'Hito Steyerl - A Sea of Data' explores the depths to discover the role of technology

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'Hito Steyerl - A Sea of Data' explores the depths to discover the role of technology

"Hell Yeah We Fuck Die" (2016) by Hito Steyerl [MMCA]

"Hell Yeah We Fuck Die" (2016) by Hito Steyerl [MMCA]

In her three-channel lecture performance video “Mission Accomplished: Belanciege” (2019), Hito Steyerl is a brilliant actor. The 56-year-old German artist gives a compelling speech about the “Balenciaga way,” which refers to how the high-end fashion brand exerts an immense impact on not only the fashion world, but also politics, pop culture and the economy.
Steyerl’s presence and delivery almost make her seem like some sort of business mogul, and the fact that it is depicted on long vertical screens resembling those of smartphones shows how a social media-like environment can make someone look so significant in the digital world.
Contrary to say, Steyerl is not actually active on social media.
“Creating a sort of alternate online self is a lot of work; you need to be on it 24/7, otherwise it won’t live,” Steyerl said during a press interview at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) in central Seoul last Thursday. “I just don’t have the bandwidth to do that. Also, at some point I received lots of threats, and I decided to go off social media […] Somehow your alternate online identity is like this herd of animals — you have to take care of it all the time. It’s a full-time job, like a farmer; you need to farm it.”
Steyerl poses during a press conference at the MMCA on Thursday. [MMCA]

Steyerl poses during a press conference at the MMCA on Thursday. [MMCA]

Although disinterested in becoming a social media star, Steyerl is indeed regarded as one of the most influential media artists in the world today. As a filmmaker and writer, she creates essay documentaries that deal with topics related to digital technology, global capitalism and, nowadays, the pandemic.
Her first-ever solo exhibition in Asia is being held at the MMCA under the title “Hito Steyerl – A Sea of Data.” It features 23 video works spanning from the 1990s to her latest piece “Animal Spirits” (2022), which was made in commission by the MMCA.
Her videos explore the questions of the role of digital technology, like whether or not it can be like a savior to humans and the destructive world we currently live in. And among this chaos of disasters and wars, what is the role of the art museum?
"Animal Spirits" (2022), Steyerl's latest work made in commission by the MMCA [MMCA]

"Animal Spirits" (2022), Steyerl's latest work made in commission by the MMCA [MMCA]

Steyerl’s works are not necessarily grim and emotionally distressing; rather, her take on such motifs leans more toward being humorous and fun, like in “SocialSim” (2020), a five-channel video with a frenzy of policemen avatars ceaselessly dancing and dashing around like madmen. The dark museum space with video screens filling the walls makes visitors feel like they stepped inside a virtual world, or more specifically, the metaverse, which has been all the rage especially since the pandemic.
According to Steyerl, this form of erratic choreography represents the social order from when the police and soldiers were reported to have suppressed public protests during the pandemic. Her idea to use dancing avatars derived from the dancing mania phenomenon that occurred in Europe between the 14th and 17th century, the exhibition’s curator Bae Myung-ji said.
When asked how she felt using avatars as surrogates of real people, Steyerl said that she actually wishes she could have one in real life that would “do all the work for me and answer all my emails.”
“In some instances, I feel in the pandemic that I would really prefer to use avatars to simulate instead of us a lot of the social stress and [be on] social media,” Steyerl continued. “Sometimes I feel they are little comrades and no one thanks them. I would prefer it if all the wars could have them [the avatars] just inside the simulator and have the avatars kill one another instead of having to kill for real.”
"How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File" (2013) [MMCA]

"How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File" (2013) [MMCA]

Steyerl dives deep into ways to “disappear” from the digital world in the satirical instructional short film “How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File” (2013). As implied in the title, the video provides ridiculous and impossible ways to go unseen in the digital age of surveillance cameras, big data and satellites.
She gives lessons on how to be invisible in five different circumstances: for a camera, in plain sight, by becoming a picture, by disappearing and by merging into a world of images. Some examples include wearing an invisibility cloak or becoming smaller than a pixel so cameras are unable to capture it.
“Hell Yeah We Fuck Die” (2016) consists of numerous chair installations shaped as bubble letters that spell out the title and light up — named after the five most commonly used English words in titles for songs from the Billboard charts for five years from 2010. Along with it, three of the four-channel videos show humanoid robots being continuously kicked and harassed by people, as part of training to improve its balance and stability for when it gets thrown in to save people during a crisis.
Curator Bae explained that Steyerl aimed to portray the violence that occurs under the excuse of technological development — another instance of Steyerl’s comical approach to a serious topic.
"SocialSim" (2020) [MMCA]

"SocialSim" (2020) [MMCA]

“The unique strength of visual art is that no one can really realistically claim to fully understand it,” Steyerl said. “There will always be something that can you can debate, that’s not a 100 percent clear, that no one can fully own and that remains a bit mysterious. […] I think that’s important; that it’s not immediately and fully useful, […] valuable and […] accessible.
“Maybe it’s also kitsch what I just said. Maybe it’s more simple. Maybe it’s just a possibility for art to be a bit silly.”
“Hito Steyerl – A Sea of Data” continues until Sept. 18. The MMCA’s Seoul branch is open every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Times on Wednesdays and Saturdays extend to 9 p.m. Tickets are 4,000 won ($3.10).

BY SHIN MIN-HEE [shin.minhee@joongang.co.kr]
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