- Hallucinating Networks and Secret MuseumsHito Steyerl on Our Aesthetic Immiseration
If Art Review magazine’s “Power 100” rankings are to be heeded, Hito Steyerl is the most important person in the art world.1 Seeing Steyerl’s name occupy the widely hyped list’s top spot, I was reminded that in what we call “the art world,” we are always confronted with at least two different notions of power, perhaps as inextricable as they are incommensurable. For whatever power the German artist and writer can be said to possess has everything to do with her peerlessly trenchant critical investigations of another kind of power subtending and shaping contemporary art—the sort of power whose abuse comes as no surprise, in so far as its exercise is coterminous with its abuse. Steyerl’s work maps the power of . . . well, the actually powerful, those who stand to profit from art’s metamorphosis into an “alternative currency” that screens out the horrors and launders the spoils of war, and on whose behalf contemporary media technologies are now being weaponized as so many apparatuses of surveillance and control. She is best known for immersive video installations like How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013), Liquidity Inc. (2014), and her celebrated contribution to the 2015 Venice Biennale German Pavilion, Factory of the Sun (2015). In such densely narrative works, documentary fact and political analysis give way to flights of speculative fiction, perfectly reasonable paranoia, and hyperbolic zaniness, in an effort to render the extent of our subjugation and exploitation in the globalized neoliberal world order, as well as the critical roles aesthetic experience plays in this order’s operation.
Based in Berlin, Steyerl holds a PhD in Philosophy from the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Vienna, and currently teaches experimental video and film at [End Page 119] the Universität der Künst Berlin. In the last decade, dozens of solo exhibitions mounted around the world have secured her reputation as one of the most acclaimed and radically contemporary artists of the twenty-first century, while publications like the essay collection The Wretched of the Screen (2012) attest to the development of an important new voice in aesthetic theory, media studies, and institutional critique. Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War gathers together fifteen of Steyerl’s texts, many of which began as talks before making their way to the pages of the vanguard art and theory journal e-flux. They range across an impressively eclectic expanse of problems: the collection’s eponymous essay, which takes the catastrophe of the Syrian Civil War and the development of tax-free art-storage facilities as occasions for rethinking the political responsibilities of the museum, is followed by a reflection on Spam (the mostly fake meat), spam (the mostly fake correspondence), and “Spam” (the legendary Monty Python sketch). Its topical diversity notwithstanding, Duty Free Art coheres around Steyerl’s unflinching commitment to accounting for how art really functions in a global landscape shaped by privatization, financialization, and militarization—how art’s instruments and institutions often work as accomplices, wittingly or not, to the forces of neoliberal stasis (which, citing the work of Giorgio Agamben, she reminds us means not only immutability but also civil war). Steyerl’s book figures as a crucial contribution to the discourse on contemporary art and media, and is all the more remarkable for the bone-dry, goofball wit with which she unfolds her decidedly bleak picture of contemporary art’s entanglements.
Perhaps the best way to gain entry to the sometimes dizzying textual labyrinth of Duty Free Art is via the narrow passage between two of the most alarming documentary images through which Steyerl indexes and diagnoses our “age of planetary civil war.” Indeed, such images play an overdetermined role in Steyerl’s text: objects of her arguments, they are sometimes also the very medium in which an argument unfolds. The first, and the one with which the book’s first essay opens, is of a long-retired...