At Artists Space in Tribeca, the disembodied voice of Bruce Lee booms from Hito Steyerl’s video Liquidity, Inc., amid the distant sound of breaking waves.
“Empty your mind,” says Bruce in soothing tones. “Be formless, shapeless. Like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot.”
The gallery is lit in an intense argon blue, and the video is being projected on a hanging scrim opposite a massive, blue, padded surface, which curves from the floor upward in the shape of a wave. Viewers sink into huge blue bean bags in front of the screen, in the trough of the wave.
“Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
Hito Steyerl is a Berlin-based artist, writer, and professor of new media art at Berlin University of the Arts. She has been active since the 1990s, and her practice deals with data, politics, and the global circulation of images. Originally trained as a filmmaker, she has made work in a number of genres: essayistic documentary film—short, tightly composed pieces anchored by narration—as well as less conventional forms of video, sculpture, and installation. At the heart of her oeuvre is an interest in liquidity; liquidity as the primary condition underlying the present shape of the world. The dynamics of liquidity, which sometimes appear as a serene, blissful kind of free flow and sometimes as a repressive, violent force of control, make it impossible to keep thinking about things like images or information as solid, ‘framed’ objects with hard edges or consistent, determinate attributes. Rather, Steyerl’s artworks want to show that images and information are water or clouds or currents—systems that move and mutate in strange and sometimes terrifying ways.
In two of her early, well-known essay films, November (2004) and Lovely Andrea (2007), the artist accomplishes this by seeking out politically resonant images of herself and her childhood friend Andrea Wolf, a German-born activist and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militant who was murdered by Turkish police in 1998, subsequently becoming an icon of the Kurdish liberation movement. November revisits a no-budget action film the two made together as teenagers, while Lovely Andrea follows Steyerl’s attempts to locate a long-lost bondage photo of herself, which was taken in her twenties under the pseudonym ‘Andrea.’ In tracking the movement of Wolf’s image from amateur movie stardom to Kurdish martyrdom, or in following the image of ‘Andrea’ through Japanese pornography production and distribution networks, Steyerl discloses the uncontrollable, unpredictable fluid dynamics of image dissemination. And Wolf’s regular, ghostlike appearances throughout both films provide a deeply personal atmosphere, linking the artist directly to the histories of state violence and mediated violence that accompany such fluidity. In contrast to November and Lovely Andrea, Steyerl’s Red Alert (2007) is relatively non-narrative: three aluminum Apple monitors display pure red, evoking post-9/11 terror warnings and the ambient normalization of crisis. Inspired by Pure Colours: Red, Yellow and Blue (1921), a trio of solid color paintings by the Soviet Constructivist artist Alexander Rodchenko, Red Alert is a video work that acts more like a painting. Steyerl has described it as an expression of the entropic liquidation of video, just as Rodchenko and his contemporaries, nearly a century ago, explained Pure Colours in terms of the ‘end of painting.’
Liquidity, Inc. (2014) occupies a strange space between Steyerl’s narrative and non-narrative work, but it’s also probably the most concise and disarming summation of Steyerl’s artistic project. The 30-minute video obliquely tells the story of Jacob Wood, a former financial analyst for Lehman Brothers who, after losing his job in the 2008 collapse, became a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter and commentator. Steyerl uses both documentary footage and staged scenes alongside computer-generated graphics and appropriated video material to construct a witty and disarming meditation on the present, linking Bruce Lee’s concept of athletic “liquidity” with financial liquidity and structural instability, and eventually expanding to address weather patterns, climate change, natural disaster, cloud computing and web surfing. Poorly drawn Microsoft Paint diagrams and campy titles clash with pristine HD video and CG oceans as Jacob narrates his career transition, stressing the importance of shapelessness, formlessness: being-water. “You don’t want to be frozen, that’s the kiss of death, so you’re always being liquid and moving whether you’re striking, faking fainting, or doing take-downs,” he says, dressed in the business uniform of a finance worker—crisp white shirt, dark suit, gold tie. “That’s why, in a fight, they’ll always keep the action moving.” And there is also the value of hybridity, of fighters who are “well-versed in everything. That’s what makes [MMA] so exciting. That’s what makes things liquid and fluid.”
