Interview between James Smith and Vitalij Strigunkov

On Thursday, 14 May 2020 we will be broadcasting 3-5PM UK time the conference, via Zoom strange word order, (Re)Placing Chernobyl: a webinar organised by Kingston University London, Lithuanian Culture Institute and FRINGE: UCL’s Centre for the Study of Social and Cultural Complexity. Supported by the Embassy of Lithuania in the United Kingdom. The conference will be a discussion exploring the politics of the series Chernobyl, it’s aesthetics, the power of TV mediation of scientific expertise and the wide-ranging impacts of this cultural representation of the disaster. As most of the film was shot not at the real Chernobyl wasteland that still stands today in what is now Ukraine, but rather in Lithuania, mainly at Chernobyl’s sister power plant, Ignalina, with other portions filmed in the parts of Vilnius and Kaunas we are presenting an interview conducted with one of the participants Vilnius based artist Vitalij Strigunkov..

James Smith: Could you give us a brief description of what the conference will be addressing and what your particular interest is in this topic?

Vitalij Strigunkov: The conference invites participants to explore the HBO miniseries “Chernobyl, the politics of aesthetics and the power of TV mediation of cultural representation of disaster. As a visual artist I’ll be addressing issues related to replacement of Chernobyl and cinematic recreation of the nuclear accident. We are aware of environmental, political, economical consequences of tragedy in Chernobyl. What we are interested in now – what is the cultural impact of HBO series, how will story of “Chernobyl” affect our understanding of the past authentic event, how it will shape our imagination of the disaster in the future.

JS The TV series has proved incredibly popular both critically and commercially pulling in a wide and enthusiastic audience, why do you think this is?

VS I think there are two main reasons that have led the series to success. One is that, the series were the first of its kind major cinematic work based on the Chernobyl disaster designed for television. And the creators managed to narrate the individual stories around authentic facts. Secondly “Chernobyl” revealed us how vulnerable humanity is, prone to make mistakes, and that even the most progressive technology may get out of the control. These are the fears we are living with often unaware of them.

JS Currently (as of 1st May 2020) many counties in the world are in a state of ‘lockdown or quarantine’ due to Corvid19 outbreak. In the series a similar ‘shelter in place order’ is given, for those living within 30km of the accident. What other contemporary parallel do you find in the series?

VS Although nuclear disaster and pandemics seem to be very different situations, they share common important component – in both cases humanity deal with something that is invisible, something one cannot sense, unless one got hurt seriously. The global lockdown due to Covid-19 indeed reminds some safety steps undertaken after Chernobyl disaster. But there’s also a difference. Currently the source of the threat is a human being rather than contaminated site.

JS Clearly the authors of this work have gone to great lengths to achieve as much historical accuracy as possible. But of course this is a westernised reading of what happened, particularly when it comes to blame - I am thinking of the line “every lie is a debt owed to the truth” in the final episode. What unseen problems does such a Eurocentric bias bring with it? And I am thinking in particular of how the nation state views, and tries to protect itself. Perhaps there are contemporary parallels with China and its handling of the outbreak too?

VS According to Craig Mazin, screenwriter of the “Chernobyl”, the series aired it the times of global assault on the truth and was meant to address this problem. I don’t think the authors of the series were interested exceptionally in westernized reading of the story. Rather they were constructing it in such a way to underline the weak relation of the state to the truth in critical situations. Hence there are parallels arising with the current Covid-19 pandemics. However, I would argue, that currently to certain extent every state is at risk of bad handling.

JS In some sense story told twice. Once dramatically, in the fist 4 episodes, and once scientifically, in the final episode. Narratively speaking which do you find the most important and the most compelling?

VS The final episode of the series not only repeated and summarized the sequence of the events in the Chernobyl from scientific point of view, but it also showed the ultimate confrontation between main hero - Valery Legasov and the state. The trial court scene reveals us that behind the technological disaster there was mistrust and appalling speculation by the facts by state. And, in my opinion, this is a pretty much the main focus of the series. But yet we have remember that despite “Chernoby” started with death of Valery Legasov, it ended with an open question by him – “what is the cost of lies”, that we are all invited to answer.

Vitalij Strigunkov is a visual artist born in 1990 in Vilnius, Lithuania, where he continues to live and work. Originally trained as a painter, Strigunkov combines different media, often incorporating found images and news stories. He explores the economy of symbolic capital and the appearance and disappearance of cultural values, and brings them into contrast with wider cultural, social and political concerns. Strigunkov’s practice comprises numerous collaborations.

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