An Interview With Hito Steyerl
The Harvard Advocate Staff
Hito Steyerl is a visual artist, a filmmaker, and a writer. Her work across media is known for “twisting the politics of representation around the representation of politics” and shaking up our default orientation towards screens, media, vision, and technology. She has defended the poor image, mobilized morphsuited and pixel-headed figures in a comedic critique of digital visibility, and created a world in which workers are forced to dance in order to produce artificial sunshine. She lives in Berlin and is a professor of experimental film and video at Universität der Künste. Advocate President and staff writer Lily Scherlis spoke with Steyerl over the phone in December 2017.
You treat images as things themselves, rather than as images of something. You’ve said that “contemporary visual artifacts project instead of representing,” and I know that Vilém Flusser has influenced your notion of projection. I’m a big fan of Into the Universe of Technical Images, in which he writes that the “image is directed toward a person. It presses in on him and finds him in even the most secret reaches of his private space.” This valence of exposure, of being vulnerable to images that Flusser connotes seems entangled in your notion of visibility. How do you relate the processes of being imaged, of being visible, to receiving an image, to seeing the visible? Can we distinguish between the two?
Between being an image and receiving an image? Bergson found a way of relating the two by inventing a world in which everything is an image basically but also a sensible image. Image that basically has some faculties of perception as well, so in that sense there is no difference between being an image and being able to sense or receive other images. He basically reformulated ideas by Leibniz, who had similar ideas in his monadology, whereby he said that basically everything in the world is a monad and some are lower resolu-tion than others, so they have less faculties of perception. Only one, namely God, the most highly resolved monad, is able to see everything.
So are we images with faculties for perception?
No, we are more complex than that, but interestingly I think that technology is headed in the direction of creating more and more sensitive assemblages ranked according to their faculties of perception. There are very stupid devices and much smarter ones, if you will.
There is a moment from your essay “Medya: Autonomy of Images” in Laura Poitras’ exhibition catalogue Astro Noise that haunts me. You write: “Machines show one another unintelligible images, or, more gen-erally, sets of data that cannot be perceived by human vision”—about how machines may cut us out of their chains of communication entirely, or ventriloquize us to create an illegible reality in the likeness of their images. You describe the reality they might ultimate-ly create as one in which, in your words, “you cannot understand your own eyes.” I’m curious about this last line.
This is partly a reality already. You somehow find yourself exposed to a reality which is bewildering and irrational and not very obvious. In that sense I think it’s partly realized already. The world sometimes looks like a totally disjointed and incongrouous Twitter feed of a person with severe mental issues. Guess why.
Aren’t computerized voices something of an inver-sion of the phenomenon of machines ventriloquizing us (here through our eyes) to talk amongst themselves. I think about the narrators in How Not To Be Seen... they are computer voices, right?
These voices I use definitely are computer voices. I have somehow stopped using them now. I never asked myself why. Maybe because it’s become a template which has been used a lot, but I think also because this communication amongst machines is now happening on a level which is not available to the senses anymore at all. It is even not translated into words anymore.
Did it used to be translated into words?
Well I think you know the let’s say... no. Definitely not. But it was represented to us as using words. But I think there has been experiments in which machines invented their own language to talk to one another which basically don’t make any sense to humans but still use human words but then you can easily imagine that human words are completely superfluous to that process.
This is what it sounds like:
Bob: I can i i everything else
Alice: balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to
Bob: you i everything else
Alice: balls have a ball to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to meca
We’re just intervening in their own networks.
What happens once machines are no longer repre-senting themselves to us?
I don’t know but I think machines will also use some kind of representation to talk to one another, so in that sense it won’t disappear. The question is: what does it mean then? What kind of function does it have?
You’ve previously questioned the applicability of the analyzing images as representations. What even is representation these days?
I am not opposed to representation. There will always be representation. Representation is a process of alienation which is necessary for people to communicate. I love it. But there is no political automatism or social justice associated with cultural representation. There is no political effect tied to it necessarily.
Whether certain things or people are represented in the sphere of culture or not is not inextricably tied to any sort of political change. It can be reconfigured in completely other or different ways.
What are some of those other different ways?
I think we are or have seen one of them, which is a multitude or avalanche of images of mostly everything existing without any political or economical consequence whatsoever.
Flusser writes: “Technical images do isolate those who receive them in corners, but they isolate those who flee from them even further.” You’ve written ex-tensively about potential refuges from visibility, from exposure, about hiding in low resolution zones and under sheets of plastic in the drone shadow. Do you distinguish between fleeing and hiding? Moreover, where are our refuges now, now that poor images are basically defunct?
