Two videos currently on view in Houston share unexpected affinities, tackling heavy, potentially dry subjects and distilling them into engaging works full of humor, poignancy, and energy. Hito Steyerl’s How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File (2013), and Camille Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue (2013) are part of very different group exhibitions at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art and the CAMH respectively. But it is not a surprise that the videos feel like kindred spirits, as they were both included in The Encyclopedic Palace exhibition at the 55th Venice Biennale, with Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue taking home the Silver Lion prize.
Rather than resorting to lo-fi tactics to show the guts of an image or its mechanisms, both are crisp hi-definition videos with top-of-the-line production values. Yet in their own way Steyerl and Henrot layer and expose the internal machinery of how we produce and access visual knowledge: the green screen, computer monitor, and browser window.
Hito Steyerl’s How Not to Be Seen addresses the production of digital imagery and the role it has in constructing reality more explicitly than Grosse Fatigue. A monotonous computer voice with a British accent takes the viewer through a tongue-in-cheek Youtube-esque tutorial on ways to make yourself invisible to a camera, inadvertently demonstrating how impossible such a goal may be. The narration begins by explaining the obvious physical tactics, like hiding or going off-screen, while Steyerl demonstrates in a deadpan manner in front of a green screen.
Steyerl quickly moves from these obvious tactics to more complex ideas about the scarier, Big Brother realities of surveillance. The camera resolution target, a black and white geometric chart used to calibrate a camera’s resolution and ensure mechanical accuracy, is a recurring motif. Many scenes are even shot on an enormous resolution target painted on a parking-lot-sized strip of asphalt in the California desert that was used in the 1950s and 60s to test aerial cameras.
Things are more likely to be “invisible” in our world saturated with digital imagery if a camera cannot see them, but with higher-resolution cameras, what can hide? The video’s narrator informs us that today, an aerial photograph can capture one foot per pixel, so “to become invisible one has to become smaller or equal to one pixel.” The lesson is illustrated by characters with black box heads humorously pantomiming avant-garde dance, clumsily attemptiong to vanish into a checkered, target grid.
The deadpan delivery and kitschy, stock computer effects keep the tone light as we are told that someone can not only be technologically invisible, but also culturally invisible too, by living in a gated community, a military zone, or by being “a woman over 50 years old.” Steyerl uses what I assume are found computer renderings of luxury apartment complexes, shopping malls, and other cloistered communities overlayed with women in green burqas dancing to the 70s soul song “When Will I See You Again.” It is funny and ominous at the same time. The action becomes more chaotic and nonsensical as various pieces from the video are layered over one another. All of a sudden the women in dancing burqas appear like ghosts in the abandoned desert, dancing over a computer desktop. Green men in skin-tight suits futilely karate kick the camera resolution target. Messages flash on the screen in blocky, 8-bit graphics saying things like “Camera crew disappears after invisible energy rays emanate from iPhone.” Steyerl’s video collapses the physical world and the virtual into a collage of humor, paranoia, and resistance.
Hito Steyerl, How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.
Camille Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue uses some similar formal techniques, but with less sinister overtones. Essentially, Grosse Fatigue is a document of Henrot’s time plunging into the Smithsonian’s Natural History museum collection during her residency there. The video begins by showing someone in the museum’s storage area paired with a browser window where the words “history of universe” are typed into Google. The physical archive of curiosities – taxidermy macaws, toucans, beetles, and artifacts from around the world – are seamlessly commingled with Henrot’s digital archive of Internet images and her own mini-videos of book pages turning and other quotidian moments.
A pulsating beat kicks in as artist Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh ecstatically reads a poem composed by Henrot and Jacob Bromberg. It is a jumbled origin myth full of references to cosmic events, religion, and science, partially inspired by Henrot’s research into Sioux, Navajo, Inuit, and Shinto creation stories. The words sync and juxtapose against a dense web of visual allusions that pop up and layer like computer windows gone haywire. The associations are rapid fire, not random or arbitrary, but with formal and thematic relationships. A bald man’s head is associated with images of the sun peeking through the clouds and a cheesy inflated globe, implying that the poetic matter of the universe can be found in everything from the sublime to the everyday. A woman’s hand erotically rolls an orange across a table like a goddesses’ hand sculpting a planet, framed by a computer desktop image of the cosmos. The big bang is equated with colliding marbles and Pollock’s gestural sweep over an action painting. Henrot explains that it is built on a Google search and was initially composed as she put images together on her desktop. The result is a rhythmic, profound, and highly gratifying personal visual encyclopedia on a seamless loop that can easily be watched again and again. It is not necessarily the answers found, but the joy of the search and the sharing of it.
In contemporary art, the fashionable subjects of “the archive” and the politics of history are often dealt with in tedious ways – a big table of scattered photos and text, and a maybe a book under Plexiglas. In Henrot’s hands, the archive and the Google search come alive. It is not an outwardly political work, but it does raise questions about what counts as “universal” when the idea of even trying to find universal threads across humanity has been critiqued for its Western, eurocentric bias and the way it has been used to justify conquest, and violence.
Steyerl’s self-described “didactic” video is more pointedly political, but still pokes fun at the strategies employed in didactic, politically-themed video art, such as the self-serious narrator reading from a pedantic text. Steyerl and Henrot may have different outlooks and approaches (as other critics have pointed out), but luckily they share the same boldness to explore big, grandiose topics using not much more than a MacBook and Final Cut pro. With the proverbial “world” at our fingertips such a sentiment is not without its problems (whose fingertips? which world?), the web has a contradictory feeling of being overwhelmingly infinite and seductively immediate at once. It is up to artists like Henrot and Steyerl to push and play with these components of reality, but thankfully not with heavy hands.
Collective Reaction on view at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art until August 17.
More Real than Reality Itself on view at the Contemporary Arts Museum until September 21.