The airplane crash. A great readymade game for long flights between workshops and biennials. Something sudden to interrupt the endless easyjet. Forget all those meditations on motionless speed. Forget futurism. Life is more mundane. Really, nothing happens, until something finally does. The stewardess comes with a hot towel that’s meant for someone else. Another hour passes. At some point the MacBook Pro battery runs out. Then suddenly there’s a lurch and a teeter on the brink. That sinking moment when it becomes clear that everything is lost, a point of no return, in which potential reaches its maximum point and tips into actuality. What comes after that is less important, you don’t actually need to see it, though a certain Schadenfreude can’t prevent you from registering what you already know: an eerie silence of white light from the window burns your retina and that’s it, the aircraft goes off the radar, reels out of control, breaks up, and careens to the ground. The smell of kerosene like napalm in the morning, the lurching breakup with flying chunks of engine; Air Force One is down, off the radar. But it’s what came before, that sinking moment you should hold on to, it is the moment when knowledge is about to become. It is the moment you continue to rehearse, the moment immediately after the inevitable establishment of a fact and the moment before its ultimate fulfilment. It is the moment upon which Hito Steyerl’s In Free Fall (2010) hangs suspended.
The last sentence of the preceding paragraph sounds like airplane armchair metaphysics, when actually, it is clearly matter that is at stake in Steyerl’s film, or to be more precise, the materiality of images, images as things. You can see that in a very literal way in the montage that serves as the film’s opening and binds together its three parts as a refrain. Against an apocalyptic sky, a jetliner breaks up in mid-air, and people get sucked out the back. The plane smashes into the ground wing first. Chunks of burning engine fall to the palm-lined beach. Survivors emerge from the debris, crying children in their arms. YouTube fragments become blurred geometries in the darkroom clarity of HD. This is a collective material we all know in the moment before we see it; cut sequences subconsciously memorized, screaming to be reused. ‘Poor images,’ blockbuster crashes filtering straight from the obsolescent Fordist dream factory onto the internet, where they join the other living dead in the peer-to-peer afterlife, recut, cropped, uploaded, and juggled in a kind of labour of love by some invisible mass audience of anonymous prosumers, maintained on ‘public’ spaces owned by private corporations, familiar to almost everyone, a no-man’s land of phantasms, one of which is the crash, the catastrophe, the end.
We know all about the crash, and why this image would be emblematic. The plummet of commodity values on global markets, we feel on our skin. The ‘crash’ itself is a spectacular image whose repeatable suddenness hides the reality it claims to represent, if one thinks about the delayed effects of ongoing economic crisis, continual governance by state of exception, repeated shock therapy and privatization, and overt class war from above, a slow war of position, waged through small electroshocks and doses of disinformation everyday. Crisis is never sudden; it simmers forever and boils over one day. People go to the movies after they lose their jobs; spend hours waiting for something to happen, rehearsing the next batch of shockwork on Facebook and YouTube. In real time, a certain systemic logic, an economy of poverty emerges: the crisis generates its own ways of visualizing itself, its ways of coping, its own affects, its own resources, its own modes of recycling the ruins.
It is to such a site of recycling that Hito Steyerl takes us. With pristine HD steadicam footage, she visits Mojave Air and Space Center, a scrapyard under a piercingly blue California sky where airplanes come to die. A jolly captain with a pearl studded cap and a wheelchair cart becomes the entrepreneurial Virgil, the informant who leads us through their afterlife. He tells us about his business ever since the Chinese started buying scrap. ‘Every time there’s a dip in the economy, it’s windfall to us,’ he says, surrounded by profitable ghosts. The montage of the footage breaks the interviewee’s own narrative into discrete, even disjointed units, conscious cracks and jumps in speech. They reinforce the double identification of the airplane graveyard as a site of economic catastrophe then transformed into a Hollywood soundstage: the graveyard’s owner first uses the gutted airplane carcasses for special effects explosions (boom, away she goes, he says, as we see the ball of flame on a perfect day, a Hollywood image that repeats again and again). And then he sells the remains, the raw aluminium. The ‘vicious situation of the economy’ is a profitable explosion. He understands, he knows: ‘you’re making money no matter what you sell.’ To reinforce the constructive edit, Steyerl transforms this new knowledge—namely that there is a profitable life after the crash—into a thing: we see the explosion on a small DVD-player, playing against the backdrop of airplane wreckage. It is an image that will haunt the whole film, its frontispiece. Machine pincers crunch their way through aluminium sheeting, providing the soundtrack for ongoing images of catastrophe, caught in slow motion, overwritten by an electronic shofar. Is this for real? asks the captain.
