Hito Steyerl

We can be more than just consumers, the Berlin-based writer and filmmaker suggests. We can be active agents in the world around us

By Paul Pieroni

In Free Fall, 2010 (still). Courtesy the artist November, 2004 (film still). Courtesy the artist November, 2004 (film still). Courtesy the artist How Not to Be Seen. A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, 2013 (still). Courtesy the artist How Not to Be Seen. A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, 2013 (still). Courtesy the artist Hito Steyerl, How Not To Be Seen. A Fucking Didactic Educational , 2013 November, 2004 (film still). Courtesy the artist

The work of Hito Steyerl is attuned to the mutability of our increasingly globalised, digitised world. Her essayistic films combine exhaustive research with techniques of montage, voiceover, collage and interview, while her nonfiction writing – whether penned in her native German or in English – is marked by the clarity and precision of its language and analysis.

The relationship between her films and her writing is not without ambiguity. While the artist is clear that her films do not illustrate her essays, nor that her essays account for her films, she nonetheless admits that they share much thematic ground – in part overlapping. Just such a point of imbrication is what Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood and Anton Vidokle, editors of the e-flux journal, describe in the preface to The Wretched of the Screen (2012), a collection of Steyerl’s essays, as the ‘remarkably potent politics of the image’ contained within her work.

As an image disperses, it becomes poorer; every rip, edit, upload and share further pushing it towards a kind of visual abstraction

Steyerl’s reading of compressed AVI files, pixelated 72dpi JPEGs and low-bandwidth video streams – the so-called poor images of her landmark 2009 essay ‘In Defence of the Poor Image’ – is exemplary in this regard. No longer the ‘real thing’, the poor image is instead a bastard copy of a long-distant original (eg, a poor-quality pirated DVD or a glitchy, pixelated video live-stream), the product of a postdigital world in which information moves according to the logic of what Steyerl calls ‘swarm circulation’. As an image disperses, it becomes poorer; every rip, edit, upload and share further pushing it towards a kind of visual abstraction. From this aesthetic observation Steyerl goes on to pinpoint the subversive quality of poor images and the networks that sustain them. Standing against the festishisation of quality and resolution commonplace in ‘audiovisual capitalism’, the poor image represents a ‘lumpen proletarian’ in the class hierarchy of appearances, depicting all that is the forgotten, unwanted or taboo in contemporary culture (from lost masterpieces of experimental and political cinema, to beheadings conducted by Islamic militants). While the networks through which poor images flow constitute new possibilities for the dissemination of the alternative information – creating what pioneering Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov called a ‘visual bond’ between commensurate publics, a sort of communist visual language able to both entertain and organise the masses – they also contain vast amounts of pornography, trash culture and paranoia. Steyerl’s essay elevates the poor image as a political idea, then qualifies it; concluding that it is as much about ‘defiance and appropriation’ as it is ‘conformism and exploitation’.

The way in which images, as they travel, change in appearance and meaning is also the theme of November (2004), the film that first brought Steyerl to the attention of international audiences. ‘November’ is imagined as an epoch that comes after revolutionary October (the extolled month of the 1917 Bolshevik uprising) and a time during which possibilities narrow, ideologies blur and struggles become almost impossible to articulate with any sort of clarity.

By way of this allegory, Steyerl introduces the story of Andrea Wolf – her friend as a teenager growing up in Bavaria. As an adult, Wolf was forced to leave Germany after being investigated in connection to the 1993 Weiterstadt prison bombing – the last violent action of the leftwing terrorist group the Red Army Faction. In 1998, two years after joining the women’s army of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and five years after Steyerl last saw her, Wolf was shot and killed following a firefight with the Turkish Army in Eastern Anatolia. Though her death was never officially acknowledged by the Turkish government (one of many extralegal executions that pass by without any formal recognition in a conflict defined, like all wars, by its informational blind spots, half-truths and propaganda), Wolf, under her assumed name of Sehît Ronahî, has been immortalised as a martyr by the PKK, her image transmitted globally via satellite TV, edited into emotive YouTube slideshows and printed onto posters paraded during PKK street protests alongside those of the party’s venerated cofounder, Abdullah Öcalan.

Neither a documentary about a lost friend, nor about the political context of Kurdistan, November explores the meaning of an image as it is drawn from one semiotic regime to another

Neither a documentary about a lost friend, nor about the political context of Kurdistan, November explores the meaning of an image as it is drawn from one semiotic regime to another. Grainy, soundless Super-8 footage from an incomplete feminist martial arts film Steyerl and Wolf attempted to make as teenagers is contrasted with a PKK poster of Wolf as Ronahî. One scenario in which she is a man-beating outlaw in the vein of Varla, the central character in Russ Meyer’s 1965 sexploitation romp, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, is exchanged for another in which Wolf is the hero of an armed struggle. What November proposes is that contrary to the idea that this is a comparison between fiction and fact – cinematic illusion against true-life story – neither scenario can in fact claim authenticity. 

