If any artist could make sense of these challenging times, it would be Hito Steyerl: award-winning poet of digital deviance and social upheaval.
In her video installations, essays and lecture performances, the German artist breaks down the boundaries between the Internet and the so-called “real world”, exploring how digital technologies spilled out of the screen into war zones, financial markets, real estate developments and home auctions. With bitter humor and a deft mix of high- and low-resolution imagery, Steyerl underscores the violent and irrational combination of human life and data – hence, the brutal irony when her designation, in 2017, was “No. 1” on the list of “100 Most Influential People in Art”.
The exhibition “Hito Steyerl: I Will Survive” was shown last year at the Düsseldorf museum K21; It is now open for viewing, after a period of delay, at the Center Pompidou in Paris, which runs until July 5. “I Will Survive” is Steyerl’s most important European exhibition, and together With her previous most famous works, it debuts “SocialSim”. a new arrangement regarding the pandemic and police violence. Here, cartoon police officers infect each other not with a novel coronavirus but with dance moves – which actually happened 500 years ago, during the famous Strasbourg plague .
While her work is constantly topical – other videos in “I Will Survive” are reminiscent of the missing “Salvator Mundi” and the commonalities of fashion label Balenciaga and right-wing populism – Steyerl always brings an atmosphere of depth when applying new technologies. Her skepticism looks more valuable than ever after months of us sitting in front of screens, and in a recent conversation, condensed and edited below, Steyerl told me why at Why should we understand our plague year as less of an interruption than an acceleration? (We talked via video link and Steyerl appeared in front of a beautiful Zoom background of pink flowers.)
You live in Berlin and teach at the University of the Arts there. Have you stayed during the pandemic?
I have been completely locked out since last March. Actually, I taught Minecraft: It’s a game for kids as young as 7 and you can build things with blocks. You can build fantasy worlds very quickly. Last week, my students held a version of Brecht’s “Measures Taken” in a large Communist test facility, which they built in Minecraft.
What restrictions has the pandemic placed on the art you are doing?
Maybe nothing new is really required, except enhancing existing ones. I used leftovers from previous shoots, from previous works, plus created things, and things shot from a distance.
In the “SocialSim” you took on recently, we witness a social contagion from a “dancing virus” – but also more contemporary social contagions. Protest against wearing masks, in Germany has reached a peak an attempt to storm the German Parliament August last year, also circulated and propagated as a type of virus transmission.
Another thing that really shocked me happened in Berlin late last summer, when suddenly the Egyptian Museum found itself being attacked by a mysterious “water fountain”. Someone entered the museum and sprayed an oily substance on about 70 objects. And the idea – still unconfirmed – that this concerns these conspiracy theorists, who in Germany have a lot of ties to the right.
It’s crazy, this can happen after two major burglaries, at the Bode . Museum in Berlin and then the Green Vault in Dresden, Germany.
That is one of the main arguments surrounding the Humboldt Forum, by those who do not want to replace anything: that these objects will not be safe. Now it turns out that they are completely unsafe in Germany.
I wonder what you think of the building of the Center Pompidou, which couldn’t be more like the Humboldt Forum – although it also has its problems.
The building that was the cybernetic machine of the ’70s Pleasure Palace, somehow crashed into the residential area, and now it has acquired a retro quality, reminiscent of some kind of welfare state there, where there will be investments like this in public contemporary art museums. So for me it’s a machine: a big machine, a bone-eating machine. And the show is, in fact, relevant to the broken parts of the museum, because it opens up the service corridors, where you find that the windows are actually broken.
Museum closed for renovation, about four years.
It’s funny: It was built as a beacon of modernism and shiny newness, and it wasn’t that long ago, wasn’t it? But I have a soft spot for these Plexiglas tubes, the “Star Trek” atmosphere.
On the subject of broken glass: For your recent video installation “City of Broken Window”, now in Pompidou, you interviewed window-smashing engineers for a data production company. Whether.
This was done in 2018. I get really annoyed by people just wanting me to do shiny, fun CGI stuff and I really want to do something very documentary – austere, let’s put it like this. Trump was elected, and I wasn’t in a good mood, so I thought, “Let’s do something simple and something practical.”
I went to a UK company called Audio Analytic, based in Cambridge. I read about them on the BBC. And they manually destroyed thousands of windows to train the AI, a neural network, to recognize the sound of broken windows. The basic idea is a device that can call the police, security, or something like that. Someone is literally standing in a giant hangar, destroying windows all day to make a machine smarter. I was completely mesmerized.
The old modernist vision of smashing objects to pieces – Cubism, Futurism – was absorbed by measurements and monitoring.
A smart home ideology. But it can also destroy creativity – you know, breaking things fast, that’s the idea of Silicon Valley. All of that goes into it and creates this kind of surveillance panorama. But people are very enthusiastic about breaking windows. You can even see me; I also broke one. I used that shot in “SocialSim”.
You have never been a “native internet” artist; you don’t have a website, your works are not online except as bootlegs. But during the lockdown, you a series of online presentations your works. Did you learn any lessons from the live streaming of this new exhibition?
During those four streaming evenings, I created a more or less new setting – for example, by talking to the main characters in the work. So I feel it is legit, because it added a new angle to the compositions. For the most part, it’s videos that allow themselves to be streamed, not multiple screens, which gets complicated.
But then in Paris, I have to say I gave up. At this point, people are tired of looking at screens, and there is too much of this content. This is a show where I really tried to think physically, in that space. I don’t feel that I can, in any way, make a digital copy of it that can actually replace it. It will just be a kind of homework, and well done.
I almost feel bad ask you about NFT, but as someone who has ruthlessly explored the relationship of art to financial speculation and crime, you must find them familiar.
For now, art is the pretext, or possibly an excuse, to deploy infrastructure: crypto infrastructure, Web 3.0 infrastructure. And the tagline is this NFT magic spell. It’s actually a magic spell, because it doesn’t mean anything! It just means: I own you, and somehow, by magical cryptography, I’ll enter it into the blockchain. But because it sounds complicated or requires high technology, it attracts so much attention, right? It’s basically just a mechanism of miscommunication. The more confusing it is, the more attracted or used it is.
It really does seem like the rhetoric surrounding NFTs – and around cryptocurrencies more generally, I’d say – draws heavily on modernist artistry. Individual creativity, uninstitutional, is finally liberated.
I mean, I’m seeing it at least the third time: the rollout of new infrastructure with the same kind of slogans and propaganda. “It will be more democratic. It will be more accessible. There will be equal opportunities. Everyone will get the information. The middlemen will be brought out.” I mean, how often will I listen to it? How often will people fall in love with it?
The first time I heard it was during the first so-called “internet revolution” in Serbia. You can look at Serbia now, 20 years from now and see if all of this comes to fruition. Then came the beginning of social media, the Arab Spring, Iran. But the same talk about automated technology that leads to more progress and equality is being rolled out again. With NFTs, it’s essentially the same thing. The only difference is that we are now hearing it from Paris Hilton.