Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Mall, London SW1Y 5AH

Hito Steyerl

ICA, London

5 March – 27 April 2014

Review by Tim Dixon

Occupying the ICA’s theatre space, Hito Steyerl’s new show is a deftly presented set of five recent works by the Berlin-based writer and filmmaker.

Taking centre-stage is a large-scale projection of a brand new work, ‘Liquidity Inc.’ (2014). The 30-minute HD video is a densely constructed digital collage, circulating around the multifarious meanings and implications of the word ‘liquidity.’ The central narrative tells the story of Jacob Wood, a martial-arts enthusiast whose life changed dramatically when he lost his job following the Lehman Brothers collapse in 2008. Now working as a commentator for the Total Fighting Alliance he advocates a style of fighting where one must remain ‘liquid’ and becoming ‘frozen’ means certain defeat. Around this Steyerl edits a patchwork of heterogeneous images and narratives into a layered and thoroughly researched mix of original footage, found material and CGI. The balaclava-clad ‘Underground Weather’ group explain reversing trade winds and warn that we are insane for thinking we control the weather; the artist is told there’s no budget for the CGI sequences in a forthcoming show; and an auto-tuned Bruce Lee lifted from YouTube advises you to ‘Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water.’

The result is a fragmented quasi-documentarian treatise that circles as much around the themes of global finance, the crash and links between the weather and trade, as it does around an examination of its conditions of creation and circulation (CGI production, online distribution, flat-screens/projections/iPhones). The video chops and changes abruptly, moving between its various narrative strands and styles, the overall effect reminiscent of the split-attention web-browsing of multiple tabs, looping GIFs and multi-layered collage, coalescing into a meditation on the complexly interwoven worlds of the production, distribution and circulation of images and finance.

Throughout Steyerl’s work there is an intimate link between what is explored and the medium through which the exploration takes place. In ‘Liquidity Inc.’ and 2013’s ‘How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File’ Steyerl foregrounds the processes of digital image production. In ‘How Not to Be Seen…’ this is green-screens and image resolution. Parallels are drawn between the technology of studio and satellite photography – a striking focus of the film being an enormous ‘resolution target’ built in the California desert for testing the power of early observation satellites. In a playful touch, the screening room housing this piece – a satirical instructional clip on how to disappear in the digital age – is itself hidden away beneath the seating structure set up for ‘Liquidity Inc.’

The video riffs off a pervasive sense of digital-age paranoia about who is seen and who can see in the age of digital communication and surveillance. Also hinted at, through gloriously utopian CGI renderings of future living/leisure complexes, are questions of who might have the privilege and power of disappearing; ‘living in a gated community’ is offered as one way to disappear, while we are told that love, war and capital are already invisible.

We find again the artist’s reflection upon her own conditions of operation in a more understated work tucked away at the very back of the space. The portrait-format ‘Guards’ (2012) features interviews with attendants working at the Art Institute of Chicago, who have backgrounds in the military and law enforcement. Installed back-to-back with ‘Is The Museum A Battlefield?’ – a lecture delivered at the 2013 Istanbul Biennial that examines links between the art world and the arms trade through sponsorship and architectural commissions – the piece teases out and brings to light relationships between international art museums and state violence that often go unseen.

The final work in the show, ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ (2013) is another lecture, this time delivered in Berlin. Steyerl draws a parallel between the de-skilling of art production leading to a state of artistic over-production with the invention of firearms, leading to democratisation of violence. Through a discussion of Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Misérables’ and Susan Boyle’s performance of a song from the musical derived from that work, the artist asks who today’s ‘misérables’ might be; talent show hopefuls desperately plying for a taste of fame, or their art-world counterparts desperately pitching and hoping to make something sustainable of their practice?

In all these works, we find Steyerl firmly embedded in the centre of the issues and structures she is exploring, making-visible systems, processes and links that often remain unseen. Steyerl is a master of her medium, taking on complex inter-woven themes with stylistic sophistication and a lightness of touch that few can manage.

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