Art In Conversation
HITO STEYERL with Osman Can Yerebakan
“I was not trained to be an artist, and have found myself in the art world quite by coincidence”
New YorkPark Avenue Armory
June 20 – July 21, 2019
Presenting a commissioned video installation and existing work by multimedia artist Hito Steyerl, Drill at the Park Avenue Armory is the Berlin-based artist’s most expansive presentation in the United States to date. Installed inside the historic Gothic Revival style building’s various rooms and sprawling Wade Thompson Drill Hall, the exhibition delivers a socio-political landscape of the times, interweaving comments on two-way progression, striving power structures, and waning intellectual autonomy. The exhibition’s titular trio-partite video installation chronicles anecdotes from witnesses of recent gun violence cases in the U.S.
I met Steyerl at the Park Avenue Armory under the shadow of the building’s ornate wood carvings.
Osman Can Yerebekan (Rail): This is an abrupt start, but I am curious about your thoughts on self-care, which has evolved into a phenomena bigger than its own definition. There is an industry that promotes wellness associated with privilege. Or, how about the idea of power naps since you occasionally use the word “power” in your work? Self-care prompts certain liberties and abilities that require investment of leisurely time or certain products.
Hito Steyerl: It would be great if everyone could have that time, but most people just don’t have the resources necessary to buy lots of facials. There is so much time just blocked or appropriated by social media that could be freed. I just came to think that the act of making art itself usually results from having free time, because I think many artists, if not most artists, have to do other things to make a living. They have to go to school or they have to take care of their relatives. Sometimes, I look at art as a piece of evidence of time that might have been freed to engage with the world. It’s just such a success for most people to even be able to do this. I don’t want to jump to Hegel’s “master-servant” fable right away, but I think that the act of making art could be seen as something more engaging than just self-care, rather caring about the world, the realm of matter, social relations and so on. Not just the self, but the self in relation. Of course, art is just one of the very minor and less important ways of doing this, care-taking and so-called reproductive labor is much more important. Just finding the time to do the thing you really want to do already implies an act of having free time, which, in fact, you’re supposed to have.
Rail: It’s such a small number of artists who can just make art and not do anything else.
Steyerl: Yes, but I think even the artists who would theoretically be able to afford buying their own time are spammed by bureaucracy, administration, other peoples’ surveys, and all kinds of regulations.
Rail: Or the market demands.
Steyerl: Or just anything but art. This is my view. I don’t want to speak for other artists.
Rail: Speaking of free time and leisure, you make a lot of films and media art. How much time do you think the audience should spend with your work? How much time do you spend watching your own or other artists’ works?
Steyerl: I definitely spend a lot of time making it, but I really try to be mindful of people’s time. I don’t try to take excessive amount of time from the audience. I don’t compromise on content and try to respect the fact that they are basically sparing this time, which they could also be doing something more worthwhile.
Rail: Your films are short compared to most other artists’. Is being mindful about the audience’s time a motivation?
Steyerl: I sometimes use the lecture form, which tends to be longer. If someone really wants to watch them, that is great, but many of them are printed, so they can also be read on the train or somewhat in-between.
Rail: You’re in direct dialogue with the audience in your lectures, almost as if you were present to directly explain your motives. What do you think about the idea of art remaining elusive or metaphorical rather than being direct?
Steyerl: There are different layers, because I call these things lectures—I don’t call them performances. I don’t want them to be judged within the history of performance art. They’re just lectures derived from my practice as a teacher. I do this all the time teaching. There is a legitimacy to that format, but I don’t really want to pretend that it’s art. If people want to listen, that’s fine. [Laughs] It’s more like a podcast, a gallery podcast.
Rail: What do you think of the museum’s role in terms of surveillance? There was an Ai WeiWei exhibition, entitled Hansel & Gretel, two years ago here at the Park Avenue Armory, where there were drones following us. We could later see ourselves at the exit outside. There is heavy surveillance at museums with cameras and guards, mainly because they contain massively valuable items. What do you think about people being monitored while they “watch” your work?
