By Jessica Holmes
July 12, 2019
The three-channel film installation that sits as the centerpiece of Hito Steyerl’s exhibition of the same name, Drill (2019) draws in viewers by its sound before its imagery. The clashing, percussive tones of a persistent marching band emanate from the yawning maw of the Wade Thompson Drill Hall at the Park Avenue Armory, where “Hito Steyerl: Drill,” curated by Tom Eccles, is currently on view. As you wander in and out among the rooms of the Armory overtaken by Steyerl’s installations, this throbbing music follows, the connector that binds the disparate analyses of weighty subjects that the artist offers through her work.
Steyerl’s practice ranges across filmmaking and installation, writing and lecturing. She is as much a philosopher and critic as she is a visual artist. Drill takes gun violence in America as its premise, a theme previously unexplored by the German born and based artist, and one perhaps chosen to resonate with American audiences. Steyerl has however documented and investigated the broader category of war in many of her earlier works, and this focus on the gun epidemic in the United States seems a natural progression of these pursuits. Playing on a continuous loop in the otherwise empty Drill Hall, which is lit only by lines of fluorescent light running along the floor, the film is relatively straightforward. Its 21 minutes are divided into five parts centered on a group of talking heads, each one an American gun reform activist who has in some way been directly impacted by gun violence. Interspersed with these interviews is commentary from Anna Duensing, a historian who guides the viewer through a tour of the Armory building itself. Through her commentary, we learn that the resplendent, fortress-like Armory, constructed by the opulent wealth of New York’s Gilded Age society for the Seventh Regiment after the Civil War, was also the birthplace of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in its earliest form. Though it began as a genteel shooting club, the contemporary viewer’s understanding of what the NRA has become in the present day—a powerful lobby that pushes for unlimited gun owners’ rights—informs and colors this historical fact. Among the activists speaking onscreen are a teacher who survived the Sandy Hook school shooting, a middle-age man who is wheelchair-bound due to being shot, and a teenager living in inner city Chicago, which has among the highest rates of gun violence in the country. All have personally witnessed shootings, and each of them in their own words likens their experiences to war. The collective narratives are foregrounded by the pulsating marches that score the film, as played by the Yale University Precision Marching Band, who also appears performing intermittently onscreen. As the credits roll, the audience learns that the scores are original, and their notes correspond to accumulated data on mass shootings in the United States. This is the music that follows you through the hallways of the Armory as you ramble through the other works in the show—music composed from the deadly statistics of shots fired.
Though effective, Drill stands out among the works installed for its almost journalistic approach. It lacks the nuance that is a hallmark of much of Steyerl’s other work on display. She never shies away from heavy themes: late capitalism, labor, the increasing presence of robots and Artificial Intelligence in our lives, and nefarious art world practices all come under her scrutiny. Several of the other works are injected with her characteristic, wry humor. In HellYeahWeFuckDie (2016) and Robots Today (2016), a multi-channel video installation uses both CGI and real world footage of scientists in a laboratory manipulating and cajoling robots to their eventual demise, in order to assess and improve their balance and durability. Viewers sit on concrete benches from which neon lights cast in bubble letters form the words of the title in order to view these robots being poked, hammered, outrun, and otherwise jabbed into collapse. One vacillates between chuckling at the bizarre humor of this robotic entropy, and experiencing a strange sort of empathy for the machines. We understand on an intellectual level that they have no feeling or emotion, but watching the harassing prod of enforced labor is an uncomfortable reminder of how most of us are expected to perform within a capitalist paradigm. But in much of her work, there are also injections of optimism and possibility. Broken Windows (2018-2019) documents the work of artist and activist Chris Toepfer who, along with a team of volunteers, paints canvases that he uses to replace broken windows in Camden, New Jersey, one of the nation’s most dangerous cities per capita. And in Freeplots (2019) Steyerl worked with El Catano Community Garden in East Harlem to develop the large planters of greenery that are on view at the Armory, project she hopes to continue in an ongoing effort to nurture food sustainability in lower-income communities.
Neither satire nor hope is extended to Drill, which perhaps is an indictment of the bleak possibilities that Steyerl sees existing for gun reform in America. But at the same time, the conflicting themes of Steyerl’s individual projects point to a larger discordancy within the exhibition as a whole. The installations themselves are spare; the amount of ideas is plethora. It’s as if Steyerl, having been bestowed such a massive building, felt compelled to pack it with as wide-ranging critique as she could manage. Though nearly all of the projects garner individual moments of insight, it’s hard to say what “Drill” conveys in sum. A scathing commentary on America’s gun laws, indubitably. Interrogation of capitalism’s underbelly, certainly. A celebration of grassroots organizing, perhaps. But one wishes that there were a stronger thread that ran through the show, other than the one that exists: the thrum of accumulated deaths expressed in algorithmic staccato, echoing through the halls of the Armory, performed by a college marching band.
“Hito Steyerl: Drill” remains on view through July 21, 2019 at Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Ave, New York, New York.
Jessica Holmes is the Editor-in-Chief of Degree Critical. She also contributes regularly to the Brooklyn Rail, BOMB, and other publications. Find her writing and other projects as www.jessica-holmes.net.