Dancing in the Face of Danger – Hito Steyerl in Conversation with Patricia Reed


C Magazine v.117, March 2013

Contesting the modern obsession of decontaminating a reality of “mere” appearances to uncover authentic truths, the work of artist and writer Hito Steyerl delivers us into worlds where the offspring of fiction and fact plot out staccato-like narratives. Her practice redirects the essayistic documentary genre in our age of global mediatization – setting images, ideas, places and figures into alter-orbits of movement and intersection with one another. With attentiveness to the apparatuses that buttress our contemporary networked lives, her work is propelled by the interplay between the material and the immaterial and, more importantly, by the affective potentiality that emerges in their crossing. Mingling elements as diverse as the plight of the intern, an airplane junkyard in the Californian desert, Susan Boyle’s audition, a bondage photo search in Tokyo, the grey of Adorno’s lecture room, the JPEG algorithm and a homemade teenage kung-fu film, to name only a few, her work embodies the spirit of a specialist generalist, where no subject or source is superior to anything else, for it is in their complex imbroglio that all of these forces compose the logic (or illogic) of reality itself.

Patricia Reed (PR): I’d like to begin with the force of cross-pollination in your work. For me, this conjures up notions of the middle – the middle as a site where things meet. I recall reading an elaborate idea of the middle from Brian Massumi who noted that the “middle” (“milieu” in French) has a triple signification: surroundings, medium (like a chemical substance) and being in the midst.[1] The middle is a messy, entangled space of intersection, substance of conjunction, coupled with the concatenating power of the “and.” This complicated middle seems to me, the best place to start a discussion concerning the ethos underpinning your practice, as your works, texts and lectures present us with a rewoven tapestry of reality resulting from the crossing of seemingly distant or unrelated figures/things – you create spaces where they meet.

Hito Steyerl (HS): Yes. I try.

But also one of my earlier films was called The Empty Centre (1998) and I think this expresses my reservations towards anything called “middle.” It deals with the reinvestment of the Berlin city centre, its reconstruction as junk space and creation of an ideology of the “new middle,” which essentially celebrated the original accumulation that took place during that time all over the former East. The ideology of the “new middle” with its pompous celebration of democracy, free market, end of history, etc. was the Muzak soundtrack to the transition into post-democracy with ethnicized warfare, privatization, racketeering and assorted art market bubbles.

PR: We should be careful not to blindly celebrate the idea of the middle. Just as it can be space where colliding ideas, objects/images and places meet to set off other conceptual courses beyond didactic causality, so too can it be a disorienting condition. Horizon lines, metaphorically speaking, are hard to sense in the midst of action. Your book Die Farbe der Wahrheit (2008) [2] (“The Colour of Truth”) opens with the anecdote of the CNN reporter using a mobile phone to transmit live low-res images of the start of the 2003 Iraq invasion. The reporter whips around in an armoured vehicle broadcasting shaky, non-identifiable blotches of dancing colour. The images represent nothing discernible, but they nonetheless work in an authentic way because of their embedded proximity – where the closer we get to reality, the more undefined it becomes. You call this the foggy-relation of modern documentary. These images impact us in an absolutely truthful way, insofar as they speak to our uncertain, precarious reality that defies any clear-cut mode of representation. This depicting of “truth,” however – the once assumed critical capacity of the documentary genre – serves merely to mirror and feedback into our pre-existing images of reality plagued by anxious indeterminacy. Your notion of critical documentary on the other hand, seeks the displacement of image-mirrors, calling for the fabrication of other affective constellations that do not yet exist. We are faced with a crucial distinction here concerning critique worth highlighting: a critique that does not stop at exposure, but that creates other perceptual conditions through which coming-realities may find a space to circulate.

