Interview // Hito Steyerl: Zero Probability and the Age of Mass Art Production

Interview by Göksu Kunak in Berlin; Tuesday Nov. 19, 2013

HKW Berlin Former WestHito Steyerl – “I Dreamed a Dream: Politics in the Age of Mass Art Production” Lecture‐Performance (2013); copyright Marcus Lieberenz / Haus der Kulturen der Welt

In the lecture performance I Dreamed a Dream: Politics in the Age of Mass Art Production (2013), writer and artist Hito Steyerl introduces us to the new Misérables of our era, while asking the pertinent question: Why are there so many art projects today? The absurdity of funding applications, the condition of the wretched who wait to be chosen or the link between museums and firearms industries – as in Is the Museum a Battlefield? (2013) − are some of the contemporary issues that Steyerl excavates. As always, she criticizes the burdens of our world with vigorous humour. In the following interview, Hito Steyerl shared her opinions about her interest in the missing (leading to her many depictions of disappearance), the latest protests, heroes of our time and the plight of interns…

GöKSU KUNAK: In your essays, works, and lecture performances it seems like you are somehow searching for the missing: the hope of visibility, the invisibility of knowledge, finding those missing points and also connecting them from unexpected points of view, the lack of the real, the probability of nonexistence. Seeing traces, but somehow on the verge of being erased. In your works like How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational.MOV File (2013), Zero Probability (2012) with Rabih Mroué, Lovely Andrea (2007), and November (2004), there is always a search for the missing. Why? What is it that attracts you to the vanished, or missing?

HITO STEYERL: In all these works I am drawing implicitly or explicitly on the same example: my friend Andrea Wolf who disappeared in 1998 as a member of PKK [Parti Karkerani Kurdistan] in the region of Van. The fact that she has not been found and that there are no official efforts to clarify what happened to her or the several thousand others missing proves that the state of zero probability is widespread and a hardly acknowledged condition of our time. In the state of zero probability, whatever is impossible – like people being swallowed from the face of the earth – happens all the time and nobody thinks twice about it. The state of zero probability potentially exists everywhere, on a battlefield, in a museum online store, as point cloud or data crop cycle. It opens up whenever anyone asks: is this really happening?

This condition opens up within and by means of an avalanche of digital images, which multiply and proliferate while real people disappear or are fixed, scanned and over-represented by an overbearing architecture of surveillance. How do people disappear in an age of total over-visibility? Which huge institutional and legal effort has to be made to keep things unspoken and unspeakable even if they are pretty obviously sitting right in front of everyone’s eyes? Are people hidden by too many images? Do they go hide amongst other images? Do they become images?

Hito Steyerl - How Not to Be SeenHito Steyerl – “How Not To Be Seen A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File” (2013) 14 mins; copyright Hito Steyerl, image courtesy of Wilfried Lentz Rotterdam

GK: Do you believe the latest worldwide movements and protests are changing how we live and, as a result, our encounters or the way we perceive images? In this sense, what would be the new way of using the transformed image? Or is it merely another image spam?

HS: The new movements are a consequence of very radical changes by liberals and neo-conservatives, which have taken place over the last 40 years. These changes have transformed the way many people see the world – technologically, ideologically, visually and on many other levels. The proliferation of images is one of these aspects. It has both devastating and paradoxical consequences. An image is more than ever defined by its momentum, drive, or quantity: less by its “content,” scarceness or singularity. It becomes meaningful rather by being shared and participated in than by being contemplated at a distance.

On the other hand, I also recently thought that probably a number of protesters during recent protests were digital images that walked across the screen to join in 3D protest. Images are being filtered, blocked, censored online all the time. There are those which are shared and enhanced, but also those who remain completely unseen. Probably quite a number of them have had enough and walk off the screen to protest.

But much more generally, I think that a vast number of contemporary protesters are not living the old online vs. offline divide anymore. They are fully digital creatures, but also navigate 3D offline space. Or, as protesters in Brazil recently put it: “We are the social network”.

GK: In your essay Art as Occupation: Claims for an Autonomy of Life you mention that life is occupied by art and that leads to gentrification or other problems. The reality is that we are, in your words, in the era of mass art production, in which almost everyone has an art project. What are the consequences of this in the long term? How will this transform?

HS: I have no idea. But it is an interesting development. Franco Berardi (Bifo) claimed that 25% of German youth want to be artists. A real challenge: how to base a viable economy on art production? Does it imply the existence of a 1% regime of super rich oligarchs? Or is it simply a short term effect of a bubble economy, which is so unstable that art paradoxically appears to be a rather safe investment? It could be quite short term. It could also be the emergence of a new paradigm of labour: just as specialists or engineers were an important paradigm of the 20th century, artists might become contemporary specialists for event-based attention economies. But it´s more realistic that prospective artists are being lured through years of debt: their ambitions are commodified and their liabilities packaged as garbled financial product. And once they are completely dispossessed, once they have become the “Wretched of the Canvas”, they might have to reassess their situation.

