Regarding History

As a director, film critic and teacher, Harun Farocki has analyzed the changing role of the moving image for more than 40 years

Nicht löschbares Feuer (Inextinguishable Fire, 1969), the first of Harun Farocki’s films to garner international acclaim, opens with a frontal shot of the young director seated at a desk in a suit and tie. In a solemn tone, he reads the transcribed testimony of a Vietnamese victim of napalm bombing. The incendiary fluid was the US forces’ favoured weapon of mass destruction in Southeast Asia, and was supplied exclusively by the Dow Chemical Company. With only the slightest change of inflection, Farocki ends the reading, looks into the camera lens and asks, now speaking as himself: ‘How can we show you napalm in action? And how can we show you the injuries caused by napalm? If we show you pictures of napalm burns, you’ll close your eyes. First you’ll close your eyes to the pictures. Then you’ll close your eyes to the memory. Then you’ll close your eyes to the facts. Then you’ll close your eyes to the entire context.’ He proceeds to burn his own arm with a cigarette without flinching and drily notes the drastic difference between the heat generated by a burning cigarette and that of napalm.

Farocki’s self-inflicted injury recalls masochistic performance art of the 1960s and ’70s, but the language he uses to frame his act negates the possibility of experiencing it as a Minimalist gesture. Rather than abstracting the injury as mark-making or sculpture, Farocki immerses us in the ethical and aesthetic dilemmas he has explored throughout his career: that modern states marshal the keystones of progress – science and technology – to expand power at the expense of human life; that postwar Westerners are blithely complacent beneficiaries of capitalist profit wrought from the destruction of natural resources and the domination of human beings; and that apparently indexical images obscure and distort as much as they depict. We never actually see napalm in Nicht löschbares Feuer – instead, we are shepherded through the Dow offices, where corporate employees rationalize their lethal innovation and disassociate themselves from the consequences of its implementation.

By showing something other than what he wants his viewers to be able to see, Farocki accentuates the gap between perception and intellection, between images and the meanings we attach to them. There is no sugar-coating to the bitter pill he asks us to swallow – yet his appeal to those who seek an intellectually rigorous and socially-engaged approach to media production is on the rise. Farocki’s work, his methods and his understanding of visual culture are attracting a younger generation of artists who seek a politically incisive means of engaging with images.

Nicht löschbares Feuer’s opening scene is exceptional in that the German cinéaste does not usually appear in his films; nonetheless, Farocki’s rhetorical questions about the politics of looking and the intertwining of technology, warfare and capitalism characterize much of his vast oeuvre. On and off camera, he has devoted his creative energies as a director, film critic and teacher to a critical analysis of the moving image as an expression of dominant ideologies and an instrument of political coercion. His preferred format for such investigations is the film-essay, a genre that links him with filmmakers such as Alexander Kluge, Chris Marker and Jean-Marie Straub. This approach to filmmaking juxtaposes archival footage from disparate sources with voice-over commentary and inter-titles.

In the 1970s, the heyday of radical film theory, this method was hailed as a politically correct rejection of conventional visual pleasure, since film-essay sequences are organized as arguments about issues rather than a story about a person. This denial of an opportunity to identify with a main character would, so the thinking went, therefore encourage audiences to think rather than feel. The discursive schema of the film-essay, it was argued, highlights the materiality and artifice of film as film. It draws attention to the practice of looking as an act of reading; the viewer is encouraged to engage with a narrator’s thoughts and the editor’s associative logic. Farocki’s film essays are textbook cases of this sort of documentary practice. Arbeiter verlassen die Fabrik (Workers Leaving the Factory, 1995), for example, opens as a meditation on the first film sequence ever shown in public: La sortie des usines Lumière (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, 1895) by the Lumière Brothers. The 46-second film shows a group of labourers exiting the factory gates. Farocki compares the scene to similar ones from subsequent documentary and fiction films leading up to the present. An insistent narrator coaxes us to look beyond what is on screen. She asks us to consider why the interiors of the factories are rarely shown and why this might be a symptom of mainstream cinema and, by association, capitalist society’s inability to address the realities of labour.

