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Martha Rosler and Hito Steyerl “War Games” at Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel

by Riccardo Conti

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For those who were young in the 1980s, WarGames (1983, directed by John Badham) was one of the decade’s most incisive mainstream cyberpunk and political fiction films. In the story, the unwitting intrusion of a young hacker with video-game intent into national defense information systems sparks a threat of nuclear conflict. But the “war” has changed, and the “games” as well. While on the one hand the contemporary political scene has made the nuclear nightmare new again, the War Games proposed by Martha Rosler and Hito Steyerl in their new exhibition at Kunstmuseum Basel reflect the pitfalls of a war fought in the folds of media and technology in the present. The show, curated by Søren Grammel, compares the artistic research of the two artists, who are of different generations but nevertheless have many common threads. Martha Rosler (1943, New York, lives in Brooklyn) and Hito Steyerl (1966, Munich, lives in Berlin) have both distinguished themselves with their tenacious commitment to social issues and critical analysis of the political developments of our time, and have used new media in pioneering and artistic ways. From video art to installations, video essays to visual composites and collages, they have created new visual languages to articulate the interactions of power, money, media, authority, and art. In that sense, Rosler’s work has made visible what Marshall McLuhan noted in his 1970 essay “Culture Is Our Business”: “World War III is a guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation.”

In many of the videos and photographic pieces on view, it is evident how representations of women and technology are strong themes. Rosler’s collages and video artworks convey feminist ideas and counter the power of the myths spread by mass media with alternative representations of women and modern everyday life. Steyerl’s works are based on computer animations and the aesthetics expressed by YouTube and other online platforms. Despite their different media, however, both artists are focused on denouncing the privatization of public space, the control of society 24/7, and oppressive authorities that transform the city into a war zone.

The pathway of the exhibition juxtaposes earlier with more recent works in a dialogical display conceived in collaboration with the two artists, who for the first time in their careers present an exhibition in Switzerland; the museum has devoted two floors to the presentation. The place, and the elaborate, high-tech multimedia installations, play an important role in transmitting the themes of the individual works, transforming the whole exhibition into a single, large environment that both fascinates the visitor and seems to feed one’s paranoia of a constantly monitored digital condition. If hidden bugs were the tools of old-fashioned espionage up through the Cold War, drones are the icons of our current condition of low-intensity war. Steyerl’s Extra Space Craft (2016) is a docu-fiction video set in northern Iraq, where a national observatory is maneuvering drones over Iraqi Kurdistan. The control tower becomes the set of a space agency, which the artist skillfully adopts as her subject to evoke the virtual dimension superimposed on the realities of state-controlled territories and zones under anti-terrorist control. Rosler’s Theater of Drones (2013) is a sort of visual essay also focused on these protagonists of our contemporary environment. “Welcome to the brave new world of round-the-clock surveillance and the death of privacy!” says one of the slides in the piece, its tone seemingly borrowed from advertising language, highlighting even more, if possible, the contrast between the illusive world of the media and the militarization of everyday life.

It is interesting to note how the works of both authors, whose art is notoriously serious and intellectually rigorous (as most clearly expressed in their theoretical writings) can take shapes and tones that infuse the topics with a surplus of optimism and fun. The multilayered constructions of their narratives reflect our perception of social reality as dominated by contradictory signs coexisting in the same space (and on the same digital platforms), but they also demonstrate their authors’ careful study of narrative models and literal references that they have always used to give their operations an immediately recognizable style.

“Tomorrow’s swashbuckler will not be in a plane, but at a screen”: Martha Rosler borrows this sentence from Régis Debray as a prophecy regarding our new home environment dominated by touchscreen devices and laptops, and their anesthetizing effects, which are not that far from the effects of TV image-bombing, a phenomenon that Rosler has analyzed over the last past four decades in renowned collages such House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home (1967-1972), in which pictures of “American dream” interiors from the glossy magazine House Beautiful collide with documentary shots from the Vietnam War. Manipulation and decontextualization are instruments Rosler frequently deploys to criticize power structures, represented in urban environments and public space by advertising campaigns as well by ideological symbols, as in her installation Unsettling the Fragments (2007). Steyerl contemplates both physical and virtual spaces in the essayist documentaries that she has produced as a filmmaker and author. In recent works such as The Tower (2015), the editing and images present a radical visual language capable of embodying digital information streams, pointing out how reality has been augmented by technologies and virtual processes. This central theme of the image, which runs through the whole exhibition in the dialogue between the two artists, represents an important moment of reflection on the feminine and feminist gaze, of which these two artists are certainly among the most important living representatives.

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at Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel
until 2 December 2018

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