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Are You a Pawn of the Global Image Conspiracy? Understanding Hito Steyerl's Paranoia-Inducing Films

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Are You a Pawn of the Global Image Conspiracy? Understanding Hito Steyerl's Paranoia-Inducing Films
Still from Liquidity, Inc., 2014. Via the Van Abbemuseum (link to full video below)

For her first solo gallery show in her native Germany at Berlin’s KOW gallery, the filmmaker and writer Hito Steyerl is putting on a mini-retrospective of five of her films and video lectures made since 2012. Despite their relative youth, Steyerl's videos have already achieved widespread recognition in the art world for their trenchant yet oblique approach to the way technologically captured images affect our personal and political experiences in a global capitalist society. Part of their charm lies in the fact that, aside from a marked dystopian cast (mixed with hints of empowerment here and there), hard-and-fast ideological stances are blurred, or leavened, by her work's twisting, elliptical logic. One thing is certain, however: conspiracies are afoot.

All of the videos in the show take as their starting point Steyerl’s closely-connected pet neologism “circulationism,” used to indicate work that is, as she says, “not about the art of making an image, but about post-producing, launching, and accelerating it.” In this spirit, her films explore how ideas and objects intersect as they transform from one state and context to another. If you can’t make it to Berlin, here’s a quick primer on two of the most important videos on view at the show.

Steyerl’s films are almost documentaries, albeit of a decidedly contemporary variety. Liquidity, Inc. (2014) ostensibly centers around Jacob Wood, a Vietnam-born former Lehman Brothers analyst-turned mixed martial arts fighter following the collapse of the bank in 2008. Following Bruce Lee’s adage to “Be formless, shapeless, like water,” Steyerl's film veers between footage of Wood in combat or discussing his heritage on the beach (he was adopted by American parents through the Operation Babylift program, designed to get orphans out of Vietnam in the wake of the U.S. war) to computer-generated seas overlaid with Facebook chat and emailed discussions by the artist about the financial feasibility of the project itself. Later, masked meteorologists deliver aphorisms connecting the weather to human emotions. The overarching theme is the movement and transformation of people, capital, and images, with both positive and negative outcomes for those who are altered.  

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Still from Liquidity, Inc., (2014) via the Van Abbemuseum

In Is the Museum a Battlefield? (2013), a video lecture originally performed for the 13th Istanbul Biennial, Steyerl labors to connect the art world to the world’s wars. She visits a Turkish battlefield where her friend Andrea Wolf was killed for her activities with the Kurdish Workers Party, finding, among other things, a partially disintegrated shell from a Hellfire missile launched by a Cobra helicopter. She then shows how the missile’s form is almost exactly the same as the roof of the Franky Gehry-designed headquarters of Lockheed Martin, the weapon’s manufacturer. (The building, located next door to the Academy of Arts in Berlin, also houses the DZ Bank headquarters.) She goes on to say that it is a version of the same software used to create Gehry’s works of “starchitecture” (including the Guggenheim Bilbao) that also aided in the design of the same Cobra helicopters that shot the missile in the first place. 

Are these works simply webs of tangential connections and semi-coincidences? Perhaps, but pure reason and one-to-one logic are not Steyerl’s aim. Instead, she attempts to show how objects—be they images, ideas, forms, companies, or technologies—accrue ever more meanings and resonances through their newfound interconnectedness. The result, in the artist’s eyes, is a world of layered and not always logical relationships.

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