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.
Hito Steyerl’s exhibition at e-flux, her first solo show in the U.S., affords viewers in New York the opportunity to see three of the German author and artist’s videos, which complement her texts about contemporary visual culture. Two were made this year and debut here.
The installation Adorno’s Grey (2012) dominates the exhibition space. The video relates two stories that involve the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno: one about a lecture during which three female students interrupted Adorno and danced, topless, around him; the other, the philosopher’s legendary request that the auditorium where he taught at the Goethe-UniversitaÌ?t in Frankfurt be painted gray to aid his pupils’ concentration. In the gray-scale video, two conservators pick at the wall of a lecture hall (ostensibly Adorno’s classroom), in search of the mythical layer of gray paint. Large vertical panels propped against the gallery’s wall provide a multilevel screen for the video, exaggerating the layers of putty and paint through which the conservators dig. Along an adjacent wall, a timeline parallels significant events in Adorno’s life with landmark monochromatic (grayscale) modernist artworks (identified by artist’s name and title, no images), notable nudist acts and historic 20th-century protests, serving as an extended caption or footnotes for the film.
In the video November (2004), Steyerl narrates the story of her friend Andrea Wolf ’s murder. Wolf was captured and killed by Turkish security forces in 1998 when she was fighting for the Kurdish liberation movement. Documentary footage from Kurdish television, scenes of Wolf from a film that she and Steyerl made in 1983, clips from Bruce Lee mov- ies and samurai films, and footage of Steyerl marching in an antiwar protest accompany Steyerl’s voice, as well as those of others, eulogizing Wolf and discussing the issues surrounding her death and how it was documented. The influence of action films on rebel fighting tactics is also explored.
Abstract (2012), too, invokes Wolf ’s martyrdom. At e-flux, the video was projected onto two side-by-side screens. Often, footage on one screen is paired with a caption on the other. An image of a rough hillside appears next to the phrase “This is a shot.” Next, an image of Steyerl, in front of the Brandenburg Gate, holding an iPhone in front of her eyes as though taking a video, is coupled with the words “This is a countershot.” The volley continues, portraying Steyerl in several locations and, eventually, jogging seam- lessly from one screen into the shot on the other.
All three films explore the use of video and photographs to illustrate past or supposed events. They exemplify, albeit as parody, it seems, how cameras are employed to document evidence and incidents, or reconstruct or fictionalize them. A collection of Steyerl’s essays, The Wretched of the Screen, published by e-flux and Sternberg Press this fall and available at the gallery, elucidates this idea and the films’ other themes. In the articles, Steyerl examines the effects of images and image-making technologies on 21st-century culture—how they inform our subjectivity; affect our under- standing of labor and production; invade our privacy; dictate our appearance; alter our perspective, literally, from the linear view that dominated the modern era; and challenge the avant-garde project to integrate art and life. Together, Steyerl’s written work and videos evidence the power of images in contemporary society—Steyerl calls the image “a condensation of social forces,” positing it as today’s definitive fetishized commodity—and demonstrate her canny under- standing of hypercapitalist visual culture.
Photo: Hito Steyerl: Abstract, 2012, HD video, 5 minutes; at e-flux.