Wednesday, 15 May 2013

In the junkyard of wrecked fictions

Artist and film-maker Hito Steyerl has been a key thinker of the relationship between the fragmentary landscape of global networked images and contemporary aesthetic politics. Here she talks to Andrey Shental about the fragile freedoms to be found in fragments and objecthood. Andrey is a writer, freelance curator and a filmmaker as well as one of the students of's Lecture from behind the screen. This interview was published in Russian on and on

Hito Steyerl is a film-maker and author of numerous texts dedicated to contemporary art, politics, cinema and the circulation of new media. She lives in Berlin where she teaches at the Berlin University of the Arts. The most recent of her exhibitions took place at the Art Institute of Chicago and at e-flux in New York. I met Steyerl after her performative lecture ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ at Berlin’s House of Word Cultures that formed part of the Former West conference. In one of the cafés in Kreuzberg we discussed ‘les misérables’, the outlaws and outcasts of the contemporary digital world, on which Hito Steyerl writes in her recent collected essays The Wretched of the Screen.

Andrey Shental: You call yourself a film-maker and a writer. How do these two strands of activity intertwine in what you do?

Hito Steyerl: I try not to think about that relationship too much. In general, I want to keep them – the writing and the film-making – as separate as possible. Because I don’t want to write about my films and I don’t want to illustrate my texts. Of course, many issues completely overlap or influence one another. Very often the process of film-making itself is like a laboratory where you get exposed to certain problems, or questions, or technological failures. I try to reflect that in the writing. It is based on practice, yet not about it. Or based in reflection, yet not about it. How come, though, theory which is supposed to reflect upon art making and image making hardly ever reflects upon its own forms of presentation, of performance?

AS: I think many projects such as those organised by the platform BAK, by MaHKU university, or by Anton Vidokle are very self-reflexive in terms of their aspiration for un-learning.

HS: But when you go to any academic conference on art history or film studies… Everybody tries to pretend they are Plato! Then Žižek does his De Niro on Ritalin withdrawal act and everybody thinks it´s so cool.

AS: Yes, it’s true. I feel that some of your writings are a kind of collage of theories. You cut out other people’s voices or ideas, overlap, contradict, and flip them over so they produce paradoxical meanings and give refreshing interpretations of well known views. I think of Hannah Hoch’s work as a comparison.

HS: Yes definitely. I come from the tradition of montage and editing, but it is another form of collage in time.

AS: Is it your way of escaping academism?

HS: I am a high school drop out and when I got to film school everyone looked down on me for having no idea who Derrida was. So in most of my practice I try to use vernacular materials, accessible materials, in writing and in film-making even if I am not overly consistent in doing it. It is very important for me to do things in a way that might communicate to people who are not academics nor rooted in any national discussion or tradition.

AS: Yes, I like that you can quote George Michael, David Bowie, Lady Gaga or Susan Boyle along with Walter Benjamin, Leo Bersani, Georges Didi-Huberman, etc. When I thought about your works and tried to summarise them – which is probably not a good idea – I came to the conclusion that you are a theorist of the ‘marginal’ or – after your performative lecture ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ – an advocate of les miserables. Why are you interested in this subject?

HS: I think it came to me. This is nothing you choose. It is the perspective to see the world from. The digital ‘wretched of the earth’ are people, images and data sets which are not even proletarians, but low-lifes, riff-raff and drifters who don’t belong to one specific location.

AS: In one of your articles published in October you talk about the future of communication and claim that the ‘digital post-English language’ is the language ‘from a world to come’. For you, it is a kind of new transnational language of the globalised world, both degraded and affective. Many theorists have written about how native languages mould and form the consciousness of their speakers. How, in your view, would it change people of ‘the world to come’ when post-English becomes a kind of lingua franca?

