In “an age of crowd creativity…,” Hito Steyerl writes in Duty Free Art, “almost everyone is an artist.” Neoliberalism’s shotgun wedding of art and labor has undoubtedly birthed artists of all stripes—graphic artists, performing artists, makeup artists, body artists, burrito artists, bullshit artists, and scores more contemporary artists than a scarcity-principled market can accommodate. But are there any artists as contemporary as Hito Steyerl?
Duty Free Art
The Berlin-based artist’s essayistic films and filmic essays are fairy tales and horror stories for an age of shrinking screens and diminished confidences. They teem with bunker palaces and digital bantustans; big data wizardry and zombie internets; speculative bubbles and spectacular war. In a weathervane of current cultural sensibilities, Steyerl topped ArtReview’s 2017 Power 100 ranking, a position usually held by megadealers and star curators. The magazine praised her “restless, fast-moving speculations on digital culture” in writings that often begin as lecture-performances as “go-to texts for a generation for which the lure of art and networked culture have lost their utopian promise.”
Duty Free Art gathers fifteen of these essays on themes familiar to the contemporary art world, especially to readers of e-flux where many of these texts first ran: the hyper-circulation of digital images; art’s clientelist relationship to corporations, kleptocrats, and miscellaneous shitty rich people; accelerating inequality handmaidened by precarious employment, debt bondage, and uncompensated labor; the tribalization of truth and the shaky evidentiary status of documents and images; the sovereignty of surveillance and the datafication of everything; yoked Neoliberalism and Neofascism bringing uneven development, permanent war, lethal weather, and waves of refugees. Coated in pop-apocalyptic vim and venom, these phenomena flow across the book’s chapters, condensing in a thick catastrophic fuzz.
The art world, Steyerl acknowledges, is “just a blip” in all of this: a “hash for all that’s opaque, unintelligible, and unfair, for top-down class war and all-out inequality,” taped together by “gossip, criticism, hearsay, haggling, heckling, peer reviews, small talk, and shade.” And any artist or writer (in this case, both) with a profile as elevated as Steyerl’s will inevitably catch a bit of the latter. “Steyerl definitely has her finger on the pulse of what artists like her already think,” writes the contrarian British critic J.J. Charlesworth (in ArtReview, no less). “Behind her manic engagement with the rabbit holes of contemporary technopolitical paranoia that so fixate the liberal-left is an abject lack of a bigger idea of what the future could be, or any confidence that humans would even be capable of making it happen.”
Is this critique valid? Confidence in the future is hardly a go-to attitude for any cultural critic writing in a present where all manner of digital pleasure bubbles float alongside imminent global danger. Still, one concedes that the political solutions scattered throughout Duty Free Art—sometimes common-sense moral imperatives (resist fascism, don’t collaborate with big banks or artwashing schemes), sometimes necessary but insufficient art world reforms (artist fees, paid internships)—are tepid and local in scale and imagination when measured against the world-historical crises elaborated throughout the book. Walter Benjamin famously described Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus as the angel of history. Ferried into the future by the storm of progress, he looks back at the wreckage of history in its wake. Klee’s angel, Steyerl notices, is looking at us. We are rubble.
In the book’s titular essay, Steyerl identifies freeport (that is, duty-free) art storage facilities as the shadowy antipode of international biennials and Starchitect-designed museums. Geneva Freeport, with its rumored thousands of Picassos, is currently “one of the most important art spaces in the world,” although its contents are no longer objects to be seen by the public, but ciphers for untold amounts of hoarded wealth, hidden in the quasi-extralegal cracks of withdrawing states. Meanwhile, museums on Turkey’s Syrian border become emergency refugee camps. The Amara Cultural Centre in Suruç is bombed in a 2015 ISIS attack that kills more than 30 activists. And then, in a malign, delirious feedback loop, artifacts from Palmyra surface in Geneva Freeport.
