Exhibition: Martha Rosler & Hito Steyerl ‘War Games’, Basel
Martha Roesler (b. 1943) & Hito Steyerl (b. 1966) WAR GAMES (05.05.–02.12.2018) in Basel Kunstmuseum.
The title shows, it is about games and wartime. Analogies to online war games, simulations and connotations in context of Baudrillard’s conception of the Hyperrealism and the Simulacra (1994) with his comparisons of Disney Land with WaterGate and the Gulf war. The Simulacra that happens on a screen, a remote reality that become the only reality. The exhibition crossed several floors, with large installation, multiple screens projections, sculptural and wall visual imagery. As a visitor I was invited to walk through, to sit at times in chairs resembling aircraft or playstation seats and being more or less subimmersed in dense, high tech moving imagery, like in a control station or airport tower. I knew Martha Rosler from her war collages (House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home) that I looked at during my UVC course (see blog post), therefore excited to see some her works in situ.
Hito Steyerl very new to me. The companion text of the museum states that ‘Steyerl’s more recent video installations … are among the most advanced work done by visual artists in this medium today.’ (Kunstmuseum Basel, 2018). And one of her work was even called The Tower, a work based on a computer game by the company of Program-Ace based in Kharkiv, Ukraine. What felts somehow strange when reading it, as I lived and worked two years in that city between 2012/13 – together with my wife. How different the first reception is when one can place a memory or personal association with it, with words, with titles. It is a digital composite of images of post-war Iraq, views on Kharkiv, luxury homes simulations and military scenarios bundled in three screens 3D simulations – with the viewer seated in a flexible simulator seat. Rising the question what is real and what is fiction. A good representation of Baudrillard’s Simulacra.
I’ve tried to capture the screen imagery with my phone. and noticing only later that scenes were not captured but obviously the gap, the white in between. What in itself looks to me a different point of view, what is present or absent, what is visible or not, imagined, dreamed, or real (Fig. 1) A glitch or part of a deeper sense? Somehow I could related this to images we see – and still don’t see. As images of wars, simulation or real?
Fig 1: The Tower (2015) Three channel video installation, color, sound, chairs, 8:00min
The shown works were very much a critical interrogation of how visual imagery is presented to us in the current socio-political world, imagery that are made for a purpose. And visual technologies as remote systems, e.g. drones, that do not only act as surveillance cameras but actually kill
Martha Rosler continued with her series House Beautiful: Bringing War Home (2004-2008) that she started in 1967, with Vietnam war replaced by Iraq and Afghanistan War (Fig. 2). For me a step in connecting once more with my UVC studies.
Overall, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the installation especially of Steyerl’s work. Massive, intrusive, and quite unreal. Although the settings and the seat positions came at times close to cinematic experience, or to supervision and command.
As digital imagery is screen based – or projections onto a flat wall – the surface of just that screen is an object with an uniqueness of human-object relationship. One can only touch the surface although the images seem to be inside, behind. Steyerl looked at this especially in her work Strike (2010), a woman approaching a flat screen with a chisel and a hammer, smashing the liquid crystal display (Fig. 3), revealing an abstract pattern. but nothing behind – an illusion. I find this translation of digital into materiality and the transformation of the flat screen, a fetish, into an aesthetic object quite fascinating. I find the meta-picture elements quite interesting: the flat screen represented on a flat screen, the actor in the video versus the viewer of the artwork. The way of the installation of the display, on two thin pillars, makes the work vulnerable object. The display the woman smashes in the video resembles quite strongly the display installed in the museum in the other room (Fig 3 – right in the background Is the Museum a Battlefield?, see also Fig. 7)
Steyerl ‘sees artistic work with mass media images as a form of resistance against the normalized conditions of power withon society and the unreasonable demands they make on us’ (exhibition guide Kunstmuseum Basel, 2018).
