by Marcia Tanner
The artist Hito Steyerl (pronounced Hee-toe Shta-yahl) dropped in on Berkeley one Monday last February, on her way home to Berlin from LA where her stunning video installation, Factory of the Sun (2015) — centerpiece of the German pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale — had just opened at MOCA. She came to speak in UC Berkeley’s Art and Technology Colloquium series, setting the stage for the Minnesota Street Project installation of HOW NOT TO BE SEEN: A Fucking Didactic Educational.MOV File, jointly presented by MPS and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York.
The hall was packed with artists, museum curators, collectors and art writers as well as art students and faculty, and for good reason: Steyerl is one of the most compelling interpreters of the social, political and cultural implications of electronic and digital media today. Her films, videos, lectures and writings probe the increasingly tenuous distinctions between real and virtual, fiction and documentary. They appropriate, mash up and bend to her artistic intentions every available genre of image-making, story-telling and techno-wizardry, from computer-generated animation to clips from old documentary films, dramatizing how nonstop floods of mutable images and data affect our sense of ourselves, our personal relationships and our constructions of reality. Like the Internet itself, they travel seamlessly through a multiplicity of diverse worlds coexisting simultaneously in ahistorical space/time.
Like her countryman, the late filmmaker Harun Farocki, Steyerl mingles documentary imagery with staged (and in her case, digitally altered or generated) fictional scenarios using live actors to expose the darker politics of contemporary image production, proliferation and consumption. And, in the tradition of artists like Hans Haacke and Mark Lombardi, her compositions trace the hidden links connecting the seemingly disparate worlds of art making, arts institutions and art
commerce with global politics, capitalism, warfare and resistance, digital and electronic technologies and social networks. While exploiting the creative possibilities of digital imagery, she exposes its potential for ubiquitous surveillance, coercion and control. Collectively, Steyerl’s projects critically examine just about everything that makes up the contemporary fluxus of the Information Age, including the ambiguities and potential moral conflicts of her own artistic practice.
All of this might be incredibly dry were it not for Steyerl’s artistic sensibility. Her videos are playful, even zany, funny, poetic, disarming, provocative, disquieting, conceptually and technologically complex, visually dazzling and hugely entertaining.
HOW NOT TO BE SEEN (2013), whose title and inspiration are taken from a prescient Monty Python video, is a spoof instructional video, narrated by quasi-computer-generated voice-overs, on how to escape detection in this era of high-resolution digital surveillance. Opening with shots of military photo calibration targets in the California desert, it offers five lavishly illustrated “lessons” on achieving invisibility — both physical and virtual — with increasingly absurd suggestions for accomplishing this futile goal. You can shrink to become smaller than the 1-foot-square “pixel” recognized by satellite surveillance cameras, live in a gated community, vanish in a virtual shopping mall, hide in plain sight using green screen effects, or be a female over 50. (The latter ploy actually works, I find.)
Lesson V is a meditation on the politically disappeared, the 170,000 people worldwide who in recent history, Steyerl’s narrator says, have been “deleted, dispensed with, processed, eliminated, annihilated, wiped out, liquidated, then dissimulated” by powers beyond their control. It morphs into a fable of resurrection and revolution. The disappeared, we are told, hiding as “rogue pixels” in the cracks of the old calibration targets, re-emerge. Liberated, they take over the cameras and their operators, “throw off the cloak of representation” and presumably are free to reveal their true selves. The sound track for this sequence is an almost-but-not-quite-cheesy video of the American soul trio, Three Degrees, singing their 1974 hit When Will I See You Again? In this context, the song becomes a sardonic yet genuine anthem of longing and loss.
The title of Steyerl’s ATC@UCB talk, Proxies and Placeholders, was enigmatic enough to allow her plenty of leeway, which she took. Her lectures are performances, integral to her artistic practice, and this was a wild ride. Declaring with tongue-in-cheek dismay that her fictions keep turning into documentaries, she presented a mini-retrospective survey of her oeuvre that wove thematic connections among every piece.
She began by showing clips from Factory of the Sun, inspired, she said, by the announcement that physicists had discovered a particle that travels faster than the speed of light. Their “findings” turned out to be wrong, but had meanwhile excited financial markets by the prospect of even faster electronic stock trading. Recalling Donna Haraway’s contention that “machines are made of pure light,” Steyerl concocted an immersive video extravaganza: a surreal scenario of enslaved factory workers forced to participate in brutally repetitive motion-capture exercises — miming being fatally shot, for instance — in a virtual studio and an abandoned military research site, their moves to be converted into artificial sunlight.
Opening with a faux TV infomercial by a “spokesman" for Deutsche Bank who jubilantly delivers news about the soon-to-be-discredited breakthrough for investors, Factory of the Sun propels a dizzying, disjointed, fast-moving narrative that mixes live actors navigating actual and virtual environments with chorus lines of dancing avatars from the virtual reality platform, Second Life. It ricochets among genres: newscasts, documentary film, video games, Japanese animé, computer animation, dance performances recorded on home web cams, and science fiction movies, to name a few.
