Hito Steyerl

Institute for Contemporary Arts

HITO STEYERL, still from How Not To Be Seen. A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File, 2013, single-screen HD video, 14 min. Courtesy the artist.

What lies between a shot and a countershot? In Berlin-based artist Hito Steyerl’s video lecture, Is the Museum a Battlefield? (2013), the language of cinema and the methods of military combat and insurgency are deliberately confused, pointing to startling complicities between the realms of aesthetic production and the international arms trade. Though the museum and the battlefield could not be more different arenas, Steyerl allows the two to confront each other. She does so by telling us a convoluted tale of a flying bullet that pursues a capricious, loopy trajectory across time and space, from an extrajudicial execution ground in Southern Turkey where her best friend and PKK militant, Andrea Wolf, was killed in 1998 to an exhibition of modern British sculpture in 2011 where it apparently blasted its way through a Barbara Hepworth. As Steyerl tells us with riveting sobriety, the battlefield is Modern British Sculpture.

The video lecture is one of five moving-image pieces on view at the artist’s solo exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London. Cinematics of the political and the politics of cinema fuse in an artfully choreographed selection of Steyerl’s recent work. Upon entering the space, one is struck by the peculiar staging: the luminous sprawl that one would typically encounter in a darkened multi-screen environment is abandoned for a clunky, multi-tiered spectator’s stand planted in the gallery center. It is a strange choice given that so much of Steyerl’s research has sought to rattle the monocular viewing habits of classical cinema. On the big screen, Liquidity Inc. (2014), the artist’s latest work, narrates the story of Vietnamese-American Jacob Wood who, during the 2008 financial crisis, went from being a top-notch financial advisor to a mixed martial arts instructor. The work cuts between Wood’s travails in the sweat-drenched, testosterone-fuelled world of the fighting ring and lush, scintillating sequences of water in various states of disturbance and undulation. Flotsam of superimposed text, found images and GIFs drift, accumulate and morph on its surface. Over time, the affinities between the images emerge: mixed martial arts, is after all, a sport of corporeal liquidity, thriving on the adaptability of bodies. The seductive images absorb us like a sponge, their liquidity alluding to the flow of the attention economy.

HITO STEYERL, still from Liquidity Inc., 2014, HD video, 30 mins. Courtesy the artist.

However, as Steyerl shows, such flows never travel unchecked. Images succeed one another by way of jumps, scuttles, trips and skips. Inane weather reports delivered by an underground militant group constantly interject, and somewhere in the middle the artist is reduced to a nervous breakdown—played out on Facebook chat—when budget cuts leave her with no money for CGI water effects. Montage here fails to tie things together. Like Hokusai’s great wave or the monstrous, galloping waves seen in Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo—both of which appear in the video—out from the cut spills the discontents of the liquid economy. The work suggests that capitalism has always struggled to liquidate, and it is in this struggle that Steyerl finds the possibility of resistance.

Thus explains Steyerl’s return to the cinema. Cinema has always had to struggle to hold its audience captive, reining in a gaze whose natural tendency is to stray. In the installation, we are constantly made to feel the obscure presences beyond the screen, as fellow audiences perambulate around the constructed stand and explore the other works which have been cleverly inserted into various nooks in the space. For instance, in a black box built into the back of the stand is Steyerl’s 2013 Venice Biennale commission, How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov, a spoof instructional video which, apropos to its hidden location, teaches us how to become invisible in an age of mass surveillance. An obnoxious, Big Brother-esque voice dispenses a litany of absurd recommendations, which includes going off-screen, living in a military zone or being a dead pixel. A recurring image in the video is a resolution target, referring to the calibration tool used in aerial photography by the US military. In an age where such technologies have transformed the surface of the world into an image, being invisible is a matter of resolution: one disappears by becoming smaller than a pixel.

HITO STEYERLstill from Liquidity Inc., 2014, HD video, 30 mins. Courtesy the artist.

Sequestered in another black box at the back of the gallery is Guards (2012), in which two museum guards previously trained in law enforcement and military combat, recount their experiences in the field. The narration is rife with double meanings, with words like “engagement,” “installation” and “lines of sight” taking on ballistic connotations. As we watch one of the guards demonstrate how he secures the space, negotiating with his hand raised in the shape of a gun, the sharp turns of the contemporary white cube, we get the sense that we are watching a teaser for the latest blockbuster exhibition or, just as easily, footage from one of today’s many high-resolution surveillance devices. It is hard to tell. Within the military-industrial-entertainment complex of today, cinema is a weapon. That the video lecture Is the Museum a Battlefield? is installed behind the work drives the point home.

Hito Steyerl’s solo exhibition is on view at ICA through April 27, 2014.

Ho Rui An is Singapore desk editor for ArtAsiaPacific.