Unearthly Colors

Asia Bazdyrieva

Autoethnographic essay
2022
English translation: Lisa Biletska

У пошуках відповідей я звернулась до Оксани Довгополової — докторки філософських наук і кураторки платформи культури пам'яті Минуле / Майбутнє / Мистецтво; до Олесі Петрович — природоохороної менеджерки WWF-Україна, керівниці проєкту INSURE «Впровадження природоорієнтованих рішень в порядок денний реформ України» та Ганни Лобченко — менеджерки проєктів напряму «Ліси» WWF-Україна.

(I)

I don’t remember now how exactly I came across this particular image. I was looking for something in the NASA archives, opened many tabs that seemed important, then forgot about them, then found them again and experienced a moment of delight as an archeologist, whose soil is a Google Chrome browser. A satellite image of Lake Syvash, archived with a technical description, written by someone named Michon Scott, which sounded like a story. Nasa.gov →

I passed the text through Google Translate to Ukrainian and then back to English:

The Crimean Peninsula stretches south from mainland Ukraine, washed by the Black Sea in the west, and the Sea of ​​Azov in the east. A network of shallow marshy bays stretches across the peninsula, spanning approximately 1,000 square miles (2,600 square kilometers). This network of lagoons is known as Sivash (also Sivash or Sivash). During the summer months, the heated swamp waters give off unpleasant odors, which is why the region is called the Rotten Sea or Rotten Sea.

The Thematic Mapper on NASA's Landsat 5 satellite captured this image in natural colors on June 6, 2010. The shallow waters and diverse chemical composition of the Sivash lagoons contribute to their unearthly colors: peach, mustard, lime green, blue, blue-green, beige, and brown. Thick layers of silt cover the bottom of the shallow marshes, which are rich enough in mineral salts to supply a local chemical plant.

Surrounding the wetlands are agricultural fields, most of which are rectangular in shape, but some are shaped like central irrigation systems. Urbanized areas appear along the Black Sea coast, and highways curve and zigzag across the peninsula.

Outside of the swamps, the land in this area is generally a flat plain of arid steppe. In the cold months, frosts alternate with thaws, fogs are not uncommon.

Outside of the swamps, the land in this area is generally a flat plain of arid steppe. In the cold months, frosts alternate with thaws, fogs are not uncommon.

(II)

Hello, Asyu! I've been writing you a letter for a week now, it's gotten to the point that I dreamed of you. In the dream, you had long hair, we were walking along a very sunny street and eating ice cream. The street was so sunny that I could barely make out your face, but I knew it was you. I decided to write a small letter precisely because yours help me a lot. It may seem strange to you, but it is especially helpful that they are very much yours—these letters in Instagram stories. I can hear your voice when I read them. I hear how you can be afraid, love, be a little sharp, be yourself [...] But I'm not just flattering, I’m reaching an observation: it was important for me to hear and recognize voices, especially when everything merged into something solid and painful. And I was submerged in it too. It was hard for me to speak, to have a voice, to have value. And your letters [...] reminded me that it is possible to remain.

[...] in some sense I felt like a foetus in womb waters. Something was forming in me, something that has been breaking through this past week, I can barely take notes fast enough. The war has drawn out from me everything that I tried to set aside, everything I tried to build my personality without. But it turns out this is not possible, it simply does not work. I will have to accept all this: the incredible closeness of the war during all these years of living in military towns, the machinery outside the window of my parents' apartment, the disintegration of the family due to unworked PTSD still left over from those, other wars. What does it mean to see and be a part of violence? What does it mean to carry rotten seeds of violence, hidden so long and so deep inside yourself, that you don’t even notice they’ve sprouted? And now, I looked at it; more than that—I saw it.

[...]
I don't know if it is appropriate to write to you all this.
[...]

I work a lot. I made an exhibition here [...] About the randomness of meetings during the war, how we gather together with those whom we most likely would not have met in other circumstances, how quickly we look for common ground in order to move on. [...] In the evenings, I read about how unidentified burials are found with the help of plants. I’ve found out the following: Sometimes it is precisely by the large concentration of invasive plants in one place that one can identify a burial. The root systems of invasive plants are much stronger because of their complex rooting history and ability to adapt quickly. So they can more easily settle on soil that is less favorable due to a change in chemical composition. 

