Firing Blanks:
Hito Steyerl and the
Voiding of Research Art

Hito Steyerl: Drill
Park Avenue Armory, New York
20.06.19 – 21.07.19

We’ve all heard the statistics. That in America, there is a mass shooting every day, that one hundred Americans die from gun violence daily, that access to a gun doubles and triples the risks of death by homicide and suicide respectively. That the numbers and the corpses pile up with little change, day after day. And that the National Rifle Association ( NRA ), which exerts its considerable influence and budget to block essentially all gun regulation, is to blame.

At the Park Avenue Armory, Hito Steyerl has ‘sonified’ these gun violence statistics, turning them into a score for a marching band. The ensuing piece soundtracks her major new video commission Drill, which links gun violence, the NRA, and the Armory’s own past as a repository for military weapons. It would have made for a haunting performance, linking this contemporary epidemic with the nineteenth-century ghosts of militarisms past, through the bodies and melodies of musicians. But the Armory’s gargantuan drill hall is empty and austere, save for three large screens playing the multi-channel video, and some jigsaw-like LED floor lighting – the kind that airplane safety videos tell you about. It’s antiseptic and a little techy: standard Steyerl.

But Drill differs from a more typical Steyerl joint in that there are no seductive 3D-rendered graphics, no AI, no near-future dystopic air. There’s no Middle Eastern or post-Soviet locale either, although a number of the other works on view check all these boxes with works about a Ukrainian firm making first-person shooter games and real-estate environments, Iraqi drone shepherds, free ports and the Syrian regime, and all manner of robots. Two other commissions round out the show. Freeplots ( 2019 ), made in collaboration with the El Cataño Community Garden in nearby East Harlem, features an audio component about land ownership and disenfranchisement in Puerto Rico, coupled with planters filled with saucer-sized hibiscuses. The flowers are echoed in Broken Windows ( 2018–19 ), a pair of videos that sensitively address the phenomenon of ‘broken windows’ policing. Most famously adopted in 1990s NYC, the theory suggests that small signs of disorder, such as broken windows, lead to resident withdrawal and increased crime. Installed at opposite ends of a long corridor, one video tracks researchers training AI to recognise the sound of a glass pane being smashed. The other profiles a team of Camden, New Jersey, community activists who replace broken windows with painted canvases, iterations of which are installed behind each video. How should one make art about gun violence and militarism, navigating the tension between bearing witness and consuming the pain of others? Explore the phenomenon through sound? Broken Windows provides a worthy example.

Subdivided into six chapters, Drill intertwines the history of the building with the stories of several people affected by gun violence. Many of them are activists, ranging from high-school student Nurah Abdulhaqq, an organiser with the National Die-In, and Sandy Hook teacher Abbey Clements, to Kareem Nelson of Wheelchairs Against Guns, and retired high-school principal Judith Pearson, who campaigns to get her fellow gun owners to #BoycottNRA. Steyerl tryingly calls them ‘protagonists’, but they are little more than talking heads, their life experiences made furniture for the video, not unlike the low benches that dot the viewing area. These activists are joined by Yale historian Anna Duensing, who walks-and-talks viewers though the Armory, highlighting its loose links to the founders of the NRA. Stunning Gilded Age interiors are cut with Ghost Hunters-style underground stumbling and clips of the Yale Precision Marching Band snaking around the hall. ( The historian and band are among many contributors from Yale University, where Steyerl was a fellow in 2018 and 2019. ) At one point, Pearson points out areas pockmarked with bullet holes where the regiment used to practise target shooting. ‘I wouldn’t rate their marksmanship very good’, she quips.

Another section notes that gun violence extends beyond the initial pulling of the trigger, pointing to the site’s history of flooding with lead-poisoned water from spent bullets. Unfortunately, the work stops short of linking this to environmental racism – this toxicity disproportionally affects marginalised communities – or even the intergenerational impact of gun violence. Taken together, it’s a variegated mix, the kind Steyerl usually splices together to brilliant temperature-taking effect.

