Steyerl’s critically-acclaimed films and lecture-performances adopt the visual tropes of digital culture—viral videos, Photoshop, QR codes—to explore their penetration into our real-world lives. Sharp, witty, and multi-layered, these short plays on media theory after the internet take as a starting point the artist’s oft-quoted conviction that images “migrate across different supports, shaping and affecting people, landscapes, politics and social systems.” These are images that not only move on the screen but out of it, changing the ways we see, think and act.
In Guards (2012), currently exhibiting at Artists Space, New York, two museum security staff prowl the Art Institute of Chicago, reliving their past careers in militarized law enforcement. Works such as November (2004), Lovely Andrea (2007) and Is the Museum a Battlefield? (2013) are haunted by the “disappearance” of the artist’s friend Andrea Wolf, an activist for Kurdish independence, while Liquidity Inc. (2014) tells the story of an investment banker turned cage-fighter by way of balaclava-clad weather presenters and Hokusai. In each case, images—and by extension, art—are implicated in the world’s economic, environmental, and political conflicts.
Hito Steyerl, Strike, 2010. Image courtesy of the Artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York.
The artist might, then, seem an odd choice to represent Germany at the forthcoming Venice Biennale. Indeed, no one is more surprised than Steyerl, who tells me from Berlin, where she is a professor of new media art, that “It’s not something that I ever expected, or even considered. The Kurdish pavilion, yes! But the German? I had never thought it possible.” Yet she has no plans to rein in her politics: “I am less anxious about making a politicized work for the German Pavilion than I would be about making work that didn’t have a political dimension.”
Hito Steyerl, Liquidity Inc., 2014. Image courtesy of the Artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York
Where Liquidity, Inc. used water as a metaphor to riff on everything from the banking system to environmental crisis, Steyerl has for this project taken inspiration from a quote in Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto: “Our best machines are made of sunshine; they are all light and clean because they are nothing but signals.” Counting among its characters a computer programmer and a self-made YouTube star, the work can be expected to exhibit the artist’s familiar DIY charm. It’s a style consistent with an era in which, she says, “almost everyone has access to the tools to shape images to their own desire,” and in which more people are using picture- and video-editing software to create and disseminate images than paint or paper.
Steyerl plans to use the EYE Prize to realize a new film after Venice, its £25,000 a substantial fillip for an artist whose resolutely uncommercial practice has “always depended on the salary I receive as a teacher.” Her essays are foundational texts for the emerging generation of so-called post-internet artists. Yet she is eager to stress that her art does more than merely illustrate the ideas she expresses in her writing. “The writer is a plumber, the artist is a baker,” she tells me. “The writer is trying to put things together, mechanically, to find connections.” And the artist, I ask? “The artist … inflates things!” Steyerl laughs delightedly at the suggestion, and concedes that she might need to refine the analogy. The “unexpected,” she elaborates, is to be cherished in a work of art, if not in one’s plumbing.
Hito Steyerl. Photo: © Tobias Zielony.
For all the density of her allusions, the richness of her thought, and the complexity of the narratives she describes, Steyerl hopes that her work can catalyze reactions and ideas in her audience that she could not anticipate. “It’s very difficult to use images in a way that you know will produce a single effect, and that is a difficult but also reassuring thing. I like it when people attach lots of different meanings to my work. That is a type of freedom.”