In Depth

What Is She Talking About? A 5-Point Primer on Hito Steyerl's Critical Badassery

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What Is She Talking About? A 5-Point Primer on Hito Steyerl's Critical Badassery
A still from Hito Steyerl's "Hot Not To Be Seen...MOV File" 2013 via Tate Modern

According to democracy or the “golden rule” or whatever other dreary axiom applies, no one person is superior to any other human being, dead or alive. While we may all be equally worthy of affection and kindness and, like, basic human rights, however, some folks just sweep the genetic lottery on an objective level, like Serena Williams, for instance, or the 6’7” guy on my morning commute who won’t fall in love with me no matter how hard I stare at him while I eat my bagel (that’s flirting, right?). It is my personal contention that Hito Steyerl, universal art Mom and queen Capricorn, is one of these disproportionately blessed mutants beamed here to improve our planet with her sterling brain, and to celebrate that brilliance, this five-point survey of her indefatigable talent will introduce us to her criticism and its intersections, parallels, and slippages with art practice.

 

A Little Background

 Steyerl's "Liquity Inc." at Artists Space via Studio Miessen

Hito Steyerl, born in Munich in 1966, is a German filmmaker, visual artist, and writer who holds a PhD in Philosophy from the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna. She is a professor of New Media Art at the Berlin University of the Arts, and cites experimental documentarian Harun Farocki and and film historian Helmut Farber among her primary influences. Her critical work primarily explores topics like ‘deep state’ surveillance, image dissemination, globalized media language, and techno-political militarization. Considered a pioneer of the video essay, Steyerl operates from the liminal space between genre paradigms, using the friction of multivalence to further nuance and complicate her observations. Often purposefully inconclusive and theoretically variegated, Steyerl’s critical canon takes a constellative approach to the digital landscape, providing us with the timbre of insight we not only need, but deserve, which is to say twisty, flip, and overflowing.

 

The Museum is...What, Exactly?

 "Left To Our Own Devices" at KOW Berlin via Art Agenda News 

In a 2009 and 2012, respectively, Steyerl published an essay titled “Is the Museum a Factory?” followed by “Is the Museum a Battlefield?,” a 32-minute video piece that debuted at the 13th Istanbul Biennial. Both productions pose fundamental questions on the nature of institutionally supported art practice and the relationship between canonization and public access as it pertains to the activist impulse. In “Factory,” Steyerl posits that the intentional obfuscation of labor, in tandem with a move towards constant cultural production for a non-coherent mass audience, renders the museum a factory masquerading as a public space, drawing on Jurgen Habermas’ theory of the egalitarian arena and Gordard’s commentary on exploitation as a condition of nondisclosure.

By using political cinema as her touch-point, Steyerl makes a case for post-representational optics interpellating a “multiple, missing subject,” the sort of concentrated spectral gaze that functions as common rather than collective. She takes this a step further in “Is the Museum a Battlefield?” where she engages in a long-form historical survey of the museum’s role in social conflict, reminding us that museums have long been sites of torture, war crimes, and revolutions. Today, she continues, less has changed than maybe we might assume. “Today art spaces worldwide, in emerging countries just as in former metropoles, are shifting back, or rather forward to feudal modes, again, turning into flagships, displays of oligarch wealth bubble money. Is the battle inside the museum; is the revolution, in itself [...] a prelude to all-out gentrification?” Her research links the arms trade with corporate art sponsorship, implying that military destruction is inextricable from art world participation. To make a space truly public, she concludes, it has to be taken by force.

 

The Internet Won’t Save Us


 Another still from "Left To Our Own Devices" via Anti-Utopias

In 2013, Steyerl asked whether or not the internet was dead in her essay “Too Much World,” which focuses on the widespread proliferation of images beyond the screen. Steyerl offers that in a sphere of physical, digital, identitarian, and material precarity defined by liquid existence, the internet isn’t un-useful or impotent, but rather... over. By “over” she means the potential for the kind of radical access-based utopianism espoused by theorists early in the internet’s tenure is no longer possible, and that we are instead living under an explicitly Althusserian Internet State Apparatus that reifies extant social stratification in the digital sphere. Many have argued that her theory of circulationism speaks to an inherently representative, formal deployment of instability, but this betrays a certain misunderstanding of an ‘offline internet’; Steyerl is talking about the 4D digital experience under post-produced non-transparency, the kind of perspective that privileges a ‘lived internet’ model over our current absorption-based conceit. As if to reorient Donna Haraway on a vertical axis, Steyerl argues that we are the internet, that its influence is inescapable, and that in an age where everyone is an artist, or at very least a curator of their own synthetic expression, circulationism, or the acceleration of image visibility, is an unlikely forerunner to the inevitable privatization of the internet itself.

 

The "Poor Image"


Cover Image via e-flux 

This brings us to Steyerl’s 2009 “In Defense of the Poor Image,” which was first improvised in 2007 for a film conference in Luneburg, Germany, and eventually appeared in her landmark 2008 work, The Wretched of the Screen. Perhaps Steyerl’s most widely read piece, “In Defense of the Poor Image” discusses the cultural import and theoretical viability of endlessly reconstituted, copied, and remixed images in our current information matrix. In the context of neoliberal commercialization, this amounts to a constant deregulated self-surveillance, one that circumvents authenticity on its way to a horizonless vacuum of free-fall class warfare. Ever unafraid of contradiction, her “defense” of the poor image is also one of “dirty data,” the scrambled, illegible underbelly of the dark web that is as evenly exploited by major government organizations as it is by asylum seekers. An off-grid anonymity provides us with a shared history, a “new public” that can drift outside the nation state and perform fresh reality, one that doesn’t conform to the ethics or oversight of its origin. Swarming, fractal mundanity is the only day-to-day we know, and Steyerl’s disinterest in making any sort of moral or philosophical stand on this particular case is a direct reflection of the poor image’s power—the ubiquity of marginalia necessitates its salience, the ultimate destabilizer.

 

Proxy Politics 

"Factory of the Sun" Still via C Magazine 

Steyerl’s most recent book, Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War, reckons both with her own legacy of “disaster capitalist” rhetoric and with her tonal relationship to a deeply uncertain selfhood. The financialization of art  through art fairs, global museums and freeport storage represents both a “turbo-capitalist” hyperstream of debt-saddled liquid value and a sluggish market that creates its own inescapable ceiling. The centerpiece of the book is arguably “Proxy Politics: Signal and Noise,” a 2014 lecture that also comprises the foundation of the Research Center for Proxy Politics, Steyerl’s academic conference collective with Vera Tollmann and Boaz Levin at the Berlin University of the Arts. The “proxy,” an intermediary decoy that locates security in anonymity, straddles an interesting dichotomy—it is both a source of access and a purveyor of prohibition. The theoretical “proxy” is fundamentally ambivalent. “Proxy politics,” then, constitute a turf-war; who controls the stream of information, and how can invisible parties battle with each other in the first place? In this “post-demographic political age,” the clandestine algorithm rules us not through infiltrating human interactions or spaces, but through human participation in AI affect. Thus, the social and political algorithms that clear noise from information is one of decoding and un-coding. Like an unauthorized server that bypasses local web censorship, the political proxy can operate as a tool of resistance at the same time as it renders its users tools, the sort of duality that have led to some high-profile criticisms of Steyerl’s erasure of personal agency in the post-capitalist wasteland she seems to be describing. Still, Steyerl’s perspective isn’t necessarily cynical, or even suspicious of subjectivity; instead, her arguments simply redefine participation as willful or calculated, a lived reality we cannot help but make our own.

 

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