Advertisement

Harun Farocki

Hamburger Bahnhof

01_Harun_Farocki_Watson_CMYK.jpg

Harun Farocki, Ernste Spiele I: Watson ist hin, 2010, Two-channel video still

Harun Farocki, Ernste Spiele I: Watson ist hin, 2010, Two-channel video still

‘Watson is down,’ a few young American military recruits call out laconically after one of their fellow soldiers, a gunner on an armoured truck, is killed. On patrol in Afghanistan with three other marines they are ambushed by insurgents. ‘Game over,’ you might say, since the event was only a simulated exercise. Serious Games, the four-part film (2009–10) by Harun Farocki that documents this simulation and the loss of Watson, is shown as a video installation at Hamburger Bahnhof, where the four sections are projected onto separate screens in a large dark room.

Farocki filmed this war game on a US marine base in California in 2009. One half of the screen shows the four marines in a classroom, participating in the exercise from behind their laptops. The other half shows the computerized landscape they move through: a fairly true-to-life recreation of actual circumstances in Afghanistan. Even the cloud of dust kicked up by the virtual vehicle grows or contracts depending on the conditions. Farocki adds his own commentary to the video: ‘more vegetation means less dust. And no dust at all on the paved streets. All these faithful details make death in the computer game something other than the real thing.’

Farocki, a Berlin-based documentary filmmaker and film essayist, uses film as a sort of pedagogical instrument. Maybe that’s why his numerous works, from the 1960s onward, are by now more likely to be shown in a museum than in a cinema or on television. They would make just as much sense in those contexts, but the expectations of mainstream film and TV now usually exclude work like Farocki’s. In Serious Games, the filmmaker explores the relationship between actual reality and its simulated, or virtual, counterpart. While militaries have probably always simulated various emergency situations to prepare for war, those exercises used to take place in a sandbox, not at a computer.

In the war game that Farocki documents, the technology of virtual reality (VR) plays a part not only before a tour of duty, but after it as well. ‘Immersion,’ one chapter of his film, reveals as much. In the context of VR, the term immersion means an all-encompassing simulation. Farocki filmed a workshop in Seattle where a patient traumatized by his tour in Iraq puts on data glasses to relive his terrible experiences, this time with a therapist at his side. The patient, who looks to be perpetually on the verge of a breakdown in the video, had seen one of his fellow soldiers blown up during a patrol; only his legs were left intact. With the data glasses, the surviving soldier plunges into a Middle Eastern city and a desert road. The therapist programmes the incidents: assassination attempts, roadside bombs.

But ‘in reality,’ the simulation and the difficult process of coming to terms with the horrors of war take on the appearance of an entirely different sort of role-play in Farocki’s film. The therapeutic scenario is itself a sort of performance, contrived to promote VR technology as a treatment tool for post-traumatic stress disorder. Farocki notes: ‘even if the reason that the therapist is so convincing in his role is that he’s trying to sell something, the scene still can’t just be some little game.’ No, it’s actually a very ‘serious game’, and not just because it involves the psychological damage of war. The credibility of the ‘merely’ performed scene derives from the fact that the traumas it recreates mirror the actual experiences of veterans.

Farocki uses images to explain images, sometimes also with commentaries, but he does so without classical montages. His films succeed in triggering certain fundamental realizations among viewers by presenting two perspectives simultaneously, which is to say: he compares. The comparison is Farocki’s preferred instrument in explaining images and what motivates those who produced the images in the first place. In Serious Games, this means watching the soldiers play at war on the one side of the screen, and their first-person perspective within the virtual reality on the other. Now it becomes clear: VR and reality are two different worlds. Simulated death has no relevance to reality, or if it does, then only insofar as it helps soldiers avoid actual death in combat or during their tours of duty.

Incidentally, the American military cannot or will not entirely give up on simulated exercises outside, in the sand. Farocki makes this clear in one section of his film. He was able to visit a tactical training ground in the Mojave Desert in California built with shipping containers made to resemble the buildings of a city in the Middle East. 300 extras work in the fake city, taking on alternating roles as Afghans and Iraqis. There are simulated attacks and suicide bombers here as well. But there’s a human factor to the exercises too, and the ‘tiny spark of the accidental, the here and now,’ in which Walter Benjamin once saw the reality at work behind photographed images.
Translated by Jesse Coburn

Issue 15

First published in Issue 15

Jun - Aug 2014
Advertisement

Most Read

Criticism of the show at the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest comes alongside a nationalist reshaping of the...
A retrospective at Munich’s Museum Brandhorst charts the artist’s career from the 1980s to the present, from ‘fem-trash...
At the National Theatre of Wales, a performance alive with wild, tactile descriptions compels comparison between the...
There are perils in deploying bigotry to score political points, but meanings also shift from West to East
‘It’s ridiculous. It’s Picasso’: social media platform to review nudity policy after blocking Montreal Museum of Fine...
Poland’s feminist ‘Bison Ladies’ storm the Japanese artist’s Warsaw exhibition in solidarity with longtime model Kaori’...
An art historian and leading Leonardo expert has cast doubt on the painting’s attribution
How will the Black Panther writer, known for his landmark critical assessments of race, take on the quintessential...
The dissident artist has posted a series of videos on Instagram documenting diggers demolishing his studio in the...
In further news: artists for Planned Parenthood; US court rules on Nazi-looted Cranachs; Munich’s Haus der Kunst...
A mother’s death, a father’s disinterest: Jean Frémon’s semi-factual biography of the artist captures a life beyond...
Jostling with its loud festival neighbours, the UK’s best attended annual visual art festival conducts a polyphonic...
It’s not clear who destroyed the project – part of the Liverpool Biennial – which names those who have died trying to...
Dating from 1949 to the early 1960s, the works which grace the stately home feel comfortable in the ostentatious pomp...
The disconnect between public museum programming and private hire couldn’t be starker – it’s time for the arts to...
In further news: Angela Gulbenkian sued over Kusama pumpkin; and Pussy Riot re-arrested immediately after release from...
With Art Week in town, a guide to the best exhibitions to see, from sonic surveillance to Ronnie van Hout’s showdown...
Moving between figuration and abstraction, the New York-based painter and teacher made work about in-between spaces and...
Trump’s State Department is more than 3 months late in announcing its national pavilion – testament to the chaos...
The continued dominance of UK-US writers makes a mockery of the Man Booker’s ‘global outlook’
The fashion photographer has been accused on Twitter of ripping off another artist – with both represented by the same...
Katharina Cibulka has stitched ‘As long as the art market is a boys’ club, I will be a feminist,’ across her alma mater...
The punk artists’s invasion of the pitch during the Croatia vs. France match reminded us what Russia’s new ‘normality’...
In further news: Brexit voters avoid arts; New York libraries’s culture pass unlocks museums; Grayson Perry-backed...
If artificial intelligence were ever to achieve sentience, could it feasibly produce art? (And would it be good?)
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018