Roundtable: History in a Time of Hypercirculation
Why does the art of today often seem to exist in a historical vacuum? What is the significance of art history for post-Internet art? Is our sense of history changing because of the accelerated circulation of images, money and data? Where does this leave the art object? At Spike’s new space in Berlin, Kolja Reichert moderated a discussion between artist and essayist Hito Steyerl, art historian Susanne von Falkenhausen, and two of the four curators of the 2016 Berlin Biennial: Lauren Boyle and Marco Roso from the collective DIS.
Kolja Reichert: So, what is DIS?
Lauren Boyle: No matter how many times we are asked what DIS is we always struggle defining it. We just don’t have an elevator pitch, and if we did, we probably wouldn’t be here. We’re not editors, we’re not curators, and we’re not exactly comfortable being called artists.
Marco Roso: The group dynamic that we have is mostly that we react to the moment. Every activity that we do through DIS Magazine is a way to negotiate with the present and the things that make us uncomfortable.
Lauren Boyle: We founded DIS because we saw a lot of interesting people and work around us that wasn’t being seen. And we also thought that we have something to say that wasn’t being said by Purple magazine or other fashion and art magazines. They were all very sophisticated and tasteful, and we weren’t any of those things. We were also exploring the Internet a lot more than other publications. So we decided that we were going to start DISmagazine.com, we were going to build our own audience, and we were going to have autonomy and freedom.
Kolja Reichert: When I browse through DIS Magazine, it seems a kind of satire or travesty of consumer culture. There is this high-resolution movie of a gentleman’s shoe gliding into a sports slipper to some cheesy music. What is happening there? Is this art? Or what is it?
Lauren Boyle: That was a commercial. It advertised an imaginary product that we would sell you if we had the ability to produce it. We worked with a 3D rendering company as we couldn’t make the shoe in China: we tried, but it was very hard.
Kolja Reichert: Frau von Falkenhausen, looking at DIS Magazine, would you see it as offering an illustration of how our sense of history is changing?
Susanne von Falkenhausen: That sounds like a too generic thing to do, really. But I would say it plays with the present. It might be an archive for the future. But I don’t know about how capable it is of making connections to archives of the past. It seems to be very radically linked to rendering the present.
Kolja Reichert: What do you see in the work of DIS, Hito?
Hito Steyerl: There has been a strong aesthetic break over the past years, which is irreversible, and I am very happy for it. The work with historical archives, which was very strong throughout the 00s and even the 90s, was very important but then it started to turn into a formula, into a jargon, into a cliché, into a readymade even. And at a certain point, I couldn’t stand these 16-mm projectors any more, dropped in the gallery just as a way to signify history.
Kolja Reichert: Like clip art?
Hito Steyerl: Exactly, like drag and drop, just a history readymade. I think this is due to the fact that history does not follow a linear movement. Some time around the 80s it slowed down, and then it even stopped. For at least fifteen to twenty years, during the first Bush presidency, history stopped. It didn’t move anymore. There was a blockage. This is why many people including myself then started to turn towards history – because the present wasn’t happening. Then, as soon as many things started happening – with the financial crisis and many other things, including the almost global civil war going on right now – the present became unblocked, and a whole different aesthetic started, which was absolutely not new anymore, but which seemed new to the art world. All of that started happening very quickly and I think that this is now an irreversible change, a completely new situation, and everyone’s got to deal with that.
Marco Roso: I am totally with Hito. What I’ve noticed in studio visits preparing for the biennial is like a formula that a lot of artists currently follow: “I do research, that research is about something related to modernism.” It looks like really good art, but when you see hundreds of examples of this kind of work you start losing interest.
Susanne von Falkenhausen: But that seems to be kind of a backlash – high modernism was the father figure against which the 60s and 70s reacted. For me what you say is astonishing; I don’t know where it shows up now in the academy with the very young ones. It seems, to me, more that appropriation aesthetics is coming back in another way.
Hito Steyerl: Its done, it’s over. [Laughter.]
Kolja Reichert: How come you’re so sure it’s over?
