• Essay

  • May 9th, 2018 05.09.2018

    Illumination and Conflict: Hito Steyerl’s Video Art


    The technology used to perfect analog and digital photography is the same as that used to improve the precision of military weapons and surveillance. The technology that makes contemporary video art possible is the same that is used to render people vulnerable to military violence or invisible-disappeared-in the digital age. When technology calibrates the world as an image, is existence in the space between pixels possible? Does it mean we are safe, or that we are dead? So explores Hito Steyerl’s 2013 video piece, How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic .MOV File.

    Steyerl’s work, while poking fun at itself and its own premise, begs questions about the relationship between digital art and digital violence, and what that means for so-called political art. The medium of the piece presents issues for the discipline of art history and the question of ownership and access. Its location within contemporary art and politics resists a clear label, as it implicates the very means of its own creation and dissemination with its commentary on visibility and violence. .MOV File is subversive in its channels because it creates a space in which conflict, contradiction, and power are illuminated and demystified.

    The video is fifteen minutes long, fashioned as a step-by-step self-help manual offering different methods by which the viewer can render herself invisible to the outside world. It is sectioned into five parts, chapters describing a different kind of not-being-seen and how to achieve it; each part is narrated by a slow droning, automated voice-as though the audience had asked Siri a question and then dropped their iPhones in molasses.

    The name of Steyerl’s piece comes from, of all places, a Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketch called How Not to be Seen that originally aired in 1970. In it, a narrator off-screen asks a variety of participants to demonstrate their skills in not being seen. The gag goes as follows: if they reveal their hiding spots when asked, they are shot; if they remain hidden, their entire hiding spot is blown up. The more desperate they become to remain hidden, the more remote the hiding spots become, simply resulting in bigger explosions conducted by the disembodied narrator and his invisible forces.

    It is funny because it takes us by surprise, because the premise is silly, and because the violence-once we are clued in to its logic-is at once cartoonishly morbid and hidden from view. We are startled by it, then we learn to see it coming, and then we wait to see just how ridiculous it will become.

    Steyerl’s piece also uses humor, but in such a way that entangles it with the macabre, catching the audience off guard-we are chuckling as the monotone narrator gives us tips on how to be invisible such as, “being fitted with an invisibility cloak. Being a superhero. Being female and over 50,” until we are silenced when the voice continues, “Being undocumented or poor. (…) Being a disappeared person as an enemy of the state, eliminated, liquidated, and then dissimulated.” After Steyerl herself is dissolved into the green screen as her face is painted, evoking kitschy psychedelic kung-Fu movie visuals, people with black boxes over their heads dressed as pixels dance and shuffle and bump into each other-letting the audience know it is okay to laugh, that some contemporary art is well aware of how silly it looks to be so serious.

    But Steyerl is serious. She raises the stakes-visibility is both an issue of social relevance and of safety as it is granted to those the State determines are legitimate. Early on, the narration tells us, “Today most important things want to remain invisible. Love is invisible. War is invisible. Capital is invisible.” The technology of resolution targets and military-grade surveillance means that there is nothing physical on the planet that cannot be measured and recorded, but Steyerl wants us to understand that the most insidious types of power do not have measurable forms.

    The imposition of the resolution target on the natural landscape helped perfect analog photography for the military, until digital technology usurped it and made both drone warfare and contemporary video art more viable. The Critical Art Ensemble has investigated extensively the relationship between militarism and imaging technology; they write that, “This alliance [between war and sight] also gave rise to an ever more enveloping visual/information apparatus-most notably satellite technology, television, video, computers, and the Net.”

    This lineage tugs on our sleeve as we stand in the gallery watching; it makes us wonder what forces, what invisible masses of wealth and power made the space in which we are standing viable? We are free and alive enough to engage with contemporary art, but who is not?

    As she outlines a history of digital technology’s entry into conceptual art, María Fernández tells us that “from 1970 to the late 1980s cybernetic art was marginalized in the art world because of its associations with the military, with commerce, and, in the popular imagination, with the on-going Vietnam War.” So the connection this .MOV File makes is not new, in terms of dialogue within the art world or in the artist’s own career-several of her own essays, lectures, and her documentary November grapple with the relationships between technology, State violence, visibility, and the circulation of images in the digital age.