Steyerl: Jean-Luc Godard once said there are only a few places in the world which you cannot film: the prison, the factory, the museum. There are dark cubes and projection spaces in my work, so it’s more difficult to see anything with surveillance cameras, or to be seen at all, which I think drew me to film in the first place. One of the layers of surveillance the museum employs is the collection of data from people. Not by siphoning it off phones necessarily, but primarily by soliciting tweets or by trying to get people to participate in surveys and fill out questionnaires or sign up to their newsletters. They want to know who we are in order to fill a certain quota in their development strategy or to tick off boxes. We’re being entered into a database, which I consider equally intrusive than the fact of being watched by a camera, except of course if that camera is linked to facial recognition devices. One of my fantasies has been that very soon there will be a Minority Report situation where we walk up to a screen, and immediately the program that we’d like to see will be played in a museum because the screen will have recognized who we are. It will be called “neurocurating.”
Rail: Duty Free Art (2017) is about the off-center, offshore, or what is behind doors. You’re making a film about freeports—art storage facilities waived from tax—so you’re bringing them to the spotlight in the age of data and information. I’m sure there are a lot of the people who didn’t know about freeports before they saw Duty Free Art. What do you think about this investigative, or almost journalistic approach of emphasizing these almost unknown elements?
Steyerl: I’m not an investigative journalist at all. I usually compile things out in the open. In the case of Duty Free Art, I went to Geneva’s freeport and tried to get insight. I talked to several people and galleries inside. My own research wasn’t very useful. The Swiss looked at me saying, “What does this Asian auntie want? She’s definitely not a client, is she?” [Laughs] I think many things are in the open, but because there is so much overload of information, they sometimes need more highlighting, or a specific combination that will render it more interesting for people to really engage with them. I think that’s maybe more my role.
Rail: Almost all of your films have seating elements, with couches that are specifically fitting to the work. How involved are you with that component? Do you collaborate with designers? How do you envision that relaxation element for the audience?
Steyerl: At a certain point, I just had to accept that I wasn’t in a pre-designed cinema. I had to think about how to put films in the space, and what elements to underline through the choice of installation elements and seating, which is usually necessary anyway. We cannot ask the audience to stand up, not for longer than, let’s say, eight minutes.
Rail: Or sit on a bench, that’s not comfortable.
Steyerl: Yes. But, I have to say, in terms of comfort, I'm now making it less comfortable. [Laughs]
Rail: The word “uncomfortable” is used a few times in this press release.
Steyerl: Yes, because at one point, I had the feeling I was making it too easy and that it was all getting too cosy. So, in that sense, if Drill is a very uncomfortable film, then I will also try not to provide not too comfortable seating.
Rail: Drill doesn’t have any seating, but other films do.
Steyerl: I think in this exhibition, only one of them has any degree of comfort. [Laughs]
Rail: Here, we’re in a very specific, ornate and strong architecture, which is not white cube at all. How did you embrace the existing texture while installing video and seats?
Steyerl: I think, very early on, I made the decision to really embrace the fact that the show was going to be in this space and think about the relation between the surrounding, the history, decoration, function and the work. For each room, there has really been some thinking going into the placement. For example, the film in the main hall deals with the space itself and its history, but Hell Yeah We Fuck Die (2016) in the Veterans Room is about the development of bipedal robots, which may or may not become soldier robots.
Rail: Speaking of the building and history, we’re inside one of the two remaining privately funded armories in the United States, and Drill is obviously about gun violence. We’re currently in the middle of a debate about families that sell guns being museum donors. What do you think about showing this work here?
Steyerl: I was very intrigued by the fact some of the members of the 7th regiment had a founding role in the National Rifle Association. Having that said, at that point in time, the NRA was a completely different organization. It was much more involved with fraternal tasks like gun safety or marksmanship; it changed its character several times during its existence. Its early form is totally different from what it is now. The historical relation of the people involved in building, designing, decorating and funding this building to that early NRA gave me a context for trying to bring the voices of people affected by gun violence today into the space. They’re affected by gun violence but beyond that, they’re active, vocal and empowered members of organizations working to mitigate or minimize its effects and empowering others. This was very important to me.
Rail: You’re working with Yale University Precision Marching Band for a performance and an East Harlem community garden called El Catano. Did you invite collaborators and local voices in this show due to your position in a foreign landscape you’re not necessarily familiar with?
Steyerl: Yes, definitely. I wanted to share the space with others. I wanted to talk to people who have a lived sense of this situation.