Like all of Steyerl’s videos, Factory of the Sun is both exhilarating and disturbing to watch. (I was lucky enough to see it in Venice last year.) Playing with images of illumination, vision and blindness, it suggests the light we “see” by is increasingly synthetic, pouring from screens manufactured by exploited human labor. An anonymous dancing figure, sightless in a head-covering bodysuit, stands for the human body ensnared in, yet colluding with, forces beyond its control.
Factory portrays an Age of Disenlightenment, where the flood of images, entertainment and data pouring from our screens obscures and estranges us from what’s happening beyond them. Maybe, like the hapless workers in Factory of the Sun, we spectators are also enmeshed in unseen networks of complex systems of power, control, surveillance and greed that seem to offer pathways to liberation and autonomy yet entrap us as efficiently as a spider does an errant insect. Is resistance even an option in this increasingly virtual world?
Each of the hip-looking animated dancers in Factory introduces him/herself as a casualty, an avatar representing an actual person who died or disappeared in the service of political resistance. One of them, identified as “High Voltage,” is a stand-in for Steyerl’s childhood friend Andrea Wolf, who, in 1998, was killed fighting with the PKK, the Kurdish resistance army.
In her talk, Steyerl spoke of this personal tragedy as germinal. Her 2004 video November opens with Wolf, very much alive, playing the charismatic protagonist in an amateur film the artist made when both were in their teens. It portrays the two young women as punk/ninja revolutionaries who pick a fight with a gang of male thugs. While the fictional status of what we’re watching is never clear, the piece ends with Wolf’s tough leather-jacketed character fatally shooting one of the men and riding off on his motorcycle.
The disjunction between the fictional violence in this badass teenage feminist fantasy and the absence of images documenting Wolf’s murder in Kurdistan is at the heart of Steyerl’s practice. That paradox — the power of fictional images to construct false memories of people, and the power of real events to evade representation and elude true memories of them — informs all her projects.
In subsequent pieces, Steyerl revisits the trauma of Wolf’s death, transmuting the memory of that primal incident into new forms, new avenues of inquiry. As the irritant under her shell that keeps her making art, the emotion of that loss, one senses, cannot be laid to rest. Her works are essays, successive attempts to explore and expand upon that early devastation from different perspectives. The open-ended questions they pose are urgent in light of what the artist calls this “avalanche of digital images, which multiply and proliferate while real people disappear or are fixed, scanned and over-represented by an overbearing architecture of surveillance. How do people disappear in an age of total visibility? Which huge institutional and legal effort has to be made to keep things unspoken and unspeakable even if they are pretty obviously sitting right in front of everyone’s eyes? Are people hidden by too many images? Do they go hide amongst other images? Do they become images?”
In her 2012 two-channel video Abstract, a more straightforward memorial, Steyerl, accompanied by a Kurdish eyewitness, visits the bleak battlefield in Kurdistan where Wolf was shot dead by Turkish soldiers along with 40 other resistance fighters. On one screen she records the mass grave containing material remains of the slaughter: skeletal shards, scraps of bloodstained clothing, spent bullets, fragments of weapons and equipment. Her guide tells her that Wolf’s body was mutilated after her death.
Steyerl transmutes her response to these grim revelations into a quest for the provenance of two bullet casings she found at the site. On the second screen she’s shown in Berlin, using her iPhone to photograph an office of Lockheed Martin, the U.S. munitions maker that manufactured one of those bullets, as well as assault weapons sold by the German government to the Turkish Army. In a muted yet profound act of resistance, she titles these images “countershots” to those that killed Wolf. Pushing further, she finds that Lockheed Martin sponsored an exhibition at a U.S. museum in which she participated. The bitter ironies of the unexpected networks she uncovers, and the ways they both distance and reconnect her with her slain friend, make Abstract a precise title for this piece in all senses of that term.
Steyerl also talked about Is the Museum a Battlefield?, her riveting 2013 lecture performance, recorded on video, tracing connections between museums, their corporate funders and real world politics; her essay Duty Free Art, which considers the implications of freeport art storage facilities in Switzerland as art collector tax havens; and HOW NOT TO BE SEEN. Pursuing a logic that can only be called Steyerlian, she revealed a web of connections among these works that no one else could have made, yet once explained became inevitable, obvious and mind-expanding portals through which we can view the processes her work illuminates.
The touchdown of it at two West Coast locations – MOCA and the Minnesota Street Project — provides Bay Area viewers with a unique opportunity to connect with one of the leading artist/philosophers of the Information Age.
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Hito Steyerl: “How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File”@ Minnesota Street Projectatrium through July 16, 2016. June 26 MSP also presents a screening of the video and a panel discussion. “Hito Steyerl: Factory of the Sun” @ MOCA Grand Avenue through September 12, 2016.
About the Author:
Marcia Tanner is a writer, independent curator and swimmer who lives in Oakland. Two exhibitions she organized — Brides of Frankenstein, 2005 at the San Jose Museum of Art, and We Interrupt Your Program, 2008 at Mills College Art Museum — focused on contemporary women artists working with digital and electronic media.