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We live in a world of generalised circulation in which we all navigate through digital, financial, and communicational spaces. In today’s societies, the sovereignty of countries has become notably diminished in the face of an ungoverned global world, where it is economic interests that modify the rules of the game. The image of the world we perceive is traced between the liquid and the gaseous, between the transit of shipping companies that move the world, transporting by sea the majority of the products we consume, and the millions of invisible bits generated by machines that circulate through the Internet, to which we have no access.
Duty-Free Art is the exhibition of Hito Steyerl at the Museo de la Reina Sofia. Artist, activist, theorist on art and communication, a student of Harun Farocki and in line with artists such as Allan Sekula, Steyerl is a very respected figure in the artistic community. A respect due in large part to the profusion of her writings and theories, gathered together last year in the book Condenados a la pantalla (The Wretched of the Screen)[[Hito Steyerl, Los condenados de la pantalla, Ed. Caja negra, 2014.]]. In tune with the thinking of authors like Zygmunt Bauman, Steyerl coined the term circulationism to define the liquid, immaterial world of interconnected data in which images are produced, distributed, and consumed within the framework of an audio-visual capitalism. Let’s not forget that information doesn’t flow through a void so much as forms part of a given political and technological framework, organised according to hierarchies of power.
The exhibition is articulated through thirty video-installations, each with an average duration of forty minutes. But even what is good can be tiring. Far from being agreeable, the ensemble invites treason and a desire to pass on tiptoe, from room to room. Nevertheless, despite the human factor of fatigue, the work of Hito “condemns us to the screen”. Because it exposes shared fears and issues that affect us all: the surveillance and persistent control from which nobody escapes; the generalised political irresponsibility; the detriment of the real experience in an increasingly mediatised world; the current economic crisis and its effects, and the increasing existence of “black holes” for which nobody takes responsibility. In the prologue to the aforementioned essay, the philosopher Franco Berardi, Bifo, stemming from Hito Steyerl’s text, The Spam of the Earth: Withdrawal from Representation, warns us about an already extinct future society, in which extra-terrestrials will one day be surprised by “our incredible mixture of technological refinement and extreme moral stupidity”.
Gilles Lipovetsky already wrote in the nineties about an ethical effervescence, albeit painless and passing, in which the suffering of others or extraneous injustices would result unbearable because they would be an affront to our very quality and style of life. Once again today, and from all sides, we are exhorted with ethical imperatives: we must protect the environment; be hospitable to migratory movements; be guided by good practices: create deontological codes, and undertake humanitarian actions. In the end, we have to be responsible for ourselves, something that has provoked a generalised hysteria regarding the care and attention of the Id, but we must also assume and accept the guilt for everything that surrounds us, from the degradation of the environment to the overexploitation of underdeveloped countries. Above all, and perhaps here what is most relevant, the average citizen demands ethics from governments, that is to say, “public ethics”, we hope not without pain, that will safeguard us from the infinity of global risks that seem to surround the human being. Another issue is whether we will be able to assume the sacrifices and make the renunciations required to live in a more ethical world.
Several of these issues are present in the work of Steyerl. From the piece that lends its title to the exhibition, Duty Art Free, which reveals the abnormality of the art deposits in free trade zones, enormous industrial warehouses where collectors keep their works to avoid paying any corresponding taxes. Steyerl reveals to us some of the most dishonest secrets and connections between art and capitalism, such as the hundred or so emails disseminated by WikiLeaks between the Syrian president Baixar al-Assad and three offices of prominent architects. In Is the Museum a Battlefield? (2013), a talk-performance realised during the Biennale of Istanbul, the artist questions the precedence of museum collections, which she considers as political “battle fields”. During the talk, the artist judges that “to attack the museum first one has to attack the screen”, a declaration of intent we find materialised in the first room of the exhibition in Strike (2010), a video where we see the artist strike the screen of a television with a chisel. Only in this case, the museum where it is exhibited, it remains intact.
In Guards (2012), Steyerl presents some soldiers rehearsing strategies of defence and attack of a “ weak target”: the museum. The visitor in this way becomes converted into a threat for the works. How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational. MOV File (2014), offers us a sort of manual for how to remain invisible and escape the continued surveillance we suffer. Liquidity, Inc. (2014), reflects on the saturation and circulation of images, where water becomes a metaphor, one that in turn links in with the idea of circulationism that she has developed in her writings. In Free Fall (2010), she makes us the protagonists of an airplane accident, relating it to the current economic crisis.
That critical voices arise from art is obligatory, in as much as art and culture do not fall outwith the barbarity. Or in the words of the theorist Peter Osborne, who Steyerl quotes in the pieces Duty Free Art: “the problem with art is it doesn’t have a common space”. It is perhaps time to construct one and for art and museums also to assume their part of responsibility for this swarm of malpractices to which we are all condemned to becoming accomplices
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)