German multimedia artist, social critic, theorist and all-round intellectual Hito Steyerl is making quite a name for herself in the visual arts. Based in Berlin, a city that has historically been connected to groundbreaking art, she fuses her video art with essays that border on academic dissertations, with themes covered including consumerism, feminism, mass media, and the distribution of images. Also a lecturer, she is very much a contemporary artist for 2014, with one commentator writing that, to know what art in 2014 looks like, you could do much worse than check out Steyerl’s work.
This is because she is very much concerned with the here and now – with life in 2014. More to the point, with technology, its implications and how it integrates into our culture. How it dictates us, how it swamps us, guides us, destroys us – how it consumes us totally. In this way, she is an artist who is time and place bound; without our evolved technological gadgets, without our smart phones, our Facebook’s, our downloads, our means of copying and sharing images, our digitalised obsession, Hito Steyerl’s message and departure point would not exist.
Photography has existed for over a hundred years, but now images are proliferating, bleeding everywhere, with an estimated 880 billion photo’s taken this year alone. Steyerl is an artist who recognises what effect this proliferation is having on our lives, and she reacts to it. From images that some attempt to hide in a bid to prevent some shocking revelation, to images that have found their way into the subterranean underground, where their exposure is thought-provoking and – for some members of our society – damaging.
This train of thought is best expanded upon in her brilliantly intellectual essay, ‘In Defence of the Poor Image.’ Of the poor image, she writes that it is a “copy in motion … a lumpen proletarian in the class society of appearances, ranked and valued according to its resolution. The poor image has been uploaded, downloaded, shared, reformatted and reedited. It transforms quality into accessibility, exhibition value into cult value, films into clips, contemplation into distraction.” By comparing the poor image to a ‘lumpen proletarian,’ she is evoking memories of class war, reaffirming the idea that there exists a ‘them’ and an ‘us.’
The ‘them’ in question is capitalism. For Steyerl, the capitalistic control on images is indicative of a dominant collective mindset. Good quality images suggest superficiality, uniformity. When we take a Selife, everything has to be perfect and exact, without scruples. Slick images have created a distortion of reality, and one which has enough power to control us, suppressing ugly reality. The poor images, subjected to myriad of copies and duplicates, are at the lower rung. But they display raw reality. They are to be found in amateur porn films, terrorist propaganda, cult videos.
In her video, ‘How Not To Be Seen,’ Steyerl is again expanding on the theme of how we exist in a world dominated by images and technology. When we go for a stroll to the shops, when we drive around in our cars, there is always the chance we will be snapped in action. Not as the main subject, but as background in someone’s amateur photograph. How Not To Be Seen is, at heart, a satire. Steyerl, with biting humour and superior clarity of thought, shows us how to be invisible in a world increasingly being taken over by digital representations of ourselves and everyone and everything around us. It’s a video that shows us how we exist in a digital bubble – and how we can hide. Impossible task? Maybe.
But nobody confronts the impact that this relentless deluge of images has on our lives quite like Steyerl. For her – as well as for many others – images are starting to construct a sinister alternative reality. The world of images, be they on Facebook, Google Image Search, or Instagram, is becoming so dominant that not appearing on these sites is almost as bad as not existing at all. Is not being seen at all the only way to save ourselves? Perhaps.
Steyerl’s video installations regularly travel the world, with a few also being available for free on Vimeo. Want to know what the contemporary art scene in 2014 is all about? You could do worse than check out her socio-politically charged short films.