In the notes for 1983’s An Image, a fly-on-the-wall dissection of a German Playboy shoot, Harun Farocki explains his method for gaining access to sensitive locations, which involves a kind of dual deception, his backers expecting condemnation, his subjects expecting praise. “I try to do neither” Farocki writes, “nor do I want to do something in between, but beyond both.”
This sense of beyond, a restless contemplation lurking beneath a veneer of apparent flatness, is present in all Farocki’s films, with their fundamentally basic depictions of mundane practices and events. They seem, at first glance, to take in these events with complete objectivity, the camera hanging back deferentially, absorbing the action without direct comment. Yet like Frederick Wiseman’s similarly low-key documents, these observations ultimately prove to be sneaky inquisitions on a variety of issues, fundamentally questions of authorship, control and authority, and how these concepts relate to the creation of images.
The subtlety of his style makes Farocki’s show at the Museum of Modern Art, which began in June and continues (in abbreviated form) until January, somewhat hard to read. His first solo exhibition in the United States, it's fairly overwhelming to absorb, with the four sections of the installation packed tightly together, with monitors looping older works situated against a wall. The result is a thicket of topics and forms, shaped into a seemingly diffuse mélange of war veterans, prisoners, factory workers and revolutionaries. The anchoring piece, 2010’s Serious Games I-IV, might seem, in this context, like little more than an exercise in meta-trickery, with its side-by-side comparisons of simulations and real events, the line between the two remaining continuously blurred.
Viewed on their own, as in Farocki’s recent retrospective at Anthology Film Archives, it’s easier to spot the full complexity of his methods. Serious Games, like much of Farocki’s work, is concerned not only with the specifics and details of image-making, but in defining authorship within the borders of what we consider reality. Across Farocki’s oeuvre, the question asked is not simply “what is real?” but who exactly gets to make that distinction. The answer is whoever’s in charge, a maddeningly nebulous distinction that the director has explored through over eighty films, examining quiet corners of society for traces of a larger governing hand. Serious Games, its title referring to video games produced for non-entertainment uses, interprets such questions through two lenses: training and therapy.
Each section concerns a different simulation, with two scenarios used to prepare soldiers for combat, two focusing on attempts to treat ones suffering with PTSD, by recreating the events that precipitated their condition. Taken as a whole, the four chart a sort of progression, from games and simulations used to avoid problems to ones used to treat them, but more deeply they concern the mechanics of image creation, especially insofar as these simulations are intended as a recreation of reality. As in many of Farocki’s films, the divide between a supposedly actual reality and a more obviously manufactured one is tweaked by how clumsy these simulations are at capturing the real world, an ineffectiveness that inevitably leads the viewer to question what else, beyond the obvious, is being left out or misrepresented, as well as what such omissions imply about these newly created realities.
One detail in particular, as elucidated by Serious Games IV: A Sun Without Shadow, seems like a trivial omission: in the games designed for treating returning soldiers there are no shadows, unlike in the training exercises, which are more detailed. It’s a small decision, but a telling one, especially in how it connects with what we see of the behavior of the artificial intelligence of the Iraqi bystanders in this simulation: they wander dumbly about the scene, like broken robots. Both they and these damaged soldiers have effectively been deemed less important to the creators of these worlds, so they get short shrift. In these little realities, designed by some shadowy authority from the military-industrial complex (or, in the case of the simulation presented, a sleazy car-salesman type with a passing resemblance to Steven Seagal) preparation for conflict is given priority; its after-effects are treated with far less care.
Perhaps the most important element in Farocki’s work is his continual distrust of the authorities that create these images and simulations, which manifests itself in a Cartesian fascination with how things are formed, positing the creation of individual images as a corollary to the shaping of reality. This theme, gives him an excuse to root around in the attic of reality, collecting weird snippets of media produced for industrial use or documenting internal corporate practices, things that most people would never get a chance to see otherwise. These kinds of media give an insider insight into how certain pillars of reality are formed, uncovering the kinds of background processes that teach people how to behave and operate in professional settings.
His concern with the things left out of supposedly realistic representations has also been a constant, seen most recently in 2010’s The Silver and the Cross. In that piece, a Greenaway-style exegesis of Gaspar Michel de Berrio’s painting Depiction of the Cerro Rico and the Imperial City of Potosi (1758), umbrage is taken at the painter’s depiction of miners, their faces smeared into unrecognizable blurs. Deemed unimportant by the creator of the work, these nameless people fade into the landscape, compared to the detailed images of nobles included in the same painting. Their disenfranchisement is even more harmful in the grand scheme of things. In paintings like this one, viewed as relatively realistic depictions of history, the distorting effects added by the author, phasing out certain groups while elevating others, creates a picture of the past, and by extension one of the present, that’s inextricably and hopelessly skewed.
