Hito Steyerl Is (Not) Completely Invisible

by Andrew Wagner on July 15, 2014 · 0 comments Reviews

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Video still from Hito Steyerl’s video “How Not to Be Seen: a Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov” (2013).  Image courtesy of Hito Steyerl and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York.

In a recent interview with DIS Magazine, 48-year-old writer and artist Hito Steyerl remarked that “anyone slightly interested in digital politics and technology is by now acquiring at least basic skills in disappearance and subterfuge.” Based on the title of Steyerl’s new show at Andrew Kreps Gallery, How Not to Be Seen: a Fucking Didactic Educational Installation, you might think that Steyerl wants to share those skills with everyone. But as you spend time with the show, you realize that title is something of a red herring: this is a show that is less about how not to be seen than about the ever-increasing hopelessness of achieving that goal.

Steyerl’s video “Strike” (2010) greets you as you enter the show. In “Strike,” Steyerl solemnly walks up to a massive black television screen, and with a hammer and pick, makes a single, forceful blow. As the black screen cracks, colorful, interlocking neon stripes appear in patches on its surface. Steyerl then walks away, allowing the viewer to appreciate the television screen as an aesthetic object.

There’s a tension at work here: though the stripes are beautiful, they also signify that the television has become broken and otherwise useless. If Steyerl’s act is one of artistic creation, it’s also one of anger and attack. Steyerl seems to be playing a paranoiac driven to her last straw. Fed up with the barrage of digital images which saturate her daily life, she takes the only possible path of resistance and attacks the television screen. That resistance might be useless—what good is smashing a screen when thousands more will be made every day to replace it?—but this isn’t about results, it’s about an expression of total frustration.

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Video still from “How Not to Be Seen” (2013). Image courtesy of Hito Steyerl and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York.

Humorous, violent, blunt–”Strike,” in its 28 seconds, encapsulates everything that makes How Not to Be Seen so compelling. Resistance is also at play in the show’s other video, “How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov” (2013), albeit one that is less about violent forcefulness and more about subterfuge. The 16-minute video is the centerpiece of the show, and Steyerl has even built out another room to house it in the center of the gallery. Sitting at an angle and taking up an awkward amount of space, the room forces viewers to maneuver around it as they pass through the show.

“How Not to Be Seen” purports to be an instructional film, offering “lessons” in how to make one’s body invisible in a culture characterized by constant surveillance. Those strategies include everything from living in a gated community to being a woman over fifty. Only last month, it was revealed that Facebook had secretly experimented and collected data on hundreds of thousands of users, deliberately altering users’ newsfeeds to manipulate people’s moods. Steyerl’s video feels particularly timely when we are constantly being made aware of the far-reaching surveillance that pervades our lives, with little means of escaping it.

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Video still from “How Not to Be Seen” (2013). A resolution target. Image courtesy of Hito Steyerl and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York.

Steyerl’s video revolves around the resolution target, a black-and-white patterned chart that measures the resolution of cameras. “Resolution determines visibility,” the narrator’s droll voice remarks, and the target becomes the film’s central motif. These charts are constantly flitting in-and-out of screen, and the setting for the video itself is a massive, abandoned resolution target in the Californian desert, once used for calibrating airborne cameras. The narrator tells us that this target “measures the resolution of the world as a picture.” The entire globe, we’re made to understand, can be viewed through the metric of resolution: to be in resolution is to be seen, while to make yourself low-resolution is to become invisible.

How might that actually work? In one moment of the video, you learn that the size of a pixel in a satellite image of earth is about one foot. So, one way to not be seen is to make your body smaller than a foot. Cue the “pixels,” or individuals in black body suits wearing black or white one-foot cubes on their heads. They slowly jump and twirl across the screen to atonal music in what looks like a parody of modern dance. The moment is a hilarious imagining of the extremes individuals in the future might undertake to escape digital surveillance, but it’s also pretty unnerving. Even if you totally abandon society and become a hermit, you still wouldn’t be able to escape the vision of satellite cameras. Invisibility is an impossibility.

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Installation view. Image courtesy of Hito Steyerl and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York.

Rounding out the show’s two videos are sculptural/installation works that mostly consist of visual riffs on the resolution target. In one corner, a resolution target stands next to a few others that have been painted the color of a green screen. In another, the stripes of the resolution targets are physically placed on the gallery floor. In the video, the resolution target was a way to make the viewer hyper-aware of their own constant visibility. When used as material for sculpture, however, they become little more than aesthetic objects. And while the black-and-white patterns have a graphic kick to them, they don’t stand up next to the biting commentary of the video pieces.

That’s okay, though, because Steyerl’s two videos are more than strong enough to make for a compelling show. While funny and visually seductive, their ultimate effect is to make the viewer feel trapped in a culture where we’re all being turned into images and data. With every new cloud-related news scandal from revelations that Snapchat’s been storing your photosto the government’s new facial recognition software development—Steyerl’s videos become all the more urgent. Though “How Not to Be Seen” might seek to offer us ways to escape this culture of surveillance, you leave it feeling more aware than ever of just how seen you really are.

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