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Hito Steyerl artist profile by Maggie Gray

In the back office of a chilly Chisenhale Gallery, Hito Steyerl explains the inspiration behind In Free Fall, her latest film installation. Fittingly enough given the theme of the work, it came to her mid-flight, when she spotted a magazine image of derelict aircraft grounded in the desert. Through research and extrapolation, Steyerl set out to tell the story of one of these planes, the Boeing 4X-JYI. Over a series of three films - After the Crash, Before the Crash, and Crash - she tracks its progress through commercial and military service to the scrap heap, where it is blown up for the movie Speed and ultimately recycled as a component of pirated DVD discs storing duplicates of the Hollywood film. This is a deceptively neat premise for what turns out to be a frenetically-paced production, crammed with creative associations that turn the image of the stricken plane into a metaphor for the economy: global, capitalist, and destined for crash after crash. Steyerl does not watch from a distance. Her own world of images is dangerously embroiled as she examines the devastating impact of digitalisation on the DVD market via an interview with her struggling cameraman Kevan Jenson. Steyerl’s medley of new and reused footage is ripped, cut, blown up and stitched together, subject to the same disintegrations and reformations as the planes it pictures. The credits announce ‘recycling by Hito Steyerl’ in ironic acknowledgement of her complicity in the processes of consumption, destruction and (re)production she critiques. It all begs the voiceover’s eventual question: ‘what about the passengers’ Does anybody make it out alive’‘

Steyerl, who has made her name from politically-involved film essays such as this, is one of a succession of artists to tackle social politics alongside a more self-referential politics of the image. Born in Munich in 1966 and growing up in the wake of New German Cinema, she studied cinematography at the Academy of Visual Arts, Japan, and later at the Hochschule fur Fernsehen und Film back in her home town. Steyerl jokes that, as a young German filmmaker, she had little choice but to follow the lead of established artists such as Wim Wenders and Harun Farocki, whose films examine the power of images as potent cultural weapons. In truth, of course, she has done more than follow.

Steyerl’s practice is structured by the idea that you cannot address a social issue productively without first understanding your own part in it. She refuses to downplay her own presence in her films. In Lovely Andrea (2007) Steyerl tracks down a ‘rope bondage’ photograph of herself, taken in Tokyo in 1987. Leafing through magazines where hundreds of individual women are posed as a type, she acts as artist and image; detective and evidence; narrator and plot. In November (2004) she tells the story of her close friend Andrea Wolf; or rather, the story of Wolf’s image as it is appropriated by the Kurdish liberation movement, for whose cause she is believed to have been killed. Interspersing scenes from a movie they filmed in their youth with shots of Wolf’s icon-like portrait held aloft at political rallies, Steyerl contrasts her friend’s theatrically assumed early image with one which has subsequently both revived and subsumed her. The motivations behind both films are disarmingly personal, but Steyerl approaches them as topics to be analysed and dissected. Equally wary of sentimentality and false objectivity, she acknowledges herself as part of the picture, eager ‘to make my position transparent’ and truthfully complex.

Steyerl has progressively developed her own methods to address one of the most bewildering phenomena of the last few decades - the ever-expanding ether of social media and virtual exchange. In an age when many of us treat images as weightless windows onto the world at one remove from real life, Steyerl routinely drags them back into the physical realm. In Strike (2010) she tests the idea to literal breaking point, smashing a blank LCD screen to create a jagged abstract pattern. Screen is destroyed on-screen, and the apparatus in front of your nose becomes palpably present. Short and punchy, the film powerfully reminds us that images have a physical reality just like anything else; the limitations of its production, replication and dispersal can fundamentally alter its impact. Only after recognising that should we address the thorny issue of a film’s content, which November and Lovely Andrea have already demonstrated to be dictated as much by an audience’s emotional and ideological investment in an image as by the picture itself.

Steyerl has a PhD in Philosophy, has taught and lectured at leading institutions across the world, and has a formidable reputation as a film theorist, so it was no surprise to find that she talks confidently and knowledgably about her medium. Her well-respected essays further explore the problems of her craft. ‘In Defence of the Poor Image,’ for example, examines the proliferation of manipulated and degraded pictures on the web; something which is consistently explored in her films. In Free Fall proudly screens even the most pixellated of pirate clips in glitteringly ironic ‘HD’, while its narrative foray into the wreckage of the DVD market acknowledges the dangerous, uncharted social consequences of this media explosion. Red Alert 2 (2008) by contrast, suggests a degree of optimism about the same state of affairs. In 2007 she showed Red Alert - a triptych of pure red film screens evoking (among other things) the highest state of national vigilance against terror attacks - at Documenta 12. When the image went viral and was shared by press and individuals across the web, Steyerl gathered up their pictures, rearranged and reanimated them into a secondary film shaped by other people’s views. Steyerl’s disarming ability to relinquish control of her work is a memorable strength. These films, which draw on academic as well as popular examples (In Free Fall takes its cue from Sergej Tretjakov’s assertion that the biography of an object is more socially interesting than that of the hero; Red Alert draws on Rodchenko’s audacious triptych of primary colours in 1921), are the products of a genuinely collective authorship.

Steyerl’s self-appointed task is a difficult one: as a committed visual artist, she adamantly refuses to tell her images what to do. For her, one of the crucial hindrances to social rethinking is the commentator’s oppressive desire to use images and evidence to a predetermined end. Her films are committed to complication, as she deftly and lightly weaves associative webs designed to catch our imagination, but not to fix it down. None of the multiplying strands of her thought, practice and imagery can or should be unravelled: my attempts to do so here are for the purposes of introduction alone. Steyerl pays, in her opinion, the greatest respect to her images by tangling them up and then letting them go.

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