Hito Steyerl: Bubble Vision


Welcome to Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series. Today, we present a provocateur whose work is known for illuminating the world’s power structures, moving image artist Hito Steyerl. Today’s program is brought to you through a special partnership with the Becoming Digital project and conference of the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. So a special welcome to any Taubman folks in the audience and any conference attendees. And for all the rest of you, a little word of explanation on Becoming Digital. Becoming Digital is a year long project that considers the deep changes that are underway in architecture and visual culture, caused by the increasing naturalization of digital technology. Over the course of this year, faculty and students at the Taubman College are debating, designing, and reflecting upon the current state of digital in architecture. The project includes workshops and invited practices that are critically engaged in digital technology through their work, a series of talks, an exhibition, and a conference, which is framed by three themes: Image/Data, Author/User, and Audience/Experience. Hito’s talk here today, which addresses the conference themes, is actually the first keynote and the kickoff to the conference, which runs through February 3rd. So a hearty thank you to Becoming Digital and the Taubman College for partnering on this, and of course, to our regular series partner Michigan Radio 91.7 FM. I have two quick announcements for your today. We have an opening actually opening today, not an opening reception, but just a soft opening, is happening at the Institute for Humanities, of 72, which is an exhibition of mixed media work. Fabric with digital imagery, embroidery, rhinestones, considering the Tivoli excursion in Kingston, Jamaica. This work happens to be the work of Jamaican artist Ebony Patterson, who we will welcome here to the Penny Stamps stage next Thursday. So in the next week, you have the chance to go by and see the exhibition and see her work ahead of the talk. And if you don’t, you can always join us next week; we will actually have a reception at the Institute following Ebony’s talk here. While you’re out and about looking at things in galleries, I highly recommend the Stamps Gallery, around the corner on Division. And it currently is exhibiting work of a Detroit native, Suzy Lake, now through February 25th. So you can take that in. Nicola’s Books is in the lobby today with some books by Hito Steyerl. And we will have a Q&A today, our regular Q&A in the screening room. So directly following the talk here, please exit the theater, go left down the hall and meet us in the screening room, and you can ask Hito deep and probing questions. Please do remember to silence your phones. And now for a proper introduction of our guest, please welcome Assistant Professor of Architecture at Taubman College, principal of T+E+A+M, and co producer of Becoming Digital, Ellie Abrons. Hi, good evening. It’s my privilege to introduce tonight’s guest, Hito Steyerl. Hito is a filmmaker, a writer, a theorist, and a professor based in Berlin. Her work has been exhibited at the most prestigious art venues in the world, including the Venice Biennale, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. This year, she was granted the number one spot on ArtReview’s Power 100 list, the first female artist to occupy such a position. A few of her many notable video and installation works include Factory of the Sun, which premiered in 2015 in the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and has since traveled the world; How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational.MOV File; Hell Yeah We Fuck Die; and Liquidity Inc., currently on view at the ICA in Boston. Hito is a prolific writer and theorist whose published essays and recorded lectures are passed around via informal network of architects, designers, and friends with an almost religious fervor. Her essay, In Defense of the Poor Image, published in e flux journal in 2009, is part of contemporary architectural discourse’s canon, an instant classic shaping conversations among architects and their students everywhere. And this year, Duty Free Art, which is on sale in the lobby, a book of Hito’s collected essays, was published by Verso. These accolades aside, although they’re impressive and important, Hito’s presence here tonight is especially exciting to those of us at Taubman College who have been leading and participating in Becoming Digital. Tonight’s lecture kicks off the Becoming Digital Conference, which continues next weekend with more lectures and panels. We cannot imagine a more fitting guest to launch the conference than Hito. If our ambition is to link the aesthetic and formal effects of the digital in our physical environment, with the social and political repercussions of changing systems of creative and technical production, Hito’s work is an aspirational model. She operates within