Both drawing from and subverting the conventions of documentary film, Steyerl’s essayistic videos explore how images are produced, circulated, and interpreted. In her writings, she has referred to images as a “condensation of social forces”: in a world so heavily reliant on the exchange of digital information, digital images—due to their widespread proliferation and vulnerability to manipulation—serve as artifacts of social and political systems and their biases.
For this work, whose basic premise is borrowed from a 1970 Monty Python sketch also titled “How Not to Be Seen,” the artist has satirically adopted the format of an instructional video to demonstrate strategies for remaining “unseen” in an age of “total over-visibility.” These tactics are narrated by a robotic voice and presented through real and virtual imagery that merge and interact. The work continually returns to the site of now-decommissioned US Air Force aerial-photography calibration targets in the California desert, for example, and to an animated rendering of a luxury residential housing complex.
The video reflects on the tension between the unprecedented capabilities of technology to surveil humans and encroach on physical experience, and the social and political invisibility of marginalized populations. In searing commentary, both poignant and absurd, the disembodied speaker enumerates strategies for becoming invisible, including “being female and over fifty,” “being a disappeared person as an enemy of the state,” “being a Wi-Fi signal moving through human bodies,” and “being spam caught by a filter.”
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Artist and critic Hito Steyerl's video works explore how images are produced, circulated, and shared. The artist has referred to images as a "condensation of social forces," suggesting that through them we can trace the underlying systems of the contemporary world.
In this satirical take on instructional films, Steyerl demonstrates several tongue-in-cheek strategies for remaining "unseen" in a world subject to new, sophisticated means of surveillance—pointing to the ways in which our technologies encroach on physical experience. Much of the work was shot on a desert site riddled with photo calibration targets used by the military to hone the focus of airplane cameras. Acts of war are therefore mediated by digital tools; Steyerl drives this point home by superimposing a computer desktop onto the desert landscape, underscoring the links between economies of violence, communication, and entertainment. In her words, "How do people disappear in an age of total over-visibility? . . . Are people hidden by too many images? Do they go hide amongst other images? Do they become images?"
Gallery label from Cut to Swipe, October 11, 2014–March 22, 2015.
How Not to Be Seen—a video by artist and critic Hito Steyerl—presents five lessons in invisibility. As titles that divide the video into distinct but interrelated sections, these lessons include how to: 1. Make something invisible for a camera, 2. Be invisible in plain sight, 3. Become invisible by becoming a picture, 4. Be invisible by disappearing, and 5. Become invisible by merging into a world made of pictures.
Some of these methods may seem impossible. How, for example, can someone in plain sight go unseen? Steyerl herself often ponders this question. Her work is fueled by her critical examination of the production, use, and circulation of images from the mid-twentieth century into the Information Age. Referring to the countless images generated and circulated by such sources as social media and surveillance technologies, and the impact of these technologies on our lives, she asks: “How do people disappear in an age of total over-visibility?…Are people hidden by too many images?…Do they become images?”
A satirical take on instructional films, How Not to Be Seen features a mix of actual and virtual performers and scenes, which illustrate the strategies for becoming invisible, communicated in an authoritative narrative voiceover. In the fourth lesson, the narrator outlines ways of disappearing—including “living in a gated community” or “being a disappeared person as an enemy of the state”—while panning shots of architectural renderings of luxury living and public spaces, populated largely by computer-generated people, unfold across the screen.
Among the video’s central symbols is a real place: a patch of marked concrete in the California desert once used by the U.S. Air Force to calibrate their surveillance cameras. The concrete is riddled with cracks and desert scrub. As the artist indicates throughout her video, sites like this have fallen into disrepair not because surveillance has stopped, but because more advanced systems are now in use, which do not need to be tested there. These newer systems ensure that we are always visible, and might benefit from her lessons in how not to be seen.