Politics and filmmaking with Hito Steyerl

A version of this post was originally written for the graduate Seminar “Framing Migration,” taught by Prof. Deniz Göktürk of the UC Berkeley Department of German. In this post, seminar participant Kumars Salehi relates his interaction with acclaimed German video artist Hito Steyerl at a workshop at Berkeley. The workshop, “Proxies and Placeholders,” took place on Feb. 22, 2016 and featured excerpts from Steyerl’s work, including her most recent experimental film Factory of the Sun, which is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles through Sept. 12

Hito Steyerl, Munich-born with Japanese ancestry, exhibits a filmmaking praxis that’s at once postmodern and political, engaged and tongue-in-cheek. In the excerpts that we saw from her various pieces, she uses a mix of media and modes to reimagine – digitally, kinetically – the relationship of human bodies and subjectivities vis-a-vis information and technology. Steyerl’s workshop focused in large part on Factory of the Sun, which is woven together out of live action and computer-generated images, including everything from TV news reports to virtual reality simulations. The film puts these different modes of viewing and representation to work in the service of evoking a dystopian vision of desire and protest in a future in which corporations are unfettered in both virtual and physical spaces.

The impression I got of Steyerl’s oeuvre is that it’s surprisingly accessible, but I’m still having trouble putting my finger on who is being spoken to in her work. She obviously embraces some principle of critical political engagement, and I think she presents a strong and nuanced critique of intellectuals’ and artists’ complicity in corporate domination and also systems of control. Who should ideally be seeing her work, and what should their response be? In the Q&A portion of her workshop, Steyerl mentioned, with more than a hint of regret, that the role of the critic in society has been replaced by the role of the troll.

In the Q&A, I asked her, first, where she places herself on the spectrum of critic to troll. That question was in conjunction with the more general question about intended audience. She laughed at the question of where she places herself, and said she’d think about it; in response to the second question, she answered that it’s impossible to know who the audience is. For example, she said, her work had been appropriated into propaganda of the PKK, the Kurdish Workers’ Party.

I was able to follow up with her afterwards. She immediately brought up Trump as an example of the rise of the troll in Western culture—leaving aside the issue of how apt this description of Trump is, I remarked that I asked my question because I feel that trolls (like Trump, perhaps) can reach a wider audience today than the vaunted critic ever did. Trolls can “go viral,” their perspectives made to fit current economies of thought and affect. They made for distribution, for circulation, for BuzzFeed, for retweets.

I asked Steyerl about what level of political knowledge and education was necessary to get all the references in something like Factory of the Sun, how her work could “scale up”—she replied that it scales down well, because 9-14-year-olds love it. Her answer makes me wonder how much those kids really understood, or if they just liked the visuals. I’m not sure how satisfied I am with her answers, but I do get annoyed when I feel like artists dodge this question. Perhaps I’ve been made irritable by all this searching for a theoretically robust explanation of how a politically-engaged avant-garde can function in today’s landscape.

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