If we would compare your work as an artist/essayist with that of the CNN reporter, you both start from this precarious, disorienting middle. I suggest this because your work acknowledges the necessity of grasping one’s own position in the midst of a situation. The CNN reporter proceeds to transmit an uncertain foggy reality as it is up close, whereas your practice deploys this proximity to tap into the semantic latency of real situations, images and concepts – the virtual – and works though a series of interconnections to plot out potential narrative structures to produce a type of connective-disjunction. This connective-disjunction is where we see the potency of the “and” in your work: that while the “and” introduces an encounter between divergent or distant things/ideas, it also dislocates, producing detours in common-sense reality in which we are all embedded.

I’m not sure where you stand on this interpretation, but there are also two other points I am curious to hear your thoughts on. The first concerns your take on critique from the middle so to speak, a mode of critique that no longer subscribes to the possibility of achieving “distance.” Can you elaborate on the relationships between connectivity, critique and virtuality at play across the spectrum of your practice? The second point extrapolates upon the dislocation of reality, where your works often travel from a particular thing/person/situation to the general – or in some cases, to the global – in a movement of reverse site-specificity. How does your process of dislocating particularities work in the context of this other mode of criticality, what I would call “affirmative” since it is tasked to create and not merely to expose?

HS: A quote by Henry Miller comes to mind: “For the most part, truth lies on the edge not in the middle.” The middle is a space of consensus and common sense, both of which are about bargaining, not fact-finding. The notion of medium is of course different. I don’t think it is in the middle. Usually it is hors champ, if anything like this exists nowadays. In any case, it is at the edges of perception, sometimes within, sometimes beyond. The rim of your 3D glasses, if you will, as long as they will still be around. Or maybe the polarized filter of the glasses themselves. You’ll see everything as taking place within these glasses, distracting from the hardware all around. It’s right there sitting on your nose, filtering, polarizing and animating. But on the other hand, it looks perfectly transparent and coherent. This is where truth resides: as a medium on the edge, embodied by two polarized filters. And more precisely in its bruises and glitches; its inconsistencies, even incompatibilities.

But of course we are not talking of any single such medium now, but about the transitions between a multiplicity of media, platforms and carriers. Any of these can swiftly morph into a different constellation. So now its not only about how you see (within) a certain medium, but also in-between and across them and most importantly also about how they see you. For example think back to your Google. And then, don’t try to think how you see through your Google, but how your Google sees you! Or your Facebook! These polarized filters are projecting you as a 3D animation stitched together by affect, attention and involuntary productivity while simultaneously rendering and capturing you as a transparent and predictable algorithm.  The interesting point of such devices is their data-mining, profiling and algorithmic and consensus-based rendition of reality. And in the fluid media space that many of us are embedded into, switching from 3D rendition to online profiling, images and sounds morph across different bodies and carriers, acquiring more and more glitches and bruises on the way. This is perhaps an important point to make: a medium – or more precisely the all-out, mediatized post-Internet condition – is not a 2D interface – but more an environment, a 3D and 4D space into which previous media as well as people, structures and things are embedded. Space is a medium, or the most important medium, today. It is a form of life.

But the idea of truth is still very much there: even if everything is in flux. I strongly oppose all resonances of relativism, which may seem attached to an ungrounded practice. Truth is not abandoned or randomly multiplied within this situation. On the contrary: this unstable situation is an undeniable, non-negotiable truth – as are the glitches and bruises left by frequent transitions in between media.

PR: What I was getting at with the “middle” has little to do with a centrist political position, a position negotiating consensus, but with a space of confrontation between divergent things and narrative trajectories, like those staged in your practice – a space where common sense is “bruised” because of conceptual collisions. I like your word “bruised” since it is evocative of an ideological injury, not to mention that bruising is the result of ruptures below the surface leaving visible traces. Bruises can be seen, and definitely felt.

I’m fascinated about your emphasis on the “medium”; it is a thing, a substance as well as a figure (sometimes even a mystic) who can interpret and translate signals. There is an eloquent passage from your book (DFDW) where you talk about the “language of things” producing a silent symphony of matter – an energetic vibrancy. Things – and thingliness ­­– seem to be taking on a more prominent role in discourse of late.[3] How do things and images speak in your practice?

