Matter Loves, Matter Lives, Matter Loves – the affective labour of the image in Hito Steyerl’s In Free Fall by Bridget Crone
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Matter Loves, Matter Lives, Matter Loves – the affective labour of the image in Hito Steyerl’s In Free Fall by Bridget Crone
In Free Fall, Hito Steyerl, 2010, exhibition at Picture This, image courtesy of the artist

In Free Fall, Hito Steyerl, 2010, exhibition at Picture This, image courtesy of the artist

What is it like to experience the duration of two minutes in film? One minute? Hito Steyerl’s latest work, In Free Fall – a co-commission by Chisenhale Gallery, Picture This and the Collective Gallery – begins with the announcement “2 minutes to screening” and so we experience the duration of this time in darkness, waiting for the image(s) to cross the screen again. (This beginning casts the film in the mode of structural/materialist films’ concern with the expression of the duration of time on film and the viewers’ experience of time.) What happens next is a carefully crafted composition that mediates between the gentle (falling, falling), the violent and the explosive image as well as between differing temporalities of the image.

Central to Steyerl’s concerns both in this work and in her previous (particularly, I would suggest November (2004)) is what can be referred to as the affective labour of the image. This is the work that the image does beyond representation; it is the labour of the image to express something of its own material conditions and in doing so of course it expresses the conditions of the situation in which it is embedded. In Free Fall weaves together a series of disparate threads – discussion of airplane scrappage, the history of TWA and the use of the Boeing aircraft in warfare, digitisation in film and the decline of the non-digital artworker… – around a central metaphor of ‘crash’ (in all its various forms – aircraft, financial, personal – 1929 is cited as both the year of the greatest number of planes crashes ever but was also the year that the New York stock exchange crashed) and through an exploration of matter – ‘the lives of objects.’

In Free Fall, Steyerl continues her methodology of montage and mediation between what she has termed ‘poor’ and ‘rich’ images – poor images are images in constant motion, like JPEGs and AVIs they travel at great velocity through online networks creating new (user) communities as they travel, whereas ‘rich’ images are according to Steyerl images of control and of governmentality.

It is interesting to observe in In Free Fall, the different type of work that ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ images do; in the first section of the film, for example, there is initially a fast and constant stream of images from various sources – grabs of computer screens flash (“system failure”), a snippet from film (“airforce one is down”), and of course many different pieces of footage of planes falling – but as we witness our first crash, the register shifts to high resolution so that not only is the burning fire-ball of a burning plane in high res but so is footage showing the terror of the passengers as they are rescued.

In Free Fall, Hito Steyerl, 2010, exhibition at Picture This, image courtesy of the artist

In Free Fall, Hito Steyerl, 2010, exhibition at Picture This, image courtesy of the artist

And, it is no incident that this footage of human terror appears to us not on the screen of what has become naturalized as our perception but appears on a screen within the screen: the screen of a small portable DVD player that is placed in front of the burning airplane. (This device – the framing of image within image – also appears later in the film in the form of a cinema in a decommissioned Boeing 707 and this focus on the framing of the image seems intended to convey the sense of the image as matter or as a material. And further, it seems no coincidence that this focus on the DVD – the careful placing of the DVD into the player – is followed later in the film by the metanarrative of the DVD’s crash, it’s decline in sales and use).

The extreme materiality of matter crashing and falling to pieces is accompanied by a gentle, lament-like soundtrack and as the film continues this slightly melancholic gentleness is interspersed by rap-like refrains in which scraps of sound from the previous chapter of the film (the film is organized into a series of chapters) are collaged together into a series of what Steyerl has called “recyclings”. Sound is used here in a similar manner to the image (and we are reminded of Jean Luc Nancy’s suggestion that the image is not limited to the visual) – chopped up, sliced together and forced through networks of varying velocities.

In the film, the idea of the materiality of the image and the image undertaking affective labour centres around the introduction of the Soviet writer Sergei Tretiakov, and specifically his 1929 text, Biography of an object, which we are told offers a profile of social relations through the life of the object including that of the object’s destruction. Most important for In Free Fall, is Tretiakov’s statement that “the life of individuals is less important than the life of objects”, and this not only gives us a clear indication as to Steyerl’s approach to the image within the film (its relationship to a kind of materiality) but leads us into the second half of the film which is mostly preoccupied with the “biography of (an) object: 4X-JYI” – planes that formed part of TWA’s fleet and was subsequently bought by the Israeli government and used as aircraft carriers.

Through the telling of the biography of this object and its ultimate destruction at a “small airport in the middle of nowhere” (where it is blown up for the 1994 blockbuster, Speed) the metanarratives of ‘crash’ are forged through the life of objects (in a way that is reminiscent of Kodwo Eshun’s comment that “fictions are not feigned but forged” [1]). As the refrain of one of the recyclages goes:

Matter lives on in different forms
Matter loves on
Matter lives on in different forms
(It is so recyclable)
Matter loves
Matter lives
Matter loves
Matter lives on
Matter continues to exist in different forms.

[1] Demos, T J, The Right to Opacity, October, 129, Summer 2009, p.121.

About the Author: Bridget Crone is a curator and writer based in London and the South West of England. She is the Artistic Director of Media Art Bath – a publicly funded commissioning organisation based in the South West that champions contemporary art and ideas through the development of bold new work collaborating with artists and partners locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. Bridget is Associate Lecturer at Chelsea School of Art and Design, University of the Arts London where she has taught on the MA Critical Writing and Curatorial Practice since 2008. Working both inside and outside of the gallery, Bridget is interested in work that engages with performance, installation, sound, film and video.

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