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Hito Steyerl Survey Part 2

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Hito Steyerl, Guards, 2012, single-channel HD video (video stills), 20 min. loop, Courtesy the artist and Wilfried Lentz, Rotterdam.

Here and throughout the entire show, Steyerl is etching out what may be some of the most potent formally and politically self-reflexive character studies existing today. Mashing documentary-style journalism and media theory, these fictions incorporate (as crucial plot items) the production and distributive architectures of contemporary art and other high and popular media.




Hito Steyerl


5 March - 27 April, 2014

In I Dreamed a Dream: Politics in the Age of Mass Art Production (2013), a lecture recorded as part of the Former West conference at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt Berlin, Steyerl aligns the discovery of gunpowder (1) with that of Duchamp’s readymade, in that both lead to a deskilling which would greatly extend engagement in their respective fields. She adopts from our “age of mass art production” a project by former guerrilla Comrade X (whose men stopped the artist at a security checkpoint): to write a version of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Miserables in which Inspector Javert does not kill himself.

In this lecture-performance, which the artist describes as her own casting, Steyerl describes Hugo’s book as an “oversized literary telenovella” that reads “like the author got paid per page,” its form mimicking the serial newspaper novels of its time, in which each new instalment was also a pitch valiantly vying for the continuation of the series.(2) She goes on to argue that its most powerful rendition is not the recent blockbuster, but the audition of Britain’s Got Talent‘s Susan Boyle, in which she sings I Dreamed A Dream, laying out the song’s emotive narrative onstage alongside her own personal aspirations.

Here and throughout the entire show, Steyerl is etching out what may be some of the most potent formally and politically self-reflexive character studies existing today. Mashing documentary-style journalism and media theory, these fictions incorporate (as crucial plot items) the production and distributive architectures of contemporary art and other high and popular media.

The artist’s selection of subjects, around whose life-stories the films are developed, is elucidated in the location scouting of the satellite imaging resolution target in How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013). The target functions as a measure of top-down visibility, but its cracked pavement also points to the onward march of technological advancement (and obsolescence). Shot from the much less heavenly perspective of a camera jib, the target becomes a stage for an inventory of film props; green screen backdrop, T.V. resolution targets, IRL dancing pixels, etc. Similarly multi-purposed, characters such as the security officer in Guards (2012) who “always had two dreams; to be a peace officer and a professional basketball player,” and Jacob in Liquidity Inc. (2014), act as pivots connecting various activities, industries, perspectives, and narrative threads. For Steyerl both people and objects express (and by extension, presumably withhold) myriad compositional and relational identities.

The video lecture Is the Museum a Battlefield (2013), recorded at the 13th Istanbul Biennial, asks “How can we think about post-conflict art market booms fuelled by gentrification and wild building activity?(3)” The coextensivity of military and white cube is described in tongue in cheek wordplay, asking if, as a filmmaker, the artist “shot the bullet on the battlefield” herself. Calling out Biennial sponsor and weapon’s manufacturer Siemens, whilst also disclosing that they have supported many of the exhibitions she has participated in previously, Steyerl suggests that we might be able to infer sponsorship arrangements by comparing the “caliber of the artwork to the caliber of the sponsor.”

Similarly the convergent choreographic strategies of security and art installation (4) at the Art Institute of Chicago are teased out in double entendres in the museum-commissioned Guards. As they walk us through their workplaces and their life stories, the guards’ performances attest to the high level of on-set solidarity that Steyerl must engender as interviewer and director. While the absence of ethical value judgements within the film (and it appears, the filming process as well) allows for generously personal performances, it also amplifies the deterministic tone when for example, a guard muses that a bullet “doesn’t have anyone’s name on it and you can’t get it back.”

Are such appropriations of existing high and popular visualizations of war, such as Guards dramatically soundtracked, daytime T.V. style reenactments (in which several of the museum’s paintings are replaced in their frames by videos of the guards themselves), solely post-structural exercises (5)? The artist states in a recent interview in Art Monthly that she “never promised to solve any problem,”(6) but what distinguishes the air of fatalism within her films from the absence of bias so highly valued in mainstream news-media reportage?

A response to this question can perhaps be found in the tracing of “toxic data clouds” in Is the Museum a Battlefield. Emitted, or rather intercepted, by the internet surveillance solution of a Siemens subsidiary (7), they allow suspects to be shown their own videos and text messages while being interrogated or tortured, and make it possible for riot police to arrive before the riot. Just as experimental tear gas used during protests in Turkey was preceded by experiments on battlefields, times and places of conflict are also testing grounds for data warfare, producing surveillance mechanisms to locate and control dissidence throughout society. By addressing war zones as prolific vanguards, and navigating their outputs through multi-dimensional characters with wide-ranging backgrounds and networks, Steyerl’s works implicate every corner of gallery and globe, including this page.

Dan Munn

(1) The artist describes the chemical as an “elixir of immediate mortality” which led to the invention of the colt revolver and later the AK47.

(2) I was able to find online all but one of the films on display at the ICA, and while this doesn’t rule out the possibility of them being sold or licensed, Steyerl also received funding for this survey from the Hito Steyerl Exhibition Supporters Group. One assumes she also supports her practice through activities such as teaching New Media Art at the University of Arts in Berlin, lecturing at museums, universities, and biennales, and publishing essays via e-flux, eipcp and Sternberg Press.

(3) A work which seems to respond to this exact question, Christopher Kulendran Thomas’s When Platitudes Become Form, is discussed in an interview with the artist, available on the Mercer Union gallery website

(4) Guards is arguably the only piece in this survey that works in a site-specific way in regard to the formal (as opposed to the political) peculiarities of the exhibition space.

(5) As Bruno Latour puts it, “Is it really the task of the humanities to add deconstruction to destruction?” Bruno Latour. Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.

(6) Hito Steyerl Interviewed by Jennifer Thatcher. Art Monthly 375: April 2014

(7) Known as Nokia Siemens until late 2013, when it was bought out by Nokia and renamed Nokia Solutions and Networks.

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