Wordplay relies on imprecision and impurity; it springs from language’s gaps and overlaps. In Hito Steyerl’s essays, films and lecture-performances, words like ‘strike’, ‘cut’, ‘occupation’, ‘duty’, ‘bondage’ and ‘liquid’ are sent reeling through multiple meanings and non-meanings, with no resting places.
In a recent installation called Shunga (2014), the word ‘spring’ is played with. As a verb in English, ‘spring’ can describe quick, sudden movements; as a noun it can name the season that brings new life after the stagnancy of winter, as well as historical moments of social uprising and political reform. In Japanese, the word for ‘spring’ can be a euphemism for ‘sex’; ‘shunga’, literally ‘pictures of spring’, refers to pictures of sex – specifically the erotic woodblock prints that were popular during the Edo era. Despite official attempts at censorship, shunga survived for centuries as mass-produced, widely circulated image-commodities – proliferating and mutating beyond state control, often without clear authorship or traceable provenance. In Steyerl’s installation, animated gifs of classic shunga images are glitched with insertions of found text in their coding. The text fragments used for the insertions were gleaned from online message boards where users discussed ways to make the spring come faster – with various revolutionary, sexual, cosmological and horticultural techniques suggested. Inserted into the image data, these words move the explicit visual content towards illegibility, with random flittering colours animating and contaminating the pictures. The dazzling detritus is projected across a room of disjointed screens, implicating its viewers in a world where text and image are conflated and digital information is revealed as four-dimensional presence. As is often the case with Steyerl’s works, rather than looking at images as stable depictions of something past, we are looking at their ongoing conditions, as things in motion.
The words that follow have been assembled from pieces of a conversation that began at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven – where Steyerl’s touring museum retrospective Too Much World opened in April 2014 – and then continued online …
AG: Hito, you work with text and images, without privileging either. How would you say they differ – in terms of the ways they behave?
HS: When I’m making films I still try to respect the different operations – sound or text on one side and image on the other. I try to keep the gap between them, so they’re not always synchronised. The voiceover doesn’t give a caption to the image and the image doesn’t illustrate the words – they are brushed up against each other. But the distinction is for me breaking down more and more. Not only because every image is text (code) and has been for quite some time, but also because the time of work is more and more fragmented so things collapse into each other and there is no way of separating them. If you work on a computer it’s all there, you have some bits of text, some YouTube videos, multiple tabs and windows overlapping –
AG: Sometimes I can’t remember if I’ve read something or watched it –
HS: Exactly. But remember when you were a kid and you had the analogue TV in one corner of the room and you couldn’t read there at the same time? It was difficult to do both at once, and your parents would tell you off, “don’t read in front of the TV!” Now I hardly read anything off-screen.
AG: While mapping image circulation and transmutation, your work has also considered the ways in which language spreads, morphs and reorganises itself. Languages have always been decentralised, collaborative works-in-progress, but now more than ever the notion of a stable, correct English is really defunct. I wanted to ask you about this – especially since you often work in English, which is not your mother tongue. Words are set in motion in your writing. They don’t offer their readers stable positions …
HS: No. Lawyers and nationalists want language to be stable. But it’s like telling organisms to stop moving or growing. It’s old fashioned but I believe language is bigger and wiser than anyone speaking it. It’s always ahead.
AG: In a statement recently published online for an all-male panel on ‘the role of the art critic’ which was programmed for Art Month Sydney, one art critic wrote that his job was ‘to be a cool- headed analyst, not a fan, a lackey or a helpless victim of the Zeitgeist.’ It seems the ideal of the distanced, objective, authoritative, critic-judge somehow still lingers …
HS: Of course with art you don’t only engage with the work but with the surrounding conditions – it’s always embedded spectatorship. But yes these modes of visual detachment do still exist – with drones for instance, it’s all there. This detached gaze [makes a hand gesture of the vertical stance of a figure in front of an artwork on a wall] corresponds with this detached gaze [makes a hand gesture of a drone with an aerial view]. Maybe the algorithmic vision is slightly different but, this surveying eye of God, it’s the critic’s ego ideal.
AG: Yes! There’s inherent violence in this hovering surveyor’s gaze; it entails a lack of responsibility, no dirty hands. Can you comment on the possibilities or necessities of getting involved – physically, emotionally, sensually – with what you are observing, either as a writer or as a filmmaker / artist? I’m remembering the bodily interference with the TV screen – a seemingly flat, impenetrable site of representation – in your 28-second film STRIKE …
HS: I’ve been thinking about the term ‘engagement’, which is deeply ambivalent. It obviously has a military component, but there is also engagement as a mode of commitment – becoming engaged with someone. Engagement can be violent, but it can also be in the name of mutual support and having fun with one another.
AG: I wanted to ask also about engagement from positions of amateurism and naivety – about writing words, or holding a camera, from a place of not knowing. How can being uninformed at the outset impact what you create?
HS: It can open up new perspectives that have not been ossified or codified. My goal in life is to attain beginner’s spirit. I would like to become an absolute beginner. It might take a lifetime to achieve this and to get rid of all the useless preconceptions and default settings. This is serious work!
