Firing Blanks: Hito Steyerl and the Voiding of Research Art

Hito Steyerl, filming for "Drill" at Park Avenue Armory, 2019. Photo: Camille Brown.
  • ads
  • ads

We’ve all heard the statistics. That in America, there is a mass shooting every day, that one hundred Americans die from gun violence daily, that access to a gun doubles and triples the risks of death by homicide and suicide respectively. That the numbers and the corpses pile up with little change, day after day. And that the National Rifle Association or NRA, which exerts its considerable influence and budget to block essentially all gun regulation, is to blame.

At the Park Avenue Armory, Hito Steyerl has “sonified” these gun violence statistics, turning them into a score for a marching band. The ensuing piece soundtracks her major new video commission Drill, which links gun violence, the NRA, and the Armory’s own past as a repository for military weapons. It would have made for a haunting performance, linking this contemporary epidemic with the 19th-century ghosts of militarisms past through the bodies and melodies of musicians. But the Armory’s gargantuan drill hall is empty and austere, save for three large screens playing the multi-channel video, and some jigsaw-like LED floor lighting – the kind that airplane safety videos tell you about. It’s antiseptic and a little techy: standard Steyerl.

Hito Steyerl, “Drill,” installation view, 2019. Photo: James Ewing.

But Drill differs from a more typical Steyerl joint in that there are no seductive 3D-rendered graphics, no AI, no near-future dystopic air. There’s no Middle Eastern or Post-Soviet locale either, although a number of the other works on view check all these boxes with works about a Ukranian firm making first-person shooter games and real-estate environments, Iraqi drone shepherds, freeports and the Syrian regime, and all manner of robots. Two other commissions round out the show. Freeplots (2019), made in collaboration with the El Cataño Community Garden in nearby East Harlem, features an audio component about land ownership and disenfranchisement in Puerto Rico coupled with planters filled with saucer-sized hibiscuses.

The flowers are echoed in Broken Windows (2018-9), a pair of videos that sensitively address the phenomenon of “broken windows” policing. Most famously adopted in 1990s NYC, the theory suggests that small signs of disorder, such as broken windows, lead to resident withdrawal and increased crime. Installed at opposite ends of a long corridor, one work tracks researchers training AI to recognize the sound of a glass pane being smashed. The other profiles a team of Camden, New Jersey community activists who replace broken windows with painted canvases, iterations of which are installed behind each video. How should one make art about gun violence and militarism, navigating the tension between bearing witness, and consuming the pain of others? Explore the phenomenon through sound? Broken Windows provides a worthy example.

Subdivided into six chapters, Drill intertwines the history of the building with the stories of several people affected by gun violence. Many of them are activists, ranging from high school student Nurah Abdulhaqq, an organizer with the National Die In, and Sandy Hook teacher Abbey Clements, to Kareem Nelson of Wheelchairs against Guns, and retired high-school principal Judith Pearson, who campaigns to get her fellow gun owners to #BoycottNRA. Steyerl tryingly calls them “protagonists” but they are little more than talking heads, their life experiences made furniture for the video, not unlike the low benches that dot the viewing area. These activists are joined by Yale historian Anna Duensing, who walks-and-talks viewers though the Armory, highlighting its loose links to the founders of the NRA. Stunning Gilded Age interiors are cut with Ghost Hunters-style underground stumbling and clips of the Yale Precision Marching Band snaking around the hall. (The historian and band are among many contributors from Yale, where Steyerl was a fellow in 2018 and 2019.) At one point, Pearson points out areas pockmarked with bullet holes where the regiment used to practice target shooting. “I wouldn’t rate their marksmanship very good,” she quips.

Another section notes that gun violence extends beyond the initial pulling of the trigger, pointing to the site’s history of flooding with lead-poisoned water from spent bullets. Unfortunately the work stops short of linking this to environmental racism – this toxicity disproportionally affects marginalized communities – or even the intergenerational impact of gun violence. Taken together, it’s a variegated mix, the kind Steyerl usually splices together to brilliant temperature-taking effect.

