Hito Steyerl. Archaeology of the Present
A former stuntgirl and bouncer, a writer, filmmaker and philosopher, Hito Steyerl (b. 1966, Munich) – according to the ArtReview “Power 100” – was the most influential personality in the world of contemporary art in 2017. An explorer of visual culture in the era of digital hypercapitalism, Steyerl has formulated a new type of documentary cinema that intertwines reality, fiction and political critique. On the occasion of Steyerl’s solo exhibition at Castello di Rivoli, Lucrezia Calabrò Visconti offers a perceptive portrait of the German artist’s complex practice. Steyerl’s work, inhabited by pop-dystopian scenarios, takes on the character of an “archaeology of the present moment.”
“HITO STEYERL. THE CITY OF BROKEN WINDOWS, ” CASTELLO DI RIVOLI, TURIN. THROUGH JUNE 30, 2019.
Hito Steyerl, born in Munich in 1966, is an artist, filmmaker and writer whose versatile practice hovers at the intersection between new media technologies, the devices of production of desire and power at work in the world of global hypercapitalism, and the narrative and militant strategies contemporary visual culture is able to trigger within this intricate battlefield. In recent years Steyerl has been carried along on a wave of seemingly unstoppable success, driven by participation in the most important international exhibitions, such as the Venice Biennale (2013 and 2015) and Skulptur Projekte in Münster (2017), as well as the widespread presence of her works in museums around the world. This success is reinforced by the exceptional media coverage she has received in recent months: an article by Kimberly Bradley in the New York Times (15 December 2017) defined her as “an artist with power” who “uses it for change,” with clear reference to the annual “Power 100” of the magazine ArtReview (Steyerl was ranked as the most influential person on the contemporary art scene in 2017).
“MY CONVICTION IS THAT, NOW MORE THAN EVER, REAL LIFE IS MUCH STRANGER THAN ANY FICTION ONE COULD IMAGINE. SO SOMEHOW THE FORMS OF REPORTING HAVE TO BECOME CRAZIER
AND STRANGER, TOO.”
As irony would have it, at the outset Steyerl’s practice had no connection with the institutional world of contemporary art. She studied cinema and television in Tokyo and Munich, worked as a journalist and learned to be a camerawoman under the tutelage of Wim Wenders, with the goal of becoming a documentary filmmaker. She then took a PhD in Philosophy at Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. Since 2011 she has taught experimental film and video at the University of Berlin, where she founded the Research Center for Proxy Politics (RCPP). At the same time, she often wryly remarks that the most formative moments of her education included working as a stuntgirl and a bouncer. Steyerl stumbled onto the art world in a moment of lack of funding in the field of cinema, and that is where she has continued her practice, in keeping with what she defines as an “archaeology of the present moment” – no more limited to the structures and genres of documentary film than it is to those of contemporary art.
The attempt to provide a systematic portrait of two decades of her work in one of those two categories immediately runs into a series of difficulties. In Steyerl’s practice the narration of facts and the media through which they are presented continuously intertwine and mingle, just like the historicalpolitical conditions in which these narratives take form, and the citation from pop culture they humorously incorporate. In Lovely Andrea (2007), for example, the investigation of the murder of Andrea Wolf, a friend of the artist and an activist of the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party), coexists with research involving an erotic photograph taken in the 1980s in Japan of Steyerl herself in the guise of a bondage heroine. All this is accompanied by a montage that ranges from Spiderman footage to images of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. A few years later, a sketch by Monty Python gets deployed in the form of a tutorial on how to survive in the age of total surveillance: the video was shot on abandoned military sites and with 3D-modeled landscapes, garnished by sarcastic meta-filmic interludes introduced by captions rigorously shown in the font used for memes (How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, 2013). As Steyerl emphasizes in a conversation with the director Laura Poitras (often cited as one of the artist’s main sounding boards, together with Trevor Paglen), “my conviction is that, now more than ever, real life is much stranger than any fiction one could imagine. So somehow the forms of reporting have to become crazier and stranger, too. Otherwise they are not going to be ‘documentary’ enough, they are not going to live up to what’s happening” (Artforum, May 2015).