This is where Steyerl’s film really takes off and becomes danceable. Michael Jackson syncopates a re-cut Discovery Channel documercial on aluminium recycling that now plays on the little laptop DVD player instead of the image of explosions we saw before. The thing about aluminium is that ‘it’s so recyclable,’ suggests the loop, it can be used again and again, like the ‘poor images’ of the crash itself, one might add. The DVD player shows us how airplane scrap travels down the assembly line, to be melted down back into molecules, becoming the extremely durable coating on DVDs, again and again, overlaid by other samples from the captain’s interview, forever. The airplane is transubstantiated, turned into a medium for the picture of its own explosive dissolution. The symbol of Fordism at its cruising altitude (the jetliner) takes wings into its own afterlife as a DVD, becoming a temporary symbol of Post Fordist crisis as commodity. Another early CGI image that will haunt the film: the simple ellipse of the DVD traveling around the globe as an orbital vehicle, much more like a flying saucer than the Lear jet-like lobe of Spaceship One, the suborbital private spacecraft that took off from another part of the Mojave Air and Space Port in 2004, around the same time ‘the Chinese started buying scrap,’ by the way. Scaled Composites, the aerospace company that launched this private suborbital flight, was bought by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, who plans to take ultra-rich private passengers on short joy rides to outer space sometime around 2015, if the world doesn’t end before then. For the mass consumer, such joyrides will presumably be some 3D HD home technology, the good old affect simulator of the stamp-and-cut Hollywood movie of apocalypse, presumably also courtesy Virgin via Apple i3D, again and again, forever. Until the next crash, when all the screens go blank, that is.
This, of course, is the refrain to which Steyerl’s film must return, as its passengers embark to the sounds of the 5th Dimension’s ‘Up, up, and away.’ The pilot introduces the air safety video. You know you are in for some bad eternity when the guy from Lost looks out of the window. The lurch that stood at the film’s beginning repeats, leading into the same old good old, any old crash sequence. It is a false ending that will send the careless spectator out of the black box and on to the next exhibit, if not for the subtle differences and additions in the montage. Another reproduction, another turn, another crash: Air Force One is down again, another shock effect to extend the general trauma that facilitates the kinds of drastic economic redefinitions that crises always bring. How much can we know about this endless repetition? How do we know? Can we ever change it? Can we stop ourselves from falling? Falling for what? Is this just another repetition, another rehearsal? (…) Gravel crunches underfoot. The sun is bright. The silence holds. The steadicam pan over girders, wires, scraps of fuselage. On his trip through the zone, you can almost hear the cameraman breathing. ‘Good morning, Kevan,’ says Steyerl off screen, asking who shot these images. We are now seeing for them for the third time around. ‘I photographed them,’ he confesses from skype. What follows at first looks a little like a ‘making of’ as it is usually told in special features on commercial DVDs. The cameraman directs the claw hovering over the dinky little DVD player, which now, lacking its motion graphics YouTube, looks all the more like a prop, an empty shell. From Skype—a medium that embodies a constant panoptical potential for unexpected confrontations with instant humanity, creating an imperfect, contingent space of disarming interruptions and bendings of time—Kevan tells us that he was trying to extricate himself from a financial situation. The claw moves too abruptly and hits him, but he laughs, the steadicam shadow bobbing ghostly sharp on desert sand. Fuselage, wiring, removed aluminium sheets where airline decals used to be. Kevan talks about the little house he bought and turned into an architectural masterpiece. Oddly enough, he remarks, it was clad in aluminium like an airplane. But the crisis forced him to sell it when the real estate market was at an all-time low. Part of a landing gear stands alone on the edge of the Mojave runway, a little like the ghost towns of Arizona and California. The claw crunches into fuselage again. ‘We had to prepare for a crash. Once the process of descent began, there wasn’t anything to stop it.’ Kevan confirms that allegories have a certain use-value when he talks about how watching and editing the film helped him to understand that he needed to ride it out and put something back together on the other side. The introductory sequence of radar disappearances and rapid descent are back as an illustration, so overloaded with significance now that there is a waning of affect. We know this all by heart, we knew it from the beginning, and we know it even better now in all variations. We have become numb to terror itself. We are living through the consequences.