AG: Your recent video How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013) tells us that one way to become unseen is “to take a picture.” We watch you obscure your face with a smartphone as you hold it up to photograph something in front of you (us). By taking a picture, you hide. In your earlier work Lovely Andrea (2007), you have returned to Tokyo to try to track down some pornographic photographs that you posed for in the 1980s. Having been exposed in front of and by the camera twenty years earlier, you are mostly on the other side of its lens throughout this film. There is a near-disappearance of the once highly visible body, as that body becomes involved with the ‘taking’ of pictures …
HS: It seems like a relief, but with the lens switching function on smartphone cameras we have unfortunately lost the off-screen, or large parts of it. In front of the camera is now the same as behind the camera. With this transformation large parts of traditional cinema theory comes crashing. It now sounds very strange to talk about the master of the gaze behind the lens, and the objectification of those represented in front. Now objects gaze and the framer is framed. Postproduction is production, cameras are panoramic and have eyes on their backs. The off-screen is still there, but it’s no longer behind the camera. Just a tiny slice of off-screen remains at the edge of vision. It has partly remained inside the camera, where some unknown operations are going on in forms of “beautification” and censorship algorithms.
AG: In the introduction to your book of essays The Wretched of the Screen (2012), Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi includes these translated words from Friedrich Hölderlin’s hymn Patmos: “But where danger threatens / That which saves from it also grows.” Even when your work is dealing with brutal forces of oppression, exploitation and homogenisation, there is always possibility of change. I don’t want to say optimism, but you’re often able to point to or enact the twists and openings that allow for other possibilities. Do you ever feel despair?
HS: Yes, sure. Everybody does. But then what? My very early films were quite gloomy, and at a certain moment I realised it was spoiled and defeatist. You can state the obvious, things are bad, but then you have to keep moving. It’s part of the struggle to keep going. How can anyone make the world any better if they don’t know how to have fun under gloomy circumstances?
AG: It was funny and awkward seeing you in conversation with the philosopher Peter Osborne at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London last month, because there was such a marked contrast between his humourlessness and propensity for cul-de-sacs, and your uncalculated generosity with ideas. Do you consider humour to be a political strategy?
HS: Yes. The question of how to speak without authority is central to it.
AG: In that talk at the ICA you showed a screengrab from Google’s Ngram Viewer that showed a drastic decline in the use of the word “impossible” in English language books since the late nineteenth century. How does impossibility feature in your own work? I don’t mean the word necessarily, but notions of the illogical, ludicrous, unrealisable, far-fetched …
HS: I wrote a lecture with Rabih Mroué once, called Probable Title: Zero Probability, where we calculated among other things the possible subject combinations to result from a couple of dispersed skeletons. Actually his father calculated this. One of the interesting things of stochastics is that things actually don’t in mathematical reality always add up. Probabilities for different possibilities should always add up to one. But sometimes they just don’t and then there is an area of zero probability, where every element is totally impossible. It’s a set of completely impossible elements, yet completely real.
AG: Copy-pasted from your 2010 text Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy: “Contemporary art is a brand name without a brand, ready to be slapped onto almost anything, a quick face-lift touting the new creative imperative for places in need of an extreme makeover, the suspense of gambling combined with the stern pleasures of upper-class boarding school education, a licensed playground for a world confused and collapsed by dizzying deregulation. If contemporary art is the answer, the question is: How can capitalism be made more beautiful?” This essay astutely observes multiple facets of exploitation, corruption, conformity, hypocrisy and hype in the field of art. You wrote it from a position within that field. Can critiques like this only come from inside the system?
HS: Surely not. But the point is also that the field is now a wide-ranging continuum: a military-finance-art-entertainment-real estate-complex. It ranges from indentured labour to logistics, security, branding. So the system is much more vast than it seems and there is a lot of inside to it.
AG: The Politics of Art text proposes the idea that ‘political art’ is not so much art that deals with political subjects that are external to it, but art that examines its own conditions of production / distribution / display. How do you approach this when it comes to your own work?
HS: The production context of the work is usually somewhere in there. Sometimes very explicitly, as in the lectures Is the Museum a Battlefield? (2013) and I Dreamed a Dream: Politics in the Age of Mass Art Production (2013). It’s always there in some form. Team members are protagonists usually; in this sense there’s no distinction between behind / before the camera.
AG: Besides writing and making films / art, you’re also a teacher. What do your students teach you?
HS: Everything. How to be alive, essentially. My daughter teaches me too. She is a master at it.
AG: I think we should try to talk more about movement and transitory states –
HS: Well, I have an emotional attachment to movement, because when I studied filmmaking it was really shunned. Motion is considered to be for action films and ‘lesser arts’. You know how in Deleuze’s two books you start with the ‘movement-image’ of cinema and then you have to get to the ultimate ‘time-image’ in the second book, beyond the movement? This is the stasis and boredom of modernism. I’m the complete opposite – duration is unbearable to me. I mean, it’s so pretentious, ugh! Nothing happens and you have to just sit there being detained by someone’s pretentious gesture and keep looking and all you see is the 35mm film rolling through the camera and wasting all that money.
AG: Commercial markets obviously need continual streams of novelty. Commodities are shape-shifters without fixed form, absorbing human fears and desires while endlessly perpetuating new ones. Fluid movement is a condition of capitalism. But at the same time there are movements that capital cannot, at least not immediately, capture or account for – small leakages where there is temporary escape and defiance …
HS: Yes, do you remember the man in the discussion following the talk at the ICA, who spoke of liquidity as a proletariat strategy? This idea of moving across the landscape undetected, it’s too beautiful and graceful just to leave to appropriation by capitalism.
AG: Over time your own films seem to have become more and more restless. The most recent one, Liquidity Inc. (2014), is all over the place. It both describes and embodies fluid, slippery states. Are you still fighting that revered modernist stasis from your film student days, or is it something else that is speeding things up, and dispersing them?
HS: I rarely feel I am making works. They are usually making me – or breaking me, as was the case with this one.
AG: I like the Bruce Lee samples in Liquidity Inc. Do you practice martial arts?
HS: I did for years, now my knees are ruined.
AG: What did it teach you?
This interview was published in issue 4 of Discipline Journal
Images: Hito Steyerl, How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013)