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9 Artists: Bartholomew Ryan on Hito Steyerl

For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the […]

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Still from Hito Steyerl’s How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational.Mov File, 2012

9_artists_bug 125For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the MIT List Center for Visual Arts, where it’ll be on view from May 9 to July 13, 2014. Here is the second installment of this 10-part journey.
 

I. Happy Pixels Hop Off into Low-Resolution, Gif Loop!

One of the fascinating things about the work of Hito Steyerl (born 1966 in Germany; lives and works in Berlin) is its restlessness. Since the 1990s she has become one of the leading voices among artists who play with the conventional formats of the documentary genre, borrowing from its reputation for objectivity while acknowledging its ongoing history as a means of propaganda and indoctrination. Yet her mode of engagement with these questions has evolved as rapidly as the dematerialized digital world itself, ebbing and flowing with new breakthroughs in pixelated resolution, escalating social media engagements, the ever-shifting and evolving world of Internet memes, YouTube virility, 3-D animation, and digital printing capabilities. Not so much an early adopter as an eager adapter, her work has an eerie sense of timeliness, of being able to read the tea leaves of historical materialism within the present. Steyerl is known equally for her somewhat performative theoretical essays and her moving-image work. A key text from 2007, “Documentary Uncertainty,” reveals some of the themes she was then exploring, and paves the way for subsequent developments.1 In the essay, she relates how the global image bank is shaped by a networked corporate media culture that largely controls its dissemination. Within this regime of the image, politics have not just been aestheticized, but have become aesthetical as such, working on an affective level through the senses. The idea of “truth” has become synonymous with the supposed objectivity of the document, which is by no means a neutral artifact, but something that is already a carrier of bias and ideology. Therefore, to draw one’s legitimacy from the supposed legitimacy of the document is to start off from already shaky foundations. The critical “documentary” artist must therefore acknowledge from the outset the uncertainty inherent to the form itself. Critic T.J. Demos sums up Steyerl’s conclusions:

What we need to do, according to her analyses, is replace the current economy of affect—one based on fear and anxiety—with another one; but the problem is that, as Steyerl confesses, such a new affective and political constellation does not yet exist—or at least let us add, not in the way it should.2

