New York, October 4, 2012–January 5, 2013
The Berlin-based philosopher and artist Hito Steyerl, known in the United States mainly for her writing, had her first solo exhibition in the United States at e-flux on the Lower East Side in New York. The exhibition comprised only three works: the installation Adorno’s Grey (2012) and two video works, the double-projection piece Abstract (2012) and the single-channel work November (2004). Yet it provided a powerful introduction to Steyerl’s methods and concerns.
Much of Steyerl’s art alludes to her own life and work, and both November and Abstract concern her friendship with a woman named Andrea Wolf. November is a montage of disparate video clips. Sources include early soundless clips Steyerl made of herself and Wolf, along with other actors, in scenes that were intended (according to the voiceover) to become parts of an action film Steyerl began as a student; scenes from Wonder Woman and Bruce Lee movies; and bits of what appear to be news footage. Steyerl makes allusions in her visual structurings and her narrative that range from Jean-Luc Godard to Costa-Gavras to Russ Meyer, creating an exhilarating set of visual experiences as well as setting a powerfully elegiac emotional tone. November portrays Wolf as a friend with strong revolutionary ideas who was killed in Turkey as a member of the PKK (Parti Karkerani Kurdistan) in 1998, but any sense of straightforward narrative is complicated by the disparate kinds of material and the repetition and disconnections among image sequences. Wolf’s life encompassed her friendship and collaborations with Steyerl, activist politics, her designation as a terrorist by the German and Turkish governments, and her assassination as a Kurdish rebel. Some of this story may or may not be true. One thing that is certain is that Wolf’s image was appropriated by Kurdish protestors to confront the state’s position on terrorism, as Steyerl demonstrates in clips showing Wolf’s face emblazoned on posters carried at political rallies.
The video hinges on Steyerl’s relationship to these stories and remembrances of Wolf, and in the contrast between personal knowledge and public notoriety. Steyerl combines various imagery—from reportage to fiction—to make points about image usages and instabilities, absorbing all kinds of cultural and media references to articulate sensibilities and emotions and reinvent narrative detail. The artist’s voiceover establishes the facts as she finds them, admitting that the truth of Wolf’s life lies only in the fragments and assertions that exist outside of Wolf’s own actions: whatever Wolf may or may not have done, she is an activist, she is a terrorist, she is assassinated, she is a protector, she is a hero. In images she exists in perpetuity as all of these things simultaneously. Steyerl presents her sense of who Wolf was, remarking on her own feelings and memories, and signaling complicated ideas of Wolf as an intimate and as a revolutionary emblem, both past and eternally present. Indeed, the title, November, also points toward a multiplicity of significances, not only after October and revolution, but also after Wolf’s disappearance and death, and after the modern—after stable understanding of events, after formalist coherence, after impartial criticality, and after distance.
In Abstract Steyerl returns to the story of Wolf; here Steyerl uses a split screen and an examination of dual notions of “shot”—as gunshot and cinematic device—as she traces the connections between Wolf’s death and a larger military/financial complex that involves arms manufacturers in Germany and the artist’s own participation in transnational exchange. Juxtaposing the site of Wolf’s death in Turkey with specific places in Berlin—the Brandenburg Gate and Lockheed Martin offices among others—she organizes images taken with her iPhone and an eyewitness account into a brief (seven minutes long) but eloquent meditation on the global and political conditions of Wolf’s death and on different kinds of violence, both material and abstract (political, legal, and economic in addition to human). Beginning with “shot/countershot” images of the Brandenburg Gate with Steyerl herself the visible pivot, a voice states, “This is a shot. This is a countershot.” The implicit structure of views countering views continues throughout the piece. A little while later the voice states, “One opens the door to the other,” implying and implicating not only a common origin between opposing perspectives but also that actions generate further or counter actions. Steyerl’s shots follow people in various innocuous activities (walking in a tourist spot, tapping on a smartphone) and she juxtaposes them with the footage of a witness to the aftermath of Wolf’s death leading Steyerl and her technician to a location in Turkey where 39 people were murdered, showing various pieces of evidence as he tells them how Wolf was killed there. At one point, Steyerl shows her camera, its screen lit with an image of the murder site, juxtaposed with a view of a bank. It makes obvious the connections among banking, arms manufacture and warfare, but also, more subtly, it indicates the problematic nature of accounts, photographic and otherwise, that claim an evidentiary character. Even a casual lining up of disparate images or unrelated facts becomes a grammar and constructs a narrative. Steyerl points this out, asking viewers to consider their acceptance of a narrative even as they watch her construction of it.
