Hito Steyerl is a German filmmaker and artist whose work explores the complexities of the digital world, art, capitalism and the implications of Artificial Intelligence for society.
Steyerl’s recent artworks cover subjects as diverse as video games, surveillance and art production.
Her series of projects at the Serpentine Galleries was positioned around ideas of ‘power’. Beginning from the premise that ‘power is the necessary condition for any digital technology’, the artist considered the multiple meanings of the word, including electrical currents, the ecological powers of plants or natural elements, and the complex networks of authority that shape our environments. She addressed the notion of power through three interrelated research strands and projects: Actual Realityos, a collectively-produced digital tool; Power Walks, a series of guided walks and a tour that drew upon conversations with campaigners, community groups and organisations in the local area surrounding the Serpentine; and finally this exhibition, Power Plants, which featured new video installations created using artificial intelligence trained to predict the future.
Outside on the grounds of the Serpentine North Gallery, an augmented reality app, Actual Realityos, charts real life data around inequality through virtual means within the communities surrounding this gallery, recorded as one of the most socially uneven boroughs in Europe. Visitors to the Serpentine could download and use the free Actual Realityos app to view a series of architectural models that have been distorted in line with data that charts this social inequality. Through the app and overlayed on the gallery’s exterior walls, visitors see data on social housing, austerity and workers’ rights. These models represent findings by local research partners, including personal testimony and community mapping in relation to national statistical data. Actual Realityos was available at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery until 31 January 2020.
The series of video sculptures featured in this exhibition, Power Plants, were generated by neural networks: computer systems modelled on the human brain and nervous system, which were programmed to predict the future by calculating the next frame in the video. The artist used this Artificial Intelligence to create a series of ‘predicted’ plants that are located precisely 0.04 seconds in the future, connecting to the visual landscape of the surrounding park. In the central room a series of four videos focused on the Power Walks programme and emphasised the research process that is at the core of the artist’s work and her unique project for the Serpentine Galleries. In each of the films, the research partners who contributed the data sets for the augmented reality app told stories related to their perspectives on the local area and their campaigns. By including this in the show, the artist brought to the fore the voices and work of the project’s protagonists.
The exhibition design was inspired by the idea of a ruderal garden: an ensemble of plants that grow out of waste ground, perhaps in the wake of human disruption or destruction. Predicted by Steyerl’s neural networks as a vision of the future this environment is a garden rich with plants that have various ecological, medicinal and political powers. With Power Plantsos and using the medium of augmented reality that visitors accessed through iPads suspended from the ceiling, Steyerl annotated her video sculptures with speculative descriptions of future plants, fictitious quotes dated in the future and human testimony. Utilising a technology often positioned as beneficial to human evolution, the show reversed this promise, instead considering how such tools could impact our natural environment.
The soundtrack accompanying the film included a collaboration with British musician, rapper and visual artist, Kojey Radical, whose words and riffs help us further imagine the future into which the artist projects us. The vinyl text circling around the gallery walls was an encrypted text that could not be read without the digital key to unlock it. This mirrored how augmented reality can serve as a tool to decrypt facts, to see what is invisible or, in a more literal sense, to unlock pathways into a future that may often be hiding in plain sight.