Hito Steyerl’s work The Tower takes its name from a real-life endeavor so bizarre it had to be made into fiction. The titular tower refers to a characteristically hubristic project by Iraq’s former dictator, Saddam Hussein, to “rebuild” the mythic Tower of Babel in contemporary Iraq. Saddam was known for his literary pretensions — he was said to be working on an epic novel when the invasion of 2003 began — but one has to wonder if he’d bothered to read to the end of the Babel Tower story. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t have a happy ending. Though invasion scuppered his plans, Saddam’s megalomaniacal project lives on in an aptly named video game, Skyscraper Stairway to Chaos. Steyerl’s film is narrated by a Ukrainian developer who worked on the game. Across three screens situated on a blood-red dais, various heroic and humble building projects are rendered digitally. The developer tells the story of the Kharkiv-based firm, staffed by laid-off engineers made redundant by the end of Cold War state defense largesse, who now create visual representations of luxury developments and provide digital models for securing such properties. The kind of hyper-security their services visualize contrasts with their own fragile economic and physical security. The offices are, the voiceover notes, less than an hour’s tank journey from the Russian border.
Steyerl is a master of conjuring high-end dystopias. The Tower, with its images of ominously empty luxury properties and bedraggled battlefield tents, surveys the brittle social dynamics of the twenty-first century, and the ways in which media supply comforting, high-definition imaginaries for those who can still afford illusions. For all its black-pill dread, The Tower is not without absurdist humor. A submachine gun blasting a luxe interior to pieces carries a frisson of giddy liberation, and the gleam that appears on the words “hi-tech” as they appear on-screen following the voiceover might raise a smile from even the most committed Doomer. In the five years that have passed since Steyerl made this work, the world has added many new volumes to its encyclopedia of anxiety; but instead of feeling quaint or even naive, The Tower seems as bleakly prescient as the ancient story from which its title derives.