Do Images Still Help Us See?

Contrary to what its title might suggest, Hito Steyerl’s latest collection of essays does not explain how to avoid customs charges at dubious borders. Much more ...

Contrary to what its title might suggest, Hito Steyerl’s latest collection of essays does not explain how to avoid customs charges at dubious borders. Much more sweepingly, “duty-free art” is the allegory designated by a powerfully skeptical and sometimes dystopian critic for today’s global political economy. Steyerl has become highly influential in the parts of the art world least controlled by a private-sector market for collectable objects, where her ideas help advance progressive thought about visual culture.

To begin with, Steyerl widens our definition of art beyond the sacred objects that hang in museum galleries. Within “art” she includes all reproductions of pictures, in all electronic media, as well as the ways in which pictures have been fundamentally changed by being ubiquitously replicated and altered. As a German filmmaker and writer with Japanese roots who holds a PhD in philosophy and is currently a professor of New Media Art at the Universität der Künste Berlin, she is unusually well positioned to apprehend visual culture from a global and critical perspective. Alongside essays like the ones under review, she merges film and criticism in her most important videos, such as “November” (2004), “Lovely Andrea” (2007), and “How to Not Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File” (2013). Prior to this book, some of Steyerl’s most influential essays included “The Institution of Critique” (2006), “Is a Museum a Factory?” (2009), and “In Defense of the Poor Image” (2009). As these titles suggest, Steyerl’s thought has become increasingly engaged: its content more colloquial and its form more visible.

Though one might assume that art has been made more free by unlimited reproduction, as Steyerl ironically acknowledges by using the term “duty-free” in her book’s title, she concentrates instead on the new sorts of tolls and borders erected by neoliberal capitalism. Here Steyerl focuses particularly on extra-territorial tax havens called freeports, many of them in Switzerland, which work outside any national regulations. Although freeports originated as temporary, money-saving transshipment points, they have mutated into obscure perma-vaults from which the paintings and sculptures stored therein may never emerge. As such, the drive to avoid customs charges and taxes potentially negates the artwork’s presumably social function. Even the sale of an artwork may entail only moving it from one storage unit to another within the same building.

A freeport, at its most extreme, functions as a black hole that swallows the discourse and meanings ordinarily ascribed to artworks, leaving only their exchange value behind. As such, the essentially sensual, aesthetic form of artworks, not to mention the collective process of their reception, has given way to pure monetization. For Steyerl, the freeport’s mode of privilege stands for a new power of money to override not only the national laws that once controlled the movement of art, but also, more fundamentally, a public experience of real art objects, possibly even the concept of cultural heritage. In this way, it emblematizes new inequalities.

Is the duty-free artwork a product of free trade, or the opposite? And does the potential of freedom remain an explosive force?

“Planetary civil war,” in the second part of Steyerl’s title, designates the populist backlash that has rocked the establishment from the Middle East, Europe, and parts of Asia to North and South America. This is largely an uprising against the consolidation of wealth within the so-called one percent—a shift that began in the Reagan-Thatcher era and has continued to gain momentum ever since. The internet has accelerated all this. While promising—like all networks—to democratize access to goods, services, and above all information, it has instead yielded some of the most concentrated commercial powers in history, including Google, Microsoft, Apple, Intel, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and PayPal. Starting from this premise, Steyerl conducts a rigorous examination of the political, ethical, and aesthetic imperatives of information technology in our time.

The transformative power of media makes it political, and also raises the knotty question of autonomy. In Understanding Media (1964), Marshall McLuhan famously characterized media as extensions of “man.” Media can extend both the limbs of the body and the senses. McLuhan went on to argue that “the medium is the message”; that is, that the form of media is more significant than its content. Because media function as a crucial component of the systemic deployment and enforcement of money’s power throughout society, Steyerl refers to this ensemble of relations as an “apparatus” and analyzes it as a social force. Steyerl suggests that, since McLuhan’s heyday, artificial intelligence has proliferated cybernetic “extensions” of human intelligence, leaving behind “phantom trunks.” For this reason, the kinds of cybernetic media governed by artificial intelligence, that is, forms that exploit feedback from users (including the now-ubiquitous smartphone), have become powerful agents of change, if not exploitation.