contemporary structures of image and media, to question those very structures and their underlying political and moral frameworks. Her work describes new subjectivities and paradigms of thought, made possible by her commitment to destabilizing power structures in politics, art, and society. Her work reveals the ways in which everything around us is constantly being surveyed and policed, from our faces to the ground beneath our feet. And yet, lest you despair at some dystopian view of the world, Hito offers us optimism and often humor. Her work is often described as disruptive, but this disruption always seems to be in the service of new relations between people, and deeper understandings of the world as it is, but also as we might want it to be. In her words, “Falling does not only mean falling apart, it can also mean a new certainty falling into place.” Please join me in welcoming Hito Steyerl. Hello. Good evening. Thank you so much for the invitation, and thank you also for the very generous introduction. So as the introductions already stated, tonight I’m not going to talk about my work; instead, I prepared a talk about virtual reality. Why virtual reality? Because I don’t know what it is. It’s more or less emerging as we speak, but still, I had the feeling that it’s about time we start thinking about this new visual paradigm, which I call Bubble Vision. So let me just say one word before I start because most of you don’t know me, I’m not an academic. So this will not be an academic talk, I’m just warning you. So you shouldn’t believe everything I say. But I have to say, to the best of my knowledge, everything I’m going to say is factual, yet the way things are combined may be a bit non traditional every now and then. This is just a disclaimer. Okay. Let me start with this painting. Actually, since a while ago, this is the most expensive painting of the world. It has been attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. It’s called Salvator Mundi. It was painted around 1500, and fetched the record price of 450 million at auction. Recently, it was bought by a Saudi Prince, and is supposed to be on display at the Louvre Abu Dhabi in the near future. There’s a lot of interesting aspects in that painting, but one of the most interesting ones for me was that, even though the painting was made around 1500, it was sold within a post war and contemporary art auction. Now there’s people who say that’s mainly because 80% of the painting were painted within the last 50 years. That’s very debatable. I’m not an expert, I’m not going to interfere in this debate. But I suggest, nevertheless, that we definitely should treat it as a contemporary item, not necessarily because it has been made now, but because it has a special meaning today. So first of all, its price is very interesting, also doubts about its attribution. All of these make it a representative of an era that’s racked by default fakeness, bubble markets, and financial speculation. But it also points at another aspect of contemporary visual technology, and I would suggest to look at the strange object which the Salvator Mundi holds in his hand, which is a crystal orb representing the world. And interestingly, these really look very similar to lenses of VR goggles. And this is what virtual reality and also 360 degree technology is defined through, basically by round lenses and spherical objects. And it’s very interesting if you look at VR, for example, because one of the modes to travel from one scene to another in virtual reality, to teleport so to speak, is to click on a sphere. And I would like to show you a video, which is basically a demo which was released a couple of weeks ago by Mark Zuckerberg and his social VR chief, Rachel Franklin. They demoed the new VR platform, Facebook Spaces. And let me just try to scroll to that part. It’s at 5:20. It’s so tiny. Jesus. Can you read it? It’s so tiny… 4:04. Sorry, 1:40. We have to go here. Yes, okay. So from here… The first place that we wanna go today is Puerto Rico, to check out this interesting 360 video that NPR took of what’s going on down there. So let’s go quickly, teleport there. Alright, so now we are in a 360 video, in Puerto Rico. And hold on a second… And you can kinda get a sense of what is… We’re on a bridge here. It’s flooded. You can get a sense of some of the damage here that the hurricanes have done. And one of the things that’s really magical about virtual reality is you can get the feeling that you’re really in a place. I probably should have mentioned this before, but Rachel and I actually aren’t even, I think, in the same building, in the physical world. Totally different places. But it feels like we’re in the same place, and we’re making eye contact, we’re talking to each other. Yeah. We can high five. Yeah, there you go, high five. So now this is… We’re looking around, and it feels like we’re really here in Puerto Rico, where it’s… Yeah. It’s obviously a tough place to get to now, and a lot of people are really suffering