The complex work of contemporary artist, media theorist, and filmmaker Hito Steyerl often pivots on a surprisingly simple tactic – wordplay. Consistently, across both her media and textual works, Steyerl hyperlinks disparate environments, historical events, and spheres of meaning by way of puns and coincidences. “Duty,” for Steyerl, is both an ethical responsibility and an import tax; both stocks and airplanes can crash. The natural referents of words like “cloud,” “web,” “bubble,” and “liquidity” oscillate jarringly with their datalogical and financial connotations. To “engage” is both the objective of museum-education departments and a security protocol for drawing one’s weapon; an “occupation” is simultaneously a job and a mode of colonization. In Steyerl’s work, these lexical chance encounters constitute a modus operandi of political revelation, mapping unlikely connections between the realms of art, economy, ecology, and global power regimes in a way that seems to augur their ultimate structural collusion.
While Steyerl’s transparent reliance on homonyms may seem dubious as a mode of critique, it’s a strategy that allows her to lay bare unlikely, and often unsettling, intersections in the real world (the same software facilitates the production of both starchitect-designed museums and Cobra attack helicopters, for instance). As an aside in one of her many shrewd essays, she defends the “magic affinity” between like-sounding terms with reference to Walter Benjamin’s 1933 essay “Doctrine of the Similar,” which suggests that language inherited the mimetic faculty of mystical and occult practices. Superficial as it may seem, Steyerl’s practice of linguistic speculation – another term whose valences shift uncomfortably between high-risk capitalism and utopian thinking – has hit a nerve in the contemporary artworld for its capacity to expose the tangled, and often surreal machinations of our excessively networked environment.
Steyerl’s signature mode of conceptual double entendre recurs throughout the nine films and video installations that comprise her current retrospective at New York’s Artists Space, as well as her 2013 video HOW NOT TO BE SEEN: A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File, currently on view as part of Cut to Swipe, an exhibition of recent acquisitions at the MoMA. A fourteen-minute self-reflexive tutorial on negotiating contemporary conditions of virtual representation and pervasive surveillance, HOW NOT TO BE SEEN coaches viewers through a series of infinitival strategies: “to hide, to remove, to go off-screen, to disappear.” Of the two maneuvers that frame Cut to Swipe, the touchscreen “swipe” may seem the most native to Steyerl’s piece. However, here the “cut” manifests profoundly as well, less as a cinematic splice than a performance of absence.
Punctuated by blocky inter-titles (dictated by a text-to-speech avatar), the five lessons in HOW NOT TO BE SEEN (“How to Make Something Invisible for a Camera,” “How to be Invisible in Plain Sight,” “How to Become Invisible by Becoming a Picture,” “How to be Invisible by Disappearing,” and “How to Become Invisible by Merging into a World Made of Pictures”) duly reflect the work’s heavy-handed title. As art historian David Joselit has argued (via the work of Seth Price), and as media theorist Alexander Galloway has established in his writing on protocols, digital formats and the specific transitive actions they offer enable access to information at the same time as they reinforce structures of control. Accordingly, each of Steyerl’s five sections proffers a reductive inventory of evasion tactics for those wary of Big Data (the spectrum of ways “to disappear” evoked above). While the first three sections of the video establish more individually-focused protocols, the last two expand Steyerl’s exercise to an ecological and social level.
In her video’s opening frame, Steyerl introduces a resolution target, a readymade object for calibrating photographic detail that she will mobilize as a rotating, telescoping motif throughout the rest of the work. Propped here on a camera tripod in front of a green screen, this simple graphic composition works to embed a complicated set of relations – it performs as a migrating image-object traversing both physical and virtual environments, a benchmark of shifting horizontal and vertical orientations (and accordingly, power relations), and a compact index of complicities between observation and violence (the camera shoots and this is its target).
