Ghost World

Images have become not only animate, but incarnate.

Still from Hito Steyerl, HOW NOT TO BE SEEN: A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File. 2013, Still image, single screen 1080p .mov file, 14min. © Hito Steyerl. Edited in TextEdit by Rachel Ossip, 2018.

Hito Steyerl. Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War. Verso, 2017.

Have you ever opened a JPEG as a text file? If not, find a stray image, something from your desktop. I’m using a photo my father texted to me, of a hospital bill (mine) accidentally mailed to his address.

If you’ll need your image later, make a copy. Then rename the file, change the extension from .jpg to .txt, and open it.

I get:

. . . %R bplist0 0OŸÍ”–;Ó͉ÁÔÏÏÛÚ “ÊÈ” ˛§ ÓÊ© ∞’flÌÙˆ — ‘ı — ¸ Õ°Ò·°ú≈” ÏۘÌ˚€Ï“£¯ Ÿù¶¿ºÂ ÓÛÕ”¸ ◊Í”§˙Œù ؅؟ÊÈ’·˛ŸÙ·≈¸Á–Ÿfi® — ‡›÷ — ‘‘…ÈÎÚü À€Ã ◊Œfl ı÷ƒ·ÎÓ

샟Àˇ˜

˜“¿‡‚‚çº÷»

˘‘¿„fifl䥑ƒ”‡ È‹„Ñ؃≈!˚ˇÊøȇÌ!Ç©¡ø”˘ı¯ÌîÎÂÔ(}†ªª˜Û¯Ùí‡Í˜$ó≥±Û˙ÓÔÓ넯}èßØ˚ıÏÁ뉘˚{å¢Æbplist00‘UflagsUvalueUepoch YtimescaleËêñ.ü;ö #-/8:

?9Òˇˇ˛otŒˇˇ˘ˇ¯608E54A0-83D1-4207-9FC0-0E0F9D9AEF4BSS

. . . et cetera.

This cryptic heap is the language of the contemporary image. On-screen images and even most we encounter IRL are made of such incomprehensible strings. Some lines are decipherable: a paragraph in, my bill reads, “Apple iPhone 6s back camera 4.15mm f/2.2,” which means that it was taken with my father’s iPhone camera using a large aperture. The light in his kitchen was low; it must have been night.

In a JPEG, these garbled glyphs are mostly encoded cosine functions, charting the location, luminance, and color of each pixel. If I’m feeling playful, I’ll muck around — delete bits, add a message — then resave the file as a JPEG. Today, a few lines of pixels shift a centimeter to the left, shearing the aggressive suggestion “TO MAKE CREDIT CARD PAYMENTS.”

I find it unnerving that most of the images we encounter are really just text — or, perhaps more accurately, data. Even when we know they’re constructed, images that read as photographic retain some pretense of being “real,” or at least reliable. Like finally dissecting the frog, it’s jarring to vivisect an image and see its innards: one thing to read about and diagram the organs, quite another to slosh around in the guts.

It’s rare to encounter these guts unless you go looking for them. But in Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War, a new collection of essays by the German filmmaker and writer Hito Steyerl, several images appear inside out. The first begins, “DES9N7rPC81pzrIjW3tXOkrDmus/mEzfTEHOsFRq9eq3k,” and is captioned like a typical image: “A pillar at Göbekli Tepe, Turkey, showing a vulture, a crane, and a man without a head.” It continues: “OJr+CVVSOhjXuSSPVNHIrt8JIDUts529L . . .” Steyerl never acknowledges this atypical presentation. Instead, she delves into the unintelligibility of the contemporary image, warning that the consequences of such images may resist comprehension in equal measure.

Chemicals and contrast no longer make images. Instead, Steyerl writes, images are “coded as pulses of light or magnetic charges or long lines of seemingly random letters.” Often, they cannot be seen. In addition to the class of digital images we might consider subconscious — screenshots, scans, and snapshots, generated as records but not “images” as such — there is another we might call unconscious, a further layer of map skins, conjoined CSS sprites, and tracker pixels one encounters but does not actually see. At the same time, images largely make our world, modeling futures and thus creating the conditions for such futures to exist. We render our fantasies and export them to the physical, scripting plastic pistols for 3D printing; photoshopping fleshy butts into bubbles we then squat to replicate with our real-life asses; erecting AutoCAD buildings to set the scene for our psychodramas or, more likely, to loom over our impoverished suffering.

