For the last several years now, as the credits roll at the end of her films, artist Hito Steyerl’s name, rather than appearing alongside the typical “Written and Directed by,” is listed with roles (or non-roles) considerably more blurred and expressionistic: “Recycling,” “Security,” even “Nervous Breakdown.” It’s a small gesture, and one likely to go unnoticed by gallerygoers, who rarely sit for the whole duration of the videos that play on loop in the black box of the white cube. It’s also a playful move — part and parcel of the light-footed irony that gives her videos their bristling energy — that explicitly, if incidentally, names some of the figures and themes her work is most preoccupied with and determined by. In its swirl of unreal occupations, this idiosyncratic crediting drolly brushes up against the fusion and confusion of occupation in the contemporary art workforce, which, as Steyerl pointedly notes in an essay, “consists largely of people who, despite working constantly, do not correspond to any traditional image of labor.”
Likewise, only with difficulty could one accommodate the constellatory richness of all of Steyerl’s unique production to any traditional image of an art practice. Perhaps for this reason her work has been a little hard to see all in one place. Answering to this, Artists Space is hosting the first US survey of Steyerl’s body of work in the fullness of its coordinated parts, featuring videos, lectures, installations, and a generous selection of essays available online.
In terms of space, the focal point of the show is Steyerl’s video work, specifically two earlier pieces — “November” (2004) and “Lovely Andrea” (2007) — along with three newer ones — “In Free Fall” (2010), “Guards” (2012), and “Liquidity, Inc.” (2014). There’s an undeniable clumsiness in attempting to classify these films, which aren’t decisively fictions or documentaries, but rather more like the critical cohabitation of the two. But insofar as they take up the well-worn critical discourse on the subject, they also opt out of the typical, ambling game of trading profundities about facticity and fiction while nevertheless leaving the relevant concepts respectfully intact. Already in “November,” the earliest work on display, Steyerl puts the conventional understanding of these concepts out of commission.
“November” is a piecemeal portrait of Andrea Wolf, “my best friend when I was seventeen,” who is shown alternately as the star of a feminist martial arts film Steyerl shot on Super 8 in the 1970s; as a member of the women’s army of the Kurdish Liberation Movement in northern Iraq in the ’90s; and, following her death in 1998, as a floating image. A close-up of Wolf from the martial arts film is transformed into a roving icon of revolutionary struggle, a placard paraded through demonstrations — while, for German authorities unwilling to accept reports of Wolf’s extrajudicial execution by Turkish armed forces, this same placard becomes a wanted sign for another “missing person.” This meandering portrait of Wolf is deftly woven into an examination of the way images are made to migrate through different templates of presentation, different avenues of fact and fiction, between various networks of manipulative control and random dissemination. At one point, Steyerl remarks, seemingly exasperated but calm in voice, “none of us found a way out of the labyrinth of traveling images.”
“November” suspends the notion that fiction and documentary exist in and for themselves as polar, incorruptible values, and instead pursues a politics of the image. This politics maintains that images have become active catalysts rather than passive records of an already constituted, indisputably objective reality — that images, true or false, produce and extend reality with an ease that directly correlates to their contagious transmissibility. Rather than naively upholding standpoints of fiction and documentary, this view immerses itself in the lives of images, their qualities, the nature and speed of their circulation, the ways in which they are fabricated, manipulated, supplemented, cathected, and repressed. All these processes are accelerated to a vertiginous extreme in the digital moment, characterized as it is by both the startling omnipresence of extralegal spying initiatives and the predatory, mutual mass-surveillance that has come to define the so-called public sphere — especially owing to the intense, often corporate voyeurism of social media. This view also registers the perils born of a surfeit of images, as when visual representation actually obscures striking social inequalities rather than revealing them: “While every possible minority was acknowledged as a potential consumer and visually represented (to a certain extent), people’s participation in the political and economic realms became more uneven,” Steyerl once wrote.