Not here, however. The footage is thoroughly overproduced – bland and slick with an uncharacteristic earnestness that wouldn’t be out of place in a public service announcement. Yet the editing tends to be cloddish, and its sharp juxtapositions of quality feel more confusing than compelling. Especially baffling is the rather cheesy ending. Ornate golden frames on silken salon walls were previously shown displaying oil-painted portraits of the preponderantly blue-blooded officers that gave the Armory’s resident 7th New York Militia its nickname – the Silk Stocking Regiment. As the music swells, protest footage from anti-gun violence rallies fills the screen and is then bizarrely inserted into the same golden frames.

In practice, Drill is little more than a 21-minute salute to the bankruptcy of Research Art. By this I mean the kind of work that derives its legitimacy from documentary or forensic aesthetics, attempting to uncover and expose shocking new information about museo–military–industrial complexes ( usually those in the swathe between the Middle East and China ). It’s Ripley’s Believe It or Not! for the NPR ( National Public Radio ) set.

Like institutional critique, Research Art seems to want to be perceived as clever, even radical. It might present a cogent critique of the Arsenale/Armory type of biennials, institutions and fairs that characterises today’s neoliberal art market, but it often has no qualms about being commissioned for, and presented at, these same sites. Its visual vocabulary demands unquestioned authority, even as it deploys a narrative sleight of hand. The entwined histories of the NRA and the Armory are presented here as both fulcrum and evidential glue, despite their tenuous linkages – at one point we learn that an NRA co-founder was apparently inspired to form the organisation after seeing a painting of the building’s founding regiment.

Perhaps Research Art simply cannot thrive in the current age of fake news and deep fakes. An older work, Is the Museum a Battlefield? ( 2013 ), adopts a similar forensic-lite logic, tracing a bullet that killed Steyerl’s friend, a Kurdish liberation fighter, back to its manufacturer and then through an art school and museum. First presented as a lecture at the Istanbul Biennial in the shadow of the Gezi Park protests, its power seems to have considerably diminished in its current context.

Conversely, despite the continual relevance of its subject matter, Drill never rises above the level of trite, blithe aestheticisation. This is exemplified in the very Steyerl gesture of abstracting literal deaths – disproportionately non-white deaths – into brassy music. Each note corresponds to a data point. A trumpeted fanfare might track the last few decades’ boom in gun manufacturing; each lowing sousaphone note might be a deadly incident involving an AR-15. It’s the diametric opposite of #SayHerName. How is this any different from the newspaper convention of showing only graphic images of blacker, browner, more foreign bodies, in wars foreign and domestic? Or, for that matter, Dana Schutz’s infamous painting of Emmett Till? Perhaps the real marvel is how something so heavy-handed manages to say nothing at all, especially coming from an artist beloved for her incisive analyses of contemporary Western society. If anything, it feels like the preparatory notes for an essay that didn’t quite convert to film, a lossy, poor image with paradoxically high resolution. Some of the pertinent information is found only in the end credits, such as the fact that in the song ‘Mass Shootings 1999–2018’ – which translates the Mother Jones database to sound – pitch corresponds to the numbers of injuries and casualties, while pedal tones mark the passing of time. While book and theory journal readers might be counted on to read the footnotes, burying this information in the credits seems to guarantee it will go unregistered by most.

As presented, Drill is neither going to sway anyone who’s adamant that unseen forces are coming for their God-given, Second Amendment-granted right to bear arms; nor will it change anyone’s mind who already agrees that background checks and restrictions on access to guns might be in order. The thing about drills – fire drills, earthquake drills, active shooter drills – is that they’re rehearsals for calamity. But when it comes to gun violence everybody already knows the score. Taking the subway back downtown from the press preview, I sat across from some kids playing a new-to-me variation of an old game. ‘Rock, paper, scissors. Anything you wanna choose’, the chant went. At one point, an older child chose a machine gun because ‘gun beats all’. This felt especially poignant that afternoon, but at any other time I would have thought nothing of it.


