A funny thing happened to me the day I went to Hito Steyerl’s opening at KOW Gallery on Wednesday, Sept. 16. Around midday I was walking past Museum Island, where there was a large number of work crews and trucks, as if a film was being shot. Along my way I found myself face to face with an actor from Steyerl’s “Factory of the Sun”, which I had actually seen a couple days previously and was still present in my mind. With surprise, I instinctively opened my mouth to greet the familiar figure, but I realized almost immediately how ridiculous that would be – he could not possibly recognize me as a person who had seen his image before.
But what if that was somehow not true? What if the relation of the body to its image in digital and new media times is not so unidirectional? What if the body is influenced by the experiences of its image? What if an image can feel itself being watched? These ideas have been proposed decades ago by the likes of Roland Barthes or W.T.J. Mitchell, though on the internet this becomes even more true: seeing something leaves a trace, if only by marginally affecting Google rankings or being recorded by government surveillance programs.
I was thinking about the uncanny relation the image has to the body at the opening of Steyerl’s exhibition Left To Our Own Devices that night. Her work is very much concerned with the production, distribution and consumption of images and the effect they have on material reality. In her works and writings she often attempts to find sources of creativity and social action in a world where art is increasingly becoming shaped by the demands of the market, as opposed to the need for creative expression, and creative product becomes mass produced and simultaneously de-radicalized and sensationalized on social media. Images struggle for our attention: in the digital and internet economy, attention is capital, attention determines the value and the life of the image.
‘Liquidity Inc.’ was screened on the main floor of KOW Gallery. It is a complex and multilayered exploration of the relations between money, image production and the material experience of being in the world. It is a thick montage of kung fu, the Vietnam war, scenes from a boxing match, CGI effects, email pop-ups, helpful bar graphs, people swimming upside down, sardonically labelled maps, a weather report by a man wearing a t-shirt with an oversized owl print, and CGI people bobbing around CGI water, like corks.
Steyerl takes Bruce Lee’s advice to “be water, my friend” as a tactic for withstanding the blows and unpredictable flows of capital, politics, and chance. “Be water, my friend” applies to everything, suggesting a way of constructing subjectivity, boxing, overcoming trauma, making it through financial troubles and withstanding war and political upheaval. The film goes on to explore the fact that with the rise of internet and communications technologies, being water might not be enough. Instead, we need to be in the cloud: still water but in the excited state of a gas. The cloud, of course, is a reference as well to cloud computing as well as the global flows of capital and communications that shape the atmospheric conditions of contemporary digital life. Individual subjects are both implicated in the space and compose the space: the ‘cloud’ is only real insofar individuals participate in its reality. Just like the value of money, it has no significance if not for the one we all mutually participate in.
Three video lectures play in the basement of the gallery, including “Is the Museum a Battlefield?” (2013), “Duty Free Art” (2014), and “I Dreamed a Dream: Politics in the Age of Mass Art Production” (2014). These lectures all explore the intersection of art, power, capital and the problems of the supposed democratization of technologies and globalized flows of images.
The last film in the exhibition, “Guards” (2012) explores the space of the museum as a site for military conflict, as two of the professional security guards demonstrate their defense strategy for the Art Institute of Chicago. The guards’ movements through the gallery, their imaginary guns drawn in front of famous paintings, are both grave and comic, responding to a potential terrorist threat that could easily be real.
Steyerl’s films are remarkable for her seemingly inexhaustible ability to free herself from cliche and convention in filmmaking. Each narrative and image determines its own space rather being forced into a meaning as part of a conventional thesis or argument. Like water vapor, she moves so fast she seems to be in several places at once, a self-aware native in a world where it seems we need quantum physics and a sharp humor in order to understand how or where culture is produced.