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HITO STEYERL’S HOW NOT TO BE SEEN: A F**KING DIDACTIC EDUCATIONAL .MOV FILE

June 18, 2014  |  Collection & Exhibitions
Hito Steyerl’s HOW NOT TO BE SEEN: A F**king Didactic Educational .MOV File
Hito Steyerl. HOW NOT TO BE SEEN: A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File. 2013. Still image, single screen 1080p .mov file, 14min. © Hito Steyerl. Courtesy Wilfried Lentz Rotterdam

Hito Steyerl. HOW NOT TO BE SEEN: A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File. 2013. Still image, single screen 1080p .mov file, 14min. © Hito Steyerl. Courtesy Wilfried Lentz Rotterdam

I go to bed with my phone. It’s often the last thing I look at before falling asleep, and the first thing I touch in the morning. There’s no shortage of people thinking about this type of thing—technology-as-prosthesis or part-object—and its array of consequences, but few get to the heart of the matter quite like Hito Steyerl does. Central to her work is an ontology of the digital image: she argues that images have ceased to function as representation or index of any a priori truth, and have instead taken a more powerful seat in constructing reality. To this end, her works trace connections between economies of images, violence, entertainment, affect, and capital (among others)—rendering bare the degree to which these interlaced frameworks funnel power, shape physical and ideological space, and determine subject positions. These works also happen to be poetic, disarming, and funny.

On the face of it, Steyerl’s HOW NOT TO BE SEEN: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013), which MoMA acquired earlier this year, is what its title purports it to be: a sly parody of an instructional video (the first part of the title borrowed from a Monty Python sketch). Each of the work’s four sections outlines some tongue-in-cheek strategies to avoid being seen—from hiding in plain sight, to shrinking down to a unit smaller than a pixel, to living in a gated community, to being female and over 50 years old. A seemingly automated male voice reads out the instructions in a droll English accent, and Steyerl herself, along with several faceless figures (the kind you’d see in a simulated architectural model), demonstrate the proposed methods. Many of them, like to shrink, to swipe, and to take a picture, are accompanied by gestures familiar from the iPhone—pointing to the fact that the bodies in question here exist in (and take their choreographic cues from) a world that’s at once virtual and material.

Hito Steyerl. HOW NOT TO BE SEEN: A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File. 2013. Still image, single screen 1080p .mov file, 14min. © Hito Steyerl. Courtesy Wilfried Lentz Rotterdam

Hito Steyerl. HOW NOT TO BE SEEN: A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File. 2013. Still image, single screen 1080p .mov file, 14min. © Hito Steyerl. Courtesy Wilfried Lentz Rotterdam

The clunky syntax of “how not to be seen” is also not beside the point. Throughout the video, vocal emphasis is placed on the “not,” suggesting that the thing negated is more significant than any characteristics of the alternative action. This mirrors pop-cultural tropes (i.e. how not to get pregnant, how not to kill your plants, how to avoid carbs without even trying), as well as the psychological mechanisms of repression, where the issue a person does not want to see or address winds up figuring more centrally than any conscious aim. A shrewd writer and theorist, Steyerl surely intended to invoke the rhetorical power of this negative proposition. Additionally, focusing on how-not-to rather than any single affirmative concept, like “invisibility,” allows for broader scope. Certainly, you can not-be-seen because you are invisible, but you could also not-be-seen simply because someone is looking elsewhere, and so on.

Despite the ostensible neutrality of the how-to format, the title also begs the question of motivation: why would a person want not-to-be seen? When the beauty magazine tells you “how not to appear desperate,” the implication is that it’s ugly to show how much you care (whereas otherwise you might’ve thought devotion was a good and powerful thing). In this regard, Steyerl’s video calls on a number of embattled realities. For one, in an age where images are a kind of currency, at times seeming tantamount to existence (i.e. “if it’s not on posted on x or y social networking site, it never happened”), then to vanish seems a slight death, and also a relief. Yet of course there are the more sinister facets of disappearance—information can be erased, sociopolitical realities revised, people disappeared.

These troubling dimensions are compounded by virtue of the video’s setting: Steyerl filmed on a desert site covered in photo calibration targets—giant patterns of lines and dashes—which were intended to test the focus of airplane cameras. In part, this photographic precision led to the development of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (also known as drones), enabling them to successfully hit their targets. Soldiers sitting behind a computer screen control the actions of the plane and its weaponry, rendering the act of killing global, mediated, and arguably euphemistic. Here the question of How Not To Be Seen takes on a more harrowing tenor. Since the answer becomes simply not to be materially present, situating oneself behind a glowing monitor in an altogether different country. Steyerl drives home the surreality of these circumstances by superimposing a computer desktop onto the desert landscape, with faceless figures in green bodysuits dancing hypnotically in front. At one point in the sequence, the voice-over explains that while “resolution measures the world as an image,” the “most important things want to remain invisible. Love is invisible. War is invisible. Capital is invisible.” To be sure, Steyerl’s works do measure the world as an image, but in her treatment, it’s these “most important things” that are rendered visible. It’s a pretty powerful picture.

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