HS: If they do, I don’t have to ventriloquize for them. I am confident for them to do it on their own terms, though I am sure they will blurt out something quite unexpected and potentially embarrassing…

PR: I agree. I suppose what I was getting at has to do precisely with those terms of speaking. Without turning things or images into mere puppets to channel another “master” voice, they still require a degree of dramaturgy or staging in order to tell us something, to enter the realm of communicability. Perhaps a better question concerns the coexistence of things/images and theatricality. To my mind, this dramatization has less to do with representation and more to do with the creation of possible worlds to and through which that “thing” contributes.

HS: Of course humans try hard to speak on behalf of things and translate them into human rationales and languages. But things are doing their own thing. Whether it’s financial algorithms creating autonomous feedback loops and strange crop circle patterns or waves engulfing coastlines. It’s where they exceed being bent back into TV soap and CSI drama patterns that they become interesting. But if the murmur of things is being bent back into the same old courtroom drama scenario, it becomes formally stale and uninteresting.

PR: The dramaturgy of things exceeding predictable narrative patterns or limits, like the “medium at the edge,” calls to mind Walter Benjamin’s seminal text “The Author as Producer” (1934), wherein he calls upon artists to not merely mimic the historical apparatuses of production of their time, but to transform them by way of technique, or technology, in a process of re-engineering. This thesis comes about not from asking how works stand in relation to contemporary production procedures, but how they stand in them[4] – casting a distinction between being an activist only in attitude (content), and not in production (form). In my view, your practice speaks to Benjamin’s call, and extends it to the sphere of truth production at large in our post-Fordist era, characterized less by the production of goods (at least not in so-called advanced economies) and more by the production of environments (milieus), lifestyles and images impressed upon living itself. For example, in your critique of the foggy-modern documentary, the truthfulness of the image does not arrive via its contents or research, but through its expressive capacity to project an aura of authenticity, trading off representation for expressiveness. Caught up in the transmission of authenticity are not only relations of knowledge and power but also something more elusive: the phantasmatic supports that function to legitimize a certain apprehension of truth. For me, your practice seizes on the potential inherent to the gap between phantasy and legitimacy, on how the transposition of these myths upon reality can be articulated otherwise and unleashed beyond the limits of common sense. Driven by the interplay between facts and belief (“factishes”[5]), the re-engineering of this transposition, as you also point out, is not distinctly immaterial or semiotic, but is also composed of substances and material interaction. How does the ‘medium at the edge’ resonate with a transformative technique in the creation of other affective configurations?

HS: It is difficult to imagine how – in the absence of complete self-sufficiency – one could stand outside contemporary modes of production even if, as now, these procedures are neither productive nor in any way sustainable.  In Spain, and many other places, people continue going to work for months on end without getting paid. Perhaps this is one indicator of how contemporary modes of production, manifest today as internship and self-exploitation, continue expanding. In one of the texts I am working on right now, I am thinking through the idea of walking through screens – images walking into reality and taking on different material supports but also irrevocably changing by being expanded, compressed, inflated, incarnated and going bust again.  In fact, perhaps a similar idea applies to modes of production: people constantly shift gears negotiating different networks of being milked for value, energy, all sorts of capital and attention. In addition to the “second shift” that Arlie Hochschild described for affective and domestic labour, people are taking third, fourth, fifth shifts, with service labour, unpaid labour, care labour, infrastructural labour, senseless schlepping, waiting around, attention labour, hauling water and commuting, posting a few pictures to your status, firing a few rounds at an invisible target, and so on and so on, but all these shifts are mashed up like a train wreck. So maybe as people walk in and out of mediums, so are they perhaps transferred through several layers of modes of production a day. Even though I wonder if “production” as a word still has the same meaning as it used to. Probably not. I have an idea what a product of labour could have been, but what is the result of occupation? How do we stand in relations of occupation? Are we standing at all or lying down, exhausted, trying to duck for cover and become invisible?

