Hito Steyerl: Factory of the Sun
by Cameron Hu
Visitors to Factory of the Sun will feel obliged to make jokes about the 1982 sci-fi film Tron. Hito Steyerl’s most recent work plays in a dark room overlaid with a grid of fluorescent blue light, suggesting nothing so much as the lurid cyberspace where a young Jeff Bridges – having been sucked from the “real world” into the interior of an arcade game – battles for his freedom against a misanthropic machine intelligence. Reclining beach chairs scattered about the room only encourage reference to a movie about the descent of leisure into violence.
The comparison is not, in the end, an unhappy one. Tron’s antagonist, a program gone rogue, enjoys dominion over a modest corner of primitive virtual reality; in Factory of the Sun capital takes command of the deep structure of physics itself, presumably to make it work harder. The latest of Steyerl’s adventures through the post-1989 capitalist uncanny depicts a mutation in the global economy so advanced and so virulent that private enterprise can now further accelerate the speed of light. For Steyerl, the asymptotic line of technological advance curves toward the endless modulation of matter itself, as much if not more than it generates some increasingly hi-res, esca-pist alternative. This is a view from the (no longer “early”) 21st century, and the last decade of genomics, molecular engineering and nanotechnology would seem to confirm her position.
In Factory of the Sun it’s Deutsche Bank that has sped up sunlight. As the film opens, the bank’s PR man is offering a half-hearted defense of a recent killing – by drone, of course – of anti-acceleration demonstrators in Germany. Like any compelling image of dystopia, it mostly resembles our current, actually existing predicament: a neoliberalizing trajectory whose end game is a world where financial institutions are the most obvious apportioners of what used to be called “state violence.” Here, Factory of the Sun’s political tack is not the exposure of concealed malevolence in the world system (arguably the self-appointed task of the political arts of the 20th century) but an intensely focused presentation of what we already know to be the case. And in doing so, it adjusts a representational strategy at work in Steyerl’s earlier, more documentary videos like In Free Fall (2010) and Liquidity Inc. (2014). Those oddly campy pieces isolated the signatures of the global present in the margins of the entertainment industry: Holly-wood airplane demolitions, amateur mixed martial arts. The trivia of the world system were served up as esoteric prefigurations of the future of the whole. But Factory of the Sun forgoes this indirect line of approach, instead forcing prevailing tendencies to-wards their latent extreme. One notes this way of working has more and more currency across media – consider, for example, the poet Keston Sutherland’s severe reformulation of poetry itself as “intensification pressed to the point of absolute impotence against the real limit of capitalist social reality.”
Drone strikes having set the tone, what follows is a disjointed series of scenes that all belong, if obscurely, to a globetrotting heroes-and-villains scenario. Factory of the Sun plays a bit like a big-budget thriller from which essential details have been removed. The Deutsche Bank spokesman reappears at intervals to insist that terrorists had been hiding behind the assassinated protesters. In a shooting range, a young woman fires bullets at digital busts of Stalin, and simultaneously recounts her family’s migration from the Soviet Union to Israel. Her brother, once famous on YouTube for a series of dance videos made in an Alberta basement, now gyrates gravely in close-fitting gold-lamé in a motion-capture studio. A narrator instructs us that this is “forced labour.” Is this the eponymous factory, a machine for the brute extraction of fungible energy from even human movement? Is it a video game in the making? The script gets harder to follow, and slips into a loop of self-reference. Gameplay options occasionally show up on-screen, layered above the action: “Press A for Total Capture.” Someone is running this show from outside it, although it certainly isn’t the viewer, empty handed in her reclining lounger.
Later, the brother has fled to the roof of the Teufelsberg listening post outside Berlin, from which the US National Security Administration supposedly “intercepted all signals.” You have the dim sense that his liberation is hooked into some broader worldwide in-surgency. In the final minutes, a demonstrator “crush-ed in the 2018 Singapore protests” (improbably, this character is named “Big Boss Hard Facts”) has been resurrected as a clumsy digital avatar performing the very moves appropriated from the young Albertan.
Despite the film’s winking deployment of a B-movie setup – and this is no small part of its surprising affability – Factory works less through the subversion of a familiar narrative arc than a single motif re-iter¬ated from scene to scene. The tension between free¬dom and control is worked and reworked across the film in an exploration of a historical present in which nothing seems secure against subsumption by a sin¬gle greater power. Sunlight is made to travel faster than ever; house music supplies the rhythm for high-tech manufacturing; the revolution is a video game you may or may not already be playing.
This will all sound rather dire. But Steyerl is less a moralist than a bemused observer of the contemporary situation, and she knows something about plea¬sure too. The lasting thrill of Factory of the Sun is watching the dancer – an actual YouTube phenomenon with the handle takeSomeCrime – carry out his taut and geometric manoeuvres, a kind of manic blend of tecktonik and swing set to a techno beat. Perhaps this is appropriate: it’s in dance that control and freedom can become practically indistinguishable, that structure (groove) and agency (movement) effectively fuse, posing again the question of what can be subsumed and what can’t, whether all signals have indeed been intercepted, whether anything can escape “total capture.”
Factory of the Sun offers nothing like an answer. But on exit from the screening room, one does find a striking object lesson in the destiny of much insurgent culture. Across the street from MOCA, the line to enter the new Broad Museum – an insurance baron’s storehouse of the once radical, now collectible arts of the 20th century – stretched out to a vanishing point beneath the Los Angeles sun.
Cameron Hu is a musician and anthropologist living in south Texas.