Hito Steyerl: I think there was a very strong appropriationist movement when YouTube started, when this whole flow of data started circulating. Everybody was appropriating everything. But now everyone knows that the biggest appropriationists are the corporations, so it starts feeling a bit fishy. As long there is so much circulation, people will not stop doing it. But I think the attitude towards it will become more nuanced. It will not be as innocent any more.
Kolja Reichert: Lauren and Marco, I’d say there have actually been many appropriationist practices over the past few years, many of which have been featured in your magazine – even if the appropriated was less the art of others and more the aesthetics of corporate culture. You even created your own stock photo agency, so you are also appropriating business models. Does anybody use DIS Images, by the way.
Lauren Boyle: We have sold, we do sell …
Kolja Reichert: Is it profitable?
Lauren Boyle: [Laughs.] No. But it’s true that many artists nowadays are responding more to commercial imagery than to art history. And for us, we see a chance to subvert the imagery that we see all the time that makes us uncomfortable or that we don’t understand. The point of DIS Images was the idea that stock photographs just perpetuate the same stereotypes over and over again, so we wanted to intercept that and add a few more tags to those weird pictures, to give some more options.
Susanne von Falkenhausen: I guess you get a lot of questions about whether your practice is intended to be disruptive, or whether it’s just about offering just another option, as you say.
Lauren Boyle: So the question is, do we see DIS as disruptive to the art world in general?
Susanne von Falkenhausen: No, also the commercial world.
Lauren Boyle: I think it helps shift things sometimes. We try to infuse familiar methods of marketing with new meaning and otherness in a widely digestible format. Any image, no matter how strange it is, can pass for normal under the right light.
Susanne von Falkenhausen: But are you taking into account questions of history and memory?
Kolja Reichert: You mean, how the work of DIS relates to art history?
Susanne von Falkenhausen: No, no, no, no, I don’t want to talk about art history, that’s too boring. Don’t put me into that basket, please. [Laughter.]
Lauren Boyle: I think we’re more interested in the sort of viral history that we live in right now, where different events are measured in the same unit of clicks, likes, shares and so on, and the Arab Spring and Rebecca Black’s music video can go viral on the same day and a machine might think they’re equal. I mean, who remembers what went viral in 2004? I don’t.
Susanne von Falkenhausen: That’s very short, hmm.
Kolja Reichert: Frau von Falkenhausen, in your recent essay “Too Much Too Fast” [in frieze d/e 17], you expressed a kind of discomfort about the speed of circulation. Why do you feel uncomfortable in the face of recent art production?
Susanne von Falkenhausen: Recent art production is a bit too vast.
Kolja Reichert: I just don’t want to use the term post-Internet art. I think that it’s great that we haven’t used it so far. [Laughter.]
Susanne von Falkenhausen: Post-Internet can be really pretty horrible. Whatever I’ve seen of it was very uninteresting and extremely boring, and I was wondering about its return into off-Internet gallery spaces. With these works by Katja Novitskova, I thought, well, this is a little like, you know, kindergarten. It might be a hybrid practice, but I think it’s hypocritical to be online with enthusiasm and then produce some kind of avatar for the real world and put into a gallery. To me, this seems like a politics that doesn’t serve anything for the interests of the work, let’s put it that way.
Kolja Reichert: Do you sense something like a generation gap?
Susanne von Falkenhausen: Very strongly. [Laughter.] I have to confess this. I’m not on social networks so I won’t have heard about a lot of the names that will be dropped on the table: so much for the historical depth that I’m supposed to bring in here! Nevertheless, I studied the cohabitation of the avant-garde and Fascism a long time ago – I almost don’t remember – and Kolja was asking me earlier if there’s a parallel to today’s situation, where everyone seems very futurist. It occurs to me that art is always running after technology. My impression is that there is a lot of fascination with technology and its possibilities and not yet a distance that needs to be taken – a distance that futurism didn’t take. Some kind of settling-down of this fascination has to occur for it to operate with a critical and analytical distance.
