Hito Steyerl: Ways to Disappear


Published in RAVEN Contemporary, Feb 2015

There are scores of ways to disappear. You could erase, censor, evaporate. Perhaps go off-grid, change jobs, turn grey. Or you could surrender yourself to Hito Steyerl’s world – a gravitational archipelago of all these things.

On show at the Institute of Modern Art (IMA), ‘Too Much World’ presents the first Australian survey of Steyerl, an acclaimed Berlin-based new media artist and filmmaker with a fever for digital technologies and how they are spawned, interpreted, transformed and circulated. The exhibition is curated into six film-driven installations, so if you plan a visit, I recommend setting aside at least an hour of slow-looking.

The tendency for museum guards to blend into the background as they militantly protect the art is toppled in Guards (2012). In this film, two guards take centre stage as vertically-screened apparitions – becoming artwork, guardian, and greeter at the same time – as they beckon me through the museum’s glass doors.

The camera shadows these men as they walk their floor-shift at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, sharing their background story in the military and law enforcement, and what unfolds is a parallel between protecting people and artefacts – both precious.

In one mesmerising scene, ex-police officer Ron Hicks responds to Steyerl’s enquiry: what would you do if someone was hiding in this very gallery? Perceiving an imminent threat, Hicks covertly slinks past artworks and around corners, fingers clasped into an imaginary gun. “I run my walls all the way around,” he demonstrates, “I am engaged on my subject.”

Hicks momentarily darts off screen, and I’m almost convinced he is lurking behind the IMA’s wall, ready to expose me as subject. Just don’t shoot me, ok? Because even as a blind-spot, this guard commands the floor.

I ‘run’ my walls next door, where Liquidity Inc. (2014) screens in a makeshift cinema with no seats; instead you’re called to nestle on wrestling-mats and beanbags propped against an ocean-curved structure.

Fittingly, the film samples an iconic scene where martial arts legend Bruce Lee reveals the philosophy of water as a formless, shapeless entity that can crash or flow. To be transformative and adaptive, he says, we must “be like water.” Steyerl then veers the story into a career sea-change by way of Jacob Wood, an analyst who abandoned his career after the 2008 economic crash to train as a mixed martial arts fighter.

This documentary factoid shows water to be a perpetual vessel that flows and crashes between bodies, objects, data and emotions. It reminds us that an element that makes up 60% of the human body can also adapt to take the form of a tsunami disaster, a digital torrent, an evaporation of finances, or a Tumblr expression. It’s also an awareness that liquid, even in its seemingly invisible state, infinitely surrounds us, and is us.

After swanning, Hollywood cameo-style, past an assembly of green screens, monochrome pixels and white calibration marks, I seclude myself in a boxed-in theatre for How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013). In today’s highly-scrutinised world of surveillance and data combing, it seems baffling that planes and ships still vanish and mass weapons go ‘missing.’

The film then serves as a five-chaptered instructional manual on how to hide in a world that is always watching. For we are told that the Earth is one colossal image crumbled into resolutions, so whatever is not detected ocularly or through social oppression  – like love, capitalism, or introversion – is rendered uncounted and unregistered, swimming underneath the surface of existence.

Towards the film’s end, Steyerl and her production crew relay satirical lessons in trickery by donning camouflages to assimilate themselves into army bases, hotels and shopping malls, resulting in a collapsed periphery of authenticity and deception. I am taught that if I want to stay relevant or be among counted heads, I must remain within sight, inside my resolution target. And to hide, I have to detour from the path or master sleight-of-hand.

Towards the film’s end, Steyerl and her production crew relay satirical lessons in trickery by donning camouflages to assimilate themselves into army bases, hotels and shopping malls, resulting in a collapsed periphery of authenticity and deception. I am taught that if I want to stay relevant or be among counted heads, I must remain within sight, inside my resolution target. And to hide, I have to detour from the path or master sleight-of-hand.

Then, there is hiding in plain sight, as explored in the monochromatic film Adorno’s Grey (2012).  Here, the painted walls of a Frankfurt auditorium are scraped by conservationists in the hopes of revealing a grey coat concealed underneath. Grey is supposed to be hue of focus, the film counters, and was thought to be the original colour of the wall in 1969, when Marxist theorist Theodor W. Adorno stormed out of the auditorium after bare-breasted protesters disrupted his lecture.

Upon hitting concrete, the conservationists discover no sign of grey after all. No matter, Steyerl instructs them to etch distinctive shadows into the hole to fabricate the illusion of a grey that never was. The strikingly-shot film is projected onto disjointed wall planks that allow for outside light to splinter through the blackened room, making this film a visceral wrestle between structure and rebellion, concealment and exposure, darkness and light.  I realise that as a viewer, I’m unable to see Steyerl’s Grey within the invisible climate of her de-saturated film. But maybe I was never meant to?

As the hyperdata disco of zoomed-in images, montage videos and endless scrolling continue to flow, transform and fade in and out, so too does Steyerl’s brilliantly perceptive commentary of a world that’s never enough and too much all at once.

Hito Steyerl: Too Much World / 13 December 2015 – 22 March 2015
Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane.

ima.org.au


Image 1:Hito Steyerl, How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013). HD video file, single screen, 14 minutes. Copyright Hito Steyerl, courtesy Wilfried Lentz Rotterdam

Image 2: Hito Steyerl, Guards, 2012, installation view at Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2015. Image by Mariam Arcilla for RAVEN.