by Anna Mirzayan
Hito Steyerl’s hypnotic Factory of the Sun (2015) is an immersive video installation that, like the terrorist actors it portrays, lurks behind walls, waiting, perhaps hiding—often both. Viewers lounge in plastic beach chairs in a dark room crisscrossed with glowing wires that recall a mid-20th century computing environment — the kind where thrumming machines less powerful than your smartphone once filled entire rooms.
The video opens with animated avatars in gold onesies dancing to generic electronic dance music, explaining protest actions around the world in which they were killed. There’s a profound disconnect between the uplifting music and the enveloping silence, with the latter pointing to the absence of an onscreen human presence. The disembodied voices of the dead carry the same toneless detachment heard in real-life recollections of civilian drone strikes. The action takes place amid the concrete ruins of an urban telecom building. The dancers, emanating halos of light, make easy targets for drones that emerge to shoot them down.
In this dystopian universe, light is weaponized and commodified. When workers dance, their movements are converted into artificial sunlight. Thus, the joy of dance becomes raw material, conjoining warfare and the digital economy in an act of perverse transubstantiation. By destroying the distinction between labor and play, the artist lays bare the essence of capitalist commodity fetishism: objects, bodies and behaviors
are targeted, captured, extracted and converted into profit. While numerous artists —-including Trevor Paglen, Adam Harvey and Kathleen Ritter— have explored surveillance, none have called out the links between technology, entertainment and global finance with the devastating accuracy of Steyerl.
Factory of the Sun takes its name from Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto (1985), which describes machines made of pure sunlight. Haraway introduced concepts of hybridity, rejecting rigid origin stories and framing the body in terms of an unbounded fiction that was always being augmented and rewritten by a plethora of socio-political forces. The essay rejects dualist notions of inside and outside, declaring boundaries porous and semiotics slippery. Like Haraway, Steyerl enacts a posthuman fantasy that plays with form. The artist’s voice often breaks into the video game, making clear the connections between the Cold War, the fall of the Soviet Union, the space and arms races, the rise of digital technologies, actual historical moments and fabricated video events. Disembodied avatars of Stalin shoot by as block letters onscreen, urging us to resist “drunk zombie Marxism” and“zombie formalism.” In one series of disturbing sequences, a European banker from the company whose drone strikes killed the dancing protestors discusses democracy, assuring viewers that it is whatever the bank says it is – a cringeworthy and eerily prescient pronouncement.
In a post-2016 world, it is impossible not to connect the latter to the fake news phenomenon fabricated and exploited by the alt-right. Factory of the Sun obliterates the perceived dichotomy between the fake and the real, using both narrative intrusions and behind-the-scenes clips of the artist and the dancers working on dance moves and on being shot. The similarities between the studio in which they operate and the room where we watch them are plain to see. So are the multiple meanings of capture, from how protestors are captured and killed to how their movements are captured and converted. Cocooned in the museum’s latticed room, viewers may wonder what personal information is being captured while they watch. As spectators in a voyeuristic digital culture, they may also wonder whether the YouTube camera and calculating eye of the drone are one the same.
By employing video games, news feeds and YouTube videos, Steyerl mimics the delivery styles of contemporary media. Like light growing brighter towards the point of blindness, Factory of the Sun’s high-impact content blurs into a play of surfaces, resulting in a fast-as-light horror film.
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Hito Steyerl: “Factory of the Sun” @ San Jose Museum of Art through November 27, 2022.
About the author:
Anna Mirzayan is an arts writer, poet, researcher and doctoral candidate in theory and criticism. She is currently based in Pittsburgh, where she is the editor-in-chief of the Bunker Review at Bunker Projects. Her poetry chapbook, Donkey-girl and Other Hybrids, was published in 2021 by Really Serious Literature.