More evidence comes via 2000’s Prison Images, projected at MoMa as I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts. Using security-camera footage of prison fights, turned deadly by guard intervention, Farocki examines the circumstances leading up to the deaths of several unarmed prisoners. What he finds is a rigged game, an insular world where every piece of the prisoners’ lives is shaped by external forces, from the tabula rasa atmosphere of the courtyard area to the placement of individuals in the yard, with fights indirectly set up for the guards to place bets, intimidate troublemakers, or indirectly mete out punishment.
For these prisoners, the guards are the ultimate arbiters of reality, able to see everything that goes on within the world of the prison, with the power to shape that world to their own desires. The inevitable question that Farocki then pursues is who gets to shape reality for the rest of us, living in societies that seem far less oppressive, but whose lives are still governed by forces entirely outside our own control. Further connection comes within Prison Images, which extends its focus to work-release programs and eventually the similarities between the jail and the factory, with their twinned systems of constant observation and enforced goals. This is then extended to the world at large, through simulations of a software program that tracks cart movements in grocery stores, identifying the paths customers take as they shop. Through a quilt-like style formed from found footage and patient observation of mundane events, Farocki creates the paranoid feeling that someone is always watching, collecting data and information, attempting to drain things of their essence in order to recreate them again for other purposes.
Detailing the processes that shape people into cogs in the system, Farocki discovers that simulacrum is not only restricted to simulations, but in the way that life itself is acted out. This theme is further explored in 1995’s Workers Leaving the Factory which clashes footage of actual workers against Hollywood depictions of factory life.
With all this focus on labor, it’s interesting to view Farocki’s work through the lens of Marxist theory, particularly Marx’s theory of alienation, which finds that “workers invariably lose determination of their lives and destinies by being deprived of the right to conceive of themselves as the director of their actions, to determine the character of their actions, to define their relationship to other actors, and to use or own the value of what is produced by their actions.” This description of working life under capitalism sounds like a badly directed simulation, exactly the kind of representation the director is repeatedly drawn to. 2004’s Nothing Ventured spends its entire 50 minute running time on one messily handled business negotiation, watching intently as one side tries to unload their company on another, struggling to shape the confusing reality of a floundering company into a marketable representation.
One of his most straightforward works, also on display at MoMA, is 1992’s Videograms of a Revolution, a blow-by-blow examination of Romania’s 1989 uprising, co-directed with Andrei Ujica. The film functions as a real-time representation of a people’s taking hold of the means of production, recapturing, from an autocratic dictator, the ability to shape their own reality, but also a circumspect illustration of how such a revolution begins to retrace the footsteps of the very system if helped to fell. Conflating the creation of a government with his usual image-making focus, Videograms is unique amongst these kind of ‘you are there’ documents, because so many of its scenes take place not in the thick of revolutionary action, but in board rooms and TV studios, where the country’s future leaders take hold of the means of dissemination and distribution, establishing control over the fountainhead of information, struggling to decide how the new regime will be presented.
The director’s staunchly political bent stretches back to his earliest films, rooted in the German student protests of the 1960s. That focus, witnessed at MoMA via early essays like 1969’s The Inextinguishable Fire has never really faded from his work. These early films sow the seeds of his films' continual distrust of reality, assuring that along with this fascination for how systems and images are shaped, comes the fear that any technology or schematic, however mundane, can be employed for more sinister purposes.
This is seen in the vague chemical work done by the Dow scientists in The Inextinguishable Fire, whose individual tasks are joined together to make Napalm, unbeknownst to them. Later in that film, a humorous aside shows how anonymous assembly line work can result in the production of vacuum cleaners, or machine guns.
The ties between image creation and authority, and authority and destruction, become joined with the depiction of bomb-mounted cameras in Images of the World and the Inscription of War and War at a Distance. The latter, with its focus on bombing footage from the first Gulf War, again confronts a system trying to shake uncomfortable questions from its depiction of reality. Like the aerial Auschwitz photographs in Images, which never seemed to account for the existence of people within the camps, this footage, airing on CNN and other news outlets, represents another attempt to try and remove human beings from the equation of war, to suggest conflict as a mechanical process free of collateral damage. As Farocki narrates: “war is now free of people, it takes no account of them, though they may still be involved.”
This brings things back to Serious Games, with its shadow-less trees and barely-human Iraqis, ambling about the frame, waiting to be maimed or killed. In one section, a distressed solider apparently receives therapy by recounting a particularly horrific event, where he came upon his partner lying dead in an alley, his legs blown off by an IED. Cycling through repeating images of damaged facades and smoky, desolate streets, the simulation struggles to keep up.
At the end of his account, the man is revealed to be a psychiatrist acting out a simulation, another facet of a complicated system with the power to subvert, shape and define reality. He takes off his headset and jokes with the audience. In the background, the simulation footage keeps playing, crappy flames flickering, bomb-tossed Iraqis lying scattered amid the rubble. In this virtual world, no one is there to give them medical care, let alone psychological treatment. Streamlined out of this conception of reality, they don’t even get to have shadows, a distinction which, in Farocki’s conception of reality, is tantamount to deciding that they don’t have souls.