Hito Steyerl

This interview with Hito Steyerl appeared in the Agenda section of Mousse magazine:

Liquidity, Inc., 2014. Courtesy: the artist and Andrew Kreps, New York

Agnieszka Gratza: First of all, congratulations on being the inaugural winner of the EYE Prize. What was your reaction?

Hito Steyerl: I was surprised and shocked because you never get this kind of email. I mean, you get this kind of email all the time: “Congratulations, you’ve won a prize of £25,000 GBP. Please send your full address and bank account details to an email address in Nigeria.” But that doesn’t happen in real life. I didn’t know I was long-listed or short-listed. I didn’t even know that prize existed prior to receiving notification that I have won it.

AG: Well, it is a new prize. Do you think there is need for a prize that supports an artist or a filmmaker whose work unites art and film?

HS: I’m very happy to have won it, in any case.

AG: What I mean is that artist-made films or videos don’t necessarily get the recognition they deserve in the film industry.

HS: That’s correct, but then the film industry has its own point of view. I’m also not necessarily the kind of filmmaker that the industry would be interested in. Some of my colleagues have made that crossover. Steve McQueen, for example, went from being a so-called art filmmaker to an industry filmmaker. For most of my colleagues that’s not the goal. There was an interesting review about a year ago in The Guardian, which argued that video art or art film was some kind of purgatory or waiting room for people who were not talented enough to make it in the industry. I totally disagree with that.

AG: The prize is intended to fund the making of new work that will be exhibited alongside that of other winning artists every fourth year, so in your case only in 2018. Have you had any thoughts on what you might do with the prize?

HS: The only thing I know is that I’m delighted the prize money is tied to production. While there are spaces that show the kind of work I do, it’s more difficult to find production funds for it precisely because it’s not industry and the art world often treats video as a sort of side dish, something that comes for free and that you use to create collateral events—screenings that go with exhibitions but are not necessarily the exhibition itself. Very often there is not even a screening fee, let alone any sort of production budget for this kind of event.

AG: As a space for showing video work, a film museum is unlike a gallery space; it’s not a cinema-viewing situation either. It seems to create different opportunities and call for a different type of attention, perhaps.

HS: Many of my installations and texts deal with the situation of the black box or the time-based form in the museum, having to compete for attention in a way that isn’t necessarily the case in the gallery. In my work, which often takes the form of multi-channel installations, I’ve tried to deal with the situation of reduced attention spans.

AG: How do you deal with it? And is the reduced attention span necessarily a bad thing? Should a captive audience paying attention to a work from start to finish be a goal for a filmmaker or a videomaker?

HS: It depends what you want to do with the work. Detention is not a goal in itself. If you want to tell stories I suppose you’d like your audience to follow you along, so you have to make things interesting and inviting. You can’t waste their time. I notice that this has an impact on how my work is constructed; even if films are half an hour, they will be organized into smaller chapters that work like mini-narrations within the narration. Often I will pick up not from the beginning, but re-establish the situation to try to deal with the people who just walked in in the middle of the work, for them not to get completely lost. But many of my colleagues don’t necessarily try to do that. They create visual situations or constellations that allow for a completely different way of organizing attention.

AG: Could we talk about the Artists Space show in New York, since I gather you’ve had a hand in the exhibition design? I am particularly interested in the way color informs the scenography of this exhibition.

HS: I suppose you’re talking about one space at Artists Space, the bigger one of the two, which has four works. Two of the works are in presented in black-box situations, even though they are very different from one another, and the other two are installed in rooms that are assigned to one color. Usually a video projection requires darkness, so how do you get around that in a space that has so many windows? The idea we came up with was to pretend the space was flooded. The blue gel filters on the windows of the main space mean that from the outside it looks as if there was a lot of water inside and also the other way round. The surroundings are still visible, but they’re supposed to look as though they were under water. This was the way we managed to cut 80 percent of the light and create the conditions for the projection of Liquidity Inc. (2014).

AG: The idea extends to the visual design of the website.

HS: Blue is interesting as a color. It’s very disorienting. The blue-light environment creates a strange state of mind. The minute you step out, everything looks very yellow and red. In the entrance space there’s a video monochrome called Red Alert, which defines that space. The work stands for a period of heightened alert and tension.

