Riffing on Reality: Hito Steyerl and the Research Center for Proxy Politics

From the Utopian Union 2016 Berlin Summit. via Utopian Union.

Hito Steyerl's Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War is out now and on sale for 50% off until January 1. 

The art world: “It is at once highly malleable and inert, sublime, dopey, opaque, bizarre, and blatant: a game in which the most transcendental phenomena are on collectors’ waiting lists,” writes Hito Steyerl.

If contemporary art has any relevance to our political moment, it is not by virtue of any particular work of art, but rather in the insights to be gleaned from the way the “art world” itself is organized. Its nebulous net of dealers, collectors, galleries, critics, academies, and artists reveals a system where value is bestowed by a network of speculation, circulation, and gossip. Though it moves vulgar amounts of actual currency, it is in fact dependent on this alternative currency, the exchange and dispersal of a self-made, partly self-regulating body of social capital. As Steyerl points out in “If You Don’t Have Bread, Eat Art!,” one of the essays collected in Duty Free Art, the art world’s decentralized and encrypted nature lends itself to a comparison with cryptocurrency.

Art is often encrypted to the point of sometimes being undecryptable. Encryption is routinely applied, even or especially if there is no meaning, whatsoever. Art is encryption as such, regardless of the existence of a message with a multitude of conflicting and often useless keys. Its reputational economy is randomly quantified, ranked by bullshit algorithms that convert artists and academics into ranked positions, but it also includes more traditionally clannish social hierarchies. It is a fully ridiculous, crooked, and toothless congregation and yet, like civilization as a whole, art would be a great idea.

This is a good starting point from which to consider a key thread of Steyerl’s practice. As a writer, artist, and teacher at the Universität der Kunst (UDK) in Berlin, Steyerl often turns the lens sharply back towards the art world itself, vigorously refusing the myopic nature of art discourse and instead offering an incisive examination and elaboration of its structural politics. This intent is extended in the Research Center for Proxy Politics (RCPP), a program of lectures, workshops, and talks that ran from September 2014 to August 2017. Situated in the context of Steyerl’s UDK class but open to the public, RCPP investigated “the politics of digital networks, the genealogy of networked thought, the mediality of physical landscapes, and strategies of opacity.”  

What is proxy politics? Proxies can be bots, avatars, scams, or scripts that add “echo, subterfuge, distortion, and confusion to geopolitics.” They contribute to the sea of noise in our “post-representational, or post-democratic, political age, one increasingly populated by bot militias, puppet states, ghostwriters, and communication relays.” But the RCPP suggests that those same intermediaries and decoys might be reappropriated as a means to poke loopholes within the status quo of our networked reality.

In other words, proxy politics is both a diagnosis of the modern political terrain, and a potential framework and strategy with which to resist it.

In proxy politics the question is literally how to act or represent by using stand-ins (or being used by them) and also how to use intermediaries to detourne the signals or noise of others. And proxy politics itself can also be turned around and redeployed … Proxy politics happens between taking a stand and using a stand-in. It is in the territory of displacement, stacking, subterfuge, and montage that both the worst and the best things happen.

The best being adjacent to the worst can be keenly observed in the RCPP’s programming of artists, writers, academics, activists, and technicians. Over the course of the RCPP’s two-year run, they investigated topics such as the installation and maintenance of free wireless networks; the building blocks of bitcoin; algorithmic authenticity; and the potential for artists to use alternative methods of art production and circulation. This year, RCPP also conducted a day-long conference at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt and published Proxy Politics — Power and Subversion in a Networked Age, a collection of texts from its collaborators with contributions from Sondra Perry, Brian Holmes, and Wendy Chun, among others.

The revolving door of visitors from such wide-ranging disciplinary backgrounds is rare, perhaps singular, for an art classroom. In “Why Games, Or, Can Art Workers Think?” Steyerl compares the art world to videogames and the modern world to a gamespace, in which we — the players — have been trained to behave in so-called rational, self-interested ways. Whether it’s credit scores, social media clout, or professional ladder climbing, any ranking is a simplified scoreboard of past (and predicted future) socioeconomic behavior.  

Elaborating on games, Steyerl writes:

Wouldn’t it be more fruitful to define them as social abstractions and use them to test-model and simulate a range of social scenarios – but on the premise that they should be seen as models of social interaction, and not as the social per se. To expand on this: If a game is a social abstraction, what kind of abstraction is it? Perhaps different social abstractions could be test-modeled in terms of their social criticality, spread, circulation, contagion, tipping points … These experiments might turn out to be mere crapstraction. But just because crapstraction is so widespread, it doesn’t mean it’s the only kind of abstraction.

Perhaps we might try to imagine different models of social abstractions, practicing new games or patterns of behavior. The RCPP is in itself one such example of a new type of “social abstraction,” one causing visible reverberations in the work of Steyerl’s students. Continuing on the theme of gaming, artists Ana Gzirishvili (a student of Steyerl’s) and Sara Løve Daðadóttir are using Live Action Roleplay (LARP) to enact a speculative scenario in the year 2031, when most nation states have transformed into new entities. Under the umbrella of the Berlin-based collective Utopian Union, their project “2031” uses LARP as a methodology to investigate speculative scenarios and collaborate with academics, artists, designers, “social entrepreneurs,” scientists, students, activists.

Instead of a typical performer/audience dynamic, the audience is invited to take part by adopting a role in the script. Except for a few descriptions and instructions, the participant has to improvise during the roleplay performance, often creating surprising and unexpected outcomes.  No one gets to decide how it ends, and while there are certain constraints on the characters, ultimately they make their own choices while ideas are tried and tested in practice. Like the RCPP, “2031” does not produce any single conclusion, but rather opens up new possibilities and patterns of behavior, modes of thought, and habits of collaborative thinking.

Are such games idealized, fictional, and potentially crapstractional, too? Perhaps. But Steyerl and her fellow proxy politicians are not discomfited by such contradictions — instead of pushing them aside, they probe and intensify them, fleshing them out, in order to open up new potentialities within.

Hiji Nam is Assistant Publisher at The New Inquiry.