Hito Steyerl on Art and Occupation

When I showed up to Hito Steyerl’s presenation “Art As Occupation 3.00” at Import Projects in Schöneberg, I expected (this year’s Berlin Biennale in mind) to hear about the Occupy! movement and its ties to contemporary art. Instead, Steyerl began her presentation – a rolling mix of linguistic links, sociological observations, and politics – with a disclaimer that the talk was not inspired by those occupiers of Zuccotti Park. The talk, she said, came out of her ongoing interest in the so-called militarization of everyday life (she published an essay on this theme in the e-flux journal last year), combined with popular risings in 2011 that predated Occupy! Steyerl had in mind the sense of ‘occupation’ in its two everyday senses: a job and a military takeover of a space. I recalled, once she began her slideshow, how the theme of aesthetics and military occupation goes back a long way: think of Louis Althusser’s example for how individuals become ‘subjects’ (a policeman shouting, ‘hey, you there!’ to a passer by), or Friedrich Kittler’s thesis that major advances in media and technology arose from the military.

Steyerl’s main point was the following: in today’s economic climate, the category of labour is increasingly replaced by that of ‘occupation.’ She glosses the term (in both senses) as a space for “endless mediation, indeterminate negotiation, with no real outcome.” She means that terms of contractual labour (I hire you to paint my fence) have been increasingly replaced, colonised, or occupied by forms of work-life, where what constitutes one’s job is uncertain or malleable. A military occupation is politically decisive, yet it often has a lot to do with armed individuals simply standing there. And, to follow this link, what do gallery assistants or museum attendees really get paid for, if not a kind of spatial occupation of the aesthetic sphere? What is the product of their labour?

Hito Steyerl, Security Officer Ron Hicks, 2012. Single channel video, in progress.

The discrepancies in the way salaried employees and blue-collar labourers think of work has been theorized, for one, by Siegfried Kracauer in The Salaried Masses. But Steyerl’s question makes intuitive sense when you look at the differences in the way young people in art-related jobs get paid. When I was beginning to work in New York as a freelance writer and researcher, my gigs were project-based and bounded by a specific and final product. But a salaried registrar at a gallery may be able to have a longer tether to his occupation – take a sick day here and there, have a long lunch, read Gawker at his computer – without immediately jeopardizing his status as ‘on the job.’ This isn’t meant to belie the amount of work put in by people at the workplace; crucially, the terms of a workplace contract frequently operate on an intangible, symbolic level. It’s an extended form of Marx’s alienated labour. Often, office work means simply being there in case anything comes up. Labour becomes symbolic potential. Hence the usefulness of the term ‘occupation.’

To illustrate these links, Steyerl looked at two art-world examples: the intern and the museum attendant. She flashed an image of an intern, eager yet skittish, behind a cage-like glass interior, holding up a sign showing that it’s her first day. The unpaid intern is, for Steyerl, an example of the “transition from labour to occupation.” The intern, because he or she doesn’t receive payment, is a symbolic marker for the nebulousness of occupational roles; the intern is both inside the space of labour and forced out of it (in a symbolic glass cage). After all, ‘intern’ also means (in my dictionary) to ‘confine, especially for political or military reason.’ (Incidentally, Steyerl noted, a freelancer is one who ‘sells his lance,’ a mercenary.)

Hito Steyerl, Security Officer Ron Hicks, 2012. Single channel video, in progress.

One of Steyer’s best examples was that of the museum guard. She pointed out that many museum attendees, standing around venerated works of art, are indeed military veterans, since the private security industry caters to (among others) veterans who can apply their combat training to more docile institutional roles. If we’ve entered an age of privatization, where intelligence, surveillance, prisons and security forces are mostly conducted by private contractors, then it’s important to keep in mind how militarization and privatization directly affect the art world’s own spheres of uncertain symbolic exchange.

 Text by Pablo Larios

Hito Steyerl’s “Art As Occupation 3.0” took place June 30th at Import Projects as part of the EMJD Conference.

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