Kolja Reichert: Hito, I would like to hear your perspective on that. If one compares your recent work to your older work one can have the feeling they are from a different artist. If back there you were digging back into the depths of history, in your newer pieces you work a lot with CGI, and also the narrative order seems to be dissolving. How did this 180-degree turn come about?
Hito Steyerl: There is no 180-degree turn. Most of my works are produced with very frugal means. I do most of it myself. We came to a stage where you could finally make film without traditional analogue technologies, using camcorders and so on. Now it’s possible to make films using 3D imaging by oneself. Which is what I do, because I think that basically the technologies of the present moment are the most interesting because they contain the tensions of the present moment, and also the bugs, the disfunctionalities of the present moment. People who don’t use them are missing out on those disfunctionalities. I also think the logic of narrative has to be completely rethought now that so many stories are being told at the same time and every single one is fragmented down into a number of pixels. The idea of history itself has completely changed. Anyone who says that history is the same as ten years ago is not telling the truth. When I see how history is being aggregated today in new museum collections that are trying to amass and conserve and construct history as a kind of readymade very quickly, it’s amazing. It’s a bit like durring the Renaissance in Florence: a lot of the art history we’re talking about today arose under exactly such extreme conditions of disruption and corruption as we experience them today, with history being quickly aggregated and commissioned in a timespan of a few decades. We are in a similar period right now, where history is being made instantly, with very interesting tools. We are caught up in a whirlstorm of events, and the geopolitical landscape is shifting massively, also under the influence of social media.
Kolja Reichert: What does this mean for history as a discipline?
Susanne von Falkenhausen: Well, history turned deconstructive in the 80s. History has always been constructed, it’s always changing with time and it is constructed from the point of view of the one who constructs it, that’s very banal. But you accentuated the acceleration of the process and the multiplying of voices, and I guess that’s a greatter shift than with the means of production. As a result the narratology of history is changing with the technologies of text and image circulation. I totally agree with that.
Hito Steyerl: Since prehistory, all new media have actively impacted history and the way it is made. Of course history is now made via Instagram, it’s a fact.
Kolja Reichert: Lauren and Marco, how do you position yourself in regards to earlier practices? Say, for example, Bernadette Corporation, who were working with a corporate model in the 90s: do you relate to that?
Marco Roso: We relate to that the same way as we relate to Aleksandra Mir’s book Corporate Mentality from 2003 or Art Club 2000. Christopher Williams picked up commercial images in the early 90s. Whether we want to or not, we come from a certain tradition.
Lauren Boyle: Sometimes the only differrence is that you are doing the same thing but now, with different tools. In a way it just becomes a collaborative process.
Right now, people are interested more and more in ever more recent history, so much that it just feels like one thread, and people are building off one another, and I think it’s actually quite conscious and joyful.
I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all. It feels like a partnership, like this network is coming alive, in a way, you know?
Kolja Reichert: So, is there still any chance of getting something like critical distance, or is DIS Magazine a model for how we can now relate to anything in flat, floating changing surfaces that are somehow unhinging each other all the time?
Hito Steyerl: Maybe the whole framework of distance and being opposed to something has also shifted. Maybe this model of dialectical opposition doesn’t work any more and maybe it has never worked in a certain sense. I prefer to think about the situation as one in which the term engagement is very interesting. I got it from one of the protagonists in my films, a museum guard called Ron Hicks, who used to be a military policeman. He uses the word when he’s talking about how to deal with intruders into the gallery. It’s a military term: you engage people in a military situation, you confront them, and you have some kind of contestation with them. It also means you have to react inside the situation: you are never outside this situation because you are part of it. Critical distance might be a luxury nowadays that most people cannot afford.
Susanne von Falkenhausen: But I can’t imagine your work without a critical sense of operation. You’re analysing all the time.
Hito Steyerl: Yeah, but if you’re engaged, you’re not outside the situation.
Lauren Boyle: I would say it’s very difficult to have critical distance when you’re so involved in something.
Susanne von Falkenhausen: I guess people who are younger than you will pose themselves as pure presence, or, to put it another way, as naïve presence, with no need for anything else. And that’s where I think memory must set in, also as an instrument of confronting the present.
