TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT May 2018

SOUND

WATER WORLD

Hito Steyerl, Liquidity Inc., 2014, HD video (color, sound, 30 minutes), wood, plastic, lounge seating. Installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 2017. Photo: Caitlin Cunningham.

THE FIRST TIME I saw Hito Steyerl’s Liquidity Inc., 2014, I didn’t actually see it—I could only hear it. It was opening night at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, which acquired the piece in 2015 but took it out of storage for the first time this past December. You know what it’s like to try and see anything at an opening, especially a thirty-minute video. The room was buzzy with chatter, and the viewing area was crowded with people lounging on beanbags, networking, posing, and making images of their own.

So I wandered into the next gallery, which was empty. It is almost always empty. The John Hancock Founders Gallery at the ICA is a corridor that runs the length of one edge of the building, with a glass wall facing Boston Harbor. The passage’s interior wall is white, but nothing hangs on it. Indeed, the only object on any of its walls is a glass panel at one end, etched with the names of the ICA building’s principal donors. This is a gallery dedicated to its own construction.

But just because a room contains no art doesn’t mean it is truly empty. This evening it was filled with sound flowing from the Paul and Catherine Buttenwieser Gallery next door, whereLiquidity Inc. was playing on a loop. I looked at the harbor out the window and listened to Steyerl’s watery soundtrack: snippets of Conrad Schnitzler’s “Tanze im Regen” (Dance in the Rain); Arthur Russell’s “Let’s Go Swimming” in its Walter Gibbons “Coastal Dub” mix, with bass-drum depth charges; and the Velvet Underground singing “Ocean” in the numbed, blissed-out version they rejected for release until the boxed-set era liberated the tapes from storage.

Just because a room contains no art doesn’t mean it is truly empty.

The water outside the window was black, but its motion was palpable. “This is what it is, OK?” said Bruce Lee from the room next door: “Empty your mind. Be formless. Shapeless. Like water. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

Put sound in a room, it becomes the room. Sound flows, like water—perhaps that is why we have adapted so quickly to streaming it. Can it also crash?

THE SECOND TIME I saw Liquidity Inc. I was the sole visitor. A gallery attendant and I watched the film from its opening Bruce Lee commands through the credits. The attendant stood. I lay down on a blue martial-arts mat placed before the screen and let its story flow and crash. It crashes repeatedly—like waves, like our computers, like the economy. Twenty minutes in, all three of those crashes coincide, and desktop messages begin to pop up on the screen.

“Budget canceled” says the first, with a cheery chime announcing its arrival. “Here comes the ocean . . .” sing the Velvet Underground. A text-message window opens, from the artist’s collaborator Brian Kuan Wood. “Austerity huh,” it says. “But oil money is flowing!” “Nervous breakdown cannot make Norway deadline,” answers the artist. “This means no budget for water CGI.”

“. . . and the waves, down by the sea,” sing the Velvets. The gallery attendant and I are looking at CGI water. More cheery chimes announce more emails, now arriving in a flood: “But we were building a raft for your installation!” says one. “Stop whining,” says another, from superego@artspam.com. Wood continues texting: “LMAO,” he types. “Could you ask that kid from Dubai to make CGI?” says the artist. “I did ask that kid from Moscow already,” comes Wood’s reply. “He’s broke.” A CGI tutorial window opens, explaining how to make “gorgeous, displaced, animated water.” Which is what we are looking at.

Hito Steyerl, Liquidity Inc., 2014, four stills from the 30-minute color HD video component of a mixed-media installation additionally comprising wood, plastic, and lounge seating.

THE THIRD TIME I saw Liquidity Inc. it was on my own computer screen, streaming from a password-protected site. Now I could freeze the flow whenever I chose. I took notes marked with time codes. I assiduously identified which mix of Arthur Russell’s “Let’s Go Swimming” is used on the soundtrack. I opened up a new window and read a long article commissioned by Red Bull Music Academy about Walter Gibbons and the New York City underground dance scene of the ’70s. The story ends tragically. I slipped in a DVD and the same screen showed me Matt Wolf’s 2008 documentary about Arthur Russell, Wild Combination. That ends tragically, too. I googled the Bruce Lee quote that opens Steyerl’s film, and found its source on YouTube—a 1971 broadcast on a Canadian television talk show, filmed shortly before Lee’s own tragic end. It is his only English-language television interview, presumed lost until tapes were discovered in storage in 1994.