黑特客史德耶尔: 演习

译 / 顾虔凡

我们都听说过这些统计数据。在美国,平均每天都会爆发一起大规模枪击事件,平均每天都有一百个美国人死于枪支暴力,而使用枪支造成的他杀和自杀的危险度分别翻了原来的两倍和三倍。这些数字与横陈堆砌的尸体一样,随着日积月累却没有明显的变化。 美国国家来福枪协会 ( NRA ) 应当受到谴责,因为它发挥了相当大的影响力并拨出预算来阻止几乎所有枪支管制的条例。

在纽约公园大道军械库的展览上,黑特客史德耶尔 ( Hito Steyerl ) 已经“弄清楚了”这些枪支暴力的统计数据,她将它们转化为一支行军乐队的乐曲。由此诞生的正是她受委任创作的视频新作《演习》( Drill ) 的配乐,作品将枪支暴力、NRA以及军械库作为军事武器存放处的过往历史都串联了起来。这本该是一场有如幽灵般的表演,借由音乐家们的身体和乐曲,当代的热门事件与19世纪军国主义的鬼魂可以相互联系。但是军械库偌大的“演习场大厅”( Drill Hall ) 却空无一人,只有三屏巨幕在播放多频道的视频和一些有如拼图般的LED地面灯光装置—就是在飞机起飞前的安全视频里为你讲解的那种。整件作品洁净得就像抗菌剂,再附带一些零零星星的高科技:真是标准的史德耶尔的创作。

不过,《演习》与其他史德耶尔更典型作品的区别在于,视频里没有出现诱人的3D渲染图,没有出现AI人工智能,也没有出现关于不远的将来一幅异置错位景象的描绘。中东或是后苏维埃时期的地点也没有出现,尽管展览中的其他作品完美地符合这些条件,比如有作品讲述了一家乌克兰公司,他们专门制作第一视角射击类的游戏,作品还讨论了房地产的环境;其他的一些作品讨论了伊拉克的无人机牧羊人、自由港、叙利亚的政权纷争和各种各样的机器人等。另有两件作品也是受委任为展览所创作的。《自由情节》( Freeplots, 2019 ) 与毗邻军械库的东哈林区的埃尔卡塔尼奥社区花园 ( El Cataño Community Garden ) 合作完成,其中包含了讲述波多黎各土地所有权和对公民选举权进行剥夺的音频内容,附加了许多花盆,里面开满了碟子大小的芙蓉花。

这些花与作品《破碎的窗户》( Broken Windows, 2018-2019 ) 相呼应,后者是一对视频作品,非常敏感地提及了有关“破窗效应”的警务治理条例。这个著名的理论在20世纪90年代时为纽约市所采用,所谓“破窗效应”是指,诸如被打碎的窗户这种微小的混乱的象征,会导致居民的搬离以及犯罪率的攀升。作品布展于一条狭长走道的两头,其中一件视频跟踪拍摄了研究人员对AI进行的培训,以此识别玻璃被砸碎的声音。另一件则介绍了来自新泽西州卡姆登社区活动之家的一个团队,他们会把打破的窗玻璃替换成布面绘画,而其中一些绘画就布展在每件视频的背后。一位艺术家该如何创作有关枪支暴力和军国主义的作品?如何在身为见证者和承受他人的痛苦之间建立起紧张的联系?又该如何通过声音来探索表象?作品《破碎的窗户》显然提供了很好的示例。