[...]
Asyu, I don't know if it is appropriate to write you all this. If you have enough strength to read.
[...]

Hugs, N.

(IIІ)

W.B. is not a man to be envied, but there is one thought that I often return to. Whenever my memory conjures up scenes from the distant past and I want to write them down in detail, it turns out the details are actually very few—they are only feelings, imprints in memory. Back then, I didn't look at my world through the eyes of a storyteller, it just happened to me. Now I want to put it in paragraphs, but it turns out that I do not remember details or distances, or I do not trust my childhood memories are true. I figure, if only I could see all these places with adult eyes, then I could make a story out of them, create a document. I exhaust myself with dreams in which I walk down a city street, then back to the bus station, then to the hospital—the same routes, but each time with a difference. These are just my fictions, I will never see them again. Places that saw centuries turn are quickly erased, but some are erased faster than others. And so I think, W.B. was at least in his Berlin long enough to acknowledge the loss, and to later take stock of the gaslights, the loggias, and the winter mornings. Images of childhood appear very clearly when you look at a landscape in which you no longer exist.

When I think of Donbas, I think of displacements, rearrangements, ruptures, disconnections, changes in a landscape that is mined, smelted, deprived of water, the worked mass heaped on a soil tip. Sometimes spoil tips are self-igniting. 

What language can speak of this? G. writes, “Every language stumbles on this space.” Mine certainly does. Maybe, the language of numbers? 30% less winter wheat was planted this spring, 46% fewer sunflower seeds are projected, 40% less corn. The language of correlation between the chemical composition of soils and the speed of the set-up of humanitarian corridors?

S. sends me a photo of “Artemsil” salt packages, which disappeared from supermarket shelves after the missile strikes on Soledar. She and I constantly talk about language and writing. Over the past months, our ways of writing have changed, and so has the reality of war. For the first few weeks, my head produced words without stopping. They were compiled into posts, notes, dispatches—for remembrance, for now, for the future; they stationed convoys in my head, arriving and arriving, even when I would not and could not write them. But all the new and the terrible had to be met, looked at, felt, inventoried. Working three shifts. It was similar to how I imagined the work of a military surgeon. When the wounded keep arriving, the scalpel does not ask if the doctor needs sleep. Yet by the summer, most of my notes were already being left unfinished: I started them again and again, stumbled again and again, fell silent. The writing bled and felt too vulnerable to be out there. Besides, I no longer knew who I was talking to.

S. took much longer finishing another of her texts, her writing also bled and drove her, each time, into a dead end of depression and despair, but she did not stop. She called it the labor of witnessing, from which it is impossible to disenroll. Because one day, although no one knows when or how, all of us—people, soils, images from the NASA Landsat 5 satellite—may become material evidence.

“The point of artistic research,” I say to N. in the receiver, “is to make one's process visible.” To take notes from inside: passages, moments, details that may seem incomprehensible at first. What is their value? What do we learn about history when entering the personal world of a person who picks a viburnum branch during rocket fire? What is the point of taking pictures, recording observations from one’s small human perspective—what information does it provide, if real information is collected by professionals using technologies unavailable to the average user? Why am I taking screenshots? Why am I writing about the fact that our dog now thinks that sirens are of the same species as she?

Autoethnography: To "other" one’s own self, to make it into an object of research, the body on which the signs of history (we do not yet know which one) have scarred. To become an archaeological find, or a fossil, by which time can be deciphered. To be the matter from which evidence will or will not be produced. "Evidence status is granted by the judge," I noted in a reading group. All of that will be (or not), later.

Autofiction: To make one's own body a narrative mechanism. Each body is tightly woven into its environment, it absorbs the slightest changes and fluctuations of time and space, all the voices that pass through it, all ruptures of normality, all explosions near and far, all light that has ceased to be a given, or never was. It continuously metabolizes all of this and then delivers it word by word, line by line, with only one intention: to name the unnameable, to do so in a way that is more-than-me and at the same time inseparable from a singular truth, many singular truths.