The 2000s for Steyerl are a key period in which she contends most directly with the documentary as a form, seeking to explore what she terms its “outer limits.” These works in fact did clear the way for the artist to move beyond documentary, to begin to model the very “affective constellation” that she refers to in her essay. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her video November (2004), which tells the story of Andrea Wolf, a German revolutionary who joined the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and was killed by Turkish forces in 1998 in the mountains of Kurdistan. As teenagers Wolf and Steyerl were close, and she became the dynamic star of Steyerl’s first film. Shot on Super 8, it presents an idealized world in which women fight gangs of chauvinistic men and beat them up. As such, it depicts a morally clear universe in which bad men with weapons are defeated by good women without. Wolf is so charismatic that she is virtually a rock star, and the men are so nice that when they are hit, they obligingly fall to the ground and feign death. At its conclusion, Wolf in leather jacket climbs onto a Suzuki and rides off into the sunset, ready to fight another day. On a thematic level within November, the Super 8 is inserted as the “fiction” against which the “real” world of subsequent events must be juxtaposed. Wolf leaves the symbolic heroic world of the film to enter the “real” world of revolutionary action. Steyerl meanwhile remains as an artist in the realm of the production of representation. The skill and problem of November is to demonstrate in form and content how contingent and amorphous these separations are. The majority of the video is composed of found footage from television programs, early porn reels, Eisenstein’s October (1928), and Bruce Lee’s Game of Death (1978). It also incorporates documentary segments created or found by the artist: Kurdish activists marching in a crowd in Berlin holding aloft posters of Wolf, who has become an icon of Kurdish liberation; or a clip of Wolf in military fatigues on the mountains of Kurdistan declaring that she will soon return to the German revolutionary movement with the new skills she is learning amongst the PKK. Within the logic of the work, Steyerl pits the innocence and idealism of October, an era of revolution, against the reality of its aftermath. Or, more accurately, she pits the “idealized” representation of October against a world that cannot be idealized. “November” becomes shorthand for complexity, and a self-reflexive one at that. At one point in the film, Steyerl is shooting a march in Germany against the Iraq war by Turks and Kurds; she joins for a period and is recorded by other media, which make her the face of the march on the news, Wolf becomes an endlessly refracting cipher: the Kurds lionize her as an “Immortal Hero”; the Turks as a terrorist aggressor who fakes her own death; the early Super 8 as a confidant heroine. Pulled from October, the symbolic sphere into which Steyerl first inserted her, Wolf enters a space beyond fiction, a depressing but potentially promising space because it is in November that the martyr becomes a person. According to artist Ursula Biemann, “The essayist does not seek to document realities, but to organize complexities.”3 Hito Steyerl says in November, “anything without contradiction is false.” November’s is a world of contradictions, away from the inspiring landscape of the Super 8 where the teenagers beat up their male friends, but also away from the frightening rigidity of ideology. In 2007, Steyerl followed November with two related works that debuted at Documenta 12 in Kassel: Lovely Andrea and Red Alert.4 Lovely Andrea is another work born from Steyerl’s own biography. In the late eighties, the artist attended film school in Tokyo, where on one occasion she posed nude in the style of Japanese rope bondage— nawa shibari—to make some cash. In the video, Steyerl returns to search for the images from that shoot, partly to reclaim some sense of ownership over what was for her a traumatic experience. Without any contextual memories of who took the photographs and where, she enlists as a translator the female bondage artist Asagi Ageha, and together they meet with industry insiders in a sometimes humorous but ultimately disturbing search. The video combines a dynamic soundtrack with a range of visual materials, including pixelated images of Abu Ghraib, clips of Spiderman spinning webs, and takes of Ageha hanging from ropes—an activity that she paradoxically says makes her feel free. Ultimately, Steyerl finds the images in a sex museum, and discovers that she had taken on the pseudonym Andrea. She meditates on our increasingly networked lives, on images as an extension of subjectivity, juxtaposing freedom and force, independence and dependence (words that flash across the screen in bold letters), and how, as one of the protagonists states, “In a wider sense, bondage is all over the place.”

Hito Steyerly, Red Alert, 2007. Photo: Gene Pittman

Hito Steyerl, Red Alert, 2007.

