Hito Steyerl / What does it mean to be a man – or a woman – in the age of digital automation.

by Elda Oreto

In the world of Hito Steyerl images have the weight of bodies and appearances have an absolute value. Hito Steyerl, born in Munich in 1966, who lives and works in Berlin, is a filmmaker and author whose research revolves around the relationship between aesthetics and politics. The artist, who received the Käthe Kollwitz Prize 2019 in recognition of her work in the field of visual arts for the use of new technologies, exhibited some of her works at the Akademie der Kunste from February to April. After studying documentary films at the University of Munich, Steyerl, who holds a PhD in Philosophy from the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and is currently a professor of New Media Art at the Berlin University of the Arts,  deepened her research towards a theoretical approach concerning the way in which the perception of reality, the daily life of each individual, is controlled and altered by new media.

Hito Steyerl

Hito Steyerl
Photo: © Trevor Paglen
Courtesy: the artist, Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York and Esther Schipper, Berlin

Steyerl, who this year will be part of the exhibition curated by Ralph Rugoff at the Venice Biennale, May You Live In Interesting Times, and which has in Harun Farocki one of her masters, also exhibited her works at Manifesta 5, in 2004; in 2007, the film Lovely Andrea was presented at documenta 12 in Kassel; in 2013 she was at the Venice Biennale and the Istanbul Biennial.  In 2015, she exhibited at the Germany Pavilion of the Venice Biennale. On display at the Akademie der Kunste were some of Steyerl’s most significant videos, such as Babenhausen, 1997, and Normality 6, 1999 made in Beta Sp, that is to say in VHS format, and also Empty Center, 1998, in 16mm. The films show a rich experimental and documentary apparatus, addressing the themes of racism and reconstruction in Germany after the fall of the wall.

Hito Steyerl

Hito Steyerl Empty Centre, 1998 (Film still) 16mm shown on video, sound 62 min © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019 Film still: © Hito Steyerl
Courtesy: the artist, Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York and Esther Schipper, Berlin

Hito Steyerl

Hito Steyerl Babenhausen, 1997 (Film still) Video 4:04 min © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019 Film still: © Hito Steyerl
Courtesy: the artist, Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York and Esther Schipper, Berlin

The first video, Babenhausen, tells the story of a Jew who returned to the hometown after the Holocaust. The shame of the persecution is made explicit by the remains of the ransacked house. In Normality 6, anti-Semitic violence is told through its antithesis, a neo-Nazi demonstration. In Empty Center, a bare Potsdamer Platz, a dislocated center in Berlin, is the scene of a difficult reconstruction. Hito Steyerl’s research moves within a complex grid, which circles around the power of the Τέχνη which not only allows us to know reality and alter it, but it also has the power to create it. On show there are also the works that address the issue of control over the society and the use of digital technologies.

Hito Steyerl

Hito Steyerl Empty Centre, 1998 16mm shown on video, sound, 62 min Installation view: “Käthe Kollwitz Prize 2019. Hito Steyerl”. Akademie der Künste, Berlin © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019 Photo: Andreas FranzXaver Süß
Courtesy: the artist, Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York and Esther Schipper, Berlin

Hito Steyerl

Hito Steyerl November, 2004 (Film still) DV, Single-channel, sound 25 min Edition of 20 © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019 Film still: © Hito Steyerl Courtesy: the artist, Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York and Esther Schipper, Berlin

Abstract (2012), Hell Yeah We Fuck Die (2016) and Robots Today (2016), represent a more recent phase that explores a political-descriptive horizon through the use and research of new technologies. Living with these tools on the one hand subjects man to perpetual control (to control and being controlled) but on the other hand it affirms and strengthens individual abilities, allowing a gradual possible conquest of a new condition.

Hito Steyerl

Hito Steyerl Hell Yeah We Fuck Die, 2016 Three-channel HD video installation, Environment, 4:35 min Installation view: “Käthe Kollwitz Prize 2019. Hito Steyerl”. Akademie der Künste, Berlin © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019 Photo: Andreas FranzXaver Süß
Courtesy: the artist, Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York and Esther Schipper, Berlin

In Abstract, the artist tells the paradox of war. The installation is divided into two screens, a shot and a countershot. On a screen the artist is seen exploring the mountains of East Turkey, where her friend, Andrea Wolf, was killed in a clash; in the next screen you see the artist in the foreground, in Pariser Platz, in front of the Brandenburg Gate, right where the AdK is now, holding an Iphone with which she photographs a building: the Lockheed Martin office, manufacturer of weapons sold to guerrilla supporters. The issue of digital and virtual is the main issue of Hell Yeah We Fuck Die. The installation consists of three monitors presented in a structure of steel tubes and sheet metal panels. All around, on the floor, there are large luminous words on which are imposed the words: “Hell Yeah We Fuck Die”.

Hito Steyerl

Hito Steyerl Abstract, 2012 (Detail) Two-channel HD video with sound 7:30 min © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019
Film still: © Hito Steyerl Courtesy: the artist, Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York and Esther Schipper, Berlin

Hito Steyerl

Hito Steyerl Abstract, 2012 (Detail) Two-channel HD video with sound 7:30 min © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019 Film still: © Hito Steyerl
Courtesy: the artist, Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York and Esther Schipper, Berlin

The video shows artificial creatures digitally reproduced and robots, subjected to accidents, distortions and violence. The mannequins are used to verify the effects of weapons on man; but the estrangement produced by humanized machines and the absence of spatial and temporal coordinates, in videos and in the installation, give rise to the idea that the society “in free fall” has mechanized and automated everything and everyone. The alteration of human sensitivity is also perceptible in Robots Today. Everything that surrounds us, our world, here and now and also elsewhere and in another time, is the product of images created through lenses, filters, cameras, drones. In this post-Fordist horizon, the human being has evolved into a semi-sentient, volatile and incorporeal creature that needs new technologies to survive.

Elda Oreto