When studying works of art, or visual media, we know the litany of questions to ask to decipher an image. Who made the image, and how, and why? What does it show, intentionally and unintentionally? What is its purpose? What does it do? These questions, popularized by John Berger and others, have spread well beyond the academy and the art world to form the baseline of media literacy. But as images proliferate exponentially and their conditions grow more opaque, deciphering them becomes more difficult — not least because humans are no longer privileged interpreters. Machines interpret images, too, and make decisions based on their interpretations. So how, Steyerl asks, “will people evolve in order to adapt to an environment modeled on unintelligible imagery?”

Steyerl has written several now canonical texts on how power intersects with image production in the art world. Her two most influential essays, “In Defense of the Poor Image” and “In Free Fall,” from just before and after 2010, respectively, glorify the low-resolution (or “poor”) image and explicate the ways in which top-down perspectives such as satellite imaging have unmoored visual culture. Duty Free Art follows up with fifteen others that similarly reveal the ways in which a layperson is affected by images whose creation, circulation, and influence stray further and further from intuitive evaluation.

Today, these texts do not seem particularly groundbreaking; they tend to reiterate the chaotic callouts and reflections that fill all but the farthest-right corners of media, social and otherwise, since Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. (“People will peer in from afar, conclude they can’t understand what’s going on, and keep watching cat videos,” Steyerl writes in “How to Kill People: A Problem of Design.”) When the essays collected in Duty Free Art were originally published, however, some as early as 2011, they felt prognostic. Writing on technology and war, Steyerl observes, “Tanks are coordinated with databases, chemicals meet excavators. . . . Warfare, construction and destruction literally take place behind screens.” Duty Free Art highlights the opacity of such technologies, how “not seeing anything intelligible is the new normal.” As data piles up, vision “is replaced by filtering, decrypting, and pattern recognition.”

To flay the image and show its guts is therefore not just a stylish move for Steyerl; it redirects attention to the constructed nature of images. In “Her Name Was Esperanza,” Steyerl cites J. L. Austin’s speech-act theory, which points beyond words’ function as tools of representation to their roles as active catalysts. “Words make worlds,” Steyerl writes. “They can destroy them as well.” What Steyerl works toward, and what we require, is image-act theory. Images also make worlds. They can destroy them as well.


Steyerl was born in Munich, in 1966. She studied film in Japan and Germany and received a PhD in philosophy from the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. She has exhibited on the biennial circuit since 2004, gaining acclaim over the past decade for her genre-bending documentaries, queer essay films that merge live action, screen captures, green screens, and cloned Maya renderings. In all her chosen media, Steyerl asks us to consider what kinds of violence these new ways of seeing and new forms of images have allowed for, or have been created to deploy. Ironically, this work secured her the top position of ArtReview’s 2017 Power 100 list, a mysterious ranking of the art world’s most influential figures usually reserved for curators, collectors, and dealers. Given Steyerl’s remit, the honor seems undermining.

In early September 2015, while speaking at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Steyerl was asked if there were “specific ways of thinking about [her] practice in relation to past art” that she found most compelling. In response, she described Göbekli Tepe, “the oldest ritual structure in the world,” located in southern Turkey. Göbekli Tepe predates Stonehenge by some six thousand years and, in its region, preceded everything we think of as the foundations of culture: the wheel, pottery, domesticated animals, agriculture. Klaus Schmidt, the archaeologist who led the major excavation of Göbekli Tepe, believed that the construction of the site — its megalithic structures and pillars carved with complex imagery — drove these hunter-gatherers to organize agriculture and villages. The supposition inverts the narrative of humanity’s gradual shift from berry picking to farming and herding, a lifestyle that is commonly said to have allowed for stability and, only then, culture. At the talk, Steyerl provided a quick gloss of this background; it was just a base for her larger point:

By creating these images on these pillars, the people of the time managed to create a completely different social organization . . . they were hunters and gatherers, and then they became some kind of tribe that definitely had some form of social hierarchy. So by making these images they completely changed the way they were living together. That’s really the question that intrigues me. What kinds of structures are we creating nowadays by making all these images? How are we changing the way we live together, what kind of states or tribes or whatever it is are being created by this widespread practice of making images, by this mass activity?

