This is the future: Hito Steyerl
by Sinead Petrasek
In September 2019 a nearly 50-year-old man collapsed on the floor of the Amazon warehouse where he worked, just outside Columbus, OH. The Guardian reported that he lay there for 20 minutes in cardiac arrest before receiving medical attention. Other employees were instructed to continue working as usual, methodically placing items in boxes as timers counted down the minutes at each station.
In Hito Steyerl’s installation Hell Yeah We Fuck Die (2016), part of her Art Gallery of Ontario survey This is the future, a robot is shaky on its legs, and quickly seems to suffer some misalignment, eventually collapsing on the floor. Another is pelted with boxes while walking. They are being tested for their capacity to withstand adversity. The robots are workers too: in this case envoys-in-training for combat zones. In Donna Haraway’s Manifesto for Cyborgs (1985), she refers to the uneasy boundary between organism and machine as a “border war.” Here, Steyerl places the cyborg in this war zone, showing us how readily these military technologies manifest themselves in our workplaces, homes, and playgrounds. The entire installation is constructed as a kind of parkour terrain for viewers, set to hypnotic electronic music. Embedded in it is Robots Today (2016), a one channel video set in southeastern Turkey in the city of Diyarbakir, a focal site in the struggle for Kurdish independence. In the video, we learn that Diyarbakir was also the home of 12th-century polymath Ismail al-Jazari, who developed foundations of robotics engineering. Today, we know that some robots kill (or are at least trained to). Steyerl’s video shows footage of men dancing in the ruins of the city, which was mostly destroyed by the Turkish military in 2016. The accompanying narration consists of dialogue with Siri, the friendly virtual assistant that Apple has planted in its mobile phones.
Marx described capital as value in motion. For capital to accumulate, barriers to motion must be eliminated so that goods can be exchanged across great distances with maximum efficiency. Steyerl has made a career of helping us visualize this hypermobility, tracing the movement of capital across time and space with particular attention to when and where it gets fixed or encounters crisis. There is no better place to begin than the global art market. In her book Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War (2017), Steyerl asks, “What does criticism about contemporary art say about time and space today?”
Placed at the entrance of the exhibition, Freeplots (2019) is also the closest to Toronto, geographically. To create it, Steyerl worked with the caretakers of the Milky Way Garden in the west-end neighbourhood of Parkdale, mostly senior Tibetan women. The work consists of several crates in the shape of tax-free storage buildings in Geneva and Panama. Collectors hold artwork in these “freeports,” a fact Steyerl learned through the holding of one of her own works. By contrast, the containers in Freeplots house stinging nettle and jasmine, species common to Tibet. It is no surprise that Parkdale, a site of active anti gentrification mobilization, was Steyerl’s chosen location. The Milky Way Garden became the first plot of community-owned land held by the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust as part of their efforts to resist displacement. Parkdale’s struggle is not isolated: a previous version of Steyerl’s project was created with members of El Catano Community Garden in East Harlem, New York, a neighbourhood that is also fighting to retain affordable housing. Several blocks up from El Catano, on 146th Street, sits ARCIS Art Storage, a freeport that, according to a 2018 Longreads piece by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, allegedly received millions in tax breaks in exchange for the promise of creating about 15 jobs for residents of East Harlem.
Liquidity Inc. (2014) is a mockumentary-style video featuring Jacob Wood, formerly of Lehman Brothers and now a mixed martial-arts fighter. The video brilliantly demonstrates how the logic of ever-shifting markets gets translated into subjective experience. Being “fluid” is not just a positive but a necessary quality in precarious times when we are all pitted as opponents—in the ring, in the school, in the office. Liquidity also refers to precipitation, and hostile weather reports are interspersed throughout the video. Steyerl herself embodies the fluid flexibility demanded of the modern artist.
Lovely Andrea (2007) is an earlier, personal essay-documentary following Steyerl as she searches for an image of herself in Japanese-style bondage from a photo shoot she did 20 years prior. Scenes are punctured with clips from the original Spiderman cartoon, showing the hero swinging around high rises, catching criminals in his web. There is a sharing of
rope tricks, and of justice-seeking quests, though Steyerl’s search is considerably more complex than Spiderman’s.
In The City of Broken Windows (2018), two videos were installed at either end of a room: one depicted destruction, as engineers smash glass panes in an effort to teach AI to recognize the sound of windows breaking; the second depicted repair in the form of window murals done by the artist Chris Toepfer, who decorates vacant and abandoned buildings in Camden, NJ. Invoked here is the concept of creative destruction, which has become an advertising slogan for the burgeoning urban tech scene in Toronto, bolstered by plans for a Google-backed smart city on the waterfront.
This exhibition, one of the largest surveys of Steyerl’s work, opened in the charged aftermath of the Canadian federal election. A month before the election, it was announced that a new Amazon fulfilment centre, the seventh in Ontario, will be built in Scarborough. The items that Amazon workers pack and ship travel across distances, while the workers’ own mobility is restricted. In making visible how value is produced and transported, Steyerl encourages us to find the pressure points and contradictions. However, contemporary art still depends, to a large extent, on the concealment of labour. Representation must, then, move to intervention, even occupation. Writing for e-flux in 2011, Steyerl quotes the words of the Inoperative Committee, a collective who occupied The New School in New York City in 2008: “One must engage with space topologically, as a strategist, asking: What are its holes, entrances, exits? How can one disalienate it, disidentify it, make it inoperative, communize it?”