Steyerl’s production of moving images advances in step with an ongoing practice of critical thinking in which film, performative lectures and writing (especially the collaboration with e-flux Journal) are never placed in an illustrative or captionlike relationship, but interpenetrate and overlap, crossing the socio-technological and economic issues of the contemporary world: among them, the corporativization of the art world, the widespread state of performativity that sets apart an era in which the difference between pleasure and work is increasingly unstable, the transformation of information in the process of circulation from offline to online and vice versa. In a post-representative moment in history, in which tangible objects and digital images share the same political potential and wars are fought by bot militias, the only way to defend ourselves against “recent 3D animation technologies [that] incorporate multiple perspectives, which are deliberately manipulated to create multifocal and nonlinear imagery” (Hito Steyerl, In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective, 2011) lies in the de-territorialization and reclaiming of control over those devices, and in their logical reutilization in alternative narratives. As a result, in Steyerl’s production the categories of history and fiction become superimposed and assimilated in the continuous transmigration of data and images, and the difference between the two collapses in their translation into binary stripes of zeroes and ones, in which the subjectivity of the artist is directly involved. “I am not telling the story, the story tells me,” Steyerl emblematically remarks in November (2004); an idea that resonates in the commanding yet seductive off-screen voice in the more recent Factory of the Sun (2015), when it states: “You will not be able to play this game. It will play you.”
The recent hypervisibility of Hito Steyerl should thus be put into context in a dialectic relationship with a practice in which the investigation of the structures of the world of contemporary culture and the intensive critique of the devices of power behind the circulation of information are always present, in the foreground. This is borne out by the latest anthology of essays by the artist, Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War (2017). If today’s production systems are no longer based on the serial manufacturing of goods as in the Fordist era, but on the generation of immaterial processes, presence becomes one of the most important resources in which to invest, starting with the possibilities of multiplication of one’s own image offered by the new technologies. The constant pressure towards omnipresence, summed up by Steyerl in the Heidegger-based definition of “terror of total Dasein,” leads to reflections on the role of the artist outside and inside the filmic work, as the victim and at the same time the accomplice of an artistic practice “produced as spectacle, on post-Fordist all-you-can-work conveyor belts” (Hito Steyerl, Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy, 2011).
“Ideas can develop only if the director-essayist calls her own subjectivity into play,” says Sven Lütticken in this regard, in Hito Steyerl: Postcinematic Essays After the Future (2014), underlining the relationship of Steyerl’s work to the “film essay” category, formulated for the first time in 1940 by Hans Richter as an alternative to both feature-length films and conventional documentaries. Etymologically connected to the meaning of “attempt/test” (from the Old French essai, “trial/experiment”), the “film essay” is a format in which dubious theses can be explored; a film practice that serves to develop ideas and hypotheses through the subjectivity of the director, giving up the claim of displaying reality or revealing truth in an objective way. “Filmmakers have hitherto only represented the world in various ways; the point is to generate worlds differently,” Steyerl asserts in a text from 2014 on the work of the filmmaker Harun Farocki, one of her greatest influences.
In Steyerl’s most recent output the dialogue with Farocki’s research is particularly intense, especially regarding the interest in artificial intelligence and the analysis of video games as a device that transcends pure cultural narration. Continuing with the exploration of what Farocki called “serious games,” usually situated in the intervals between military interest and economic gain, Steyerl concentrates on the role of video games as “training grounds for habits,” devices that “rehearse certain response patterns and create muscle memory,” bearing witness to their impact and effect on the real in the film Factory of the Sun and the installation HellYeahWeFuckDie (2017). As the artist has often stated, the potential of art lies in its way of being a “proving ground,” in which a political or philosophical thesis can unsnarl itself inside the always-evolving context of digital techno-cultures, to then be taken to its extreme consequences through an argument structure that can be summed up in the narrative topos of “what would happen if.”
This proving ground opens up the possibility of constructing and organizing new worlds, dystopian or surreal scenarios immersed in everyday pop visual culture, which are not represented but instead inhabited by Steyerl, and by the audience along with her. In keeping with a paradigm the artist calls the “Rashomon effect,” citing the film by Akira Kurosawa from 1950, Steyerl embraces the paradox in which two witnesses of the same event can contradict each other and have an equidistant relationship with truth, giving up on a supposedly impartial vantage point. In the radical conviction that a position of innocence would be politically irrelevant and, “most of all […] very boring.”
Lucrezia Calabrò Visconti is an independent curator and coordinator of the Young Curators Residency Programme at Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin.