More than a hundred years ago new technologies transformed the aesthetic field, as painting and sculpture were pressured by photography and film, and modernists like Walter Benjamin and László Moholy-Nagy redefined literacy as the ability to read both. For Benjamin, the reproducibility of these media not only shattered the auratic power of the unique work (this was mostly wishful thinking) but, in doing so, opened artistic practice to other purposes, especially political ones (this came to pass, for good and for bad). What’s more, the camera revealed the existence of things, at levels both micro and macro, beyond the limits of human vision, which Benjamin called ‘the optical unconscious’. Although photography and film captured the real in impressive ways, gradually, as they were woven into the fabric of things through advertising and the like, they served to derealise the world too, and by the 1960s terms like ‘simulation’ and ‘spectacle’ were needed to grapple with the effects.
Back then mechanical reproduction and mass circulation altered representation and subjectivity; now that reformatting is done by digital replication and internet dispersion, and the changes are no easier to grasp. Today many images neither document nor derealise the world; rather, the viral ones model their own realities, often without our agency and against our interests, and this is also true of information when it spasmodically erupts as a news flash or a purchase prompt. In the punchy bulletins collected in Duty Free Art, the German media artist and theorist Hito Steyerl describes this condition, which we might call ‘the algorithmic nonconscious’, as follows: ‘Contemporary perception is machinic to a large degree. The spectrum of human vision only covers a tiny part of it. Electric charges, radio waves, light pulses encoded by machines for machines, are zipping by at slightly subluminal speed. Seeing is superseded by calculating probabilities. Vision loses importance and is replaced by filtering, decrypting and pattern recognition.’ Forget about competence in photography and film: today literacy is about detecting how ‘reality itself is post-produced and scripted,’ and about navigating the ‘networked space’ of the ‘military-industrial-entertainment complex’, with its ‘junk images’, ‘serious games’ and ‘post-cinematic affects’. Steyerl offers these last four terms (adapted from Thomas Elsaesser, Rem Koolhaas, Harun Farocki and Steven Shaviro respectively) as part of her lexicon for survival in a contemporary life caught in the capitalist Web. In her view this life threatens to become an endless match of Captcha (as in ‘Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart’): as we meekly type in our translations of the squiggled texts offered up by websites, Steyerl notes drily, we ‘successfully impersonate a human for a machine’.
How to attain the requisite literacy today; how (not) to deal with the Captcha regime? According to Steyerl, we must somehow meet it on its own amorphous ground, and learn to see and to think as its programs do, scanning, decoding and connecting, even if they beat us badly at this serious game every time. She calls for crash courses in ‘apophenia’, or the perception of patterns within data, and in ‘inceptionism’, or the extraction of salient information from internet noise through ‘deep dreaming’ (she riffs on the Christopher Nolan movie from 2010). Further, Steyerl urges us to marshal these skills in a new mode of interventionist interpretation, but it isn’t clear at what level it is to be conducted: ‘pattern recognition’ suggests it should occur on the noisy surface of data, whereas ‘inceptionism’ implies that one must run silent and deep, as the dark web and the deep state do. While the first is in keeping with the poststructuralist emphasis on the chatty superficiality of signs, the second suggests a refurbishing of an old ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ that probes deceptive appearance for the true reality underneath. Yet how do we peel back our monitors, as Steyerl does, literally, in her video STRIKE (2010), in which she takes a chisel to a lush LCD screen? Is this a call to exit the omni-workplace of the laptop, or a gesture that underscores the present futility of such strikes? Toto had only to pull back the curtain to expose the blowhard Wizard of Oz; how do we prise open the black box of the military-industrial-entertainment complex?
In her artworks and installations Steyerl does what she can to unpack the dimensionless space of digital images, data and assets, and to reverse engineer some of its typical forms. She draws on industrial films, instructional videos, computer games and market reports to construct wicked mockumentaries in which she often appears, as a guide or a stooge or both, to posit multiple connections between the expropriation of resources, the flow of wealth, the militarisation of technology, the retooling of labour and the surveillance of everyday life. Liquidity Inc., currently on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston (until 22 April), is a characteristic bricolage of immersive images of mixed martial arts, weather systems and high-speed trading that underscores the impossible demand on the capitalist subject today not merely to keep her head above the dataflow but somehow to surf it with brio.
