Hito Steyerl has become a ubiquitous name in international art circles. She is the eminent professor of New Media Art and co-founder of the Research Center for Proxy Politics at Berlin’s Universität der Künste; she is a prominent contemporary artist in her own right, having penned innumerable essays while developing the artistic form of the essay-film; and in recognition of her achievements she is the 2019 recipient of the Käthe Kollwitz Prize, awarded annually to a distinguished artist by the Akademie der Künste in Berlin. It’s no coincidence that Steyerl’s award comes exactly 100 years after Kollwitz herself was accepted as a member of the academy, representing an important step for women’s rights in Germany (though this position would eventually be revoked from Kollwitz with the Nazi rise to power in the 1930s).
Best known for her documentary-style filmmaking, elaborate multimedia installations and her critical long-form essay writing, Steyerl’s subject matter has long intersected with politics. She uses her work as a means of addressing some of the most pressing concerns of her time, drawing on themes that include post-colonial critique, military propaganda, abuse of power and the influence of globalisation and the circulation of digital information on social and political processes.
As in past years, the Akademie der Künste at Pariser Platz has developed a parallel exhibition to showcase a range of the esteemed artist’s work, which in this case includes a selection of various films made at different stages in Steyerl’s artistic career. The exhibition extends between four galleries, screening a total of six films; a modest cross-section of Steyerl’s oeuvre given the length and breadth of her career. From roughly 1997 to 2016, the exhibition traces a history of Steyerl’s approach to filmmaking, from feature-length documentaries like The Empty Centre (1998) to more experimental film installations, like Babenhausen (1997), Normality 6 (1999), Hell Yeah We Fuck Die (2016) and Robots Today (2016).
In the first gallery, visitors encounter Abstract (2012), the 2-channel video homage to Steyerl’s childhood friend, Andrea Wolf, killed in 1998 while fighting for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey. The work sits alone in the centre of an architecturally elegant room, the warm-toned, rough-walled environment of the gallery reflective of the environment onscreen. Playing on the cinematic language of film production, with terms like “shot” and “counter-shot”, the work shows Steyerl visiting the site of her friend’s death, examining charred fragments of the PKK’s daily activities as well as the violent means used to extinguish them. In tandem, Steyerl also depicts herself standing in the square just outside the AdK, iPhone raised to face-level to photograph Lockheed Martin, a German weapons manufacturer known to supply arms to the Turkish military, likely also the supplier of weapons used against Andrea Wolf. The Brandenburger Tor monument, a symbol of peace in Europe, looms ominously over her shoulder.
Continuing in the next gallery, Hell Yeah We Fuck Die (2016) and Robots Today (2016) announce themselves loudly, the heavily rhythmic soundtrack of Hell Yeah We Fuck Die reverberating through the stark gallery. More obviously stylised than Steyerl’s earlier works, the videos concern themselves with the reality of automation, robots, artificial intelligence and virtual reality in contemporary human life. The room is furnished with video screens mounted on metal bars and enclosed within corrugated metal sheets, as well as the infamous multimedia word sculptures reading “Hell Yeah We Fuck Die” in bold fluorescent lights. The corresponding 3-channel video in Hell Yeah We Fuck Die (the title of the work is an amalgam of the 5 most commonly used words in English language music charts, as cited by Billboard magazine) depicts humanoid robots in a constant state of physical examination, enduring a severe pummelling by exterior forces, the exercises used to measure the robots’ physical reactions to abuse. In Robots Today, Steyerl films herself wandering through the birthplace of Ismail al-Jazari, the 12th century poet who composed The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. As she walks, Steyerl addresses questions to her own personal automaton, Siri, which largely relate to the role of robots in modern warfare.
The Empty Centre (1998) is screened in the furthest gallery, its narrative loosely following the development of Berlin following German re-unification. Much like Abstract, The Empty Centre has a particular resonance with the district around AdK, where most of its filming takes place. The work pays close attention to the historical processes of the dismantling and reconstructing of borders within city limits, following the cyclical evolution and devolution of the area in Berlin along the wall, from Brandenburger Tor to Potsdamer Platz. There is a constant refrain of Mendelssohn’s Opus 13 in A minor, which helps to seamlessly collage various moments in German history, most notably those that have reinforced the building of borders and the consequential discrimination of minority groups. In one scene, as a group of students examine the building models for the the area formerly occupied by Haus Vaterland, one observer remarks that the models possess a “morally pink skin colour”, a comment which foreshadows the following scenes of angrily demonstrating construction workers, protesting against the outsourcing of labour to migrant workers.
As the jury at the Akademie der Künste has undoubtedly noticed, there are significant parallels between the artists Käthe Kollwitz and Hito Steyerl. Kollwitz was a forerunner of the avant-garde in Europe, which historically aligned itself with various left-of-centre political movements, while Steyerl uses her position as an artist to overtly address contemporary political issues. Though the exhibition of Hito Steyerl’s work at the AdK is modest, given her sizeable career as a politically astute artist, it nevertheless demonstrates her commitment to the treatment of art as a political instrument, continuing in the vein of those avant-gardists who understood art to be an indicator of truth.