Three weeks into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, Major General Igor Konashenkov, claimed that the US had infected birds with biological pathogens and planned to release them into Russia. It was a ridiculous claim, but the Kremlin carried on lying just the same. In Russia they call this “vranyo” – meaning to lie even when you and everyone around you knows that you are lying. As long as you control the narrative, you can get away with saying whatever you want.
Since the start of the invasion, the Kremlin has taken extraordinary steps to shut down all remaining independent sources of information in Russia, including the liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy and television channel TV Rain. “They control everything now,” says Russian-born artist Egor Kraft, whose new exhibition Lies, Half-Truths & Propaganda is now showing at Alexander Levy’s new space in Moabit. “All the independent journalists whose faces appeared on screen have now been forced to leave the country.”
They can’t take them down, the works are available to everyone and will stay online forever.
Kraft, who was born in St Petersburg, decided that rather than make an anti-war statement, he would take his technological research and explore ways to combat Putin’s stranglehold over the media. His blockchain-based solution, Uncensorship Architecture, allows journalists to bypass nationwide censorship by splitting the data into tiny chunks (4 KB) and distributing them across thousands of individual nodes in people’s homes. “There’s nothing [the Kremlin] can do about it,” Kraft says, “they can’t take them down, the works are available to everyone and will stay online forever.”
The use of old pictures, manipulated videos and staged attacks have been a feature of this war as both sides struggle to win both the military and information war. Propaganda has been crucial to Vladimir Putin. If first-hand images of atrocities such as those in Bucha appear on social media platforms like Telegram, Russian influencers quickly declare it fake or blame it on Ukrainians. The Kremlin knows that it cannot continue its costly war without the consensus of its soldiers and citizens.
To combat this, Kraft has prototyped a camera with a telescopic lens that is directly connected to the internet. “Every photo it takes is assigned a unique meta-data on the blockchain that records who took it, when they took it and its geo-location.” Although cumbersome, with a Raspberry Pi computer incorporated into the tech, it has already been made into a mobile app, Hashd0x. “We spend so much time designing these technological solutions on the blockchain for financial systems, but we’ve never used it for safe-guarding the integrity of images,” says Kraft.
As a visual spectacle the exhibition is one of the techiest you will see, with synced up monitors and computers whirring away in cabinets. There are some earlier conceptual works like ‘I Print Therefore I Am’ (2014) showing an endlessly reprinted phrase from a hacked printer, but for the most part the show is a compelling mixture of activism, art and technology. “I wanted [the exhibition] to be a reaction against what‘s happening,” says Kraft, “the artistic side has been reduced with the activist side given more emphasis.”
Kraft had originally planned an entirely different exhibition for the coveted Gallery Weekend slot in late April but began hastily making this new work “as a response to the disaster”. “I just realised it was enough, I moved my family out of Russia and moved to Vienna. As a Russian artist I could not carry on as normal and I felt it was critical important to do something.”
For the artist and his many collaborators, the most interesting part of this project starts now, as they move out of the prototyping stage and look for greater uptake. “We have shown that these tools can work, but for it to achieve real success, we need to make them available to journalists.” The app is ready but the remaining blockchain tools still have a way to go before they can be rolled out. When they do, they have the potential to disrupt even the most carefully controlled narratives.
- Lies, Half-Truths & Propaganda Through Jun 11 Alexander Levy, Moabit