Hito Steyerl: An Artist Talk

April 7, 2019

The German filmmaker Hito Steyerl is folded into a Yale School of Art visiting professorship in Critical Studies starting in 2017 and on April 1 (a Monday) she presented some of the products of her time at Yale in a talk called “Hito Steyerl: An Artist Talk.” Steyerl was centered within the frame of the School of Art gallery-cum-lecture hall but ceded much of the affection flowing from the audience—beamed from seated, standing, and leaning positions in the overfilled space—to a series of presentations by student collaborators or attention-absorbing video fragments. Appropriate enough for this age of fractured authority, level hierarchy-as-aesthetic gesture, and collaged presentations, the format also shows a generous speaker minding an event horizon: someone who wants to share as much as possible but who also wants to direct attention away from certain points including, perhaps, what she is hoping it all adds up to.

The lecture opened with a performance by the Yale marching band, gathered in front with horns and other brass, with drums. A sinister and layered melody matured and deepened at the end of maybe three or five minutes; the strange sourness of the tune was perhaps intended for a Western audience…it otherwise sounded similarly malevolent as Balkan wedding music. Steyerl stepped in to demystify the performance after thanking the band: the song was composed based on the melodies generated from translating gun violence statistics into notes. The methodology was not too precise—an excel spreadsheet fed through a random webapp and then complexified by Yale marching band composer/conductor. Though apparently destined for the New York Armory in some near-future, and explained in depth, the aim and target of the informational translation is not clear.

The second project was composed of two parts: a video and a description. The video followed a project of window painting in Camden, New Jersey as a response to broken-windows policing. Steyerl interviewed several residents who regularly paint windows, including drapes, flowers, and complex mullions, onto abandoned or damaged structures. It is left unsaid whether these painters hope to ward the police away or simply render their neighborhood more beautiful on first glance. The description was of a deep learning project, in which panes of glass are broken over and over until a computer could simulate the sound; Steyerl, in response to an audience question, seemed game to show this video at the end of the Q&A [but if she did, I missed it].

The third project was a collaboration with a computer scientist, in which together they attempted to create self-evolving prouns. The prouns shown in the presentation were mobile, flopping around a 3d model’s XYZ grid using their various rectangles as fins, their lines as ligaments, and their circles as wheels. The more mobile a proun was, the more likely it was to be selected as a parent for the next generation of prouns, its formal and motility-inducing DNA combined with that of another selected individual, until in the most recent generation shown, chunky segmented prouns ambled about with complex joints in series. This was a play on genetic algorithms, it was explained.

Finally, a group composed of students from the School of Art and the School of Management presented a new cryptocurrency using Ethereum as a base, in which there was only ever a single coin, indivisible, and so most people’s ledger accounts would have no coins, and one person would have the whole coin. It sounded like a setup to a joke (two men walk into a bar, but this time they bring an elephant…) and Steyerl didn’t have that much to say about it.

All of the presentations were extremely process-heavy and explanation-generous, but seemed incomplete in the aesthetic dimension, and without the aesthetic dimension they remain interesting data experiments. If these projects are all separate, perhaps they have not yet eaten the apple and will come to be aesthetic in time. If they are meant to hang together, perhaps Steyerl allowed the links between them to drop out in this presentation archipelago, reserving the rest for another time and context. If the lecture let out pearls on a string, like a ghazal does, the audience was left without the radif or maqtaa. It’s fun to guess what these were and will be.

All four mobilize translations of information systems, rendering perhaps more visible the net in which we are trapped. The translation of a spreadsheet into music does act on an aesthetic register, but remains rather basic without a larger goal. The actual menace of breaking and entering is transformed into an AI parody of violence while countering this with a translation of kitsch ideas of domesticity into documentary fodder. Evolution is translated into animation. Market economy is translated into logo. But translation and revisualization remain a game, a copying of ledgers, actuarial science.

There must be more. The song is not the point. Testimony from inhabitants of declining cities is not the point, nor is an artificially generated broken window. Mobile compositions are not the point. A fun new cryptocurrency is not the point. There’s more at play here and it is easy to keep hidden because we’d have to step outside of ourselves to see it. I don’t even know that the Yale team members on these four projects understand what the point is yet. It almost feels like they’re being set up—intrepid youngsters setting out to solve problems in a rewardingly highly visible way with a famous stranger might instead be larval members of a global elite tricked into proclaiming the hollowness and death of the ideology which underlies their life choices and career trajectory. But America is also not the point, even if a focus on gun violence and police brutality will always draw the attention of art critics on a deadline. Globalism is not really the point. Capitalism is not really the point. And anyway, Steyerl is impossible not to believe; is too open to want to fool adolescents; is a generous collaborator [I’ve never met her but this is her personal affect from across a large room].

It seemed one salient component of these projects was the translation of data and complex systems into ironic uselessness—the gun violence anthem is campy by its very nature, a plywood sheet painted to look like a window is useless as is simulated broken glass, a floppy proun is useless, as is one object as a medium of exchange. But uselessness is not itself aesthetic—it is only the sign that there is aesthetic content somewhere. Art is by definition useless; that’s what makes it art. But that’s not what gives art meaning.

What these four projects really produce, quietly, after several hours, while buying shampoo at CVS, is a sense of terror. Steyerl is playing with systems that challenge the idea of human freedom and potentially foreclose the hope of freedom. The projects erode the illusion of selfhood and agency. A murdered person is first abstracted into a cell on a spreadsheet and eventually becomes a puff of air issuing from a tuba. A state-enacted system of organized violence forces people to spend their time creating stage sets. A computer can learn the sound and pattern, and perhaps also the force, of a hammer swing. The rules of evolution produce grotesque ambling monsters; perhaps we are already such. The invisible hand can conjure a way to render value to one person and remove it from all others.

There is something sublime in realizing the size of these systems, humor in realizing their uselessness, terror in realizing you are already trapped in them, despair in realizing one’s own uselessness in turn. The work makes you think "I get it," issue a slight chuckle or tsk, and then slowly gain meatbag consciousness (that we are all meaty automatons). Rendered by Steyerl into some kind of film or performance, this will likely become more complex and also more immediate. The project will also likely be slid into the art world very pleasantly, almost apologetically.


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