Steyerl is keenly aware of this shift. As a form of automation, artificial intelligence doesn’t just serve to eliminate jobs; it also reorganizes perception and responses to stimuli, both seen and unseen. In “Medya: Autonomy of Images,” for instance, Steyerl details how machines use images “to trigger actions and to create reality.” The real effects on human beings of digitally created images, she argues, are all the more alarming because they are produced by programs whose information is traded, interpreted, and stored within machines. Some of these images, such as QR codes, can also program other machines. Yet, surprisingly, she looks for precedents for this phenomenon in analog art. A Mondrian painting, she suggests, “is perhaps an unconscious exercise for humans trying to learn how to see like a machine, for acquiring the posthuman vision that abounds today.” In this way, perhaps, Mondrian’s grids anticipate digital pixel rasters.


Digital Lies, Real Ghosts

By Rae Greiner

Steyerl is a nimble and engaging writer. Her prose style is deceptively direct. Consider how she opens the book’s 11th essay, “Is the Internet Dead?”: “Is the internet dead? This is not a metaphorical question … The question is very literally whether it is dead, how it died and whether anyone killed it.”

Behind these simple sentences, with their insistence that we ask ourselves what death is, lies a century and a half of intricate debate among intellectuals over what life means under capitalism. “Commodity fetishism,” a term dear to economists, political theorists, anthropologists, and psychologists alike, comes down to a fiction of life ascribed to inanimate objects. We all do it, by projecting magical agency onto things. Marx, famously, said it was the basis of all capitalist delusions. Steyerl asks us to confront how artificial images intensify these relations. What are the consequences, she asks, of us behaving as if we did not understand that the internet was never alive in any organic sense? If we realized that, we would never debate its death. Steyerl’s insistence that her question is not metaphorical asks readers to consider the political consequences of using the word “death,” no matter how metaphorically intended. Words matter, she reminds us.

One might easily miss how deftly Steyerl cobbles together personal narration, technical description, opaque computer codes, and poetic flights of fancy. In “Is the Internet Dead?,” she goes on to argue that in 1989, coinciding with the political upheavals in Eastern Europe, the function of images changed from subjective or objective renditions of a preexisting condition to “nodes of energy and matter that migrate across different supports, shaping and affecting people, landscapes, politics, and social systems.” As an example, she cites how that same year Romanian dissidents seized control of a television station to rally support for a revolution that eventually toppled the Ceaușescu regime. Here, the very image of revolutionaries broadcasting their message legitimized the revolution, even made it seem palpable. One might equally invoke the Watts riots—or the Watts Rebellion—of 1965. Instead of deterring looting and arson in South Central Los Angeles, live coverage shot from helicopters above spurred it on. Ironically, broadcasting the rioters’ actions bolstered them, because the rioters realized that this would make their protest better seen and heard. In such a scenario, did media simply represent actions—or did it cause these actions?

If Steyerl is an accelerationist, she is an ambivalent one, as the irony of her prose so clearly conveys.

In “Proxy Politics: Signal and Noise,” Steyerl considers the politics of representation, arguing that the image has become “less a representation than a proxy, a mercenary of appearance, a floating texture-surface-commodity.” The collapse of representation, of course, has potentially dire implications for democratic systems that claim to represent the body politic. We need look no further than the bots Cambridge Analytica and others planted on Facebook to skew the 2016 US presidential election to understand what Steyerl argues.

Steyerl’s doubts about conventional representation seemingly originate from personal experience as well. Her video “November” offers a poignant personal account of her friend Andrea Wolf. In the video, Wolf first appears, as a teenager, in footage from a feminist martial arts film the two made together; then, we see, in 1996 she joins the women’s army of the Worker’s Party of Kurdistan (PKK) under the name “Rohani,” only to be killed soon after by Turkish military forces. As a result, in a PKK demonstration in Berlin, marchers carry placards depicting Wolf as a Kurdish martyr. Later, a documentary of this event mistakes Steyerl for a Kurdish mourner.