    It is clear, though, that by now whatever marginalization to which Fernández was referring has ended-digital media are now not simply permitted, but demanded in contemporary arts spaces, having transformed the relationship between audiences and institutions so fully as to necessitate investment in and revamping of “digital experience” and “digital education” departments to handle the “digital content” and “digital immersion” in nearly all major museums. Tracing the origins of the mainstreaming of digital art, Erika Balsom explains that, “the 1990s and 2000s saw an institutional investment in film and video without parallel in the history of art… And where institutions go, the market follows.”

    Marshall McLuhan seems to be proved right at least in part-if the medium is the message, Steyerl’s video on display in the Tate Modern tells us that the digital has permeated our modes of communication so thoroughly as to be uncontroversially considered among the highest ranks of fine art.

    This, then, must be the epoch to which the .MOV File narration refers when it tells us, “In the decades of the digital revolution 170,000 people disappear. Disappeared people are annihilated, eliminated, eradicated. Deleted, dispensed with, filtered, processed, selected, separated, wiped out… Invisible people retreat into 3D animations.”

    Is it useful to label this work political, or perhaps as an example of institutional critique? After all, how very edgy of Steyerl to take up such space-in the Tate, the Venice Biennale, in ArtForum, at the top of ArtReview’s Power 100 list of influential artists-to then simply thumb her nose at the whole art industrial complex for thinking it is anything other than a specialized outgrowth of the same technology that makes drone warfare possible. Radical as it may seem, what does Steyerl’s video really stand to change?

    Discussing the efficacy of political art accepted within mainstream institutions, artist Martha Rosler says, “dissent and dissidence that fall short of insurrection and unruliness are quite regularly incorporated into exhibitions, as they are into institutions such as universities in liberal societies; patronizing attitudes, along the lines of ‘Isn’t she pretty when she’s angry!’ are effective-even President Bush smilingly called protesters’ shouts a proof of the robustness of ‘our’ freedom of speech while they were being hustled out of the hall where he was speaking.”

    Cynical as it may seem, Rosler raises an important point about the pitfall of political art becoming absorbed and rebranded by the very institutions it seeks to expose, in effect strengthening their reputations while they posture as politically engaged and receptive to criticism.

    Plus, if Steyerl intends to illuminate a dark reality about the digital age using digital art, she must contend with McLuhan once more; “our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot. For the ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. The effect of the medium is made strong and intense just because it is given another medium as ‘content.'” What prevents .MOV File from becoming another juicy piece of meat?

    Decades before Steyerl or McLuhan took on the topic, Walter Benjamin was grappling with what new technology meant for art’s nature: “Even in the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art-its unique existence in a particular place. It is this unique existence-and nothing else-that bears the mark of the history to which the work has been subject. This history includes changes to the physical structure of the work over time, together with any changes in ownership.” The here and now, authenticity, and aura are all terms he uses to describe what an original work has that reproductions cannot also possess.

    “But with HD digital video, no such material distinction exists [as in film between a physical print and a dupe negative] – one digital file is just as ‘original’ as another and can be copied indefinitely.” Such is the wrench thrown by digital technology into the gears of authentication. But where authenticity and originality become concepts abstracted into the realm of pure philosophy, the demands of the art market intervene to conjure limitations.

    Digital videos, which lack physical originals or copies of negatives, are today commonly sold in batches of a few artists’ proofs plus generally three to four editions (Steyerl released ten editions plus proofs for this piece). Effectively, “the widespread espousal of the limited-edition model represents a reining in of the inherent reproducibility of moving-image media.”

    And while the editions lack tangible differences, they nonetheless serve a very real purpose both by manufacturing scarcity (and thus a new kind of authenticity with regard to priority of ownership) agreed upon by actors in the art market, but also for the artist in retaining some semblance of control over how certain copies of their work are displayed. “The limited edition provided a way of guaranteeing that the work would circulate only within authorized channels and would be seen only in the proper setting.”

