(Art Review): NEW YORK — Visitors to the Park Avenue Armory, the crenelated citadel that takes up an entire city block on the Upper East Side, are accustomed to seeing its cavernous Drill Hall retrofitted with bleachers and sales booths, dance floors, even tennis courts. But Hito Steyerl, the German artist and philosopher of our present technological debasement, has left the space largely empty, illuminated only by some lighting underfoot and three massive screens. In this inky vastness, you can remember that what’s now a palatial arts center was once meant for something else. The building we’re in is “quite literally a fortress,” an on-screen guide tells us, and beneath our feet is “a shooting gallery.”
We’ve come to see “Drill,” a video installation that anchors a miniretrospective of the same name here, on view through July 21. It’s a blaring, impassioned denunciation of American gun violence and the latent aggression of high culture; and while it lacks the zany brilliance of her best work, the installation offers further proof of the force of Steyerl’s gaze on technology, politics and war.
Steyerl, born in Munich in 1966, has become an icon to younger artists for her video installations, as well as her sparky, digressive essays on art and the internet. She’s been working hard lately, producing two new works for this year’s Venice Biennale; another for an exhibition at the Castello di Rivoli museum in Turin, Italy; and yet another in London for the Serpentine Galleries, whose sponsorship from the Sackler family, linked to the drug OxyContin, she described as being “married to a serial killer.”
Many of Steyerl’s works have zeroed in on the violent pasts and presents of cultural institutions, as well as the residual militarism of digital technology. In her lecture performance “Is the Museum a Battlefield?” on loop in one of the Armory’s smaller rooms, she unearths the centurieslong relationship between war and contemporary art, reminding us that two of the world’s greatest museums, the Louvre in Paris and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, were sites of actual revolutions.
“Drill,” commissioned by the Armory, also pulls us back to the military roots of an art center. This one, with its lustrous Tiffany-decorated interiors and grand portraits of men in uniform, was built after the Civil War for the 7th Regiment, the first volunteer militia to join the Union effort in 1861. One member of the regiment, George Moore Smith, participated in the founding of what would become the National Rifle Association, which began as a genteel sporting organization.
Steyerl invites several survivors of gun violence, projected at an enormous scale on the screens, to explore the Armory’s rich interiors and foundational links to guns. One teenager talks about shootings in her low-income neighborhood; a man in a wheelchair says he’s been to more funerals than he can count. Steyerl, with her customarily brilliant editing, intercuts their testimonies with footage filmed in the Drill Hall of the Yale Precision Marching Band — musicians with military discipline — who play a score of clattering percussion and roaring brass. The score, we learn when the credits roll, was algorithmically composed with data related to mass shootings in the United States; each note is a record of death.
There’s an uncommon heavy-handedness to much of “Drill,” and an uncommon glossiness to the cinematography. For as early as 2007 — a lifetime ago, in internet years — Steyerl saw that the digital imagery that really mattered would be what she called “the poor image”: low-resolution, data-compressed pictures and videos, easy to edit, that can rocket through the global media stream.
The poor image — it can be a political speech, a sex tape, a hostage video, a cat GIF, a bootleg video of “Avatar” — “mocks the promises of digital technology,” she argued in an essay a decade ago. It “transforms quality into accessibility, exhibition value into cult value, films into clips, contemplation into distraction.” In “Is the Museum a Battlefield?” she makes ample use of such images, illustrating one passage on art and revolution, for instance, with a pixilated Spanish-subtitled copy of Sergei Eisenstein’s “October: Ten Days That Shook the World.”
Rather than defer to governmental or corporate frameworks for its authority, the poor image “builds alliances as it travels,” she wrote, shrugging off copyright and taking on new meanings as it circulates. Steyerl saw that this decade’s truly revolutionary imagery, for good or ill, would become “trash that washes up on the digital economies’ shores.”
Despite higher-than-usual production value, “Drill” continues Steyerl’s investigation into a world mediated by poor images. At several moments, the left and right screens present crisp footage of the Drill Hall, while the center screen takes us to the Armory’s basement, which she films in crummy lighting with a shaky hand-held camera. Down there, a school principal points out bullet holes in the walls while discussing Alex Jones, whose conspiracy website Infowars specializes in disinformation.
