The Multiple Realities of Hito Steyerl Films

Artist(s) in Focus, Digital Art, Interviews

November 3, 2017

“It’s almost like weaving a net”, says Hito Steyerl at Accademia Albertina di Belle Arti in Torino, where she held a conference about her practice. “Every one of these elements gets stronger when there are several links to it.”

Hito Steyerl has been invited to Torino by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, director of GAM, and Castello di Rivoli, following the artist’s participation in the show COLORI (running at both venues until July 23rd, 2017) and featuring her 2012 video Adorno’s Grey.

The piece is based on a true occurrence from 1969, when three female students bared their breasts during a lecture of Adorno. The philosopher left the room in horror. He never returned to teaching again and withdrew from public life, dying soon after the event. In the video, we see a group of conservators chipping away at a white wall in Frankfurt’s Goethe-Universität, trying to uncover a layer of hidden grey paint. According to the legend, Adorno asked to paint the room a grey hue, in order to keep his students alert.

Curiously enough, in the same vein of serendipity that pervades all of Steyerl’s videos, the room in which she held the conference was painted grey. I start our conversation with another curious fact that happened periodically throughout her speech.

COLORI @ Castello di Rivoli, Museo di Arte Contemporanea
Hito Steyerl, Adorno's Grey, 2012, single channel HD video projection, four angled screens, wall plot, photographs,14 minutes, 20 seconds, Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, photo: Renata Ghiazza

The Core of an Artwork

Matteo Mottin: During your conference, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev intervened several times to correct some nuances in the interpreter’s Italian translation. I thought it was interesting, and it reminded me of your essay “Politics of the archive - Translations in film”, which revolves around an incomplete picture of a female teacher from “The Battle of Neretva”. Many of your works have an image at their core, which acts as a point of convergence for many issues. How do you manage to choose these particular images?

Hito Steyerl: Usually, it’s the point of some failure. To come back to the specific example you’re choosing; I really tried to find this image.

To be very, honest, I wasn’t trying not to find it (laughs). I was very frustrated because it seemed to be very easy, but then it was not possible. So, I remember I’d seen it, and also I had it on a VHS, but it was cut off, and as you remember from the text it was cut off because the Film Museum in Sarajevo was basically selling off its own collection as pirated videos, just to survive, and they cut off the edges of the frame. And then I thought ‘Ok, I’m sure I can get another copy of this image,’ but then I ordered around six or seven different VHS and DVDs copies, and it turned out that this specific image had been edited out because it was not spectacular enough. It’s a war movie, and this specific scene is not very spectacular because it shows a teacher.

So, it turns out that basically most of the VHS “publishers” cut it out. They just left fighting scenes. And there were seventeen or so different versions of this film around, but none of them had the image I was looking for. Then it became more interesting for me to see why seventeen different versions of the same movie are so different: some are shorter; some are longer. Sometimes there are political edits, sometimes not. And then it occurred to me that there was probably an original of this film, but from there on it’s just interpretation.

Matteo Mottin: How did you get to know that focusing on that particular image was important?

Hito Steyerl: I can tell you precisely. Before, I made a video of two persons working at the Sarajevo Film Museum, and they were describing to me from memory a film which had been destroyed in the war, and, of course, the memory was very different. They were describing a scene in a classroom where a teacher taught people that were not able to read and to write how to do it. The deputy director of the film museum described the film to us, and the projectionist described a scene that he remembered was with his own grandmother (laughs). So they were very different.

Basically, I was looking for an image that shows a teacher in a classroom in former Yugoslavia, and I remembered I had seen it in this film. So, I tried to find it, but then it was so difficult.

Hito Steyerl - How Not to Be Seen
Hito Steyerl - How Not to Be Seen: a Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov, 2013. Video still, Courtesy of Hito Steyerl and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York

Hito Steyerl - Getting into Video-Making

Matteo Mottin: Your video “In Free Fall” revolves around an airplane that’s been blown up in the movie “Speed II”, whose aluminum scraps were recycled to be used in the production of the pirated copies of that very same movie. How did you find out about this particular loop?

Hito Steyerl: In this case, I was literally flying to Spain. I was reading the Financial Times, and I saw a picture of this airplane, and I thought ‘This is the picture of the financial crisis.’ I started researching it, and then somehow, in a tiny footnote in something someone had written on this specific airplane graveyard the ‘Speed’ episode came up. Then I decided to dig into this.

Matteo Mottin: What I really love about your video works is that if I try to think about how they’re going to be seen in 100 years, when the immediacy of current political issues will be somehow lost and gone, the way you treat images and your editing style, in my opinion, will still be relevant. How did you develop your style?

Hito Steyerl: It took a long time to develop it. I don’t even know how to describe it, to be honest. It’s a kind of slippage. It’s almost like weaving a net, and every one of these elements gets stronger when there are several links to it. I got some kind of intuition: I know that one element will be strong because it has five different links and connects with others, so I can use it. But I cannot give you a more precise answer.

Matteo Mottin: When you work on a video, do you use a storyboard?