This image-politics motivates Steyerl’s critique of documentary as much as it necessitates her reworking of the form. In an essay written around the time of “November,” Steyerl elaborates on the equivocations of a naïve-realist representational impulse in documentary, one she deems increasingly inadequate to the reality it purports to capture and present:
There is sometimes only a minimal difference between a piece of documentary information and a stereotype, between a guide for orientation in a complex world and wholesale judgments about whole regions and populations. Information and disinformation, rationalism and hysteria, sobriety and exaggeration are not clearly separated within these networks. The border between description and confabulation blurs, and fact and fiction fuse into “factions.” The docu-jargons of the present immerse their public into a barrage of intense affects, an incoherent mix of tragedy and grotesqueness, which catapults the old curiosity of the vaudeville into the digital age.
In another, crucial later essay, as if responding to herself, Steyerl notes:
Only if the documentary forms translate the incongruities, the inegalities, the rapid change of speed, the disarticulation of dizzying rhythms, the dislocation and arrhythmic pulsations of time … will they engage with the contemporary community of matter.
In a conversation between documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and Steyerl in this month’s Artforum, Steyerl states that one of her main preoccupations is “the genre of dealing with real life: how to deal with it formally.” In this vein, Steyerl calls not for less reality, but for more — and for finding a form commensurate with its expression. Her project echoes a late dictum of philosopher Theodor Adorno’s that “the absurdity of reality forces us to a form that shatters the realistic façade.” It is in this spirit that Steyerl aspires to a documentary form capable of partaking in the “contemporary community of matter” rather than superciliously plastering over it from above; a form capable of translating into visual language the discontinuities, stoppages, energies, desires, and rapidly worsening inequalities of the world today; a form that faithfully reflects the experience of at once traversing and being traversed by what that “labyrinth of traveling images.”
Steyerl’s energetic modulation of the documentary form is legible over the course of her filmography. One of her earliest works, “Empty Center” (1999, not on view at Artists Space), is a fairy conventional — if ingeniously wrought — narrated essay film that explores contradictory narratives surrounding Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz, a flashpoint of economic progress and development; it throws into relief the plight of immigrant populations completely overshadowed yet in large part produced by the triumphant commercialization that swept Berlin in the wake of reunification. “Old borders are torn down, dismantled, or displaced. At the same time, new boundaries and fences appear.” By contrast, “Liquidity, Inc.” (2014) convulsively straddles the line between essay film and video art and is alternately “narrated” by a 3D animated body of water and Jacob Wood, a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter/announcer and former employee of Lehman Brother’s, laid off during the collapse of 2008. It is also a film about structural instability — financial, environmental, and consequently psychical as well.
From “Empty Center” on — and especially after “November” — Steyerl has gradually eroded the stability of the author-narrator as the reliable purveyor of a truthful record organizing the images on screen; with “Liquidity,” she dismantles it entirely. This trend is similar to the one in the films of the late Harun Farocki — a mentor and friend of Steyerl’s — whose voice and narration, a constant in his earlier works, were gradually dislodged around the late ’90s and early ’00s, replaced by detached, silent observation and sparse intertitling.
The historically novel, untethered relationship between images and the world today moves Steyerl to a form correlatively spasmodic, disoriented, out of joint and focus. Her films and essays aren’t classical critiques of “ideological images,” nor are they reactionary reclamations of an originary, pre-technological world. In the essay “Too Much World,” Steyerl helps frame her work vis-à-vis image and world:
Image and world are in many cases just versions of each other. They are not equivalents however, but deficient, excessive, uneven in relation to each other. And the gap between them gives way to speculation and intense anxiety.
Steyerl’s latest pieces, eschewing anything like a grounded standpoint, inhabit this electrified no man’s land between image and world. The “speculation and intense anxiety” of this space in particular set “Liquidity Inc.” in motion. The film’s images are heavily worked on, processed, ground through the mill of postproduction; in “Liquidity,” postproduction is elevated from an invisible afterthought, secondary to the construction of the work itself, to the level of a determinate formal principle — one that alters everything that passes through it. For Steyerl, this process punctures the image’s indexical claim to veracity as much as it registers with emphatic veracity the experience of moving through the world, which is also the world of images. In “Liquidity” digital artifacts and 3D renderings fray the boundaries of what is real and what is image: a dynamic 3D body of silvery, plasmic water is set against a 2D static, blue desktop wallpaper horizon; Jacob Wood rehearses his work routine at an empty desk in a scene resembling a stock photo come to life, ensconced in a teeming protuberance of digital bubbles; ragdoll businessmen bob like buoys in the artificial physics of an unfinished rendering of water.