GK: At one Mauerpark karaoke session, a young guy who was about to sing was asked what he does for a living. The answer was that he is an intern. The person who was in charge of the session advised him to be honest, and to feel ok about doing unpaid labour, by stressing that it is what most people in Berlin do: internships, working for free. How do you foresee the future of interns? Will super interns, heroic interns pop-up? Do you believe that the “heroes” of our times are the interns?

HS: I don’t believe in heroes. In heroines, perhaps. After all interns in form of wives, moms and other unpaid (domestic) labourers have existed for a long time. I think that Hannah Arendt‘s distinction between the public and the private sphere still holds many interesting contradictions. The private – or sphere of the oikos – means internment in the house, or the back of the house as Japanese wives call it. It is the sphere of slaves, foreigners, interns and domestic workers of all kind that do not get paid.

GK: An artist friend of mine recently mentioned that she doesn’t want to apply to anything anymore: the burden of applications makes her sad. You also stressed this problem in your lecture performance I Dreamed a Dream: Politics in the Age of Mass Art Production by describing the contemporary Misérables. Casted, auditioned; the reality that the artist must apply, show, present her/himself to the juries, make the others choose her/him by being the object and the subject at the same time and the burden of submissions… How will the group of, in your words, “educated poor” evolve?

HS: I see this group growing. It is an actor within contemporary protest movements. And it might become a strong social actor because at the end of the day people need sustainable livelihoods. A part of the population is working for free. Perhaps I am optimistic but I don’t think this works in the long term. Or perhaps we are moving full speed into an age of institutionalised serfdom and voluntary slavery in which it will be safer for people to belong to someone who guarantees their most basic needs than to keep fighting it out on the market.

Recently it became clear to me that one of the most successful moves of neoliberalism was to turn debt bondage into a business opportunity. It means people not only have to get into debt to get an education/housing or just to live, but that debt is a profitable market in its own right. The economy moves from providing livelihoods through work to making destitution profitable. Ask Deutsche Bank, who were named by US Congress as one of the main debt pushers to bring about the massive global redistribution from the public to the private sector commonly known as the financial crisis.

Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle in Berlin recently staged a public call for artworks to be exhibited for one day within their premises and hundreds of people lined up for hours on end, carrying canvasses, creating a wonderful PR opportunity. This is what I mean: debt and unemployment create great business opportunities. All these artists queuing up for hours in order to work for free on the faint and improbable hope of being “discovered” within a bizarre Deutsche Bank salon hanging. It´s like singing in an idol contest!

The long lines of artists queuing up reminded me of similar lines of unemployed in the 1930s, lining up around Berlin’s job centres. They were traditional workers though, or employees. Today, they are artists clutching canvasses. And thinking back to what became of those people queuing up back then is kind of sobering. Most probably most became fascists a few years later. We see this kind of development happening in many European countries already, in Hungary where it´s become quite mainstream, but also in Greece. I hope this doesn’t happen, but it is a realistic possibility, if social divides keep increasing.

GK: What do you think about the fact that people, especially in the art scene, are more interested in the videos in white cubes and biennials about human rights violations, suppression or wars than the real thing? For example, they might be interested in an art work about sectarianism in Beirut but not the issue itself.

HS: There are several aspects to this question. First, if this is the case, there is probably a reason. One reason – among many others, including artworld jadedness and cynicism – might also be that generic information about “real” events is usually already ideological, commercial, and framed in a way that perpetuates the framework of the conflict by its conceptual categories.

In contrast, some artworks – especially those of the Beirut school – frame events in an unexpected way, that most importantly include the possibility of not only telling these stories differently, but also that things could be different in the first place. They do so by conjecturing, speculating, fictionalising, over-bureaucratising, and so on. There is a very valid reason for artworks about “real” events to be more interesting than generic news reports. People are interested because they can’t stand vapid and meaningless news jargon any longer.

But another aspect is even more interesting to me: what is the relation of art spaces and battlefields apart from showing works about conflict zones? How are they not only connected by way of potentially showing works about military violence, but by being based on military violence much more structurally? One work of mine called Guards interviewed U.S. army veterans and former police officers who now work as museum officers. Their experiences of combat and law enforcement are now a part of art infrastructure, an underpaid, strongly racialised and mostly disavowed part, which nevertheless is a vital component of museums being included into homeland security infrastructure.

But the military-industrial complex is also involved in financing and sponsoring art spaces to the point at which museums are becoming parts of battlefields in much more direct ways. Is the revenue from the battlefield sponsoring the museum? Or maybe the other way around? If you start looking at this connection, it turns out that this kind of sponsoring exists more or less everywhere.

Is there a statistical coincidence between military invasions, civil war and the explosion of art markets a few years later? How can we think about post-civil war art market booms as indirectly fuelled by the cheap labor of displaced populations? Is the museum a battlefield?


Göksu Kunak is a writer based in Berlin. Besides working in the editorial team of quarterly interview magazine mono.kultur, she is one of the team members of Apartment Project Berlin. Göksu has contributed to several magazines and blogs such as frieze d/e, Ibraaz, Freunde von Freunden, crap=good, e-skop, The Carton, Don’t Panic Berlin and wecelebrate. Concurrently, she is working on her book project abandonedxmastrees


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