REVIEW: Didier Morelli on Hito Steyerl: Adorno's Grey

Didier Morelli | January 6, 2014

SFU MFA candidate Didier Morelli has just published a thoughtful review of Hito Steyerl: Adorno's Grey at Audain Gallery on Here's what he had to say:

"The poor image is no longer about the real thing - the originary original. Instead, it is about its own real conditions of existence: about swarm circulation, digital dispersion, fractured and flexible temporalities. It is about defiance and appropriation just as it is about conformism and exploitation. In short: it is about reality."       
   - Hito Steyerl, In Defense of the Poor Image

"[t]he task of art today is to bring chaos into order."   
   - Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia

In her exhibition entitled Adorno's Grey at the Audain Gallery in Vancouver, Hito Steyerl provides her audience with an open ended dialectical inquiry into a specific incident in the life of renowned German sociologist and philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, a forefather of critical theory and part of the Frankfurt School. Collapsing biographical narrative and anecdote with philosophical thought, Steyerl adopts Adorno's process of mixing and intertwining theory and direct action into 'real life'. In her installation combining video, photography, and text, Steyerl ties a series of actions and events in her own contemporary life with that of Adorno's. Her mise en scène creates a fractured revisiting of mythical and factual histories. The work draws from her own expertise and experience as a filmmaker, her Ph.D in philosophy from the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna as well as her position within an intellectual discourse in European contemporary art. Using these tools, Steyerl inserts herself and her oeuvre within a fraught history and present moment of generational tension, student protest, and paradigm shifts. She uses humour (riddle, pun, wordplay, and juxtaposition) to develop a nuanced ideological critique. Simultaneously pointing and not pointing to biographical events in Adorno's life, she raises questions, contradictions, seeks breaking points, and highlights the structures and fault lines of a history in dénouement. This is where Steyerl is most convincing and thought provoking, blurring her means of expression in order to expose and explore the apparatus that creates the image (or story). It is also where she may be most difficult to grasp, leaving much responsibility to her audience to navigate the matrix (her matrix) until the viewer realize that Steyerl is laughing at the dogmas of Adorno, art making and exhibiting, and most importantly at the making of history.

The moment Steyerl has chosen in Adorno's life is significant since it is a time when the 'students of critical theory' at the Goethe-Universität became conflicted with their mentor. Much like the fellow 'fathers' of the Frankfurt School, who had themselves sought distance from the narrowing of Marxist theory, Adorno's students challenged an ossifying school of thought and authoritative paradigm via the breast attack and other modes of protest.
Steyerl begins with the 2010 United Kingdom student riots/protests as a source of inspiration. This tension between past and present (through the timeline included in the piece as well as the flickering between past and present in the video) is central as the artist moves through history, weaving in and out of it, deconstructing and debunking the myth of the breast attack.

By fluctuating between time periods, she exposes the similarities between late 1960 campus protests and current student conflicts. Oscillating rapidly between now and then - fact and fiction, Steyerl avoids a black and white dichotomy falling instead into different shades of grey. Adorno's Grey is not so much an inquiry into the hypothetical colour of the walls of the revered philosopher's classroom that was rumoured to promote concentration, rather, it points to a monochromatic sequence of abstract fluctuations in a post-post modernity (or metamodernity) obsessed with its genesis yet seeking its own path and emancipation. The monochrome here is a buzzing surface, an image constituted of bits of data that Steyerl manipulates and places under observation. At the very end of the exhibition, sitting in a grey room staring at grey panels, Steyerl leaves us perplexed and wondering where we can find our subjective selves within her distortion of the 'objective' flow of historical narrative.

In this work, Steyerl brings chaos or disruption into this calcified anecdote in Adorno's life, which has resisted analysis and inquiry beyond its mythical stature. Highly performative, the experience of her work toys with the monumentality of historical fact. Placing an imposing cubic grey room at the centre of the gallery - effectively re-staging the confines of the Goethe-Universität lecture hall - Steyerl asks her audience to move intellectually, temporally, and physically through different registers of time and place. Here lie some of the main questions in regard to our experience of Adorno's Grey.

Mainly, are we invited to re-view and re-imagine history or are we being moved towards a centralized and new visual/intellectual normality? Is the individualized reinterpretation andreinvention of the 'breast attack' a liberating force or a new imposition of a singular subjective vision? Whether the viewer can find agency within the work is the main question at hand. Does Adorno's Grey, in its system of ellipses, create yet another closed-off space of reified intellectual self-congratulatory wit? It (or should we say Steyerl) offers grey tinted riddles and questions, refusing to answer them in part or in full. It stays closed within its formal and intellectual structure. Ultimately, its best audience may remain itself - a matrix of grey on grey on grey.