It would be wrong to claim that I first met the German artist Hito Steyerl on such a day, in such a city, where it was sunny or windy, and that she arrived suitably dressed for this season or the next. It is more accurate to say that she simply appeared while I waited in the atrium of the Communist Party court, under a spectacular red banner from which the faces of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin rushed at me. One minute I was alone, and the next she was there, all yellow and smooth except for the big black cubes in her hands and her big impassive face. Four black cats followed her instead of her shadow. “I spawned many, so they multiplied,” she whispered. Suddenly, a kitten wobbled between her legs. “I made a baby!” She cried. When I tried to balance a pufferfish on my own block hand to feed the kitten, I pressed the wrong button and kicked instead.

Kicking kittens is, I believe, generally discouraged, but in Minecraft, the sandbox video game in which players mine raw materials – water, wood, sugar cane, coal ore, gold, lapis- lazuli – and use them to make three-dimensional Legolands, the stakes of violence seem lower. The game is “a really good metaphor for how the platforms actually work,” Steyerl told me. The platforms entice their users to do the unpaid work of content creation – uploading the text, photographs, videos and music that are the raw material of the digital world – while exploiting their metadata to create new markets for corporate surveillance and military. “A lot of other platforms are pretty sneaky,” she said. “We don’t really know if your face is used to train facial recognition algorithms or something like that.” In the digital economy, free labor offers a self-replenishing vein of gold for capital stockpiling.

At fifty-six, Steyerl, of German and Japanese descent, has become one of the most revered figures in the mercurial world of contemporary art, with solo exhibitions at the Armory, New York, the Serpentine Galleries , London, and the Academy of Arts, Berlin. His work is animated by an anti-capitalist, anti-surveillance sensibility cut by a measured and mischievous humor. Among her best-known plays is “How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File,” in which, through five satirical lessons, she hides behind signs, places boxes over her head, and spreads a green slime on the face. which allows her to blend in with the satellite resolution targets displayed on the green screen behind her. Its quiet physical comedy is offset by a grating animatronic voice that announces, “Today, the most important things want to remain invisible. Love is invisible. War is invisible. Capital is invisible. And although people can make themselves invisible for fun, as Steyerl does, they can also be made invisible by the state and by capital – “annihilated, eliminated, eradicated, suppressed, suppressed, filtered, transformed, selected, separated , annihilated,” observes the voice, as the camera pans across an architectural rendering of a pristine, uninhabited luxury living space.

In 2017, Steyerl became the first woman to top the ArtReview Power 100 list, for her “political statement and formal experimentation”. It’s easy to imagine how disgusted she must have felt when she received this honor. Over the past decade, she has created several large-scale installations, such as “Is the Museum a Battlefield?” and “Drill,” that fierce, yet playful critique of museums, galleries, banks, universities, and governments that have turned contemporary art into “a hash for all that is opaque, unintelligible, and unfair, for the descending class. war and total inequality. In September, when the German government tried to award her the Federal Cross of Merit, she refused, citing the country’s failure to support the arts during the lockdown. Steyerl harbors no romantic illusions about his work. “I never became an artist,” she proclaimed, a rare hint of pride in her voice. “For me, it’s always more research, storytelling, perhaps technological experimentation. It’s more like a lab environment.

The pandemic was his last laboratory. One of the biggest exhibitions of his career, a retrospective titled ‘Hito Steyerl: I Will Survive’, opened at the K21 Museum, Düsseldorf, in September 2020, but quickly pivoted online as Germany plunged in its second lockdown. The same goes for Steyerl’s teaching at the Universität der Künste (UdK) in Berlin, where she has held a distinguished professorship since 2010. Turning to Minecraft and Zoom during the pandemic was “like being stuck between a rock and a hard place,” she said with a sigh. She and her graduate assistant Matthias Planitzer began to create different worlds – or “constructions”, in the language of games – to stage performances and organize exhibitions. It was Planitzer that Steyerl sent to his studio to teach me how to move my Minecraft avatar while we talked on Zoom. Its background displayed a hail of rainbow-haired cats that, as they fell, streaked across the screen like the iridescent tails of a thousand comets.

The Communist Party court, where our avatars first met, was built for a class production of Bertolt Brecht’s controversial 1930 play “The Decision,” a Lehrstucke (educational game). The play follows four communist agitators as they return to Moscow from China, where they attempted to spark a revolution, wearing masks and assuming secret identities to illegally organize workers. Before a central committee, they confess to having killed a Young Comrade, a revolutionary so overwhelmed with pity and compassion for the workers that he tore off his mask and declared his allegiance to the Communist Party. The agitators shoot him and throw him into a lime pit, where his face is burned beyond recognition. In the play’s chilling final scene, the central committee exonerates the Agitators from the murder, as their commitment to helping “disseminate the ABCs of Communism” excuses their actions.

Steyerl’s staging of “The Decision” in Minecraft doubles down on Brechtian notion of Verfremdung, or estrangement: the literary technique of removing an event or character from its familiar context to immerse the viewer in a new vigilance about the political conditions in which art is created. The remoteness produced by Brecht with masks and tableaus is amplified in a virtual setting, where the actors are raw characters from handcrafted blocks and their voices have been composed via Zoom. The idea of ​​burning the face of the young comrade is laughable; his avatar does not have a distinctive face. The idea of ​​killing him is nonsense; the avatar was never alive in the first place. At the end of Steyerl Lehrstucke, as the Agitators await their verdict, we come to the classic Brechtian twist of a shocking realization: are any of us really alive in the digital world? Can you consider yourself alive while your actions, emotions, and language are shaped by vast corporate entities whose sole function is to generate capital?

Still, replacing an actor with an avatar felt oddly charming to me, just as the worlds our avatars evolved in were enchanting, even beautiful. I followed Steyerl and his cats to the building’s central teleportation station, a gray platform surrounded by delicately latticed columns and suspended white slabs, as if God had sculpted its densest clouds. into Tetris pieces. Nearby was a replica of the World Clock, which has dominated Alexanderplatz since 1969. In the sky, a screen played the Rickroll meme. Steyerl led me to a concrete wall with five wooden levers. Each lever teleported us to a different world: a forest sanctuary, a dream garden, a castle in the sky, an Andalusian farmhouse—”You can ride the pigs,” Planitzer promised me—and the UdK campus.

We teleported first to the Castle in the Sky, where I quickly fell – Steyerl taught me to fly by repeatedly pressing the space bar – then to the Forest Sanctuary, where we came to the edge of a dark blue river, and each boarded our own wooden rowboat. Steyerl is stuck in the current. “Can I try to enter your boat?” she asked. She jumped up and fell into the water. “I’m just going to fly,” she assured me. She hadn’t been in weeks and seemed genuinely surprised to see how the sanctuary was teeming with life: pink parrots, giant squids. She rushed through the cherry trees that cluttered the banks: “Oh, the cherries are in bloom! It looks nice ! – and began her slow ascent, past weeping willows and camphor laurels, to the top of a Japanese pagoda that slowly entered the frame as it rose above. My fingers had forgotten how to fly, so I entered the pagoda and stumbled over one ladder after another to reach it. From there, the view of the lush, unconquered forest was so majestic that you could almost ignore the pixelation of the horizon.