Hito Steyerl: Well thank you very much every­body for being here tonight. Thanks specif­i­cal­ly to Boris Groys for hav­ing me and for the very gen­er­ous intro­duc­tion. Thanks also to Maria and Former West for invit­ing me.

This con­tri­bu­tion deals with the age of mass art production. 

This is an adopt­ed, not an orig­i­nal project. 

And this talk assumes the form of a non-fiction subscription-based nov­el. It is writ­ten on demand, in response to com­mis­sion and fund­ing, and full of cliffhang­ers, adver­tise­ment breaks, and exces­sive and inco­her­ent plot­lines. Also it will just sud­den­ly stop with­out fur­ther notice and warning.

Let’s ask a very sim­ple ques­tion. Why are there so many art projects today? Because we live in the world of mass art pro­duc­tion. Basically every­one is an artist nowa­days. Or at least he or she has an artis­tic project. We can speak of a surge in the cre­ation of art. The pro­duc­tion of art is pro­lif­er­at­ing. We live in the age of mass art production. 

How did we get to this point? Because art pro­duc­tion used to be one of the most arcane activ­i­ties, reserved to male mas­ters who had to invest a lot of time and effort to devel­op their abil­i­ties. So how was this activ­i­ty so thor­ough­ly pop­u­lar­ized? How come that basi­cal­ly any­one today can right­ful­ly claim to pro­duce art? And I would like to com­pare this to one major oth­er tech­no­log­i­cal and social trans­for­ma­tion, name­ly the inven­tion of firearms.

This process stretched out over many cen­turies and also con­ti­nents, from the inven­tion of gun­pow­der in the 9th cen­tu­ry, to the inven­tion to the Colt revolver in 1836, to the AK-47 and beyond and beyond. So, ini­tial­ly it was Chinese alchemists and they were look­ing for an elixir for immor­tal­i­ty. And of course they end­ed up invent­ing the exact oppo­site of that, no? An elixir for imme­di­ate mor­tal­i­ty, so to speak.

And in the long run this pro­duced a mas­sive democ­ra­ti­za­tion of vio­lence, which one could claim ran in par­al­lel with the vio­lence of democ­ra­ti­za­tion as such. So there was no more lengthy and cost­ly train­ing need­ed in order to learn how to kill any­one. One did­n’t need any­more hors­es and swords and expen­sive equip­ment and train­ing. With the inven­tion of the Colt revolver, any idiot could kill any­one else in a very cost-efficient and effec­tive way. It was cheap, mobile, portable, bul­lets were standardized—one had just to pull the trig­ger. The inven­tion of firearms is prob­a­bly one of the most impor­tant exam­ples of deskilling in human his­to­ry, and ulti­mate­ly it com­plete­ly over­turned the social order.

Something sim­i­lar in my mind hap­pened with art pro­duc­tion over the 20th cen­tu­ry. Essentially, Duchamp’s uri­nal and Malevich’s square and adver­tise­ment and every­body’s con­tri­bu­tions on YouTube dra­mat­i­cal­ly short­ened the amount of train­ing and mate­r­i­al resources that peo­ple need­ed to pro­duce some­thing that could legit­i­mate­ly pass as art. 

The emer­gence of repro­duc­tive tech­nolo­gies of rep­re­sen­ta­tion had a spe­cif­ic impact on these devel­op­ments. It’s per­haps no coin­ci­dence that ear­ly pho­to equip­ment was adver­tised in the same way as Colt revolvers. Kodak’s ear­ly roll film cam­era, Brownie, had the tag line You pull the trig­ger, we do the rest.” So shoot­ing and deskilling in image pro­duc­tion went hand in hand, and it’s def­i­nite­ly no sur­prise that nowa­days in the age of artis­tic mass pro­duc­tion, armed peo­ple are also join­ing the grow­ing league of artists.

Let me give you one exam­ple of anoth­er project—actually several—I was told when recent­ly I was stopped on a check­point on a remote dirt road. We were polite­ly led away by a group of love­ly peo­ple wear­ing shiny AK-47s. Their com­man­der was called Comrade X, and the first thing he was inter­est­ed in was not our­selves, obvi­ous­ly. It was an adver­tise­ment leaflet from a local video cam­era store. 

Forty years ago one might have asked one­self whether one should pro­fess alle­giance to Lenin or to Mao or maybe just diplo­mat­i­cal­ly toast world rev­o­lu­tion. But in the age of mass art pro­duc­tion the ques­tion is no longer between Lenin and Mao but between Canon and Panasonic. And toast­ing world rev­o­lu­tion is replaced by the only universally-applicable ques­tion today: Comrade, what is your art project?