For Steyerl, as for kindred practitioners like Trevor Paglen and Eyal Weizman, the key precursor is the late German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who believed the computer had come to displace photography, cinema and television as the dominant paradigm of contemporary visuality. Film and screen were technologies of optical inscription and projection; now we are presented with an information surface that we can manipulate within certain limits but that can also monitor us without much restriction. This tight relay between eye, mind, body and machine was a central topic for Farocki, and he tracked our perpetual retooling as observer-operators in such apparently innocuous activities as playing the latest computer game or watching the current conflagration online. He demonstrated that a ‘robo eye’ was already in place in many industries, one that, unlike the Kino-Eye celebrated by modernist filmmakers like Dziga Vertov, does not extend the human prosthetically so much as it subsumes the human technically. Like Farocki, Steyerl is fascinated by the increased automation not only of labour and war but also of seeing and imaging, and by the subjectless operations of information processing. Along with Paglen and Weizman, she bears down on the control by corporations and governments, through satellite imaging and information mining, of what is given to us as the real in the first place – what can be represented, known or disputed – at all scales, from the individual pixel to the vast agglomerations of big data. In different ways these artists and theorists all point to the urgent necessity of a science of ‘agnotology’, or the analysis of how it is we do not know or, better, how we are prevented from knowing.
So, again, how are we to peel back the screen or open up the box; how are we to stay on the surface of data and at the same time probe its depths? Or is this old surface-depth model overridden in a digital order that appears both ontologically flat and epistemologically obscure? From Marx through Foucault the preferred strategy of left critique was to look for an effective purchase in the very form of power that was to be challenged. For the most part Steyerl isn’t interested in this version of resistance: her motto is ‘I don’t want to solve this contradiction; I want to intensify it,’ and her modus operandi is less to demystify ideological beliefs than to exacerbate corporate protocols, ideally to the point of dialectical transformation. A good example is her text ‘In Defence of the Poor Image’, included in her collection The Wretched of the Screen (2012). A poor image is ‘a rag or a rip; an AVI or a JPEG’ that is heavily compressed for circulation and badly dilapidated as a result. On the one hand, for Steyerl, the poor image is ‘perfectly adapted to the semioticisation of capital’; on the other, it is ‘a lumpen proletariat in the class society of appearances’ that registers its own unhappy ‘appropriation and displacement’. On the one hand, it ‘transforms quality into accessibility’; on the other, it stands ‘against the fetish value of high resolution’. According to Steyerl, this ‘wretched of the screen’ might even point to ‘an alternative economy’ that ‘builds alliances as it travels’, ‘a platform for a fragile new common interest’ (clearly she is more sanguine about her lumpen prole than Marx was about his).
Another instance of her brash dialectics, also from The Wretched of the Screen, is her double take on the contemporary art world, which she sees as both ‘a cultural refinery for the set of post-democratic oligarchies’ and ‘a site of commonality, movement, energy and desire’. The infrastructure of this cultural refinery, she notes in Duty Free Art, includes storage sites for super-expensive artworks, like secret vaults in Bond films, hidden in Geneva, Singapore and other semi-extraterritorial zones. Steyerl lambasts this system of ‘duty free art’ that might never see the light of day as not only a huge tax scam but also a nasty negation of the fundamental imperative of any work of art to be seen. At the same time she detects in this ‘duty free’ status the possibility of a new autonomy for art, freeing it from the duties of representation, exhibition and promotion.
Steyerl goes all in on one position in particular: ‘One should not seek to escape alienation,’ she insists, ‘but on the contrary embrace it as well as the status of objectivity and objecthood that goes along with it.’ This is not a new wager in critical theory – in ‘The Ornament of the Masses’ (1927) Siegfried Kracauer urged his contemporaries to pass through ‘the murky reason’ of capitalist reification, and in Aesthetic Theory (1970) Theodor Adorno stressed how central ‘a mimesis of the hardened’ was to modernist art – but Steyerl takes it to an extreme. Apparently, not only the old proletarian or postcolonial claim to be a subject of history, but also the recent feminist or queer demand for subjective recognition, is now out of date. ‘Subjectivity is no longer a privileged site for emancipation,’ Steyerl writes in The Wretched of the Screen. ‘How about siding with the object for a change? Why not affirm it? Why not be a thing?’