HS: It has changed their consciousness already. You already see it in people. It gives them a platform to communicate or rather miscommunicate from. I mostly speak English with people who are also non-native speakers. It is a really good experience for people to be alienated in language, to have to struggle and to construct meaning beyond commonplaces and common sense, because meaning is denaturalised and cannot be taken for granted. Half the time you barely know what you are saying. This is very instructive! You surrender to language not in its meaning, but rhythm, tonality, inflection and improvise. Everyone should have to go through that. So most people who are using English in a boring and unimaginative way are native speakers. This really brings down the level of the conversation. Of course, on the other hand there is a question: why English? Why the colonial dominance of one language over all others? Why bestow so much power and privilege to its native speakers? The use of post-English is located in this ambiguous position and the solution is to develop English much further, so that nobody actually owns it more than anyone else. Hopefully it will become something completely different. It’s already happening.

AS: And what about consciousness?

HS: Your brain might assimilate to a browser. Lets hope it’s Tor! Or any form of aggregate feed, constantly interrupted, distracted, fragmented. There is an old Yes song which proclaims: ‘I am a camera’. So perhaps we are After-Effects? A crappy torrent link leading to an online porn shop? On the other hand this situation certainly gives you at least two different frameworks of understanding the word… world. The word, too, actually. That’s already better than just having one meaning that you are forced to or you are able to see things from; at least two perspectives, or rather with some bad photoshop kaleidoscope effect.

AS: (laughs) As I am a non-native speaker living in the motherland of the English language, I support it all the way. As for the colonial dominance, in the same text ‘Epistolary Affects and Romance Scams: Letter from an Unknown Woman’ you say that the so-called ‘Nigerian letters’ or ‘scams’ are kind of Africa’s post-colonial revenge to the West. I’m curious to what extent you are serious about it?

HS: I’m not an expert in these fields. I really tried to read the scholarly papers that exist on this topic. And there are not that many, but there is one particular one that was extremely interesting. It is written by Andrew Apter who tried to analyse these phenomena in the context of the Nigerian economy and the oil boom of the ’80s. There are quotes of scammers insulting their victims; you can also find them online. When the scam is discovered, some scammers react aggressively accusing their targets for being white colonialists. So there is a guy from Ghana or Nigeria posing as a lovely Russian lady for a white guy in the West, who makes him fall in love with ‘her’ and transfer generous doses of money via Western Union. And when the target becomes aware of this, he gets insulted for being a stinking colonial slave master and oppressor. Wow! It’s complicated! I don’t know whether this is factual or not, it’s very difficult to fact check beyond digital surfaces. But in a way it could be one example of a very contemporary way of translating real economic tensions and colonial history into something as unlikely as an internet Romance scam.

AS: Curator Keiko Sei recently talked about another type of tension – the phenomenon of piracy in South Asia, which is also omnipresent in Russia. You can buy a DVD there with 30 Hollywood films on it. I think the production of these multiples is an important form of partial non-participation in the western economy.

HS: Actually I wrote a text on Chinese DVDs and also the language on the back of them. Yes, in the case of China it is more complex because the state more or less implicitly supports piracy. It doesn’t really intervene into the pirate economy. You have a tacit cultural war playing in that territory as well. The language is great though and so instructive about technology, entertainment, translation and its global politics. I call it ‘Spamsoc’, this is how automatic scanner recognition translates Spanish on many of these covers.

AS: But compared to Nigerians, pirates don’t get money from the West, they just save money by not paying for licenses. When I talked to Keiko Sei she said that piracy and uncontrolled multiplication is, for her, a certain way to subvert western logocentrism. In this regard I thought about your idea of being an object that allows you to be immune from subjectification. What is the difference between these two modes of existence: being an object and being a subject?