A veritable master of salvaging remarkable moments in what appear to be methodical recordings of historical events, Farocki reworks state and military records, industrial and instructional films, advertisements, surveillance tapes, amateur video and television news, and even fragments of classic movies. His range is encyclopaedic, but his embrace of historical material is not that of a cinephile – his approach is closer to that of a forensic pathologist, carefully examining his cinematic corpus to uncover hidden causes of crime, disease and death. Reconfiguring fragments from various archives, Farocki lays bare the public rituals through which contemporary citizens are formed and reformed as political and economic subjects. For Ein Tag im Leben der Endverbraucher (A Day in the Life of a Consumer, 1993), for example, Farocki wove dozens of scenes from 40 years of German commercials together to represent 24 hours in one character’s life, thus demonstrating how advertising creates subjects for its products by engendering desire for a life of ongoing consumption. Even when he has produced works that consist primarily of footage he has shot directly, Farocki has focused on the ritualistic qualities of real life interaction – such as a preparatory course for job seekers in Die Bewerbung (The Job Interview, 1997). Art historian Hal Foster describes Farocki’s methods as ‘myth critique’ forming a ‘genealogy of visual instrumentality’.1 Artist and cultural theorist Kodwo Eshun, a member of the curatorial teams that organized ‘Harun Farocki. 22 Films 1968–2009’ at Tate Modern and ‘Harun Farocki. Against What? Against Whom?’ at Raven Row opening in London this month, sees him as an archaeologist of filmic language who is as concerned with how film forms produce the illusion of truth as he is with assessing the evolution of image technologies and their role in the exercise of power and control. ‘Few contemporary artists can match his seriousness and scope in tracking the mutation of the image,’ notes Eshun.2 Since the 1960s, Farocki has produced more than 100 films and videos, both independently and as commissioned works for European television. He has also taught film in several countries, edited the acclaimed German film journal Filmkritik from 1974 to 1984 and published numerous essays on film and cultural politics. For many years Farocki was, in the words of film historian Thomas Elsaesser, ‘Germany’s best-known unknown filmmaker’ operating on the fringes of New German Cinema.3 His political radicalism and lack of interest in conventional narrative fiction distinguishes him from directors such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Wim Wenders. With little financial support available for his projects, Farocki used profits from his work in television to underwrite his independent ventures. Until the 1990s he was hardly known in the USA outside the milieu of academic film scholars, where his Marxist politics and didactic filmmaking style were welcomed as avant-garde.

In the last decade, propelled in part by the evisceration of the art cinema circuit and the privatization of European television, Farocki began to create multi-channel installations, coinciding fortuitously with the expansion of museums and galleries to include a wider range of film-based practices. As Farocki put it in an interview: ‘Museums and galleries have changed in the last 20 years. They have become places where people with many interests meet; they are not only interested in visual arts but also in music, theory, film, urbanism.’4 Today he is enjoying a resurgence in public attention. As with another independent filmmaker of his generation, Chantal Akerman, Farocki’s work is regularly featured in exhibitions including documenta and the Carnegie International. In the past year alone, he has had ten solo exhibitions in places such as the Jeu de Paume in Paris (alongside Rodney Graham) and the Museum Ludwig in Cologne (where a survey of his work opened at the end of October), and he participated in dozens of major group shows around the globe, including the most recent Manifesta and two shows at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Farocki’s move into the art world also dovetailed with the emergence of new media artists and theorists who took interest in his studies of the operational imaging technologies used in Postmodern warfare, which he began to address in the aftermath of the Gulf War. Farocki recalls: ‘In those days a new kind of image appeared on television, filmed from the head of a projectile flying towards its aim – when it hit its target, transmission ceased. It was said that these were images from intelligent weapons. Ten years later both images and weapons had hardly been examined.’5 His ‘Auge/Maschine’ trilogy (2001–3), which explores electronic surveillance, mapping and object recognition carried out by so-called intelligent machines, garnered widespread attention in the USA precisely because Farocki was one of the first artists to pay attention to this new image regime and its segue into civilian life.

Farocki’s latest work, Immersion (2009), extends his inquiry into computer-generated imagery and its uses in war. It is also a testimony to his extraordinary perseverance as a researcher, the hallmark of a seasoned and astute documentarian. He was able to record rarely-publicized research ventures among scientists, the computer industry and the military, gathering his material under the watchful eye of the Pentagon. Farocki believes the Pentagon may actually see his recording as favourable publicity for their efforts to help veterans. The video begins with a computer animation of a car bombing in Iraq, and then splits into a diptych depicting both the immersive simulation on screen and a training session in which civilian therapists teach military therapists to use virtual reality simulation to help soldiers recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The uniformed military therapists assume the role of patients: they watch the animations through virtual reality goggles as they ‘recall’ traumatic incidents. Some appear calm as they speak of being shot at, but one of them looks distraught. ‘I go around the corner and hear this explosion, and I am like shit, shit!’ he cries. A civilian teacher urges him on, despite his apparent discomfort. ‘I can’t see where Jones is at … I’m trying to find where he was at and there is smoke … I get over to where he’s at and it’s just like … from his knees up and that’s all that’s there. There is flesh and blood and bits of uniform.’ The video’s straightforward shooting style, together with the horrific details of the confession and the therapists’ convincing performances generate a mirroring effect: we are drawn into a simulation – the staging of therapy – just as the recovering patient is supposed to relive his memory through his virtual encounter with animated Iraq. What is less apparent in this recent work is the overtly critical tone of earlier productions – which may be due to the disappearance of the voice-overs that were integral to so many of his films.