Liquidity, fluidity, adaptability, elasticity, flexibility, diversification—mantras of finance and fighters alike. “When you have liquidity, you’re in control,” Douglas R. Andrew, a ‘financial strategist,’ tells us in a clip taken from an infomercial. But these catchwords may as well be themes for workers in general, who, in an economy characterized in large part by precarious and affective labor, are expected to be totally ‘flexible’ in time and space. At one point in Liquidity, Inc. we get a glimpse of Steyerl’s own experience as a working artist: in an overflowing montage of Facebook and email screenshots, she documents a conversation with writer and collaborator Brian Kuan Wood (Jacob’s cousin) in which Steyerl mentions having had a nervous breakdown, thus failing to meet the commission deadline and losing her funding for Liquidity, Inc. “This means no budget for water CGI,” she writes. Of course, Steyerl too is flexible, adaptable—she (hilariously) scavenges the water CGI from YouTube flotsam: a tutorial for the 3D modeling program Maxon C4D. “Today I’m going to show you how to make a displaced body of water using a plane and a displace modifier…hoping to catch some sun glimmer…and, give it a little render…let’s see what we have…and look at that! Gorgeous, displaced, animated water.”
Halfway through Liquidity, Inc., Jacob’s story is interrupted by news footage from Hurricane Katrina, and then by a bizarre, fictional “weather report” entitled “The Weather Underground” (in reference to the ‘70s left-wing militant organization). A “terrorist” in an owl t-shirt, sunglasses, and a black balaclava gives the report in front of a world map covered in labels such as “New State,” “Hollow State,” “Self-Declared State?” “Real Unrecognized State,” “Stateless Nations,” “Stateless People,” “Non-Territorial Sovereign Entities,” “Unclaimed Insurgency,” and so on. Speaking through a dry, computerized text-to-speech voice, the terrorist-meteorologist gives a gloss of this geopolitical fluidity in a poetic description of “trade winds.” “You will ask yourself questions like: what is the history of wind?” he says. “How did this gust arrive here? Where did it come from and who am I to be blown by it?” The map is replaced by a shot of a Tumblr dashboard filled with flashing, animated GIFs of Hokusai’s Great Wave. “The storm is blowing people back to their homes,” continues the terrorist, “blowing goods back to their factories, blowing factories back to their countries, blowing people back into their past.”
That global capital and global networks are like a planetary storm—a liquid force of nature, placing and displacing borders, citizens, commodities, climates, and so on—is, in some circles, a well-established idea. But it’s one that Steyerl has seized upon and made concrete in a way that feels more substantial and engaging than other attempts. Liquidity, Inc.’s torrent of images makes the contemporary palpable in a way that’s neither overbearing nor schematic. This is mostly a result of her postproduction techniques, which are immediately expressive—text clouds emerge and dissipate, 3D-rendered bodies tumble and dissolve, video clips move across different supports, screen to screen. Steyerl has mentioned in interviews that she does most of her editing on flights or mid-commute, on her laptop, and this transitory, nomadic workflow seeps into the work itself. The images aren’t steady, settled entities; rather, they’re perpetual migrants, spilling out from their VLC frames or their LCDs.
Of course, a liquid crystal display is literally liquid, and it’s this good old materiality of digital technology to which Steyerl is so attentive. “Immateriality,” or “immaterial labor,” to use the jargon of the day, is a deception. There’s nothing immaterial about the flat, smooth aluminum of a trackpad, the warm glass of a touchscreen, the ripples in an LCD, the soft gradients of windows and their shadows—not to mention the massive Chinese rare-earth mineral mines that make all these things possible. The Cloud isn’t some digital mist hovering imperiously above our reality; it’s part of a planetary cycle, a whole storm system of production, logistics, transportation, and circulation. In her recent essay “Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead?”, published in e-flux journal’s 2015 release The Internet Does Not Exist, Steyerl writes strikingly on this theme, one that’s been constant in her work; here, she calls for a closer, more politicized look at the technical and image-based processes that inundate and incorporate almost every stratum of material life.
Just look around you: artificial islands mimic genetically manipulated plants. Dental offices parade as car commercial film sets. Cheekbones are airbrushed just as whole cities pretend to be YouTube CAD tutorials. Artworks are emailed to pop up in bank lobbies designed on fighter-jet software. Huge cloud storage drives rain down as skylines in desert locations…A nail-paint clip turns into an Instagram riot. An upload comes down as a shitstorm. An animated GIF materializes as a pop-up airport transit gate.
In short, the conceptual antagonisms between image and world, map and territory that once served our understanding of media and technology are no longer particularly useful. It’s not that there’s no longer any difference between image and world—for Steyerl, the two are not, by any means, equivalent. It’s a matter of determining which is primary and which is secondary. This determination is what’s beginning to seem more and more impossible. Images refuse to stay in their place; instead of being derivative copies of reality, images are participating in the very formation of reality. From the refusal of the image to stay where it ‘should,’ from this fluidity of image and world, a twofold response emerges, typified in the speculation of the financial analyst and the paralyzing anxiety of the precarious worker. Bruce Lee’s advice, professing serenity and ‘going with the flow,’ no doubt emerges from the same liquid moment.
