If somebody were to write a new Book of Revelation for the 21st century, it would read a lot like the multimedia miseries of Hito Steyerl. The 53-year-old German artist is foremost a researcher interested in the effects of globalization, the onslaught of technology, the future of labor, and our susceptibility to abuses under this new techno-regime. She makes videos in which simulated dodos run for their lives until they collapse and scientists attempt to dropkick their humanoid robots to the floor. Light traces of sarcasm help viewers swallow the bitter pills that Steyerl is serving: apocalyptic sermons on gun violence, state surveillance, and artificial intelligence. How can you not love an artist whose idea of gallery benches are glowing block letters that spell out “Hell yeah” and “Fuck die” in all caps?
But despite my admiration for Steyerl, there’s something holding me back from fully embracing Drill, a survey of the artist curated by Tom Eccles that’s currently occupying the Gilded Age chambers and cavernous drill hall at the Park Avenue Armory. It’s something that I think also expresses the limits of documentary art.
An oracle of our end times, Steyerl is a crucial voice in a chorus of critics seeking to untangle the problems of contemporary culture. Meandering through the artist’s milieu of dystopias on display within the Armory, one gets the sense that she is weaving together a 21st-century global tapestry. “The Tower” (2016) is a three-video installation focusing on an unnamed Ukranian 3D company that once designed a shooting game set in the Tower of Babel. Precariously situated on the country’s conflict-heavy border with Russia, the design studio has become part of a worldwide network of other technology firms, preparing digital productions of violence alongside online casino games, real estate renderings, and emergency simulations. Thousands of miles away is Mount Korek and the dilapidated remains of Iraq’s national observatory — the setting for Steyerl’s “ExtraSpaceCraft” (2017), a film exploring the encroaching terrors of militarizing outer space through the fictitious Autonomous Space Agency, which is installed in a nearby gallery at the Armory.
Works like the two mentioned above are about unifying our vision of real and digital spaces, transforming the architectures of these two realms into information. By extracting that knowledge, we presumably become more enlightened about contemporary culture and its attendant politics. But there is also a cruelty to knowing; even in her own work, Steyerl is quick to demonstrate how violent the acquisition of progress can be. The scientists who punch and kick their robot are “teaching” it how to balance. The dodos who collapse in cyberspace are datapoints; their “deaths” help inform the next generation of simulations how to better run on two feet. Not one to shy away from the pangs of tragicomedy, Steyerl has included sculpture renderings of the blocky blue birds, which are strewn across the opulent wooden floors of an Armory gallery like abandoned dinosaur marionettes.
What falls short of excellence is Drill‘s supposed showstopper, an enormous tripartite video installation within the Armory’s drill hall. A commission, the titular work investigates the historical relationship between the institution and America’s gun violence epidemic. This centerpiece is a stylized documentary with footage of a historian, activists, and a marching band that considers how members of the Armory’s Seventh Regiment went on to found the National Rifle Association (NRA). Today known for its nefarious lobbying for the weapons industry against virtually any form of gun control, the NRA began in 1871 as a shooting club by veterans of the Civil War. This fact comes somewhere in the middle of “Drill” (2019), after several scenes where public historian Anna Duensing explains that the Armory acted as a pleasure palace and fortress of wealth wherein elites would often (and still do) throw lavished parties.
Clutch your pearls: the Upper East Side has connections to malfeasants and money? Are we supposed to be shocked by this? Music rises for dramatic effect and a marching band becomes a ghost of garish military movements, parading around the historian as she describes the various parties that would take place in the drill hall (during the press preview, Steyerl said that the film’s orchestration is a sonification of gun violence data). Other scenes follow activists (like Nurah Abdulhaqq of National Die In and Kareem Nelson of Wheelchairs Against Guns) as they wander through the colossal building, which comprises an entire city block. There are contrived shots where these ad hoc investigators slowly turn around in the Armory galleries, shining a flashlight on the building’s gleaming tiles and lacquered wood decorations. In the basement, Judith Pearson (a retired school principal and gun owner with the #BoycottNRA movement) examines the shooting range where regiment members had thoroughly pockmarked the walls with their bullets; she criticizes their marksmanship as careless. I’d characterize “Drill” the same way.
What is the converse of institutional critique? Critiquing institutions? Institutions that critique themselves? Whatever you call it, the Armory’s desire to center itself within the gun control debate comes off as self-centered. Aestheticizing violences comes with its own caveats, but Steyerl is a rare figure in the art world who knows how to navigate that minefield. (Quite recently, she’s protested alongside other artists against Warren Kanders and Yana Peel.) “Drill” is an unusual misstep for the artist; it suffers because its main protagonist — the Armory — is also its antagonist. The activists become side characters in this story, asked to relate their personal traumas to an institution none of them have likely ever attended before; they aren’t even identified by name until the documentary’s closing credits, which, in my opinion, speaks volumes about the film’s priorities.
That’s not to say that “Drill” is a complete failure; it’s just lackluster. It’s quasi-propaganda that paradoxically redeems the institution it indicts when nobody asked for an investigation in the first place. It’s spooky to discover that the NRA began at the Armory, but that fact is relatively meaningless compared to the vast lobbying armature the nonprofit has deployed in Washington DC since 1934. One wonders if Steyerl ever planned to investigate the Armory’s current board members the same way artists and journalists have at other institutions around the city.
Toward the end of the film, there is a scene focused on a gun control rally where teenagers and young adults speak out against violence. I wish the film devoted itself more to this image. We should celebrate the leaders of a new generation advancing gun control measures instead of the wealthy ghosts who proliferated and profited from the problem.