To mark this transition, the dinky DVD player migrates to a new location. There is a large oil painting in the background up on a huge easel, a smaller one dangles suspended from the ceiling, which almost looks like a bondage quote from Steyerl’s earlier film Lovely Andrea (2007). Comrade thing is a bondage model recast as an oil painting, an exemplar for which theorists like Boris Arvatov and Sergei Tretyakov exhibited an almost pathological (and one could say misogynistic) hatred. The moving image threatened by crisis and made obsolete through co-optation by the Internet’s ‘communism of capital,’ returns to painting. Abstract expressionism 2.0. This is strangely appropriate, if you think about the genealogy of post-war painting, which already made its home in the equivalent of the airplane graveyard, a jumble of mimetic devices and strokes. For abstract expressionism, canvas and paint had become base matter, to be recycled, a little like aluminium; the formlessness of gravity had replaced the gravitas of form. The ultimate claim is that painting after the collapse of painting could be more indexical than photography. The moment of contact was key, its ultimate goal to create comrade things that are more like lovers than friends, like the canvases of Mark Rothko, which are supposed to quicken in proximity effects like silky skin, if you don’t get distracted by the security guards. There is no truth beyond that; abstract expressionism does not need any veracity devices, save that of the romantic authorial biography, which now finds ways to connect and internalize truth as base matter, to intern it in a personal form whose process or ‘happening’ is far more important than any material result. Kevan returns to painting after the crash of painting, a site all the more specific because it is linked to a very definite cultural tradition deployed as a knowledge weapon in the Cold War. At the same time, unlike the original abstract expressionism, these canvases are not made with the pretence of being high art; instead, they are abreactions that delve beyond the image into the world of matter, much more about the physical human use of creating and destroying on a flat picture plane, just to ride it out, get it over with, and constitute something on the other side.
We see Kevan at work in his studio, presumably located in a space provided by a former part of the military-industrial complex. He talks about how he worked as a video engineer who would put moving images on TV-screens or other devices into films in any circumstance. We see him projecting the explosion of 4X-JYI from a notebook to canvas, juggling the pictures in real time. ‘There was a great need for veracity in film, and one of the best ways to do it would be to put a television in what you’re doing,’ he tells us from the DVD player, which itself has served as such a veracity device. ‘It makes things seem real.’ Painting used to be full of such devices, so in that sense too, Kevan’s practice is a painting after painting, a world of homeless representations. That turn in painting was only possible because its veracity devices turned out to be little more than scenery, props and projection surfaces, even if they once had the validity of law. Think of Jan Van Eyk’s ‘Arnolfini Wedding Portrait,’ where the mirror—a little like Steyerl’s DVD player—is a seal on a visual marriage contract, as well as a symbol for mimesis and its capacity to reflect reality, which supplies the author with his juridical authority. It comes as no surprise that later scholarship shows this marriage contract itself to be a fake. The bride on the picture was possibly thirteen years younger, a dreamy teenager living not in Bruges but in Paris, promised away by dad to a lesser merchant from Lucca who looks like Vladimir Putin to underwrite a major loan. By painting her on this canvas and claiming that this picture mirrors reality completely, Van Eyck turned her into a mobile image, a Thing detached from any human biography, worth more money than any living being, not only in its own time, but especially now, when the picture hangs in London’s National Gallery as a founding document of an entire painterly tradition.
Steyerl involuntarily returns us to such a long history of mobile images by showing us Kevan as he sketches the flying saucer of the DVD on a canvas in pencil. Images circulate, he tells us, and precisely that is the problem. People no longer watch television, or at least not like they used to. The time that used to stream back to the corporations as money now streams back down to the user as a torrent. The ‘user’s freedom’ to watch TV without commercial breaks online produces the strange new freedom for Kevan to manipulate his canvases like familiar comrade things, in destigmatized degraded surfaces that will never reach any museum: the ubiquity of images means that he is out of a job, destined to produce the kind of painting that by no stretch of the imagination is a valuable art market commodity. ‘The corporations have to squeeze somebody so then they squeeze labour, the means of production,’ says Kevan. The emblematic image of the DVD, applied in oil paint and burnt by a blowtorch, looks like it has been through a crash itself, remarks Steyerl. Indeed, it was ‘caught in the digital revolution.’ Painting this emblem of obsolescence becomes the only possible therapy after that ‘experience of descent.’ It is the only way of dealing with that feeling of flying a plane that you can’t land.