While the resolution target appears in the first lesson of HOW NOT TO BE SEEN as a photographer’s tool, assumedly to “ground” her representation in its object, Steyerl’s video later transposes this default graphic pattern to a horizontal asphalt plane. A voiceover informs us that “in the 1950s and ‘60s, the US Air Force installed gray-scales and resolution targets in the California desert to calibrate aerial photographs and videos.” With a backhanded nod to a milestone in the history of painting – Pollock’s laying flat the vertical canvas, making it (according to Harold Rosenberg) an “arena in which to act” – this shift of the resolution target from upright in the studio to flat on the pavement reinforces an intimacy between perception and global politics. We learn at the conclusion of Lesson III that by 2000, the precision of aerial cameras had advanced such that one pixel of information could depict one square foot of real ground (before, the highest resolution for one pixel was twelve square meters). “To become invisible, one has to become smaller or equal to one pixel,” the robotic voice concludes – a constraint the video later parodies with dancing figures wearing IKEA storage bins as readymade pixel-masks.
In her essay “In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective,” Steyerl traces the historical evolution of perspectival systems as regimes of power. The God’s-eye view, or an omniscient, aerial “new view from above” proliferated by drone warfare and Google Earth, “is a proxy perspective that projects delusions of stability, safety, and extreme mastery onto a backdrop of expanded 3-D sovereignty,” she says. Ironically, then, it’s not just that these new standards of representation curtail our perception of the world; today, infrastructures of total surveillance actually inhibit our own first-order arenas in which to act. Perhaps this is the reason Steyerl’s video attempts to teach new choreographies (rather than epistemologies) as countermeasures to ubiquitous supervision.
In Lesson II of HOW NOT TO BE SEEN, Steyerl appears onscreen to perform simple motions that correspond to the narrated list of ways “to be invisible in plain sight.” The first two instructions, “pretend you are not there, hide in plain sight,” are grammatically imperative statements implicating the viewer/listener; whereas the last five phrases – “to scroll, to wipe, to erase, to shrink, to take a picture” – recapitulate the work’s refrain of neutral and hypothetical infinitive verbs. These last terms also refer to a familiar lexicon of gestures that mark our interface with digital images on touchscreens, hand movements that the artist demonstrates for us while squarely facing the camera. When Steyerl acts out taking a picture, she holds her iPhone in front of the camera that records her, creating a feedback loop as well as a rectangular redaction bar that obscures her eyes from us.
Later, in Lesson III, Steyerl appears again, this time to perform more aggressive gestures than those we might apply to our touchscreens. At the mention of “to camouflage” (the first in this lesson’s list of seven ways to “become invisible by becoming a picture”) she wipes away her own face with her fingers, as if applying grease-paint, to reveal a vibrant color-chart on the screen behind her. As the voiceover chants “to conceal, to cloak, to mask, to be painted,” another hand applies what might be a cosmetic “concealer” in brush marks mimicking resolution target lines on her forehead; these again dissolve into abstract optical patterns flashing in the background. The simple gesticulations of this section simultaneously evoke tropes of both military combat and performances of femininity amplified by consumer culture, or beautification to the point of obscuring one’s face altogether. The direct and demonstrative style of Steyerl’s movements also suggests the rote pre-flight briefing from an airline stewardess, one of several stereotypically feminized or “pink-collar” professions. In a number of her essays, the artist addresses the specific exigencies placed on women workers, who predominate in another, often invisible class of labor which Steyerl, like writer and activist Gregory Sholette, dubs as the integral and unacknowledged “dark matter” of contemporary-art economies.
At the beginning of Lesson IV, the visual framework of HOW NOT TO BE SEEN expands from the studio to the (virtual) street, as animated renderings of generic architectural spaces –malls, hotels, playgrounds, or resorts; Koolhaasian “junkspace” become the backdrop for the ongoing voiceover. A roving supervisory vantage gives a three-dimensional tour of this milieu, which is overlaid with sales pitches, and ominously traversed by human outlines (the kind often used in architectural renderings to demonstrate interaction and scale and provide an objective link to the reality they represent). Here, they exceed their generic status to the point of blankness – the figures are not stock models, but white opaque paper dolls cut from, or offering remarkably less information than, their polished, video-game surroundings.
