Enter the Greene Street location of Artists Space and the voice of martial artist Bruce Lee will greet you. “Empty your mind,” Lee instructs, his warm voice pouring out into the open gallery introducing us to Berlin-based artist Hito Steyerl’s video Liquidity Inc. (2014). Bathed in blue light from a large projection screen at the center of the space, the gallery is transformed into a cozy setting with bean bag chairs for visitors to rest in. In this environment, Lee’s instructions are very easy to follow. “You put water into the cup, it becomes the cup,” he says. “You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle; you put water into a teapot, it becomes the teapot.” Images of oceans, boxers sparring, word clouds, and art transition across the screen. “Water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
Liquidity Inc. is one of seven works in this survey of Steyerl’s video work made between 2004 and the present. Lee’s mantra provides an underlying theme for the show: data and narrative are as malleable as water; violence, money, and art are always connected. The exhibition often shows these so called connections pushed to the point of nonsense—stories in her recorded PowerPoint lectures are fictionalized until they become fantasy; bullets and museums are compared as though they had similarities. Other times, the lectures and films more closely resemble documentaries examining hegemonic power structures.
The sum of these efforts is difficult to pin down. On the one hand, I found myself marveling at Steyerl’s ability to find violence, money, and metaphor in nearly any subject she touched; on the other, I wondered if her willful obfuscation of fact and fiction lessened her critical message. It’s a strong, if somewhat bewildering, show.
Liquidity Inc. provides a good example of this. The video tells the story of Jacob Wood, a Vietnamese orphan rescued as an infant at the end of the Vietnam War as part of Gerald Ford’s Operation Babylift. Living in America, he became a financial adviser who eventually lost his job during the crash and took up boxing. “You have to be defensive” Wood explains, speaking both of his job managing stock portfolios and of his love for martial arts. “It’s fluid. It’s like fighting.” Shots of commercialized boxing matches, word clouds filled with stock market terms, and Wood’s name on a glass of water flicker across the screen.
Here, the connections spark more marvel than they do confuse. The water, the word clouds, and the stock imagery hark to Lee’s words introducing the piece to illustrate the point that not only is there freedom in Wood’s willingness to re-imagine himself, but power in being substantial on demand. In the digital world Steyerl creates, you can weaponize Bluetooth technology if you can capture the force and fluidity of water.
There’s more to Steyerl’s vision of water, though. We’re repeatedly told that water has otherworldly or spiritual connections; shots of the ocean with text over the horizon line tells us that water itself believes it “is not from here,” and later a weatherman who, looking terrorist-like in a balaclava, discusses the rise and fall of the market and tells us “The weather originates from within you”; and, moments later, “Weather is water.”
Now, of course, weather isn’t just water, but the point that it’s governed by the same forces makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is that it should also extend to the world of computation. So, when we see an image of a surfer on a wave displayed on a large flat screen television and then displayed on a phone—is this really an example of fluidity? How different is Hokusai’s The Great Wave at Kanagawa because we can apply a filter to it?
On its face, the analogy makes sense; data lives in a cloud from which it flows easily from device to device and can crash your computer. But, unlike water, data doesn’t power itself. A better, but less sexy, analogy might be a bunch of socks in a sock drawer; they’re there, labeled, and aren’t going anywhere. There is no power in a pile of socks.
Criticism like this may seem pretty nitpicky in the context of work that often looks more like an example of magic realism than it does a straightforward documentary. But for me, these distinctions matter. The cloud isn’t some uncontrollable force of nature; it’s just a tool, and we’d do best to understand it as such, so we can use it responsibly.