Artists Space in New York
08.03.15 – 24.05.15
Translated by: Richard Dobson
Roland Barthes believed images float and meaning was anchored in words. This point of view adopts the elitism of ‘globalisation’ and moreover is increasingly convergent today, but obviously this is not necessarily the case. The dividing line between words and images is already blurred: for example, replacing lengthy dialogue with a new text emoji. An even bigger change is with the surging and spreading tide of propagation: words and images are just mutilated fragments and can no longer easily be anchored in any significance. As they are circulated they are constantly swept up in change, they are reorganised, subverted, expanded and repeatedly beaten back into their original form.
In 2009, German theorist and film maker Hito Steyerl published an essay, ‘In Defense of the Poor Image’, in which she discussed how ‘poor images’ abound on the Internet, low in resolution, and below par in sharpness, but tenacious. In contrast, symbolising class society and occupying the status of ‘flagship store’ in the visual field, high-resolution films and high-end video products are often stored away in the files of museums, never to see the light of day. ‘Poor images’ sacrifice quality so they can be disseminated widely.A poor image is a ‘ghost image’ and it ‘tends towards abstraction: it is a visual idea in its very becoming’. ¹
Steyerl’s writing was quite insightful and a timely response to the generalisation of new media works. These insights are harmoniously reflected in her images. Artists Space in New York is currently hosting a solo exhibition of her work, displaying a total of nine video pieces. They approximate the ‘poor image’ approach, making a statement about the contradictions, or jokes, or distress about the current situation.
The most focused reflection of this type of visual language is Steyerl’s recent work from 2014 titled LiquidityInc. It runs for about half an hour and has as its star Jacob Wood, a financial advisor-turned-boxer. Wood is an orphan of the Vietnam War and was brought to the United States as part of Operation Babylift – the multiple identities are echoed in the title of the work: after being hit by the financial crisis, he made a choice that would be a far cry from his profession; Vietnamese-born American citizen is a more intuitive expression of immigration. Thus the scope of Steyerl’s Liquidity Inc covers market liquidity as defined in economics and coincides with Zygmunt Bauman’s proposed ‘liquid modernity’.
Steyerl’s Liquidity Inc is filled with a large number of specific images: a cup, the surface of a lake, an image of The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai, clouds, weather reports. Because of Walter Benjamin’s discourse, Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus, Bruce Lee’s famous words ‘Be water, my friend’, the Velvet Underground’s Ocean… they are not footnote references in the strictest sense, but, in the manner of the poor image, have had to pass through many mixed layers: the ripple has the quasi-physical state of a computer-generated image; the Kanagawa wave is like Andy Warhol’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe, a neatly arranged animated .gif with changing colours.
Be Water, My Friend is like a DJ mixing an audio track, springing up on an iPhone’s reminder window. Not only is Steyerl likening people to water, she goes even further, to say that liquidity is the state of contemporary human existence, with fragments of information flowing throughout the media. A small but spectacular collection of text and pictures dies and then is reborn on the Internet, changing the outer shell to adapt to the mainstream. There is no way to skirt the responsibility of being personally involved in every revolution.
A year after publishing ‘In Defense of the Poor Image’, Steyerl wrote ‘A Thing Like You and Me’, extending the poor image to include the more broad digital image, as ‘a shiny immortal clone of itself’. She combines it with Mario Perniola’s descriptions of people – ‘a thing that feels’, bitingly pointing out that modern people are the same thing as a digital image. Thus, the plight of the image is the plight of the person in this modern era.
Steyerl’s background is in films, and her identity as an art theorist is thanks to her study for a PhD in philosophy at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. In the exhibition there are at least three pieces of work that take the form of an academic lecture: 2013’s ‘I Dreamed a Dream: Politics in the Age of Mass Art Production’, Is a Museum a Battlefield?’ and 2015’s ‘Duty-Free Art’. Some commentators have said it is not unreasonable to call this type of public speech a ‘performance’: Steyerl is not a surly-faced professor, using dogmatic theory to peddle her own values. Her speeches are humorous and often touch on popular social and cultural matters. For example, ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ came from news of the success of Susan Boyle’s rendition of the theme song from Les Misérables. The new work in 2015 came from the start of discussion about the Syria files from Wikileaks. Their difference from the rigorous and more authentic academic reports is that in these works Steyerl focuses on exposing the potential problems of these ideas and doesn’t rush to give a conclusion.
