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Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War by Hito Steyerl

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What is the function of art in the era of digital globalization?

In Duty Free Art, filmmaker and writer Hito Steyerl wonders how we can appreciate, or even make art, in the present age. How can one think of art institutions in an age defined by planetary civil war, growing inequality, and proprietary digital technology? The boundaries of such institutions have grown fuzzy. They extend from a region where the audience is pumped for tweets to a future of “neurocurating,” in which paintings surveil their audience via facial recognition and eye tracking to assess their popularity and to scan for suspicious activity. Duty Free Art is a fascinating read, and is featured on our student reading lists and 50% off for the month of September as part of our Back to University sale. See all our Art and Aesthetics reading here.

Here we present a modified excerpt taken from Chapter 2 ‘How to Kill People: A Problem of Design’, where Steyerl explains the future of the design behind killing - how aesthetics is crucial to the innovation of lethal technology.

I saw the future. It was empty. A clean slate, flat, designed through and through.

In his 1963 film How to Kill People designer George Nelson argues that killing is a matter of design, next to fashion and homemaking. Nelson states that design is crucial in improving both the form and function of weapons. It deploys aesthetics to improve lethal technology.

An accelerated version of the design of killing recently went on trial in this city. Its old town was destroyed, expropriated, in parts eradicated. Young locals claiming autonomy started an insurgency. Massive state violence squashed it, claimed buildings, destroyed neighborhoods, strangled movement, hopes for devolution, secularism, and equality. Other cities fared worse. Many are dead. Elsewhere, operations were still ongoing. No, this city is not in Syria. Not in Iraq either. Let’s call it the old town for now. Artifacts found in the area date back to the Stone Age.

The future design of killing is already in action here.

It is accelerationist, articulating soft- and hardwares, combining emergency missives, programs, forms and templates. Tanks are coordinated with databases, chemicals meet excavators, social media come across tear gas, languages, special forces and managed visibility.

In the streets children were playing with a dilapidated computer keyboard thrown out onto a pile of stuff and debris. It said “Fun City” in big red letters. In the twelfth century one of the important predecessors of computer technology and cybernetics had lived in the old town. Scholar Al-Jazari devised many automata and pieces of cutting-edge engineering. [1] One of his most astonishing designs is a band of musical robots floating on a boat in a lake, serving drinks to guests. Another one of his devices is seen as anticipating the design of programmable machines. [2] He wrote the so-called “Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices,” featuring dozens of inventions in the areas of hydropower, medicine, engineering, timekeeping, music, and entertainment. Now, the area where these designs were made is being destroyed.

Warfare, construction and destruction literally take place behind screens—under cover—requiring planning and installation. Blueprints were designed. Laws bent and sculpted. Minds both numbed and incited by the media glare of permanent emergency. The design of killing orchestrates military, housing, and religiously underpinned population policies. It shifts gears across emergency measures, land registers, pimped passions, and curated acts of daily harassment and violence. It deploys trolls, fiduciaries, breaking news, and calls to prayer. People are rotated in and out of territories, ranked by affinity to the current hegemony. The design of killing is smooth, participatory, progressing and aggressive, supported by irregulars and occasional machete killings. It is strong, brash, striving for purity and danger. It quickly reshuffles both its allies and its enemies. It quashes the dissimilar and dissenting. It is asymmetrical, multidimensional, overwhelming, ruling from a position of aerial supremacy.

After the fighting had ended, the curfew continued. Big white plastic sheets were covering all entrances to the area to block any view of the former combat zones. An army of bulldozers was brought in. Construction became the continuation of warfare with other means. The rubble of the torn down buildings was removed by workers brought in from afar, partly rumored to be dumped into the river, partly stored in highly guarded landfills far from the city center. Parents were said to dig for their missing children’s bodies in secret. They had joined the uprising and were unaccounted for. Some remnants of barricades still remained in the streets, soaked with the smell of dead bodies.

Special forces roamed about arresting anyone who seemed to be taking pictures. “You can’t erase them,” said one. “Once you take them they are directly uploaded to the cloud.”