with the aftermath of the hurricanes. This is an area that Facebook is very focused on trying to help out in the recovery effort. When the hurricanes first hit… Okay. Basically, you see what I mean? They are using these spheres, they call them transport orbs, to basically hop all over the place from their company location in California to Puerto Rico. Later on, they will even teleport to the moon, and all the while they are doing it, they are exclaiming, “Crazy to feel like you’re in the middle of it.” So it’s about… It’s a feeling as if you actually inhabit a scene with your body. You are basically able to teleport into a certain reality, and to really experience it. This is the feeling that is being conveyed by this demo video. Let’s put it like this. So the interesting thing is they will teleport off to the moon, but coming back to Salvator Mundi, we might also imagine that we actually clicked on that sphere, and inside, there was this Facebook scene where they again clicked another bubble, another orb, and then teleported to wherever they wanted to go. And in my view, this scene shows several things. Given the background they used, basically the devastation left by the hurricane in Puerto Rico, one thing is clear that, right now, the world might need one, or better, many Salvatores Mundi, Saviors of the World, in times of climate change and environmental, economical, and political instability. That’s one thing. But also, it shows that one of the main characteristics of VR and 360 degree videos is something really paradoxical. Because in VR and also in 360 degree video, you’re basically at the center of the scene. Everything revolves around you, like a spherical universe, yet at the same time, your body is usually missing from the scene. So you’re both at the center, yet you are not there. Maybe if you’re lucky, you will have hands or a head sometimes, but your body is usually missing from the scene. Bodies become nonexistent. They become transparent. So VR is basically where the nonexistent bumps into the ubiquitous. And this kind of vision, as I said, is shaped by orbs, by spheres, by rounded lenses. One could call it “Bubble Vision”. So what’s so interesting about bubbles nowadays? One could say that in the last decade, not only 360 degree visual panoramas become a common sight in photography, video, and virtual reality, but in parallel also so called filter bubbles on social media have been accused of nurturing division by creating parallel information universes. That’s not, let’s say, 100% confirmed according to research, but it can hardly be contested that bubbles as such have been an emblem of globalization. And they have figured a lot in art, but also of course in economy. So called “bubble economies” shaped cycle after cycle of boom and bust, affecting real estate, finance, of course, also, the art market of the early 21st century. I was really surprised to find this. This is an artwork by Jeff Koons, which prefigures the authentification of the Leonardo da Vinci Salvator Mundi painting. This is a montage by Jeff Koons, which montages a Mona Lisa with what he calls “a gazing ball,” more or less an opportunity for people to see their own selfie within a painting. And there’s also very serious artworks which deal with bubbles. This is an artwork called In the Air by Teresa Margolles, which creates soap bubbles, which are made with the water used to wash corpses in morgues in Mexico City. But all the bubbles that burst in recent decades didn’t just vanish, but instead, I think, persisted. They exploded into a multitude of smaller bubbles. This here is something quite different. These are also bubbles, these are small air bubbles enclosed in what one could call “ancient ice.” The drilling of ice cores is part of planet science. People drill into the Arctic ice to extract cores, to establish some kind of archaeology of the human climate. Because inside the ice, these ice bubbles contain atmospheres which may be centuries old. And in two of these ice cores, two scientists called Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin discovered some very, very intriguing effect. They found out that the biggest dip in carbon dioxide over the past 2,000 years was actually man made, and it occurred already around 1610. And the theory they developed is called the “Orb hypothesis.” The orb again for the globe, for the world. And they propose 1610 as the starting point of the so called “Anthropocene”. You see this strong dip, which is happening around 1610, this is where carbon dioxide, as evidenced through those little bubbles enclosed in the ice cores, suddenly dips. So they suggest to name this, or to call this, to define this as the beginning of the so called “Anthropocene”. What is this? A newly named geological era in which humans shape nature to a considerable degree. Meaning, they start controlling nature, and shaping it the way they want to. But around the same time, bubbles also become a popular trope in the so called “Golden Age of Dutch