I click back to the window with Liquidity Inc. It ends with a long-term weather report about the coming collapse of society as we know it. Is this tragic, too? A child in a balaclava and an oversize owl T-shirt that would have delighted Chris Marker delivers the latest forecast for tomorrow. It is grim, but the Weather Underground will be aiming orgone cannons at the information cloud in an attempt to bust it. “Back to the studio,” says the child, and credits roll.

Hito Steyerl is credited with “Nervous breakdown.”

THE NEXT TIME I saw Liquidity Inc. it was a cloudless day in Boston. I took the bus down to the stop nearest the ICA, the Courthouse station on the new Silver Line, in the recently renamed Seaport District.

This is the same area where my partner, Naomi, and I once rented a studio, back when it was called Fort Point. At the time it was home to some of the cheapest workspaces in Boston—walk-up warehouses with moribund businesses at ground level and artists above. Many of the artists lived illegally in their studios. We loved ours because of its cheap rent and its fantastic view, a wall of glass overlooking an artificial channel of water that had been cut into the neighborhood in the nineteenth century to facilitate the trade of cotton.

On the other side of a bridge across that channel is the heart of Boston’s financial sector. Its landmark Hugh Stubbins Jr.–designed tower is the First District headquarters of the Federal Reserve, the central banking system designed to control fluctuations in the US economy and minimize the effects of its periodic crashes. In September 2011, when Occupy Wall Street inspired a group of activists in Boston to start their own encampment, the protesters chose the small park across from this tower so that they would be visible from the Federal Reserve’s windows.

The warehouses we and other artists once occupied have been converted to condominiums, and the channel they face now has a tunnel beneath it. The stations on the new transit line into the neighborhood are cavernous, built for crowds of commuters. At the Courthouse stop, a handful of people exit the bus with me and head for the only one of the station’s escalators in operation. Aboveground, I reorient myself in these new streets filled with new towers by looking for a glimpse of the sea. The ICA, which opened its landmark Diller Scofidio + Renfro building in 2006, is no longer visible from anywhere but the water in front of it. It had been virtually isolated in this landscape for years, first as the “cultural cornerstone of the Fan Pier waterfront development,” according to its website, then as one of the few projects completed before the financial crash of 2008 brought a halt to the master plan that developers had conceived for the neighborhood.

Today those plans are in overdrive. LIVE INSPIRED, reads the sales banner pinned high to the condo tower looming over the entrance to the station. Signs at ground level advertise the retail amenities to come, each familiar from branches in similarly renamed districts around the globe. Or from the airport terminals always conveniently located nearby.

On this visit, the ICA is moderately busy, and I find myself focusing on the screen chosen for the projection of Steyerl’s film. It is suspended at one end of the gallery, with room to walk behind it; because the image is also visible from the reverse, it creates the illusion that the screen is transparent. But as people walk behind it, they neither cast a shadow nor enter the picture.

Those people behind the screen are moving toward the light emanating from the next room: the John Hancock Founders Gallery, which contains no art but does command a view of Boston Harbor through its long glass wall. Planes are taking off and landing at Logan Airport across the water, just ten minutes away via the tunnel. Directly below, a new dock has been constructed in front of the ICA’s waterside Putnam Investments Plaza—a private marina for pleasure boats. Boats to be owned, no doubt, by the future residents of luxury condominiums now under construction on both sides of this view.

To the left, a billboard announces that all units in this new tower have been sold prior to its completion. On the right, the skeleton of yet another complex is just beginning to rise on a jetty. FIND YOUR INNER HARBOR, says the banner outside its sales office.

“Water can flow, or it can crash,” says Bruce Lee, his words spilling into this otherwise empty gallery. I brace for the crash, as the sea rises and bursts through the glass. The sound is immense.

Damon Krukowski is a musician living in Cambridge, Massachusetts; the author of The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World (MIT Press, 2017); and the host of the podcast Ways of Hearing.