Immersion can be viewed either as a dual-screen projection in a museum or gallery, or as a split-screen single-channel video on television. Farocki’s approach to the presentation of his work is flexible; he not only creates new works in multiple formats but has also reconfigured some of his well-known older films such as Arbeiter verlassen die Fabrik as multi-channel installations. His lack of preciousness and adaptability may be the by-product of prior decades of survival in the subcultures of independent film, when improvised production and exhibition conditions were commonplace. At the same time, Farocki’s move into the art world has facilitated his more recent formal experiments with film and televisual language. For Zur Bauweise des Films bei Griffith (On the Construction of Griffith’s Films, 2006), for example, he revises a dialogue from the 1916 D.W. Griffith film Intolerance, which was originally edited as a shot/counter-shot sequence: a means of storytelling that was innovative in its time. Farocki’s version isolates each speaker in respective monitors ‘to create a film laboratory, to show as much as possible of the structure of a film’.6

Farocki’s editorial decisions in recent installations can also be understood as responses to new conditions of image reception in popular culture. In videos such as Ich glaubte Gefangene zu sehen (I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts, 2000) and Gegen-Musik (Counter Music, 2004) several images appear simultaneously within the frame – a mode of presentation that recalls cable news and the styles of net-based culture. In a 2004 interview, Farocki noted that CNN had introduced viewers to ways of looking at visual data that had previously been exclusive to editors. He has been somewhat ambivalent in his assessment of this shift in viewing habits: on the one hand, he has suggested that non-specialists are becoming increasingly adept at absorbing visual information and making connections among disparate images. On the other, he has speculated that keeping several windows open on a computer screen is indicative of ‘the spectator’s lack of patience. They always have a radio running and do kitchen work while watching TV.’7 Whatever the motive, the kinds of multi-image screen compositions that now appear frequently in his work, he argues, should be justified by the thematic content of each project. Double projections, Farocki notes, can be traced back to expanded cinema experiments of the 1960s, when they were designed to subvert the norms of cinematic projection. In the 1990s he became interested in the possibility offered by digital editing of creating ‘soft montage’ – which is to say, having two tracks appearing simultaneously – because it allowed him to visualize equivocality. Nonetheless, he now concedes that, as a formal device, double projections in film houses have become fairly standard and, as a result, are no longer challenging.

It is hard to imagine that Farocki would ever do anything that wasn’t challenging. Ever the conceptual and political provocateur, he continues to ask probing questions about the function of image technologies. His work compels us to think about the darker side of our social reality and recognize that the techniques of subjection in prison and war might not be that different from strategies of coercion that inform advertising and consumerism. His emphasis on the instrumental uses of visuality runs counter to the formalist insistence on the sanctity of the image and disinterested nature of visual pleasure. It would seem that the increased circulation of his work is a sign of changing sentiment in the art world, which until recently was awash with highly stylized and lavishly produced video projections. As Eshun has observed: ‘Farocki’s work represents a teachable moment in which it becomes possible to think about images in a political way.’8

Hal Foster, ‘Vision Quest: the Cinema of Harun Farocki’, Artforum, November 2004, p. 156
Author’s interview with Kodwo Eshun, 20 September 2009
Thomas Elsaesser, ‘Introduction: Harun Farocki’, Senses of Cinema online journal (July 2002)
Author’s interview with Harun Farocki, 16 September 2009
Ibid.
Farocki quoted in press release for exhibition ‘Harun Farocki: Counter-Music and On the Construction of Griffith’s Films’, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris, 23 June – 25 July 2009
Author’s interview with Farocki, 16 September 2009
Author’s interview with Eshun, 20 September 2009

Issue 127

First published in Issue 127

Nov - Dec 2009

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