The Wretched of The Screen – Hito Steyerl

In a tutorial with David Moore he recommended I research Hito Steyerl’s ‘The Wretched Screen’ as it would introduce me to new ideas and get me engaging with concepts that would support my project development. I sourced the text and managed to print it off despite it being quite a lot of pages however I had read the introduction briefly and it seemed to be the perfect research for my project. In order to get the most out of this text in the short time available, I identified certain chapters which I believed would be the most relevant to me and made notes on them.

In Defense of the Poor Image

  • The poor image is a copy in motion, with a substandard resolution
  • Ghost of an image – preview/thumbnail/errant/idea
  • Poor image is compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed to be copied and pasted into other distribution channels
  • Image has been liberated from the vaults of cinemas at the expense of it’s own substance
  • Poor images spread pleasure, death, threats, conspiracy theories, bootlegs, resistance, stultification
  • Contemporary hierarchy of images is not only based on sharpness but also resolution
  • A high-res image looks more brilliant and impressive
  • Neoliberal radicalisation of culture as a commodity, commercialisation of indepedant image making
  • Establishment of audiovisual monopolies
  • Poor images are poor because they are not assigned any value within the class status of images
  • Has to do with the post-socialist, postcolonial restructuring, new traditions and cultures are created
  • Privatisation of media production became more important than state controlled
  • Privatisation of intellectual content led to piracy and appropriation, rise to circulation of poor images
  • Networks in which poor image circulate = platform for new interest, battleground for common agenda
  • These environments are permeated by advanced commodification techniques
  • The viewer is enabled to participate in the creation and distribution of content, but they are also drafted into the production, the individual is an editor, critic, translator and co-author of poor images
  • Poor images – popular images, made and seen by the many
  • There is a narcissism, desire for autonomy and creation, inability to focus on a concept, readiness for instantaneous submission
  • Poor images are snapshot of the current/affective condition of the crowd: neurosis, paranoia, fear, craving for intensity, fun, distraction
  • Poor images are poor because they are compressed to travel quickly, they lose matter and gain speed
  • Circulation of poor images make a circuit, which creates an alternative economy of images, free from perfection, it reconnects dispersed audiences world-wide
  • Construction of anonymous global networks, creates a shared history, builds alliances, provokes translation/mistranslation, creates new publics and debates
  • Through losing visual substance, it gains political punch, and a new aura – no longer based on the permanence of the original but the transience of the copy
  • Circulation of poor images creates visual bonds – feeds into the capitalist media assembly lines and alternative audiovisual economies
  • The poor image is no longer about about the real thing – the ordinary original
  • Instead it is about the conditions of its existence


A Thing Like You and Me

  • In 1977 heroism is dead, but David Bowie releases his new single “heroes” – singing about heroes in time for the neoliberal revolution
  • Bowie sings to himself, layering clips from three different angles – Bowie’s hero has been cloned, has become an image that can be reproduced, multiplied, and copied
  • Icon is a shiny product with post-human beauty, an image and nothing but
  • Identification is always with an image – but would anyone actually want to be a Jpeg file?
  • If identification is to go anywhere, is has to be with the material aspect of the image, the image as a thing, not as representation
  • Then is it participation and not identification?
  • Emancipation was conceived as becoming a subject of history, representation or politics
  • To be a subject was good, to be an object was bad
  • The subject is already subjected, position of the subject always suggests a degree of control
  • What not be a thing? An object without a subject?
  • Struggle of representation relies on a split between: here thing – there image, here I – there it, Here subject – there object
  • What if the truth is neither in the represented or in the representation
  • To participate in an image, rather to identify with it could abolish the relationship with images
  • Walter Benjamin – it doesn’t represent reality, it is a fragment of the real world
  • To affirm the thing also means participating in its collusion with history
  • The digital image isn’t outside of history, it bears the bruises of its crashes with politics and violence
  • The bruises of the digital images are the glitches, artifacts, traces of its rips and transfers, the image is violated, ripped apart, subjected to interrogation and probing etc
  • What is the point of becoming a thing or an image?
  • Walter Benjamin emphasised the liberating force within things – awaken the slumbering collective from the dream-filled sleep of capitalist production
  • Boris Aervatov – the object should be liberated from the enslavement of its status as capitalist commodity
  • Things shouldn’t be passive, uncreative and dead, but free to participate actively in the transformation of everyday reality
  • To participate in the image as a thing means to participate in its potential agency
  • We have unexpectedly arrived at an interesting idea of the object and objectivity
  • People love the pixel, not the hero – the thing remains


Missing People: Entanglement, Superposition and Exhumation as Sites of Indeterminacy