Rail: Being an artist is about visibility, especially being a known artist is about putting yourself out there and being “Googleable.” How do you handle this type of visibility? Someone can Google you and learn personal details? How do you live with that?
Steyerl: Good question! [Laughs] I’m not enjoying it at all. But there is much worse for so many people, so really I don’t want to even mention it.
Rail: Let’s talk about access and contemporary art, which can sometimes be impenetrable —not just physically or economically, but intellectually. It’s not about looking at a painting and appreciating it anymore. What do you think about contemporary art occasionally requiring heavy work to fully grasp it?
Steyerl: For me, it’s very important that there is an entry level to almost every work and that people who have no prior education in art can have a chance to engage with it. Let’s say, hopefully, from my point of view, there are also other levels of the work which are accessed through multiple viewings, for example.
Rail: Or lectures are very accessible.
Steyerl: Yes, I try not to use academic language too much.
Rail: I often think about aesthetics of failures, such as glitches or low-res images. You’re also interested in glitches, spams, bad images or disconnection. They’re disruptive in their own way for crashing our desire to have everything run smoothly. We are upset when the images are low-resolution or the internet is all of a sudden disconnected. What do you think about these moments of helplessness, especially as someone who makes art using these flawed mediums?
Steyerl: 12 or 15 years ago, I thought there would be some kind of redemption or at least pleasure in dealing with these materials. But, I think the overall situation with the internet has changed to a point where basically everything can be weaponized immediately, so I think that the innocence of the glitch and the imperfect image is very much lost at this point. I am no longer working with this material.
Rail: This made me think of Mladen Stilinović’s work An Artist Who Cannot Speak English Is No Artist (1992). If an artist doesn’t have high resolution images of their work, they are no artist.
Steyerl: I do think I have a right to express myself in English, even though it’s full of holes and it’s my fourth language. But it’s true, for a long time, I had a footer in my emails that said, “No, I don’t have a high-res image,” because it was the one question I constantly received every day.
Rail: There are artists who don’t have high-res documentation of their work or have websites.
Steyerl: Absolutely. I think maybe let’s say one, two, or three years forward, some sort of withdrawn position also suddenly turns into an advantage. I would think that this will be the case.
Rail: There are a lot of artists giving up Instagram accounts now.
Steyerl: Yes, and it’s not even about pictures or resolution, but about the time being stolen, all that time which could be used to make something else. I stopped spending time on social media quite a while ago. I am totally enjoying my dumb phone. Fuck smart.
Rail: Art is gradually becoming a more prevalent method for money laundering, investment or hiding money. How do you see the role of galleries and other commercial spaces within this web of interactions and transactions?
Steyerl: To be honest, I cannot give you a general answer. I would have to have a bigger database and basically this data is not really accessible. I cannot give you a general answer to that but just anecdotal rumors. In general, I have to say that I was not trained to be an artist, and I have found myself in the art world quite by coincidence, so I think I'm way more naive than other people when it comes to that. [Laughs] “What, are you serious? Some galleries are laundering money? Really? With an edition of a digital video? Are you kidding me?”
Rail: I’d like to tie this to the Sackler family and your Serpentine Galleries show as well as the Whitney. How do you see this connection between these families with disputable businesses and art funding? Could museums survive without such donations?
Steyerl: All these incidents happen because the art sector is partly dependent on donors. In many cases, the art sector is being defunded or never has been publicly funded at all, so it becomes dependent on private donations. The more dependent it is, the more conditions can be connected with the donations. I think it's very difficult to discuss these sort of things just in terms of individuals. We have to see it in a wider context, which is: “What is art as a public good? Is art a public good? If it is, why is it so dependent on oligarch donations?” Why are there no regulations, no ethics committees, no rules not to put donors names on buildings which are often mainly funded by tax money? As long as the sector doesn't put this into place—and there are museums associations and arts councils who would be in a position to do this—we will just stumble from one case to the next. I really think that the industry bodies have to step up now to put some rules in place in collaboration with institutions and art workers, so that institutions have some framework to guide their decisions going forward. But it’s also a question for the rest of us: how do we create environmentally and economically sustainable and resilient frameworks to sustain practices outside of these economies? I would prefer to focus on this going forward.