So I real­ly want to add now I’m not mak­ing this up. You will see that I could­n’t make this up because it’s much too incon­ve­nient for me to make up, you know. It’s real­ly based on a real con­ver­sa­tion. This is what Comrade X replied to this question.

My name is X. I was born in 1971 and grew up in a polit­i­cal envi­ron­ment. I joined the guer­ril­la in 1991 and was active as a city guer­ril­la. I was arrest­ed in mid 1992 and spent ten years in jail. Afterwards I became a guer­ril­la again. At the end of 2001, imme­di­ate­ly after release I went up the moun­tains with the guer­ril­la. It is the most beau­ti­ful way to be a revolutionary.

Les Misérables is one of the books that influ­enced me most in my life, because Victor Hugo tells us in a lit­er­ary form about social and ide­o­log­i­cal con­tra­dic­tions. He’s a roman­tic. The tra­di­tion of Descartes and [?] had a ratio­nal­ist and pos­i­tivist sci­en­tif­ic per­spec­tive on soci­ety. So these ide­o­log­i­cal con­tra­dic­tions between roman­ti­cism and pos­i­tivism reflect on one of the char­ac­ters in the nov­el called Inspector Javert. And he’s torn between con­tra­dic­tions between his con­science and ratio­nal­i­ty. He ends up killing him­self. This is his sit­u­a­tion. And this is Comrade X’s art project. I am plan­ning to write a sequel to Les Misérables in which Javert does not killed him­self. This is my dream and I hope that I will real­ize this one day.” This is his first art project. He told us to oth­er and he asked us to basi­cal­ly take care of it because he had too many aer­i­al attacks on his hands at that time. 

So I will tell you in one minute how one could pos­si­bly go about real­iz­ing this plan, and I told you it’s com­plete­ly unlike­ly that I made this up because I nev­er would have made any­thing up which has to deal Les Misérables because what do you do? You are giv­en this top­ic, and oof. So it does not real­ly seem like a sen­si­ble top­ic for a con­tem­po­rary art project. No one ever read the nov­el, and the recent film killed off any remain­ing desire to ever want to deal with this work. But you know, I was giv­en this task and I think actu­al­ly that X’s idea is very fas­ci­nat­ing and very illu­mi­nat­ing if we think it through a few detours.

And first let’s return to the ini­tial ques­tion. The age of mass art pro­duc­tion, the era in which almost every human being has an art project. And I was com­par­ing this to the spread of firearms. Which has not only led to a democ­ra­ti­za­tion of vio­lence but it also changed the world ulti­mate­ly. Because feu­dal orders were replaced with indus­tri­al ones. Feudal hier­ar­chies were over­turned, over­thrown. And of course this is also embed­ded in to many oth­er shifts—technological, polit­i­cal, social, eco­nom­i­cal, his­tor­i­cal, and so on. But I think the spread of firearms def­i­nite­ly plays a role in that.

And now I’m ask­ing myself what are the pos­si­ble social con­se­quences for mass art pro­duc­tion. Are there any poten­tial effects, sim­i­lar effects, for a sim­i­lar restruc­tur­ing of social hier­ar­chies? Can we project how and if this pop­u­lar­iza­tion of aes­thet­ic pro­duc­tion might over­turn or recon­fig­ure in some way the cur­rent order?

So on the one hand, mass art pro­duc­tion means that art has final­ly dis­solved into life, or more pre­cise­ly I think that all of life has dis­solved into art. But there are also much more pro­sa­ic, so to speak, side-effects of this devel­op­ments. There’s a lot of artists and peo­ple with art projects now and only a frac­tion of them can sup­port them­selves by their prac­tice. And a siz­able part of the rest has become part of a group which is not real­ly sup­posed to exist nowa­days, the group of the edu­cat­ed urban poor.

On the oth­er hand we are also faced with a sit­u­a­tion in which the same group of peo­ple forms a sub­stan­tial part of many urban social move­ments, and in some cas­es even the main part. They are not tak­en seri­ous­ly because they do not cor­re­spond to any tra­di­tion­al idea of what a social group is sup­posed to look like and how it’s sup­posed to rep­re­sent itself. But many of them have tak­en part in the upris­ing over the past few years, in rebel­lions that will maybe not form for more than a tiny foot­note in his­to­ry, one of the many failed attempts to change things. Perhaps like in 1848 if we’re lucky. Or in 1871. I don’t think so, but per­haps some­thing like 1832.

Why 1832? Do you know what hap­pened in 1832? This is a year but has been almost for­got­ten in the his­to­ry of dis­obe­di­ence and rev­o­lu­tions. But it has been a year of mas­sive stu­dent unrest, upris­ings, dead­ly mas­sive vio­lence in the streets against a regime that had already sur­vived its time yet would go on to live for anoth­er sev­en­ty years. You think I might be talk­ing about one of the recent stolen rev­o­lu­tions that promised a spring that actu­al­ly nev­er came.

