Hito Steyerl’s 'Drill' Misses its Mark
A meandering new work shows how political art can fail
Hito Steyerl, Drill, 2019, three-channel video installation, 21 minutes, HD video. Installation view at Park Avenue Armory, New York. ©JAMES EWING
Hito Steyerl’s new commission at the Park Avenue Armory, “Drill,” might cause some mild friction in many parts of the country. In New York City, it’s something else entirely: toothless, and breathlessly aware of its own benevolent mission. The installation—a large, three-channel video display, set in the middle of an illuminated floor—struggles, like much programming at the Armory, to compete with the epic grandeur of the space itself. (A series of other recent videos and sculptures are tucked into smaller rooms throughout the building.) Over the course of 21 minutes, Steyerl attempts to weave together school shootings, urban violence, the architecture of the Park Avenue Armory itself, and the NRA. There’s nothing for an enlightened, liberal audience to object to, but there’s also nothing to engage with. “Drill” means well, but that doesn’t save it from being essentially pointless.
Steyerl is a cult hero within the art world. ArtReview, placing her in the upper echelons of its annual Power 100 list, wrote that “her natural mode is gadfly, striking smartly from the periphery.” Her back catalog is full of hard-to-categorize films tackling grand themes; the artist is also a prolific writer and theorist, responsible for chicly academic volumes like The Wretched of the Screen and Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War. So perhaps, with “Drill,” Steyerl was aiming for something less straightforward and clunky than what we find at the Armory. “Drill” has potential, in a vague way; it could have been an essay-film that teased out the stories of disparate places and people and presented them in some new, and strange, light. The title itself suggests as much; “drill” could signify the sort of organized military training that once took place within the Armory, as well as the omnipresent “active shooter” drills that are now depressingly common in schools across America.
Unfortunately, Steyerl’s film plays as if she’d simply made several semi-related documentaries and then inelegantly spliced them together. We follow historian Anna Duensing as she gives a tour through the Armory, its ornate luxury a monument to the 19th-century impulse “to spare no expense to make war beautiful.” We see a series of talking heads—anti-gun activist Kareem Nelson, Sandy Hook Elementary School teacher Abbey Clements—discussing our current epidemic of violence, and then we see footage of some of them exploring the Armory, staring at old paintings.
Later, there’s a digression about how the bullets in the Armory’s shooting range led to issues with lead-tainted water, and corresponding scenes in which people in hazmat suits prowl the darkened building. The Yale University Precision Marching Band makes recurrent cameos. All of this is set to a dramatic classical soundtrack—songs that were composed, quasi-mathematically, in response to data about gun violence. “Each note of the melody represents a deadly incident where an AR-15 was used,” reads an explanatory note for one track in the film’s credits. “The note pitch indicates the number of casualties (injured and deceased).”
To be fair, any artist looking to tackle the issue of gun violence runs the risk of being pedantic. Robert Longo’s recent sculptural installation at Metro Pictures avoided that fate, I think, because it was a mute object, not a lecture; a beautiful monument to a terrible thing. Pedro Reyes’s “Disarm” project—which turned decommissioned weapons into usable musical instruments—was strange enough to move beyond a feel-good message about how violence can transform into hope. The artist Bunny Rogers has made affecting, odd films and sculptures about the 1999 shooting at Columbine. Steyerl’s “Drill,” on the other hand, is uncomplicated and almost aggressively earnest--and yet oddly flat, and even boring. She may have marshalled important voices for a good cause, but that seems less like art than a public-service announcement.