If any artist can make sense of this challenging period, it would be Hito Steyerl: poet laureate of digital dislocation and social upheaval.
In her video installations, essays, and conference presentations, the German artist has dismantled the boundaries between the Internet and something called “the real world,” investigating how digital technologies leak off the screen into war zones, financial markets, real estate developments and homes. auction. . With bitter humor and a skillful combination of high- and low-resolution imagery, Steyerl has underlined the violence and absurdity that results from merging human life and data, hence the brutal irony of his designation, in 2017, as “No. 1 “in a more or less arbitrary list of”the 100 most influential people in art.“
The exhibition “Milestone Steyerl: I will survive” was shown last year at the K21 museum in Düsseldorf; now it’s in sight, after a delay, at the Pompidou Center in Paris, Until 5 July. “I Will Survive” is Steyerl’s most important European exhibition to date and, along with his most famous previous works, he premieres “SocialSim”, a new installation that refers to the pandemic and police violence. Here, animated cops infect each other not with a new coronavirus but with dance attacks, which actually happened 500 years ago, during the notorious Dancing Plague of Strasbourg.
Although his work is relentlessly current – other videos on “I Will Survive” evoke the late “Salvator Mundi” and the commonalities of the Balenciaga fashion brand and right-wing populism – Steyerl has always brought a deep ambivalence to new technologies. . His skepticism seems more valid than ever after the many months we have spent in front of our screens, and in a recent conversation, condensed and edited below, Steyerl told me why we should understand our year of the plague as an interruption less than a acceleration. (We talked via video link, and Steyerl appeared in front of a fabulous Zoom background of pink flowers.)
You live in Berlin and teach at the University of the Arts there. Have you stood still during the pandemic?
I’ve been locked up since March of last year, completely. I’ve been teaching about Minecraft, actually – it’s a kid’s game, since the age of 7, and you can build things with blocks. You can build fantasy worlds very quickly. Last week, my students staged a version of Brecht’s “Action Taken” in a huge communist test facility, which they built in Minecraft.
What kind of limitations did the pandemic put on the art you’ve been making?
Perhaps nothing new was required, except an intensification of existing things. I used leftovers from previous shoots, from previous work, as well as generated footage, as well as remotely filmed footage.
In “SocialSim”, which he did recently, we are witnessing a social contagion of a “dancing virus”, but also more contemporary social contagions. Opposition to the use of masks, which in Germany culminated in an attempt to storm the Parliament of Germany Last August, it also circulated and spread as a kind of viral transmission.
There was something else that really surprised me that happened in Berlin at the end of last summer, when suddenly, the Egyptian Museum was attacked by a mysterious “sprinkler”. Someone entered the museum and sprayed an oily substance on about 70 objects. And the idea was, it has not been confirmed, that this had to do with these conspiracy theorists, who in Germany are very connected to the right.
Something crazy, this could happen after two big robberies, at the Bode Museum in Berlin and then the green vault in Dresden, Germany.
It was one of the main arguments around the Humboldt Forum, from people who did not want to restore anything: that these objects would not be safe. Now it turns out that they are not safe at all in Germany either.
I wonder what you think of the Center Pompidou building, which could not be more different from the Humboldt Forum, although it also has its problems.
The building is this ’70 Fun palace cybernetic machine that somehow rammed into the neighborhood, and has now acquired a nostalgic quality, referring to some kind of welfare state, where there would be this kind of investment in public museums of contemporary art. So for me it is a machine: a large machine, a machine for eating bones. And indeed, the show relates to the broken parts of the museum, because it opens onto the service corridors, where you see that the windows are actually broken.
The museum has to close for renovations, For four years.
Which is kind of funny: It was built like this beacon of modernism and brilliant novelty, and it’s not that long ago, is it? But I have a soft spot for these Plexiglas tubes, the “Star Trek” atmosphere.
On the topic of broken glass: For his recent video installation “The City of Broken Windows,” now on Pompidou’s show, he interviewed engineers who break windows for a data production company.
This was done in 2018. I was really mad at people who just wanted me to do bright, fun CGI stuff, and I really wanted to do something very documentary, austere, let’s put it like that. Trump had been elected and I was not in a very good mood anyway, so I thought, “Let’s find something simple and real.”
I went to a UK company called Audio Analytic, based in Cambridge. I had read about them on the BBC. And they had manually destroyed thousands of windows to train an AI, a neural network, to recognize the sound of broken windows. The underlying idea was that a device could call the police, security personnel, or something like that. In reality, someone is standing in a huge airplane hangar, smashing windows all day to make a machine smarter. I was completely fascinated.
The old modernist vision of breaking objects into pieces (cubism, futurism) has been absorbed by metrics and vigilance.
A smart home ideology. But also creative destruction, you know, break things fast, that Silicon Valley idea. All of that goes into it and creates this kind of surveillance landscape. But people are super excited about breaking windows. You can even see me; I also broke one. I used that footage on “SocialSim”.
He has never been a “native Internet” artist; he has no website, his jobs are not online except as bootlegs. But during the confinement, you did a series of streaming presentations of your works. Have you learned any lessons from the livestream of the lockdown in this new exhibit?
For those four nights of transmission, I produced a more or less new context, speaking with the protagonists of the play themselves, for example. So I felt it was legitimate, because it added a new angle to the works. For the most part, they were streaming videos, not multiscreen projections, which would get complicated.
But then in Paris, I gave up, I have to say. At this point, people are already so tired of looking at screens, and there is a glut of content. This was a show that I had actually tried to think about physically, in what space. I didn’t feel like I could, in any way, create a digital clone that could really replace it. It would be just a kind of homework, and also out of time.
I almost feel bad asking you about NFTsBut as someone who has mercilessly investigated art’s relationship to financial speculation and crime, you must find them familiar.
For the moment, art is an excuse, or perhaps a pretext, to deploy the infrastructure: the crypto infrastructure, the Web 3.0 infrastructure. And the motto is this magic spell from the NFT. It’s really a magic spell, because it doesn’t mean anything! It simply means: I am your owner, and somehow, through magic crypto charms, I will enter it into the blockchain. But since it sounds complicated or high-tech, it draws a lot of attention, right? It is basically a disinformation mechanism. The more confusing it gets, the more attention it attracts or wastes.
It really seems that the rhetoric around NFTs, and cryptocurrencies in general, I would say, is very much based on the modernist figure of the artist. Individual creativity, free from institutions, finally unleashed.
I mean, I am witnessing it for at least the third time: this implementation of new infrastructure with the same kind of slogans and propaganda. “It will be more democratic. It will be more accessible. There will be equal opportunities. Everyone will get information. The middlemen will be cut off. “I mean, how often am I going to listen to it? How often are people going to fall for it?
The first time I heard it was during the first call “Internet revolution ”, in Serbia. You can look at Serbia now, 20 years later, and see if all of this has come true. Then there was the beginning of social media, the Arab Spring, Iran. But the same rhetoric of technology that automatically leads to progress and more equality is unfolding once again. With NFTs, it is basically the same. The only difference is that now we are listening to it by Paris Hilton.