AG: The color, then, creates a certain mood?

HS: Yes, or in terms of video technology, a preset. If you work with editing software, you often have the option of choosing a color preset. This will be called “cinematic” or “electric” or “heaven”. These color presets are meant to supposedly conjure up different moods and sets of expectations from the audience.

AG: Why have you been drawn to monochromes in your work, from Red Alert (2010) to Adorno’s Grey (2012)?

HS: I’m a documentarist by training and around the time of the second Iraq invasion, in 2003, I noticed that many of the live reports from the front had become like color fields that vaguely resembled Abstract Impressionism because of the technology of the time: shaky cell-phone camera images. We ended up seeing the reality as a total abstraction; and one could say that monochrome or abstractions are in many cases documentary images.

AG: In that show you’re presenting work made between 2004 and 2014 alongside one new commission, which is a lecture. Was it a performative lecture?

HS: I don’t do lecture performances or whatever they are called. I’m not a performer; I’m a teacher. They are just lectures, pure and simple. But I give a lot of lectures in different environments. The curator, Richard Birkett, asked me to find a way of presenting some of them without necessarily implying they were artworks. I really hope this is made clear by the whole way of presenting and contextualizing them. It’s maybe not part of an artistic practice, but it’s some kind of practice.

AG: The essay, which features prominently in your textual and film output, has flourished as a genre in the age of digital filmmaking. Why do you think that is?

HS: The essay articulates materials of different sources and nature—quotes, found footage, 3D models or whatever. It’s the act of montaging things. The conditions of availability of these materials have changed dramatically during the past ten or fifteen years. On the side of the prosumer, the tools have become so much more sophisticated and able to process all sorts of different materials, but the circuit of circulation has also expanded dramatically.

AG: Which brings us back to your new commission, Duty Free Art (2015), and the notion of “circulationism” it explores. What exactly do you mean by this term?

HS: It describes very ambivalent processes of circulation happening on and off the so-called digital media nowadays. Basically, any set of data can quickly travel anywhere but also manifest itself in forms that are other than digital. A 3D model, for instance, can end up triggering a cosmetic surgery. Things do not travel without being affected by it. They are being misunderstood or miscontextualized or stolen or leaked. This is what I understand by “circulationism”. The politics of sharing and circulating material on social media, the competition for velocity and mass endorsement that people active on those platforms get also comes into it.

AG: And how do these ideas relate to the notion of a “freeport” in Duty Free Art?

HS: In Duty Free Art I look at the circulation of artworks within a network which we could call the transit zone. There’s a global network of transit zones out there, which means that you can in theory move an artwork around forever without it entering any sort of national jurisdiction, area of taxation or accountability. You could forever go on circulating artworks in crates that were never opened; they might even be empty. I call that the reverse of the public museum, which is open and where the artworks are visible. The artworks circulating in these transit zones are completely invisible and non-public.

AG: Could we talk about the German pavilion and your contribution to it, The Factory of the Sun? I’m intrigued by this idea of digital light as a medium and of light being an elementary image carrier. How will it play out in the installation?

HS: This whole thing started with a quote by Donna Haraway, who said words to the effect that “our machines are made of pure sunlight”. Everything that’s transmitted by digital communication and all its spin-offs is at some point translated into light and transmitted as light. I had this vision of a huge factory that would try to harvest as much energy as possible from humans to feed machinery based on light. That’s the underlying idea, and the work itself is a video about a computer game, a dystopian environment.

AG: You could just as easily think of it as utopian.

HS: It’s both. The sun is shining all the time; everyone is working happily; everyone looks very happy, but at the end of the day it’s a kind of detention and labor camp. There’s no alternative to doing this kind of labor. It’s forced.

AG: But the sun isn’t the only possible source of light. In a cinema projection, for one thing, light is artificial. Why draw attention to it in the title?

HS: In the end all light is the same, right? I mean, it’s photons. Whether they are emitted by the sun, a laser or a projector. In the installation I’m trying to suggest that the projection is actually the sun.

HS: In the end all light is the same, right? I mean, it’s photons. Whether they are emitted by the sun, a laser or a projector. In the installation I’m trying to suggest that the projection is actually the sun.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s