Hito Steyerl’s Lessons in Invisibility

The German artist schools her viewers in the art of camouflage in her famous 2013 video work—in stark contrast to the contemporary world, in which hyper-visibility is becoming more and more normal for the majority of us.


In fourteen short minutes, the German artist Hito Steyerl will teach you how to be invisible. Mimicking the aesthetics of a “How to…” YouTube instructional video, the tips in How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File (2013) come straight from the masters of camouflage: the US government, with their clandestine nuclear testing operations in the desert; modern surveillance agencies; cunning architectural rendering companies; and social media (of course). Together, these agencies, platforms and groups pull us into a situation of “over-visibility”, according to Steyerl, in her five-step tutorial.

The first lesson is in how to “make something invisible for a camera”. Green screen, meet 1951 USAF resolution test chart, which was developed by the US Air Force as a standard for analysing and validating systems such as microscopes and cameras. Most significantly, it reveals how powerful your optical device is—all the better to spy with. For the introduction to her video tutorial, Steyerl appears wearing a black silk robe. The camera slips in and out of focus, trying to capture her moving presence. She complicates things further by charging at the camera with the test chart in hand. Back to green screen, then fade to white. The lesson has begun.

Steyerl appears next against the test chart as a background, but it’s soon ditched for other test patterns: more psychedelic and less militarized, like the Siemens Star—which is also used to test the resolutions of optical instruments and printers. The pattern from the original 1951 test chart reappears, but as the camera zooms out it morphs into an arid desertscape. Could this be a rendering of the US Air Force testing site?

Soon the authoritarian voiceover begins to crumble. Steyerl stands against another test pattern background while assistants apply camouflage paint to her face—resulting in stripes of strange technicolour. With Siemens Stars on rotation, the camera suddenly transports us to space, followed by a theatrical zoom-in on another arid testing site. “Pixel calibration” floats to the top left as a “pinned” location. Then, the dancing boxes are brought in: actors sporting “pixels” for heads do yoga and interpretive dances in the foreground while the ominous landscape serves as a backdropCreepy renderings of luxury gated communities and miles of interior malls—translucent white ghost figures lounging wherever you look—conjures a terrifying and perverse utopia.

Steyerl’s work has taken on a new life some five years later, as we become more and more aware of our present era of hyper-visibility—the need for such a tutorial is apparently ever-growing.