So what, more specifically, are the stakes of liquidity? In particular, how do violence and terror, which always seem to be somehow present in Steyerl’s projects, manifest in or as liquidity? In Free Fall (2010) begins to hone in further on these questions. Taking as its starting point the Russian Constructivist playwright and “factographer” Sergei Tretyakov’s 1929 essay, “Biography of the Object,” In Free Fall is a “recycled biography” of a Boeing 4X-JYI jet, following its material history from Trans World Airlines to the Israeli Air Force to a Southern California scrapyard to a Hollywood backlot—where it’s used as a film prop in movies like Speed—and then finally to a factory, where the jet’s metal is recycled into DVDs. The cinematic image of the jet is then burned onto a Chinese bootleg disc made from the scrapped jet, and this disc is, in a way, just as much an image of the jet as is the Hollywood blockbuster. The 32-minute video’s three episodes—“before the crash,” “crash,” and “after the crash”—allude, perhaps, to a financial crash or free fall. Indeed, lurking in the background of the whole video is a kind of violence, whether Israeli state-sanctioned violence or spectacular, cinematic violence.
Steyerl takes up the porousness of matter and image, especially with regard to violence, once again in the brilliant 14-minute video HOW NOT TO BE SEEN: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013), in which a drawling, English-accented computer voice gives step-by-step instructions on how to make oneself “not-seen” under today’s conditions of networked surveillance. “To go off-screen,” is one suggestion; “to pretend you are not there” and “to become smaller than or equal to one pixel” are others. Various performers, including Steyerl herself, demonstrate each method as it’s narrated. The piece is oriented around “resolution targets”—in particular, one drone calibration pattern, discovered by Steyerl via Google Earth, that’s located in a militarized zone of the California desert. It’s a black, cracked asphalt patch, maybe the size of a small parking lot, covered in white linear markings that correspond to altitude measurements. This space, which in a sense is one of extreme, violent visibility, serves as a stage for Steyerl’s virtual interventions, in which she sets up green-screen superimpositions of computer desktops and low-res satellite images from Google. Green-bodysuited stagehands, dark green-burqa’d women, white-robed singers, and black and white pixel-headed figures dance to The Three Degrees’ 1974 soul hit “When Will I See You Again,” accompanying a 3D rendering of a shopping center. Like most of Liquidity, Inc., it’s totally absurd, joyful parody—to a fault, perhaps. The video’s jokey, meme-like qualities might come off simply as irresponsible, or as a form of flippant, cynical disavowal. On the other hand, there’s a deadly seriousness here, a darkness that makes the humor and Web 1.0-style graphics productively disturbing. As viewers of contemporary art, standing comfortably, perhaps, in a sterile Manhattan gallery, we’re being placed in the position of drone pilots. All we get in this video is simulation, seemingly at an utter remove from any real violence or real bodies. And yet it’s not just a simulation. It’s not just a poor imitation. It’s the actual operative mechanism of modern warfare, in which the reality of death and dispossession exists primarily as a low-quality aerial video feed. As Steyerl has suggested, it’s not so much that there is an excess of images, or that the technical apparatus is too vast and too removed from the ‘real world;’ rather, it’s that there’s now too much world. The world is overflowing its banks and puncturing our floodwalls.
If resolution is the measure of the world, as HOW NOT TO BE SEEN proclaims, it’s becoming apparent that the world only becomes more immeasurable, more complex, more fluid, as resolutions increase. With resolution comes dissolution. More “control,” more liquidity, opens onto unforeseen violence, instability, and inequality. This moment of realization, as it were, is what’s felt in Liquidity, Inc., In Free Fall, and HOW NOT TO BE SEEN. It’s the moment that Steyerl presents us with in “Too Much World.” “We thought it was a plumbing system, so how did this tsunami creep up in my sink?” she asks. “How is this algorithm drying up this rice paddy? And how many workers are desperately clambering onto the menacing cloud that hovers in the distance right now, trying to squeeze out a living, groping through a fog that may at any second transform both into an immersive art installation and a demonstration doused in cutting-edge tear gas?” In a contemporary art scene that often seems positively magpie-like in its delirious obsession with new digital languages and new visual forms, that frequently finds itself enchanted by ‘acceleration’ at the expense of real politics, Steyerl’s questioning informs us of the work that is still to be done.
ALEC MAPES-FRANCES B’17 is in control.