Drums, brass and voices reverberate across Wade Thompson Drill Hall – the cavernous 55,000 square foot space that once hosted America’s National Guard’s Seventh Regiment, a militia that joined the Union Army during the American Civil War. The centrepiece of Hito Steyerl’s survey at the Park Avenue Armory – the largest of its kind for the German filmmaker and artist thus far in the USA – is a massive three-channel video display situated in the centre of an illuminated floor. The perennial school shootings that plague America are part of a meandering narrative that also takes in the National Rifle Association gun lobby, national urban violence and the Armory’s own architecture.
Historian Anna Duensing, armed with a flashlight which she points at various portraits of eminent military figures or bullet holes created during shooting exercises in the basement, provides a tour of the opulent Armory built by New York’s elite (the Roosevelts and Stewarts were amongst the many illustrious families with members of the Seventh Regiment.) The Yale University Concert and Precision Marching bands make choreographed appearances, whilst activists including the National Die In’s Nurah Abdulhaqq and Sandy Hook school shooting survivor Abbey Clements, discuss gun violence. A score by Jules Laplace and Thomas C. Duffy punctuates their precarious discussions, the tones matching data points on mass shootings or gun production.
In being discursive – and thus mirroring Steyerl’s genrebending practice straddling art, philosophy and politics – the work also at times seems disorganised, jumping jarringly between its disparate parts. Part of the point, however, is precisely Steyerl’s stubborn refusal to stick to a single perspective. The narrative of our times is simply too complex for that. Instead, the artist encourages us to question the hidden power structures behind the new technologies that permeate our lives and the political nature of transactions. As she reminds us at the start of the piece: “History is the art of highlighting whatever is hiding in plain sight.”
Seven other installations created since 2013 fill rooms on the first floor. The City of Broken Windows, which Steyerl began last year, connects artist–activist Chris Toepfer, who places painted canvases in the holes left by broken windows, with researchers training Artificial Intelligence to identify the sound of shattering glass. The work undermines the “broken windows” theory that suggests small signs of disorder are conducive to greater amounts of crime. Videos in Hell Yeah We Fuck Die (2016) show scientists abusing robots to test their endurance. In Is the Museum a Battlefield? (2013), the artist tells of the bullet which killed her friend – PKK millitant Andrea Wolf. The manufacturer of the bullet was a sponsor of the Istanbul Biennial and the Art Institute of Chicago, both places where Steyerl’s work has been exhibited.
Find out more here. Steyerl’s works are also included in the Venice Biennale Arte, until 24 November.
Lead image: Hito Steyerl, ExtraSpaceCraft, 2016. 3-channel HD video, environment, 12 min, 30 sec. Installation view, from Kunstmuseum Basel. Image courtesy of the Artist, Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York and Esther Schipper, Berlin. Photo: Marc Asekhame.