A few weeks ago, I went to see Hito Steyerl’s exhibition at the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) in London. Unfortunately, the exhibition has since ended, but Steyerl’s performances have stayed with me as some kind of lightbeam that flags up disturbing ‘facts of life’. The exhibition showed her films as well as her performance lectures, although the films seemed to take centre stage (they were displayed in a more cinema-like manner). While these films were already very interesting (especially the one about security in the gallery space, entitled ‘Guards’), I found her performance lectures even more striking – in the case of ‘Is the Museum a Battlefield?’, quite literally. The talk, screened back to back with ‘Guards’, traces the intimate connections between the art world and the military-industrial complex. Here is a version of it:
(This is a different version to the one at the gallery, which was a live recording from the 13th Istanbul Biennial whose theme was ‘Mom, am I a barbarian?’)
In the talk, Steyerl keeps on emphasising the mundaneness of atrocities: the battlefields that look unremarkable, the software that is used by weapons manufacturers as well as artists and designers, the military coups that open art and architecture markets, the arms money that circulates through public institutions, the mobile or internet communications of ordinary citizens that are routinely under surveillance. All around her, Steyerl discovers traces of bullets, highlighting their ubiquitous but obscured presences by holding up and even catching invisible ammunition. She finds that, when she shoots her videos, she inadvertently shoots people (including her friend Andrea Wolf), thanks to the technology’s implication in ‘toxic data clouds’ and common manufacturing processes. For Steyerl, bullets fly in circles: if you trace a piece of debris on the battlefield to its origin, you might end up with yourself, picking up said piece of debris. Her talk ends with the question: can we reverse or interrupt this cycle, to prevent more people from getting killed on this ever-present battlefield?
Still from ‘Is the Museum a Battlefield?’ Source: e-flux
A few days after seeing Steyerl’s exhibition, I encountered the work of Juliana Spahr through a poetry reading and a conference talk in Milwaukee. At the conference, Spahr described her current project with fellow poet Joshua Clover as an attempt to bridge between two poetic trajectories that do not seem to speak one another: environmental and political poetry. This lack of dialogue, for me, also manifests itself in academia, between environmental or ‘new materialist’ theory and political or ‘historical materialist’ theory. In her talk, as well as her poetry, Spahr’s struggle to create bridges emerged as a productive one, through its density and its sense of the depths and levels of our current predicament. Moving between skin cells and war, kisses and labour movements, air composition and species extinction, she thoroughly stripped away barriers through her renderings of mechanisms and relations.
Juliana Spahr – Gender Abolition and Ecotone War
What she also very viscerally rendered present, for me, was the struggle with one’s own implication in both environmental and geopolitical destruction as an artist, academic and ‘ordinary person’. Given the magnitude of her question, I was rather saddened by some of the stereotypical academic responses to her talk, which tended to focus on trivial definitions or mockings of Marxism where, instead, some empathy or brainstorming support in terms of related strategies would have been more appropriate (although any response was arguably more productive than my silence).
Another remarkable thing is that Spahr reads without drama – the whole time that she is seemingly running through her poems, the drama (horror, exhilaration, lightbulb moments) unfolds relentlessly in the listener’s head. The effect, for me, is a sort of energising exhaustion. This tension between the casual, everyday and the drama and obscene violence of the geopolitical stage appears to be central to Juliana Spahr’s poetry in general. Whether she speaks about the Iraq war, the poetry scene, trade unions, bird species or the Anthropocene, Spahr’s emphasis lies on uncovering and grappling with mechanisms that tie us in our homes (or desks or beds) to very big and interconnected problems:
‘In bed, when I stroke down on yours cheeks, I stroke also the carrier battle group ships, the guided missile cruisers, and the guided missile destroyers’ (from This Connection of Everyone with Lungs p. 74).
If one were to generalise the essence of her question, it might run something like: what does it mean to be human and what can we do, as humans, to change our predicament?
The connection between the two artists is their emphasis on the fact that – and how – any of us on this planet are permanently at war: not only are there wars around the world all of the time, but we are involved in them all in some way or another. Moreover, they both state that they are not satisfied with merely highlighting the problem. In their efforts to come up with possible modes of intervention, they do not only seem to address fellow artists, but ‘audiences’ (not just art audience, but especially those who do not see themselves as such). Steyerl is particularly cynical about the role of art as a carrier of resistance. As she put it in her essay ‘Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy’, ‘[i]f contemporary art is the answer, the question is, how can capitalism be made more beautiful?’ (The Wretched of the Screen p. 93) She acerbically diagnoses high art’s predicament as follows:
‘The Global Guggenheim is a cultural refinery for a set of post-democratic oligarchies, as are the countless international biennials tasked with upgrading and re-educating the surplus population. Art thus facilitates the development of a new multi-polar distribution of geopolitical power whose predatory economies are often fuelled by internal oppression, class war from above, and radical shock-and-awe policies. Contemporary art thus not only reflects, but actively intervenes in the transition toward a new post-Cold War world order.’ (p. 94)
According to Steyerl, art shies away from these connections and, instead, matches the ambitions and self-image of the harbingers of ’post-democratic hypercapitalism’ in its advocacy of opportunism, unpredictability, unaccountability, individualism, brilliance etc. Instead, she calls for the disenfranchised publics to reclaim art as a public good, using the repeated storming of the Louvre as an example.
