Harun Farocki – Against What? Against Whom? (Full Review)

Harun Farocki, Raven Row

19 November 2009 to 7 February 2010.

Images unintended for the human eye, the narrative of memory disturbance and recovery; power by proxy. Veteran filmmaker Harun Farocki brings half-a-century’s worth of research, compassion and an essayist’s sensibility to these topics. Farocki is experiencing a new epoch of wider recognition outside Germany, where he has lived and worked since his youth. The filmmaker (born in Czechoslovakia in 1944) is the recipient of two British retrospectives in late 2009 and early 2010, the former a 22-part run of screenings at Tate Modern.

This latest outing takes places at Raven Row, a gallery smartly situated on a higgledy-piggledy lane not far from Liverpool Street. It both a gutted shop front, and vast and many-leveled dwelling.  Carpeted but bare. This show is best viewed with a few hours on hand, with each of the nine video installations clocking in at twenty to forty minutes looping time each.

Eye/Machine (2003) is the first in a group of videos that explore imaging and surveillance. Many of the pieces in the show utilize two projections, sometimes a simulation of video walls, or perhaps in this case the bi-lateral vision of the human fighter pilot. But this is information seen by nobody. Free of the motivations of aesthetics, it is fascinating: grainy black and white footage of a suburban topography, flashing red and yellow pixel strokes read the ground, capturing roads and bridges with automaton ease. Racing over the landscape.

It becomes difficult to separate the ecstasy of looking from the actuality of what is being looked at. These are images that guide the computational systems inside missiles. We are invited to compare archival animations from WWII missile tests with their modern-day counterparts. As Farocki’s intertext shows, an animation which is intended to illustrate the function of a missile to pilots and technicians allows itself a strange stylistic felicity like a prettily flickering body of water: to bear a sliver of entertainment for the viewer. It’s comparison piece, a modern missile in 360° views, sailing over a landscape both flattened and featureless to look like plastic sailing over plastic, has a definite absurdity.

In the next sequence, a machine with a mounted camera trundles its way awkwardly along the corridors of a laboratory. Its camera eye turned on the viewer’s eye. Cut to a computer graphic of a room being built out of red vector cubes. This data is occasionally looked at by technicians doing routine checks’ says the intertext card. What a shame, we think. The specialised: the armed forces, technicians and designers are the erstwhile keepers of this new imaging. This fear of a flight with no pilot is the stuff of sci-fi horror movies, yet it is more than monstrosity, this sort of artistic image reconnaissance lets us as lay persons, see what is truly cutting edge and off-limits.

I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts (2000) is another two-projection piece and explores the statement: ‘today power and violence are mostly exercised impersonally. Power is no longer exercised under proximity.’ We learn that a Civil Rights group was responsible for bringing to light the case of William Randall, an inmate shot to death by a guard at Concoran State prison in California. We learn that amongst five hundred routine tribunals of such cases, none have been found to be in breach of the prison system’s ethical code.

So does the camera system provide an iconoclast justice? CCTV, with which the guards can track the positions of every inmate, can monitor not only their whereabouts but also their precise changes in their physical actions and thus predict and record transgressions. In the case of William Randall, we are shown a frame-by-frame playback of the altercation that leads to his shooting. The guards watch the inmates pace uncomfortably in the bare concrete exercise yard. Their blacked-out viewing station is above the entrance ‘neck’ of the funnel shaped yard area. The prisoners know they will be shot at.  Yet they continue to fight each other.

Cameras monitor the dotages of women visiting their partners in prison. Too much contact – more than handholding is considered contraband – triggers the cameras and the guards issue a warning.  There is a particular tender note in Farocki’s work which, when it pops up, usually refers to desire which cannot be regulated. In this case, for a connection between people, which he compares to the environment of the prison in which every safeguarding measure will inevitably fail. Farocki notes in his intertext that these men are locked inside with men from rival gangs. We are made to think of the camera’s role as alternatively a trigger and a safety net. The intertext asks: ‘What can be accelerated and increased in a prison?’ Such technology is thrust with the motives of eliminating labour and cost. Though it produces a by-product of glamour, its terrifying capability seems only to add tension to a restless environment.

Mixed in with these cuttings from the post-millennial era are Eighties training videos featuring prison guards laughing and shrugging their way through mocked-up training situations. Was this officer justified in shooting? They ask each other. Their colleague is on the floor of the seminar room, playing dead.

