In the age of digital effects and 3D, what was once cinema is subject to an arms race against which the Cold War pales in comparison. In the age of the digital blockbuster, cinema has been remade in the image of video games that were in turn civilian adaptations of military flight simulators. The “military-entertainment complex” has only become stronger now that, “in 3D cinema, the new characteristics of aerial views are fully exploited by staging vertiginous flights into abysses,” and “military, surveillance, and entertainment applications” are integrated ever more completely.”1 Against the military-entertainment complex of James Cameron’s Avatar, Hito Steyerl puts a disarming sleight of hand. A video that is part of Steyerl and Rrabih Mroué’s lecture/performance Probable Title: Zero Probability (2012) shows the artist facing the camera, she tosses a coin into the air, explaining that the chances of heads and tails are each 50%, and that the probability of the coin never coming down zero. Of course, the coin does not come down. In a move that recalls the trick films of early cinema, Steyerl creates an impossibility with simple means—a questionable miracle that foregrounds its impossibility, and thus produces a need for discourse, for an exploration of the conditions of its (non-)occurrence.
The much-vaunted “end of history” may be an ideological phantasm, but there is such a thing as the end of the future—or, at least, a crisis of futurity. In his After the Future, Franco “Bifo” Berardi has focused not on the year 1989 and the fall of Actually Existing Communism, as Francis Fukuyama did in his famous sub-Hegelian thesis on the end of history, but on 1977 as a year when the future ended—when a certain modern western conception of the future as linear progressive development ended. The 1970s, of course saw an increasing awareness of the finitude of growth (oil crisis, ecology), and the gradual dissolution or marginalization of the left-wing movements of the late 1960s. By 1977, as Bifo notes, we have the RAF campaign resulting in the “German Autumn,” we have the rise of punk and its “No Future” slogan, as well as the Autonomia movement in Italy (in which Bifo himself was involved), which chucked overboard a lot of untenable Marxist-Leninist beliefs in the proletariat as the sole emancipatory agent of history, choosing instead to develop new forms of social (re)composition—in the form of various micropolitical movements.
Steyerl, too, has identified 1977 as the moment when “the short decade of the New Left violently comes to an end,” using David Bowie’s Heroes and the Stranglers’ No More Heroes as pop-cultural indications of this shift.3 This, in the terms of her film November (2004), is “the time after October, a time when revolution seems to be over and peripheral struggles have become particular, localist, and almost impossible to communicate. In November a new reactionary form of terror has taken over which abruptly breaks with the tradition of October.” November, in which Steyerl attempts to retrace the story of her teenage friend Andrea Wolf, who later became a freedom fighter/terrorist for the Kurdish PKK, contains footage that might be labelled documentary, but it is not “a documentary.” With its leaps from one type of image to another and from the personal to the world-historical, it is an essay film par excellence.
Steyerl writes, films, and performs essays. To essay is to try, to attempt. The essay is a form of doubt, and at times of doubtful theses. Steyerl’s written essays are not “explanations” of her films. In Free Fall is the title of both a 2010 film and a 2011 article; while the essay follows a more abstract trajectory of speculation, it is enriched as much by the film as the other way around. The essay is of course at root a literary genre, but in the twentieth century it leapt into new media. The transition from the printed page to film was a haphazard process, and its conceptualization even more so. In the 1920s, the protagonists of the soviet montage school conceived of film as a dialectical and historical medium par excellence: filmic montage could unite seemingly disparate shots like dialectical thesis and antithesis, thereby not merely illustrating the march of history but actively participating in it. The notion of the essay film or film essay was proposed by Hans Richter in the 1940s as an alternative for both feature films and conventional documentaries—as a continuation of documentary film with other means.4
While Richter’s text, published in a Swiss newspaper in 1940, is strenuously apolitical, this fact itself has political significance. Richter had collaborated with Sergei Eisenstein in the 1920s, but in the rise of Fascism and Stalinism had dashed any hopes of a quick breakthrough into the bright future. Under the circumstances, it made sense to reinvent film, reinvent montage, in essayistic terms—trying to see if the cinematic medium might not at least find ways of temporality prying open the stolid realism of documentaries. Richter’s text having remained obscure, the notion was reinvented in the 1970s by theorists and filmmakers advocating a film practice that would, through montage, develop ideas rather than pretend to “show reality.” But how do ideas develop? Only if the filmmaker-essayist puts his or her subjectivity on the line, allows for conceptual jump cuts that may not, strictly speaking, be justifiable. And if we look at Steyerl’s films, as well as her lecture-performances and her essays, there is indeed something one could term a heightened subjective grasp of the materials; almost a Willkürsherrschaft, as in the film Lovely Andrea (2007), in which Steyerl retraced her short-lived career as a bondage photo model in Japan, and cuts from images of tied-up models to footage of Spiderman casting his nets—and the Twin Towers, which featured in a hastily withdrawn trailer for Spider-Man. However, with her and the other bondage models becoming flesh sculptures, Lovely Andrea also sees the filmmaker become an object, an image-object modeled by other “artists.”
In her text “A Thing Like You and Me,” which is a prime example of Steyerl’s jump-cut essayism, she observes that David Bowie with his constantly changing looks and personas is “no longer a subject, but an object: a thing, an image, a splendid fetish” and “a commodity soaked with desire.” This makes her to pose the question: “What happens to identification at this point? Who can we identify with? Of course, identification is always with an image. But ask anybody if they’d actually like to be JPEG file. And this is precisely my point: if identification is to go anywhere, it has to be with this material aspect of the image…”5 Elsewhere, she has noted that “[despite] its apparently immaterial nature, digital wreckage remains firmly anchored within material reality.”6 In other words: the storm of history rages on, resulting in entropic debris. But rather than developing a Robert Smithson-like scenario wherein everything veers towards an ultimate state entropic sameness and frozen stasis, Steyerl sketches a kind of junkspace – and junktime – in which movement abounds, in which images are frenetically circulating, being de- and recontextualized, morphed and reformatted.