Perhaps under the influence of the ‘new materialism’ that has swept the art world in recent years, Steyerl amps up her empathy for the object in Duty Free Art. To justify this she points to a qualitative shift in our relation to networked image-products; in ‘corporate animism’ today, she argues, ‘commodities are not only fetishes but morph into franchised chimeras.’ Her thinking here is that we have projected our vital force into these magical entities so thoroughly that there is now little life left in us, and so we must reclaim what animation we can through identification with them. ‘To participate in the image as thing means to participate in its potential agency’: that about says it all. Yet this isn’t only a high-end affair for Steyerl, as her defence of the poor image attests. Duty Free Art even includes a call ‘to spark an improbable element of commonality’ through ‘a cheerful incarnation of databased wreckage’ – in other words, ‘to become spam’.
Just as there are poor images there is impoverished writing too, and Steyerl rises to the defence of this ‘wretched’ language, whose alienated quality she finds instructive. First she considers the specific example of ‘International Art English’, the lingo of gallery press releases, ‘full of grandiose and empty jargon often carelessly ripped from mistranslations of continental philosophy’, which, as a ‘fully conscious coproducer of IAE spam’, she endorses. Then she takes up the general form of ‘Spamsoc’, her term for the broken neo-English that is everywhere on the internet, a product of bots and avatars, translation programs and heartache scams; if we could only read it with a touch of sympathy, Steyerl suggests, we might better understand the global tensions around language and culture, intellectual property and gendered labour. Here again she makes an avant-gardist call to ‘alienate that language even further’, which her texts often attempt to do, for good and for bad. ‘The writing seems almost as if it were toggling among browser tabs,’ as an otherwise positive profile in the New York Times recently put it, and sometimes Steyerl does verge on a kind of Wiki-crit in which smooth prose sutures big jumps in the argument. Maybe this is one fate of critical theory online as the essay form adapts to an environment of hot takes and endless links. Certainly Steyerl’s colleagues at e-flux journal, where the majority of her texts were first published, have done well to inject important briefs on art, culture and politics into the general logorrhoea of the web. But it is difficult enough to pass through the murky reason of alienated language in fiction (George Saunders and a few others notwithstanding); it is far harder to do so in criticism.
Steyerl views almost everything symptomatically, which permits us to attempt the same with her work. Ultimately, her thinking is less dialectical than paradoxical: rather than intensify contradictions, she likes to collapse them; rather than deconstruct a position, she likes to burst it like a bubble. Like Slavoj Žižek and Boris Groys, she can’t resist a philosophical joke or a rhetorical trick, and sometimes this leads her to oscillate between semi-paranoid projections (à la Philip K. Dick) and semi-cynical implosions (à la Jean Baudrillard). Such criticism has a special knack for catastrophism, which it also craves. With enormous ambition it challenges the culture of capitalism, but finally it is too much in awe of this leviathan – which it regards as the sole engine of history – to do so effectively, and settles for a default position: it is, as the saying goes, easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. In some ways for Steyerl the two are one, which is to say that the end has already come. Sceptical of ‘posts’, she indulges in them nonetheless: we are in a ‘post-period’ where ‘post-democracy’ is the rule, she tells us; we are leftovers in a sea of historical debris.
More than thirty years ago, Derrida peppered philosophers who had ‘recently adopted’ the ‘apocalyptic tone’ with a series of questions:
What benefit? What seductive or intimidating bonus? What social or political advantage? Do they want to cause fear? Do they want to cause pleasure? To whom and how? Do they want to terrify? To make one sing? To blackmail? To lure into a going-one-better in enjoyment? Is this contradictory? With a view to what interests, to what ends do they wish to come with these inflamed proclamations of the end to come or the end already accomplished?
These questions seem salient again today. Why this apocalyptic tone from critics on the left when we are surrounded by hellfire politicians on the right?