In “Medya: Autonomy of Images” — an essay that traces changes to the camera lens as it has shrunk and lodged itself in our cell phones, exploding into “shards” that penetrate “people’s lives, feelings, and identities, skimming their ideas and payments” — Steyerl reframes the question. What if “art created the division of labor,” and the images at Göbekli Tepe “became a model for creating a different, and likely more unequal, social reality”? What if we’re still living with the consequences of this division today? This possibility imbues images with a great deal more power than we generally afford them, and creates a greater sense of urgency for the enormous task of image interpretation.

“Medya” builds directly on the Ontario talk, which is typical of Steyerl’s practice. She lectures frequently and, in doing so, seems to develop in public ideas that later congeal in video or text. Steyerl considers writing and video making to be “wildly different” practices, like “being a carpenter and a weaver at the same time.” Adhering to this metaphor, one can imagine the whole of her work as something like a couch — possessing both a wooden frame and a plush, upholstered exterior. Most of her pieces have a sibling, or two, in another medium. She delves into a line of questioning from various angles, “working on one phenomenon with different means.”

Regardless of its final form, all Steyerl’s work is essayistic. Her video pieces are considered part of the loose genre of the “essay film” — most often associated with Chris Marker, Harun Farocki, and Jean-Luc Godard — in which a variety of filmic forms and styles blend to form an argument. In Steyerl’s videos, images and ideas commingle and questions are asked in explosions and cross fades, rather than 11-point Sabon type.

Factory of the Sun, for example, first exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2015, shuttles between various familiar video frameworks (a news program, a YouTube star’s dance clips, video game tutorials) to form a sci-fi fable that pivots around the commodification of sunlight. Sleek figures in golden spandex generate sunlight by performing specific movements in a motion-capture studio. These workers then form a resistance by learning viral dance moves, which are also adopted by a troupe of anime martyrs, who gyrate and tell of their deaths in uprisings across the globe. Replace the word sun with image and the moral becomes clear: this is a story about images as energy, and how their creation (or extraction) is often a form of exploitative labor. That it is told in video, not text, makes sense. Why, in an era so defined by visual channels, is writing still the privileged medium for critique? Why not video?

Maybe the question is better asked as an affirmative. How can one think, argue, and assert differently in images? Not by thinking about images, or creating images made to be thought about, but by thinking in images? Instead of serving as objects of critique or fertile grounds on which critics and theorists can graze, an image can be an idea. Steyerl’s videos are entertaining and visually interesting. But the ways in which they are beautiful, startling, or enjoyable are in service of their argument.


Steyerl’s 2013 satire HOW NOT TO BE SEEN offers an ideal entry point to her work. It’s short, and typifies much of what makes her an interesting thinker. Parodying an educational video after the Flying Circus sketch of the same name, it begins with a slow, mechanical voice-over tripping laboriously over basic English phrases, alienating even the most fluent. The computer — the image — speaks, and by telling us how not to be seen (“There are four ways to make something invisible for a camera: To hide. To remove. To go offscreen. To disappear.”) illuminates all the ways in which we are seen: constantly, by cameras of all shapes and sizes, not least of all satellites.

Like much of Steyerl’s work, HOW NOT TO BE SEEN is both an exploration of video as a medium and a reminder of the overlap formed by the Venn diagram of warfare and imaging technologies. Resolution targets — standardized arrangements of black-and-white bars and numbers (and, later, pixels), arguably the stars of HOW NOT TO BE SEEN — are used to calibrate images in everything from film cameras to microscopes to satellites. In the mid-20th century, the US Air Force installed resolution targets in California’s deserts; now, advanced aerial imaging technologies have enabled both mass murder in the form of drone warfare and an Oscar-winning chase scene in the James Bond movie Skyfall. Appropriately, the oblong shape formed by two intersecting circles, as in a Venn diagram, is called a lens.

Steyerl’s work is full of this kind of significant wordplay. Several of the essays in Duty Free Art revolve around such conceptual slant rhymes, coincidences of nomenclature, and homonyms-as-metaphors. In her lectures, too, Steyerl slips from topic to topic, returning to ideas and phrases as if they’re refrains. Seemingly insincere, jokey phrases flip and become the nexus of an argument. Concomitance carries weight. A border of an image can be like the border of a nation-state; tension accumulates at an edge. For an image, the tension lies in the difference between the logics created within the picture plane and outside it. For nation-states, it is often the same — tension between colliding desires, incompatible ways of understanding, communicating, and seeing.


