For the German videoartist Hito Steyerl every show is an opportunity for an uncompromising reflection on the world and its current divisions. Such as the recent exhibition “Duty-Free Art” in Madrid.
“Battlefields”: for Hito Steyerl, this is what places dedicated to art are, including museums. And that’s how the artist treats them. Every piece of work, every show is an opportunity for an uncompromising reflection on the world and its current divisions; a reflection that is also a form of critical activism and intellectual guerrilla warfare.
The works of this German filmmaker and video artist, one of the leading figures on the international art scene, are mostly installations centered on films made by combining the language of documentary with that of animation: using the world of documentary film as a starting point, Steyerl then proceeds to take it apart in an analytic and radical manner.
In most cases the starting point is a fast-paced lecture-performance in which, reading a text, the artist interacts with the live use of images and video. The construction of the text and the editing of the images go hand-in-hand. The lectures/performances are then recorded and become an integral part of the films and video-installations.
The clear vision of Hito Steyerl is based on the principal components of the world today; on the hyper-communication, above all, that has transformed the world into a network and on the quantity of data and images that proliferate to the point of submerging us; on the uninterrupted flow of information that filtered, emptied, progressively reduced to slogans, is administered to us each day, without which for this we are truly informed: and then financial speculation and issues of precariousness, control, surveillance, and on the growing militarisation of society with the weapons market that flourishes and the weapons that travel, and pass from war to war, and infiltrate entire society: arms for war use but also more manageable ones that can kill anyone: it is “the violence of democracy, and the democratisation of violence”, sums up the artist in one of his works.
The pace of Steyerl’s works is relentless. The texts are brief, quick and incisive, constructed by association of ideas, based on the notion that the assembly corresponds to a way of thinking.
The images that the artist chooses and processes are the very ones that, from videoclips to videogames, pass from hand to hand and occupy the imagination of the young: attractive and seductive images that however Steyerl considers both for their origin and mode of production, as a commodity and to describe the world dominated by a fluid, opaque neo-liberal economy.
For the artist, every story, no matter how personal it is, must be placed in a broader context. For this reason, in his works, singular and paradigmatic events are interspersed with global phenomena and personal situations are intertwined with political and philosophical considerations
The recent exhibition “Duty-Free Art” at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid presented a considerable number of his works; from Strike, 2010, that addresses the theme of the physical nature of the screen, to In Free Fall, also from 2010, in which Steyerl tracks the biography of an object, the Boeing 707, from its creation up to the accident that determined its fall and to the reassembly that put in circulation the parts. The intricacies of this story correspond to those of the geopolitics and trans-national relationships.
Included in the works on show is Guards, from 2012, that has for protagonists a number of security guards from the Art Institute in Chicago with behind them military careers. Moving around the rooms of the museum, the men talk about their past experiences while a series of projections accompany them in a simulation of action. And then there is How Not To Be Seen. A Fucking Didactic Educational. Mov File, made for the 2013 Venice Biennale that appears as a mocking group of instructions, with demonstrations and virtual simulations, on how to achieve invisibility in the digital age. And Liquidity, from 2014, that tells the emblematic story of a former financial consultant who reinvented himself as a martial arts expert after the global economic crisis. Also in this work, incorporating visual research and existential-philosophical theorisations, the artist presents a global reflection on the concept of liquidity; because “climate is time”, “time is money”, “money is liquid”, “the currents can change”...
Thus with rare critical lucidity and an eye always for maps and territories, Steyerl plays on the dialectic between the visible and invisible, between the evident and the removed, between aesthetic violence and the violence of war and, in doing so, exposes the contradictions of the globalised world and its hidden mechanisms.
Without forgetting the world of contemporary visual arts, also connected to social-political issue and compromised in an almost dangerous relationship: if the arms market and neoliberal economy go hand-in-hand, the arts, bound as they are to strategies of economic accumulation and financial speculation – the same that are behind wars – is always more intense in terms of entertainment, spectacle, cultural industry, what have they become? Is it surprising that the museum, instead of a place of emancipation, is becoming a defensive and militarised fortress? And what can we do, if not live it in a critical manner, and attempt to overcome once more this latest impasse returning to consider it site of ongoing research?