In 1968, Lucy Lippard and John Chandler theorized what they called the “dematerialization” of art,1 a shift that is often interpreted as a break with the status of art as commodity and a stable material entity. While this dematerialization and attention to the conceptual idea communicated by works of art is often discussed as a challenge to museums and the art market, today’s capitalism has appropriated the characteristics that artists had previously developed as a critique of consumer society. From Bitcoins to unpaid debts and brand name logos, the economy, following the dematerialization of the art object, has become digital and immaterial.
This paper will focus on how artist, filmmaker and writer Hito Steyerl’s works explore how the seemingly immaterial is embedded in material networks, practices and entanglements. Many of Steyerl’s works and writings reflect on the role of travelling images, images whose meaning, value, and status change as they travel through time and space. She has theorized what she calls the “poor image,” that is, an image that operates against the fetish value of high resolution images and “ends up being perfectly integrated into an information capitalism thriving on compressed attention spans, on impression rather than immersion, on intensity rather than contemplation, on previews rather than screenings.”2 Seemingly immaterial endless flows of images are produced, distributed, recycled and circulated in material networks, practices and entanglements. While new materialist theorists have often distanced themselves from Marxist historical materialism, I will consider how we might reconcile notions of “immaterial labour” and the “information economy” with new materialist theories. By investigating the historical significance of materiality in our age of digitization in relation to Steyerl’s film works, my aim is to see how a productive dialogue between historical materialism and new materialist theories may help us to understand contemporary travelling images and their contexts: how they are interpreted, assigned value, shared or institutionalized.
The 2008 financial downfall caused material difficulties for many individuals, including Steyerl’s cameraman in In Free Fall (2010) who reveals that he lost his job in Hollywood because of the crash in the DVD market due to online streaming technologies. As one protagonist explains, during financial crises airplanes are dismantled and stored in desert graveyards, where they are used in Hollywood films or dismantled and sold to China. In Steyerl’s film, the image of an airplane crash–a poor image that circulates online as it is shared, uploaded, or downloaded–plays on a DVD player placed on the ground in an aircraft graveyard of California’s Mojave desert. Crashes are staged and repeated over and over following global economic downfalls, and the plane scraps are recycled, sold, and transformed into DVDs that have become technologically obsolete. “It’s so recyclable,” repeats a voice over as the DVD player shows us how the aluminum scraps, like Steyerl’s “poor images,” are transformed as they travel in time and space. Melted down to coat DVDs that might record the explosion images from Hollywood films filmed in airplane junkyards, the aluminium continues to circulate as it is recycled, reformatted, and recontextualized.
Like the aluminium that is transformed in In Free Fall or the circulation and re-contextualization of the “poor image,” many of Steyerl’s works and writings explore the art objet’s process of commodification and the material basis of present day networks that trap us in relentless productivity webs that seem impossible to escape. How do these create new political and aesthetic articulations, accelerating like the speed that propels images in Steyerl’s notion of circulationism, a situation in which an image’s value is determined by its velocity?