A 3D render video of reconstruction plans was released while the area was still under curfew. Render ghosts patrol a sort of tidied gamescape built in traditional-looking styles, omitting signs of the different cultures and religions that had populated the city since antiquity. Images of destruction are replaced with digital renders of happy playgrounds and Haussmannized walkways by way of misaligned wipes.

The video uses wipes to transition from one state to another, from present to future, from elected municipality to emergency rule, [3] from working-class neighborhood to prime real estate. Wipes as a filmic means are a powerful political symbol. They show displacement by erasure, or more precisely, replacement. They clear one image by shoving in another and pushing the old one out of sight. They visually wipe out the initial population, the buildings, elected representatives, and property rights in order to “clear” the space and fill it with a more convenient population, a more culturally homogeneous cityscape, a more aligned administration and homeowners. According to the simulation, the void in the old town would be intensified by expensive newly built developments rehashing bygone templates, rendering the city as a site for consumption, possession, and conquest. The objects of this type of design are ultimately the people and, as Brecht said, their deposition (or disposal, if deemed necessary). The wipe is the filmic equivalent of this. The design of killing is a permanent coup against the non-compliant part of people, against resistant human systems and economies.

So, where is this old town? It is in Turkey: Diyarbakir, the unofficial capital of the Kurdish-populated regions. Worse cases exist all over the region. The interesting thing is not that these events happen. They happen all the time, continuously. The interesting thing is that most people think that they are perfectly normal. Disaffection is part of the overall design structure, as well as the feeling that all of this is too difficult to comprehend and too specific to unravel. Yet this place seems to be designed as a unique case that just follows its own rules, if any. It is not included in the horizon of a shared humanity; it is designed as a singular case, a small-scale singularity. [4]

So let’s take a few steps back to draw more general conclusions. What does this specific instance of the design of killing mean for the idea of design as a whole?


One could think of Martin Heidegger’s notion of being-toward-death (Dasein zum Tode), the embeddedness of death within life. Similarly, we could talk in this case about “Design zum Tode,” or a type of design in which death is the all-encompassing horizon, founding a structure of meaning that is strictly hierarchical and violent. [5]

But something else is blatantly apparent as well, and it becomes tangible through the lens of filmic recording. Imagine a bulldozer doing its work recorded on video. It destroys buildings and tears them to the ground. Now imagine the same recording being played backwards. It will show something very peculiar, namely a bulldozer that actually constructs a building. You will see that dust and debris will violently contract into building materials. The structure will materialize as if sucked from thin air with some kind of Brutalist vacuum cleaner. In fact, the process you see in this imaginary video is very similar to what I described; it is a pristine visualization of a special variety of creative destruction.

Shortly before World War I, the sociologist Werner Sombart coined the term “creative destruction” in his book War and Capitalism. [6] During World War II, the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter labeled creative destruction “the essential fact about capitalism.” [7] Schumpeter drew on Karl Marx’s description of capitalism’s ability to dissolve all sorts of seemingly solid structures and force them to constantly upgrade and renew, both from within and without. Marx emphasized that “creative destruction” was still primarily a process of destruction. [8] However, the term became popular within neoliberal ideologies as a sort of necessary internal cleansing process to keep up productivity and efficiency. Its destructivism echoes in both futurism and contemporary accelerationism, both of which celebrate some kind of mandatory catastrophe.

Today, the term “creative disruption” seems to have taken the place of creative destruction. [9] Automation of blue- and white-collar labor, artificial intelligence, machine learning, cybernetic control systems or “autonomous” appliances are examples of current so-called disruptive technologies, violently shaking up existing societies, markets, and technologies. This is where we circle back to Al-Jazari’s mechanical robots, predecessors of disruptive technologies. Which types of design are associated with these technologies, if any? What are social technologies of disruption? How are Twitter bots, trolls, leaks, and blanket internet shutdowns deployed to accelerate autocratic rule? How do contemporary robots cause unemployment, and what about networked commodities and semi-autonomous weapons systems? How about widespread artificial stupidity, dysfunctional systems, and endless hotlines from hell? How about the oversized Hyundai and Komatsu cranes and bulldozers, ploughing through destroyed cities, performing an absurd ballet mécanique, punching through ruins, clawing through social fabric, erasing lived presents and eagerly building blazing emptiness?

