An onscreen chat with Hito Steyerl, art's great screen skeptic

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An onscreen chat with Hito Steyerl, art's great screen skeptic
Installation view at K21, Hito Steyerl. I Will Survive: Hito Steyerl, This is the Future / Power Plants, 2019, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, 2020, Foto: Achim Kukulies, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2020.

by Jason Farago

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- If any artist can make sense of this sense-defying period, it would be Hito Steyerl: poet laureate of digital dislocation and social upheaval.

In her video installations, essays and lecture-performances, the German artist has dismantled the boundaries between the internet and something called “the real world,” probing how digital technologies bleed off the screen into war zones, financial markets, real estate developments and auction houses. With bitter humor and a deft mix of high- and low-res imagery, Steyerl has underscored the violence and absurdity that result from melding human life and data — hence the brutal irony of her designation, in 2017, as “No. 1” on a more or less arbitrary list of “the 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 on view, after a delay, at the Pompidou Center in Paris, running through July 5. “I Will Survive” is Steyerl’s most significant European exhibition yet, and along with her most renowned earlier works, it debuts “SocialSim,” a new installation nodding to the pandemic and police violence. Here, animated police officers infect one another not with a novel coronavirus but with fits of dancing — which really did happen 500 years ago, during the notorious Dancing Plague of Strasbourg.

Though her work is relentlessly topical — other videos in “I Will Survive” evoke the missing “Salvator Mundi,” and the commonalities of the fashion label Balenciaga and right-wing populism — Steyerl has always brought a profound ambivalence to bear on new technologies. Her skepticism looks more valid than ever after the many months we’ve spent in front of our screens, and in a recent conversation, condensed and edited below, Steyerl told me about why we should understand our plague year as less of a disruption than an acceleration. (We spoke via video link, and Steyerl appeared in front of a fabulous Zoom background of pink flowers.)

Q: You live in Berlin and teach at the University of the Arts there. Have you been staying put throughout the pandemic?

A: I’ve been in lockdown since March of last year, completely. I have been teaching on Minecraft, actually: It’s a game for children, from 7 years old, and you get to build stuff with blocks. You can build fantasy worlds very quickly. Last week my students staged a version of Brecht’s “The Measures Taken” in a huge Communist show-trial facility, which they built in Minecraft.

Q: What sort of limitations did the pandemic impose on the art you’ve been making?

A: Maybe nothing new was really required, except for an intensification of existing things. I used leftovers from previous shoots, from previous works, plus generated stuff, plus stuff shot remotely.

Q: In “SocialSim,” which you made recently, we witness a social contagion from a “dancing virus” — but also more contemporary social contagions. Opposition to mask-wearing, which in Germany culminated in an attempt to storm Germany’s Parliament last August, also circulated and propagated like a kind of viral transmission.

A: There was something else that really shocked me that happened in Berlin at the end of last summer, when suddenly, the Egyptian Museum found itself attacked by a mysterious “sprinkler.” Someone entered the museum and sprayed an oily substance on around 70 objects. And the idea was — it has not been confirmed — that this was to do with these conspiracy theorists, who in Germany are very much networked with the right wing.

Q: Sort of crazy this could happen after two big thefts, at the Bode Museum in Berlin and then the Green Vault in Dresden, Germany.

A: It was one of the main arguments around the Humboldt Forum, of the people that did not want to restitute anything: that these objects would not be safe. Now it turns out they are absolutely not safe in Germany, either.

Q: I wonder what you think of the building of the Centre Pompidou, which could not be more unlike the Humboldt Forum — though it has its problems, too.

A: The building is this ’70s Fun Palace cybernetic machine that’s somehow rammed into the neighborhood, and by now it has acquired a nostalgic quality, referring back to some kind of welfare state, where there would be these kind of investments into public contemporary art museums. So for me it’s a machine: a big machine, a bone-eating machine. And actually, the show does engage with the broken parts of the museum, because it opens onto the service corridors, where you see that the windows are actually broken.

Q: The museum has to close for renovations, for four years.

A: Which is kind of funny: It was built as this beacon of modernism and shiny newness, and it’s not so long ago, right? But I do have a soft spot for these Plexiglas tubes, the “Star Trek” atmosphere.

Q: On the subject of broken glass: For your recent video installation “The City of Broken Windows,” now in the Pompidou show, you interviewed engineers who smash windows for a data production company.

A: This was made in 2018. I was really pissed off by people only wanting me to do shiny, funny CGI stuff, and I really wanted to do something very documentary — austere, let’s put it like this. Trump had been elected, and I wasn’t in a great mood, anyway, so I thought, “Let’s go for something simple and something real.”

I went to a U.K. company called Audio Analytic, based in Cambridge. I had read about them on the BBC. And they had, by hand, manually destroyed thousands of windows to train an AI, a neural network, to recognize the sound of broken windows. The underlying idea was that a device could call the police, or security, or something like that. Someone actually is standing in a huge airplane hangar, destroying windows all day long for a machine to get smarter. I was completely fascinated.

Q: The old modernist vision of smashing objects to pieces — Cubism, Futurism — has been absorbed by metrics and surveillance.

A: A smart-home ideology. But also creative destruction — you know, break things fast, that Silicon Valley idea. All of that goes into it and creates this kind of surveillance panorama. But the people are superenthusiastic about breaking the windows. You can even see me; I broke one, too. I used that footage in “SocialSim.”

Q: You have never been an “internet native” artist; you have no web page, your works are not online except as bootlegs. But during the lockdown, you did a series of streaming presentations of your works. Have you taken any lessons from lockdown livestreaming into this new exhibition?

A: For those four streaming evenings, I produced a more or less new context — by talking to protagonists from the work themselves, for instance. So I felt it was legitimate, because it added a new angle to the works. Mostly, it was videos that lend themselves to be streamed, not multiscreen projections, which would get complicated.

But then in Paris, I kind of gave up, I have to say. At this point, people are already so tired looking at screens, and there is this glut of content. This was a show that I really had tried to think through physically, in that space. I didn’t feel that I could, in any way, create a digital clone of it that would actually be able to replace it. It would be just a kind of homework, and mistimed also.

Q: I almost feel bad asking you about NFTs, but as someone who has ruthlessly probed art’s relationship to financial speculation and to crime, you must find them familiar.

A: At the moment, art is an excuse, or a pretext maybe, to roll out the infrastructure: the cryptoinfrastructure, the Web 3.0 infrastructure. And the slogan is this magic spell of the NFT. It’s really a magic spell, because it doesn’t mean anything! It just means: I own you, and somehow, by magic cryptoincantations, I will enter it on the blockchain. But because it sounds complicated or high-tech, it draws so much attention, right? It’s just basically a mechanism of disinformation. The more confusing it gets, the more attention is drawn or used up by it.

Q: It really does seem that the rhetoric around NFTs — and around crypto more generally, I’d say — draws so much on the modernist figure of the artist. Individual creativity, free of institutions, finally unleashed.

A: I mean, I’m witnessing it at least for the third time: this implementation of new infrastructure with the same kind of sloganeering and propaganda. “It will be more democratic. It will be more accessible. There will be equal opportunity. Everyone will get information. The middlemen will be taken out.” I mean, how often am I going to hear it? How often are people going to fall for 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 later, and see whether all of this has come true. Then it was the beginning of social media, the Arab Spring, Iran. But the same rhetoric of technology automatically leading to progress and more equality is being deployed yet again. With NFTs, it is basically the same. The only difference is that now we’re hearing it from Paris Hilton.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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