View of Hito Steyerl’s video installation Liquidity, Inc., 2014, at Artists Space.

It’s fair to see levels of liquidity as a measure of our contemporary state of distress, whether manifested through rising seas, cataclysmic droughts or a loss in asset marketability. Despite the image of a calm, sparkling ocean that recurs in Hito Steyerl’s film Liquidity, Inc. (2014), existential and fiscal precarity are not concealed in the work. With the help of Jacob Wood, a former finance worker who became a mixed martial arts fighter and announcer, Steyerl excavates the connections between late capitalism, media spectacle and affective labor. 

Bathed in the aqueous light streaming through blue-filtered windows, and projected on a large screen in the loft of Artists Space’s Greene Street location, Liquidity, Inc. uses Steyerl’s characteristic editing and jump-cut techniques—equal parts cinematic montage, reality television and Tumblr—to mimic how screen technologies condition and recirculate perceptions of civic and economic vulnerability. The film moves from Jacob’s story to a geopolitical weather map to garishly animated repetitions of Hokusai’s The Great Wave at Kanagawa to the e-mails describing the budget cuts that prohibited Steyerl from hiring a CGI professional. “Be water, my friend,” whispers Bruce Lee from a video playing on a cell phone caught by Steyerl’s camera—a nesting doll of screens articulating a multiply mediated remove from reality, whatever that is. 

The exhibition is the first New York survey for Steyerl, who is an astute theorist of how images operate now. For all her visual punning and slick transitions, Steyerl is nevertheless the good radical historical materialist. In each of her films she interrupts her narrative to jolt us out of any prolonged illusion, revealing her own process of suturing cuts and shots. 

This ruthless determination to expose the complicity of images galvanizes Guards (2012) and In Free Fall (2010), which are also on view in the Greene Street gallery. Demonstrating that institutional critique is alive and kicking, if only a bit too cleanly rendered in this case, Guards juxtaposes interviews with military- and police-trained security officers at the Art Institute of Chicago with the tranquil, empty interior of the museum. In a cheeky inversion of the museum’s display function, Eva Hesse’s Hang Up (1966) becomes a mere frame for a guard as he describes his career in law enforcement, foregrounding the knotted networks of private equity and martial reach in all aspects of American life, even those that appear most aloof from it.

At the gallery’s Walker Street location, the quasi-documentary film essays November (2004) and Lovely Andrea (2007) were projected in a darkened basement, while upstairs three of Steyerl’s recorded lectures played on small monitors; two of them could be watched while sitting on sandbags. The video of a new lecture, “Duty Free Art,” anticipated Steyerl’s live delivery of the talk on the night of the exhibition’s opening. The tour-de-force manifesto addresses private government documents on Syrian museum initiatives (obtained through WikiLeaks), the tax-exempt zones of luxury art-storage spaces and opaque strata of what Steyerl calls “data capitalism” to evoke the flattened transnational space-time of contemporary art. Rather than the material we flagrantly display and overshare, it’s the network of unseen data that poses uncertainty, and therefore danger. Steyerl’s films visualize these covert relations, allowing them to breach the surface.