I mean most people choose to engage, choose to be involuntarily represented to platforms every day. They could also choose not to. No one forces people to use smartphones day in day out. But to go completely un-represented.. that’s much more complicated. It’s prob-ably not... it’s very difficult, let’s put it like this. Many people don’t have a choice so they need to inhabit this zone. Those who do not want to be seen because for them visibility is dangerous. On the other hand invisi-bility is also a privilege for elites.
What would be the consequences of choosing not to use a smartphone?
I think there would be a lot less data trail, on the one hand. On the other hand it might also have an effect on your brain. For example if people stop using Google Maps or routing applications their brain changes. Orientational parts are rewired. It’s not only on the level of representation that people would slightly change. Time and space would be perceived differently without a phone, or, using the Google maps example, they would not be perceived at all.
What about the video editing process? How do you think about the potential images or potential iterations of a work that never get rendered, potential iterations that exist as a possibility in AfterEffects but then never materialize? Where do they go? Is there a graveyard somewhere for hypothetical images?
Interesting. Yeah, probably there is. I’m just happy that I don’t have to deal with it!
Do you find the decision-making required stressful, or is it a fluid process for you?
No, no. It’s horrible. Getting rid of images is the most difficult thing. I once met an archivist at Frank-furt University. He told me: people are totally naïve, they think storage and preservation define an archive. But I have to tell you that its mainly about discarding stuff and getting rid of it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about a particular visual shorthand from your video How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File: the person with a pixel for a head. Do we relate, bodily, to the pixel in which we might hide? Are pixels appendages, digital phantom limbs? Can we crawl inside them?
A guy once wrote a text about this experiences pro-testing on Maidan in Kiev, Ukraine. I think the text was called my life as a pixel. He would talk about how he worked tirelessly as a pixel in the TV news. If he was a pixel it means there were many people. So there was something rewarding to it - keeping in mind of course that many people were shot by snipers on Maidan, so it was very dangerous too.
Do you think that pixels have insides to them? Do you think that images are spaces?
I think yes. I mean let’s say more in a mathematical sense. Not in the sense that every 2D image has a 3D component to it but of course they have mathematical spaces, color spaces, probability spaces.
What is a mathematical space?
In the sense that, let’s say, a picture has let’s say 12k pixels, so the mathematical space is the space that has all possible combinations of all these pixels to one an-other. Its all the potential images within this one.
So that would be the graveyard of hypothetical images?
Yes. A mass grave or a future potential, depending how you see it.
Others have often asked you how your reconcile your writing with your visual work. You’ve said how at this point writing and images are materially the same—1s and 0s—and trying to enforce the divide or difference between the two doesn’t really work anymore. Does that manifest in your process, in how you engage with each medium?
To some degree, yes. To some degree. Writing, if you want to see it from that angle, is the extremely simpli-fied process of arranging data—let’s put it like that. It´s like a plumber and a winemaker both deal with liquids in different ways, so also very different crafts.
Do you have advice for young artists and writers try-ing to figure out how to move through the world?
It’s difficult because for basically everything the past training set does not apply in the current situation. In that sense I don’t think there is any precedent so to speak, or it would be arrogant to assume that there is a training set for this situation. Honestly speaking, I think trying to disengage with the existing structures is under the current conditions not a bad idea.
What does disengagement look like?
Trying to regain control over basic social infrastructure. Water, energy, health/care, education, information. On a communal cooperative level. If I was 20 now I'd try to learn a profession which could be useful in that endeavour.
In a 2014 interview with Marvin Jordan, you dis-cussed how phone cameras create pictures using algo-rithms that speculate what is signal and what is noise based on past images—in other words, they disrupt the clear indexical link of representation to reality. This residue of the past in the present prescribes history as the future. You noted how Rancière concluded that, in the context of dividing political subjects from the unheard and unseen, there is no noise, only speech: what is noise to you? Where does it come from, and where—once resolved into an image or into a voice—does it go?
Noise is the things that are not yet known, meaning that it is the future.
Does it relate to the glitch?
Yes, but maybe the glitch is after the fact. The noise is the glitch before the image. The glitch necessitates something which is...already configured to some de-gree, right? It is some kind of artifact which is added after something is supposed to have been completed, like an image or a sound. The noise is before the image or sound is constituted. Before the signal is extracted, so to speak. It is when all possibilities are still open.