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Duty Free Art

Hito Steyerl


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In 1967, reflecting on the golden era of television, Canadian theorist Marshall McLuhan declared: 'At the high speeds of electric communication, purely visual means of apprehending the world are no longer possible; they are just too slow to be relevant or effective.' Half a century later, Hito Steyerl—writing in a world that now includes the internet, artificial intelligence, big data and Bitcoin - confirmed: 'Not seeing anything intelligible is the new normal.' We are in the process of a total collapse in visual representation. Images are merged beyond recognition with an avalanche of information, then networked and multiplied through sprawling digital and capital infrastructures, by algorithms that sit on top of other algorithms. Steyerl's description of this as the 'new normal' in her latest essay collection, Duty Free Art (2017), comes as a somewhat reassuring reminder that you are not the only one who is very confused.

Although Steyerl, a Berlin-based artist, filmmaker and writer, has been exhibiting since 2004, her work at the intersection of visual, digital and political cultures has recently received wide recognition and acclaim in the art world, which is struggling to understand itself in a post-crash, post-democracy, post-internet death spiral. Marking the ascendancy of her ideas, in November 2017 she was selected by a panel of 20 industry insiders to the top position in ArtReview magazine's annual Power 100 list. When the names were announced, described Steyerl's ascendance as 'beacon-like in the current moment… when many people feel impotent in the face of corrupt cultural systems they cannot challenge.' The artist's power comes from her ability to diagnose our powerlessness.

Steyerl's essays explore what happens when art becomes a proxy for capital and images begin to resemble computer code, as formerly familiar modes of representation transform into apparatuses of political and economic control. In her usual fashion, Steyerl illuminates the contradictions at hand with irony. For example, the title of Duty Free Art refers to the increasingly common practice of wealthy art collectors sequestering their multimillion-dollar pieces in freeport facilities—air-conditioned, private warehouses set up in special extraterritorial jurisdictions on the outskirts of international airports, where they cannot be taxed, or, for that matter, viewed by anyone. Steyerl proposes the freeport as a metonym for art’s total financialization, as individuals seek new places to hide large sums of excess capital and war loot from global conflict and the lurching decline of liberal democracy. However, 'duty free' is also meant to question whether art bears responsibility amid the general upending of order that the author rightfully describes as a planetary civil war.

Steyerl also points out that the digitalization of media has made it much more difficult to analyze the relationship between images and global political turmoil. She posits that we can no longer afford to think of images as flat objects with real-world referents - as a 20th-century art historian or cultural theorist might have - but must think of them as code: images are not only generated from data, but are able to harvest data on behalf of centers of power. The consequences of this can be as trivial as Instagram figuring out how to sell you shoes through your activity on the platform, or a military dragnet identifying you as a target for a drone strike. In light of these conditions, it means we must theorize about images from an increasingly shaky conceptual ground.

This is where Steyerl seems to thrive, testing the limits of this new reality by enthusiastically attacking it from multiple angles and asking provocative questions laced with dry humor. For example, what can the behavior of Twitter porn bots teach us about Turkish political uprisings? Is the market value of art similar to the price of cryptocurrency? Is the internet dead? Somewhat frustratingly, Steyerl seems to derive just as much enjoyment from not giving clear answers. More than anything, Duty Free Art is a lively collection of thematically overlapping ruminations, traveling between real and imagined worlds, research and speculation, peeling back layers of meaning to reveal ironic surprises. There is no unified theory of art history to be found here. Readers seeking clear cartography may find themselves more disoriented than when they began.

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