Hito Steyerl: Pt I

By Andrew Maerkle and Akira Rachi

Adornos’s Grey (2012), detail, single-channel HD-video projection, 14 min 20 sec, four angled screens, wall plot, photographs. All images: Courtesy Hito Steyerl.

ART iT: You have a background in filmmaking, philosophy and criticism, and now your work and ideas are circulating more and more in a contemporary art context. What is your conception of art as a space for participation, and how do you approach it in your own practice?

HS: I’d like to approach this from a personal angle, because I’m trained as a filmmaker, but I found like many other people in other professions that opportunities and options in this field were closing down because of the restructuring of the economy of media and various other reasons. After a while it became clear that many of those people who couldn’t work in the way they wanted in their own professions somehow all ended up working in the art field, because this turned out to be one of the few areas of, say, creative labor that encouraged experimentation and the imagination running wild to a certain extent. I met dancers and architects and other filmmakers and people from all sorts of other professions – writers, philosophers, poets – who somehow ended up convening within the sphere of contemporary art.
For me, this is not the only feature of what contemporary art is today; of course there are many other aspects including the art market and whole economies which run in parallel to or are fueled by contemporary art. But one of the most interesting aspects, I think, is that it manages to bring together so many people working in different fields, and also across wide geographical distances.

ART iT: Yet in your writings you also take an ambivalent or critical stance on art as well.

HS: In the art field we can study the contradictions of globalization. On the one hand art has an extremely enabling and liberating ability: it brings together people and events and objects which previously didn’t communicate. On the other hand, it also operates on the premise of global capitalism by unifying markets, creating currencies – also jargons – and art works which are able to universally travel on the back of money, unpaid labour and wholesale exploitation. This unifies global art markets, and is what creates them in the first place. This also globalizes conditions of artistic occupation to a certain extent, rendering the conditions of freelancers and interns more prevalent all over. The different artworlds we have now, in opposition to, for example, 30 years ago, are wildly multi-polar, no longer centered in New York or wherever. There are many centers to it now, which makes it much more interesting but also much more complicated to navigate – also in terms of the conditions of occupation. It’s much more transparent how contemporary art relies implicitly or explicitly upon unpaid, under-qualified, often migrant labor, as in the case of contemporary art development and construction projects.

Top: November (2004), DVD, approx 25 min. Bottom: Installation view.

ART iT: Within your own practice has more engagement in the art field changed your approach?

HS: Of course. It’s absolutely changed my whole practice, my whole approach. I doubt that anyone can stay the same in this kind of dynamic. It changes everyone. Very simply, in terms of practice, I’m trained for a practice which is shown in a cinema, with one screen and fixed benches and a projector, where people enter and then leave after 90 minutes once the film is done. The setting is very clear, whereas in the art field the setting is more flexible and tricky and multiple. This necessarily changes the kinds of works you make, because you want to speak to the audience. You cannot pretend that this is a cinema audience anymore. Similarly the whole conditions of production have changed into an informal, fast paced, affective mess.

ART iT: Films like November (2004) and Lovely Andrea (2007) have a distinctly textual quality to them. You’re drawing footage from multiple sources and overlaying your own reflections onto these sources. Is this a natural way to build upon your background in philosophy? For example, in November there’s a telescoping of a historical moment with national and international dynamics and a very personal story of yourself and your friend, with each aspect feeding into the other.

HS: Both November and Lovely Andrea issue from the tradition of the “essay film,” which starts maybe in the late 1950s, becomes quite strong in the 1970s and then gradually phases out until recently undergoing a revival. The two films are very strongly based on that tradition, whereas in other works there are more elements in play which would not be possible in a cinema setting – installation components and all of that.
To be honest I don’t know what philosophy is. Whenever I encounter it in an academic form, it feels very rigid and conservative. Regardless of its ideas, its form is hopelessly stuck in the 19th century. A formal reflection on how most academic philosophy is written, staged and performed would yield devastating results. It’s usually terribly authoritarian and excessively boring. Non-standard ways of thinking are changing this, and the essay traditionally belongs to them.

ART iT: One thought that struck me from November is the idea of a post-international world. Going back to the early 20th century, when Modern art was being disseminated it was very much in the spirit of the international, and of course now it’s much more ambivalent. Even if it was rooted in a tradition of European philosophy, the international had a surprisingly open aspect to it as well. For example, the artist Tomoyoshi Murayama arrived in Berlin in January 1922 and two months later he was included in the Grosse futuristisch Ausstellung, which is somewhat hard to imagine happening even in the current globalized art scene.

