The Wretched of the Screen

Last week I decided to remind myself why I went freelance in the first place and shrugged off a mountain of work in order to head to the East Bay to hear Hito Steyerl speak at Berkeley. The freedom to be able to shape my days around things I was interested in, instead of “butts in seats” priority of showing up to a cubicle for a required eight hour day. While I previously had a tepid appreciation for video art, Steyerl was fantastic and the talk piqued my interest in her philosophy, writing, and art. Her Berkeley talk touched on several ideas she’s brought up in her work: How not to be seen, Factory of the Sun, is the museum a battlefield, duty free art (where pieces are bought and sold in a tax-free zone and shuffled between cubicles in a building in Geneva). Several of her lectures are on YouTube, including a New School talk in 2013 (she’s in the first 17 minutes… I love her sympathy with the striking video projector “I support the right of technological equipment to break down and strike. I sympathize with this Comrade” & her riffing on the “parallel montage” of the dudes trying to help fix the video issue) and the MOCA talk she did a day before I saw her.

The book is a collection of essays Steyerl wrote for e-flux journal, heavily footnoted and interspersed with intriguing graphical elements. From these essays I swept up crumbs from Steyerl’s massive brain, having to familiarize myself with several people, things, concepts I’d never encountered before, like Chris Marker, Third Cinema, The Invisible Committee (whose The Coming Insurrection I had read but forgotten), etc.

She dives into the concept of the poor image, the pirated video, the many-copied jpg that progressively loses quality, praising and questioning the effect of freeing previously highly inaccessible film projects. You can create your own film retrospective of Chris Marker’s films if you so desire, “blurred AVI files of half-forgotten masterpieces are exchanged on semi-secret P2P platforms. Clandestine cellphone videos smuggled out of museums are broadcast on YouTube…[the poor image] by losing its visual substance recovers some of its political punch…By drifting away from the vaults of cinema, it is propelled onto new and ephemeral screens stitched together by the desires of dispersed spectators.” Dziga Vertov’s dream of visual bonds linking workers of the world has come true… “if mostly under the rule of a global information capitalism whose audiences are linked almost in a physical sense by mutual excitement, affective attunement, and anxiety.”

Another essay “Is the Museum a Factory?” includes a discussion of Harun Farocki’s installation collecting different cinematic versions of Workers Leaving the Factory, from Lumiere’s original silent version to contemporary surveillance footage (Farocki’s essay here and actual video here). How interesting that the first films ever made show workers leaving the factory. “At the beginning of cinema, workers leave the industrial workplace. The invention of cinema thus symbolically marks the start of the exodus of workers from industrial modes of production.” Farocki’s collection shows workers RUNNING from the building, on their way to some other (better) place. Steyerl then explores the failure of museums to create conversation, how they create cacophony instead, “installations blare simultaneously while nobody listens. To make matters worse, the time-based mode of many cinematic installations works precludes a truly shared discourse around them; if works are too long, spectators will simply desert them. What would be seen as an act of betrayal in a cinema–leaving the projection while it lasts–becomes standard behavior in any spatial installation situation… In circulating through the space, spectators are actively montaging, zapping, combining fragments–effectively co-curating the show.”

In “Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy,” Steyerl eviscerates the connection of art and capitalism:

Contemporary art is a brand name without a brand, ready to be slapped onto almost anything, a quick face-lift touting the new creative imperative for places in need of an extreme makeover, the suspense of gambling combined with the stern pleasures of upper-class boarding school education, a licensed playground for a world confused and collapsed by dizzying deregulation. If contemporary art is the answer, the question is, how can capitalism be made more beautiful?

But contemporary art is not only about beauty. It is also about function. What is the function of art within disaster capitalism? Contemporary art feeds on the crumbs of a massive and widespread redistribution of the wealth from the poor to the rich, conducted by means of an ongoing class struggle from above. It lends primordial accumulation a whiff of post-conceptual razzmatazz.

She goes on to describe the art field as a “space of wild contradiction and phenomenal exploitation. It is a place of power mongering, speculation, financial engineering, and massive and crooked manipulation. But it is also a site of commonality, movement, energy, and desire. In its best iterations it is a terrific cosmopolitan arena populated by mobile strike workers, itinerant salesmen of self, tech whiz kids, budget tricksters, supersonic translators, PhD interns, and other digital vagrants and day laborers… Peopled with charming scumbags, bully-kings, almost-beauty-queens. It’s HDMI, CMYK, LGBT. Pretentious, flirtatious, mesmerizing.”

“Art as Occupation” considers the morphing of language– labor is now called occupation, as if we must be kept busy and that the work is the reward, not requiring money. “Instead of being seen as a means of earning, it is seen as a way of spending time and resources. It clearly accents the passage from an economy based on production to an economy fueled by waste, from time progressing to time spent or even idled away…” In this essay, Steyerl also touches on something I’ve been wrestling with, how much of our own lives are “endless self-performance”?

Among my favorites was also “The Spam of the Earth: Withdrawal from Representation” where Steyerl explores the phenomenon of people now trying to avoid being photographed, shying away from the camera, plotting routes around cities that aren’t monitored step-by-step with CCTV surveillance. She discusses the concept of image spam, another thing I’ve been blithely ignorant of (thank you spam traps!), where people put their message into an image in an effort to get it past filters. For the most part, these billions of images are caught, trapped, and discarded like scum.

For a certain time already I have noted that many people have started actively avoiding photographic or moving-image representations, surreptitiously taking their distance from the lenses of camera. Whether it’s camera-free zones in gated communities or elitist techno clubs, someone declining interviews, Greek anarchists smashing cameras, or looters destroying LCD TVs, people have started to actively, and passively, refuse constantly being monitored, recorded, identified, photographed, scanned, and taped. Within a fully immersive media landscape, pictorial representation–which was seen as a prerogative and a political privilege for a long time– feels more like a threat…

And why wouldn’t the people be vanishing, given the countless acts of aggression and invasion performed against them in mainstream media, but also in reality? Who could actually withstand such an onslaught without the desire to escape this visual territory of threat and constant exposure?
Additionally, social media and cellphone cameras have created a zone of mutual mass surveillance, which adds to the ubiquitous urban networks of control, such as CCTV, cellphone GPS tracking and face-recognition software. On top of institutional surveillance, people are now also routinely surveilling each other by taking countless pictures and publishing them in almost real time…

Warhol’s prediction that everybody would be world-famous for fifteen minutes had become true a long time ago. Now many people want the contrary: to be invisible, if only for fifteen minutes. Even fifteen seconds would be great. We entered an era of mass paparazzi, of the peak-o-sphere and exhibitionist voyeurism. The flare of photographic flashlights turns people into victims, celebrities, or both. As we register at cash tills, ATMs, and other checkpoints–as our cellphones reveal our slightest movements and our snapshots are tagged with GPS coordinates–we end up not exactly amused to death but represented to pieces.