British geophilosopher and artist Paul Chaney has spent recent years researching the history and culture of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. According to the artist, coal is the key to all the problems of the region. To support this idea, Chaney has created a project called “Donetsk Syndrome Diagrammatic,” which presents in condensed form the concrete relationship between “geological trauma” and the contemporary stalemated war in east Ukraine. Before the war, Chaney was planning to present his work in the Donetsk art centre Izolyatsiya. But once the separatists seized power, they turned it into a labor camp and prison. Chaney, who had lived in Donetsk for several years, was forced to flee.
Paul Chaney spoke with Hromadske about how the history of this eastern region is connected to today's Russian-Ukrainian war and how to bring the Donbas up to its full cultural potential.
You came to Ukraine in 2012 by invitation of Izolyatsia cultural project. What was your motivation to come to Ukraine, to come to Donbas? Why did you decide to come here?
Well, the invitation came at a very good time for me, it worked well with my schedule. What I found interesting about it when I first arrived, which is, this English person, who has a connection with this British industrialist, who founded the city, John Hughes, in 1869. We all know that before this point, there was really nothing there. The legend is that it was just some small village or like one hut from a blacksmith, and with the discovery of the coal and this kind of question of the industrialisation of the Russian Empire, this made it expand really quickly. So, as I said in my talk, the story of John Hughes begins a little bit earlier in this war in Crimea in the 1850s and how the Russian Empire lost that particular war and they decided it was because of this lack of military technology, so they went looking for people who were going to help them improve that and they found John Hughes as one of these people, and they invited him to come and try and make like new military technology and he basically told the Tsar that they needed a railway system rather than military improvement. So this is the initial reason to develop the Donbas as a iron-producing region was to make railways, and out of that came the development of the whole railway network of the Russian Empire. In this case, for just this reason alone, Donbas is really important for the whole history of the Russian Empire, and the whole history of the industrialisation, and it continued to be an important iron-producing region throughout the Soviet Union as well. This is, I guess, why it became such an important, powerful region.
This is a city, which is defined by its industry, defined by geological extraction and the industries connected to that. I think that the fact the city grew so quickly, that it’s such a phenomenal growth and this growth is determined by its geology, determined by its industry, so the movement of people came from all over the Russian Empire and all over the Soviet empire, well, the Soviet Union, for me, this is what’s defined the city and its situation that is now. And this is inherently connected to the geology and connected to the industry.
You also refer to the term “geological trauma.” Could you explain what that means?
OK. So this is connected to a couple of different philosophies, but I won’t really go into it so much, but the idea is that, by looking at geology and the way geology is made in the history of the formation of the planet, you can see these points, these traumatic moments, whether it’s sort of like tectonic plate movement, or like the formation of iron, the formation of the coal beds. And my idea is that these are like geological traumas where, particularly in the case of coal, where this excess carbon that’s in the atmosphere, gets absorbed into the surface of the Earth through the action of plants in the carboniferous period, and this is kind of protection of the Earth from the power of the Sun, because the Sun was getting hotter at the time. So the plants react, absorb carbon into a solid form, making coal, which cools down the planet, so it’s kind of like a response to a trauma. And then, the geophilosophy idea is that, when you then dig up that coal and release it again, it’s somehow kind of releasing this trauma again and it somehow releases this violence, which is, sort of, caught into the surface of the planet. And I think you can it really clearly in Donbas because it’s been involved in so many wars in modern history, wars which were fought there because of its resources, because of its wealth, because of its industry, because it’s all based on the minerals, on the geology.
Donbas has always been an inspiration for artists who were interested in industrialisation art, and, especially amongst others, it also inspired the world famous Symphony of Donbas by Dziga Vertov. In your opinion, when the war is over, in the reconstruction, what can be done to bring the potential of Donbas to its fullest?
That’s an interesting question. I think it will be difficult because, as far as I can see, the people, who were most interested in developing culture of the region that wasn’t connected to industry, were the young people, who have now mostly left, most of them are displaced. So there would have to be a really strong movement to encourage people to actually go back there. I’m sure people would because it’s like home to people still, but I think there would have to be active programs to make that happen. So much of the culture of Donbas is connected to the industry, as you said, and now the industry isn’t actually so predominant, and even though it still existed, it’s beginning to kind of tail off even before the war, right. So I guess new forms of culture would have to be found, which aren’t really necessarily connected with industry.
You mentioned all the displaced people, who were forced to leave Donbas after the war started, and it’s not the first time in Ukraine’s and the region’s history. During the Soviet times, there were people from various regions of the Soviet Union who were displaced to go and live there, to occupy this area and to start and rebuild its industrial potential. How do you think that influenced the cultural sphere of the region of Donbas?
Well it’s very clear that it’s a really big influence, to me. I lived in Donetsk for two years, more or less, and I have many friends from there. This is like a common theme that people felt it was difficult to exactly know where they are from a lot of the time, and I think that’s maybe why this like industrial culture became so strong as well there because people left their homes, came there, they had to leave everything behind and what do they have to believe in? The only thing they can believe in is work and industry. And I think, of course, this is absolutely the reason for these external geopolitical manipulations can take place there because people are a little bit unsure of exactly who they are. I think this is true. Well actually, on a personal level, I talked to so many people who had opinions on both sides before the war, when I was staying in Donetsk and it was clear that people preferred one side, and some people preferred the other side, and I think I recognise that the difference was often generational. It’s often the difference between the young people and old people. But one thing that was very clear to me from both sides, talking about this particular issue, was that nobody wanted a war, it wasn’t something to fight about. This was quite clearly a manipulation from the outside, but that manipulation could only happen because people were already questioning themselves a little bit, like didn’t have such a strong feeling of who they were.
How do you think the war and the situation in Donbas and Crimea influenced Ukraine’s culture? We can see that in Kyiv, there are a lot of new cultural projects and they have a lot of freedom here, and they are blossoming. What’s your opinion on this?
I guess I see a lot of changes in two ways. I didn’t actually ever come to Kyiv before the war, only to come to the airport to go to Donetsk, but obviously I can see that there’s still this feeling of some kind of level of success after Maidan and after Yanukovych was pushed out and this is really incredible. I came to Kyiv the first, I think, the year after Maidan and I could still feel this feeling of celebration in the city and all of these incredible things happening and the explosion of culture and the feeling of freedom. But also, this time when I arrived and came the airport to see all of these guys on the border control are now wearing like military uniforms. So there’s this element of freedom, and expression, and potential and change, but also, at the same time, from the state, this sides coming that’s like increasing militarisation, which has come through society. So that’s kind of interesting to see what happens with that. But I think also, there’s still so many problems, so [many] questions about: did corruption finally get resolved and bigger political questions. So I think there’s still a long way to go but I think it’s pretty incredible what happened here and I’m actually always telling friends in the UK and in the rest of Europe, I have lots of friends who are sort of maybe left-wing and anti-capitalist, they’re talking about we need a revolution, and I was like: Well just look to Ukraine. There already was one and it was really quite incredible to see and to see how people can actually take control of their own destiny. But still, I think people need to continue with that and continue to take control and understand what it is they need to take control of, and continue to push for it.
/By Masha Ulianovska