Though she calls herself a filmmaker and writer, Steyerl is an exemplar of the contemporary international artist-theorist-writer whom e-flux — guild of the art-world intelligentsia post-2008 — created their journal to publish. e-flux also hosted Steyerl’s first solo show in the US, in 2012, and their stars have risen together. The majority of e-flux journal pieces have a similar texture: name-dropped theorists, socio-techno-political current events, and left politics, all simmered in art jargon. Endless additional, unfortunate copycats were spawned from this work, spreading across the white walls of contemporary galleries and thesis presentations alike. Most are insufferable, fueled by a kind of artspeak that sounds hyperintelligent but is unreasonably difficult to parse, the dense weave often just a scrim for nonsense. The result is phalanxes of aesthetes who wear theorists as dazzle camo. Adorno! Deleuze! Heidegger! Dialectic! Rhizomatic! Object-oriented! I step into openings full of young artists, and step out feeling disoriented and abused, slapped into submission by fast-flung signifiers.

Fortunately, Steyerl pushes forward in pursuit of sense, even as she delves into nonsense. Alix Rule and David Levine’s 2012 essay “International Art English” chastised the jargon-laden deviance of English in the art world. In response, Steyerl wrote “International Disco Latin,” in which she reliably comes to the defense of the failed copy and perverted translation. Rather than chastise the garbled faux poetics of the gallery paper, often written by unpaid interns and low-wage gallery girls for whom English is a second or third language, Steyerl calls for an even more bastardized art language, a multicultural dialect taken to excesses to oppose colonial power. International Disco Latin — her ideal — “is a queer Latin made by splashing mutant versions of gender across assumed nouns.”

While e-flux journal has since attracted many similarly sharp artist-theorist-writers, Steyerl remains distinct. Perhaps it’s the sheer pleasure of her work, with its dark humor and musical language, that sets her apart. At the Bienal de São Paulo in 2016, Steyerl exhibited a text-sculpture-as-parkour-course paired with an instructional video, all entitled Hell Yeah We Fuck Die. This almost coherent phrase is just the five most common words in contemporary pop-song titles. What more do we need to know to get the sinking feeling that we’re all screwed?

In her loose formal spirals, Steyerl manages to capture the dizzying stream of critically significant nonsense that composes contemporary life and global politics. To do so in language, Steyerl often employs a signature move: a list that spills into a cascade of capitalist doom-whimsy, tinged with sarcasm. Take this paragraph from “If You Don’t Have Bread, Eat Art!: Contemporary Art and Derivative Fascisms,” which unmasks the destruction of the public sector in the name of “anti-elitism” as yet another guise for the exacerbation of inequality in our landscape of branded stupidity:

Yay for expensive craft and anything vacuous that works in a chain-hotel lobby. Plastiglomerate marble, welded by corporate characters banging on about natural selection. Kits for biological “self-improvement .” Crapstraction, algostraction, personalized installations incorporating Krav Maga lessons. Religious nailpaint will slay in all seasons, especially with a Louis Vuitton logo. Hedge-fund mandalas. Modest fashion. Immodest fashion. Nativist mumbo jumbo. Genetically engineered caviar in well-behaved ethnic pottery. Conceptual plastic surgery. Racial plastic surgery. Bespoke ivory gun handles. Murals on border walls. Good luck with this.

Observe the horrific spectacle of accelerationist consumerism, a youth-culture/corporate-culture jamboree populated by freshly coined portmanteaus. Such litanies would be unsurprising in a 2018 chapbook or on a gallery paper, but Steyerl shoves us headfirst through her entertaining morass. We’re overwhelmed, then spat out, and she grabs us on the other side:

Algorithmic and analogue market manipulation, alongside the defunding, dismantling, and hollowing-out of the public and post-public sector, transforms what sometimes worked as a forum for shared ideas. . . .

. . . Ask yourself: Do you want global capitalism with a fascist face? Do you want to artwash more insane weather, insane leaders, poisonous and rising water, crumbling infrastructure, and brand-new walls?

This kind of tumbling implies an interest in speed itself. But, Steyerl counters, “How much speed is necessary?” She creates these cascades to produce distaste for the absurdist direction of global capitalism, and for accelerationist politics generally. Steyerl is pointedly anti-accelerationist. She makes this most clear in a placard accompanying her 2010 film In Free Fall: “The author wishes to personally insult anyone attracted by accelerationism by calling it a bout of dead white Ferrari envy, dripping from head to toe with stale testosterone.”