The work Is a Museum a Battlefield? can be used as an example. This is a dual-channel video work and the subject is a speech given by Steyerl at the 2013 Istanbul Biennial. The speech and her Power Point presentation were juxtaposed alongside each other, becoming one, with the display alternating between the two. The writer raised her suspicions about the source of sponsorship the museum was receiving: a large proportion of the sponsors had close connections to General Dynamics and other arms makers. Steyerl traced the munitions used on battlefields in Kurdistan, with some having a connection with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Even more unexpectedly, she was to discover that her previous art work was exhibited at this institution – she then issued a paradoxical challenge: ‘So was Ithe one who fired the bullet that I found on the battlefield?’ and the title of the work poses the same question – the answer lies between denial and confirmation. This is exactly the type of situation people get swept up into within the wider social system, with no way to escape this awkward situation.
Even though this style of oratorical video work is very visually precise, the direct use of digital video in Liquidity Inc is not the same, but there are still flashes of the logic of the poor image: Is a Museum a Battlefield? directly references her 2012 work Abstract. Thirteen years after her close friend from her teenage years, Andrea Wolf was executed, she returned to the site of the killing. Wolf was a leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party. In the political turmoil she fell into enemy hands and was killed. The recollections and re-telling about Wolf was even more direct in its expression in Steyerl’s 2004 work November, which showed video footage from the 1990s jointly shot by the two friends. November was also shown at this exhibition. If Andrea Wolf is regarded as a piece of original information, then Steyerl has made additions, mixing and editing it four times one after the other in the 1990s, 2004, 2012 and 2013. Just like any widely circulated mystical tale, history and its telling, the archetype and its interpretation, symbolism and its characterisation are all jumbled together. Being interpreted within different contexts directly blurs the ushering in of how it is next to be defined.
Steyerl’s video works are often classified as ‘film prose’, which can be traced back to the theoretical writings about prose by Lukacs, Benjamin and Adorno and others. Unlike pure documentary films, film prose isn’t pursuing absolute truths, it’s like the ‘process of approaching the truth’ in the prose. ² Interestingly, Steyerl has previously spoken quite positively about Adorno. Created in 2012, Adorno’s Grey is be based on a legend about this philosopher’s time teaching at Goethe University Frankfurt, where he painted his lecture hall grey in order to boost the powers of concentration. It was also in this grey lecture hall that three female students bared their chests, forcing Adorno to flee. It was the last class he would ever deliver. This was 1969 and it was an era when there were all kinds of radical protest movements. Steyerl joined with other professionals to form a collaborative group for her work, attempting to expose the original appearance of the wall under all those layers of grey paint. It makes one associate her form of ‘art prose’with that of Adorno’s: How the act of peeling off the layers of grey paint to return the wall to its original appearance has the same logic as the poor image: Steyerl has updated Adorno’s work Minima Moralia: Reflections From Damaged Life with a fragment of information 40 years later. Adorno’s theory stressed social criticism, and didn’t fully support turning to direct action. Long removed from the original context, Steyerl has now launched a movement from the same origin in the Internet era.
Although her works are grafted from artistic theory and practice, Steyerl has not necessarily been able to calcu-late the sense of the movement’s school of thought to the letter. The sober pessimism and humour are equally obvious in her work. She delivers a biting ironic and sarcastic wake-up call about the entire system of contemporary art: ‘If contemporary art is the answer, the question is: How can capitalism be made more beautiful?’; ‘Free labor and rampant exploitation are the invisible dark matter that keeps the cultural sector going’ ; ‘This mess is kept afloat by the sheer dynamism of loads and loads of hardworking women.’ ³
Steyerl lays the blame on herself for being the one who fired that bullet. As she has herself written, she is one of those women who immerses oneself quietly in work.She consciously views all kinds of problems in contemporary art and the whole of society, but at the same time also suffers the plight of being a working artist. Every fragment of information is the same, circulating round and round, dying and being reborn.