Kolja Reichert [to DIS]: So this might be a naïve question but it should be put. In your work, how do you relate to capitalism? Is it still a … [Laughter.] I mean let’s just put it on the table. Is it still a critical category for you? Is it something that you talk about?
Marco Roso: Definitely. I mean we don’t actually talk about post-Internet, let’s put it that way. Right now there are so many people saying capitalism is the only option, and we don’t believe in that. I think we are engaging, in our work, in trying to find options. I like that quotation from Bruno Latour about the laboratory, where he says that the closer you are to science, the more possibilities, surprises and unexpected agencies open up. That’s what interests us.
Kolja Reichert: But what is the role of economics in all this? Hito, how is the hypercirculating flow of images of goods impacting our sense of history? Is history following the logic of financial speculation and its disconnect of information and material?
Hito Steyerl: That’s an interesting idea … I don’t know. But what I can tell you is that I think a sort of reversal is happening with the function of media. I think that nowadays a lot of capture devices that we still think of as recording something for posterity or for the present are rather being used to project a future, to basically reverse a futureto- be. I think that 3D renderings of malls also work in exactly in this way: they project a future to be built, of course, but also a whole social environment, with the ghosts that come with it and all of that. It’s a projection, not a representation.
Susanne von Falkenhausen: That makes me think of the new Apple headquarters in Cupertino, which, in my professional function as a historian, I see as part of a long tradition. It might have been interrupted or forgotten in the meantime, but it is not gone. It has to do with visualizing a utopian vision of the world, in this case an ideal sociality based on what Apple can sell. The architectural form of this Apple spaceship is in the tradition of spherical buildings that signify what we might call totalitarian concepts of the social. Mostly it’s an ideal future that is proposed to us in these circumstances.
Kolja Reichert: Is it only corporations that still can project the future today?
Susanne von Falkenhausen: It seems so. That’s certainly my impression.
Hito Steyerl: No, the good news is that as long as the image you capture is a record, you are always too late. It has happened already, you cannot change it anymore. It’s a document. So, if you start generating instead, then you have an option of what the future you are intending to generate is supposed to look like. That’s in fact very refreshing.
Kolja Reichert: What’s the role of the artwork in this? Frau von Falkenhausen, in your essay, you’ve just written that it seems like a stumbling block.
Susanne von Falkenhausen: Its characteristics as an object make it a stumbling block for circulation in the media, except when it’s photographed. But I feel some kind of resistance to talking about the artwork, it doesn’t seem a very important moment here in this discussion. Bigger things are on the table.
Hito Steyerl: Exactly, it’s not that relevant. That’s also one of the side effects of new media. The Internet is like a gutter, and following gravity everything will end up in there, be it art or basically everything else.
Kolja Reichert: Did we just say goodbye to art? After having said goodbye to the distinction between art and Instagram, maybe even between art and the culture industry? And also between the counterculture and corporate culture?
Susanne von Falkenhausen: Well, that’s a good way to cut through things and it’s difficult to react. I would like to ask artists what this means for their work. What kinds of competence and what practices should come out of this situation?
Hito Steyerl: I don’t know about competence, just about the payment. I wanted to point to that. The art economy has also changed dramatically in the past years. As an artist nowadays, you have the choice of begging for funding from a crumbling nation state, becoming a sort of lackey to oligarchs, or being an artist that sells work on the market. I totally do not object to that, but the economies are pretty restricted. New technologies have opened up a lot of new economic models, none of which are fully or even partially functional yet, but there are a lot of experiments that are trying to open up new forms of autonomy.
Marco Roso: It’s a good question, when you realize that one of the bigger collectors of paintings with Marxist content in New York is an arms trader. There’s always this question of where the money comes from, and how you engage with that.
Hito Steyerl: Absolutely, and most of us have solved the problem already by working in other jobs, and thus selfsubsidising the artistic practice, but is there something more functional that one could also do?
Kolja Reichert: Frau von Falkenhausen, in your essay you describe a hypercirculating economy that basically has no need for the physical object. But then, this very economy is pressing people to produce objects. There’s a contradiction in this, and I don’t know how it can be resolved, or if it can be made productive.
