Inside an innocuous Chelsea black box theater, in front of a green screen that alternatively tilts, shifts, and swirls, artist Hito Steyerl purports to teach her audience: “How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV.” The short film, with a boppy, electronic soundtrack and a gratuitous use of ~*special effects*~ is a sly, satirical look at internet surveillance and modern-day invisibility.
If you spend a large amount of time online, it’s immediately satisfying to watch Steyerl unroll her commandments of invisibility, spelled out for the audience in meme-esque lettering, white Arial bold with black outlines. We’re in on the joke, and the vainglory of Steyerl’s effort is as amusing as the sidelong smile with which they’re delivered: Camouflage yourself, Steyerl suggests, dressed in a black robe, smearing green paint on her face, which is subsequently green-screened and makes her look as though she is melting. Become smaller than a pixel, she adds helpfully, as three figures in monochrome morphsuits bop onto the screen, wearing IKEA-esque fabric boxes on their heads. The production is endearingly low-res.
There’s some truth to Steyerl’s claim: anything smaller than a pixel is virtually invisible, the concept of resolution also being a key component of the video. Clarity only works as far as a photograph is rendered. Blurring, though in offline optics a different phenomenon than digital resolution, can be understood to be a lack of pixels. If you want to hide something in a world where everything exists as photographs, bury it in noise. If it’s too small to be seen, it can’t be.
How not to be seen? Steyerl investigates. She swaddles her crew in morphsuits and dark green burkas, which lend the whole thing a hokey political atmosphere and are also perhaps a nod to the false invisibility of “veiled women,” whose bodies act as a kind of semiotic signal, unhelpfully used in Islamophobic arguments that have little to do with real humanism. She shrinks and embiggens the scale of the video until the viewer is physically sick with the swell of it. Steyerl even takes us on a tour of a gated community, cheerfully rendered in some corny 3D program, with blasé, semi-transparent heteronormative models standing in for the neighborhood’s residents. Of course, the pixelheads and morphsuits and burka’d figures all frolic through the bucolic scene — like the deep web, invisibility can fold over upon itself, in layers of being seen and not-seen, in both pleasant and unpleasant “safe spaces.”
Surveillance, easy. Every internet user by now is aware that there’s no such thing as privacy online, though, touchingly, there have been gestures at it, such as the EU’s “right to be forgotten” ruling, which allows individuals to request the removal of particular search results connected to their names. As though it were possible to forget that we are constantly being watched! This isn’t paranoia, just realism. A screenshot of Steyerl’s laptop computer displays a TOR startup icon, a casual reference to the easy access of the deep web.
And yet there is a darker tone to all Steyerl’s fun and games — the joyful pixels at the end, the helpful captions — “film this for real!” with arrows pointing to blank spaces on the screen, self-consciously smirking notes-to-self. In the case of political abductions, people disappear every day, every year, Steyerl notes in a voiceover. Some people who disappear are killed. Some people who disappear are never found. This is not simply a matter of being smaller than a pixel. This is about the value of a human life and its room for representation, its worthiness for higher resolutions, more data, more empathy. It can be very easy to erase something that isn’t supposed to be seen.
It’s a simple read, to take How Not To Be Seen as merely a self-aware cautionary tale, a dark, savvy internet joke that reminds us of what we already know: everyone’s watching. No matter how hard you scrub you won’t get all the data out. My god, be careful with your nudes. Seriously. “Cover it,” Steyerl suggests, as another way to be seen. We laugh: we can still see her; she just can’t see us behind her hand.
And yet. What of very real political abductions and very real covers, censored documents with black-barred text just as frustrating and obvious as Hito Steyerl’s hand inching in front of her face? What of the lack of clarity, the fudgy erasure that allows lives to slip through the cracks? To be invisible seems like it would be a relief. But it is only such if you were properly seen to begin with. The low-resolution photograph, though democratic, never gets a chance to be beautiful. Those we deem invisible remain unseen and lost in a mess of pixels. Rather than the battle cry for privacy, which has worn thin over the past year, a call for transparency starts to seem much more apt.
“How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV” is on view at Andrew Kreps Gallery until August 15.