1Originally published in: Florian Ebner, Susanne Gaensheimer, Doris Krystof, Marcella Lista, Centre Pompidou, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen (Eds.): "Hito Steyerl. I will survive", Leipzig: Spector Books, 2020. With the kind permission of Spector Books. “Documentary works,” writes Hito Steyerl in her book Die Farbe der Wahrheit, are “palaces of memory that do not, as archives do, organize documents in space—they also arrange them in time.” Certainly, her early films—DEUTSCHLAND UND DAS ICH, BABENHAUSEN, THE EMPTY CENTER, NORMALITY 1–X—are palaces in this sense. The word “palace,” however, also suggests beauty and extravagance—as well as visitors gazing in awe and uttering oohs and aahs as they wander through the rooms. These kinds of associations definitely do not accord with the context in which the films were made. For anyone who lived through the early 1990s, in particular, the memory of that period tends to be one of claustrophobia.
However, this was a decade that brought to the fore a whole range of issues that we are still preoccupied with today: the constitution of local communities, the effects of racism and anti-Semitism, the dealings with far-right extremism, the growing influence of populist schisms, the homogenization of cities, the role of the military in “identitarian” clashes, the transformation of the public sphere and mediality, the increasing power of images, and the problems surrounding their “veracity” and the testimony they bear. We are still living, if you like, in a constellation that we might term the “long nineties.”
Calling Forth the Living
At the same time, however, our memory of the conditions and discourses that prevailed at that time has dwindled. This is striking, because it was also a time when media for recording, storing, and distributing information and images became available to an extent that was hitherto unimaginable. This triggered a frenzy among people for documenting events, adding to the traditional archives a myriad of alternative repositories of knowledge that were constantly accessible. However, the act of creating a record—in Die Farbe der Wahrheit, Steyerl invokes Jacques Derrida’s thoughts on the archive—also implies shielding oneself from the memory it keeps safe: it is the very act of storing documents that creates the possibility of forgetting. And precisely because we can use the Internet to go back to and access the material at any time, in general none of us do it anymore. In this respect, older people are often baffled today by the gaps in the knowledge of the younger generation, who can afford these deficits given that all knowledge would seem to be at their fingertips day and night.
Yet the 1990s predated the Internet, and the work of remembrance was often a painstaking process of setting up new archives and creating alternative funds of knowledge. Traditional archives were poorly equipped to tackle the problems of the time. The historical archives, for example, did not yield a great deal for anyone researching racism, as they contained no information on the subject—either the pertinent documents were to be found in completely different categories or the relevant work of archiving or collecting had not been done at all. This process of alternative documentation was literally an activity, an arduous task of making connections, conducting searches, and organizing material. Hito Steyerl’s early films are alternative documents of this kind. They also harness the additional options for recording made possible by new media. Portable cameras and computers were suddenly able to do what in the past had only been possible in the studio setting with the help of bulky pieces of equipment. This did a great deal to enhance the different modes of documentation. In THE EMPTY CENTER Steyerl stresses the fact that she is interested in “establishing [a] tradition of lost causes” and “giving names to the hitherto unknown,” drawing on a note by Siegfried Kracauer that forms part of the epilogue to his History: The Last Things before the Last, an incomplete work that was published after his death. The original sentence reads “Focus on the ‘genuine’ hidden in the interstices between dogmatized beliefs of the world, thus establishing a tradition of lost causes; giving names to the hitherto unnamed.” The combination of “genuine,” “causes,” and “unnamed” is indeed captivating. In the film, “causes” is translated as Prozesse (“processes”), but the word encompasses a melange of matter, concern, object, and reason. Remembrance brings forth once living persons, active individuals with truths and concerns who have hitherto remained unnamed. Kracauer himself not only supplies a keynote to THE EMPTY CENTER but also becomes a living person in the film when we hear that, as a Jew, he was obliged to flee Nazi Germany.