painting”. So at that time, you see a lot of paintings which contain glass bubbles, soap bubbles, but also skulls. They appear within a genre called “Vanitas”. And Vanitas loosely means, the meaninglessness of earthly life, the transient nature of vanity. And this genre coincides with a period of political instability, religious division, also famine, for example, and a 80 year war of independence. And at the same time, post colonialism fuels, so to speak, the emerging world trade; and at the same time, this also gives incentives for the creation of art. It fuels the art market. Vanitas paintings become attractive to a newly empowered merchant class. So there are more and more luxury properties, many of them tied of course to Dutch colonial plunder, but also trade, find their ways into the paintings, including colonial servants, and there are the bubbles again. At the same time, it is very cold also in the Netherlands. And this is, as the climate scientists argue, this is not a coincidence. The so called “Little Ice Age” may have been man made, and that’s what this dip in carbon dioxide suggests. Maslin and Lewis interpret this dip in temperature as a direct consequence of the colonial invasion of the Americas because they estimate that through this invasion, around 50 million original inhabitants were killed, mostly through disease, or through other consequences of colonialization. And these 50 million people were missing, and in the places they were living, slowly the vegetation grew back, and of course, captured and sequestered a lot of carbon dioxide. And both Lewis and Maslin suggest to define this dip around 1610 as the beginning of the Anthropocene, because it’s the first time that man made activity, according to them… There’s also several, many, many, other opinions to that topic. According to them, this is the beginning of the era where man, humans, become central in shaping their own environment. In this era, man is supposed to be at the center of nature. Just as we are users, are at the center of their 360 degree spheres. But in both cases, the human at the center may actually be missing. Jaron Lanier, he’s a person who invented some of the first virtual reality equipment, I think already back in the ’90s. He wrote recently that virtual reality is best thought of as the removal of a single human shaped mass from the fabric of the universe. I think that’s a really fascinating idea. So you have the whole universe, and you basically eliminate one human from it, and this is virtual reality. To build a universe in virtual reality, you need to mentally basically eliminate one single person from her surroundings, which means that this whole, our universe actually consists of people shaped holes within bubbles. Of course, these kind of crystal orbs also have different usages. As crystal balls, for example, they are very popular objects or tools for prediction, magical prediction. In this case, whoever has seen the series knows that this doesn’t work very well at all. These guys are trying to figure out, “What am I seeing in this sphere?” and they think that the only thing that they could predict from this sphere is a foggy evening. And so this is a very unreliable magic art in the Harry Potter series. But surprisingly, in the real world, people are much more confident about crystal balls. Some of these people you may know, the other ones is the Egyptian President el Sisi, King Salman of Saudi Arabia. And to other people, they are opening an anti extremist center in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, and thus they highlight the use of crystal ball style prediction in anti terror activities. This is actually a so called “Palantir,” another form of crystal ball. It’s actually a fictional item from The Lord of the Rings. And in this book, a Palantir is a so called “seeing stone,” where you can see things happening far away. But Palantir is also the name of one of the most important data analysis startups, which specializes in financial and security based data analysis, actually founded by Peter Thiel. A Guardian report claims that Palantir, using the most sophisticated data mining, can predict the future seconds or years before it happens. The interesting thing about such statements is that they are completely unverifiable, but okay. So what I’m trying to get at is that today’s crystal balls stand in for data based prediction. Predictive analysis means to manage risk, and if possible, also preempt risk. And I would like to tap into this palantir, and teleport again into a fictional story. If you remember, there’s this very famous franchise consisting of animation films, but also recently of Hollywood films, which it’s called “Ghost in the Shell”. Ghost in the Shell is a fictional narrative which is centered around a woman who is a cyborg. And she’s a police cyborg, very successful one too. But it turns out that, actually, she used to be a sort of anti corporate militant who was preemptively killed and disappeared because she was