PR: If life itself has become “occupied” – where leisure time and labour time collapse into one another – have we not overcome a certain alienation that was at the crux of practices ranging from the Situationists to Relational Aesthetics – and surprisingly, is still perpetuating)? Is alienation no longer something to fight, but in fact something we may need to fabricate in order to liberate life from occupation?

HS: Do you know that all water on earth is of extraterrestrial origin? It came from all over the universe, drop by drop piggybacked on meteorites, to slowly converge and form our oceans. The matrix of all life is extraterrestrial. In the social and political sphere, the name of this ocean is alienation. And so many different, violent and wildly interesting things are taking place in there! As Brian Kuan Wood has repeatedly remarked, this is the sphere of liquidity, financial algorithms, but also of looming rainstorms and instable climates. It is the sphere of complexity gone haywire and spinning, strange feedback loops. A sphere partly created by humans but not controlled by them, indifferent to anything but movement, energy, rhythm, and complexity. It is the space of the rōnin of old, the masterless samurai freelancers who were fittingly called the wave men because they were socially adrift, floaters in a floating world of images, interns in dark net soaplands that could seemlessly morph into the canal where Rosa Luxemburg´s corpse was dropped. We thought it was a plumbing system, so how did this tsunami creep up in my sink? How is this algorithm drying up my rice paddy? And the menacing cloud that hovers in the distance, how many workers are desperately clambering on right now, trying to squeeze a living, groping through a fog which may at any second transform into an immersive art installation?


PR: The transformative capacity of artistic labour has historically been considered as something “other,” caught up in exceptional discourses of the genius and standing outside of standard conditions of production. In our era, however, artistic labour has become a paradigm of the ideal working subject: creative, flexible, communicative, self-designed and in many cases, perpetually in audition mode for possible wages – or simply visibility. The labour of artists today is no longer de facto exceptional; its performative ethos has permeated the everyday life of non-artists, perversely fulfilling the avant-garde dream of a merging of art and life.

You have written extensively on the predicament of cultural labourers, in particular tracing the transformation of the word “work” into “occupation.” I believe you even tracked this down to some European Union level where the term has been changed in legal documents concerning labour practices. With “work,” we had a means-to-an-end equation, the exchange of labour for a product or wage, whereas “occupation” signals an era of labour characterized by endless processes unbound to results – a shift from an economy of production to an economy of waste. “Occupation,” as you write, presents us with a rather amorphous topology – signifying idle activity, consumption, and distraction – but also it connotes the military colonization of sovereign autonomy. So the implications of an occupational shift seems rather bleak to say the least. Yet, as is so often the case in your practice, you turn this dismal analysis on its head: where occupational techniques could be deployed as a form of resisting forces of occupation, in a kind of tactical Jujutsu. You cite the territory of this resistant occupation as a space of affect. Can you elaborate on the reverse potentiality of “affective” occupation? If the labour procedures of the art world are complicit, even exemplary, in the shift from work to occupation, how can our own, arguably self-willed (or narcissistic) labour conditions be contested?

HS: It was actually the Carrot Workers’ Collective [6] who tracked down the usage of the word occupation instead of the word “labour” in EU language. And also it was the countless occupations of recent years that created laboratories for other types of affective and social relations. So I guess it will be those experiences that will create different conditions and perhaps much slower than we’d like to admit. But after the paralysis of recent decades that kept issues apart and people divided, new realities are now being created all over the place – for better or for worse. In many cases also for worse. There is no point glorifying recent movements but there is no denying either that they already have created invaluable experiences for new generations. The same goes, unfortunately, for worsening economic conditions and increasing violence in many places. They too create a more intense set of conditions, which will no doubt also register in artistic labour conditions. We have already seen how the 1% and debt economy has impinged on these conditions. Getting into debt bondage is now almost a necessary precondition to enter artistic professions. And many people are doing this with the Ponzi scheme hope that they will be the lucky ones who strike it rich. But this also contributes to the formation of a new social group. We live in the world of mass art production in which almost every human being is expected to have an art project (and almost everybody has an art project too). There are probably now more people than ever before that work in the field of art. And [there is] a growing number who realize that this is a social group that has never existed before that can potentially wield social power in unexpected and ambivalent ways. This double process of becoming aware and acting at the same time is taking place now in many different places and the art field is just one minor and quite unimportant example. The field of social experimentation is where new possibilities might emerge – definitely not in anybody’s writing or mind – but who knows. It’s like trying to walk a tightrope, but suddenly it starts tying you down or gets bored and abandons you flat. The rules are changing all the time. This is all we know.