Suddenly, the skype confessional breaks off. The jolly captain is back to tell us another story, only now this story is true. ‘We’re heading down through 20,000 feet in our approach,’ he says, when air traffic control calls him and tells him that there’s a bomb on board. Because stuff like this really happens. The footage on the DVD player is back again briefly with its ticking bomb. Only now, the Hollywood soundtrack illustrates a real-life experience, finally giving credence to phrases that we have been hearing all along, torn out of context and used as material for biographies of things. Is this for real? This is like a simulator ride. Here, the footage itself is related back to a real close encounter on the part of the film’s most fictitious and uncanny character, who suddenly turns out to be a subject too, and not just some Howard Hughes type Fat Controller. Precarity is ubiquitous. Danger is everywhere. Following the logic of equivalencies, the crash footage becomes a document of his experience, too, much like painting could be understood as more of a document or a prompt for some universal aesthetic experience than an aesthetic experience in and of itself. Again we are about to suspend our disbelief. Whoa, remarks the Israeli expert qua captain, and what happens to the passengers? The spectators? The audience? Breath normally, says the safety video, as the aircraft breaks apart in half. And does anybody make it out alive? A skydiver plummets from the explosion. Wind whistles as he tries to catch a falling parachute. Oxygen masks drop into the abandoned cockpit. The film goes back to that point of undecidability where fiction and reality merge, where knowledge hangs suspended, where there is so much air that you cannot breathe.
It is at this point that Steyerl’s film generates what is perhaps its most memorable and its most painterly image. The Israeli expert and Steyerl are in uniform and unison, rehearsing the mechanical ballet of the airline safety routine against the backdrop of windmills turning desert wind into energy. The safety routine is an individualized mass ornament, biomechanical in the sense of avant-garde theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold, who instructed his actors in Taylorist moves gleaned directly from Alexei Gastev’s rationalization manuals; a performance of post-human robotics, an internalization of the Futurist costumes in Victory over the Sun. The windmills indicate the possibility for a new stage of post-Fordist rationalization involving ‘smart energy,’ knowledge production, and other new sources of income for a nicer, ‘softer’ capitalism with a post-human face, where people-qua-commodities continually ‘maintain’ and ‘reproduce’ their routines in loose and grandiose biomechanical performances. This is mimetic labour: building potentialities that can never quite be actualized, sometimes approaching virtuosic grace, sometimes on the verge of comic disintegration into total dilettantism. Virgin winds upturned; productive leisure performed by imperfect bodies reforged in late afternoon sunlight.
There is some uncanny proximity to painting from the height of the Stalinist purges in these images. It makes sense. Meyerhold was shot as a Japanese spy. Sergei Tretyakov jumped to his death down a flight of stairs while in the clutches of the NKVD. Boris Arvatov ended his days in the madhouse. Socialist realism is factography’s afterlife, a precursor of peer-to-peer. What we see in these sun-drenched images is a little like the work of former October-group member Alexander Deineka. A similar source of oxygen lies buried somewhere in his painting of three little boys on a shoreline watching a seaplane fly away. It is air from a postcard. Air you try to breath when you crane your neck to look at Deineka’s famous ceiling mosaics in the Moscow metro station ‘Mayakovskaya’ under what was supposed to be Meyerhold’s theatre, upward views of Soviet aviation at all times of day, suggesting sky more than 30 meters underground. Such oxygen is the air of disposable time, time that can be stolen in a noisy crowd, on an assembly line escalator, in a pause during a lecture, under almost any regime. It is the air of total inoperativity at the height of production, fatally locked into the black box of the High Definition video cube. From outside that box, all one can hear is the sound of its own making, that oxygen hymn with which Hito Steyerl’s film In Free Fall reaches its end.
David Riff’s text has previously appeared on the multilingual web journal Transversal 03/11. Art/Knowledge: overlaps and neighbouring zones edited by the eipcp—European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies. More info on: eipcp.net/transversal
- I. Film still from “In Free Fall” (2010) by Hito Steyerl.