《演习》分为六个篇章,将建筑物的历史与有关枪支暴力的几个故事彼此交织在一起。这些受到枪支暴力影响的人中,有许多是积极的行动主义者,从高中生努拉客阿卜杜勒哈克 ( Nurah Abdulhaqq ) 到非营利组织 National Die-In 的成员,到曾经发生过枪击案的桑迪客胡克 ( Sandy Hood ) 小学的老师艾比客克莱门特 ( Abbey Clements ),再到“反对枪支的使用轮椅人士”组织的成员卡里姆客尼尔森 ( Kareem Nelson ) 和退休的高中校长朱迪斯客皮埃尔森 ( Judith Pearson ) —她曾发起活动努力让携枪者们加入“抵制国家来福枪协会” ( #BoycottNRA ) 的行动。史德耶尔试图称他们为作品的“主角”,但这些人物只是以一张张受访者的脸出现,他们各自的生活经历好像这件视频作品中的家具,和观看席中点缀着的低矮长椅并无两样。除了这些积极的活动主义者,来自耶鲁大学的历史学家安娜客邓森 ( Anna Duensing ) 也加入其中,她引领着观众在军械库里边走边看,并且强调了军械库的创办人与NRA非常松散的关联。令人惊叹的镀金时代的内饰,被有着幽灵猎人风格的地下空间所打断,还有整个大厅里,来自耶鲁大学官方行军乐队 the Yale Precision Marching Band 的乐声在环绕着。(历史学家邓森与行军乐队只是这次来自耶鲁的参与者们的一部分,事实上,史德耶尔本人曾于2018至2019年在耶鲁驻留研究。)视频里有那么一段,是高中校长皮埃尔森指着一处持枪者们练习射击因而布满弹孔的墙面,“我可没法给他们的枪法打高分”,她打趣道。





也许研究型艺术只是无法在现在这个假新闻和伪劣产品频出的年代里得到蓬勃发展。《博物馆是战场吗?》 ( Is the Museum a Battlefield?, 2013 ) 是艺术家几年前的一件作品,采用了类似的精简的法证学逻辑,追踪一颗杀死了艺术家的朋友的子弹,这位朋友同时也是库尔德解放运动的一位战士,子弹最后追溯到了生产商身上,并进一步与一所艺术学校和博物馆产生关联。这件作品最初在伊斯坦布尔双年展上以表演性讲座的形式呈现,当时的伊斯坦布尔正笼罩在与盖齐公园 ( Gezi Park ) 征收改建相关的“土耳其之春”抗议活动之中,而以如今的语境来看,这件作品的力量已经大大削弱了。

相反,尽管其创作主题总是具有连续的相关性,但《演习》并没有达到老一套欢快无忧的美学水平。这在史德耶尔一处极具个人色彩的处理手法中得到了体现:她将不成比例的非白人的死亡抽象成了黄铜乐器奏响的音乐。每一个音符都对应一个数据点。一段喇叭的号角齐鸣,可能是在回顾过去几十年间枪支生产制造的繁荣,而每一声低沉的苏萨大号都可能在对应一桩涉及AR-15的致命事件。这与“说出她的名字” ( SayHerName ) 运动截然相反。这与传统报纸上那些用图表来标注战争中死亡人口种族比例的做法有什么不同?或者说,和达娜客舒兹 ( Dana Schutz ) 那幅刻画了黑人男孩艾米特客提尔 ( Emmett Till ) 葬礼现场的绘画有什么不同?

也许真正的奇迹是,缘何作品里那些如此沉重的信息却让人感到什么也没说,尤其这些作品还来自一位因为她此前对当代西方社会敏锐的分析而受人拥戴的艺术家。如果非要说的话,作品让人感觉像是为一篇论文做准备的笔记,但还完全无力转化为电影,只是一些高精度的但同时非常矛盾地受到损伤而显得劣质的图像。有一些重要的信息只有在视频结束之后的片尾制作名单中才出现,比如,在歌曲《大规模枪击 1999-2018》 ( Mass shootings 1999-2018 ) 中艺术家将琼斯夫人的数据库转化为乐谱的曲子,音高对应着伤亡人数,而踏板的声音则对应着时间的流逝。也许会有书本和理论期刊类的读者留心去读这样的尾注,但任由这样的信息埋没在片尾字幕里似乎等同于认定了大部分人是不会多加关注的。