‘Hito Steyerl: Factory of the Sun’ is a tale of two Donnas. In a wood-panelled rec room with a luxuriant AstroTurf floor, furnished with scarlet accents—an exercise ball, an armchair—one of the protagonists of a fictional video game begins dancing to Donna Summer’s “This Time I Know It’s For Real”, the disco queen’s last chart-topping single. The audience is told that the dancer, who is the brother of the narrator Yulia, is in Canada, but the scenario could have been filmed anywhere, in any corner of this troubled world.
‘Factory of the Sun’ was first exhibited in the German pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale. At the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the installation environment of Steyerl’s work is a glowing bunker: a black box gallery gridded with chilly blue lines. The blue recalls the color palette of the alternate reality depicted in the movie ‘Tron’ (1982); however, Steyerl refuted this comparison and confirmed that the construction of the environment was actually inspired by Star Trek’s “holodeck,” which holographically recreates alternate worlds.
An assortment of beach chairs faces a slanted screen. Friends have admitted to falling asleep as they recline on those deck chairs, being soothed by a faux-news program, or perhaps a Balearic beat pulsing in the background. The end and beginning of the film are hardly relevant, as the work is realized as a looped montage: a video game tutorial threaded with breaking news segments, YouTube dance clips, animated avatars of ghost protesters in the near future, actual footage from student demonstrations worldwide, and bobbing renderings of Joseph Stalin’s head used as target practice. The layers, both theoretically, historically, and cinematically dense, are frightening but uncannily familiar. This is a twisted contemporary visual reality that we’ve been forced to accept—a 24-hour barrage of information, a thrust of barely comprehensible data that passes through our body unnoticed like rays of weird sunshine.
Theorist Donna Haraway, author of “A Cyborg Manifesto” (1985), is the complementary Donna in this scenario. In the manifesto Haraway writes, “Our best machines are made of sunshine; they are light and clean because they are nothing but signals, electromagnetic waves, a section of a spectrum…People are nowhere near so fluid, being both material and opaque.” Killed in fictional student uprisings of the future, anime avatars are now movement machines, “orphans of the enemy” bending light until it becomes music. Electronic beats throb as Yulia’s brother and his animated companions dance, acting as surrogates for the ghost protesters who are coded into a constructed reality.
Even in this hypothetical situation, Steyerl presses: how do we negotiate the conditions of meeting—of being together—when being in public space seems more dangerous than ever? In this Vertovian factory of pure light, our bodies kill, are killed, respawn, fight, pop, lock, and boogie. A Deutsche Bank executive denies, apologizes for, and then justifies the killing of a human being in the company’s pursuit of a faster speed of light, which would push high-frequency trading to unthinkable levels. Markets go down; markets go up. Are we safe? Can we dance? Does it matter?