“Free Plots” (2019) by Hito Steyerl. Photo: Abby Burns

Hito Steyerl shapes a future out of free plots instead of free ports

In Hito Steyerl: This is the Future, the first major solo exhibition in Canada for German filmmaker and writer Hito Steyerl, she actively confronts viewers with her critique of the world. She localizes the global and makes the political personal. And she articulates her message so that it is too loud, too bright, and too exciting to ignore.

"Free Plots" (2019) by Hito Steyerl. Photo: Abby Burns
“Free Plots” (2019) by Hito Steyerl. Photo: Abby Burns

The exhibition tackles a diverse range of themes from artificial intelligence and art collecting to food sustainability through a 15-year survey of Steyerl’s work. The show recently opened in Toronto at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), with several of Steyerl’s important musings, critiques and double takes on contemporary technology and art. What is particularly interesting is how she chooses to communicate those ideas with her audience: that is, without the pomp of a world renowned artist-intellectual.

In Free Plots (2019), Steyerl highlights the disparities between private and public in both land and art. With Hell Yeah We Fuck Die, she questions the ethics of our will to technological progress. But rather than relying on her own authority or deploying specialized art/tech-historical references, she frames these issues such that they may be felt by anyone who enters the gallery. 

Using immersive and large-scale video installations, sensory stimulation, and local and pop cultural references, Steyerl includes audiences in her critique of real-world injustices for an engaging and impactful gallery experience. 

Before our exhibition walkthrough, Curator Adelina Vlas introduced Steyerl as an artist uniquely critical of the system she participates in. In 2017, Steyerl topped ArtReview’s Power 100 as the single most influential person in contemporary art. Despite, or perhaps because she is beloved by industry and institution alike, Steyerl regularly makes work subverting both. 

In Free Plots – the first work visible upon entering the show from the elevators – Steyerl takes aim at private art buyers and their use of free ports. As a nearby didactic plate explains, free ports are storage facilities in tax-free zones equipped to house and conceal luxury goods, namely priceless works of art. Ostensibly a pair of wooden planters, Steyerl’s Free Plots, are built in the shape of two infamous free ports, one in Geneva and one in Panama. Inside these free plots, stinging nettle, marigold and jasmine grow from manure. As Vlas recounted, Steyerl purchased this manure and financed the project with money she earned selling one of her artworks, which the buyer had promptly stashed in free port storage. 

Thankfully, Free Plots goes a step beyond equating tax evasion and art hoarding with manure. By collaborating with community gardens to see that the manure is used, Steyerl transforms this by-product of a seriously exclusive use of land into one of the most democratic uses of it, says Vlas. Moreover, she restores something to the public in the place of an artwork lost to private storage. 

What is also interesting about Free Plots is Steyerl’s site-specific reiteration of it. For the first version exhibited in New York City, Steyerl collaborated with the El Catano Community Garden out of East Harlem. Now in Toronto, Free Plots is a shared effort with Parkdale-based Milky Way Garden, an urban agricultural space beside the Parkdale Library (87 Milky Way) that serves mostly Tibetan newcomers in the local community.

A blurb on the AGO website states, “Working with a Toronto community garden, the artist… bring[s] the planters to life inside the exhibition.”

It is not only true that with the help of the garden, the planters grow life, but that as artwork and as a critique, the planters come alive for their viewers against the backdrop of Toronto origins. As I understand it, these neighbourhoods, East Harlem and Parkdale, and their respective community gardens are in part significant because they are local. Parkdale is just a 20-minute streetcar ride from the AGO. Steyerl indulges the audience’s connection to their city. She borrows from the world we know in order to drive home the seriousness of her charges against the global capitalist art industry. 

“Hell Yeah We Fuck Die” (2016) by Hito Steyerl. Photo: Abby Burns
“Hell Yeah We Fuck Die” (2016) by Hito Steyerl. Photo: Abby Burns

I found the rest of This is the Future to be similarly engaging. As journalist Kimberley Bradley writes in the New York Times about Steyerl’s work: “Politics are served up with appealing, accessible pop-culture aesthetics, sardonic humour and the odd four-letter word.” At the AGO, multimedia installation Hell Yeah We Fuck Die (2016) fills the better part of a large room. Named for the five most commonly used words in pop music, Hell Yeah We Fuck Die is three video screens mounted in a stark parkour gym. Chunky light-up block words: “hell, yeah, we, fuck, die,” punctuate this built environment in a font reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto’s. Steyerl meets viewers, that don’t know or don’t like contemporary art, halfway with this cheeky juxtaposition of swear words in an art gallery and bouncy techno accompaniment. 

However, to say that Hell Yeah We Fuck Die is accessible is not to say that it is easy. The piece gives the surreal feeling that you are inside a video game, but the comfortable distance afforded by the screen and hand controls is collapsed. This disquieting experience is made more so by the three videos; robots struggle to move forward only to succumb on loop to the conditions of relentless experiment. Steyerl’s assurance that: “no robot was hurt during filming” is of little comfort. 

Steyerl remains adamant that she doesn’t want to make films “that are so specialized that they’re only accessible to people with prior knowledge or histories or references,” (NYT). But that needn’t mean that her work is condescendingly cheerful.

In Hell Yeah We Fuck Die, she achieves something both accessible and effective by appealing to, or rather, violently engaging with, the senses. The music, the lights and the disturbing footage amount to a sensory experience that in our daily encounters with technology we would simply turn down, turn off, or turn away from. Similar, of course, to the social issues that we chose to ignore.

Rather than hang passively on the walls like paintings, Steyerl’s built environments and large constructions explode outwards filling space and demanding embodied audience participation. With large, widely dispersed sculptural elements and music echoing throughout, Hell Yeah We Fuck Die becomes indistinguishable from the room it inhabits. Though you can find tours of certain iterations on Youtube, to experience Hell Yeah We Fuck Die at the gallery is to walk right into it and let it engulf you. 

In Liquidity Inc. (2014), a blue structure curls up from underneath a video projection screen like a wave. It makes on-screen themes concrete, giving them physical presence in the same space as viewers. Its cushioned surface is inviting; you can sit and sink into it to view the mesmerizing film.

Appreciating the experience of Steyerl’s installations is contingent on becoming a part of them. Not only does she remind us as viewers that the world she criticizes is the same one that we live in, but by leaving us to wander freely in these artificial spaces, she charges us with a responsibility for our actions in this world. 

Steyerl has a lot to say, and she has left me with a lot to think about. Regretfully, Hell Yeah We Fuck Die and Free Plots were the only two works I managed to reflect on in any detail. I encourage anyone and everyone to get to the AGO to see them all, and to experience their demands in person. Hito Steyerl: This is the Future is open now until February 23, 2020. 

by Maya Burns – Toronto, Ontario, Canada

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