Art Travelling: Hito Steyerl at London Serpentine Gallery

Hito Steyerl is a German filmmaker and artist whose work explores the complexities of the digital world, art, capitalism, and the implications of Artificial Intelligence for society.


The images on the myriad screen are beautiful videos of hothouse plants in luscious colours moving around in rainbow glitches. Very intoxicating. But then the text tells us something else. There are two parallel narratives The first is snippets of text from the future: imaginary exhibition reviews “The mastery of the solitary genius brushstroke is foolishly forsaken for the empty lure of electricity and collectivity” attributed to Jonathan Jones the Guardian’s art critic but it’s not a real review, it’s Steyerl taking the ‘p’; scientific reports form the future after the Kensington area where the gallery is,  has all been destroyed and reclaimed by nature, and – most fascinatingly – witchy recipes for curing social media addiction.

Then things get serious. Hidden in the gorgeous colours and the witty epigrams from the future is an incisive recounting of the lives of the unseen workers, disabled people and the poor that live in Kensington – possibly the most unequal region in all of Europe. Steyerl worked with several groups: Architects for Social Housing, Disabled People Against Cuts (cuts to disability allowances have been cruel and stringent under the present regime), Unite the Union Hotel Workers’ Branch, The Voice of Domestic Workers and The Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance
– an alliance of Disabled People and their organisations (DPOs). The exhibition is actually detailing social inequality, highlighting the grotesque non-distribution of London’s wealth, and the presence of hunger  in the UK.  As the critic Adrian Searle points out “The products of deep data mining, AI technologies and predictive modelling are now extensively used to ascertain housing and social benefit provision. Steyerl and researchers and collaborators in effect use the technology to expose itself. The Serpentine Gallery, and its location in Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, becomes a site for institutional and social critique.”

To get the most of the show you were expected to download an app to your smartphone, and point the phone camera at a sigil mounted on one of several concrete columns. Your phone becomes your interface with the gallery. I didn’t do that for the most mundane of reasons: my Sony Xperia was apparently the wrong kind of phone. I bought it cos it takes amazing photos, but I think you probably needed a very hi-end phone to get those apps working, which kind of begs the question about the critique of wealth distribution. No matter – the gallery supplied i-pads you could use to traverse the virtual spaces. I’m not really a fan of fiddling with gadgets in an exhibition, especially not the pesky phone. I associate my phone to work, not leisure and usually switch it off when I am at a show.  I’d rather just a straightforward VR headset.

The show reminded me of a show I saw last winter at the New Media Gallery near Vancouver (my FAVOURITE GALLERY IN CANADA!).

Canadian Anishinaabe artist/filmmaker Lisa Jackson‘s  Biidaaban; First Light is an interactive, Virtual Reality (VR) animation. A headset allows the visitor to become immersed in a 7 minute film depicting a future landscape in flux: a fallen city being reclaimed by nature, with the narrative spoken in indigenous Native American languages. This was one of the best works I have seen in a long time, genuinely moving and profound.

I like that Steyerl is motivated by similar concerns for the future. Both artists have created thoughtful, complex works using technology in creative and deeply involving ways, to say something that needs to be said, debated and acted upon.

The actual data Steyerl worked with is a sobering read. It’s supplied as a download on the gallery’s website here