One of the most striking features of the recent wave of global protests, from Athens to Occupy, Tahrir Square to Taksim, has been the profusion of images and slogans they have generated, a creative ferment that has fired radical imaginations in one country after another.footnote1 Yet the successes that many of these movements have achieved in the realm of discourse—the concept of ‘the 99 per cent’, for example, is now common currency—for the moment far outstrip any actual political gains. There are several possible explanations for this disparity: the sheer weight of elite power and privilege, the absence of fully worked-out programmes for radical change, combinations of co-optation and repression. But is it possible that the gap between the two forms of representation—political on the one hand, cultural on the other—is a constitutive feature of contemporary reality? And that the explosion of communication enabled by new technologies and social media, as well as bringing ever more people onto the political stage, is simultaneously a mechanism for the exclusion of millions of others? According to the art critic and film-maker Hito Steyerl, the link between political and cultural representation, never straightforward, has become profoundly unstable in the image-saturated neoliberal era; we live in ‘an age of unrepresentable people and an overpopulation of images’, in which ‘a growing number of unmoored and floating images corresponds to a growing number of disenfranchised, invisible or even disappeared or missing people’.
The observation is characteristic of Steyerl’s critical writings, which address the politics of the image from a variety of acute angles. Born in Munich in 1966 to a Japanese–German couple, Steyerl grew up in Bavaria and trained initially as a filmmaker. In the late 1980s she went to study cinematography at the Japanese Academy of Visual Arts, where she was taught by two of the country’s leading directors in Imamura Shohei and Hara Kazuo. In the 1990s she worked on features—she was for a time assistant director to Wim Wenders—and then, back in film school at Munich’s hff, made several documentaries. Her 1998 film Die leere Mitte (The Empty Centre) is a multi-layered historical exploration of the changing physiognomy of Berlin, focusing on Potsdamer Platz’s transformations from symbolic heart of the Second and Third Reichs to Cold War no-man’s land to gleaming corporate enclave; Steyerl also weaves into the film reflections on Germany’s colonial past and the tensions traversing its present, notably those between organized labour and migrant workers. The films she has made since the turn of the century are perhaps best known from art-world contexts: works such as November (2004), Lovely Andrea (2007) and After the Crash (2009) have notably featured in the biennials and festivals that constitute the globalized art circuit—Manifesta, Documenta, Shanghai, Gwangju, and so on. At the same time, Steyerl has combined her documentary practice with critical writing, scholarship and teaching: in 2003 she completed a doctorate on relations between documentary film and art, subsequently published as Die Farbe der Wahrheit (The Colour of Truth, 2008), and is currently based at Berlin’s Universität der Künste.
The Wretched of the Screen comprises eleven essays, the bulk of them published between 2009 and 2012 in the New York-based art monthly e-flux journal, though many originated as lectures given in English in one or other art venue. In several cases they are companion-pieces to Steyerl’s films. It is interesting to speculate on the points of overlap between her work in the different media: both essays and films share, for example, a use of montage techniques—conceptual leaps, jump cuts—though arguments and formulations are of necessity made more concrete in the prose. Her writing style is at once free-ranging and lapidary, combining an engaging humour—one piece not included in the collection is titled ‘Can the Subaltern Speak German?’—with thought-provoking metaphors and logical turns. Her modus operandi often involves taking a deadpan, seemingly literal-minded stance on a given concept or question in order to shed light on its contradictions, before then making an unexpected dialectical reversal. The presiding theoretical spirits in the book are Adorno, Benjamin and Kracauer, though references are more often drawn eclectically from film, art and popular culture—J. M. W. Turner, David Bowie, Jean-Luc Godard, among many others. The main focus of discussion is always resolutely contemporary, however: Steyerl is interested above all in exploring the combined impacts of digital technologies and intensifying ‘class war from above’ on a number of realms, from cinema and the museum to ideas of representation, from the circulation of images to questions of subjectivity and political agency.
The opening essay, ‘In Free Fall’, explores the implications of an apparent shift in visual perspective, from the linear to the vertical view. Steyerl moves from the development of vanishing points in Renaissance painting to their destabilization in the 19th century; the swirling chaos of Turner’s Slave Ship represents the beginnings of a process that was then radicalized in the 20th century by developments in cinema, modernist painting and science, as montage, cubism and relativity helped to further dismantle linear perspective. The advent of flight had meanwhile produced the aerial view, which has proliferated since the arrival of satellites and digital imaging; in the panoptic present of Google Earth and the like, we inhabit a ‘visual culture saturated by military and entertainment images’ views from above’. Where linear perspective posited both a stable horizon and a viewing subject located within the landscape, the birds’-eye view establishes ‘an imaginary floating observer and an imaginary stable ground’. Thus, according to Steyerl, ‘the former distinction between object and subject is exacerbated and turned into the one-way gaze of superiors onto inferiors’—which she describes as a ‘perfect metonymy for a more general verticalization of class relations’. This vertiginous shift coincides with a condition of disorientation, of groundlessness. But at this point Steyerl argues that what needs to be overcome is the notion that a stable ground is necessary in the first place; following Adorno’s lead in Negative Dialectics—‘cognition that is to bear fruit will throw itself to the objects à fond perdu’—she holds that groundlessness should be seen not as dislocation but as free fall, a condition of indeterminacy and openness to be embraced. In the realm of cultural production, the possibilities created by the new technologies that have been integral to the verticalized visual regime—the multiple perspectives of 3-D animation or multi-channel installations, the twisting of cinematic space and time made possible by digital montage—suggest that ‘what seemed like a helpless tumble into an abyss actually turns out to be a representational freedom.’
Although Steyerl’s arguments in some cases unfold at a relatively abstract level, several of the essays address more directly the character of the art world itself, and its role in beautifying neoliberal capitalism. ‘Contemporary art feeds on the crumbs of a massive and widespread redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich’, Steyerl writes, adding that ‘it lends primordial accumulation a whiff of post-conceptual razzmatazz’. Art also mirrors the forms of present-day capitalism itself: on the one hand the figure of the artist offers a flattering model for autocrats and financier-patrons—‘unpredictable, unaccountable, brilliant, mercurial’—while on the other, the production of art depends on increasing amounts of precarious labour. In Steyerl’s view, unpaid interns and part-timers form a ‘reserve army of imagination’ that makes the mega-shows and Guggenheims of the world’s oligarchies possible. Exploitation within the art world tends to remain invisible in the art that is produced, however; even in ‘political art’, Steyerl observes, politics is ‘always happening elsewhere’.