An Interview With Hito Steyerl About Her Pompidou Center Show

If any artist can make sense of this sense-defying period, it would be Hito Steyerl: poet laureate of digital dislocation and social upheaval.

In her video installations, essays and lecture-performances, the German artist has dismantled the boundaries between the internet and something called “the real world,” probing how digital technologies bleed off the screen into war zones, financial markets, real estate developments and auction houses. With bitter humor and a deft mix of high- and low-res imagery, Steyerl has underscored the violence and absurdity that results from melding human life and data — hence the brutal irony of her designation, in 2017, as “No. 1” on a more or less arbitrary list of “the 100 most influential people in art.”

The exhibition “Hito Steyerl: I Will Survive” was shown last year at the Düsseldorf museum K21; it is now on view, after a delay, at the Pompidou Center in Paris, running through July 5. “I Will Survive” is Steyerl’s most significant European exhibition yet, and along with her most renowned earlier works, it debuts “SocialSim,” a new installation nodding to the pandemic and police violence. Here, animated police officers infect one another not with a novel coronavirus but with fits of dancing — which really did happen 500 years ago, during the notorious Dancing Plague of Strasbourg.

Though her work is relentlessly topical — other videos in “I Will Survive” evoke the missing “Salvator Mundi,” and the commonalities of the fashion label Balenciaga and right-wing populism — Steyerl has always brought a profound ambivalence to bear on new technologies. Her skepticism looks more valid than ever after the many months we’ve spent in front of our screens, and in a recent conversation, condensed and edited below, Steyerl told me about why we should understand our plague year as less of a disruption than an acceleration. (We spoke via video link, and Steyerl appeared in front of a fabulous Zoom background of pink flowers.)

You live in Berlin and teach at the University of the Arts there. Have you been staying put throughout the pandemic?

I’ve been in lockdown since March of last year, completely. I have been teaching on Minecraft, actually: It’s a game for children, from 7 years old, and you get to build stuff with blocks. You can build fantasy worlds very quickly. Last week my students staged a version of Brecht’s “The Measures Taken” in a huge Communist show-trial facility, which they built in Minecraft.

What sort of limitations did the pandemic impose on the art you’ve been making?

Maybe nothing new was really required, except for an intensification of existing things. I used leftovers from previous shoots, from previous works, plus generated stuff, plus stuff shot remotely.

In “SocialSim,” which you made recently, we witness a social contagion from a “dancing virus” — but also more contemporary social contagions. Opposition to mask-wearing, which in Germany culminated in an attempt to storm Germany’s Parliament last August, also circulated and propagated like a kind of viral transmission.

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