hito steyerl: too much world

Hito Steyerl, Liquidity Inc. 2014

It begins with a blank screen. The word STRIKE appears across it, in white capital letters against the black background. Then a woman appears, dressed in black. She approaches the blank blackness of an LCD TV screen and strikes its undifferentiated surface with a chisel, leaving a multi-coloured web of fracture across it, before everything fades (back) to black. It’s all over in less than thirty seconds. Then it starts again.

This is Hito Steyerl’s video STRIKE (2010), which plays on a loop on a monitor in the first room of the writer-filmmaker’s first retrospective exhibition, ‘Too Much World’. When the blank surface of the screen that is struck in the video is replicated by the black surface of the screen that plays the footage, the representation steps out into the world. Whether it’s used in the sense of hitting something or refusing to work as a form of organized protest, the word ‘strike’ implies collision, disruption, resistance. By the time the word reappears on the screen in front of us, it might be read in the imperative form of the verb – provoking us, as bodies in front of this site of representation, to intervene with its structure.

When the artist appears on (our) screen and strikes the (depicted) screen, she plainly exposes the material basis of the viewing apparatus. And throughout the remainder of the exhibition, Steyerl’s works foreground various material, ideological, technological and political infrastructures that exist beyond the pictorial content of images, determining what is visible and what remains unseen. Indeed, clearly depicted subject matter is often eclipsed, so that rather than identify what an image is ‘of’, we are made to look at what it is presently doing, and where it is going. We follow images as they travel around and shape-shift – encountering, participating in and generating other realities along the way.

The War According to eBay (2010) is an installation of light boxes, with innocuous-looking abstract pictures showing nothing but blocks of neon colours on pure white fields. But the images are in fact derived from photographs that were taken by German soldiers on the Eastern Front during World War II, and are now being sold on eBay. As digital commodities, they often feature blocks of colour that obscure depictions of war crimes, swastikas and other illegal content – and also function as copyright marks that prohibit people from accessing the full image without paying for it. Steyerl has removed the depictive components of the pictures so that only their superimposed marks of censorship, ownership and exchangeability remain. This conspicuous erasure makes them into documents of their present status as merchandise circulating in an online marketplace.

Rather than being only secondary records or renderings of a pre-existing condition, images in Steyerl’s works exist in the present participle tense. This exhibition takes its title from her recent essay Too Much World: Is The Internet Dead? (2013), in which she reflects on the ways in which online images have ‘started moving offline’. She describes a condition ‘partly created by humans but also only partly controlled by them,’ where images are coming out of our screens and travelling around – shaping human relations, rewriting social and political systems, triggering events, morphing, warping, and then dematerializing again, retreating back into the screen before invading other spaces. ‘The all-out internet condition is not an interface but an environment,’ Steyerl writes. ‘We thought it was a plumbing system, so how did this tsunami creep up in my sink?’

The grey walls throughout the exhibition appear to have crept out from Steyerl’s black-and-white film Adorno’s Grey (2012), which is, amongst other things, an inconclusive examination of the walls in Theodor Adorno’s lecture hall, which may or may not have been painted grey. It is screened in such a way as to occupy fractured, three-dimensional presence: as the conservationists in the film chip away at the surface of Adorno’s wall, the film’s image is projected onto a wall that is already broken into pieces. This exposure of the physical infrastructure of the exhibition runs throughout, with Brechtian gestures of anti-illusionistic presentation – sometimes inviting us to be literally behind the scenes, looking at the backs of screens.

The 2010 film In Free Fall is installed across three intersecting screens, prohibiting any complete view or unbroken linear sequence. Taking cue from Sergei Tretyakov’s 1929 text The Biography of the Object (in which the Soviet writer argued that the traditional novel’s basis on the centralised hero’s psychic interiority should be replaced by a narrative structure that follows an inanimate object as it moves through many different social relations), In Free Fall follows a Boeing 707 through a convoluted web of movements, transitions and coincidences. The roving object and its detached image plot a constellation of tangentially related, fragmentary stories about how human lives and inanimate materials may be reassembled, reconfigured and re-cycled after they are shattered into pieces in a (financial / plane) crash.

In Steyerl’s most recent film, Liquidity Inc. (2014), the main character is water. It takes various configurations and possible manifestations – as oceans, eyeballs, touchscreens, leaks, drinks, rainbows, ice, waves, floods, vapour, torrents and tsunamis. It arrives on this planet as an alien presence, and it forms migratory paths between Vietnam and California. It flows through us as blood, sweat and tears, and it appears as animated digital versions of Katsushika Hokusai’s woodblock print The Great Wave (c. 1830) on Tumblr. It also carries us through liquid assets, corporate liquidation and – for the artist, while she is in the process of making the video – an evaporated budget. ‘Water can flow – and it can crash,’ Bruce Lee tells us throughout, ‘be formless, shapeless, like water.’

It is a mark of their own fluid strength that Steyerl’s works don’t lend themselves well to summary or overview. As with the witty, writhing prose of her essays, her image-based works describe and embody a world of incompletion, fragmentation, relocation, multiplication and variation. The way they are installed here reminds us that they don’t want to be surveyed from a single, stable vantage point.

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Review of the exhibition ‘Too Much World’ at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven – published in Issue 164 of Frieze Magazine, Summer 2014