  • 1935 Erwin Schrodinger devised an experiment, a cat inside a box which could be killed at any time: quantum theory dictates there are two cats inside this box, one dead, one alive – locked in a state of superposition
  • Macrophysical reality is defined by either/or situations, this experiment replaced mutual exclusivity with impossible coexistence, state of indeterminacy
  • The act of observation breaks the state of indeterminacy, in quantum physics observation is an active procedure
  • By looking at the cat we fix it in one of the two possible states, ending its existence as an indeterminate interlocking waveform, freezing it as an individual chunk of matter
  • Surely then if we apply the same logic, a missing person is both alive and dead at the same time, in a state of superposition
  • In the 20th century – an age of genocide, racism and terror, the superposition of life and death became a standard feature of various forms of government
  • Schrodinger’s box in this case became a concept of lethal detention, or mass extinction


The Spam of the Earth: Withdrawal from Representation

  •  Dense clusters of radio waves leave our planet every second – letters snapshots, intimate and official communications, TV broadcasts and text messages
  • A huge percentage of the pictures inadvertently sent off into space is spam
  • Image spam is one of the dark matters of the digital world – trying to avoid detection by presenting its message as an image file
  • According to the pictures dispersed, humanity is made up of scantily dressed degree-holders with jolly smiles because of their orthodontic braces
  • Image spam is our message to the future
  • In terms of quantity, image spam outnumbers the human population
  • From the perspective of image spam, people are improvable, perfectible
  • The people in image spam are the dream team of hyper-capitalism
  • Image spam tells us a lot about what the “ideal” humans are by not actually showing humans, versions that are too improved to be true
  • Image spam is addressed to the people who are far from the neoliberal point of view – it is addressed to the vast majority of humankind, but it does not show them
  • It is not an accurate portrayal of what humankind is actually not – it is a negative image
  • What if image spam was more than a tool of ideological and affective indoctrination – what if it became a record of widespread refusal, withdrawal of people from representation
  • People have begun to actively and passively refuse being monitored, recorded, identified, photographed, scanned and taped
  • Pictorial representation, which was a form of privilege, now appears to be more like a threat
  • Social media and cellphone cameras and created a zone of mutual mass surveillance – adding to the ubiquitous urban networks of control
  • People are now routinely surveilling each other by taking endless amounts of pictures and publishing them in almost real time
  • Empolyers google reputations of job candidates, social media an blogs become halls of shame and malevolent gossip
  • There have been substantial shifts in modes of self-production
  • Warhol’s predicted everyone would be world-famous for fifteen minutes – that appears to have come true long ago and now people are wanting the reverse
  • Photography is now recognisably of victimising people regardless of their status
  • We end up being represented to pieces through our data
  • Images and shame you forever, they can trap you in hardware monopolies and conversion conundrums – once images are online they will never be deleted
  • The magic fear, of cameras is reinstated in the age of digital natives, however in this age they do not take away your soul, they drain their life
  • Cameras are not a tool of representation, they are at present a tool of disappearance
  • The more people are represented, the less of them in reality
  • Ideology forces people to invest in their own oppression and correction trying to reach unattainable standards
  • The political representation of people was overshadowed by economic interest
  • There is a crisis of representation, we used to look at images as accurate representations of something or someone – now this relation is altered
  • Image spam circulates without being seen by the human eye, it is made, sent and caught by machines
  • Computers are slowly becoming as prominent as immigration walls and barriers



As I predicted, these chapters were really beneficial to research for my concept and gave me some really interesting ideas to think about. The idea of the ‘poor image’ being the one that is constructed and constantly reproduced and circulated by the public, somehow this image breaks the conventions of the capitalist society. Walter Benjamin described images like this in his age as fragments of reality, this ideology links with the modern day concepts of Jaron Lanier saying that identity is fragmented when represented online, and Suler explaining personality is a series of constellations, not compartments. Steyerl suggests that the poor image could be used in a revolutionary way, with people taking control of their own content. Steryerl goes on to explain how observation controls society, with the power to proclaim someone dead and alive at the same time. This constant act of surveillance is being rejected by more and more people as the true power of being observed reveals itself. Once an image, a representation is shared online, it never gets deleted and forms this impression of a person that may not actually be accurate. Computers are tracking our every move using GPS and identifying patterns about each individual when is then sold to commercial companies who present us with the desire to invest in our own perfection regardless of the unattainable standards of idealism. Steyerl suggests that computers are not actually a tool of representation, but instead a tool of disappearance, the more a person is represented online/digitally, the less they are in reality. Computers and people rely more and more on the online presence of an individual as opposed to the physical characteristics and behaviour which makes up personality and identity. These ideas are so relevant to my concept, the ideas of surveillance and the reduction of personality, and humanistic notions of identity the more computers observe and record society. I will definitely be considering the concepts explored by Hito Steyerl throughout the creative process of my Final Major Project and revisiting this essay to read all of it in reference to my future projects.


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