Spahr also criticises the appropriation of ‘public art’. In her opinion, it is too frequently used by governments as a means to justify the continued perpetuation of a cycle of violence. For instance, the commission and display of monuments not only serves to superficially appease, but to actively naturalise violence:
‘At moments, once they [the writers/poets] got sufficiently theorised, they tried to think their way through this by thinking about Antigone and the public need to bury a body. But the minute they thought this, they then realised that Antigone was a figure of resistance against the state, not the state putting up one more piece of art to support its endless and unjustified killing of people of other places as well as its endless and unjust killing of a disproportionate number of its own people and of certain races and classes in the pursuit of endless and unjustified killings of people in other places.’ (from The Transformation, p. 162)
September 11 memorial ‘Tribute in Light’
The key, for Spahr, despite its problems, seems to be to reappropriate the tools that were, in turn, appropriated in the service of destruction, in her own case language. Steyerl seems to second this strategy with her reappropriation of the audio-visual space.
Further, Spahr finds that artistic interventions frequently preach only to the converted and seems to echo Howard Zinn’s mantra ‘everyone must be involved – there are no experts’ (from ‘Artists in Times of War’, p. 11). By minutely detailing her own struggle as well as that of people around her, she almost creates a manual for possibilities of resistance. Yes, this manual also includes multiple failures and even humorous instances (both Spahr and Steyerl share a dark sense of humour, with Steyerl on the more satirical end), but it shows the struggle at a human scale and the need to recognise and make connections to related struggles.
Here, Spahr’s wrestling with the tension between treating humans as a species (‘this connection of everyone with lungs’) and humans as a society with antagonisms that lead to environmental and political problems adds another dimension to the ‘everyone’. Everyone is already involved through the physical processes that come with being alive, but not everyone is in an equal position in the social mechanisms. In her talk ‘Gender Abolition and Ecotone War’, Spahr extends this critique to authors who argue that all humans are equally affected by environmental changes. Emphasising that environmental changes cannot be seen independently of political changes, she reverses Dipesh Chakrabarty’s argument that ‘unlike in the crises of capitalism, there are no lifeboats here for the rich and the privileged’ into ‘I don’t know where Chakrabarty’s been looking, but the rich are buying life boats right now’.
In grappling with the perceived abyss between the everyday and the geopolitical – the apparent isolation of events such as sleeping, celebrity weddings, sturgeon poaching and full-scale war – Steyerl and Spahr keep returning to the question of the agency of the individual. There is no shortage of desperation in their writing. In one of Spahr’s post September 11 poems, for example, she writes: ‘beloveds, we do not know how to live our lives with any agency outside of our bed’, and repeatedly attempts to tie this emotional and bodily agency to the scale of the planet. Steyerl echoes this loss of agency in her depressing vision destitute (art) labourers dancing to ‘viral Lady Gaga imitation videos’ rather than rousing protest music. Yet both artists stubbornly refuse to give up either the content or their medium of struggle. As Spahr asserts: ‘‘We want to get ourselves out of bed.’ Here are two quotes that, for me, sum up the refusal of the medium despite its obvious taint:
‘If politics is thought of as the Other, happening somewhere else, always belonging to disenfranchised communities in whose name no one can speak, we end up missing what makes art intrinsically political nowadays: its function as a place for labour, conflict, and.. fun – a site of condensation of the contradictions of capital and of extremely entertaining and sometimes devastating misunderstandings between the global and the local.’ (Hito Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen’ p. 98)
‘With grief, with worry, with desire, with attachment, with anything and everything, they began listing, inventorying, recognising in the hope that a catalogue of vulnerability could begin the process of claiming their being human, claiming the being human of their perverse third Sapphic point, claiming the being human of the space in the palm of their writing hand, in that space that their little and ring fingers made when they held a pen, the space that when they were learning to write in first grade they had been forced to fill with a small cool marble so as to learn the proper way to hold a pencil.’ (Juliana Spahr, The Transformation, p. 214)
At the same time, both artists/authors stress that art practice and poetry are not the only means, and that even armed resistance or defense may need to be considered, given the pervasiveness of militarisation. In this context, Spahr’s and Clover’s insistence on an Ecotone War serves both as a provocation to shock people out of their set ways of thinking about – and responding to – the current crisis (although Spahr also wonders about its usefulness and whether they should hold on to it). By contrast, Steyerl explicit terrorism references in films such as ‘November’ emphasise the question of what counts as terrorism and point to a dependence on circumstances and on who tells the story. Who is terrorising whom in the various ‘wars on terror’ around the world? Although she does not call for people to become terrorists (in her worldview they more or less already are), she seems to ask for a re-evaluation of terrorism and a potential rewriting of violent histories. She does not do this naively, showing the disturbing aspects of terrorism such as martyrisation and other forms of glorification of violence, and the loss of usefulness of violence.
What I appreciate about both artists is their challenging provocations, both in the kinds of questions they ask and in the means they offer as pathways to action. In setting examples that clearly state the double-edgedness of all interventions, they leave us with uncomfortable tools, but with tools nonetheless.