Such is the diagnosis. But what is to be done? Do we storm the Geneva Freeport, as revolutionaries did the Louvre in 1792, transforming a collection of princely spoils into the world’s first public art museum? Maybe. But paradoxically—or dialectically if you prefer—Steyerl wants to push the idea of duty free art “even further,” recuperating the antithesis of cultural commonwealth at a higher, utopian level. “Even the duty free art in the freeport storage spaces is not duty free,” she writes, “It has the duty of being an asset.” The new, radicalized duty-free art “ought to have no duty—no duty to perform, to represent, to teach, to embody value.”
Nevertheless, it may play some constructive, if under-articulated role, in the processes of “modest networked devolution” and “cooperative autonomy” necessary for planetary survival. Steyerl hears “languages from a world to come” in the “digital post-English[es]” of international email scammers and thirsty art students. She sees the germ of postcapitalism in the internet’s networked infrastructure. “If data moves across screens, so can its material incarnations move across shop windows and other enclosures. If copyright can be dodged and called into question,” she asks, “why can’t private property?” But even as Steyerl gestures toward a left technophilic program, she cautions against expecting technology to bring progressive transformation on its own. “The internet,” Steyerl notes, “spawned Uber and Amazon, not the Paris Commune.”
So, how will the network be rewired, the column toppled, the Freeport stormed, the means of production seized, or whatever term of revolution one prefers? Like Charlesworth (though his dismissal of Steyerl seems more like reflexive icon-toppling than a principled stand), those looking for a philosophy of history in Duty Free Art will come up short. Instead of historical revolution, Steyerl offers a speculative kind of magical thinking. What if the elegant algorithms and metrics that quantify and often destroy human life were put in a museum? Quarantined inside the autonomous realm of art? Or what if all the images in our phones and monitors spontaneously crystallized, “breaking all screens open from within” in an “uprising of images against an architecture of representation”?
This final fantasy (or is it a nightmare?) of total materiality is the coda of Duty Free Art’s last chapter—a weird and beautiful new essay titled “Ripping Reality: Blind Spots and Wrecked Data in 3D.” The essay, which segues between 3D printing technologies, the Bosnian War, and issues of indexicality and representation, concerns one of Steyerl’s recurrent fascinations—the traffic of images across various media substrates. It also offers insight into the shape of this artist-theorist’s polymorphous intellectual project.
Midway through, Steyerl pauses on Hans Holbein’s 1553 painting The Ambassadors, and the mystery of its strange anamorphic skull. Conventionally interpreted as a memento mori and famously theorized by Lacan as a “stain” marking the eruption of “the gaze,” the skull, for Steyerl, “reminds us that the image itself has a body,” laying bare “the lines of flight, compression, and distortion that make up the construction of paintings in linear perspective.” “Almost five hundred years after it was made,” she writes, “the skull seems to tell us that there is nothing but surfaces indiscriminately wrapping subjects and objects alike, and that all these surfaces are missing some or another part of the information.”
In this essay, Steyerl emerges as a critic in the tradition of Georg Simmel and Sigfried Kracauer, thinkers whom she credits with analyzing the surfaces of modernity not as superficial epiphenomena or “mere appearances” but as its condensation and substance. “The surface,” she writes, “is no longer a stage or backdrop on which subjects and objects are positioned. Rather, it folds in subjects, objects, and vectors of motion, affect, and action, thus removing the artificial epistemological separation between them.” Could Steyerl be criticized for a certain impressionism of thought, an over-totalization of surfaces that—in a symbolic negation of the surveillance state’s weaponized panopticism or fascism 2.0’s kitsch essentialism—reproduces the confusion of figure and ground, “signal and noise” (in the artist’s terms), that makes the contemporary moment so glittering with images, yet so difficult to see? Perhaps. But, in the absence of linear perspective, fractured and multiform shapes come into view. We begin to see the rubble on which we might imagine building a future, even if it is one whose blueprint we don’t yet have.