TO WHOM IT MAY SPEAK
This audio paper narrates through the experiences and ambiences of Russian aggression to which Ukrainians relate a long history of Russia’s imperial statehood. (Plokhy, 2023) It seeks a space of ethics in which sound expresses and gives testimonial to Ukrainian tragedy. In February 2023, Ukrainian art historian Kateryna Iakovlenko wrote an essay in which she claimed a justice-seeking quality to “cruel”, and “poor”, images, contesting a particular labeling of the images as “sensitive content”. (Iakovlenko, 2023) The audio paper resonates with Iakovlenko’s discussion, seeking a similar quality in “cruel”, and “poor”, sounds which were recorded hastily to make the war traceable in the experience of its victims. These sounds are not to be assessed for value-producing acoustics but fathomed in the actuality of ruination.
I take ruination as a sonic state and worldly entanglement, mobilizing it as a force against which powers of resistance are measured. The audio paper invests in the exploration of Ukrainian resistance, locating in the world-ruining times a sonority of the Ukrainian desire to live and Russia’s genocidal intent to end Ukrainian living.
It starts with graphic sounds grounding in the discomfort of ear-witnessing and enacting a politics of listening that is attentive to the violence of war rather than constrained by it. I navigate the voices of Ukrainian civilians before moving into the scene where an unarmed Ukrainian POW is killed for uttering the words Slava Ukraini, a slogan of Ukrainian resistance. I ask how Ukrainian disappearance is orchestrated; and how Ukrainians gain their prominence through sonic appearing geared to unmake the space of their absence that the Russian regime aims to create. I draw on the work of Brandon LaBelle to render audible the “space of appearance”, in its enablement of Ukrainian subjectivity. (LaBelle, 2018) Joining the sounded act of uttering the words for which Ukrainians resisting Russia’s occupation are made vulnerable, I perform the collective making of space, extending my reach to those who risked their lives, and who lost their lives to sonic affirmation of their difference.
I trace back to my own experience of speaking Ukrainian to my father in Russian-speaking Crimea where any expression of non-Russianness is heavily policed by the occupation authorities. I play a recording of us in our Crimean kitchen, the moment when my father seeks a deeper understanding of his Surzhyk, a russified Ukrainian language. With this recording, I reflect on the reality of occupation where Ukrainian life is confined to private (kitchen) spaces, living to flourish despite its exclusion. Drawing on symbolism and materiality of kitchen spaces, I narrate through the voices of Ukrainian survivors struck by russian bombardments in their kitchens. My narration folds into several iterations of the Ukrainian song “Oi u luzi chervona kalyna” which was taken up by Ukrainians as a soundmark of their resistance. These iterations include both the vocal and instrumental performances by Ukrainian defenders, as well as a performance by the bell ringers of St. Michael’s Cathedral in Kyiv. I lead my way toward a final gesture of joining my poetry to one of the iterations performed in a wartime setting.
I craft my own sounded act, exploring from the between-of-echoes I share with others an invisible and indivisible dimension of sonic being and becoming (Voegelin, 2018), an ethics of solidarity that unmutes Ukrainian life in the plurality of its breaths, fears, and fabulae.
The audio paper includes wartime recordings from Mariupol, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, and Kyiv, and features Kateryna P. (aka ptashka), among other lived voices. It makes it necessary to think how anthropology of sound (Schulze, 2018) can be performed and what a listening activism (LaBelle, 2018) might be. In a more immediate sense, it is an attempt to reach out to you, my listener, and participant-to-be, sounding out my letter of concern -- to the world, uncompromisingly