We all are now subjects of cross-examination in one way or another.

(IV)

[I notice that I often skip words]

I ask A. what inspires him and whether he still lives near the botanical garden. A. responds: dahlias and trees near the house that he had not noticed before. 

"I mostly hold on well," he writes to me, "but frankly I can’t find my place in the war."
"I don't think one can find their place in the war," I answer.

I also write that the war is beyond that normality in which we look for places or exits, and that a great speechlessness came over me: “I’m just looking and thinking. Of course, war keeps one’s sensitivity levels at a constant maximum. At first, I felt like a transmitter. Now, I’m a storage device. Sometimes I even feel a certain violence, when it seems like it’s only war that is possible and necessary to talk about. Although I am with it all the time, I do not want to vulgarize what needs silence and time. It's like talking about war is becoming a certain currency, and I want to protect myself from the many things that will have to be seen and heard in the near future.”

I also ask if he is not afraid in Pechersk. ‘It was scary,” he says. “I saw Russian missiles and drones being shot down by anti-aircraft defense, but curiosity prevailed—I stood on the balcony and watched.”

(V)

I worry that I will stay torn, disassembled, speechless as a fish. This feeling is close to grief. But not that unintelligible grief from the dictionary:

1. A feeling caused by deep experiences of suffering; sadness, sorrow, the opposite of joy.

Grief has specific coordinates and time markers. Each grief is unique, so this feeling caused by a deep experience of suffering is only possible when taking into account the smallest of details.

For example:
Houses on Lermonotova Street 1 and 3 in Popasna, abandoned in a hurry, looted, destroyed, never seen again. The memory of many little things—the radio that went on until dawn, the screeching of the railway, the smell of a kerosene lamp, the smell of anthracite in winter and asphalt in summer, strawberries, currants, cherries, a frog in a metal tub in a vineyard, the dearest people whom I will never be able to ask about anything again; an entry in my grandfather's diary on March 2, 1980: “Today the little bird is 18 years old” (this is my future mother); father sobbing into the phone out of helplessness in 2014; myself, when I discreetly ask to prepare for war, but feel only an inevitable loss stretched out in time—as if everything dear to me remains on the other side of the river, and the bridge is about to collapse.

Grief can be prickly to the touch, like a gifted sweater from Humana; it can taste like bread that M. thrice baked, thrice brought, and which thrice dried; and it can sound like the first siren around seven in the morning on February 24th.

Sometimes grief is the size of a mosaic—small greenish pieces of smalt from the Kyiv Central bus station. Once upon a time, I met Volodymyr Melnychenko, whose life and work had just about disappeared from memory and space. Behind his mosaics unfolded a story that was almost erased before it could be written. Now I am looking at a photo of a young man—Roman Tkachenko—who has attached himself to a column with a safety belt and is restoring these same mosaics on Nauka Avenue 1. In June 2022, he will die in the war, grief will be reduced to the size of one of a thousand screenshots in my phone and at the same time will deepen to the size of a generation, many lost generations.

"Each war," I noted in the reading group, "is distinguished by the way it disturbs and demolishes assemblages of symbiotic coexistence."

The famous Dr. F. writes that grief is a great mystery for psychologists, but he gives an interesting interpretation, which was prompted by thoughts about war. When the object of our love is destroyed or lost, additional energy is released in us, which is directed to this very object, clings to it, sticks, fuses, remains faithful, does not let go, even if other possibilities for love are open. But grief, he writes, no matter how painful it may be, can end spontaneously: if you recognize the lost as lost, it exhausts itself, additional energy is again released, but now it can be directed onto another object.

War, revolution, love—I’ve been thinking in a dark room in March—is the time when valences open. Everything that is torn, shaken, knocked out of its normality exposes the places for new possible linkages. But there is nothing poetic about this, as it seemed to Dr. F. He did not take into account that in this other world, where we do not contemplate the ruins from a distance but stand right in the middle of them, we must cling to our world, fuse with it, remain faithful, not let go of that which can be destroyed and erased, and at the same time, we must declare this world lost.

