PRINT March 2018



Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War, by Hito Steyerl. London and New York: Verso, 2017. 256 pages.

ARTISTS WHO WRITE are nothing new, but recent years have seen the emergence of an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink interdisciplinarity that goes far beyond the traditional mixture of art and art criticism. The growing profile of theory in art schools and a sense of urgency in the face of both technological change and political instability has led artists such as Hito Steyerl not only to broaden their artistic practice but also, increasingly, to play the role of the public intellectual.

Operating within the area of contemporary art obsessed with the geopolitics of our dense media ecology (think Simon Denny, Omer Fast, Trevor Paglen), Steyerl stands out for her intense scrutiny of the latest developments in technology and her willingness to speculate on how these relate to aesthetics and the art world. In her 2012 volume The Wretched of the Screen, a collection of essays mostly first published in e-flux journal, the Berlin-based filmmaker sought to connect then-esoteric topics such as machine vision and Google Maps to global finance and contemporary art. Arguing, for instance, that low-quality copies of films or artworks downloaded from the internet are today’s digital lumpenproletariat (in an essay called “In Defense of the Poor Image”), she made an eloquent case for their potential to create “alternate audiovisual economies,” recalling Dziga Vertov’s utopian vision of film as the great socialist equalizer in Man with a Movie Camera (1929).

Steyerl’s recent book Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War continues in this vein, with fifteen essays pitched at the intersection of digital media, politics, and continental philosophy. She gleefully surfs everything from military 3-D imaging and printing to big data and corporate surveillance to computer gaming, finding in disparate events and phenomena the fingerprints of a neoliberal media order in which the old modernist notion of autonomy now refers to machines that communicate in codes—which she describes, with a rhetorical flourish, as “images”—that humans can neither read nor decipher.

But the new volume also gives a fresh turn to the neoliberal screw. Following Giorgio Agamben, Steyerl argues that we are now living in a condition of “planetary civil war.” She sees contemporary art as enabled in part by the rise of “asymmetric warfare,” operating in conjunction with “real estate speculation, tax evasion, money laundering, and deregulated financial markets.” She has an eye for vivid examples that embody, in her view, the confluence of art, capital, technology, and violent conflict—which she finds, for instance, in the reappropriation of a Soviet tank turned museum piece by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, and in a schmoozy letter from Rem Koolhaas to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad (published by Wikileaks; OMA refused to confirm its authenticity), in which he clearly seeks to win a museum commission only a year or so before the protests in the country devolved into open civil war.

Steyerl has an eye for vivid examples that embody the confluence of art, capital, technology, and violent conflict.

There’s an odd way in which this view of neoliberalism ends up affirming the libertarian myth of the “invisible hand of the market.” Steyerl discovers its workings just about everywhere, even in Alix Rule and David Levine’s skewering of poorly written press releases in their 2012 essay “International Art English.” Bafflingly, she suggests that this language challenges the normative English that comes out of corporate Anglo-American universities, and claims the problem is only that it hasn’t “gone far enough.” The corporatization of American universities is a real issue, but it hardly invalidates calling bullshit on the critical dross that cultural bureaucrats promulgate to feed the very art market she has declared her foe.

Money and power are never innocent bystanders, and that is as true in the world of contemporary art as anywhere else. Still, as Adorno once remarked, “the whole is the false.” Critical theory must avoid becoming as totalizing as the system it seeks to oppose. Painting everything with the broad brush of neoliberalism and globalization is counterproductive. Steyerl’s extensive reading is certainly admirable, but her faith in her theoretical vocabulary undercuts her point. The title essay of the volume suggests that the Geneva tax-free zone and freeport are somehow analogous to the lawless condition of the “state of exception” under which Yazidis were persecuted in Iraq and Syria. Well, no. There’s a lot to say about each of these things without the need to yoke them together using macro concepts not suitable for making fine distinctions. The analogy doesn’t hold.

Perhaps there’s a lesson here about the difference between art and theory—about how they should mutually inform each other but also recognize that they nevertheless demand distinct processes. One of my favorite of Steyerl’s artworks is her 2013 video How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File. It’s a disconcerting parody of twentieth-century instructional films that plays on the similarity between today’s computer-generated voices and the canned male voice-overs in educational movies that used to put middle-schoolers to sleep in the 1960s and ’70s. In this case, the analogy provocatively opens up a range of associations around cultural standardization then and now. In Duty Free Art, a comparable use of analogy enables critical overreach—and, sadly, threatens to leave us with another didactic .mov file.

Saul Anton is a writer and critic based in New York. He is the author, most recently, of Lee Friedlander: The Little Screens (MIT Press, 2015).