Hito Steyerl: No, no. It’s something that evolves and then changes a lot, because I usually work with something connected to reality. Sometimes, I’m not in control either. I cannot really make the decisions, and then somehow the reality imposes itself on my editing.

Matteo Mottin: Does it happen that you just don’t finish a project?

Hito Steyerl: Yes, it happens. Not very often, but it happens. Usually, I don’t get to the point where I really shoot the full scene. I start shooting something, and then I realize it’s not going to happen.

Matteo Mottin: “November” features a Super-8 kung-fu movie where your friend Andrea Wolf is the only character that survives, and you connect it with a picture of her as a martyr of the Kurdish cause. Was the Super-8 movie a starting point for the piece or something you came back to later on? 

Hito Steyerl: Yes, of course, I came back to it later because I was trying to find the way to tell the story, and since I had no recordings or anything else, the only thing I had was this quite stupid martial arts film (laughs).

Matteo Mottin: I think it’s actually very cute. Were you the director of the movie? 

Hito Steyerl: It was a group of people.

Matteo Mottin: But were you already into movie making?

Hito Steyerl: You know, this was one of the abandoned projects (laughs). Because there was no real story (laughs).

Hito Steyerl - November, 2000
Hito Steyerl - November, 2000. Video still, Courtesy of Hito Steyerl and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York

Adorno’s Grey

Matteo Mottin: I’d like to know about the way you install your videos. In the German Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale “Factory of the Sun” was projected on a tilted screen, while in “Adorno’s Grey” the video is projected on four panels.

Hito Steyerl: I became so unsatisfied with just projecting flat against the wall. I started thinking about the materiality of images and what does it mean. In Adorno’s Grey, I have this story of different layers of a wall. So, it was kind of obvious to try to replicate it in the projection itself. Factory of the Sun is about this oppressive regime of images.

In a way, having people that almost lie under the screen was a sort of obvious way of trying to describe it. Now, I really think also about how to put something into space, to stage it.

Matteo Mottin: In “Adorno’s Grey”, did you also mean to disturb the projection?

Hito Steyerl: Yes, I wanted it. I wanted that the projection is supposed to fit, but it doesn’t really fit, and the wall is supposed to be straight, but it’s not straight.

Matteo Mottin: How did you get to know about the anecdote of Adorno’s withdrawal from teaching?

Hito Steyerl: I think that I knew it somehow. It’s a small apocryphal anecdote in the history of the German student movement of ’68. I met a person who was there. I talk about it in my work. He’s a documentary film professor from Hamburg, and we started talking about it.

And it was very rare because, I mean, he’s one of the few people who even admits he was in the room, all the others don’t really want to talk about it (laughs). They feel ashamed. Adorno was so old already, and they were harassing him a bit too much, and they also think he deserved to be harassed, but maybe not that much.

Matteo Mottin: And in the end, you don’t really find the grey on the walls.

Hito Steyerl: There is no grey. Or it has been taken away. Anyhow, there is no grey anymore. There was this moment during the shooting when they said ‘Ok, if there is no grey, then let’s make it grey!,’ and they literally made grey with their scalpels, they were supposed to take off the paint but they squeezed it until it looked grey.

Hito Steyerl, Adorno's Grey, 2012
Hito Steyerl - Adorno's Grey, 2012. Single channel HD video projection, four angled screens, wall plot, photographs,14 minutes, 20 seconds, Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York

Towards the Future

Matteo Mottin: Are you working on any new project now?

Hito Steyerl: Yes, it has something to do with artificial intelligence. One of the recurrent things in my work is that I’m fascinated by monochromes. Mostly because I have no idea why they exist. I was always fascinated by one passage in one of the books by Alain Badiou where he talks about ‘subtraction.’ He talks about a work by Malevich called White on White. It’s a white shape in a white field with just a line. Badiou says that if it were just white, then probably it would correspond to a kind of genocide that took place at that point in time. It’s basically a document for a clean slate, also a politically clean slate.

But in Malevich’s work, it is different because he shows this line. I became fascinated by this idea of monochrome as cleaning the slate in a violent way. So, what I’m trying to do now is to make artificially intelligent self-evolving artworks where the colors fight against one another. They are color fields with artificial intelligence. They get a set of rules and they are told to exterminate the other colors. So, the colors are fighting against one another until there’s maybe only one left.

Matteo Mottin: Which colors will you start with?

Hito Steyerl: I don’t know; I’m still busy to think about the A.I. But these are scientific simulations, which have existed for a long time and are used to simulate societies. Really, it’s not a fiction. Predictions about how society will evolve are made on the base of these kinds of simulations. Now I just want to translate this into a pictorial frame.

Matteo Mottin: What fascinates you about monochromes?

Hito Steyerl: I mean, what is a monochrome? It’s a puzzle. There is not only one answer to it, so I keep approaching it from different angles. In this project, I’m going back to the monochrome from the point of view of social simulation and what it means to predict societies as simulation.

Featured image: Installation view of Hito Steyerl: Factory of the Sun, February 21–September 12, 2016 at MOCA Grand Avenue, courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, photo by Justin Lubliner.