Susanne von Falkenhausen: It can’t be resolved. There will be people who collect objects and there will be people who enter the economy of digital image circulation or other models that might not be ready yet. As for the art market today, I have the impression that it is at an in-between phase between the object and market-oriented digital circulation. If the art market assembles itself again on the level of digital circulation, then the art object becomes a stumbling block. But perhaps there will always be some collectors who want objects with which to fill up their bunkers. So there is no way to decide which practice to choose to get out of the market. And I really have the feeling that there is no historical moment where artists tried to get out of the market in reality.
Audience Member 1: The poster for this event mentioned a new productivism. I am interested in whether you see signs of a sort of updated version of it, or is what we are seeing already is more of an embedding of the artist into the general production of today?
Hito Steyerl: Productivism, I think, had two parts, historically. There were artists that went to the factory and tried to change it, and then secondly there was the factory and bureaucracy who tried to change the artist – and they won, big-time. But both of them were productivists. I think basically similar things are happening now. It is grotesque to define production as circulation – and it’s not really correct – but anyhow, let’s say circulation is the factory and there are people that are trying to rewire that factory and intervene into circulation and rearticulate it. And then I think we are in the same situation: the corporations are already there, and they are doing it. This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to restructure the networks and to redesign circulation and think through it and find different ways of doing it. I think this is a very important question but we should not think that the other guys weren’t there first. It’s being done as we speak.
Audience Member 2: What I’m missing a bit is the discourse of the body, embodiment, and its relations to criticality or existence.
Hito Steyerl: I think these strict dichotomies between online and offline, including the body, are not sustainable. This also applies to the translation of objects from the screen to three-dimensional space and so on. Networked reality has pervaded everything else, including 3D reality. Bodies are networked to a certain degree, and the lack of networkedness of some bodies is also a function of the overnetworkedness of other bodies. On the other hand, someone asked the same question recently and the thing that occurred to me was that the physical, organic body is the only thing that can disappear nowadays, whereas your data cannot disappear ever again, it is unerasable, it is immortal, it will always be there. As for the tools, they are somewhere in between. You can lose your phone but then you can buy a new one, and in that sense the only thing that can disappear is the organic body. But your body is never only your body: it’s always tied to and formed by and informed by these projections.
Kolja Reichert: I think that would be a wonderful ending. The problem is, I still have one question. What we are talking about seems very much to be reducing the situation to us privileged underpaid cultural workers in the northern half of the globe, but I would like to ask if these changed conditions also have an effect on global asymmetries of agency. What about image strategies like those that came up during the Arab Spring, or the role of cameras more generally in the Middle East right now?
Hito Steyerl: I think that this is absolutely central, as I said at the beginning: I believe that the reason this whole image- production explosion is happening is because history has been unblocked, it’s moving again and things are happening everywhere. And this region in particular is where history is getting unblocked. Things become possible and impossible and tragic, but they also become unpredictable again. And I’m very happy that basically everything we’re talking about today, all these new aesthetics, new forms of cultural production, even new cultural economies are a function of that unblockage of history we are witnessing on such an amazing scale today.
Kolja Reichert: Thanks so much, that was a really good ending.
Hito Steyerl (*1966) is an artist, essayist and professor for media art at the University of the Arts in Berlin. Her work was featured in documenta 12 and has recently been shown at the ICA in London and the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. She is currently preparing her contribution to the German Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale.
Susanne von Falkenhausen (* 1951) is professor for modern and contemporary art history at the Humboldt University in Berlin. She has published seminal texts on the relationship of art, architecture and power. In 2011 a volume of her essays appeared under the title Praktiken des Sehens im Felde der Macht.
Lauren Boyle (*1983) studied at Pratt Institute. Marco Roso (*1971) studied at Barcelona University and at the University of the Arts in Berlin. In 2009, together with David Toro and Solomon Chase, they founded the collective DIS along with DISmagazine.com. DIS are the curators of the 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, which opens in 2016.
Kolja Reichert is a Berlin-based writer and an editor at Spike.