trying to prevent the transformation of humankind into cyborgs. She was an anti augmentation activist. And what happened? She got killed, and turned into a cyborg. So it’s very interesting because this franchise, in this franchise, in this story, Ghost in the Shell, the ghosts of the Anthropocene, the missing and the disappeared end up as rogue AIs and as cyborgs. In other words, in this tale, to be eliminated, at the same time, means to be automated. But to be automated also means to be eliminated. This is about architecture. This is an Amazon warehouse, which is automated to a quite considerable degree, populated by robots, but also workers and conveyor belts. Many people work there under quite questionable conditions. One reporter, which inserted himself into such kind of warehouse in the UK, called his report, his own story of how he became a human robot. And he talks to a worker who says, “I expected it to be all modern and powered by robots in here, but now I understand why are we not allowed to sit when it’s quiet. We are human beings, not slaves.” This is, so to speak, the other side of Amazon architecture. This is a rendering of the new headquarters of this company in Seattle. These are buildings called “biospheres”. You see, it’s a geodesic dome kind of architecture. And this is a quote from a newspaper. When they open this year, I think they are about to open now, they will host more than 300 plant species from around the world, creating what the company sees as the workplace of the future. Amazonians will be able to break from their daily labors to walk in the forest and climb into little nests and so on, where they could brainstorm and have meetings and perhaps even invent the next billion dollar opportunity. Of course, this building, like all Amazon buildings, into this building, only employees and those badged will be allowed in. Soon there will be, of course, gift shops by the entrance that will be open to the public. So I’m really fascinated by this juxtaposition of the two types of Amazon buildings because it seems to me, that in this paradigm of what I call, definitely, in the case of the biosphere, “bubble architecture,” the setting, which I described earlier of the Anthropocene, has become inverted. If, as you know the climate scientists argue, if the Anthropocene really started off with people missing in an Amazonian landscape, which was deserted and basically cleansed of human life, now the situation has somehow become reversed. And the Amazonian forest has become inserted into a bubble and preserved as a corporate headquarter, as a biosphere, which is isolated from natural environments. An example of bubble architecture, there’s an interesting precedent for this kind of architecture, which is the famous experiment, Biosphere 2, which ran from 1991 to 1994. And in this experiment, two subsequent sets of, I think probably one could call them scientists, were locked into a greenhouse sphere in Arizona for several months. And they had to be completely self sustaining, including not only the production of food, but also their own atmosphere. They had to produce their own sustainable atmosphere. And interestingly, this was thought of as a test for space colonization. Would people be able to live on Mars? Would they be able to produce oxygen? Would they get along with one another? Would they be able to produce food? And the answer is no, it didn’t happen. The oxygen really, really dropped to very dangerous levels. The climate was quite toxic. Most mammals went extinct. Pollinating insects were wiped out. The crew fell apart into two hostile factions. And the only other species that turned out to be perfectly adapted to the oligarch space colony were cockroaches and ants. They thrived. They loved it in there. For them, it was a ball. For humans, not so much. So you probably know by now, because this is a very well known story, that the manager of this project was the former advisor to the US president, Steven Bannon, whose management style prompted some kind of uprising. At a certain point, he staged some kind of armed takeover of the premises because they weren’t making enough profit. But the much more interesting thing, I think, that happened during that period is a much less well known consequence, namely, that apparently, reality as a format was invented as a consequence of the biosphere experiments. There was a producer in Holland called John de Mol, who watched a satellite basically broadcast from within the biosphere. And then he came up with the idea to the format, Big Brother, which means that actually, reality TV as a sort of narrative template seems also to have been bred inside the biosphere. And this narrative template is really interesting because it’s based on an artificial idea of natural selection, whereby the fittest, however this is defined, they survive or progress. And the biospheres are such… Are a perfect example of real life filter bubbles. Reality TV was basically designed within an environment of isolating