Not here, however. The footage is thoroughly overproduced – bland and slick with an uncharacteristic earnestness that wouldn’t be out of place in a public service announcement. Yet the editing tends cloddish, and its sharp juxtapositions of quality feel more confusing than compelling. Especially baffling is the rather cheesy ending. Ornate golden frames on silken salon walls were previously shown displaying oil-painted portraits of the preponderantly blue-blooded officers that gave the Armory’s resident 7th New York Militia Regiment its nickname, the Silk Stocking Regiment. As the music swells, protest footage from anti-gun violence rallies fills the screen and is then bizarrely inserted into the same golden frames.

In practice, Drill is little more than a twenty-one-minute salute to the bankruptcy of Research Art. By this I mean the kind of work that derives its legitimacy from documentary or forensic aesthetics, attempting to uncover and expose shocking new information about the museo-military-industrial complexes (usually those in the swathe between the Middle East and China). It’s Ripley’s Believe it or not for the NPR set.

Hito Steyerl, “The Tower,” installation view, 2016. Photo: James Ewing.

Like institutional critique, Research Art seems to want to be perceived as clever, even radical. It might present cogent critique of the Arsenale/Armory type of biennials, institutions, and fairs that characterize today’s neoliberal art market, but it often has no qualms about being commissioned for and presented at these same sites. Its visual vocabulary demands unquestioned authority even as it deploys a narrative sleight-of-hand. The entwined histories of the NRA and the Armory are presented here as both fulcrum and evidentiary glue despite their tenuous linkages – at one point we learn that an NRA co-founder was apparently inspired to form the organization after seeing a painting of the building’s founding regiment.

Perhaps Research Art simply cannot thrive in the current age of fake news and deepfakes. An older work, Is the Museum a Battlefield? (2013), adopts a similar forensic-lite logic, tracing a bullet that killed her friend, a Kurdish liberation fighter, back to its manufacturer and then through an art school and museum. First presented as a lecture at the Istanbul Biennial in the shadow of the Gezi Park protests, its power seems to have considerably diminished in its current context.

Conversely, despite the continual relevance of its subject matter, Drill never rises above the level of trite, blithe aestheticization. This is exemplified in the very Steyerl gesture of abstracting literal deaths – disproportionately non-white deaths – into brassy music. Each note corresponds to a data point. A trumpeted fanfare might track the last few decades’ boom in gun manufacturing; each lowing sousaphone note might be a deadly incident involving an AR-15. It’s the diametric opposite of “say her name.” How is this any different from the newspaper convention of showing graphic images only of blacker, browner, more foreign bodies, in wars foreign and domestic? Or, for that matter, Dana Schutz’s infamous painting of Emmett Till?

Perhaps the real marvel is how something so heavy-handed manages to say nothing at all, especially coming from an artist beloved for her incisive analyses of contemporary Western society. If anything, it feels like the preparatory notes for an essay that didn’t quite convert to film, a lossy, poor image with paradoxically high resolution. Some of the pertinent information is found only in the end credits, such as the fact that in the song “Mass Shootings 1999-2018” – which translates the Mother Jones database to sound – pitch corresponds to the numbers of injuries and casualties, while pedal tones mark the passing of time. While book and theory journal readers might be counted upon to read the footnotes, burying this information in the credits seems to guarantee it will go unregistered by most.

As presented, Drill is neither going to sway anyone who’s adamant that unseen forces are coming for their god-given, Second Amendment-granted right to bear arms; nor will it change anyone’s mind who already agrees that background checks and restrictions on access to guns might be in order. The thing about drills – fire drills, earthquake drills, active shooter drills – is that they’re rehearsals for calamity. But when it comes to gun violence everybody already knows the score. Taking the subway back downtown from the press preview, I sat across from some kids playing a new-to-me variation of an old game. “Rock, paper, scissors. Anything you wanna choose,” the chant went. At one point, an older child chose a machine gun because “gun beats all.” It felt especially poignant that afternoon, but at any other time, I would have thought nothing of it.

1 Comment

  • Just read this (it was in my bookmarks for a while). I did a work on police violence in Rio de Janeiro with a group of artists. It’s a sonification but using sinewaves on top of eachother. With many sonification works, they seem to reduce the sound to a playful thing which should be nice to listen too. I believe that that should not be the case: music should not be ‘easy’. I think our work might interest you more. Also wondering if Steyerl took some inspiration with the white lineouts on the floor from us. Anyway, you can read more about our work on outrosregistros.wordpress.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *