The Kiss (2012), detail, mixed-media installation: three-channel video projection; 3D print on plinth; eight light boxes; single-channel video, etc. Installation view, Yebisu International Festival for Art & Alternative Visions 2013: “Public Diary,” at Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. Photo Kenichiro Ooshima.
ART iT: One reason that it’s so stimulating to read your essays is your use of language play, like tracing the word “freelancers” back to its origins as the kind of yojimbo sword for hire, or the idea of the “poor image” being connected to systems of oppression and exploitation. You’re using words in a way that allows multiple meanings to aggregate, and this wordplay also carries into your works as well.
HS: That’s the condition of the non-native speaker. If the word is anyhow strange to you, then you take it and turn it around, and see what it looks like from the other side, and then usually you discover another dimension to it. I never take it for granted. If Chinese characters are multidimensional, why not other words?
I did a small work called Strike (2010) which is precisely about this kind of wordplay, and Abstract (2012), which plays with the idea of what abstraction is, as well as Red Alert (2007) – also about abstraction and the monochrome, as well as the relations between fear and security and the color scale.
ART iT: Language also seems to provide a route for images and concepts to become things. For example, in the piece here, The Kiss (2012), you are credited with “Realization and Objectification.”
HS: It is “objectifiction,” not objectification. That’s what the work is about. You try to be as objective as possible using technologies which are supposed to be really objective or truthful, and provide real facts, but the object you produce is a complete fiction. This is inherent in the technology. You have to fictionalize so much in the process because the data you have is just a set of data, and the outcome is a complete interpretation. You have to connect the dots basically. Any object produced with this technology is always an objectifiction as much as an objectification.
The Kiss (2012), installation view, Yebisu International Festival for Art & Alternative Visions 2013: “Public Diary,” at Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. Photo Kenichiro Ooshima.
ART iT: The Kiss is based on legal testimony regarding a massacre that took place in Bosnia, with a minor character in the testimony – a mysterious “black man” – becoming a kind of void-like presence in the installation. Yet the work itself is very dramatic, and sensual even, with the so-called 3D animations reconstructing the incident presented across three projections, all set to the musical theme from Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon.
HS: This is one aspect of why people say this technology is so truthful. Usually this kind of reconstruction would be used in a courtroom, and the advantage is that you can see it from every angle. You do all these “fly throughs.” This is the legal aesthetic. These fly throughs are supposed to enhance authenticity because, as opposed to the two dimensionality of the photograph, you can fly around. In a way the fly throughs are part of the promise of authenticity.
But what happens if you really do it is that you fly around and you see there is nothing in the back. There’s a hole, an empty shell. This is what I wanted to expose. If you really follow through, then you see that parts of this objectivity, parts of the facts, parts of the data are missing, and it is these missing parts which are the documentary core of the technology, because the only thing this technology really manages to capture is the missing data.
In the original Rashomon there were these long tracking shots through the forest with the camera – they must have put at least 50 meters of tracks through the forest. I was reminded of the stark black-and-white of the Rashomon by the black-and-white point clouds of 3D scan technology.
ART iT: Does this work also develop from what you’ve written about documentality and the politics of what can be documented?
HS: Yes. We might be in doubt, more or less, about the “content” of the things represented. Who knows how accurate they are? On the other hand, one can be quite sure about the material circumstances of any image, its carrier: the film stock, the media container, compression. This presents a series of facts. These are certain.
For the content, this is hardly ever the case.
ART iT: You’ve done other works that are archaeological in nature, such as Adorno’s Grey (2012), or the project Amidst Us (2009), for which you removed part of the façade of one of the “bridgehead buildings” in Linz to create a pattern reflecting the trajectories of labor, exploitation and expulsion that fed into their construction under the Nazi regime, presented alongside a video installation further expanding upon that history.
HS: The project in Linz is my favorite, just because it was so unlikely. It took about a year. I didn’t believe it would really happen, and then it happened. Then after the façade was restored, the conservator told us that it is impossible to restore it 100 percent. Everyday, when the afternoon sun falls on the façade, you can still see the outline. I like it because this really speaks to everything I tried to say with this installation. This is about the erasure of history and covering it behind a façade. Then you expose it, and what happens next is somebody just covers it up again. This is how the artwork should be completed. This is its natural completion. Social forces are taking over and adding a different layer of meaning, or in this case, plaster.
ART iT: Of course the project in Linz was commissioned as part of the European Capital of Culture 2009. Often projects that attempt an archaeology of European identity or history seem to be produced in the context of celebrating Europe. I wonder if this does not compromise them somewhat.
HS: It’s an interesting paradox. I think most institutions would prefer not having to deal with these problematic aspects in history. On the other hand, and this applies especially in the case of Linz, many people, especially those in the neighboring countries, would be very disturbed if this wasn’t addressed at all, because Linz really was supposed to be the cultural capital of the Nazi empire. There were museums built there where all the artworks looted from all over Europe were supposed to be put on display. So you cannot have a European Capital of Culture in Linz without at least addressing this aspect of the history.
But of course in the whole dynamic of this paradox, you can also have the reverse effect, that this kind of work becomes a decoration for city marketing spectacle. That happens too. It’s like two sides of the same coin.
Top: Amidst Us (2009), site-specific intervention into the Bridgehead Buildings, Linz. © Andreas Kepplinger. Bottom: Red Alert (2007), installation view, triptych of three video loops shown on 30-inch cinema computer screen. Courtesy Hito Steyerl.
ART iT: Speaking of erasure, in Lovely Andrea there is a sequence where you appropriate footage from the vintage Spider-Man cartoon. In one scene, we see an event at the “Metropolitan Museum” where a new painting is unveiled, and in the frame of the painting you insert your own bondage photograph. Then, in a second scene, the “painting” suddenly disappears, leaving an empty frame. Generally, artists seek to produce “the image” as the endpoint of their work, but in erasing your image, you prompt viewers to question what the image actually is, or what it is we are looking for in the image. In this sense, rather than leaving us with the strong image of the bondage photograph, you provide us with the poor image that circulates on the Web. If “the image” is rooted in Western tradition, the poor image seems to expand horizontally across multiple contexts.
HS: It’s something I didn’t notice until you said it. The act of taking away the image from the frame is first of all an erasure. This is important because with all the images circulating online, you cannot erase them anymore. You have no possibility of ever taking anything back, so erasure becomes a possibility that you want to claim. But it’s not only erasure, because the next thing that happens in the frame is that something else comes up, which is the reverse bondage image of my assistant Ageha, and she replaces or displaces the previous image. So it’s both about erasure and displacement.
In the whole sequence of films, November deals with my friend Andrea, while in the sequel her picture circulating around the world is replaced by the picture of Ageha, whose name sounds somewhat similar, but basically has nothing to do with Andrea. These images are contagious. They infect each other and touch each other and somehow there is a dynamic that relates one to the other, like images we give to someone who then gives it to someone else. So in this whole series of films these images keep circulating and changing and yet retaining something of the original impulse.
ART iT: What do you think about the support compared to the image? What is the support for the poor image?
HS: Yes, this is interesting. In traditional mediums everything stays with its support. The painting stays with the canvas. The statue stays with the stone. The photograph is more mobile and reproducible on several carriers.
My view is that the poor image can take on any possible support. I’m working on a text right now that deals with the idea, which I also have played with in other texts, of the image as a thing. The image can become a thing – materialize – but in the case of the poor image it can also be many other things. This is about the process of images walking through the screen into the world. Images literally walk across the computer or TV screen or projection screen and find themselves in the world.
The idea is that this happens more and more, that somehow images are implemented in the world, they are realized and materialized, but there is always some kind of glitch. If you walk through the screen, something happens and you can never go back to the way you used to be. There is an irreversible transformation that takes place. The first person to do this might have been Silvio Berlusconi. He was a TV magnate who owned the most important private television channels in Italy before he became prime minister. So, from being something like a TV image, he walked into reality, but on the way, because he had to go through the screen, he broke his nose, and had to have it fixed.
All the plastic surgery we’re seeing right now – reconstruction, botox, whatever – it’s all an effect of all these images which come through the screen into reality and then bump their noses and have to have them fixed. But this is only in the case of people. Many other things also go through screens and materialize in reality. A lot of contemporary architecture is really some sort of topological screen matter that was somehow ejaculated into reality and stays frozen there. A lot of our environments are shaped from realities which used to be confined to screens and now have emerged and constitute the world we live in.
The interesting consequence of this is that now, images form a large part of any real environment. They came from the screen and they immigrated into reality and we are now surrounded by them, which means that all the techniques we used to think applied only to things behind the screen, like editing, Photoshop, post-production, film theory – basically anything that relates to images – applies to reality now.
Top: Adornos’s Grey (2012), detail, single-channel HD-video projection, 14 min 20 sec, four angled screens, wall plot, photographs. Bottom: Installation view, Wilfried Lentz, Rotterdam, 2012. Both: Courtesy Hito Steyerl.
ART iT: But there is also something traumatic about the moment of representation. In Adorno’s Grey, you film a team of conservators digging into the wall of the lecture hall at Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt, where Adorno taught. They are searching for the layer of gray paint that Adorno is said to have had installed there in order to focus the concentration of the students. But part of the backstory of the work is the incident when three female students bared their breasts to Adorno in protest – an incident which was apparently quite shattering for Adorno.
HS: Several of the points I mentioned are important for that work. For example, the idea of the image as an object, as something which materializes in the form of screens and other things throughout the installation. I wanted to reverse my usual historiographical approach and dig for something in the future.
In the film, we pretend to excavate something, but very quickly it becomes clear there is nothing to be found, and if we want to find something, if we want to have a result, we have to make it up, we have to imagine it. The only thing we ever find is a poor image, a moving poor image of a protest, of someone literally turning Adorno’s book into a protective object, into a weapon. This image is neither from the past nor from the future but from the present, and it’s really a poor image.
Of course the trigger for this whole investigation is this so-called “breast attack” which happened in 1969, but nobody wanted to talk about it. So in a way it wasn’t possible to solve it in the past. It also had to be solved by the present in trying to again reconcile some of Adorno’s ideas with contemporary social movements. This is something which I think is more and more important for my work. You cannot fix the past. You can go and look at it, but you have to fix it in the present by imagining the future.
Hito Steyerl: Documenting Void