Art is powerful. Or at least it’s the construct of powerful forces, not always of the positive kind. This is something Steyerl recognises. ‘Contemporary art is made possible by neoliberal capital, plus the internet, biennials, art fairs, parallel pop-up histories and growing income inequalities,’ she told The Guardian this year. ‘Let’s add asymmetric warfare, real-estate speculation, tax evasion, money laundering and deregulated financial markets.’ Steyerl makes the top slot on this list because she actively attempts to disrupt this nexus of power.
Her own art – characterised by research-heavy, narrative-led video (combining found, filmed and digitally animated footage) and installation, which took a prominent place in this year’s once-a-decade, era-defining Skulptur Projekte Münster – is combined with dogged outspokenness and academic rigour through her writing, performative lectures and teaching, critically influencing agendas internationally. She is slowly effecting change too. In September, for example, on discovering that an exhibition she was part of, Deutschland 8: German Art in China, spread across eight museums in Beijing, was sponsored in part by Rheinmetall AG, a Düsseldorf-based manufacturer of tanks and military technology, Steyerl protested. As well as writing to the organisers and, on receiving no reply, drawing attention to the issue in the press, the artist, alongside a number of the others in the show, was characteristically proactive, drawing up a standard exhibition agreement for artists that places an onus on curators and institutions to perform due diligence.
The Berlin-based artist’s writings – restless, fast-moving speculations on digital culture, the politics of images and the state of human consciousness in the age of technologically advanced capitalism – have become go-to texts for a generation for which the lure of art and networked culture have lost their utopian promise. She writes in Duty Free Art, an anthology of essays published this year, ‘Contemporary art belongs to a time in which everything goes and nothing goes anywhere, a time of stagnant escalation, of serial novelty as deadlock’. But rather than eschew a corrupt system, Steyerl has exploited the opportunity to occupy the platforms available with works that have become emblematic of the postcrash decade. And maybe it’s indicative of the ascendance of ‘post-Internet’, network-conscious art that Steyerl’s art should be popping up around the globe. This year alone has seen solo appearances of her 2015 video installation Factory of the Sun (premiered in the German Pavilion at that year’s Venice Biennale) at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, Copenhagen’s Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Düsseldorf’s Julia Stoschek Foundation and coming up at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin, alongside a slew of presentations in institutional group shows from Helsinki to Vienna, and excursions to São Paulo, Buenos Aires and Gwacheon. Lecture theatres are packed out for her talks, which then invariably circulate on YouTube. Being connected on both sides of the Atlantic helps – her profile in the Anglosphere is bolstered by strong relations with New York-based critical platform e-flux (at 45 in this year’s list) and its e-flux journal, and a network of political art luminaries such as Trevor Paglen (87) and Laura Poitras. December sees her 2014 installation Liquidity Inc. arrive at Boston’s ICA, and inclusion in Still Human at Miami’s Rubell Family Collection.
So, her work is everywhere, her ideas have urgency. In 2016 she wrote on how art’s circulation outlines its operational infrastructure. ‘Could these structures be repossessed to work differently?’ the artist asked. ‘How much value would the alternative currency of art lose if its most corrupt aspects were to be regulated or restructured to benefit art’s larger communities?’ Steyerl is on a mission to find out.