The third work in the e-flux exhibition was Adorno’s Grey. Images were projected on a screen consisting of four panels that leaned against a wall and overlapped one another. A timeline on an adjacent wall showed events in philosopher Theodor Adorno’s life, a history of the monochrome, a history of naked demonstrations and events, and a history of student demonstrations. The four parts of the timeline were organized as parallel narratives across the wall. The projected video presented a neutral, windowless lecture hall where Adorno taught, with sequences showing conservators carefully chipping away at the walls with sharp instruments in order to find the gray color Adorno is alleged to have had the walls painted in order to keep his students’ attention. All of the installation’s walls were painted the same gray as the carpeted floor, extending the reductivist and abstracting trope of the monochrome and enveloping the viewer as the original classroom was intended to. Two benches provided seating. A voiceover tells the story of “Adorno gray” and recounts an incident in 1969 in which Adorno was confronted in his classroom by three young women who bared their breasts and caused him to flee from the room and, apocryphally, from his teaching career. Toward the end of the video the scene shifts to a man talking about having used a copy of one of Adorno’s books as a shield during a recent confrontation with police at a student demonstration.
Starting out with a shot of classroom chairs and “Kapitalismus” written on the blackboard, the video sites the viewer as a student, assisted by the didactic texts on the wall. As the voiceover narrates the story, different long-duration shots of details of the conservators working in the lecture hall establish a slow rhythm of methodical excavation. At different times Steyerl shows us the camera as a shadow on the walls, and there are other articulations of gray surface, including voiceover statements such as “Gray is the plenipotential of utopia; [it] stands in not as a present condition but stands in as its negative.” Some juxtapositions of language to image are also didactically resonant: “This is how we create the visual effect,” “Dichotomy is incorrect,” and words from G. W. F. Hegel’s preface to a collection of his lectures, Philosophy of Right: “…When philosophy paints its gray on gray, then has a form of life grown old, and with gray on gray it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known…” The work of the conservators exposes the fact that the classroom walls were never gray even as the narrator asserts the weight of these stories as truth. (Then what else might be untrue? Did Adorno not teach here?) Steyerl strategically uses gray—one might read it in contrast to the absolutist, black-and-white certainty of Adorno’s philosophy—as well as multiple positions of her camera and the disparate elements of the installation (image, text, and broken plane of the screen) to propose the inadequacy of a specific and singular position.
Steyerl’s juxtaposition of the shadowy expectancy of the classroom with the story of the demonstrators in the passage about the book as shield manifests her dialogic structure to engage immanence and manifestation, language(s) and action(s), and history and lived experience, and suggest the life of the mind as integrated with rather than opposed to real or bare life. The tensions articulated in this piece as well as the two other works in the exhibition subtly articulate the significance of confrontation as a meaning-producing device: from the opposition of classroom and street, and the rout of Adorno—and by extension his intellectual constructions—when confronted with bared sex, to the juxtapositions of montage and of image and speech, and the conflict of mimetics and semantics that pulses in both. This isn’t Adorno’s dialectic, although his attention to the contradictions produced in the confrontation of subject and concept (qualitatively different than the confrontation of subject and object) is acknowledged in Steyerl’s various framings of meaning with image combinations. She asserts as much by focusing on Adorno’s retreat from confrontation—his absence—something that resonates with his well-known reluctance to support the student activism of the late 1960s.