What is it like, this other object?

(VI)

L. writes in a letter:

for the first time in my life, I got the feeling that such an unusual concept as home and place exists for me. this is something very unexpected for me, and reminds me of love, but not that tired and numb love that comes later in life, but the first love, or as they write about the first love—absolute, overwhelming, which makes you want to cry, and sleep, and sing (I’m crying a little now as I write this). and so I, numb and exhausted, with love inside me, will finally be in kyiv in 12 days. I plan to rent an apartment in podil again.

how are you, Asyo? <3
L.

p.s. I do not understand at all when you’re meant to use i/ta/y + iz/s/z.

“Not going anywhere! I don’t want to go abroad, and I won’t go! And when they’ll ask me why I am not going to Italy, I’ll say this: ‘Because there’s Ukraine, so much ours and so beautiful, that I will find nothing better!’”
– Ulyana Kravchenko, Chrysanthemums

Google Translate translated Podil as "outskirts" ("I plan to rent an apartment on the outskirts again") and I imagined how L. would live on the outskirts. I like the algorithmic interlanguage that Google Translate speaks poetically. I am also in it, because my world is reduced to the size of my acquired languages’ dictionaries, sounds like a machine where software glitches now and again, or, not finding a matching word, falls silent. I also don't know how to use i/ta/y + iz/s/z. Moreover, for several weeks, I was sure that two people sent me dahlias at the same time—I thought that dahlias and chrysanthemums were the same thing, just in different languages. I spend a lot of time between different versions of the same Wikipedia pages. It is similar to the process of subtraction and addition.

For example:
В Европу растения попали в XVII веке, в Россию—в середине XIX века. (rus)
Plants came to Europe in the 17th century, to Russia in the middle of the 19th century.

До Європи хризантеми завезли у XVII ст. (ukr)
Chrysanthemums were brought to Europe in the 17th century.

Ukrainian pages are always abridged. War shortens, makes communication tactical. Everything spoken, written, named, becomes a soldier or a deserter, becomes the flipside of Russian propaganda, becomes a need to speak. I am writing because here I am, look, here is my land wounded by explosions, listen, today I read, “The International Criminal Court must include crimes against the environment in its mandates,” here, take my diary as proof: “April 2, 2022, an environmental shock. ten hours after the strike, the sky is still burning. this landscape immobilizes me: I just sit or lie, unworthy, as if the life is being taken out of me.”

Unearthly colors captivate my imagination: peach, mustard, lime green, blue, blue-green, beige, and brown. Thick layers of silt at the bottom of shallow swamps and a flat plain of arid steppe. I am looking at one of the thousands of images taken by NASA's Landsat 5 satellite for Ukrainian harvest calculations. Timestamp: June 6, 2010. Time before the war, I think, before the great war. This close and very distant tale about the past is beautiful, tender, and gently colorful.

***

I respond to M.:

A list of things that made me sad:
1. It hurts to hear that someone you care about went through all that.
2. The realization that I went through that too.
3. Seeing her pausing the conversation because she starts crying as she recalls those days; seeing her restraining her pain and her talking because a normal day in August is not a good place, and because there will never be a good place.
4. Recognizing myself.
5. Realizing, again, that we do our best to live and to love, but there is always this layer of memory of consequential events that is always already there and that it is always only yours (as well as it is not).

[end]

notes from reading groups:

Geopolitics — multidimensional character of planetary life in which political finds itself.

Terrorism suspends the distinction between violence against persons and violence against things from the environmental—it is violence against those human-surrounding ‘things’ without which persons cannot remain persons.

Each war is different in how it disturbs and demolishes the assemblages of symbiotic coexistence.

Images are mobilized as instruments of formatting environments, territories, landscapes, subjectivities and social relations.

All matter registers evidence of certain histories, but not all histories become evidential as bearing witness to historical processes.

The status of the evidence is given by the judge.

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Piotr Armianovski

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