Commensurate with this shift in setting, the recited text of “Lesson IV: How to be Invisible by Disappearing” lists a series of gerunds (active and ongoing verbs, rather than direct orders or potentialities) that supplement the simplistic and metaphoric options heretofore offered with descriptive, contextual scenarios: “living in a gated community; living in a military zone; being in an airport, factory, or museum; owning an anti-paparazzo handbag; being fitted with an invisibility cloak; being a superhero; being female and over 50; surfing the dark web; being a dead pixel; being a Wi-Fi signal moving through human bodies; being undocumented or poor; being spam caught by a filter; being a disappeared person as an enemy of the state.”
The last two phrases in the series map fairly directly onto issues Steyerl has developed in her essays “The Spam of the Earth: Withdrawal from Representation” and “Missing People: Entanglement, Superposition, and Exhumation as Sites of Indeterminacy,” respectively. In the former, Steyerl correlates the “invisibility” of spam “made by machines, sent by bots, and caught by spam filters,” to an increasingly common decision made by individuals to withdraw from representation. Today exposure has become more of a threat than a privilege. Steyerl posits the passive move to avoid being monitored, or the active one to destroy cameras and surveillance equipment, as breaching a social contract, a deliberate denial of the privileged visual circuits of surveillance between governments, corporations, and the public.
Alexander Galloway has argued that “there is a new political posture today … with an acute black-box profile,” projecting the model of the black-box, a technological device that obscures its inner functioning, on contemporary strategies of non-participation. He cites the Invisible Committee’s tactics of opacity – toward becoming un-representable and unreadable to authority, rather than struggling to occupy space – as akin to the refusals of recent protest movements to make demands, thus declining to participate in pre-established protocols of political struggle. Similarly, Steyerl has advocated for the counterintuitive move to embrace objectification, urging people to identify with images, and to identify images as things: “[An image] doesn’t represent reality. It is a fragment of the real world. It is a thing just like any other – a thing like you and me.” This call to participate in the image, or forfeit subjectivity “as a privileged site for emancipation,” might just be the flipside of Galloway’s strategic non-participation.
Yet Steyerl’s essay “Missing People” also calls attention to the violence of involuntary underrepresentation: “a growing number of unmoored and floating images corresponds to a growing number of disenfranchised, invisible, or even disappeared and missing people.” Near the end of Lesson IV, the speech avatar of HOW NOT TO BE SEEN suddenly switches from male to female, and intones:
In the decade of the digital revolution 170,000 people disappeared. Disappeared people are annihilated, eliminated, eradicated, deleted, dispensed with, filtered, processed, selected, separated, wiped out. Invisible people retreat into 3D animations. They hold the vectors of the [dimension] to keep the picture together. They reemerge as pixels. They merge into a world made of images.
The verb inflections in this script are notable: now the people are objects being disappeared (or annihilated, eliminated, etcetera) by an undisclosed force. Far from emancipatory, this version of “merg[ing] into a world made of images” entails internment at the “black sites of production, from maquiladoras to PC rooms,” as the dark matter of late capitalist labor.
As the text on disappeared people is being read, the video’s stage is reset. The landscaped courtyard of a corporate complex dissolves into flat pixels, which gently recline from a vertical orientation to form a carpet on a green screen within a photography studio. A Google Earth desert landscape appears as a desktop background peppered with icons. Atop the grid of pixels a resolution target is projected, which also slowly rotates from a vertical to a horizontal position. A series of translucent figures in full-body green cloaks materialize on the platform.