What I’m actu­al­ly talk­ing about, the set­ting of Les Misérables by Victo Hugo, because in 1832 there was a mas­sive armed rebel­lion in Paris by trick­sters, by spam­mers, by artists, even. Temporary work­ers, stu­dents, teenagers, kids, oth­er mot­ley crowds of peo­ple which did not yet cor­re­spond to what lat­er became formed as a pro­le­tari­at. This revolt seemed to be in the vain, It was quick­ly dis­persed, fol­lowed by oth­er gal­lant but equal­ly unsuc­cess­ful revolutions.

So now we are sort of back with Comrade X’s project, giv­ing it anoth­er twist by align­ing it now with the tra­di­tion of defeat­ed upris­ings. But then again is this real­ly enough to make it worth the effort? One has still to admit Les Misérables is a ter­ri­ble book, no? It feels like an over­sized lit­er­ary telen­ov­ela which has cliffhang­ers every thir­ty pages to accom­mo­date adver­tise­ment breaks. The plot­lines are com­plete­ly impos­si­ble, con­vo­lut­ed, and bare­ly hang­ing togeth­er by coin­ci­dence and they read as if they also got paid per page and thus just ram­bled on indef­i­nite­ly. Its form is cer­tain­ly affect­ed by the ser­i­al news­pa­per nov­els of the time, which appeared in install­ments and com­bined new indus­tri­al print­ing tech­nolo­gies and mass read­er­ship. This ram­bling pulp fic­tion, basi­cal­ly, which was writ­ten on com­mis­sion, thus basi­cal­ly antic­i­pat­ing the form of the TV soap.

But this also brings in anoth­er idea, because each of these chap­ters had to so to speak vie for the sur­vival of the whole series. Because only if every chap­ter was suc­cess­ful the series would be con­tin­ued. And if not, the com­mis­sion would sim­ply be dropped. So each chap­ter was so to speak a renewed job inter­view. It was anoth­er pitch for the same project. It was a per­ma­nent pub­lic audi­tion to get the next chap­ter fund­ed, to real­ize the project step by step, or rather check by check as an add-on modules. 

So the nov­el in fact con­sist­ed of a series of pitch­es for itself. It was an auto-audition, so to speak. And the pitch itself became part of the dra­ma. And I think that this for­mal lev­el, not the shootout at the bar­ri­cade shot in 4K with singing Hollywood actors, that this for­mal lev­el is the most con­tem­po­rary polit­i­cal lev­el of Les Misérables. And this is embod­ied by a stel­lar performance—not in the recent one by Anne Hathaway who got an Oscar for her performance—but by Susan Boyle, if you remem­ber. The ren­di­tion of the most impres­sive song of the musi­cal Les Misérables, which is called I Dreamed a Dream.” And it was a sung on the cast­ing show Britain’s Got Talent. 

And I think that it’s here that we see an unex­pect­ed aspect of Comrade X’s project emerge. Because I Dreamed a Dream,” this song, is the anthem of sin­gle work­ing moms all over the world. It’s sung by some­one who was aban­doned by the father of her child. She’s left to fend for her­self. She has child­care prob­lems. She falls into the hands of a scam­mer. She becomes a pros­ti­tute and so on. It was real­ly com­pli­cat­ed. But thus she becomes the trag­ic hero­ine of repro­duc­tive labor in the age of dev­as­tat­ing affec­tive wages, scams, cat­a­stro­phes, of middle-age women who have no time to be cool because they’ve got to do the work, they’ve got to face the shame, they’ve got to wipe the tears. I will show this clip. I’m sure you have seen it already but anyhow.

So I think from this stel­lar ren­di­tion, it is real­ly obvi­ous that there is anoth­er species of mis­érables around, not of stage but on stage. The con­tem­po­rary mis­érables are also those who are wait­ing in the cur­tains to be cast­ed, to audi­tion, to pitch. They are the crowds who are too fat, too awk­ward, too old, too accent­ed, and who nev­er­the­less go per­form in front of posh juries in order to be vot­ed up or down, to be ridiculed, to be dis­missed, to be fired. To present their art projects, their dreams, or their songs, they are the wretched of the age of mass art pro­duc­tion, fac­ing judges with bleached smiles and anorex­ic cleav­age. And of course, behind these and even more invis­i­ble, there are many more who are min­ing the min­er­als we need for these free­lance lap­tops, who are weav­ing the H&M clothes on dis­play at job inter­views. They are the ones that fight in the moun­tains, dream­ing of art­works, and those that crouch to die behind bar­ri­cades paint­ed in trompe l’oeil patterns.

