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'Something is missing', Bertolt Brecht's minimalist definition of utopia, remains paradigmatic today. Something is still missing, and searching for this something means articulating the blanks, the 'where', 'when' and 'why' that circumscribe it. By means of those interrogations, the vague and seemingly outmoded idea of utopia might become material, historically precise, graspable and, ultimately, a thing of the present.
Hito Steyerl's films and videos manifest such a historical precision - one that reconstructs the past and the present from the perspective of their deficiency. The notion that 'something is missing' lies at their core: her moving-image narrations focus on minor historical instances plagued by disappearances and lacks, and relocate them at the centre of contemporary cultural production. Steyerl positions fiction and documentary alongside each other, suggesting that their sharp distinction is a function of their ideological roles in contemporary society, rather than the result of a significant difference in their relation to reality. In Steyerl's work, fiction is presented as the form necessarily adopted by contemporary documentation. The techniques of essay composition that she employs enable her to expand the limits of art as a branch of cultural production, interweaving images of mass culture, documentary footage and personal stories with interviews and other audio recordings. The unwillingness to be circumscribed that Theodor W. Adorno identified as characteristic of the essay form, its tendency to turn 'interpretations … always into over-interpretations', results in Steyerl's works being panoramic not only in their extrapolation of their subject onto multiple levels, but also in the fact that those levels are always referred back onto one another.2 Because of that, Steyerl's films could be described as purposeful 'over-interpretations' of the present.
Bertolt Brecht, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, quoted in Ernst Bloch, Tendenz - Latenz - Utopie, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1985, p.366. Author's translation.↑
Walter Benjamin, 'The Author as Producer', Selected Writings, Vol.II, Part 2, 1931-1934, London: The Belknap Press, p.769.↑
Alexander Rodchenko, 'Working with Maiakovskii' (1939), in Richard Andrews and Milena Kalinovska (eds.), Art into Life: Russian Constructivism 1914-1932, Seattle: The Henry Gallery, 1990, p.57.↑
Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, 'Introductory Note', October, vol.42, Fall 1987, p.5.↑
H. Steyerl in an interview with Christoph Bannatt, 'Theorie aus notwehr', artnet.de, 14 June 2007. http://www.artnet.de/magazine/features/bannat/bannat06-14-07.asp (last accessed on 7 August 2008).↑
See Stewart Martin, 'Visual Culture or Art?', Kunst und Politik. Jahrbuch der Guernica-Gesellschaft. Schwerpunkt: Bildwissenschaften, Göttingen: V&R Unipress, 2008 (forthcoming).↑
Samuel Weber, 'Television, Set and Screen', Mass Mediauras: Form, Technics, Media, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996, p.110. Quoted in Rosalind Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, London: Thames & Hudson, 2000, p.31.↑
Hito Steyerl, Die Farbe der Wahrheit: Dokumentarismen im Kunstfeld, Vienna: Turia + Kant, 2008, p.7.↑
Theodor W. Adorno, 'Der Essay als Form', Noten zur Literatur I, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1958, p.10.↑
George Lukács, quoted in ibid., p.29. Author's translation.↑
Hito Steyerl, 'Der Essayfilm und die mediale Globalisierung', lecture given at the symposium 'Der Essayfilm: Ästhetik und Aktualität', Leuphana Univerisität Lüneburg, 29 November-2 December 2007.↑
5 See Hans-Jürgen Schmitt (ed.), Die Expressionismusdebatte, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1976.↑
Ernst Bloch quoted in ibid., p.20.↑
G. Lukács, 'Es geht um den Realismus', ibid., p.192.↑
Ernst Bloch quoted in G. Lukács, 'Es geht um den Realismus', op. cit., p.195. For a wider discussion of these issues, see Frederic Schwartz, Blind Spots: Critical Theory and the History of Art in Twentieth-Century Germany, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005.↑
'By no means unified' was the title of a campaign carried out by sectors of the German radical Left around 1990 which argued against Germany's unification, denouncing its post-fascist, nationalist character.↑