Hito Steyerl

17 Sep - 05 Dec 2015

© Hito Steyerl
Liquidity Inc., 2014
Left To Our Own Devices
17 September - 5 December 2015

The seventh chapter of our program One Year of Filmmakers is devoted to Hito Steyerl. Her first gallery exhibition in Germany—we are showing five video installations from the years 2012 to 2014—is bathed in the light of a Bruce Lee quotation: “Be water, my friend!” In A Warrior’s Journey the kung fu master advises a companion going to war to be as formless as water, which swiftly adapts to new situations and can take on any form. “Be formless, shapeless, like water!” It is a formula for survival in the face of a superior power. A solution that might stand in the handbook of any guerrilla, hacker, or activist movement—but also in those for wiretapping software, financial products, and hybrid warfare; wherever it is an advantage to convert your position into a different one in next to no time. Bruce Lee’s exhortation to melt down all vulnerable attributes finds its universal echo today in an era of fluidity.

Against this background Hito Steyerl’s practice appears to be well in sync with the times. In it we seem to be able to discern the flowing agility of kung fu, a quality that enables social events to be taken up affirmatively, observed analytically, and countered critically. Liquidity Inc. (2014) is exemplary in Steyerl’s work for the merger and dissolution of reality and speculation, theory and entertainment. Social diagnostics and the dream factory. In the spatial video installation on the gallery’s upper floor, “Be water!” becomes a metaphor for a material existence in the irrational alternation of economic tides, for an amorphous subjectivity swimming in the river of capital. Jacob Woods, a Vietnam-born Lehman Brothers analyst who turned to martial arts after the bank failure of 2008, is the protagonist of a story, crisscrossed by economic weather forecasts and digital animations, about self-determination in the face of unpredictable financial forces, which even overtake Hito Steyerl during the film’s production process.

In three video lectures the theoretician and artist develops a language that recounts the interaction of power, money, authority, and art. Steyerl finds her voice among the conditions she speaks about, because they are also her own. In Is the Museum a Battlefield (2013) she shows that the museum has long been one of the social settings in which the struggles for political and economic dominance are played out. But she also recognizes herself amidst these struggles, understanding her own close relationship to the military-cultural complex. When she investigates the origin of a machine-gun bullet that killed her friend Andrea Wolf, a PKK fighter, in 1998, she finds out that its producer, Lockheed Martin, is both a sponsor of the Istanbul Biennial, where she gives her lecture, and the patron of her exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, where her film about the death of Andrea Wolf is one of the works shown.

Occupying the problem you speak about allows you to act on it credibly. And only through being a part of the world it observes can art understand something of it. Duty Free Art (2014) strikes deep into a social function of art. Free-trade areas, where speculative art commodities are bought and sold invisibly and tax free, and civil wars alike are an important backbone of the international art world. Both facilitate the redistribution of public property into private hands, and are catalysts of global inequality. Furthermore, Steyerl uses WikiLeaks documents to show how the Louvre, British Museum, and star architect Rem Koolhaas served the Syrian Assad regime as museum planners and gentrifiers. She describes all this as the top-down organized production and communication conditions of contemporary art hidden behind the art itself. Steyerl proposes a reversal of perspective in order to unveil one’s own reality bottom up.

In her third video lecture, Hito Steyerl also speaks about the social function of art and artistic role models in the present day: I Dreamed a Dream: Politics in the Age of Mass Art Production (2014). The technical simplification of firearms once democratized the power privilege of the ruling class. Today art has become a mass phenomenon, its elitism ruptured. But what is being democratized here? Standing in line for humiliating talent shows? The futile hopes of a growing class of urban poor for a creative career? Steyerl takes Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables as the pivot for a story about rebellion and self-exploitation, the artistic mythos and the culture industry. In this narrative the guerrillero Comrade X and the talent-show legend Susan Boyle end up in the same boat as Hito Steyerl and her listeners, dreaming the strange dream of the struggle for freedom in creative capitalism.

The final act of the exhibition takes place in the museum, the Art Institute of Chicago. The head of security, Martin Whitfield, and the attendant Ron Hicks explain for the camera how they protect the valuable works of art—a “soft target” on the scale of possibility. For the duration of the twenty-minute film Guards (2012), their experiences as armed police officers and their demonstration of a defense strategy in the white cube literally transform the prestigious institution into a battle zone, in which every inch of wall and every minute of contemplative silence come under the protection of the security apparatus—as does Hito Steyerl herself, who we see in the closing credits sitting cheerfully on a bench as a representative viewer and likewise as an artist whose commissioned work of institutional critique will now be in the care of the Art Institute’s security team.

Perhaps it is the credibility of her position that makes Hito Steyerl a reference point in contemporary art for many people. Her political attitude seems clear, but this clarity is only revealed and determined, and each time anew, in the confrontation with what an artistic practice—hers, Steyerl’s—finds, seeks, or imagines as social reality at any given moment. She crosses the bridge of her own subjectivity, her own intellectual and aesthetic productive reality, and on the path of a speculative documentarism between the bridgeheads she discovers the forces that act on her, on us, and on art, and she informs against them. Every one of her works has an optimistic surplus of hope, for which there are no preconditions, and so they amount to the possibility of a form of resistance that is grounded in facts and thinks beyond them.

Text: Alexander Koch
Translation: Michael Turnbull

Tags: Rem Koolhaas, G. Küng, Hito Steyerl