On ViewEsther Schipper
Contemporary Cave Art
April 28–May 25, 2023
Animal Spirits (2022), Hito Steyerl’s latest film, is a single channel HD video, with live computer simulation, sensor devices, glass spheres, grow lights, plants, and soil. The video lasts 24 minutes, and it is generally shown as a loop within a larger environment. Here, the movie is projected onto custom-built screens, and sound and image are juxtaposed with additional sculptural and video elements that evoke both a futuristic lab and a primordial cave. Animal Spirits premiered in 2022 at Steyerl’s exhibition A Sea of Data at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea; it popped up briefly at Documenta 15 (2022) (before Steyerl withdrew it); and more recent iterations have appeared at Kunsthaus Graz (2022–23), and Esther Schipper Gallery, Berlin (2023).
The video is a disjunctive mix of genres and types of moving image, including talking-head interviews, advertising, video game graphics, and even music videos. It presents real people, playing themselves, in scenes that oscillate between documentary and fiction, as well as computer generated imagery of various sorts—intertitles, text and wireframe overlays, color shifts and distortions, digital silhouetting, and AI animations. It starts as a kind of infomercial, with an actor playing John Maynard Keynes explaining his concept of “animal spirits”—how emotions like greed or fear affect economic decision-making—in a digitally-rendered sports stadium. The scene immediately cuts to the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, revealing images of Adolf Hitler and adoring crowds. The same group behaviors and emotions that affect capitalist economies, Animal Spirits suggests, also affect politics.
The bulk of the film follows three different people, Nel Cañedo Saavedra, Cándido Asprón, and Fernando García-Dory, all associated with the Shepherds School, an institution started by Garcia-Dory in 2004 as a collaborative art project, which has now spread to two different mountain locations in Spain. The school was designed to teach new technologies to existing shepherds as well as shepherding and agrarian practices to young people from urban contexts, perhaps as an ameliorative response to Spain’s massive rural depopulation over the past fifty years. Although the people and locations in Animal Spirits are real, the story that unfolds through the different fragmentary narratives seems fantastic. Nel, “the angry viral shepherd,” gains a YouTube following, arguing that the divide between city and countryside can only be overcome by changing how we relate to animals and nature. (This part is all true.) But when unnamed commercial producers attempt to produce a reality TV program at the school, Nel dons a wolfskin and electronic camouflage face paint, and then flees to higher ground, playing bagpipes, and almost parodying his earlier critique of capitalism and the Disneyfication of nature (as well as hybridizing his Spanish identity by overlaying it with Native American and Scottish cultural symbols).
While García-Dory’s interviews corroborate the stories of the others, his account also veers into fantasy. He briefly pops up in the first quarter of the film to introduce the idea that television producers are trying to make a competitive reality show with the same name as the Shepherds School. García-Dory then reappears after a subplot concerning four real-world artists auditioning for the Shepherds School show during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. All of them are rejected; and the producers, we are told, have in the meantime transformed their reality show into an “animal fight metaverse.” These scenes help to explain the stadium and video game animal imagery that has periodically appeared since the opening sequence, and which has by this point evolved into a “Crypto Colosseum,” where players can mint NFTs by burning animals to death. In response, García-Dory claims that the Shepherds School will develop “Cheesecoin,” a hybrid creation, simultaneously organic and digital, that promises to fight the encroachments of capitalism and politics on nature. As Steyerl’s film comes to a close, abstract computer-generated images appear more frequently, and the audience is transported back to a three-dimensional simulation of the caves at Lascaux with their paleolithic paintings of animals. Here, we are addressed by Cheesecoin itself, which claims to be a part of a larger “decentralized autonomous system,” and which attempts to raise our awareness about communication between humans, animals, machines, and other forms of life.
Because it appears as part of a larger environment, Steyerl’s film cannot be understood apart from the multimedia installation of which it is a part. At Esther Schipper, where the show is called Contemporary Cave Art, the video is part of a labyrinthian cave with multiple screens showing animated paleolithic paintings moving slowly on rock walls. Glowing “herb spheres,” containing plants, soil, and grow lights, hang from the ceiling; they look like floating psychedelic space capsules, designed to transport earthly life forms to far off worlds. While on display in the gallery, they are maintained by volunteer community groups. Once they are sold, all their proceeds will be donated to help recent earthquake victims in Turkey and Syria, and their care presumably becomes the responsibility of the collector. These biospheres are also feedback mechanisms: they contain sensors, which respond to the audience around them, monitoring parameters that affect plant health, and changing the paleolithic animations on the walls.
Animal Spirits focuses on two opposing forces: the commodification and destruction of nature through human technology and media, and resistance to these processes by human beings working in concert with animals and other organisms. The figure of the wolf, with its predatory “animal spirits,” and its ability to inhabit both violent colosseums and regenerative caves, represents humanity’s innate destructiveness as well as our potential to develop more benevolent and caring forms of existence. As Steyerl’s radically hybrid and collaborative installation suggests, it is our openness to change and hybridity—as well as our varied abilities to communicate and collaborate with other forms of life and existence—that may potentially save us in the end.