There is no lack of art and art writing that attempts to address finance and globalization. Artists will admit their complicity with the market. But they often do so under the aegis of sleek facades that turn in on themselves and become ouroboroi of morality and speculation. Art objects critical of their own status as assets are still assets. Contemporary art has shaped the world like any other market. Freeport art storage is just a new take on the Swiss bank, housing millions of artworks in tax-free and mostly extraterritorial storage zones. In “If You Don’t Have Bread, Eat Art!” and “Is Art a Currency?” Steyerl argues that art is an alternative currency, “a networked, decentralized, widespread system of value,” and that its industries “trigger trickle-up effects which are then flushed sideways into tax havens.” But it is not a common currency available to all. As Steyerl writes, “Contemporary art is just a hash for all that’s opaque, unintelligible, and unfair, for top-down class war and all-out inequality.”

The dual meaning of Steyerl’s title phrase, duty free art, suggests art that is taxless and stateless — like an abnormally large bottle of Absolut bought in the international terminal — and art that has shed its responsibilities. Kant’s somewhat paradoxical assertion that art exhibits a purposeless purposiveness anticipated, if unintentionally, art’s skill at serving as a store of value. Steyerl argues for the liberation of art from such responsibilities. What if art were allowed to just be? It’s an open-ended suggestion that perhaps, pried loose from one system of value, the kind of making and investigations we call art might serve another purpose.


In “Is the Museum a Battlefield?,” a lecture-video first presented at the Istanbul Biennial in 2012, Steyerl traces a line from violence to museum sponsorship via weapons manufacturers, “following the invisible bullet backwards.” The piece reworks Abstract, a split-frame video Steyerl exhibited earlier the same year, which simultaneously shows her filming (or “shooting”) the headquarters of weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin in Berlin and examining bullets scattered on the execution site of Andrea Wolf. Wolf, a close friend from Steyerl’s youth, joined Kurdish freedom fighters and became a martyr of the movement after her death in 1998. She is a recurring character in Steyerl’s work, beginning with her starring role in a student film that then became a subject of Steyerl’s 2004 documentary about Wolf, November.

The romance between art, warfare, and financialization feels too classic to undo. Still, we must endeavor to rip apart the enamored triad.

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In the 2012 lecture-video, Steyerl recounts how she continued to trace donations from several weapons manufacturers possibly responsible for producing the bullets at the execution site, only to land right back in front of Abstract: at the time, it was on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, which receives large donations from the founding family of the defense company General Dynamics.

Five years later, Steyerl exhibited in Beijing as part of a group show of German artists. Days before its opening, the show was revealed to be funded by the German weapons manufacturer Rheinmetall. Six of the exhibiting artists, including Steyerl, posted a statement on Facebook in response:

As artists, we refuse to enhance the image of such corporations. We don’t support advertisement for weapons manufacturers under the umbrella of German cultural diplomacy and we explicitly protest the instrumentalisation of our work for this purpose.

Steyerl captioned it: “Against Rheinmetall defence artwashing.” The foundation responsible for the exhibition responded that “the organizers take the concerns of these artists and their moral objections very seriously,” and then “decided to address this important issue” with a “special public debate.” This only attracted more interest to the exhibition. “Whatever comes into the world through the global production and dispersion of contemporary art is dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt, to quote Karl Marx,” Steyerl writes in “International Disco Latin.” The romance between art, warfare, and financialization feels too classic to undo. Still, we must endeavor to rip apart the enamored triad.


In 2017, the Brooklyn Museum featured Steyerl’s 2014 piece Liquidity Inc. in Infinite Blue, an exhibition devoted to the color. Blue is the color of video itself — the ultramarine glow of a lost signal, and the original hue of the chroma-key to-be-filled background. As the color most distant from red (and thus from white skin tone), blue was originally used for video compositing; the blue screen preceded the green screen. The switch in hue is chalked up to problems caused by the prevalence of blue clothing worn by newscasters, specifically weather reporters, who ubiquitously use a chroma-key map to show the forecast. Appropriately, Liquidity Inc. features a weather segment, emceed by an adult-and-child duo cast as terrorists and members of what Steyerl calls the “weather underground.” Today, Weather Underground is a private weather-reporting site, part of the same company as Weather.com; it takes its name from the radical splinter group of Students for a Democratic Society. In Steyerl’s Liquidity Inc., the forecasts are not meteorological patterns, but economic waves, or “trade winds,” and the movement and discharge of cloud data.

