At last week’s Creative Time Summit in New York–an annual conference on the intersections of art and social justice–an array of presenters took to the podium, including artist Steve Lambert, philosopher/cultural critic Slavoj Žižek, filmmaker (and just-named MacArthur “genius”) Laura Poitras, artist and organizer Jeff Chang (who discussed his book Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop at the Walker in 2007), among many others. But from my vantage point, one of the most intriguing was by Hito Steyerl. The Berlin-based filmmaker and artist–whose work Red Alert (2007) was recently brought into the Walker collection, and who’ll be part of the exhibition 9 Artists, opening a year from now–addressed the question, “Is the museum a battlefield?”
She noted that at least two revolutions were fought in museums: In 1917, the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace, home of The Hermitage, during the October Revolution, and the Louvre was stormed in 1792 (and again in 1830, 1832, 1848, and 1871, and, Steyerl notes, “each time it was a massive battlefield, where a battle for public space–for public art, actually–was fought”). Bringing this notion to contemporary times, she spoke about a recent project in which she was investigating the death of a childhood friend in Turkey. Her friend–Andrea Wolf, the subject of Steyerl’s 2004 video November, although she didn’t name Wolf in the Creative Time presentation–had joined the women’s army of the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and was extralegally executed as a terrorist following a 1998 firefight.
In a recent project, Steyerl said she traveled to that battleground to trace the detritus of battle–the rocket shells and ammunition casings–back to their manufacturers.
“Doing so, I ended up in the lobbies of basically all major western and American weapons manufacturers, but I [noticed] all the lobbies of these people had always been mysteriously designed by Frank Gehry,” she said. “If I was to indict anyone in The Hague for that war crime, this would be my prime suspect actually, no? But more than that there would also be an Anish Kapoor sculpture standing around, and lots of other pieces of contemporary art are decorating these places. In this kind of location, contemporary art serves precisely as this screen which enables this kind of traffic–the kind of construction and design of battlefields all over the world, from these lobbies, from these sites of contemporary art, which enables this process to go on.”
But in searching for the origins of a shell made by General Dynamics, she had a shock. “Imagine my surprise when I found my own artwork being installed there,” she said. “This artwork was actually showing the battlefield, which, in my logic, originated from that site. I was following the bullet back from the place it came from, and I ended up in a sort of weird feedback loop, as if the bullet wasn’t flying straight, from one point to another, but actually it was flying in a circle. It was flying in a loop and probably killing a lot of people in its way.”
To break free of that loop, she said in conclusion, we need to “storm the museum again.” Watch it.