So the mis­érables in the age of mass art pro­duc­tion is the rab­ble wait­ing to be dis­cov­ered by cast­ings, job inter­views, com­pe­ti­tions, through calls for papers, pitch­es, tal­ent, fairs. They are plead­ing to be called out in front of juries, assessed, ridiculed, lured by the spam promise of instant celebri­ty, fame, and by annu­al speed­boat rides with Vladimir and Naomi. 

We are audi­tion­ing, inter­view­ing, pitch­ing van­i­ty art projects, tap­ing protests in gonzo porn fash­ion, and announc­ing our sui­cides on Facebook. And thus we real­ized that we too are still caught in the con­tra­dic­tions of Les Misérables, the roman­tic promise of a fair chance on the one hand, and the ratio­nal prob­a­bil­i­ty of this dream being dis­missed. How does one rec­on­cile these con­tra­dic­tions? And many do, as the Inspector Javert in Les Misérables, by tak­ing their own lives, unable to rec­on­cile the con­tra­dic­tions, the shame, the real­i­ty of never-ending cast­ing, never-ending issues with child­care, repro­duc­tive labor, aban­don­ment, doubt, and the drag of dream­ing on.

So now we have seen Les Misérables also teach­es us that the same rab­ble can rise and take to the bar­ri­cades in 1832, 2011, maybe even for the future, claim­ing for a spring that keeps us waiting.

So now at the end I sug­gest to come back to Comrade X’s art project for a sec­ond time, for the last time. And this is how I sug­gest to real­ize [it]. Imagine that this is now me, not Susan Boyle, wear­ing a 19th-century peri­od cos­tume on an emp­ty film set, and we will green screen in a stage bar­ri­cade which is made of muse­um bench­es and dis­cur­sive archi­tec­ture lounge. And we will throw in a lot of extras made up to look poor and mis­er­able and hol­lowed. And each of them is of course an artist who is doing some job on the side to be able to real­ize his or her own project. And all these extras are armed with AK-47s. They are play­ing stu­dent mili­tias about to get slaugh­tered at the bar­ri­cades and then for­got­ten, only to be redis­cov­ered by a ter­ri­ble movie.

And in this set­ting, I’m pitch­ing Comrade JR’s sec­ond project to a jury, and this jury is in fact you.

[The fol­low­ing is recit­ed as the music of I Dreamed a Dream” plays and its lyrics are dis­played via projector]

This is my sec­ond art project, Chasing Spring.”

We are guer­ril­la, and my sec­ond project has its point of depar­ture in the fact that we are guer­ril­la who live, think, and feel. The idea for a doc­u­men­tary, which I devel­oped, will con­nect the life of the nomad to the one of the guer­ril­las. You my friends are also doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ers. We share this. Nomad life is very intense here. The nomads go down to the val­leys in win­ter to warmer places. In sum­mer they go up to the mountains.

The nomads have a say­ing, each place has its spring.” This say­ing describes the life of nomads. This means they fol­low spring. The nomads fol­low spring from the plains to the moun­tains, and from the moun­tains to the valleys. 

The guer­ril­la bring spring to social life. Before its incep­tion, it was deep win­ter. In win­ter all con­tra­dic­tions are frozen. But with the guer­ril­la, spring came again and the tal­ents of human beings were rediscovered.

Most guer­ril­la and nomads are chas­ing spring. I want to tell this sto­ry, Chasing Spring. 

So at this point, the extras will audi­tion to play either nomads or guer­ril­las. They will audi­tion for these roles, they will show their tal­ent to the jury. That is, if they pay the audi­tion fee they get the chance to be dis­cov­ered at this point. They will also have to prove that they are able to han­dle the AK-47 by fir­ing some rounds on spe­cial­ty marks specif­i­cal­ly designed by Zaha Hadid for this occasion.

Is there any tal­ent here, by chance, that would like to audi­tion now, so you will get the chance to sub­mit your own art project, either in the role of nomad or guer­ril­la? And the jury will select one of these sub­mis­sions to be pub­lished on a spe­cial web site accessed via a direct link from the Venice Biennale.

One day, I’ll man­age to real­ize this project. I wrote down a part but at the moment prac­ti­cal life does­n’t allow me to real­ize this at the moment. I told Tina and Hito this sto­ry, and I hope they will real­ize it. I hope we will real­ize it togeth­er. It is the best and most beau­ti­ful to col­lab­o­rate. I hope we will expe­ri­ence this joy together. 

And empty stage, which Hito has just walked off, with a slide reading "End of first chapter"

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