If any artist can make sense of this sense-challenging period, it’s Hito Steyerl: poet laureate of digital disruption and social revolution.
In her video installations, essays and lectures, the German artist broke down the boundaries between the internet and what is called the ‘real world’ and explored digital technologies in the war zones, financial markets, real estate development and auction. blow off the screen. houses. Steyerl, with bitter humor and a deft mix of high- and low-resolution images, underlined the violence and absurdity that results from the fusion of human life and data – hence the cruel 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 in the Düsseldorf museum K21; it is now visible, after a delay, in the Pompidou Center in Paris“I Will Survive” is Steyerl’s most important European exhibition through July 5th. Along with her best-known works, it debuts “SocialSim”, a new installation that nods to the pandemic and police violence. Here, inspired police officers do not infect each other with a new coronavirus, but with dance cases – which really happened 500 years ago during the infamous Dancing plague of Strasbourg.
Although her work is relentlessly topical – other videos in ‘I Will Survive’ evoke the missing ‘Salvator Mundi’, and the commonality of fashion label Balenciaga and right-wing populism, Steyerl has always brought a deep ambivalence about new technologies . Her skepticism seems more valid than ever after the many months we spent in front of our screens, and in a recent conversation, summarized and edited below, Steyerl told me why we should understand our pesar less than a disruption as’ an acceleration. (We talked via a video link, and Steyerl appears in front of a beautiful Zoom background of pink flowers.)
You live in Berlin and study there at the University of the Arts. Did you stay seated during the entire pandemic?
I have been completely locked up since March last year. I actually learned in Minecraft: it’s a game for kids 7 years old, and you can build things with blocks. You can build fantasy worlds very quickly. Last week, my students performed a version of Brecht’s ‘The Measures Taken’ in a giant communist show rehearsal facility they built in Minecraft.
What kind of restrictions did the pandemic impose on the art you made?
Perhaps nothing new is needed except for the intensification of existing things. I used leftovers from previous shoots, from previous works, plus generated stuff, plus stuff shot from a distance.
In ‘SocialSim’, which you recently created, we see a social infection of a ‘dancing virus’ – but also more contemporary social infections. Opposition to mask wear, which in Germany resulted in an attempt to storm the German parliament last August, also spread and spread like a kind of viral transmission.
There was something else that really shocked me, that happened in Berlin at the end of last summer, when the Egyptian Museum suddenly attacked him through a mysterious ‘sprinkler’. Someone entered the museum and sprayed about 70 objects with an oily substance. And the idea was – it has not been confirmed – that it has to do with these conspiracy theorists, who in Germany are very much linked to the right wing.
It can be a little crazy after two big thefts, at the Bode Museum in Berlin and then the Green Vault in Dresden, Germany.
This was one of the main arguments around the Humboldt Forum, from the people who did not want to recover anything: that these objects would not be safe. Now it seems that they are also absolutely not safe in Germany.
I wonder what you think of the building of the Center Pompidou, which can no longer be other than the Humboldt Forum – although it also has problems.
The building is in the 70s Beautiful palace a cybernetic machine that somehow bumped into the neighborhood, and now it has acquired a nostalgic trait, referring to a kind of welfare state, where there would be such investments in public museum for contemporary art. So this is a machine for me: a big machine, a bone-eating machine. And actually, the show is involved in the broken parts of the museum, because it runs out onto the service aisles, where you see that the windows are actually broken.
The museum must close for renovations, for four years.
What’s funny: it’s been built as this beacon of modernism and shiny novelty, and it’s not that long ago, is it? But I have a soft spot for these Plexiglas tubes, the “Star Trek” atmosphere.
On the subject of broken glass: for your recent video installation “The City of Broken Windows”, now on the Pompidou show, you interviewed engineers smashing windows for a data production company.
It was made in 2018. I was really mad at people who just wanted me to do shiny, funny CGI stuff, and I really wanted to do something very documentary – strictly, let’s put it this way. Trump was elected, and I was not in a great mood anyway, so I thought, “Let’s go for something simple and something real.”
I’m after a British company called Audio Analytic, in Cambridge. I have read about it on the BBC. And they 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 is standing in a big airplane hangar and destroying windows all day for a machine to get smarter. I was completely fascinated.
The old modernist vision of smashing objects – Cubism, Futurism – was taken up by statistics and surveillance.
A smart home ideology. But also creative destruction – you know, things break down fast, that Silicon Valley idea. It all goes into it and creates this kind of surveillance panorama. But the people are super enthusiastic about breaking the windows. You can even see me; I also broke one. I used the footage in ‘SocialSim’.
You’ve never been an internet native artist; you have no web page, your works are not online except as a bootleg. But during the exclusion you did it a series of stream offers of your works. Did you learn any lessons from the closure of live streams in this new exhibit?
For the four stream nights, I provided a more or less new context – by, for example, talking to protagonists from work myself. So I felt it was legal because it gave a new angle to the works. Mostly it was videos for which they could be streamed, and not projections on multiple screens, that would get complicated.
But when I gave up in Paris, I must say. At this point, people are already so tired of looking at screens, and there is this content. It was a show I really tried to think through physically that space. I did not feel that I could in any way create a digital clone of it that could replace it. It would just be some kind of homework, and also wrong.
I feel almost bad ask you about NFTs, but as someone who has mercilessly investigated art’s relationship with financial speculation and crime, you need to find out.
At the moment, art is an excuse, or perhaps an excuse, to set up the infrastructure: the crypto-infrastructure, the Web 3.0 infrastructure. And the slogan is this magic of the NFT. It really is a magic because it means nothing! It just means: I own you, and somehow I will import it on the blockchain. But because it sounds complicated or high-tech, it attracts so much attention, right? It’s just a mechanism of disinformation. The more confusing it becomes, the more attention is drawn to it or used up.
It really seems like the rhetoric surrounding NFTs – and more generally about crypto, I would say – relies so much on the artist’s modernist figure. Individual creativity, free of institutions, finally unleashed.
I mean, I see it at least for the third time: this implementation of new infrastructure with the same kind of slogan and propaganda. “It will be more democratic. It will be more accessible. There will be equal opportunities. Everyone will get information. The intermediaries will be removed. 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 now, 20 years later, look at Serbia and see if it all came true. Then it was the beginning of social media, the Arab Spring, Iran. But the same rhetoric of technology that automatically leads to progress and more equality is being used again. With NFTs, it’s basically the same. The only difference is that we hear it now from Paris Hilton.