Red Alert features three identical computer monitors hung vertically, side by side. To look at the work is to see three static glowing fields of red color monochromes emanating from the wall. In “Documentary Uncertainty,” Steyerl pointed out that cable news and other media have begun to equate low-res, fragmentary images with the truth. And so the highly pixelated cell-phone image of a foiled bomber on a plane or the virtually abstract live-video feeds broadcast by embedded journalists during Operation Iraqi Freedom are perceived to be the most authentic documents of real, lived experience: the less you can see, the more is being revealed. The work also takes a cue from Constructivist artist Aleksander Rodchenko, who believed in 1921 that he had reached the logical conclusion of easel painting by applying paint monochromatically to three canvases in red, yellow, and blue.  Steyerl’s triptych similarly imagines a logical end to the documentary medium in abstraction.  Rather than replicate Rodchenko’s colors, Steyerl chose the color of the highest level within the US terror alert system. In the 2000s, red had been ingrained in the psyche of those of us who live in this country as a symbol of ongoing dangerous potential. At any moment, the color reminded us, we may be attacked.   The documentary form ends then not in pure abstraction so much as pure affect: reality summarized as raw political manipulation. In addition to intimating the threat of violence, the red lights of the piece (think red-light district) also allude to another key pillar in the contemporary production and dissemination of images: the manufacturing and manipulation of desire as a product, which is a key aspect of pornography. In fact, the work was made, according to Steyerl, as “a necessary consequence” of having just completed Lovely Andrea.5  In more recent works, Steyerl seems to have moved away from any pretension toward documentary per se. And why not? After all, as Red Alert declares, documentary is dead. Steyerl killed it. First she established the conditions under which it had always existed: precarious, shifting, contextual, and subjective. Then she made the triptych that was its logical conclusion: the abstract monochromes taking documentary to pop civilization’s ecstatic apex of totalized violence and pornography.  Documentary, as such, is so 2007. Having dispensed with documentary, Steyerl is now moving into pedagogy, with her fifteen-minute video How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational.Mov File (2013). In this piece, which recently debuted at the Venice Biennale, truth and fiction have collapsed as concepts into irrelevancy. The film is a toolbox for how to be invisible in a world where “Resolution determines visibility. Whatever is not captured by resolution is invisible.” In contrast to Red Alert, where the most pixelated images are closest to the real, Steyerl is contending with the world circa 2013 with ever greater capacities to see. The trick then becomes how to be invisible within such a regime. For Steyerl, invisibility is conceived to be desirable as a mode of evasion from control, identification, and most explicitly, death by drone. However, it is also something undesirable, a consequence of various forms of voluntary or forced retreats from society, such as living in a gated community, being a woman over fifty, or spending one’s time in the dark corners of the Internet.  Composed of a variety of lessons, for the most part incanted by two cyborgian-mildly-English-accented-Mac-computerized readers, one male and one female, the video obviously riffs off really fucking didactic educational videos, but it quickly dispenses with any pretension toward the flat-footed nature of such productions. This isn’t some laborious project shot in some lame New Jersey studio in the 1990s for the edification of people learning how to drive, or whatever (probably employing, I admit, several people at least for the period of a week to ensure the quality of the analog educational brick). This is a .Mov file, goddammit, and as such it can do what it wants; it’s digital, baby, it’s fluid, unencumbered, individualistic, silly, and potentially, yes, meaningful. 6 There are about seven lessons, the earlier of which feature Steyerl as a model/protagonist dressed in a black kimono.7 Standing in front of a green screen, she demonstrates the actions that the voices dictate. For example, for “Lesson III: How to Become Invisible by Becoming a Picture,” Steyerl applies green-screen-hued makeup or has it applied to her in a variety of responses to the seven instructions that the lesson entails (to camouflage, to conceal, to cloak, to disguise, etc.). As there are mesmeric digital patterns projected on the green screen, the parts of her face with makeup literally become a projected surface dissolving into the digital whirlygigs of the background. As the lessons progress, the instructional answers become more and more abstracted and absurd. For example, in “Lesson V: How to Become Invisible by Merging into a World Made of Pictures,” we learn that there are fifty-four ways, but the cyborgs probably get through about three. Given that they are digital in nature, it is unsurprising that the cyborgs suffer from congenital ADD, and the video’s progression therefore is broken by tangents that create a whole other meta-level to the proceedings. To sum up these segments, which roll out episodically over the course of the video: the green screen is actually set up on a cracked tarmac giant resolution target “that measures the resolution of the world as a picture.” The target, located somewhere in the Californian desert, was set up by the US military sometime in the 1950s or ’60s to measure the resolution abilities of analog cameras from the sky. The planes would fly over it at a given height, take photographs, and measure the resolution by controlling for the visibility of the large white stripes that covered the tarmac. With the advent of digitalization, the target was decommissioned in 2006 in favor of a pixel-based resolution chart that works explicitly for digital cameras. In 1996 we learned that digital cameras could achieve accuracy from the sky of twelve meters per pixel—in other words, one pixel equaled a twelve-meter squared space on the surface of the Earth. Today we learn that one pixel equals a foot. Therefore, as a cyborg states, while the piece cuts to dancers with one-foot cubes on their heads, “to become invisible, one has to become smaller or equal to one pixel”. The video is friendly, colorful, and appealing, but also sinister; the dancing cubes are easily applicable to Muslim families and friends on the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan or in Southern Yemen, targeted by extra-judicial US drone attacks.  They really need to be invisible to survive.