In the OCA discuss forum various discussion went around photography and text, meaning and question of titles. I felt reminded of these discussions when I saw Rosler’s work The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974/75), a series of 45 gelatin prints of typewritten text and images, assembled and displayed on 24 boards, a quite formal presentation. There is a discrepancy between the photographs of storefronts the Bowery street, a ‘trouble spot’ in Manhattan, known for alcoholism, transiency and clubs. The text is neither illustrating nor explaining, it adds another layer and opens up for free association. Another approach to address how we do representation.
Where I couldn’t get a real sense of Hito Steyerl as a person, for me somehow hidden behind the hi tech imagery, I could sense a bit more of Martha Rosler. She displayed a collection of her books on a table, books that inspired or influenced her in the past. That table was framed by display of collages hanging at the wall – of books:
One thing I learned was how many video art works were on display. some were in the range of 4-8 mins, but many as well over 30 mins and one even over 60 mins. Overall, the duration of all video on display summed up approx 230 mins., nearly 4 hours screen time. I am wondering whether the total duration has something to do with the content of the exhibition. Nevertheless, one had to split this over several days if one would see all, or to be selective. But how to discern? And not to forget that visual images and installations need time to see and reflect on as well.
Compared to other contemporary exhibitions, I can see how relevant video art became. Although started in the 1960s as an experimental approach, some video installations e.g. Is the Museum a Battlefield? (2013) are based on actual presentations in other forums (here Steyerl given a lecture at the 13th Istanbul Biennale in 2013). A complex and subversive work, that addresses the war between the Turkish army and PKK members, the role of her as an artist and the story of her friend Andrea Wolf, who was killed 1998 during that war somewhere. Steyerl made her first film of her and her friend in 2004 November, and this current work has this all as a subject. The munition that killed her friend was manufactured by a company who was also the sponsor of the Biennale. A discourse of artist role artist ideal, the business models of art institutions, funding. and how we are embedded and influenced by collective paradigm. The sandbox with projections from the top onto it did complement the split presentation and brought not only her lecture at the Biennale but also her own story in a new art space context. I had to research a bit after it to truly understand the entire dimension of that work.
I left the exhibition (actually I was once again pushed out as the museum was going to close for that day) with mixed emotions. On the one hand overwhelmed by the hi tech media installations, and on the other hand by the condensed and long films that I could not really look deeper into. And a feeling of being helpless, and not knowing what to take personally for my own work from here.
Learnings and Take away
- The glitch me trying to capture digital simulation images with my phone, could be translated to a different level. A glitch as metaphor for us not able to see reality behind the surface imagery of power relations.
- The question of digital and materiality, the liquid crystal display as metaphor or as fetish.
- The medium is also the message, eg Strike by Hito Steyerl: the flat screen as display, as object smashed, and as metaphor for the conditions of mass media images
- Extended video works. e.g Is the Museum a Battlefield? are so embedded in socio-political narratives alongside the artist’s own biography that it hard to understand the essence completely without additional viewing and reading
- What do I take personally from here? I feel more connected with Marta Rosler and her approach to look at the private and domestic side of the conditions of mass media circulation and wars.
- I feel as if the duration of video art and films are going to be longer and longer, works are becoming lectures and lectures are becoming art work. But what is art? Is it the art space of the museum, or is the critical position of the maker as an artist? I do not understand, the featured image of this post states my state of mind.
- All photographs taken by me on exhibition site, if not indicated otherwise
- Featured Image: Martha Rosler A Simple Case for Torture, or How to Sleep at Night, 1983, Single-channel video, color, sound, 61.46 min; photo: StefanJSchaffeld
- Kunstmuseum Basel (2018) Martha Rosler & Hito Steyerl, WAR GAMES, Gegenwart/ 05.05.–02.12.2018 / Curator: Sǿren Grammel, [online], At: https://kunstmuseumbasel.ch/en/exhibitions/2018/rosler-steyerl (Accessed 25 June 2018).