Eurasian German Japanese filmmaker and writer Hito Steyerl produces film installations to comment and critique on current social and geo-political issues faced by world citizens that predominently deal with the globalization of the technological advances in communications, ubiquitous surveillance and media induced imagery, virtually-realistic (VR) computer animations, pop culture and war.
Compared to her German predecessor Harun Farocki, Steyerl offers a more light-hearted approach to such serious topics, using parody and pastiche together with insights gleaned as a middle aged woman in this youth-enabled world.
In How To Not Be Seen: A F_cking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013), she offers an educational video, didactically teaching viewers how not to be seen, which encompasses more than just being invisible, in this world of round-the-clock mass surveillance, which started as a research project on whether this was even possible in this day and age.
A parody of Monte Python’s comedy How Not To Be Seen, Steyerl starts off with a hand held optical resolution target, an object which measures and determines visibility and suggests a few obvious ways of making something invisible for the camera, such as hiding, removing, going off screen or making oneself ‘disappear’, as well as making something appear invisible in ‘plain sight’, by pretending, hiding, wiping, erasing or shrinking.
Then she reveals another resolution target except this one is revealed to be a video image of one painted on the ground in a desert, used for aircraft to focus their analog surveillance and targeting equipment, which has been decommissioned.
It is on this abandoned desert tarmac, a place that’s void of man-made imagery, that Steyerl begins to question the real and the illusionary by introducing characters wearing an ‘invisibility cloak’ and then a screen upon which a virtually realistic environment with ‘de-personalized’ characters and birds found in architectural renderings is projected.And within this screen she, through a male didactic voice, offers many ways of ‘disappearing’ which include living in a plush ‘gated community’ or military barracks, or just being in an airport, factory or museum. This subsequently transforms into being a commentary on the lot of whole segments of society like being a 50 year old woman, poor or undocumented persons or a ‘disappeared’ enemy of the state, all of which are implied to have been involuntarily ‘disappeared’ or made invisible.
These de-materialized birds which first appear within these plush architectural renderings, subsequently fly off the screen into view of the main camera, going from the illusionary virtual into what was previously thought to have been real, or perhaps a virtual augmentation onto reality.
The computer screen now becomes a screen showing a computer animated version of what viewers are seeing, with the horizon and perspective made to match between the real and the virtual.
The luxurious virtually realistic escalator tempts one to believe its really there.
The de-personalized characters begin to interact with whats happening in the real film footage.
And finally the Three Degrees has completely taken over the screen and is shown in the virtual, google earth background image of the resolution target, singing the nostalgic 1973 hit song ‘When Will I See You Again’.
That the title is ‘How Not To Be Seen’ instead of ‘How To Be Invisible’ encompasses more than just invisibility, it speaks not only of the plethora of instructional self-help texts and videos that focus on the negative, but also this linguistic phenomenon that the negated somehow becomes more prominent.
Why Steyerl has to wear karate clothing, to show us how to disappear, is a mystery. Perhaps it is reminiscent of Karate Kid (1984), or other martial arts movies, but it is ambiguous; for in traditional martial arts movies there is always a master-disciple relationship, but here it is unclear whether Steyerl is the master, which she should be as this is her film, but doesn’t appear so as the didactic male voice is the commanding one, while Steyerl obeys and carries out the commands.
Why it has be a ‘F_cking Didactic‘ Educational .MOV File is also a mystery. There is a certain amount of ambiguity in the word F_cking. Is it describing the amount of didacticness in the male voice, as in ‘Faaaarrrking Didactic…’, or is it describing the fact that this is another, God-forsaken, educational .MOV File, a reaction against main stream education like Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall? While I do not believe it suggests that the didactic male voice is actually F_cking something or someone, it might suggest that the Educational .MOV File is inherently, ‘F_cked’, like the rest of them.
The central premise – why one needs to not be seen in the first place, occurs when Steyerl finishes with a statement that over 170,000 people have ‘disappeared’ in the decades since the start of the digital revolution. And, she offers an explanation that disappeared people are annihilated, eliminated, eradicated, deleted, dispensed with, filtered, processed, selected, separated or wiped out, which are both military terms and words used in science, particularly computer science.
Just as in the Monty Python comedy sketch where Mr. so and so of such and such an address reveals himself and promptly gets blown up, here Steyerl states that some of life’s most important things like love, war, and capital are also invisible and so should we sometimes, when we want to, the argument goes.
Steyerl seems to say that the best way to deal with this situation is to merge with [this illusory] world [which is] made of images, which is to pixelate oneself. For once one has pixelated oneself, one becomes more pliable, more fluid, and thus much easier to hide, remove, fly off screen or erase oneself and disappear.
November (2003) is a film about Steyerl’s first movie that she wrote, produced and starred in as a teenager in 1983, together with Steyerl’s childhood friend Andrea Wolf who has ‘disappeared’ since 1998, during fighting for the Kurdish people against Turkey, yet lives on through a pixelated image as a martyr.
The film goes through the process of its creation, with inspiration derived and scenes copied directly from B-movies of the period that depict big breasted women administering justice by beating up ‘bad guys’.In the film, Steyerl’s character dies in a fight, but Andrea’s one manages to kill all the bad guys, with Kung Fu and by taking over their guns, and rides off into the sunset on a motorbike. In reality, Andrea rode off to her Kurdish homeland from Germany and fought beside her fellow freedom fighters and was captured during fighting and executed. In interviews beamed all over Kurdish TV, she is seen joyfully fighting for a new independent Kurdistan, while in a separate video clip, Steyerl can be seen sadly holding a candle at a protest rally for the Kurds fighting in Northern Iraq; both in fact, are staged. In reality, Andrea had to be seen to be joyfully fighting for the Kurdish cause or be executed by her suspicious commanders, and Steyerl didn’t have much idea of what was going on, and was only posing according to the wishes of the documentary director. This is what she calls ‘the labyrinth of the traveling image’, one in which both she and Andrea cannot escape; here she doesn’t get to tell the story or the ‘truth’ but ‘the story tells her’.
The power of the traveling image was witnessed in the dissemination of martial arts films, spurring an interest in it worldwide, while the opposite was witnessed in the Kurdish fight for independence; pictures of the war were gagged in the main stream media, it was de-disseminated, covered up.
But even these martial arts movies sometimes used to have their plot lines altered to cater to the tastes of the local audience of an alternative culture, even if it seems a bit absurd nowadays.
In Bruce Lee’s final movie, The Game Of Death (1978) Lee’s character was wounded, fakes his own death, using documentary footage from Lee’s funeral in reality, only to come back in the end, with the help of a look-alike to kill the ‘bad guys’. Many people at the time did not really believe he had died, and that all this was part of the show for his upcoming movie. While they were in fact partly right, they were still living in a state of dis-reality.
In the story of Andrea, she is killed during fighting, turned into a martyr by the Kurds, using pictures from Steyerl’s first film, but the opposition Turkish Government denies this and says she is alive and hiding somewhere. Somebody wants to disseminate dis-reality, depending on who you believe.
This is a film, a requiem for Steyerl’s personal friend, as well as a film about the power of traveling images, heros of war and martial arts, and the fine line between fiction and reality.