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Performing for the Camera

Artists break the molds of video and film, and broaden the boundaries of art.


How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File

Hito Steyerl
(German, born 1966)

2013. Video (color, sound), 14 min.

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.1

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?”2

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”3—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.

Hito Steyerl, How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, 2013, video.
Hito Steyerl, quoted in “Interview // Hito Steyerl: Zero Probability and the Age of Mass Art Production,” interview by Göksu Kunak, Berlin Art Link, http://www.berlinartlink.com/2013/11/19/interview-hito-steyerl-zero-probability-and-the-age-of-mass-art-production/.
Hito Steyerl, How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, 2013, video.
Hito Steyerl, quoted in “Interview // Hito Steyerl: Zero Probability and the Age of Mass Art Production,” interview by Göksu Kunak, Berlin Art Link, http://www.berlinartlink.com/2013/11/19/interview-hito-steyerl-zero-probability-and-the-age-of-mass-art-production/.

A recording of moving visual images made digitally or on videotape and available for immediate playback.

The period beginning around 1970 characterized by a shift away from traditional industry and noted for the abundant publication, consumption, and manipulation of information, especially by computers and computer networks. Also known as the Computer Age, Digital Age, or New Media Age.

1. A series of moving images, especially those recorded on film and projected onto a screen or other surface (noun); 2. A sheet or roll of a flexible transparent material coated with an emulsion sensitive to light and used to capture an image for a photograph or film (noun); 3. To record on film or video using a movie camera (verb).

A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.

A setting for or a part of a story or narrative.

A form, sign, or emblem that represents something else, often something immaterial, such as an idea or emotion.

A genre of visual art that uses humor, irony, ridicule, or caricature to expose or criticize someone or something.

A representation, executed in perspective, of a proposed structure.

An Actual Disappearance
Though How Not to Be Seen and Steyerl’s other works are full of her wry humor, they are influenced by a tragedy that affected her deeply. In 1998, her friend disappeared in Turkey. Since she was a member of a Kurdish rebel organization, the Turkish government may have orchestrated her disappearance. Steyerl summarizes this terrifying deprivation of a person’s liberty—an illegal political practice that has been occurring worldwide—in a theory she calls “the state of zero probability.” As she explains: “In the state of zero probability, whatever is impossible—like people being swallowed from the face of the earth—happens all the time and nobody thinks twice about it.”4