For Steyerl, both are visual representations of given ideological frameworks. That their credibility is called into question equally can be read as a playful critique of the way ideology constructs its ‘reality’ according to its desires and drives. November evidences exactly how crucial images have become in this process, showing how they serve as the building blocks for structured illusions that propagate (again, by swarm circulation), sometimes uncontrollably and quite independently, despite the basic instability of their ideological origin. In this sense, images are conceived not only semiotically but also concretely – as ‘things’ – an approach that hints at the materialist tendency running throughout Steyerl’s work.

In the main she outlines a relatively flat ontological horizon: a digital image is treated like any other object might be. Discourses relating to its immateriality are eschewed in favour of exploring its physical properties and material capacities. This paradigm of equivalence has, in recent years, led Steyerl to develop an increasingly elaborate approach to objects of all kinds – not only images; a worldview at times nearly animistic in its conception of the insensate thing.

‘The Biography of the Object’ is a 1929 essay by Russian constructivist writer Sergei Tretyakov in which he advises abandoning human biography in favour of studying the lifecycles of mass-produced objects. This is a possibility enacted as a kind of fantasy in a section of Steyerl’s three-part film In Free Fall (2010). The film’s lead character, a Boeing 707 aeroplane, finds itself – like so many aircraft of age – abandoned as a ‘ghost’ plane in a small desert airport in Mojave, California. By this time the 707 has already undergone multiple identity shifts (from TWA charter service to Israeli military deployment) – yet its movement still does not cease. Steyerl’s reverie sees the plane renovated for the purpose of being theatrically exploded in the closing scenes of the Hollywood action film Speed (1994). Emphasising the interminable circularity of the material universe, the aluminium scrap resulting from this cinematic explosion is sold on to China, reprocessed into a thin, laser-readable metal surface and, together with two discs of polycarbonate, made into a pirate DVD containing a low-resolution rip of… you guessed it: the movie Speed.

In highlighting this improbable chain of material transformations, In Free Fall asks a very specific question: could this situation somehow be reverse-engineered? The desires, affects, projections, hopes and dreams congealed in what appear to be dormant commodity objects – could this totality of social forces somehow be brought back to life?

Addressing precisely this possibility is Steyerl’s 40-minute video lecture Is the Museum a Battlefield? (2013), one of five films in her recent selective retrospective at the ICA, London. Shot live at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, and commissioned by the 13th Istanbul Biennial and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, the lecture advances another fantasy in which the trajectory of a munitions case retrieved from the battlefield upon which Andrea Wolf perished is reversed in its flight in order to expose a circular network of relations between major international museums and the arms industry (for example the support of London’s Royal Academy of Arts by the chairman of defence manufacturer Heckler & Koch – a company that produces handguns, assault rifles, submachine guns and grenade launchers). Recognising her own complicity in this problematic system, Steyerl states in the final moments of the lecture that rather than withdraw from such spaces, her ambition is to try to show Is the Museum a Battlefield? in as many of them as possible. In doing so the movement of such bullets, their transition from arenas of war to those of cultural spectacle, can at least be laid bare for people to see and understand. 

Such acts of revelation are frequent in Steyerl’s work. Guards (2012) is a short film featuring interviews with museum security staff from the Art Institute of Chicago (who commissioned the work), most of whom have either law enforcement or military backgrounds. The film sheds light on these often invisible institutional representatives, tracking them as they move through the institute’s pristine galleries, speaking – even reenacting – harrowing experiences from their former jobs. Guards pierces the fragile illusion of the hermetic gallery space, populating its speculative void with bodies otherwise concealed and narratives at odds with the safe privilege of high culture and its environs. 

Steyerl’s practice retains a clear message: agency is still possible; one can still act, if only to needle and pick at representations in order to expose the conditions of manipulation, exploitation and affect underlying their appearance

Equally, Steyerl’s 2011 e-flux essay ‘In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective’ challenges the ‘scientific allure and objectivist attitude’ of linear perspective in Western art, opposing its ‘universal claim for representation’ with another perspective: that of the freefalling body. While linear perspective presumes a fixed, mathematically flattened, infinite and homogeneous space that expands outwards from a grounded fixed point or body/viewer, freefall perspective lacks such certitude. As Steyerl writes, ‘The horizon quivers in a maze of collapsing lines and you may lose any sense of above and below, of before and after, of yourself and your boundaries.’ Linear perspective, an enlightenment exegesis, is countered with freefall: essentially the viewpoint of postmodernity – an epoch, like ‘November’, marked by the evacuation of universal ideals such as truth or reason, conditioned instead by a fundamental sense of groundlessness.

Faced with a world lacking the stable ground necessary to base proper metaphysical claims or foundational political myths, one populated by questionable images, institutions and identities, Steyerl’s practice – her example – retains a clear message: agency is still possible; one can still act, if only to needle and pick at representations in order to expose the conditions of manipulation, exploitation and affect underlying their appearance.

From this perspective it’s possible to see why, in a mood of puckish speculation, one of her frequent interlocutors, Italian Marxist theorist and activist Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, has proposed that in few hundred thousand years, if some sentient force from another galaxy were to take interest in ‘the agony of our time on this planet taken hostage by the dogma of capitalism’, it would be Steyerl’s work that might lend a little meaning to the chaos, providing explanation for what Berardi describes as the ‘incredible mixture of technological refinement and extreme moral stupidity’ that defines our age.

This article was first published in the Summer 2014 issue