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Hito Steyerl: How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013)

“Whatever is not captured by resolution is invisible” intones the narrator of Hito Steyerl’s How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013). For anybody who has ever felt unnerved by the overbearing degree of surveillance on modern life, Steyerl provides a manual of resistance. Loosely inspired by Monthy Python, although whimsical in tone,  beneath the film’s veneer lies a stinging critique of the ways in which governments harness the power of the image to confuse and misinform.

Born in Munich in 1966, Steyerl originally trained as a filmmaker. These days, however, her practice is just as indebted to philosophy. How Not To Be Seen is a deconstruction of the modern paradox that sees us compulsively consume and circulate images, while surrendering ownership over our own pictures and data. A plummy, computerized voiceover manages to sound like both a favourite uncle and tyrant at the same time, while the landscape flickers between desert military bases, TV studios and computer-generated shopping centres. The effect is disorientating, like a bad dream.

Steyerl recognises how visual cues can be used as an authoritarian tool. She looks at a shutter and thinks of target practice; she watches a screen and sees a cell. We are complicit in the circulation of visuals, she suggests, but we are also in thrall to their power. “People participate in the launch and lifespan of images, and indeed their lifespan, spread and potential is defined by participation,” she told DIS magazine in 2014. Images make us glassy-eyed, unable to distinguish between physical and digital reality. This is why, Steyerl suggests, it is important to develop strategies of resistance. “Anyone slightly interested in digital politics and technology,” she adds, “is by now acquiring at least basic skills in disappearance and subterfuge.”

It’s a view that has resonated: in 2017, Steyerl was named most influential contemporary artist by ArtReview. Writing for that same publication, Paul Pieroni nonetheless managed to identify a hopeful message embedded in her practice: “Agency is still possible; one can still act, if only to needle and pick at representations in order to expose the conditions of manipulation, exploitation and affect underlying their appearance.” Perhaps as well as diagnosing and articulating the threat of digital surveillance, Steyerl could be the artist who helps us survive it.

But there is a quiet horror to her work. How Not to Be Seen was originally inspired by a conversation she had with Kurdish citizens, who described to her how they would conceal themselves from drone attacks by hiding in plain sight. As they heard roars begin to sound overhead, they lay still and adjusted their body temperature until they could no longer be picked up by the sensors. Steyerl was struck both by the absurdity of this routine and its pathos. People were living their lives on a battlefield, but had still managed to devise small ways of working around their oppressor. 

What Steyerl proposes then, are strategies for slipping between the cracks, receding from the radar of authority. In the film, this is represented by a green screen, a porous space which can be emerged from or slunk into at will. But there is a whole catalogue of other suggestions, some dystopian, others more tongue-in-cheek. You could become invisible by being eradicated by your government, living in a military zone, visiting an airport, or simply being a woman over 50.

As the film concludes, its landscape recedes to that of a computer home screen. If the desert terrain or simulated shopping complexes seemed alien, this one is disconcertingly familiar. You may not choose to participate in the world Steyerl describes, you may not even feel that you are being watched, but by being swept along with the advances of technology, you subscribe to it all the same. After all, can anyone who participates in a capitalist society truly dream of being anonymous? 

Orla Foster