HS: I think we are not living in a completely post-international world. I think the contemporary art world is a globalizing process. Of course, it’s based on a quite different premise than the Modernist internationalism, which also had a sort of ethics to it, with a clear setting and a clear goal, which now does not exist. There’s a vague jargon of communication and network and mobility and clear financial motives, but its international dimension doesn’t go too much beyond that.
But other than that I still think that it’s fairly open – much more so than other worlds, let’s say. I’m always surprised at the diversity of the people that I encounter, and it reminds me, really – to give a historical precedent – of equally ambivalent processes which took place in the 19th century, described by Hannah Arendt as the movements of “the mob.” There was no land, and the mob had to move out into the world, so they joined armies, invaded countries and ended up as vagrants moving around the world in what were often awful situations of domination, imperialism and exploitation. This mob directly collaborated with national elites in furthering imperialism and colonialism. Today I tend to think I am part of a similar mob being swept around the globe – whether I like it or not and whether I want to or not – within a game which is now much more complicated because many people are trying to invade, dazzle, out-spectacle and colonize each other.

Both: Lovely Andrea (2007), DVD, approx 30 min.

ART iT: One of the themes that you address in your writing that deeply resonates with the current situation is the idea of the intern and the strikeworker, figures who reflect questions about how people in the art world relate to their own labor and how the art world appropriates individual labor. How did this theme develop?

HS: The title of my book of essays, The Wretched of the Screen, is a pun on Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, which has a very strong section on the lumpenproletariat, who are not organized, who are just poor and trying to survive no matter what. Fanon tries to understand this situation – how he manages is a different debate. But I think that the situation of not belonging to a class, being the refuse of all classes so to speak, as Arendt aptly described the mob, also speaks to the condition of the people who are not even laborers in the current art economy. I don’t even know what to call them. Something like voluntary serfs, maybe? We are not even talking about indentured labor, etc, in other parts of the global economy.
Of course young people are drafted into this debt economy first: they need to get deep into debt to get a degree, invest into themselves, but also into other people’s institutions, in order to maybe see rewards later. This is very similar to the whole ideology of investment we saw during the recent bubble years. You buy into a fund, because at a certain point in time you’re promised a return, but you don’t get it. The funds collapsed. It’s a Ponzi scheme. The hope that motivates everyone is to one day get noticed and then join the ranks of those who are paid for their labor.
This is basically how large parts of the art economy work and this tall new building in London, The Shard, beautifully captures the idea that the symbol of this kind of economy is precisely a pyramid: because it’s a pyramid game. But you’ll never make it to the condo on top. Instead, you are lucky to not be stuck in the elevator when the whole thing comes crashing down.

ART iT: In that sense your writing about labor connects to your writing about images and representation, or documentality. There’s an unstated existential connection that labor shares with the idea of the image itself.

HS: The image exists in a similar hierarchy, and also the mobility of the image and its possibility to move or not is held back by copyright, monopoly, all sorts of copy inhibitions, so that only some images are able to travel freely, and also only under certain conditions.
So you have a very similar hierarchy in the realm of images. Rich ones inhabiting the top of the shard, and poor ones which are barely visible and do the labor of advertizing Viagra or gratuitously compressing former masterpieces of cinema alike. And most images are completely invisible today, just as a huge part of labor is completely invisible and unpaid today. They’re completely under the radar of representation. There are so many images which first of all almost nobody sees, even if someone makes them and uploads them to YouTube, but also there are completely automated images like webcams – nobody ever sees the images they produce, even though they’re being streamed somewhere. It’s like spam. Spam is made by a bot and then gets caught by a spam filter, without any participation of humans.
There’s this huge dark matter of imagery which no one ever sees, and there’s this huge dark matter of labor which no one ever acknowledges. Of course people exploit it, take advantage of it, but it’s not being recognized. On the level of representation it doesn’t matter.

ART iT: How does this apply to the collective image of art itself? Many people join the art world understanding that initially they won’t be paid for their labor or that it will be difficult to survive, but perhaps we could say they are chasing the image of art.

HS: I think this is hugely changing nowadays. I think probably in the 19th century or even until quite recently people were chasing the ideal of the genius who has a hard time painting somewhere, nobody buys the paintings and so on. But I think now the prototype of artist, at least from what I see with my students, has shifted into some potentially successful entrepreneur-style figure, someone who is able to have almost a sort of empire, a plan, and sustain it by huge amounts of intern labor and all of that. But this is interesting because it has art historical precedents in the studios of the masters. Titian, Rembrandt, you name it – they were all working with the same system, like outsourcing the backgrounds to the intern. This is how it’s being done more and more today.

ART iT: The genius is a distortion of history.

HS: Yes, it’s so tied into the idea of the 19th-century Western subject – the bourgeois middle-class individual – and this is the route of excellence for this particular subject. If that idea is unsettled, then the idea of the genius will also be.

Strike (2010), HDV, 28 sec.

ART iT: So what position should a strikeworker take?

HS: Well, strike, I guess.
But all the traditional tools of both labor activism and art activism have to be rethought under contemporary conditions. If you go on strike, nobody will notice, so the strike has to take on another dimension.
On the other hand, there are so many things that still can be done. Also, many people simply stop caring. They do not want to join this world anymore. They withdraw, building their own institutions, their own frames of reference and circuits of distribution.
So if you find a sword, strike. If you find two swords, strike. If you manage to handle three, congratulations!

I | II

Hito Steyerl: Documenting Void

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