PR: Implication, whether subjectively willed or simply an unavoidable condition of living in a world seems to be a key force in your work; you are also often literally “implicated” in your films. The state of being “implicated” carries a double sense that is both one of overwhelming envelopment captured in a network of global socio-economic circulation, yet also a potent state of being that, from the inside, can re-inscribe the world in other narrative realities – as minor or humble as this may be stemming from the art field. So through all the doubts, diagnoses and grey zones, this state of being implicated conjures, other mythic, or better “factish” constellations are always possible. To me, this doubly articulated “implication” in your work signals a battle against cynicism. It’s a cynicism that generates a rampant state of disavowal where we “all know better, but…” – not only in the art world, but as a general condition of contemporary being.

HS: Who has time for cynicism? If there is one role model in handling implication it is Jackie Chan. He tries to get from A to B, but suddenly there are all these villains in the way and also lots of wonderful objects that come to help and create fascinating choreographies of militant matter temporarily defying gravity! At moments it’s all flying in his face but look at how he suddenly realigns the whole mess into a landfill art piece. So, let me suggest, to turn the cynical dictum around: It’s not we “all know better, but…”; instead, it’s we “all know nothing, this is exactly why…!”

PR: Nice example! So, provided one can handle surprise encounters and objects, the state of being implicated is a form of agency. I think the optimism at the heart of this example is quite important actually, since it transforms the nature of implication from one of condemnation or complicity, to one of involvement or situational presence. I’m still not quite sure, though, that I understand your reversal of the cynical dictum.

HS: We all know nothing and this is exactly why we’ve got to keep fighting. Just like Jackie. Fighting is not “knowing,” or, to use an even worse cliché, “knowledge production.” It is an experimental way of engaging with the world and its forces – an extremely sophisticated art in its own right. Dancing in the face of danger. Its precondition is that we don’t understand exactly how we got there, and can’t take anything for granted. And, for sure, we cannot assume any position of detachment because we’re in the thick of it and things come flying. It could be a Hellfire missile or panties thrown onstage, but we have no clue. But by dealing with objects, we become objective. We are being aligned to the force of things. And this fight is not about winning or destroying. It is about reshuffling, unsettling, recomposing, even surrendering to something different. It is a form of love.


Hito Steyerl is a filmmaker and writer who lives in Berlin.

Patricia Reed is an artist and writer whose work concerns the contingency of cohabitation.

[1] Brian Massumi, “Notes on the Translation and Acknowledgements,” A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, trans. Brian Massumi, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), xvi–xix.

[2] Hito Steyerl, Die Farbe der Wahrheit: Dokumentarism im Kunstfeld, (Wien: Verlag Turia + Kant, 2008)

[3] Within the field of philosophy, the emergence of “Object Oriented Philosophy,” or “Speculative Realism”; in art/architecture, Forensic Aesthetics and the travelling exhibition Animism, curated by Anselm Franke, come immediately to mind as examples from over the last three years[HG7] .

[4] Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer,” trans. John Heckman, New Left Review I/62, July–August 1970.

[5] Bruno Latour, On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods, trans. Heather MacLean and Cathy Porter, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009)

[6] http://carrotworkers.wordpress.com/

Hito Steyerl interviewed by Patricia Reed, "Dancing in the Face of Danger", C Magazine v.117, March 2013: 32-35.