At the center of Infinite Blue, behind some carefully placed dividing walls, Liquidity Inc. streamed on a large screen connected to a bright (blue) structure resembling a gently sloped half-pipe covered in padding, or perhaps a wave. It felt like an adult playground; signs asked pointedly that you remove your shoes. You lay down on the low blue beanbags, sinking in. The beans shushed loudly with each bodily shift, emitting a sound like the sea, or static. There you lay, rolling around in the middle of this tsunami — The weather is data! We’re all caught up in the cloud! faced with a postcrash tale of job insecurity, MMA, and high-frequency trading, all tracked by proverbs from Bruce Lee.

The main arc of the piece follows Jacob Wood, a trader who is laid off during the 2008 economic crisis and takes a job as an MMA announcer after fighting as a hobby for many years. Jacob dodges kicks and punches gracefully, and also slips from one field to another, turning his recreation into work. When Jacob explains the swiftness and fluidity necessary for MMA, we hear a call for what is required by our precarious economies. “Be formless, be shapeless — like water,” Bruce Lee incants over dance beats crosscut with serene but somewhat foreboding shots of cresting waves.

That this nearly frenetic montage works is a testament to Steyerl’s mastery — her ability to illuminate the like in the supposedly unlike. Just as Google’s predictive imagery AI can now “dream” uncanny images of spaghetti and dogs out of swaths of static (another Steyerl image, shared in the essay “A Sea of Data”), she lends us her capacity to find static in the beanbag, the beanbag in the wave, the wave in the museum, the museum in the economy, the economy in the data, the data in the cloud, the cloud in the weather, the weather as the atmosphere, the atmosphere as water, water as liquid, liquid as a wave, the wave as shush, the shush as static, the static in the sound of the beanbag.

Without didacticism or grave proclamations, but with appropriate alarm, Steyerl instigates considerations of the ways in which our lives are digitally mediated, how we form relationships we no longer know how to comprehend. Today we exist as much in data and images as in flesh. We encounter each other as abstracted numbers, pixels, and language, as disembodied technology or messages on a screen, and the technologies become personified, characters in our lives as much as objects and structures. Images have become not only animate, but incarnate.

They invade cities, transforming spaces into sites, and reality into realty. . . .

Just look around you: artificial islands mimic genetically manipulated plants. Dental offices parade as car commercial film sets. Cheekbones are airbrushed just as whole cities pretend to be YouTube CAD tutorials. . . . But by becoming real, most images are substantially altered. They get translated, twisted, bruised, and reconfigured. . . . By walking off-screen, images are twisted, dilapidated, incorporated, and reshuffled.

How we, like our images, are “translated, twisted, bruised, and reconfigured” by the all-out internet is perhaps the question of our time.

When Steyerl writes in “Is the Internet Dead?” that “the all-out internet condition is not an interface but an environment,” this environment is more than our computers. It’s more than Nest and Alexa and the so-called internet of things — more, still, than the dates that begin on Tinder and move to bars, the work life that exists within a browser, the habit of reading the news or scrolling through Instagram on our phones before we even get out of bed, or any of the countless ways our experiences on the internet dictate our nondigital activities. It’s all of this, and all that’s too subtle to notice. How many of our actions, even those that don’t touch what we consider “technology,” are shaped by it? Probably all of them. The codes of our social behaviors are written in HTML, terms of service, and privacy policies. This holds true both personally and politically.

How do images act? My iPhone farts out an announcement, now two, on the table — probably an email. I flinch. I disdain this metal biscuit for all it asks of me, though I know I allow it, encourage it, participate wholly.

An interface is not just a portal for access, but a designed extension of the body that then designs the body in reverse. As the title of Duty Free Art’s second essay reminds us, “How to Kill People” is “A Problem of Design.” A hand defined the shape of a gun, the curve of the trigger, its weight, its balance. But the gun also defines the shape of the hand that holds it, shapes the stance of the body that prepares to shoot.

A trillion more photographs were taken in 2017 than in 2010 — and shooting’s only one way to make an image.


