- by Sophie Arni
Hito Steyerl (b. 1966) is a Japanese-German filmmaker and writer. Born in Munich, she attended the Japan Institute of the Moving Image, and holds a PhD in Philosophy from the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. She currently teaches New Media Art at the Berlin University of the Arts. She is probably my favorite post-internet artist, and by far the most talented video artist I have come across. It is not that her videos are remarkable in an aesthetic sense, but they raise subliminal questions that a great Nobel prize philosopher could easily debate. In this review, I will analyze her retrospective, on view right now the Artists Space in New York. The non-profit organization, founded in 1972 and still located in its original SoHo neighborhood, famously promoted Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger before their rise to fame. The Artists Space prides itself to push for debates in the contemporary art field that go beyond the expected, and lets the best emerging artists develop their voices in a non-commercial gallery space, which holds a museum quality team of curators and a certain impact in contemporary art scholarship.
The show, called simply Hito Steyerl, is an entire exhibition of video art; no ‘found objects’, props to the videos, costumes or canvases are scattered through the third floor of 38 Greene Street. The curators rose to the challenge of presenting video art with a different tonality. Central to the exhibition layout is the idea that the video is not the only piece of art: the setting of the projection should convey information too. To put it simply, each projection is an installation. If I had to concentrate on one piece, I would choose Liquidity Inc. (2014), a 30-minute video. Like her other videos, it is difficult to discern what narrative Steyerl is choosing to portray in the first few minutes. This video is about liquidity. Liquid in the physical sense: a liquid can take on any form; the water in a bottle takes the shape of the bottle and so on; in the financial sense: liquid assets are ones bought and sold easily; and in the psychological sense: being ‘liquid’ is being fluid, adaptable, always on the move – a true example of a postmodern human. The projection is curated with a blue curved slide, mimicking a wave of ‘liquid’ water, on which viewers can comfortably sit back and enjoy the show amongst cozy cushions. Tsunamis, hydrologic energies, floods, limited drinkable water supplies in the developing world: water has gotten a lot of attention in the media in our 21st century. One overarching motto in Steyerl’s video goes: “Water can fall. Water can crash. Be water.” Another one, “Water is time. Water is money. What is water?” These catchphrases are powerful and feel like propaganda. Steyerl is critiquing propaganda by doing propaganda. She is critiquing the internet flow by shoving the internet down our throats. I cannot confirm that Steyerl read Zyngmunt Bauman's Liquid Modernity (2000), but given her academic credentials (Ph.D. in Philosophy), it would be reasonable to assume she is familiar with the Polish sociologist’s theories. In his seminal book, Bauman argues that the terms modern and postmodern should be dropped. He advocates for using the terms ‘solid’ and ‘liquid’. Our postmodern society in a state of collapse of solid structures, privileging networks and fluidity. We live in a consumerist society, in which we 'desire desire', in which we always need to adapt and cannot ever stay put. The days of solid production are over. Liquidity qualifies a constant movement, a group of atoms linked to each other by unbreakable bonds, and which can take any form possible. We live in a society valuing liquid energies, liquid assets, the fluidity of behaviors, genders, and appearances. Solid rigid structures have been broken: for Bauman, that is the key to understand our contemporary era. 'You will never become poor' the man says. 'Buy a house, and sell it when times get tough!' The idea sounds great to me. At this moment I recall Christopher Wools’ “Sell the Car, Sell the House, Sell the Kids”. Wool was also implicitly referring to the liquid phenomenon. We are obsessed with the idea of liquid assets: buy something, not for the value, it will give you like a product, but as a safety net asset that you can always sell. The liberty that comes with liquidity is quite magical: anything you own can be sold. Everything is transient, except for the very feeling of being liquid. Overall, I would say Hito Steyerl is an absolute success of an exhibition. Presenting us with only three carefully chosen and curated videos, each consequent in their own rights (30 minutes each) was a wonderful choice for the Artists Space. I think this exhibition is innovative in the way great art always is. It will have an effect on video art curatorship, and the way we consider videos as a means to convey debates about contemporary society. And finally, the videos are proof that if there is a way to counteract subtle daily oppressions, it is the artist's role to do so.