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Features / August 19, 2015

Hito Steyerl: A Primer

Brush up on the internationally renowned work of German artist Hito Steyerl, who will be giving a talk for the Canadian Art Foundation later this fall.

You might say that Hito Steyerl is something of an art-world enigma. Born in Munich and based in Berlin, where she teaches at the Universität der Künste Berlin (Berlin University of the Arts), Steyerl studied film, first in Japan and then in her native Germany, including a stint working for director Wim Wenders in the late 1980s. Since the mid-2000s, though, Steyerl has become increasingly known not only as a serious filmmaker and artist whose installations have been critical centrepieces at major international art venues and events from Documenta 12 to the current Venice Biennale, but also a prolific writer, lecturer and politically engaged thinker (Steyerl also holds a PhD in philosophy). With often overlapping touchstones that range from institutional power relations and post-structuralist philosophy to the art-collector tax havens of freeport art-storage facilities in Switzerland and the propaganda wars of conflicts in Iraq and Syria, Steyerl’s investigative sensibility is fascinatingly complex yet always cogent. In all, her focus remains fixed on the inherent disparities between truth and fiction, the dazzling manipulation of images and information and the essential materiality of digital media.

In advance of Steyerl’s upcoming lecture on September 8 in Toronto as part of the Canadian Art Foundation’s International Artists Series, we’ve gathered a brief online primer to Steyerl’s multifaceted practice. It’s just the tip of the iceberg, but a start to understanding why Steyerl is among the most important figures in contemporary art and beyond.


Steyerl is a widely published author, in particular for the online magazine e-flux journal, which released a collection of her essays (with an introduction by Franco “Bifo” Berardi), titled The Wretched of the Screen, in 2012. As an adjunct to her recent survey exhibition, Artists Space in New York aggregated this downloadable selection of work-related texts. Everything you need is there.


A Google video search for Steyerl’s lectures at exhibitions, conferences and symposia across the globe yields seemingly endless results. But for a quick sampling, you might start with this 2005 presentation at BAK, basis voor actuele kunst in Utrecht, the Netherlands, titled “On Documenting (truth and politics),” where Steyerl makes a fascinating deconstruction of the documents of war, particularly the official propaganda behind the weapons of mass destruction argument that led to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and a set of rare photos taken by prisoners at Auschwitz. It’s a subject she returns to in this 2013 lecture at the New School in New York on the tenuous “reality of images.”

In Free Fall, 2010

In this interview from her 2010 exhibition at Picture This in London, UK, Steyerl unfolds the contextual layers behind her semi-documentary video installation In Free Fall, which tracks the winding path of global economic networks starting from an airplane graveyard in the Mojave Desert.

Is the Museum a Battlefield, 2013

In her lecture for the 2012 Creative Time Summit in New York, Steyerl posed the question, “Is the museum a battlefield?” The answer, she says, is yes. The Hermitage and the Louvre (which was stormed five times) are two prime historical examples of museums being pivotal to revolution. But, how do we relate contemporary battlefields to contemporary art? In the full lecture, which has also doubled as a video installation, Steyerl unpacks the case study she used to try to resolve these questions—namely the structures of power behind the death of a friend on a battlefield in the Kurdish region of Southeastern Turkey.

How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, 2013

This extract from Steyerl’s How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File offers a hint at the work’s plunging dive into the history, politics and future of invisibility and disappearance and the notion of hiding in plain sight, both on- and off-screen. The video was shot on the location of an abandoned US Air Force camera-testing range, a site indelibly linked to today’s drone warfare. Just for fun, here’s a not completely irrelevant link to the original Monty Python take on the matter.

Liquidity Inc., 2014

Steyerl’s video installation Liquidity Inc., which tells the story of a former financial advisor turned mixed martial arts fighter in the wake of the 2008 global economic crisis, was a key highlight of last year’s Biennale de Montréal. Fast forward to the 1-minute-54-second mark in this compilation video where Steyerl expands on the fundamental “condition of unpredictability” that drives contemporary reality.

Factory of the Sun, 2015

Steyerl’s latest work, Factory of the Sun, is currently on view in the group show “Fabrik” at the German Pavilion for the Venice Biennale. If you haven’t seen it in person, this video tour of the pavilion ends with spectacular images of the installation.