Post-traumatic stress disorder has fascinated artists who are looking for ways to excavate narrative. In Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder (2006), a Londoner who has recently suffered a nameless trauma uses the insurance payout he receives to endlessly reenact his ordeal in a fashion that becomes ever more obsessive, detailed and extreme on his part.  Narrated by the protagonist in a tone that is hollow and flat, Remainder blockades the reader from finding catharsis through emergent ‘truths’ and sequential events. The absence of the lyrical realism, which is the prevalent form of truth telling in the contemporary novel, creates a vacuum: how can we heal ourselves without stories?

In Immersion (2009) a former US marine is talked through a simulation (plastic rifle in hand) by a therapist who adjusts the simulation according to his progress. On the left hand screen we see the therapist. Farocki has at times described his left and right screens as being functionally conversant with each other. In his role-play, as he arrives at the death of a colleague, he begs his therapist to let him stop. She encourages him, admonishing, ‘how you will recover?’ On the verge of tears, he asks: “do people ever get worse through this?” The participant now lives through the most extreme reconstructions in this personalised memory timeline. Watching a friend die by his side – shame and guilt. His description of the death brings him to the point of nausea; all the while he is being assured that he is succeeding in his present task. At a coequal moment, we see a virtual reality car bomb explode – as if we were standing twenty meters away. The soundtrack is hyper-real, a figure rolling on the ground screams in pain while others are scattering in all directions. Then the therapist abruptly and joyously allows him to break his trance. ‘Ok that’s great, you did great!’ She praises. It is a shock for the viewer to hear the sound of a room bursting into applause.

There has been no private catharsis in the presence of the trusted professional. The applause brings a large smile to the ex-soldier’s face and he flings off the goggles, wiping off the sweat and soaking in the affirmation from what sounds like an extremely large room of onlookers. His narrative has been re-figured, but ours has been truncated and confused.

A particularly male loneliness and sacrifice seems to be an inexplicit, or by-product theme of this show. Most of these films are made in a predominantly male arena. Far from being a criticism, this has its own charm and worth.  Feasting or Flying (2008) is a crescendo of Hollywood-sampling anti-narrative melodrama playing out across six sleek flat-screens – a history of the male suicide in cinema. At the beginning of the loop, the leftmost screen displays clips from movies such as The Shawshank Redemption, Point Break, Full Metal Jacket, etc. After each clip, the title and production details of the film are shown, together with a statement in bold red text that paraphrases the fate of each unfortunate character:



As if summarised in conversation from once acquaintance to another, these are sad and inadequate epitaphs. The much-mythologised suicides of Kurt Cobain (‘Last Days’ 2005) and Ian Curtis (‘Control’ 2008) are perfect examples of how the perceived internal maelstrom of the onscreen hero is acted out. We see the bony frame of Kurt Cobain stomping his way from his mansion through the forests of Seattle simultaneously as we see six screens worth of iconic men entering rooms, slamming doors on the world behind them. With multiple familiar visuals and audio to gorge on it is an entertaining counterpoint to the quieter works in the show.

In Comparison Via a Third (2007), which is on view in the main atrium, entirely handmade building methods compare with machine-aided production and construction methods on across Burkina Faso, India, France and Germany. We see a correlation between the village women working to song, beating the ground in time and singing and the lone male factory worker making utilitarian thuds as he pats a wall with his mallet.  The footage is edited by Farocki to produce a mirror-song. Slightly sentimental, but no less insightful for it.

This interest in how the rhythms of labour fits into life continue into the centerpiece of the exhibition. Workers Leaving the Factory (2006) is a survey-piece, inspired by and named after the first ever film, which was made in 1895. It is a study of the representation of the worker in feature and documentary film. A long bench mirrors eleven video screens in the most day-lit room in the exhibition with seven headsets available to listen. Most interesting perhaps are Destinies of Woman (GDR, 1952) by Slaton Dudlow and Antonioni’s Red Desert (Italy, 1964) through their concentration on the female figure in working culture. A clip from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) picks up the thread of absurdism from previous material and is mirrored by a clip from Dancer in the Dark (2000). This analysis of the historical portrait of the Western factory worker seems very nostalgic now that figure almost no longer proliferates in society, and that most factory labour is now being undertaken in the developing world. Yet nostalgic would most likely not be a label that Farocki would be entirely unhappy with. Many of his past works, such as On Construction of Griffith’s Films (2006) are loving commentaries on the conventions of early cinema.

With more retrospectives of his work hopefully to come, Farocki is a figure that should be welcomed in his delayed arrival to UK audiences. The simultaneous depth and openness of his work will be of huge value to those interested in war, technology and human relations.




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