Often, Steyerl begins a paragraph with “Let’s.” Some variation of “Let’s come back” appears in the majority of Duty Free Art’s essays. It’s an invitation, and a reminder that you — the reader — are always present, here, floating along in the text. She brings you with her as she leaps between George Steiner and Adorno, from Marx to Emily Blunt.

Let’s go back. What social formations are we creating through this widespread practice of making images, like those carved into the pillars of Göbekli Tepe?

I first found Steyerl in art school. Or rather, she was given to me, by a fellow student on whom I had a particular kind of crush, the sort that oozes slowly, subterranean, from first contact into intellectual adoration, then to a more advanced reverence. Like any young person longing to impress, I strove to become an expert in a favored subject, and the favored subject was Hito Steyerl. We read Steyerl, and watched Steyerl, and discussed Steyerl late into the night, riding highs of caffeine and ambition.

I watched this friend make videos in our studio. She painted her face with stripes of chroma-key green, like Steyerl, then dissolved her cheeks and chin into clips of slowly moving clouds. She filmed herself bathing in the green screen–colored paint, body drenched in almost-lime. I think of those videos often, of seeing her merge with the cloud, then drown in the potential for edits. Her little films have long served as ciphers for the way I understand our media-mediated lives — both the surrealistic images of them and the contrasting tactility of wiping green paint off a soft, beloved chin.

In Duty Free Art, as well as in many of Steyerl’s video pieces, we are aligned with marginal, distant figures, usually the ghosts of those who have died in war. Many are revolutionaries, like Steyerl’s friend Andrea Wolf. Habits and themes recur in Steyerl’s canon: the image, filmic metaphors, the art world, geopolitics, the casualties of capitalism. We see a recurring interest in martial arts, beginning with the early student film Steyerl made with Wolf, extending into her writing and into the protagonist of Liquidity Inc.’s fascination with Bruce Lee. Another of Steyerl’s early films, 2007’s Lovely Andrea, shows Steyerl supposedly searching for images from a time she posed as a rope-bondage model in Japan — images that were published under the pseudonym Andrea.

What does it mean to be haunted? The sociologist Avery Gordon describes haunting as a place where “meaning — comprehension — and force intersect.” Steyerl is concerned with ghosts and how we make them: what faint traces war leaves of the dead, what sheets the powerful wear to obscure their figures, what and who is rendered near invisible by capitalism. “Render ghosts” walk through destroyed cities, and we find ourselves “caught in the gaze of a shell-shocked angel who drags us along as it is blown away into incertitude.” Wolf appears in Steyerl’s work constantly, even when unexpected: in Liquidity Inc., the child weather forecaster/terrorist declares, without context, “Low-pressure system Andrea Wolf moving east this evening.” A ghost is a force barely seen, causing the air to shimmer with an image.

I wonder if Steyerl thinks of Wolf as a muse. I feel the peer who first introduced me to Steyerl vibrating under the surface of my writing, and know she will be present even if I remove every mention of her. Years from now, if I publish with any frequency, if I make works, if I lecture, will someone be able to find her ghost in all I do? The living can leave ghosts, too. Perhaps by then we’ll both be pure cloud data, dissolved into an image, drifting along.

As Steyerl pulls back the curtain on the contemporary image, she stumbles gently into the pitfall of the contemporary critical artist. She shows us, but is showing enough? Now that we’ve adjusted our sights to take in the dystopia of contemporary culture, what is the utopia we should strive for? The brief moments in which Steyerl lapses into revolutionary proposals — asking why we can’t dodge claims for private property as easily as for copyright, or build a block-chain government; wondering what new kinds of publics could be built by new kinds of public spaces — have some of the most potent energy in all of Duty Free Art.

“There are seven ways of making something invisible in plain sight,” a voice instructs us in HOW NOT TO BE SEEN. “Pretend you are not there. Hide in plain sight. To scroll. To wipe. To erase. To shrink. To take a picture.” Another voice responds, “Today most important things want to remain invisible.” We begin by trying to see.

“Love is invisible. War is invisible. Capital is invisible,” the voice continues. But so is she. She, too, is just Û¯Ùí‡Í˜$ó≥±Û˙˜“¿‡‚‚çº÷»{å¢Æbplist00‘UflagsUvalueUepochYtimescale, et cetera. And so am I. And so is this.

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Architecture functions as the remnant, what’s left when the dust has settled; or architecture can be the weapon, the means by…

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