    The nature of digital video has broader implications as it complicates what we mean when we say, “art object,” and the relation between such objects and the traditional functions of art handlers, archivists, and conservationists. One exploration of the “vulnerabilities and contingencies” of video art went as far as to claim that “in the conservation of artists’ installations that employ time-based media, the fact that the work only truly exists in its installed state refocuses the conservator’s attention on the intangible and the temporary.” While the intangible and temporary nature of such work is obvious, the statement forces us to question when and where a piece of digital video art can “truly exist.”

    Again, .MOV File was initially distributed to museums and galleries in ten editions. It is, however, easily searchable and available on a myriad of websites-YouTube, Vimeo, embedded on arts journal websites, personal blogs, chopped, screenshotted, GIF’ed, and thinkpieced into oblivion. Sure, it might technically belong to the digital collections of a few institutions, but if ownership presumes some modicum of control, who really owns it?

    According to Benjamin, as far as new technology disrupting how we perceive authenticity, “the most powerful agent is film. The social significance of film, even-and especially-in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic side: the liquidation of the value of tradition in the cultural heritage.” Because of the immediacy with which film could disseminate reproduced images, it had the greatest potential for undermining and making obsolete traditionally held values about culture, including the ritual and cult value of scarce objects.

    Writing in the context of Nazi Germany, Benjamin claimed that the dissolution of ritual/cult value of art objects could be a function of communism’s politicization of art. He made certain that his exploration of the “developmental tendencies of art” according to such changing conditions of production was “useless for the purposes of fascism” and simultaneously “useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.”

    In a 2010 essay, Steyerl sardonically posits, “If contemporary art is the answer, the question is how can capitalism be made more beautiful?” She skewers what she sees as an inability or unwillingness on the part of contemporary “political art” to implicate itself and the nature of its creation in the realm of politics-in an extreme example, so-called political art might be showcased in a fair or gallery funded by arms dealers without causing a stir.

    Implicit in this criticism is Steyerl’s own position on what contemporary art should have to do with politics: “It’s time to kick the hammer-and-sickle souvenir art into the dustbin. If politics is thought of as the Other … we end up missing what makes art instrinsically political nowadays: its function as a place for labor, conflict, and… fun-a site of condensation of the contradictions of capital…”

    Steyerl locates the political nature of her work ultimately in its capacity to create a space where contradiction and conflict is illuminated-where power is demystified.

    For Benjamin, explanations of the development of art contribute to political struggle when they brush aside such outmoded concepts as creative genius and mystery that, left unchecked, breed Führer worship. Steyerl supposes, “Why and for whom is contemporary art so attractive? One guess: the production of art presents a mirror image of post-democratic forms of hypercapitalism that look set to become the dominant political post-Cold War paradigm. It seems unpredictable, unaccountable, brilliant, mercurial, moody, guided by inspiration and genius. Just as any oligarch aspiring to dictatorship might want to see himself.”

    The .MOV File narration informs us: “There are thirteen ways to become invisible by disappearing. Living in a gated community. Living in a military zone. Being in an airport, factory, or museum.” We are not allowed to forget that the contemporary art world is no vacuum; it is beholden to the same hegemonies, the same market forces that rule everything else. Shaped as it is by digital technology, it has a traceable history.

    McLuhan reminds us, “the artist is indispensable in the shaping and analysis and understanding of the life of forms, and structures created by electric technology. In .MOV File, Steyerl takes on this responsibility. There is no position of innocence or political purity for the contemporary artist, or anyone for that matter, in post-Cold War hypercapitalism, when all of the technologies on which we rely and relate to the world are implicated with and generative of violence.

    Instead of posturing for such a position, .MOV File reinvigorates the potential of art to be political by being actually subversive. Its very medium resists traditional market forces and neat commodification. It uses silliness, self-effacement, and humor while taking on a historical project that is at times so bleak as to be incomprehensible. It drags out into the open otherwise invisible forces. In doing so, .MOV File renders itself- as Benjamin would say-useless for the purposes of the powers it investigates. It creates a conflict, a fissure, however small, in the contours of which lies the possibility to imagine something different.