The political and social impact of the proliferation of images and the use of digital technology on our daily lives forms the starting point for Hito Steyerl to develop critical work on control, surveillance and militarisation, migration, globalisation, feminism and the persuasive image. Her texts, lectures, films and audiovisual installations respond to the paradox that despite having at hand so much evidence and data, our knowledge of norms and conventions governing reality is sorely lacking.
Situated in a porous place between fiction and reality and underpinned in materials taken from the media and the internet, the German artist’s work reveals the dialectics between the visible and the invisible which politically structure the spread of images in the culture and communication industries. Often drawing on humour and irony as tools to create narrations in videos, and with an almost quotidian language, she analyses the forms of opaqueness and power involved in the production, circulation and consumption of images, the word and information.
In the open wake of Harun Farocki and carried on by other artists working in a heterodox manner with documentary film, producing re-readings of history from activism and visual anthropology, Steyerl uses references from popular culture — action films, music, video clips, video games — to restore, with her work and as a reflection, a commentary on strategies of amassing value inside the realities of war and financial speculation that mark the present. Precarious work and time abducted by different technologies are themes explored in her pieces, while places of art also go under the microscope, with their systems of funding, hierarchy and working conditions adjusting to the realities of the dominant economy. Thus, the museum reveals another battlefield.
In the installation Adorno’s Grey (2012) she questions, from the contradictory biography of German philosopher Theodor Adorno in relation to the student movements of May ’68, the philosophical narrative of modernity on the inter-relationship between art and activism, and the need for social change. The work is structured in layers and fragments, both in the content of the video and the form of the screen, which is split into four panels. Steyerl superimposes an artistic reading with references to monochrome art — among them Suprematist Kazimir Malevich — from the narrative of black and white in video. A group of restorers look beneath the different layers of white paint in the auditorium of Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt, for the colour grey that Adorno had called for to keep his audience in a neutral state while teaching classes there. Around this colour Steyerl reminds us that the appellation employed for “black-and-white” film is inadequate because in truth the grey gradations are those that proliferate, in the same way that expression is used to denote a simplistic and black-and-white usage of language and reality.