Hito Steyerl

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

2013

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On display at Tate Modern

Artist
Hito Steyerl born 1966
Medium
Video, high definition, projection, colour
Dimensions
Duration: 14min
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased with assistance from Mark McCain 2016
Reference
T14506

Summary

How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File 2013 is a fourteen-minute, single-channel video projection. It consists of five chapters or lessons, each proposing ironic and often humorous ways in which an individual can prevent themselves from being captured visually by digital technology, and adopts the structure and tone of an instructional presentation. Featuring the artist and other actors, including members of the crew that helped to shoot it, and narrated by an automated male voice with an English accent, the video addresses the condition of hyper-visibility that emerged in the early 2010s following developments in the way digital images can be created and disseminated, and archived online for the purposes of surveillance. The title of the video makes reference to a sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a British comedy series that was broadcast on BBC One between 1969 and 1974. In the original satirical sketch, ‘How Not to Be Seen’ purports to be a British government film explaining the importance of remaining invisible within a landscape. The video was produced in an edition of ten, of which this copy is number five, plus two artist’s proofs.

As the narrator explains in the video, ‘resolution determines visibility; whatever is not captured by resolution is invisible’, which is why the artist chose to shoot the video at a crumbling concrete resolution target in the California desert, once used by the US Airforce to test the resolution of aerial cameras. There Steyerl set up a green screen – a special effects prop used for composing and overlapping two images – against which much of the footage was shot.

Each lesson is introduced by a text, for example, ‘Lesson I: How to make something visible for a camera’. The first three chapters feature the artist facing directly at the camera performing instructions articulated by the narrator in front of the green screen. One proposition is to camouflage oneself, which the artist demonstrates by covering her face with green paint. Another tactic suggested by the automated voice is to become smaller than the size of a pixel. To illustrate this, three individuals appear on camera wearing pixel-like black or white boxes and dance slowly, possibly making an art historical reference to modernist theatre productions. An aerial shot of a black and white pixel target – a more contemporary version of the resolution target – remains as a backdrop, rendering them apparently invisible. Other strategies are to live in a gated community or in a militarised zone, to get caught in a spam filter, or simply to walk off screen. After these tactics are outlined, the film crew disappears from the resolution target and a video clip starts playing on the green screen to the 1974 chart hit ‘When Will I See You Again’ by the soul group The Three Degrees. At the same time, a series of humorous notes, which appear to be directions from the artist (for example, ‘pixel hijack camera crane’) signal the conclusion of the video.

How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File connects Hito Steyerl’s career as a documentary filmmaker (with films such as November 2004 and Lovely Andrea 2007) with her theoretical research and her artistic interests, specifically focused on digital culture. This is particularly visible in the work’s title, which ends with a reference to the .MOV digital multimedia file format in which the video was saved. It also offers an articulated but ironic reflection on the transition from the analogue to the digital era, and the role of the digital image in the representation and production of reality. The work incorporates the tradition of the cinematic essay – characterised by the films of Marguerite Duras, Hara Kazuo, Chris Marker, Alexander Kluge, Black Audio Film Collective and Harun Farocki – and maintains a connection with Steyerl’s prolific production of essays and performative lectures on the subject of moving images. In an influential text dating from 2009, she declared:

Poor images are poor because they are heavily compressed and travel quickly. They lose matter and gain speed. But they also express a condition of dematerialization, shared not only with the legacy of conceptual art but above all with contemporary modes of semiotic production ... The history of conceptual art describes this dematerialization of the art object first as a resistant move against the fetish value of visibility. Then, however, the dematerialized art object turns out to be perfectly adapted to the semioticization of capital, and thus to the conceptual turn of capitalism. In a way, the poor image is subject to a similar tension.
(Hito Steyerl, ‘In Defense of the Poor Image’, e-flux journal, no.10, November 2009, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/in-defense-of-the-poor-image/, accessed 31 January 2015.)

How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File elaborates on the position of the conceptual artist as a militant figure who, through the artistic techniques available to her and her own body, opens a dialogue with the spectator built upon non-conventional systems such as jokes and estrangement, and balances cultural critique, entertainment and self-deprecation. Accordingly, it can be situated within a tradition of early video work that critiques the practice of art and moving images, such as John Baldessari’s videos from the 1970s I am Making Art 1971, How We Do Art Now 1973 and the instructional video Teaching a Plant the Alphabet 1972.

Further reading
T.J. Demos, ‘Traveling Images: Hito Steyerl’, Artforum, vol.46, no.10, Summer 2008, pp.408–413, 473.
Hito Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen, Berlin 2012.
Nick Aikens (ed.), Hito Steyerl: Too Much World – The Films of Hito Steyerl, exhibition catalogue, Van Abbenmuseum, Eindhoven and Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane 2014.

Andrea Lissoni
January 2015

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