The final lesson of HOW NOT TO BE SEEN unfolds on multiple versions of this stage, both virtual and actual. The narrator describes: “This pattern has been decommissioned in 2006 as analogue photography lost its importance. Rogue pixels hide in the cracks of old standards of resolution. They throw off the cloak of representation.” At this rhetorical pivot, seemingly real footage of a resolution target painted on a cracked slab of pavement in the desert gives way to a much lower resolution (clearly virtual) rendition of the same scene, suggesting the artist’s pre-shoot mockup on a computer. Where a green screen was within this landscape, we now see a self-help Powerpoint on the subject of happiness, which transitions to the resort scenery of Lesson IV, where Second Life avatars of the vocal group The Three Degrees perform their hit “When Will I See You Again.”
Birds transverse the boundary of the screen to emerge on the desert platform, and the camera crew is suddenly exposed, heightening the friction between the “real” and simulated realms and their inhabitants. More vertiginous oscillations ensue: the virtual performance by The Three Degrees gives way to an actual music video on a flat screen (or computer window), and internal cues (seemingly from the video’s own postproduction –“shoot this background for real!”) emerge on the Google Earth background. These narrative phrases, unrealized in the video’s imagery, concatenate in a frenzied flight of fancy: “camera crew disappears after invisible energy rays emanate from iPhone” / “U.S. Air Force drops glitter from stealth helicopter.” / “happy and excited pixels filming from crane” / “and fly away with drone!” We are left with the final shot of two “real” figures in green faceless bodysuits punching at a resolution target.
In her essay “Cut! Reproduction and Recombination,” Steyerl describes a spectacle-suffused space similar to the synthetic landscapes of the last two sections of her video: Tropical Islands Resort is a “multi-exotic spa landscape, complete with replicas of rain-forests, Jacuzzi look-alikes of Mayan sacrificial pits, as well as giant Photoshopped infinity-horizon wallpapers” housed in a revamped hangar on the site of a World-War II airfield in Germany. Steyerl deems it a space of pure postproduction, a real space that approaches virtual reality through its simulated layers of “cut-and-paste territory,” which is “jumbled, airbrushed, dragged, and dropped in 3-D,” and elides its own history through continual edits that never culminate in one final cut.
The shifting terrains of HOW NOT TO BE SEEN – shuffling between the photographer’s studio, Google Earth on a desktop, a desert landscape, an architectural rendering for lifestyle marketing, and a recording of a 1973 musical performance – echo this condition, repeatedly recalibrating the protocols that govern the figures within them, and stressing conflicting grounds for representation. The video seems to ask, how does representation – in terms of political agency, or just regulating one’s own image – operate in the studio versus a black site, or in front of a camera phone versus a surveillance satellite? Is there an avenue for revoking our consent to being imaged? Can the swipe register a radical refusal, denying access to a regime that converts our every gesture into mineable, exploitable data? In a panel on aesthetics and politics at the Vera List Center in 2013, curator João Ribas attended to this very issue:
We no longer merely look at images. We now pinch, drag, scroll, swipe, and flick them, gestures that have been patented by corporations for almost two decades. The somatic codification of labor at the very level of a gesture inscribes an order of relation of us to what we produce. As such, what might be the Chaplinesque equivalent of these gestures? The movements that easily, or not so easily, escape or disrupt the model of production they imply. What does it mean to touch an image, rather than to merely look at it, and what might we call the haptic equivalent of looking away?
With some irony, Steyerl’s video offers two possible alternatives: escape or havoc. Withdrawal has often been suggested as the only means of refusing a contemporary working regime that utterly depends on workers’ identification with and commitment to their subjugated roles. However, the ludic dimension of Steyerl’s video contradicts its very deliberate instructions, not just in tone but also in content: the ecstatic energy of the final scene converts the pavement resolution target into a dance floor – here bodies don’t disappear but exuberantly enunciate their presence. The ultimate gesture of HOW NOT TO BE SEEN, figures pummeling a resolution target with their fists, is in fact an act of sabotage – the industrial era’s radical counterpart to contemporary calls for withdrawal. In a powerful application of her signature wordplay, Steyerl’s last protocol – the strike – encapsulates both the refusal of work and physical retaliation, the evacuating cut, and the defiant swipe.