The real and the virtual blend in Hito Steyerl’s latest exhibition

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Dr Jana Johanna Haeckel reviews Steyerl’s expansive show at the Centre Pompidou ahead of its closing weekend

With so much of the pandemic spent in Zoom meetings connected to the virtual cloud, one could easily forget that the online world has a physical infrastructure. The Internet consists of phone lines, satellites, cables running under the ocean floor, and warehouses filled with computers. It is a vast network, a monopolised industry, owned by a few tech giants like Google and Facebook, controlling the transmission of personal data through emails, photographs, health data, credit ratings, and ‘likes’. 

The virtual space’s distinct ‘architecture’ and its connection to the political, social, and economic sphere play a central role in Hito Steyerl’s (b. 1966, Germany) work. She explores the impact of the Internet and digitisation of the fabric of our everyday lives. Steyerl’s exhibition I Will Survive, currently on view at Centre Pompidou, Paris, until 05 July 2021, presents an impressive overview of her work from the past 30-years spanning a selection of earlier films and installations, alongside new work.  

Dancing Mania. 2020. Vue d’installation au K21, Düsseldorf, 2020. Courtesy Hito Steyerl, Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, Esther Schipper Gallery.

One of the constant themes throughout Steyerl’s oeuvre is the question of how images generate our idea of “reality” and the use and abuse of this for political ends and propaganda purposes. Forms of the essayistic documentary film have compelled the artist since the beginning of her intellectual activity, and she has worked with directors like Alexander Kluge and Harun Farocki. Additionally, she is a professor of New Media Art at Berlin University of the Arts and publishes prolifically on topics related to her artistic research. 

Steyerl’s recent texts and films investigate how the digital image is part of a specific economic regime that produces desires, exchanges, and dependencies. Her essay, titled Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead?, focuses on the spatial dimension and the frightening omnipresence of the Internet and its image circulation. In Steyerl’s opinion, we have long since entered into a new paradigm – a space of no return – a free-flowing system of circulation that circumscribes and influences everything from personal identities and romantic relationships to political debates and public advocacy. She asserts: “The Internet persists offline as a mode of life, surveillance, production and organization […] It is obviously completely surveilled, monopolized, and sanitized by common sense, copyright, control, and conformism.”

Hell Yeah We Fuck Die. 2016. Vue d’installation au LBS West. Münster. 2017. Courtesy Hito Steyerl, Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, Esther Schipper Gallery. © Photo : Henning Rogg

Playing with the fluidity of the digital image, which crosses the border from the virtual to the “real” museum space, is one of Steyerl’s main visual strategies in the exhibition at Centre Pompidou. The show becomes a highly physical experience that confronts visitors with image, sound, and information while also guiding them through complex architectural structures. 

The ambitious exhibition begins with the installation Hell Yeah Fuck We Die (2016). Based on the five most common words used in English-language song titles from the previous decade (hell, yeah, we, fuck, and die), the display combines three video screens with robot sculptures, neon signs and hammering techno sound. The videos feature a compilation of images from robot technology testing labs collected from various online sources, in which humanoid robots are subject to abuse, both actual and simulated. 

The show continues with Steyerl’s latest multimedia installation SocialSim (2020), which she partly produced during the pandemic lockdown. It critically explores the potential of digitality, simulation, and artificial intelligence and locates the visitors in the middle of an immersive VR space with dancing police and military men, projecting prognoses of energy consumption, riots, suicide rates, and rates of infection — a fierce comment on the social upheavals during the pandemic. 

How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (detail). 2013. Courtesy Hito Steyerl.

Elsewhere, the three-channel video installation Mission Accomplished: Belanciege (2019) places audiences before screens sitting in architectural structures, which refer to the European parliament. The video lectures and the setting reflect on politics, culture and populism, exploring the relationship between data mining, the fall of the Berlin Wall, autocracy in old Soviet territories and luxury fashion brand Balenciaga. Meanwhile, the installation HOW NOT TO BE SEEN (2013) also follows this critical approach through a humorous video tutorial, which centres around achieving invisibility in a world full of images. The work invites viewers to take up benches echoing calibration targets, as used for military surveillance backgrounds.

Steyerl’s attention to architectural and exhibition design reflects the social power relationships that spaces can articulate. Her installations provide an opportunity to observe new media technologies like virtual reality differently. They interrupt a single reading of online worlds. Instead, they engender analytical handling of digital images by questioning the “truth” that media images claim to depict. Indeed, the art experience in the museum’s spaces becomes increasingly important, providing opportunities to reflect and experience digital art differently from the “lonely” consumption of online worlds at home. Although we may be tired of digital encounters, the exhibition reminds us of why we must remain critical and alert in a post-factual world.

Hito Steyerl. I will survive is on show at Centre Pompidou until 05 July 2021.

Dr Jana J Haeckel

Art historian, curator and lecturer, Dr Jana J Haeckel examines image and body politics in contemporary art, specifically in the new ethics of photography in the digital age. Art practices that subvert historical narratives through archival research are also part of her work. She holds a PhD in art history and is an associate researcher at the Lieven Gevaert Research Centre For Photography. Haeckel recently published a book, Everything Passes Except the Past (Sternberg Press, 2021), the result of a two-year-long project on colonial heritage with the Goethe-Institut.