This disparity between the identities projected onto us and who we think we are inspires Steyerl’s notion of the “traveling image,” in which the link between signifier and signified becomes increasingly tenuous. Vilém Flusser has called this slipperiness of postmodern images “the distribution channel.” The channel, he has said, is not simply technical, but also institutional. Flusser observes:

The photograph of the moon landing, for example, can slip from an astronomy journal to a US consulate, from there onto an advertising poster for cigarettes and from there finally into an art exhibition. The essential thing is that the photograph, with each switch-over to another channel, takes on a new significance: The scientific significance crosses over into the political, the political into the commercial, the commercial into the artistic.1

Steyerl, for her part, charts not only a shift in significance but also an attendant devaluation and loss. She tracks how the distribution of visual noise, be it a profusion of internet cat images or Robbie Williams pix, complicates what other images, competing for attention in the same field, may be able to mean or represent. She even shows how someone, ironically enough, used her video “How to Not To Be Seen …” as a proxy, or cover, to disguise their own online activity—a tactic akin to, as she puts it, paraphrasing Clausewitz, “the continuation of PR by different means.” Nonetheless, she allows, “Proxy politics happens between taking a stand and using a stand-in. It is in the territory of displacement, stacking, subterfuge, and montage that both the worst and the best things happen.” While one can easily imagine the worst potential of proxy politics as the perversion of democracy by social media bots, one wonders what the best might be.

Is Steyerl, then, an accelerationist? In other words, does she believe that more rapid technological development will precipitate radical social transformation? In a certain sense, yes, but if so, she is an ambivalent one, as the irony of her prose so clearly conveys. The virtue of accelerationism is that it captures the logic of dislocation and disruption endemic to 21st-century postmodernity. It is a qualitative change produced by graduated quantitative changes. Wikipedia, which internet users take for granted, quotes none other than Karl Marx’s “On the Question of Free Trade” (1848) vis-à-vis accelerationism: “In general, the protective system of our day is conservative, while the free trade system is destructive. It breaks up old nationalities and pushes the antagonism of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie to the extreme point. In a word, the free trade system hastens the social revolution.”2 Is the duty-free artwork, then, a product of free trade, or the opposite? And does the potential of freedom remain an explosive force? Steyerl, for her part, refuses to assume that social revolution is inevitable.


On Accelerationism

By Fred Turner

To assess the relevance of Duty-Free Art, perhaps it is best to turn to Steyerl’s opening essay, “A Tank on a Pedestal.” In this text she recounts an episode where pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine drove a Soviet tank off a pedestal and attacked a government checkpoint, resulting in three deaths. What had been a monument now functioned once again as a lethal weapon. Steyerl takes this as an instance of historical reversibility, an eclipse of the museum and the memorial’s normative function and a reversal of historical cause and effect. In such an instance, time runs in a vicious circle, which is the perpetual crisis of postmodernity.

Flusser attributes this cyclical tendency to the magical and anti-causal nature of the digital image, which—as opposed to writing’s linear and progressive logic—can be infinitely scanned and re-scanned. Steyerl links this open-ended image scanning to current economics and politics: “A stagnant crisis is the point. It needs to be indefinite because it is an abundant source of profit: instability is a gold mine without bottom.”

Duty-Free Art leaves its readers with more questions than answers. Can we reverse the processes Steyerl so critically analyzes—and would this be desirable? If images have given up their traditional representative function, do they still help us to see and to understand the world, or do they obscure it? Has the utopia of automation turned out to be a chimera? The imperatives lying behind these and other questions are what make Duty-Free Art essential reading for anyone concerned with the sudden and often volatile transformation of art, political economy, and technology in recent years.


This article was commissioned by Anne Higonnet. icon

  1. Vilém Flusser, “The Distribution of Photographs,” Towards a Philosophy of Photography (Reaktion, 2000), pp. 53–54.
  2. Karl Marx, “On the Question of Free Trade” (lecture, Democratic Association of Brussels, Belgium, January 9, 1848), quoted in Wikipedia, s.v. “Accelerationism,” accessed May 19, 2018.
Featured image: A detail from Trevor Paglen, Machine Readable Hito (2017). Adhesive wall material, 193 x 55 1/8 inches (490.2 x 140 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York