Disruptive innovation is causing social polarization through the decimation of jobs, mass surveillance, and algorithmic confusion. It facilitates the fragmentation of societies by creating antisocial tech monopolies that spread bubbled resentment, change cities, magnify shade, and maximize poorly paid freelance work. The effects of these social and technological disruptions include nationalist, sometimes nativist, fascist, or ultra-religious mass movements. [10] Creative disruption, fueled by automation and cybernetic control, runs in parallel with an age of political fragmentation. The forces of extreme capital, turbocharged with tribal and fundamentalist hatred, reorganize within financials and filter bubbles.

Disruption shows in the jitter in the ill-aligned wipes of the old town’s 3D render. The transition between present and future is abrupt and literally uneven: frames look as if jolted by earthquakes. In replacing a present urban reality characterized by strong social bonds with a sanitized digital projection that renders population replacement, disruptive design shows grief and dispossession thinly plastered over with an opportunist layer of pixels.

Warfare in the old town is far from being irrelevant, marginal or peripheral, since it shows a singular form of disruptive design, a specific design of killing, a special form of wrecked cutting-edge temporality. Futures are hastened, not by spending future incomes, but by making future deaths happen in the present; a sort of application of the mechanism of debt to that of military control, occupation, and expropriation.

While dreaming of the one technological singularity that will once and for all render humanity superfluous, disruption as a social, aesthetic, and militarized process creates countless little singularities, entities trapped within the horizons of what autocrats declare as their own history, identity, culture, ideology, race, or religion; each with their own incompatible rules, or more precisely, their own incompatible lack of  rules. [11] “Creative disruption” is not just realized by the wrecking of buildings and urban areas. It refers to the wrecking of a horizon of common understanding, replacing it by narrow, parallel, top-down, trimmed and bleached artificial histories.

This is exactly how processes of disruption might affect you, if you live somewhere else that is. Not in the sense that you will necessarily be expropriated, displaced or worse. This might happen or not, depending on where (and who) you are. But you too might get trapped in your own singular hell of a future repeating invented pasts, with one part of the population hell-bent on getting rid of another. People will peer in from afar, conclude they can’t understand what’s going on, and keep watching cat videos.

[1] For an overview of Al-Jazari’s works, see Siegfried Zielinski and Peter Weibel (eds), Allah’s Automata: Artifacts of the Arab-Islamic Renaissance (800–1200) (Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2015); see also Donald Hill, “Mechanical Engineering in the Medieval Near East,” Scientific American (May 1991), 64–9.
[2] “A 13th Century Programmable Robot,” University of Sheffield, archived at web.archive.org.
[3] The elected municipality of the old town was recently deposed under emergency legislation. Then the mayors of the city were arrested on the suspicion of supporting “terror,” alongside dozens of other elected lawmakers, journalists, etc.
[4] My notion of singularity is based on Peter Hallward’s extremely useful discussion of singular vs. generic situations in Absolutely Postcolonial (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001) and Fredric Jameson’s equally useful “Aesthetics of Singularity,” New Left Review 92 (March–April, 2015).
[5] Unsurprisingly, “Design zum Tode” reminds one of the slogan of Franco’s fascist Spanish Legion: “Long live death!” (Viva la muerte!) This death can have many forms, even though they are definitely not all the same.
[6] Werner Sombart, Krieg Und Kapitalismus (Munich and Leipzig: Verlag von Duncker & Humblot, 1913).
[7] See Ricardo J. Caballero, “Creative destruction,” at economics.mit.edu/files/1785.
[8] Karl Marx, Grundrisse [1857], trans. Martin Nicolaus (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993 [1973]), 750.
[9] Even though it seems to apply to a slightly different process: that of building an entirely new market that then replaces older ones.
[10] Again, just to be clear, the situation in the old town is not primarily due to the direct effects of disruptive technologies, even though mass internet surveillance, drones, and other—let’s say by-now traditional—means of warfare are of course utilized.
[11] See Hallward, Absolutely Postcolonial, and Jameson, “Aesthetics of Singularity.”

This book is 50% off until the end of September as part of our Back to University sale. See all our Art and Aesthetics reading here, and see all our reading lists here.

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