Last Friday, at The New Foundation, I led a discussion centered around a screening of Hito Steyrel's Is The Museum A Battlefield, which was produced for the 13th Istanbul Biennial in 2012. (Introductory remarks, written to precede the screening, printed below.)
On seeing the video for the second time, I had similar frustrations with it that I had the first time, i.e., the trajectory of the critique is still annoyingly interrupted or detourned by flights of fancy, goofy, almost surreal flourishes. But my affective response to these rhetorical disconnects was muted the 2nd time, since I had read and thought about the her work in the interim.
While I am suggesting that Steyrel is making "Revolutionary Spam," I don't mean this in a derogatory way or as an insult. As was pointed out in the discussion, the question may be whether the work achieves the level of (artworld) malware, so its distribution and circulation within this ivory tower world (of the 5%) is perhaps what matters.
Others pointed out that these types of anti-aesthetic moves are old hat to the artworld, which nevertheless laps it up. I find the latter position a bit too easy and cynical, since I think Steyrel is engaged in a project that is socially & politically meaningful and was not trying to become the next big thing in the art world, even tho de facto this seems to have occurred. The critiques she shoots at us in helter skelter fashion do have a purposiveness. But they are not intended to strike us, so they would seem to be without purpose? [cf: the videoclip excerpt she uses from the Angelina Jolie film, where Jolie's character bends the path of bullets with her mind &c]
Steyrel refers several times to digital targeting and spam in the piece. This reminded me of Steven Shaviro's linking of spam to Kantian aesthetics:
“Spam is ... a message that is nothing beyond its medium… Spam has no utility, and no cognitive point, for its only aim is self-proliferation… In other words, spam is purposiveness without purpose: in Kantian terms, it is aesthetic..." [Steve Shaviro - excerpted here]
OK -- I'll abruptly stop here, and leave it to you to decide whether or not to block Steyrel's revolutionary spam.
I wanted to say a few words to introduce Is the Museum A Battlefield, since I think – for better or worse – that it would have been a better first experience for me if I had had more context.
Hito S describes herself (or others describe her) as a filmmaker (once upon a time she worked with Wim Wenders) and I think her writing practice as a critic/essayist has powerfully merged with the filmmaking so that it is just wrong to formally reduce her work to either essay or film. Remarkably she has been taken up by the art world – and this is difficult to fully comprehend since she is a clear eyed critic of it.
The earliest piece I’ve seen from 2004 is called November, and it involves a touchstone to which she often returns. She describes November as "a self-reflexive video that examines the role of images in the post-revolutionary moment..." It deals with her activist friend – I presume from her high school years -- Andrea Wolf -- who later joined the Kurdistan Worker Party and was killed in the late 90s. Steyerl actually made a very early super-8 film with her – sort of an outlaw/noir/ biker film, which the she calls a "feminist martial arts flick." This footage is used in November – titled for the month after the revolution – which makes it appropriate for New Foundation to be showing these films in October.
After seeing ITMAB, I was really taken with an essay she wrote in 2010 called A Thing Like You and Me. And in this I think she describes the underlying project or problem that she is working on -- or which is working on her.
"To Participate In The Image As Thing"
From a critique of authenticity and representation – where what is ‘real’ is suspect – since we live in a world flooded with images (or simulations) -- a sort of “barrage of commodified intensities,” Steyrel is trying to find a way to resist or get past this.
She wants to imagine "an object that is differently animated from the commodity fetish…” To “abolish that relation where we merely identify with the image.” She wants “…to call on things (not images!) to become comrades and equals. By releasing the energy stored in them, things become coworkers, potentially friends, even lovers.”
She insists on a materialist base of the digital image. She wants to “participate in the image as thing... And the desire to become this thing (in this case an image) is the upshot of the struggle over representation.”
It might seem vague or confusing - this notion of a physical image that resists representing and representation. This image-thing does have some paradoxical work to do. It isn't expressive in the way we presume art to be expressive. It does not represent some real thing. “It doesn’t represent reality. It is a fragment of the real world. It is a [material] thing just like any other – a thing like you and me.”