The anxious ambivalence of the film’s form reverberates into its thematic substance. The liquidity of the title doubles and trebles in meaning: it comes to indicate not only market activity or availability of liquid assets, cash — as a floating image of a noontime-TV talking head reminds us, “when you have liquidity, YOU’RE in control,” motioning toward a state of seemingly inexorable domination, in which being “in control” always means in control of others; liquidity also means a kind of pop-Zen strategy of going with the blows, adapting, being fluid, “staying afloat,” in Jacob Wood’s words, amid the buffeting waves of uncertainty produced in a sea of increasingly violent deregulation. Staying afloat is a condition metaphorically visualized in so much of the film’s trembling, maniacally ecstatic animation. A looping, sometimes auto-tuned clip of Bruce Lee reminds us: “Be formless, shapeless — like water.” As in the earlier “Lovely Andrea,” Steyerl implicates herself in these contingencies and ideas: incoming Facebook messages inform her (and us) that “Liquidity”’s budget is slashed. “Now water can flow — or it can crash,” Bruce Lee intones. Steyerl becomes liquid herself; she flows, taking it upon herself to build the film’s complicated CGI using YouTube tutorials as a guide.
Not unlike Steyerl’s other films, “Liquidity” relies heavily on punning, metonymy, and playing shifting meanings off each other, blowing open the dialectical tension between image and world in the process. Early on in the film, hovering in bubble letters, “liquidity” is joined by “torrent,” “stream,” “liquid,” and “cloud,” among others. These floating keywords form a mobile constellation of mixed references — natural, cultural, and digital — that unhinges the fixed distinctions between each: cloud computing, for example, achieves a quasi-natural place in the order of things in the contemporary historical moment. This is taken a step further by a parodic weather report segment featuring two men and a little girl, all dressed in the same oversized owl T-shirts and ski masks, and framed by GIF-like, moving diagrams of security systems and cloud networks against a background of choppy waters. A panting German “terrorist”-weatherman delivers the morning weather report in a deliriously expanded sense: environmental catastrophe, financial insecurity, and nervous foundering meld into a singular condition, peering into the deranged vanishing point of all their interrelated qualities and affects.
Steyerl’s adeptness at parody is matched by her keen awareness of its pitfalls and equivocations; she is vigilant of the sometimes-porous distinction between conformity and resistance that persists in even those works of art that are most ruthlessly critical of “everything that exists.” In fact, Steyerl’s latest works become eloquent precisely at this point of greatest risk: the closer they get to whatever could be called reality, the more they refract it, strain it, splinter it, or subject it to a vortex-like deformation that illuminates striking contradiction, truth and untruth alike. In this way, Steyerl’s films come to be, to use a phrase of hers, “intrinsically political.” They fall to the world without reservation, are invested with its energies and anxieties, and run them in reverse — almost as in a burlesque — in a way that is as demanding, scathingly critical, and dangerous as it is fun. The nature that guides this disposition is best articulated in the shimmering conclusion to her essay “In Free Fall,” in which she mulls over the vicissitudes of falling:
A fall toward objects without reservation, embracing a world of forces and matter, which lacks any original stability and sparks the sudden shock of the open: a freedom that is terrifying, utterly deterritorializing, and always already unknown. Falling means ruin and demise as well as love and abandon, passion and surrender, decline and catastrophe. Falling is corruption as well as liberation, a condition that turns people into things and vice versa. It takes place in an opening we could endure or enjoy, embrace or suffer, or simply accept as reality.
Finally, the perspective of free fall teaches us to consider a social and political dreamscape of radicalized class war from above, one that throws jaw-dropping social inequalities into sharp focus. But falling does not only mean falling apart, it can also mean a new certainty falling into place. Grappling with crumbling futures that propel us backward onto an agonizing present, we may realize that the place we are falling toward is no longer grounded, nor is it stable. It promises no community, but a shifting formation.
Hito Steyerl continues at Artists Space (38 Greene Street, 3rd floor, Soho, Manhattan) and Artists Space Books & Talks (55 Walker Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through May 24.