Chicago

Hito Steyerl, Adorno’s Grey (detail), 2012, still from the fourteen-minute twenty-second black-and-white HD video projection component (with sound) of a mixed-media installation additionally comprising four angled screens and a time line with text and images.

Hito Steyerl, Adorno’s Grey (detail), 2012, still from the fourteen-minute twenty-second black-and-white HD video projection component (with sound) of a mixed-media installation additionally comprising four angled screens and a time line with text and images.

Hito Steyerl

Hito Steyerl, Adorno’s Grey (detail), 2012, still from the fourteen-minute twenty-second black-and-white HD video projection component (with sound) of a mixed-media installation additionally comprising four angled screens and a time line with text and images.

For this expertly mounted exhibition of Berlin-based artist and writer Hito Steyerl’s work, curator Lisa Dorin installed six video projections throughout the Art Institute of Chicago’s modern wing. Dorin, describing Steyerl as a “riot grrrl” in her exhibition essay, ventured to consider the artist’s practice in terms of the issues around which that early-’90s movement coalesced. If riot grrrl challenged the veracity of the documentary, exploding its form, Steyerl’s work, in the artist’s own words, embraces images “passed on from hand to hand, copied and reproduced by printing presses, video recorders, and the Internet”—images that dramatize the ambiguity of their truth claiming.

The most recent works were presented here in a way that might be called video installation but which Steyerl prefers to describe as an attempt to materialize image as object. Such a procedure is compellingly pursued in the standout Adorno’s Grey, 2012, a single-channel, black-and-white HD video projected across a structure of four overlapping screens (designed by Berlin’s Studio Miessen). Shot in the lecture room at the Goethe University in Frankfurt where Adorno taught, the work begins with a former student recalling how the famed theorist had painted the walls gray “so as better to focus.” For about half of the video’s fourteen-minute run, two conservators are shown excavating the walls in search of this mythic gray. A second legend is soon introduced: On April 22, 1969, three female students walked up to Adorno, encircling him and exposed their chests. A blurry photograph of the German student movement SDS’s busenattentat (breast attack) appears at left before the screen fades to monochrome gray, emphasizing the mediation inherent in the most direct of actions.

On a long gray wall outside the projection space, short blocks of text paired highlights from Adorno’s life with references to modernist experiments with the monochrome, while, on the lower third of the wall, more text spelled out so many acts of protest. Split between projected video and static writing and apprehended by the viewer both from within and from outside the work’s material structure, Adorno’s Grey sites the viewer’s body within the piece, between the various points and formats of transmission, rendering its “truth” every bit as contaminated, and thus generative, as the “documentary” content that Steyerl uses as its base.

Guards, 2012, also employs video to investigate ingrained boundaries. Responding to a comment by a University of Chicago professor that museum guards should be armed so as to better protect the institution’s “cultural treasures,” Steyerl recorded museum security staff with military and law-enforcement backgrounds discussing how they might “activate their military experience, their occupational experience . . . within an art space.” She then projected this HD footage onto a column-shaped structure that mimicked the presence of an officer at his post. In the piece, we watch two guards recount experiences of violence while posing in front of artworks (composited with obvious special effects) and then as they pursue an absent “suspect” through the galleries. Later in the video, several paintings metamorphose into surveillance footage of “real” crime or compressed portraits of camouflage-clad figures, thus visualizing a cross-circuit between modernist abstraction and militarized formats that the artist leaves productively unresolved.

Thoughtfully selected earlier works, including grainy VHS tapes of “armed struggle, spread around the world by satellite TV” (November, 2004) and war crimes shot on mobile phones (Abstract, 2012), demonstrated the breadth of what “video” to Steyerl might mean. From the elusive neutrality of Adorno’s classroom to the glaring aesthetics of HD, Steyerl relates to video less as a coherent medium than as a critical practice that is no less expansive for all of its ambivalence. To read Steyerl through riot grrrl is to stress a shared goal: the necessity to generate, as Steyerl writes, “alternative forms.”

Solveig Nelson