Subjects as images, images as objects; in her wonderfully messy 2013 film How Not To Be Seen. A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File, Steyerl performs various options for remaining unnotices in the age of total surveillance; these include “becoming an image,” chameleon-like, and “becoming a pixel”, since what does not exceed the side of a single pixel cannot be zoomed in on. (“Happy pixels hop off into low resolution.”) Various scenes show performers wear a kind of greens-screen burqa, which would allow her to become part of the background, and we see people wearing pixel-boxes over their heads. These are not, of course, serious proposals for fooling the NSA or google, but they are playful yet urgent reminders of the fact that we are data-objects, and that we’d better start acting on that knowledge. In our allegedly “visual culture,” what really matters are not the images but those that are in them and that are watching them. There is no longer any real distinction between the two; we are all in the image. Images are now traps in a way Lacan never envisaged; they lure us in and mine us for data. In turn, we become visible—or rather legible.
In her lecture/performance The Body of the Image (2012), Steyerl return to her friend Andrea Wolf and her supposed death in a cave where she was presumably killed by Turkish troops. A 3D mapping of the cave goes wrong and produces a warped space full of blind spots: a “digital hallucination” not suitable for mapping forensic evidence. In such a 3D reconstruction, missing bodies can get lost all over again—just as a coin may suddenly decide to never come down, probability be damned. If the latter is a trick that would have been possible even in early cinema, the hallucinatory potential of contemporary post-cinematic imaging technology is all the greater. In the same talk, Steyerl notes that the Federal republic of Yugoslavia was actually proclaimed in a 2D cinema in 1943, and that this cinema was destroyed during a fight between Croatians and Bosnians in 1992. “I think cinema as such got mortally wounded in that fight and never recovered.”7
(Un)dead cinema survives as event. While the budgets for Hollywood blockbusters are getting ever higher in the quest for the perfect “event movie,” Steyerl finds that her budgets have evaporated. In the ongoing financial crisis, everybody wants to show her films, but nobody wants to finance them. And of course, art institutions are happy to invite the artist to give talks, to present her work. This is circulationism in action: if Soviet productivism entailed calls for artists to design products for the nascent communist industry, circulationism is not about making but about postproducing. In circulationism, images exist to be performed and reperformed in some manner. So why not perform live essays, talking the audience through whatever images one can scavenge or footage one can shoot cheaply? Of course, as Steyerl notes, circulationism is also entangled with today’s neoliberal version of the “Stalinist cult of productivity, acceleration, and heroic exhaustion.”8 The exhausted subject is less an object than an empty shell.
Occasionally, one hears that Steyerl’s practice is all too easily compatible with a project-based cultural economy in which the essay has become a post-Fordist imperative – life as a project. Is Steyerl’s essayism not all too free-floating, too much of a virtuoso exercise to generate page clicks in the e-flux journal and survive the social Darwinism of biennales? Steyerl herself was actually the first to note that in the age of flexibility and “just-in-time” production, essayism can also be a form of conformism.9 Any practice worth its salt runs (and courts) risks. However, Steyerl doesn’t simply play along. Rather than recycling curatorial or critical buzzwords or circulating proto-ideas taken for the Next Big Thing, her essayism is marked by an engagement with what Heinrich Heine once called the “material activity of the brain” in the age of its digital reformatting. Steyerl’s practice is a form of early twenty-first century materialism, a materialist praxis that never deals with mere subjects in the sense of “themes,” but rather the subject as maker and consumer – circulator – of images, who is also always producing and circulating herself as image. This artist is herself an instable subject-object, and her Versuch is a Selbstversuch in the free fall of history.
1 Hito Steyerl, “In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective,” in e-flux journal no. 24 (April 2011), www.e-flux.com/journal/in-free-fall-a-thought-experiment-on-vertical-perspective/2 Franco “Bifo” Berardi, After the Future (Oakland/Edinburgh: AK Press, 2011), pp. 44-50.3 Hito Steyerl, “A Thing Like You and Me,” in e-flux journal no. 15 (April 2010), www.e-flux.com/journal/a-thing-like-you-and-me/4 Hans Richter, “Der Filmessay: Eine neue Form des Dokumentarfilms,” in Schreiben Bilder Sprechen: Texte zum essayistischen Film, eds. Christa Blümlinger and Constantin Wulff, (Vienna: Sonderzahl, 1992), pp. 195-198.5 Steyerl, “A Thing Like You and Me.6 Hito Steyerl, “Digital Debris: Spam and Scam,” in: October no. 138 (Fall 2011), p. 71.7 The lecture script can be found ateipcp.net/e/projects/heterolingual/files/hitosteyerl/print 8 Hito Steyerl, “Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead?”, in e-flux journal no. 49 (November 2-13), http://www.e-flux.com/journal/too-much-world-is-the-internet-dead/9 Hito Steyerl, Die Farbe der Wahrheit. Dokumentarismen im Kunstfeld (Vienna: Turia + Kant, 2008), pp. 139-142.10 See Heine’s ironic characterisation of Jean Paul in Die Romantische Schule: “Instead of thought he gives us his thinking itself. We see the material activity of his brain; he gives us, as it were, more brain than thought,”www.gutenberg.org/files/37478/37478-8.txt