HS: The traditional idea of the subject is that he is the master of the world: a bourgeois enlightenment subjectivity which is detached and able to judge phenomena. This is a brutally abbreviated traditional idea of the subject. But the subject is also something that is always subjected and defined by modes of subjection rather than subjectification. Any subject is always in this tension. But I think that in this globalisation /digitalisation /emergence of post-Fordist conditions of labour, the order to subjectify constantly and to produce yourself as a subject is stronger than ever. You have to consume all the time to become a subject. You have to construct your subjectivity by social media and so on. It’s basically a full-time job to produce yourself as a subject. Simultaneously so many emancipatory movements have always claimed this position of subject. Everyone wanted to be a subject. It is fair enough and there is a reason for that. On the other hand, just giving up trying to become a subject and trying to ally with other participants in the social sphere such as inanimate objects, or processes of production, or data protocols seems at the moment more interesting. I’m just following up on things that people have said since the ’20s. My initial cue comes from several texts by Walter Benjamin on mimesis and affinity and of course in recent decades many, many people have started thinking about objects and the forces inherent in objects. I’m just trying to apply this to my practice, and also to find different ways of relating to the world rather than becoming a subject.

AS: But there could be some dead-ends such as objectification or objecthood as it happened in art history.

HS: Yes, definitely, I completely agree. But art fetishisation also extends to language, processes, performance or ideas, post-conceptual art. Also an object for me is not a 3D thing necessarily; it could be a data set also. It is just not an animate human being with a bourgeois subjectivity.

AS: Recently many theorists from Friedrich Kittler to Lev Manovich in one way or another have claimed that cinema is an idea that can easily be re-embodied or reincarnated from one invention to another, for instance, into a machine gun. What is our contemporary embodiment of the Geist oreidos of cinema?

HS: Well, even though with the contemporary economic crisis, mainstream cinema is becoming more interesting again, traditional 2D cinema is still a dead body. This dead body is fragmented in the world, mutates and takes different forms. It lives on but as something else as an array of objects or processes of imitation. It takes on a new life in a networked 4D space that includes all previous media. It is the same idea about the relation between subject and object that I tried to express before. In the traditional 2D cinema there is a subject, which watches what is the going on in the projection, and this is the object of reflection. But now we live within the fragments of dead cinema, so to speak. It has exploded into a 4D space which is heavily mediated by the internet and in which all sorts of formerly 2D images become partially realised in 3D. We are embedded within a post-cinema that has been completely transformed, mutated into whole environments, permeated reality to the point that we can now understand it with media thought and alter it via post-production.

AS: As far as I remember, you said during your recent lecture at Goldsmiths that post-cinema could be compressed even into a short clip.

HS: Cinema has exploded into fragments and small files and bits and pieces everywhere: online, offline. The old body of cinema is completely bruised, mutilated and full of scars. But the scars, on the other hand, are the place where the political, economic and aesthetic tensions manifest. They basically explode through the body of cinema at a certain point in time. This is basically where the social forces become visible precisely in the fragmentation of cinema.

AS: By the way, I just recalled how ‘De Niro on Ritalin’, talking on ‘ontological incompleteness’ of our world, compared reality with computer games, where you cannot access some part of it because they were not created by programmers… And you think that is the world’s cinema?

HS: Almost. This thing is also post-cinema [pointing at a table]. It’s been photoshopped rather than constructed. This table’s production was coordinated online somewhere. It consists of different bits and pieces combined like on an editing table. All the processes of post-production and production, of design, of thinking of cinema is now embedded in all these objects.

AS: What about its radical and emancipatory potential?

HS: It always exists. It exists in new forms nowadays. Let’s come back to the uprisings that happened in North Africa, in the Arab worlds, India, Southern Europe; even in completely unlikely places such as the UK and the US. All these videos taken on cell phones aggregating online to create new bodies of participation and different collective senses or even something different altogether have completely reconfigured our understanding of what technological networks can do. There will always be new forms in which the desire for emancipation will be articulated.

AS: During the last presidential elections in Russia, there were many videos documenting the falsification of voting papers. Some people claimed these videos were fictitious. In your film November you talk about fiction and documentary and how easily one mutates into the other. You might know that in the Soviet Union the stills from the film October were used in school textbooks. The story of the scene where soldiers were covered up with a tarpaulin in Battleship Potemkin was even more mysterious: it seems that it was invented by the film director, but one of the participants of the real events wanted to take Eisenstein to court. As a result it become a form of a historical event. What are the fictions we live in nowadays?