Rail: Maybe it's because art should never have become this expensive to make, or expensive to hang or install.
Steyerl: Yes. I think a lot of the overhead in the art world has nothing to do with the art itself. I am thinking of massive museum extensions, PR, and lavish hospitality for donors, galas and so on. This has not really anything to do with art works or their production, and I don’t think it's necessary to have all of that for the art world and artists to thrive. The thing is, even though there is a massive influx of private money, most artists still aren't getting paid (or just a pittance) by institutions. The money is not primarily benefitting artists, art workers and art production, but instead, some kind of bloated overhead that has nothing to do with art as such.
Rail: There is a specificity to the Park Avenue Armory for being an exhibition space but also a theater and performance hall. How different is this experience compared to a museum?
Steyerl: In general, I think I'm now going a little bit more towards working with smaller, or non-institutions whatsoever—or at least publicly funded ones. [Laughs] I think in the future I will feel much better.
Rail: While I was working on this interview last night—or I should say this morning—at 3:30 am, the T.V. was running, and as you know, this country is famous for its pharmaceutical commercials with many stock images. Close to sunrise, I came across a commercial, which was unusually an anti-drug one. I’d never seen such a commercial during primetime hours. This made me think about information that is exclusively available in off hours. Someone had decided for when that commercial was available. What do you think about this idea that we live in a curated world, similar to exhibitions which come out of an intellectual critical agenda?
Steyerl: I was just thinking about one of my mentors, Harun Farocki, who always said, “Yes, I’m making TV films which will play at 2:00 am.” [Laughs] So, yes, that’s an interesting placement, which is made to exist only during ghost hour.
Rail: This past summer, I was at SITE Santa Fe where there was an Andrea Fraser installation, titled 2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics (2018), with a huge breakdown of museum donors and their political standpoints. The project also came with a giant book. It was a very direct piece in terms of the data presented. What do you think about art becoming very direct in its statement?
Steyerl: Yes, I have the book, which I thought was great. Of course, we live in times where directness is more necessary than ever. It would be great not to live in such times and be more playful and ambiguous. However, I completely understand that in these times, being direct and straight to the point is probably the most adequate to the situation. Andrea's book is great!
Rail: How about the word “power”? Your Serpentine show was called Power Plants. These days, there are many areas to use the word “power,” such as “power naps,” “power couples,” and “power suits.” What do you think about all these new meanings of the word?
Steyerl: In a way, it's very ’80s with all these new meanings.
Rail: All the cool kids use it.
Steyerl: Yes, this reminds me of padded shoulders.
Rail: Charles Ray had that famous sculpture of a giant woman with an ’80s power suit.
Steyerl: It's all about self-optimization. Being a power couple, you’re optimized. But my Serpentine show was built around a real power producing solar device which was supposed to be on the roof as a rendition of Malevich's Black Square (1915)that would have basically produced the power for the show, so everything was conceptually built off of that idea.
Rail: Did it work?
Steyerl: We basically had all the components that were derived from that central element but the central component itself was missing.
Rail: Things find their own way.
Steyerl: Institutions find their own way, mostly.
Rail: What do you think about humor or light-heartedness?
Steyerl: I like it. But, also right now, there is a variation of it which is at times very cynical, cold, humiliating, and eventually destructive.
Rail: Donald Trump uses humor too, for example.
Steyerl: “Fun ist ein Stahlbad,” said Adorno and Horkheimer. I’m trying to find the English word for “Stahlbad.” It’s what the Terminator drowned in, which was a big foundry pool containing molten steel. Adorno and Horkheimer thought this was the equivalent of fun.
Rail: How about institutional critique and looking at, and if necessary, criticizing internal functions of a museum? I think about Hans Haacke’s museum polls or Andrea Fraser's walkthroughs. Has institutional critique slowly evolved into a commentary on the external relationships of museums and the politics of running a museum?
Steyerl: It’s completely obvious that the research would focus on that aspect. Think of the shift from Haacke and Fraser to now you have the era of so-called globalization where links and relations via the internet multiply and increase, including global links, and global economies. This also fueled the massive proliferation of the art world that happened roughly within the past 20 years. I think it is inescapable that institutional critique would have to leave the boundaries of the institution proper to look at it’s relations to the world. And, let me just say how much I admire both Hans’s and Andrea’s works and how important it is to this moment.
