Bodies of waste, bodies of conflict
Diana Damian Martin
In 2014, with the fleeing of former president Viktor Yanukovych, Russia annexed Crimea and reinforced support for mercenary fighters and separatists in East-Ukraine. Since then, sporadic fighting has continued in Donbass. This is now a region of sniper rifles and automatic grenade launchers, marked by domestic life of civilians caught in the midst of a conflict that is in equal measure local and global. There is no state of crisis, there is the incendiary dullness of irregular conflict, of discarded Coke bottles and cigarettes, of smartphone breaks and laminated table cloths.
fronterlebnis engages with the borders between fiction and reality at a time of planetary warfare, a politicised digital and media culture, a global arms trade and state surveillance; in other words, it is an exploration of the poetics of immersion by means of the documentary. Ploeger takes the social temperature of the war zone, and examines the effect of the spectacular on armed conflict and the politics of protection in a region where place is both domestic ruin and battlefield.
Ploeger’s previous work has explored the poetics and politics of digital culture and technology, and its inextricable relationship to politics at a global level – by means of an examination of electronic waste, or occupation of a porn site through an application, Ascending Performance (2013), in which repeated stroking of the artist’s body on the screen leads to an erection, itself ending in a dark screen, a kind of anti-orgasm. The body, then, is as central to discussions of digital culture as the device; be it by means of the effects of technological recycling on labouring bodies in Nigeria, or notions of masculinity in images of terrorism in the UK. fronterlebnis, however, delves further into these issues, by connecting the ways in which consumer technologies, often emergent from within state funded army programs, inhabit and represent armed conflicts that often are on the periphery of media debates, and equally often woven into moralising and politicised discourses of Russia and its colonial relationship to Eastern Europe.
As artist and thinker Hito Steyerl argues, "data, sounds and images are now routinely transitioning beyond screens into a different state of matter". Images are not renditions of "a pre-existing condition", they are appearances that become matter, and this in itself begins to occupy the physical landscape of our day to day lives. We can no longer speak of the documentary as a means of archivisation, nor can we conceive of the digital as something that is immaterial, displaced from the everyday (by means of what Thomas Elsaesser calls the military industrial entertainment complex). fronterlebnis, with its concern for how the cinematic and self-made representation construct landscapes of armed conflict, responds to an increasingly visible Western European discursive culture about the morality of war in the East of Europe (in the same way as it did with the collapse of former Yugoslavia). This plays out as a confrontation with the global economics of arms trade and the political purposes of active militarisation and displaced support for local conflict. Yet our engagement is itself displaced by means of representations that we encounter through domesticated technologies, the same that soldiers use to watch match reruns or YouTube recordings of other armed conflicts.
As Steyerl proposes, our reality consists of images that invade everyday life; this context configures the ways in which we conceive of the digital and its relationship to the material. It is then, significant to consider war artefacts that speak to these conditions in fronterlebnis. In worse than the quick hours of open battle, was this everlasting preparedness, a used USSR army backpack reveals a tablet computer displaying a fragment of a German officer’s chronicle of the first World War by means of a highly graphic account of trench warfare (Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel). A poetics of change and stasis, all wrapped in an image that is uncomfortably both digital and physical, fictional and real. The screen, then, is less twilight zone, and more a shifting border.
The rotating Kalashnikov rifle in artefact gains cinematic life through the integration of a found digital model and a high-resolution 3D scan of an obsolete wooden hand guard from an actual gun. It’s a groundhog day-experience in which the obsolete feels mobilised, in which the time and place of documentary warfare become both deconstructed and politicised.
In the immersive experience of frontline, it is the body that’s confronted with the paradoxical: after an initial confrontation with a violent, spectacular Hollywood-like war soundscape, one enters a kind of affect-led exploration of preparedness and boredom, tension and danger; soldiers wait around endlessly; in the background, quiet sounds of the wind, men shovelling in a trench. A selfie, of sorts, that refuses to dramatise, yet is vehemently, insistently dramatic by nature of its commitment.
Recording a more eventful incident, process is particularly pertinent in patrol: a transfer of digital footage made with a smartphone to 16mm celluloid film, one documentary medium to another. This is both about the language of capture, if such a term is even possible, and the circumstances of warfare as they play out in its visual landscape: old firearms and new technology. A search for the grainy poetics of mid-20th century warfare in the sharp imagining of contemporary conflict: who takes part, what remains.
There’s more imminent connotations too, of the mediality of conflict representations (and their authorship) as and through museums – think of the recent re-deployment of a tank from a museum’s plinth. The Second World War IS-3 ‘Joseph Stalin’ tank was re-deployed between April 2014 and July 2014 by pro-Russian separatists in East Ukraine . The selfie in front of the painting, the selfie in the midst of a war zone. There’s the globalism in which masculinity often traffics, and the networks of surveillance that link the process of spectating across different media; there’s the ignorant representation of certain bodies as debris, and the fetishisation of ruins in war zone landscapes.This is no longer the emergence of a post-cinematic representation; it is a confrontation, a destabilisation of normalised representations that wash over the affective temperatures and realities of armed conflict, and that refuses to maximise distance or wash out discomfort. Desire is matched with a deliberate awkwardness of stasis.
A kind of active waiting in the midst of rubble.
 see Hito Steyerl’s Tank on a Pedestal: Museums in the age of Planetary Civil War; e-flux 70 (2016)
Diana Damian Martin is a writer and researcher. She co-hosts Something Other and Department of Feminist Conversations, projects that examine the intersection between writing, performance and politics. She is a member of Generative Constraints, a committee that practices open-ended collaborative research into art, politics and theory, and is a Lecturer in Performance Arts at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.