“I think Bigfoot is blurry, that's the problem. It's not the photographer's fault. Bigfoot is blurry, and that's extra scary to me. There's a large, out-of-focus monster roaming the countryside. Run, he's fuzzy, get out of here.” – Mitch Hedberg
Mitch Hedberg’s enduring Bigfoot joke is predicated on a misunderstanding that conflates image-making technology and distribution with real world appearances. It’s the same one that Berlin-based writer and filmmaker Hito Steyerl explores in her work, but for Steyerl it’s neither misunderstanding nor joke. We live in a world where “reality now widely consists of images; or rather, of things, constellations, and processes formerly evident as images,” she writes in her recent e-flux journal essay “Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead?” “[One] cannot understand reality without understanding cinema, photography, 3D modeling, animation, or other forms of moving or still image. The world is imbued with the shrapnel of former images, as well as images edited, photoshopped, cobbled together from spam and scrap.”
Hito Steyerl, How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, 2013, film still; Courtesy of the artist and the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven
How can one become invisible in this overwhelming image economy? That’s the central question of Steyerl’s fantastic 2013 film How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File. The answers, divulged in a five-point treatise, include becoming smaller than a pixel, applying green makeup in front of a green screen, living in a gated community or militarized zone, getting caught in a spam filter, or simply walking off screen. The film ends when the camera crew disappears after invisible energy rays emanate from their iPhones and rogue pixels hijack the camera crane. The U.S. Air Force drops glitter from a stealth helicopter and the happy pixels fly away on a drone before jumping off into a low-resolution GIF loop. Maybe she’s got a sense of humor about this after all.
This film and others in Steyerl’s first mid-career retrospective at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven explore the Post-Internet world, one in which the images, behaviors, and tropes of the online domain have migrated off screen and into real life. Her writings, films, and lecture-performances unleash ideas that overlap, diverge, collide, repel. Sometimes they come together with a punchy conclusion, but often they remain in indefinite circulation like the bullet she describes flying from battlefield to museum and back again in “Is the Museum a Battlefield?” (2013).
In this lecture/performance, first performed at the 13th Istanbul Biennial, Steyerl makes linguistic associations (e.g. the semantic link between the caliber of an artwork and the caliber of a weapon), aesthetic ones (the analogous shape of a Gehry-designed corporate headquarters and a Hellfire missile), and literal ones (the Louvre has been stormed on numerous occasions, and weapons manufacturers sponsor biennials). She constructs webs of ideas, images, and relations that can be confusing yet always feel urgent.
Hito Steyerl, Liquidity Inc., 2014, film still; Courtesy of the artist and the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven
Nowhere is this truer than in her latest work, Liquidity Inc. (2014), which floats more ideas than I can sensibly list here. The personal biography of Jacob Wood—an American adoptee from Vietnam who was employed as an analyst until the Lehman Brothers collapse, and later found work as a mixed martial arts commentator—is interwoven with a broad range of subjects—the stock market crash, weather systems, art history, surfers, the dotcom bubble, global trade routes, martial arts. Watching the film is like having too many tabs open in your browser at once, hurdling back and forth between hyperlinked ideas, trying to hold on to something slipping in and out of reach. At one point the screen literally fills with overlapping email and Facebook chat messages about the film’s production budget. You’d be forgiven for losing the plot in this hyper-montage where everything is up in the air happening simultaneously. “Be water, my friend,” Bruce Lee sagely advises in the film’s opening sequence. We all need to adapt—and quickly.
The exhibition includes over three and half hours of film—more than the average museum-goer can realistically be asked to consume—but the dilemma of what to watch and for how long is thematically relevant. In her essay “Is a Museum a Factory?” Steyerl describes viewers as workers. Through combined watching efforts—like workers in a Fordist factory—viewers’ unique, fractured experiences ensure that everything gets seen. The exhibition’s looped architecture, designed by Berlin’s Studio Miessen, also drafts visitors into the concepts and aesthetics of the work. Ideas travel from one room, one artwork, to the next—a nice gesture, though the drifting audio is irritating and the installations inconsistent. Viewers can watch Liquidity Inc. comfortably from beanbag chairs on a wave-shaped structure, while other works—November (2004), Lovely Andrea (2007)—receive less inventive treatment.
There was one work I couldn’t find. I asked at least three staffers and no one seemed to know where Surveillance: Disappearance (2014) was. I worried about this poor artwork all the way home, wondering if it was perhaps smaller than a pixel, hidden under a green bodysuit, dissolved into water, annihilated as an enemy of the state, or if maybe a big blurry monster had come and stolen it away. When the museum responded to my inquiry about the missing artwork, I learned that I’d not only seen it, but been in it unawares. I’d been caught on CCTV looking at three El Lissitzsky artworks and digitally erased from the footage. Turns out it wasn’t the artwork who learned how not to be seen, but me.
(Image on top: Hito Steyerl, How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, 2013, film still; © Courtesy of the artist and the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven)