Power Plants: Hito Steyerl
The Serpentine Sackler Building is currently hosting an extraordinary and groundbreaking project by Hito Steyerl. As a filmmaker, writer, visual artist and ‘innovator of the visual documentary’, Steyerl combines an incredible array of interests, ideas and technologies within these three interlocking projects. ‘Actual Reality’, ‘Power Walks’ and ‘Power Plants’, explore themes of art, the digital world, capitalism, Artificial Intelligence, surveillance and nature. Within these three projects, Steyerl plays with the idea of power and its multiple meanings: through electrical currents, the ecological power of plants and the natural world, and the complex layers and networks of authority within which we all reside. To see it is to experience a sensory overload and a childlike joy in the inexplicable.
When first entering the gallery (having no idea what to expect) I was immediately transported to a world I didn't understand. First, it is a purely sensory experience. From darkness to digital technicolour, and from a physical space to augmented reality, it takes a while for the mind to catch up. It is a delight, yet the complexity of the show leads to a sense of uncertainty that I think we are all familiar with in the current digital age, in which it feels as if technology is getting stronger, and more complicated than us. However, once your intellectual mind catches up and you begin to unpick the layers that Steyerl has created, you realise the deep thought and human sensitivity that has gone into this exhibition.
Steyerl works with opposites. She pairs statical data and personal testimony, organic matter and industrial simplicity, with her intelligent commentary and dark sense of humour running throughout. ‘Power Plants’ features video installations created using Artificial Intelligence trained to predict the future. These films are generated by neural networks: computer systems modelled on the human brain, which are programmed to predict the future by calculating the next frame in the video. She has used this to create ‘predicted plants’: moving images of plants that grow and evolve as the next frame is constantly regenerated. The result is brightly coloured moving images of flora, in stark contrast to the industrial and technological ‘canvas’ on which they exist.
‘Actual Reality’ is a collectively produced digital tool; looking through the app, the galleries' external wall shows data on austerity, social housing and worker’s rights. She has created a device that enables the user to view and interact with data that expresses the severe inequality that exists within communities that surround the Sackler gallery, one of the most socially unequal places in Europe. Within the gallery, hanging screens display an augmented reality: layers of text and colour are added onto the room before you - decorating what you can see with a commentary straight from the artist's mind. These included fictitious quotes dated in the future, testimonials and descriptions of imagined plant life.
The exhibition includes ’Power Walks’: Video footage of research partners who tell stories about their experiences in and perspective on the local area, and their own campaigns. The soundtrack adds a further layer of interest to this overwhelming experience. It includes a collaboration with British rapper, musicians and visual artist, Kojey Radical. It creates a looping soundtrack that encircles the listener within the world created by Steyerl. The Exhibition is overwhelming, baffling and complex, but its overall message is one of love and respect for the natural world, and the people that are fighting to protect it.