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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.