In the video’s final moments, Steyerl pans over the ornate walls of the Armory’s front hallway, and replaces the framed portraits of 19th-century soldiers with footage of young anti-gun activists such as Emma González, a survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida. The activists appear within gold frames — but they’ve been inserted sloppily, imprecisely, with little attempt at a persuasive deception.
What saves “Drill” from preaching-to-the-choirism are these intentionally janky edits, which Steyerl uses to inscribe America’s gun-violence epidemic into a larger social and epistemological breakdown. Making the deadly defensible requires images, “Drill” insists, and different images over time. In the 19th century, the Armory’s founders did it with oil paintings and Tiffany glass; a character in “Drill” purrs that they “spared no expense to make war beautiful.” Now this glorification takes place through poor images — perhaps with martial music and special effects — made by gun lovers who sometimes smear victims as crisis actors or deserving marks. (González, for instance, appeared in a doctored photo that made her look like she was tearing apart the Constitution.)
For Steyerl, today’s onslaught of memes and copies, selfies and death threats, is the natural expression of a society whose politics takes place through images. Consider so-called deepfakes, increasingly sophisticated manipulations of video that, some immoderate columnists wheeze, have the potential to “destroy democracy.” Here, too, artists have political analysts beat by years — at the 2015 New Museum Triennial, Josh Kline used face-substitution video technologies to rewrite Barack Obama’s inaugural address — but really, how could anyone still think that doctored videos have to become more convincing before anyone buys them?
The recent viral video of Nancy Pelosi, her speech slowed to make her sound drunk or ill, was no deepfake. The editing was, as with the grafted gun-survivor footage in “Drill,” transparently poor, made in a matter of minutes. Yet it was watched millions of times, eventually trickling all the way up to “Fox & Friends.” This is the political world made by the poor image: Each picture or video is, in Steyerl’s words, “passed on as a lure, a decoy, an index, or as a reminder of its former visual self.”
The complaint that media is more “real” than reality is decades old by now, and these days, Steyerl demonstrates, both media and reality are metastasizing in ways that make the distinction meaningless. Digital media doesn’t stay on screens but bleeds past them — in bitcoin-fueled climate degradation, in New York storefronts full of algorithmically produced junk, in a genocide boosted by Facebook.
This intermingling forms the crux of one of Steyerl’s best works at the Armory: “The Tower” (2016), another three-screen installation, which centers on a 3-D graphics company in Kharkiv, Ukraine. A programmer trained as an aircraft engineer describes his work producing renderings for Western companies that outsource the production of military simulations, online casinos, safety videos and real estate renderings. The environments of first-person-shooter video games become the floor plans for luxury condos in the United Arab Emirates.
An uncanny bleeding across the digital realm and reality also animates Steyerl’s landmark lecture performance “Duty Free Art” (2015). One screen shows her, speaking with the wry conviction that marks her best performances, as she maps a boggling network of shifting power centers in war, finance and high culture. War criminals buy and sell paintings stored in Swiss free ports without ever seeing them; the Syrian civil war forces a Turkish museum to close and become a refugee camp, while pro-Assad forces hack Justin Bieber’s Twitter account (and the website of The New York Times). On the adjacent screen, as well as on a sandbox topped by a projector, screenshots from the websites of the Financial Times and the Economist, as well as search results from Google Images and other poor-image documents show a world gone mad.
Unlike in “Drill,” whose condemnation of American violence lands with a bland power-to-the-people thud, the revelations of culture and violence in Steyerl’s earlier works have a bitter, flabbergasted humor — as if she can hardly believe how weird, scary and dumb things can get when the digital seeps beyond the screen. Her art offers no escape, but it may, through critique and analysis, provide a pathway through the stream of images. As she says in “Duty Free Art,” the undifferentiated flood of political violence and vapid memes, climate collapse and celebrity divorces, seems to be plunging us all into “permanent hyperactive depression.”
You can’t log off when the internet and the world are one; all you can do is try to say sane.
Hito Steyerl: Drill
Through July 21 at the Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Ave., Manhattan; 212-616-3930, armoryonpark.org.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.