are organized, how they manifest and play out power relations, how various lines of colonization and exploitation intersect and how we can resist these new/old forms of power relationships manifested through infrastructure?
Aleksei, you are an active participant of various horizontal communities and collectives. You are also a member of the working group of the self-organized platform “Work Hard! Play Hard!” and a co-initiator of our platform . You have curated and co-curated projects related to solidarity and protests (for example, , or ). How would you define the sphere of your interests and which aspects of it will be reflected in your collaboration with Katalin Erdődi for the Matter of Art Biennial in Prague in the summer of 2024?
Especially after 2020, my curatorial practice has focused on creating a framework for thinking about how the emancipatory experience can be articulated within the so-called post-socialist space and beyond. I've had doubts about the adequacy of the term "post-socialism" for describing the diverse geographies that have experienced historical socialism. Thus I'm interested in the social organization of time, politics and artistic practices during the so-called transition. I'm curious about how the concept of work and leisure is changing, about different forms of labor unrest and strikes. After 2020 I wrote several essays and curated a few exhibitions on these topics. In this sense, I'm currently working on the Matter of Art Biennial in Prague in 2024, focusing on these themes. My co-curator, Katalin Erdődi, and I are finalizing our curatorial framework, which combines interest in social movements in urban and rural settings, solidarity, anti-colonial approaches, health and workers' leisure, as well as queer and crip theories..
Fragment of the exhibition A Secret Museum of Workers Movement, Artist-run space hoast, Vienna, 2021
And the final question about the new nomadic reality – you migrated to Europe at different times. Please briefly share the reasons and the history of your migration trajectories and also outline your immediate plans.
I moved to Vilnius in 2009 to study at the . Later I lived and studied in Stockholm and currently I live and work in Vienna. I have always been actively engaged in work in Minsk, particularly with "Work Hard! Play Hard!" and also with other projects. Even now, when it's almost impossible, I continue to collaborate with various artists and cultural workers, platforms and initiatives from Belarus in exile. The only thing that helps me envision an uncertain future is the biennale; otherwise, the ongoing war and repression do not provide such opportunities, so any sort of long-term planning feels like a privilege.
I, as well as a lot of other cultural workers in Belarus, have operated on a nomadic basis for a long time. I believe this has always been a distinctive feature of contemporary Belarusian art. However, since 2021, I cannot return to Minsk or Mahilyow. My travel geography is extensive – Kyiv, Dnipro, Warsaw, Berlin, Vilnius, and so on. A couple of months ago I realized that I hadn't been anywhere for more than two weeks in the past two years. I agree with Aleksei; having long-term planning horizons today is a significant privilege.