Hito Steyerl, How Not to Be Seen. A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File, 2012

Still from Hito Steyerl’s How Not to Be Seen. A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File, 2012

As it progresses, the controlled world of the green screen gives way to a long promotional, three-dimensional rendering of a luxurious, large-scale gated community, with lush greens, a mall, cinemas, lounges, and happy white-silhouetted human forms haunting the space as stand-ins for prospective owners and their kids. Much of the action takes place within this immersive dystopia, which Steyerl has clearly appropriated from somewhere. She inserts her own figures, who don’t behave as they should. The .Mov file introduces more and more of these, an army of pixels refusing to behave, becoming brasher and more confidant as the work progresses.  In one section, a chorus of women in green burkas swirls in the cracks of the decommissioned target as the cyborg states, “Rogue pixels hide in the cracks of old standards of resolution. They throw off the cloak of representation.” These pixelated pixies are surely “the lumpen proletarian in the class society of appearances, ranked and valued according to its resolution” that Steyerl refers to in another of her important essays, “In Defense of the Poor Image.”8 They are the low-resolution, low-value JPEGs, ripped AVI files, and otherwise downtrodden denizens of the global digital bonanza:

They testify to the violent dislocation, transferrals, and displacement of images— their acceleration and circulation within the vicious cycles of audiovisual capitalism.  Poor images are dragged around the globe as commodities or their effigies, as gifts or as bounty. They spread pleasure or death threats, conspiracy theories or bootlegs, resistance or stultification.9

In the video, the pixels have figured out how not to be seen, or realized that even if they are seen, they are too fluid, too independent, too unimportant to do what they are told. In the closing minutes everything comes undone: the cyborgs have run out of Ritalin and disappear altogether; we return to the cracked tarmac, green screen, and desert landscape; the pixies literally throw off their cloaks. Covered in green-screen-colored Lycra body suits, they run rampant over the video, dancing, sashaying, and otherwise causing mischief to the upbeat soundtrack and background green-screen projection of the Three Degrees’ 1973 live video recording of “When Will I See You Again.”10 There are shots of Steyerl’s crew grinning beside a camera crane and the three singers dancing their routine as soulful silhouettes in various prime sites of the manicured, gated community while other silhouetted figures escape the enclosed mediocrity and stroll happily across the desert. The whole pedagogical, neoliberal order is blown open by a disorientating upbeat dissolution of the sensical. The video closes with the emancipated army of pixels creating a new affective world, in which they do whatever they damn well please; unburdened by the coil of representation that anyone but them can see, they are willing to represent themselves. Action lines flash in titles over the last several shots—actions that no one needs to actually produce: they are having too much fun, and we get it … why bother? As she proposed to try at the close of “Documentary Uncertainty,” Steyerl here models new kinds of affects, for real!:

Camera crew disappears after invisible energy rays emanate from iPhone.
Make 3-D animation!
Pixels hijack camera crane.
Camera crew gets tied up by invisible people seen from above.
Three Degrees dance on resolution scale for real.
US Air Force drops glitter from stealth helicopter.
Happy and excited pixels filming from crane.
Shoot this for real And fly away with drone!
Happy pixels hop off into low-resolution, gif loop!

 

 

 
1 Hito Steyerl, “Documentary Uncertainty,” A Prior Magazine 15 (2007). 2 T. J. Demos, “Traveling Images: Hito Steyerl,” in Hito Steyerl (Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2010), 40. This volume is part of the book series edited by Marius Babias for NeuerBerliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.). 3 Carles Guerra paraphrasing artist and theorist Ursula Bieman. See Carles Guerra, “Negatives of Europe: Video Essays and Collective Pedagogies,” in The Greenroom: Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art 1, ed. Maria Lind and Hito Steyerl (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2008), 150. 4 Befitting Steyerl’s democratic approach to distribution, the videos November and Lovely Andrea are available for viewing online. See http://ubu.com/film/steyerl.html 5 Hito Steyerl, conversation with the author, September 2011. 6 The “didactic” in the title is possibly also a play on that most asinine of criticisms generally laid at the feet of politically engaged art by people who love the word “didactic,” because yes, this art is supremely political, but yeah it’s a .Mov file, so anything goes, and it doesn’t feel didactic in that way. 7 Steyerl is part Japanese, and clearly she is paying homage to this important aspect of her identity in the videos Lovely Andrea (2007) and Abstract (2012) by wearing a Ramones T-shirt. 8 Hito Steyerl, “In Defense of the Poor Image,” e-flux journal 10 (November 2009), accessed July 10, 2013, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/in-defense-of-the-poor-image/. 9 Ibid. 10 Three Degrees, “When Will I See You Again,” YouTube video of a 1973 performance, posted by “fritz5134” on August 21, 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2xPwMevgE0.