But the relationship of philosopher Steyerl to Adorno and his ideas is complex; this is reflected in and expanded upon by Adorno’s Grey, which offers more than mere critique of Adorno’s actions. Much as Steyerl asks us to believe in the narrative of November as she constructs it, she structures Adorno’s Grey as both a retrospective look at the past and a very present engagement of Adorno’s ideas. On one level, the work both enacts and comments on the promises of media (a virtual world that is simultaneous, instantly available, and an infinite spectacle) that Adorno himself discerned and identified as problematic. On another, it articulates the usefulness of engaging Adorno’s social analysis not only as a kind of historical content but also a catalyst, a means of activating process and participation. Steyerl’s evocation of the gray classroom reinforces this sense of willing inhabitation of Adorno’s theory and creates a field that dissolves barriers between ideas and actions. Adorno’s theory involves stripping concepts of their established contexts and operations and rearranging them around a different subject. Steyerl proposes what is perhaps a material version of this conceptual process, or at least a parallel construction, when she describes how “traveling images” migrate from platform to platform, shedding meanings and acquiring new ones, completely unmoored from their original conditions and intentions. Where Adorno saw liberatory value in the interpretative operation as one that produces an enlightened or critical position, Steyerl identifies a continuity and fluidity between subject and concept, between idea and action. Rather than their differentiation or the ramification of a position, it is the inseparability of subject, image, concept, and context that is operative here. Steyerl, and the viewer who becomes enveloped in the atmospheric gray of the installation, cannot be detached from the flow of images and information, a flow that constitutes us at any particular moment and at all moments. A separate subjective position is not possible; Adorno’s own negative dialectic—that which exists between that which is identity and that which is non-identity—is collapsed and enfolded into Steyerl’s schema. There is no critical distance. Images participate in various and continuous flows, constantly producing fluctuations in articulations and meanings: all are simultaneous, all are possible, all could be true—perhaps all are true.1 Steyerl’s objective is not to seek value—use value, exchange value, or truth value—but to understand the conditions of production and reception and to act ethically within them and upon them.
It is this aspect of Steyerl, both in her art making and in her writing, that captivates. She critically engages the philosopher, the witness, and the activist. She bypasses altogether the debate about the truthfulness of recontextualized imagery. Accepting the fact that an image is not only the product of its political, social, and material context but also that it actively produces that matrix when it appears, Steyerl sees that operation as the crucial moment where meaning is made. Her use of montage is not simply as a formal procedure or even a political strategy: it has an ethical dimension as a provocation to action. The instruments she activates reveal one truth, and, in addition to a providing a narrative, also simultaneously produce contradictory conditions and, importantly, the capacity to problematize. Rather than statements infused with the significances of past narratives, Steyerl recognizes her montages as generating devices whose subject matter and formal and material characteristics provide a medium for the solicitation of active response. As early as 2003, Steyerl wrote that the operation of reproduction itself activates something separate from what it represents or reproduces: “On the one hand, the articulation, production and reception of a document is profoundly marked by power relations and based on social conventions. On the other hand, though, the power of the document is based on the fact that it is also intended to be able to prove what is unpredictable within these power relations—it should be able to express what is unimaginable, unspoken, unknown, redeeming or even monstrous—and thus create a possibility for change.”2
Steyerl’s artwork is a site for critical investigation that has moved past well-rehearsed and now insufficient critical and theoretical debates and assertions about representation, documentary impulses, and the purpose of art. Her interest lies in the ethical implications of art making. Her writing and artwork not only grapple with the politics of representation and construct critiques of static positions, they also articulate and participate in the dynamics produced by documentary construction. Steyerl’s work is an active engagement with the fluid conditions of mediated living, and is predicated on her presence as a theorist, an actor, and an activator, as well as the memories and emotions of everyday life. As in her passionate portrayal of Andrea Wolf, Steyerl embraces the contradiction and messiness of imagined and lived life, and points to the beauty and necessary responsibility of rigorous engagement.
Sheryl Conkelton is a curator and educator based in Houston.
- In an 2009 essay that recuperated value for images degraded and detached through reproduction, Steyerl wrote: “The poor image is no longer about the real thing—the originary original. Instead, it is about its own real conditions of existence: about swarm circulation, digital dispersion, fractured and flexible temporalities.” Hito Steyerl, “In Defense of the Poor Image,” e-flux Journal 10 (November 2011); http://www.e-flux.com/journal/in-defense-of-the-poor-image/ (accessed October 17, 2012).↵
- Hito Steyerl, “Documentarism as Politics of Truth,” Republicart (May 2003), http://www.republicart.net/disc/representations/steyerl03_en.htm (accessed November 2, 2012).↵