people in survivalist environments. And in these environments, one could say that extinction was staged as a spectacle. And very interestingly, this comes very close to the initial meaning of the term “virtual reality” because many people think that this term was coined at a certain point in the ’90s. But this is not the case. This term was already coined in 1938 by a very unlikely person, namely the playwright Antonin Artaud, a French theater author. And he developed it in the context of what he called a “theatre of cruelty”. What is the theatre of cruelty? It was, in Artaud’s view, something which was a practice which, and this is a quote, wakes up nerves and hearts, through which people experience immediate, violent action, something that inspires through fiery magnetism, and so on and so on. So he wanted to create a stage where overwhelming sounds and bright lights would stun and shock the audience sensibilities, and completely immerse them in theatrical experience. And this is what he called a “theatre of cruelty”. And he defined that cruelty. He said this was not basic human cruelty in the sense of people trying to hurt one another, this was a sort of sensual cruelty; and he very precisely named it as the cruelty which things can exercise against us. This today, the Amazon warehouse, is this a contemporary theatre of cruelty, where things create a chaotic cacophony? Of course, to link back to what I said earlier, the machines that are replacing humans in this warehouse and elsewhere are not literally the ghosts of disappeared people, like in the story Ghost in the Shell. But maybe they prove something else. Maybe they prove that something else is disappearing, namely, the idea of the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene, you remember, I told you a minute ago, this is the idea that we live in a geological area where humans are more or less in control of their surroundings and shaping them at their will. So why should I say now, it’s over already? But I think at the same moment that humans became aware that they were supposedly all powerful and at the center of the universe, they are already busy trying to deflect that power and hand it over to opaque, automated procedures, to black box algorithms, to all sorts of machine intelligence, crystal ball gazing. People are handing over this power to systems, which are just as invisible as the famous invisible hand. This bubble vision, this 360 degrees spherical vision, is this a training scheme to adapt humans to a world from which they are increasingly missing because they are being replaced by invisible systems? Are people rehearsing basically how to be their own ghosts? But there is another possibility of interpreting bubble vision. Basically, if you look at this sphere of 360 degree technologies and VR, and see it as a crystal ball itself, the whole setup, what are you going to see? Does it predict a future in which humans are still at the center, yet not existent, either because humans have been automated, eliminated, or in trouble because of another man made carbon dioxide crisis? At the end, I would like to teleport back to Leonardo and his orb. So what are we seeing in that orb at the end? Is there anything one could learn from looking into that crystal sphere? And there is one very interesting mystery in this orb because, as many art historians have pointed out, Leonardo painted the sphere in a physically incorrect way. If it really was a crystal orb, then the interior of the orb would be represented upside down or, at least, severely distorted. In no way would the lines of the dress behind the orb be uninterrupted. And this is a real mystery because Leonardo was the person that probably knew most about optics of that period. He, even at that point in time, invented the… Or gave the technological foundations for inventing, how do you call it? Contact lenses. So why would Leonardo paint the orb in such a way? And art historians actually have no answer for this, they don’t know. Some of them say, “Oh, he didn’t want to destroy the composition.” Others say it’s a spiritual painting, so he wanted to paint something supernatural. That’s also possible. But what is it? And this is not a question I think I can answer, or anyone can answer. Maybe you can answer, and you can tell me later in the Q&A. So what is this orb? And I think there’s at least two possibilities, and I will leave you with these two possibilities. The first possibility is that you see nothing in the crystal ball. This is what you see basically, that there is nothing to see, not even your own reflection, which basically, you should see optically. But the other possibility is that Leonardo really meant to show that, whatever seems natural within this kind of spherical vision, and this seems like a, let’s say, obvious or not very surprising representation, may not be factual. Just because it seems convincing, it doesn’t mean that it’s a fact. Okay. Thank you.

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