In 1969, amidst growing student protests across Germany, three female students bared their breasts during a lecture by Theodor W. Adorno; they then proceeded to shower him with flower petals. This protest, as it were, was a probable rebuttal to the German philosopher’s summoning of the police to forcibly remove members of an activist group, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), from occupying the Institute of Social Research earlier that year. According to most accounts, Adorno ran out of the room in horror, leaving not only that day’s lecture unfinished, but also to never properly return to teaching again. In fact, he withdrew from public life altogether so as to finish his tome Aesthetic Theory, which was, ironically, on the interrelation of art and social critique. That too was a task he would never complete. He died soon after these events, leaving the unfinished text to be edited and published posthumously.

Although this sultry, and ultimately tragic drama quickens the pace of one of several narrative threads in Hito Steyerl’s filmic installation Adorno’s Grey (2012), now on view at Wilfried Lentz in Rotterdam, a fair amount of concentration is demanded of the viewer when visiting the exhibition in toto. This is not because of a flaw in the film’s matter-of-fact detective plot, which, as a simple point of departure features a team of conservators chipping away at a white wall in the Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt. Their goal: to try to uncover a layer of hidden grey paint, which, according to legend, Adorno had requested so that its neutral hue would keep his students bright and alert while he lectured in this same room. Meeting this possible myth, and its promise of attention and reward, pari passu, Steyerl had the gallery space coated all grey, from the ceiling to the carpet lining the floor.

At the back of this grey room, a black-and-white film, primarily showing the work of the conservators in the university auditorium, is projected upon a jaggedly disjointed structure collaboratively produced with the architects of Studio Miessen, Berlin. Here, the image jumps from one of the four overlapping planes to the next, and, as Steyerl positioned this screen structure quite low to the floor, the film’s subtitles—required reading for those who cannot follow the German audio track—hovered, uncomfortably, just above the ground.

Several voice-overs, speculating not only on the grey coat of paint and its possible hidden meanings, but also on various aspects of Adorno’s work and its context, can be followed; however, their story lines are as prismatic as the image is fractured. From here, it is safe to assume that the film doesn’t seek to find definitive closure on the subject of its rhetorical narrative—and several other reflections that spiral out from there—but instead oscillates back to the forensic work of the conservators so as to find a different subject to authenticate—namely, whether or not the grey existed.

Other grey matters slowly begin to emerge: what exactly shocked the thinker to such a degree, and, even more puzzling, why couldn’t he understand the dynamics of the student movements, which, conversely, were inspired by his own writings on the need for social change? Moreover, why did he choose the color grey, and not, say, beige? All of this while the conservators are still scraping away. . .

Now, what was once a small chip in the wall becomes a large white-on-white square of removed paint that looks considerably like an accidental Malevich. At least the image reads white-on-white, as we are told that that is the color of the wall even though it appears a bit grey to the eye. Folding yet another formal conceit into this image, Steyerl uses this continuous gradation against the found test ground to remind us that “black-and-white” film is really a misnomer, neglecting completely its abundance of grey. And while the history of monochromatic artwork is of course implied, another pun is at play here: the expression “black and white” also connotes a situation presented in simplistic, clear-cut terms.

As with much of this expanding portrait of a room, a person, his theory (and its activation) and influence, a lot is left “off-screen,” as it were. Dotting the gallery, a few cropped screen prints double the filmic action of conservators at work, propped against the wall near four timelines. Printed on A4 sheets like standard syllabi, they trace selected histories of the student protests, naked protests, the monochrome in art, and the biography of Adorno, respectively. Collectively, these narrative shards make no neat claim to authority, but instead require the curious spectator to pick up the pieces in this cinema-cum-classroom on his or her own terms. In many ways, what is presented here is not really a polished and packaged documentary, but an intentionally imperfect paradox, paralleling the disrupted drafting of Adorno’s own unfinished Aesthetic Theory, while also intimating that not only is the book incomplete, but that the entire social project at its core requires continued study and rewriting.

Fittingly, the film draws toward an end with a recent anecdote wherein a contemporaneous protestor remarks—also as voice-over—that he brandished printed copies of Adorno’s Negative Dialects (1966) as both a literal and symbolic shield against the police during a black bloc demonstration. Synthetically, this merging of form and content might have been what was missing in Adorno the person. After all, his theory led not to action, but personal inaction—tightening the knot, the Aesthetic Theory itself tried to propose that truth emerges through the dialectical play between form and content, and that the import produced from this twinned bind provides the embedded code of the work. The film concludes with the presentation of a claim to truth, a “based on real events” trope that revokes cinema’s illusory, mimetic, and absorptive means.

After the credits, the projected image drops out while the projector lamp is left to burn for a short while. In this white, messianic light, it is now possible to see that each of the screen’s collectively canted planes is painted in a different tone of grey respectively. Although the conservators never found the missing grey layer in Frankfurt, this final revelation of Steyerl’s filmic apparatus presents the missing culprits, which tainted the depiction of the represented wall. With this cheap, yet effective trick, the artist seems to be trumping yet another fragmentation of the recorded actions. And still, this final “proof” of an image contaminated lays bare not only the fact that cinema is itself composed of necessary illusions, but that these sensuous special effects can hold and distract our attentive gazes from actually seeing.