HS: I think it works in a similar way. We used to believe that fiction is the reflection of something that happened in reality, which was then exaggerated and embellished. But now we see everywhere fictions becoming real. Fictions are like architectural blueprints to create reality because people try to imitate fiction and they try to repeat it, Live up to it or embody it, and then they get it wrong and then a new story starts. This is something I have been fascinated with since November when it came to my mind. There is an anecdote in the end when one of the German militants of that time, 1978, was telling the story about how they tried to imitate a fiction film by Costa-Gavras. They were using it as a manual for clandestine activity. But by now it is interesting to see how we are far into the process: we have so many fictions and images that have already realised themselves in the world that we basically live in a junkyard of fictions and images. Like decommissioned planes in the desert. We live in a junkyard of wrecked fictions.

AS: And what about its ideological component?

HS: Of course, there is a lot of ideological force behind many fictions. Fictions are being produced to create a certain reality. One of the well known examples is the fiction of the existence of weapons of mass-destruction in Iraq, which realised itself in the form of a military intervention. One can easily multiply the examples. But within the transition into reality, something often goes wrong. A glitch, that might be able to change the narrative or at least fuck it up. So sometimes the ideological effect can be different than the one intended. Something flips over. That’s really interesting to see.

AS: In the text ‘Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-democracy’, you say that the truly political art is made politically, namely it is responsible for the politics of its own production and distribution. How do you deal with this issue yourself?

HS: It is a very difficult question. Many of the things I’ve said in the text I could not have said if I hadn’t been deeply embedded in this system. I need to have these experiences in order to be able to express them. I’m sure other people are able to do it differently. I might be just too stupid, but I don’t think that a complete withdrawal or a position of innocence is very productive because I simply wouldn’t know what was going on. At the same time, I am far from thinking that I actually have any comprehensive idea of what is going on and how. But there are initiatives, which I really support. For instance, the Gulf Labor Group which tries to pinpoint the construction of the Guggenheim in Abu-Dhabi as one example where all these contradictions are expressed in one museum building. That’s a good thing. All these initiatives to put art labour on the agenda: great. But again, even they can flip, when they become fetish objects to display in a White Cube. It depends on the situation.

AS: But would you participate in a biennale if you know it was corrupt or had ethical problems of any kind?

HS: Well, probably most biennials are corrupt and have ethical problems (laughs). But the question is where to draw the line. I think there is at least one thing in which I really regretted taking part. I could never have written ‘Politics of Art’ without this and many other experiences of being fully embedded into corrupt systems. I am not innocent. Maybe I’m completely over optimistic, but I think these issues need to be tackled both from the inside and outside.

AS: As far as your optimism is concerned I would like to ask you about it. Theorists focused on media very often interpret technology in a negative way. Your texts are often a bit manifesto-like and you are very positive about the things you write about. Have you ever regretted about anything you proclaimed to date?

HS: In my lifetime the history of left movements goes from one disappointment to another. A streak of losses! Being disappointed is a default position. But if we have to be disappointed anyway all the time, we might as well have fun! Otherwise it is a waste of time. It is very clear how new media will betray every little spark of emancipatory potential in the long-run. In the long-run, we will also be dead. But in the meantime, while it happens, there are always small windows which open up certain possibilities and it would be completely foolish not to make the best of it.


Image credits:

Hito Steyerl, STRIKE. 2010
Hito Steyerl, Abstract, 2012. HD video with sound, 5 minutes. Installation view, e-flux, 2012
'Please, I need your help', scam email
Hito Steyerl, Adornos´s Grey, 2012. Single channel HD video projection, 14 minutes 20 seconds, four angled screens, wall plot, photographs. Installation view, e-flux, 2012
Cover of The Buggles’ single I am a Camera

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