There’s no harm in following along with Adorno’s grey. Looking back, the theories of this grey and Hegel’s Elements of the Philosophy of Right are echoed in each other – ‘When philosophy paints its grey in grey, a shape of life has grown old.’ Steyerl’s poor image is the Internet depicting digital images: updated, and in a Hegelian style, the colour grey has been used to depict grey-coloured images.
1. Hito Steyerl, ‘In Defense of the Poor Image’, The Wretched of the screen, ( sternberg press, 2012 ). pp.31 – 45.
2. T.W. Adorno, Bob Hullot-Kentor, Frederic Will, ‘The Essay as Form’, New German Critique, No. 32, ( Spring – Summer, 1984 ), 156 – 161.
3. Hito Steyerl, ‘Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy’, The Wretched of the Screen, ( Sternberg Press, 2012 ), pp. 92 – 101.
德国理论学者和电影制作人黑特·史德耶尔（ Hito Steyerl ）在2009年发表了《为坏图像辩护》，文章讨论了在网络中比比皆是的‘坏图像’，它们像素低劣，精度欠佳，但生命力顽强。与象征着社会阶级、如同视觉领域中‘旗舰店’地位、或常被存储在博物馆档案库而不见天日的高清电影和高端影像制作相反‘，坏图像’折损质量来达成散漫而广泛的传播。‘坏图像’是‘图像的幽灵’，它们‘趋近于抽象：是在其自身形成中的一种视觉概念。’1
最能集中体现这种视觉语法的是史德耶尔创作于2014年的近作《流动性公司》。视频长约半小时，主角是从金融顾问转行当了拳击手的Jacob Wood，他同时又是越战期间婴儿空运行动中抵达美国的战争遗孤——多重的身份呼应了作品标题：受金融危机波及而选择了相差甚远的职业；越南裔美国籍，则是更为直观的人口流动之体现。因此，史德耶尔的‘流动性’既包括了经济学范畴中市场的流动性，又暗含着社会学家Zygmunt Bauman所提出的‘流动的现代性’。史德耶尔在作品中为‘流动性’填充了大量具体的形象：水杯、湖面、葛饰北斋的神奈川波浪图、云层、天气预报、因为本雅明的论述而知名的Paul Klee画作《新天使》、李小龙的名言‘Be Water，My Friend’、地下丝绒乐队的《Ocean》……它们的出现不是中规中矩的脚注参照，而是如‘坏图像’般经过了层层叠叠的混编：水波是电脑制图的拟物状态；神奈川波浪像沃霍尔的梦露头像，是排列整齐、变换颜色的动态gif；‘Be Water，My Friend’则像DJ打碟那样跳跃在音频轨道上，又弹跳着出现在iPhone手机屏的提醒窗。与其说史德耶尔是在将人比作水，不如更进一步：流动性就是当代人的生存状态，一如媒体里的信息碎片。人与文字图片的集合体一样的渺小又壮观，在网络中死去而后重生，变换外壳适应主流，又无法推卸责任地亲身参与了每一次变革。
尽管这些演讲式的视频创作在视觉形式上简洁明了，与《流动性公司》对数码影像的直接运用不尽相同，但‘坏图像’的逻辑仍在其中闪现：《博物馆是战场吗？》直接地嵌套了史德耶尔创作于2012年的作品《摘要》，她在青少年时期的好友Andrea Wolf被处死的十三年之后，重返当时的行刑地，Wolf是库尔德工人党的女性首领之一，在政治动乱中落入敌手而去世。关于Wolf的追忆与诉说，史德耶尔在2004年的作品《十一月》中有过更为直接的表达，片中呈现了两位好友在90年代时共同拍摄的影像片段。《十一月》也同样出现在这次展览中。如果把Andrea Wolf视作一条原始信息的话，史德耶尔在90年代、2004、2012和2013年先后四次对其进行了补充和混编，就像任何一个广为流传的神奇故事那样，历史与诉说、原型与演绎、符号与表征悉数混淆在一起，在不同的语境下被引用阐释，直至面目模糊着迎来下一次定义。