Frieze | Review: Hito Steyerl, Too Much World (2014)
by Amelia Groom
It begins with a blank screen. The word ‘STRIKE’ appears across it, in white capital letters against a black background. Then a woman appears, dressed in black. She approaches an empty LCD monitor and strikes its undifferentiated surface once with a chisel, leaving a multi-coloured web of fractures across it, before everything fades (back) to black. It’s all over in less than 30 seconds. Then it starts again.
This is Hito Steyerl’s video STRIKE (2010), which plays on a loop on a monitor in the first room of the writer–filmmaker’s first retrospective, ‘Too Much World’. When the blank black surface of the screen that is struck in the video is replicated by the blank black surface of the screen that plays the footage, the representation enters the world. The word ‘strike’ – whether it’s used in the sense of hitting something or refusing to work as a form of organized protest – implies collision, disruption, resistance. By the time the word reappears on the screen in front of us, it might be read in the imperative form of the verb – provoking us, as bodies in front of this site of representation, to intervene with it.
When the artist appears on (our) screen and strikes the (depicted) screen, she plainly exposes the materiality of the viewing apparatus. And throughout the remainder of the exhibition, Steyerl’s works foreground various material, ideological, technological and political infrastructures that exist beyond the pictorial content of images, determining what is visible and what remains unseen. Indeed, clearly depicted subject matter is often eclipsed in her films and videos, so that rather than identifying what an image is ‘of’, we are instead made to look at what it is presently doing, and where it is going. We follow images as they travel around and shape-shift – encountering, participating in and generating other realities along the way.
The War According to eBay (2010) is an installation of light boxes, with innocuous-looking abstract pictures showing nothing but blocks of neon colours on pure white fields. But the images are, in fact, derived from photographs that were taken by German soldiers on the Eastern Front during World War II and are now being sold on eBay. In being offered as digital commodities, the images are often obscured by blocks of colour that conceal the depictions of war crimes, swastikas and other illegal content – and also function as a form of copyright, to prohibit people from accessing the full image without paying for it. Steyerl has removed the depictive components of the pictures so that only their superimposed marks of censorship, ownership and exchangeability remain. This conspicuous erasure makes them into documents of their present status as merchandise circulating in an online marketplace.
Rather than being only secondary records or renderings of a pre-existing condition, images in Steyerl’s works exist in the present continuous tense – they develop; they are ongoing. This exhibition takes its title from her essay Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead? (2013), in which she reflects on the way that online images have ‘started moving offline’. She describes a condition ‘partly created by humans but also only partly controlled by them’, in which images are coming out of our screens and travelling around – shaping human relations, rewriting social and political systems, triggering events, morphing, warping, and then dematerializing again, retreating back into the screen before invading other spaces. ‘The all-out internet condition is not an interface but an environment,’ Steyerl writes. ‘We thought it was a plumbing system, so how did this tsunami creep up in my sink?’
Images start to creep out of the screen in several parts of the exhibition. For instance, the grey walls throughout the gallery spaces appear to have come from the video projection that is part of Adorno’s Grey (2012), which is, amongst other things, an inconclusive examination of the walls in the lecture hall in which Theodor Adorno taught that may or may not have been painted grey. The video is screened in such a way as to occupy fractured, three-dimensional presence: as the conservationists in the footage chip away at the surface of Adorno’s wall, the film’s image is projected onto a wall that is already broken into pieces. This exposure of the physical infrastructure of the exhibition occurs throughout, with Brechtian gestures of anti-illusionistic presentation, sometimes inviting us to be literally behind the scenes, looking at the backs of screens.
The 2010 video essay In Free Fall is installed across three intersecting screens, prohibiting any complete view or unbroken linear sequence. Taking its cue from Sergei Tretyakov’s 1929 text The Biography of the Object (in which the Soviet writer argues that the traditional novel’s dependence on a central hero’s psychic interiority should be replaced by a narrative that follows an inanimate object), In Free Fall traces the ‘biography’ of a Boeing 707 through a convoluted web of movements, transitions and coincidences. The roving object and its detached image plot a constellation of tangentially related, ragmentary stories about how human lives and inanimate materials may be reassembled, reconfigured and recycled after they have been shattered into pieces in a (financial / plane) crash.
In Steyerl’s most recent video, Liquidity Inc. (2014), the main character is water. It takes various configurations and possible manifestations – as oceans, eyeballs, touchscreens, leaks, drinks, rainbows, ice, waves, floods, vapour, torrents and tsunamis. It arrives on this planet as an alien presence, and it forms migratory paths between Vietnam and California; it flows through us as blood, sweat and tears, and it appears as animated digital versions of Katsushika Hokusai’s woodblock print The Great Wave (c. 1830) on Tumblr. It also carries us through liquid assets, corporate liquidation and – for the artist, while she is in the process of making the video – an evaporating budget. ‘Water can flow – and it can crash’, Bruce Lee repeats in the voiceover, ‘be formless, shapeless, like water.’
It is a mark of their own fluid strength that Steyerl’s works don’t always lend themselves well to summary or overview – or, to a certain extent, to an exhibition review. As with the witty, writhing prose of her essays, her image-based works describe and embody a world of incompletion and open-ended variation. ‘Too Much World’ reminds us that her ideas cannot be surveyed from a single, stable vantage point. It is to their credit that much is necessarily left out of any attempted retrospective or review.