I look forward to preparing for the institutional critique of the de-globalizing and the moment of widespread isolationism and authoritarian tendencies we are witnessing now. The networking that happened internationally over the past two decades is slowing down quite substantially already. We may enter a new renaissance, in the sense of Medici like banker-oligarchs, or just plain feudal stakeholders or extreme right nationalist governments using all means necessary to try to call the shots in the art world. Institutional critique in this period could get rather more scary for critics.
Steyerl: Rather than suppressing artists or art workers’ views by open force, we might first see large scale reputational attacks on artists or art workers run by Twitter bots, email hacking, legal campaigns, or disinformation blitzes. These could be unleashed by anybody with the means and financial or political interests. It’s happening in the larger political sphere already. I saw this transition after 1989 in Eastern Europe. The term “transition” is actually a euphemism for many changes, including, prominently—often criminal—privatization. The tools used and created to implement neoliberal shock and awe policies, very often allied with far right or extreme nationalist politics that have been honed in these regions—and definitely not only there—for a long time. These include disinformation campaigns, intimidation, loss of income for dissenters, harassment, imprisonment, also often time more indirect pressures. Murder was not uncommon either. The regions that Westerners tend to think of as peripheries are in fact advanced laboratories of future tools of governance and oppression. In the west, those tools are adopted much later.
I see some of those tactics being deployed in the western political spheres and it’s improbable that in the long run or even short term, the art field will remain unaffected. I have seen up close how artists—and many others—in Turkey were harassed and persecuted within the last two years. Many have been forced to leave and to completely reconstruct their lives. This is the context in which I take any threats against artists and activists quite seriously. I just want to mention that many people in the west find my writing far-fetched until rather recently when many things described in them quickly became completely normalized and even quaint. In the same vein, people will think that I’m exaggerating now, only that actually, in many places, this is happening as we speak and might very well become reality in the centers of the former west.
But, at the same time, the museums are increasingly becoming sites of social contestation, of protest, and of sites to challenge power structures of different kinds. I think people living in the U.S. know much more than I do about this right now. This is the context of the next version of institutional critique.
Rail: There's an agrarian nature to your exhibition here at the Park Avenue Armory, similar to your show at the Serpentine. Could you talk about Freeplots (2019), which includes the community garden?
Steyerl: Once I managed to get an art piece sold, I was very surprised to find that the art work would actually be sent to a freeport. So, I reinvested the sales prize into manure. The prototype of that work, which is now in Berlin, utilized two tons of horse manure partly composted. Then, the community garden used it to grow all sorts of things inside my freeport planters. I made planters in the shape of freeports in Panama and Geneva.
Rail: What did you grow?
Steyerl: They grew a special kind of bean by way of seed-exchange banks with local beans from Panama. In the community garden here, we used a similar principle but they are growing a flower which is very popular in Puerto Rico, flamboyán, which is a kind of hibiscus. Another component of the work, which I think is very important, is the interview with the daughter of the person who runs the El Catano community garden. She told us about being pressured by gentrification, but also it turns out that she knows the Park Avenue Armory from working in the crisis center that was installed here very briefly after 9/11. She was handling claims from relatives of people lost in the attack. It was clear that this building could be seen from a different perspective. She also went to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria to help the recovery efforts. These stories are now told from within those flowers.
Rail: What is the next step for this body of work?
Steyerl: I want to create mobile and fertile territories where one can recycle and compost. I want to take those same planters to different locations and work with different community gardens. My plan eventually is to talk to them and collect some of their stories and later print them on the planters on top of one another. After a while, they'll have some palimpsestic texture. My friend Fernando García-Dory talks about rural cosmopolitanism and I ask myself how I can have something that’s at the same time very local and very networked that also produces oxygen and maybe even a little sustenance.
Rail: Is this an ongoing project?
Steyerl: Yes, it's next going to Toronto, where we will work with another community garden run by Tibetan ladies who would like to grow stinging nettles, because they miss that as a food item.
Rail: How about the Canadian climate?
Steyerl: We have a whole museum floor indoors.
Rail: That’s exciting; when is this?
Steyerl: It opens in November. All these works have a long production phase, because it usually starts with composting which takes a little while. [Laughs]