Harun Farocki: Serious games
Harun Farocki's unexpected death in 2014 leaves a profoundly affective body of work. He produced over one hundred films and installations, including some of the most influential film essays and experiments with screening formats over the past forty years – a body of work that is also a touchstone for the ongoing developments and dissemblance in film, television and surveillance in the context of a control society and the inscriptions of war.
His work incorporates discarded military surveillance tapes, archived television footage, films from industry monitoring processes, the systems that structure computer games and any number of visual and auditory processes of production and simulation. What matters for Farocki is that it is not “content”. As Thomas Elsaesser notes “he [Farocki] takes up a subject when it can be presented as a Verbund, a system, when the dynamics of feedback, self-referencing and self monitoring are put into circulation”.
Farocki’s 2014–15 exhibition at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof included an early, important and well-known work from 1969, Inextinguishable Fire, and a more recent work in three parts, Serious Games (2009–10), a trilogy that takes up the systems inherent within virtual spaces and automated vision machines through a dispositive of two or more images. Serious Games I: Watson is Down is a military training device. One screen shows what is being produced on the second screen: four soldiers at consoles, each controlling their avatars in battle, follow strict military protocols. In Serious Games II: Three Dead a simulation of military helicopters descending on a training camp shifts to the scenes of an actual, built facility strikingly similar to computer-generated imagery. Serious Games III: Immersion is a filmed demonstration to sell “therapeutic software” to the US military for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorders. The soldiers shown role-playing their response appear fraught and extremely distressed, prompted by explicit, violent images and sounds through virtual reality headsets: it is total immersion through witnessing the death of friends in battle. This role-play is in the thrall of virtual horror, quickly resolved when the headset is removed.
That soldiers are trained to go to war through computer gaming technology is not new to us; that the trauma of this war can be ‘resolved’ through the same technology is an even greater illusion given that trauma is a result of what cannot be assimilated.
In his early film from 1969, Inextinguishable Fire, Farocki sits at a desk, looks up and reads a statement from a Vietnamese man describing the effects of napalm burns, Farocki’s gaze is straight to camera as he says, “we can only give you a hint of how napalm burns”. And, while burning his own arm with a cigarette, describes the temperature of a cigarette burning at 400°C compared to napalm, which burns at 3,000°C. His interest in agitprop is present in an appeal to the spectator to take responsibility, “How can we show napalm in action? How can we show you the injuries caused by napalm? ... If we show you pictures of napalm burns, you will close your eyes, then you will close your eyes to memory, then to the context”. Farocki’s filming of a scenario with actors as scientists at Dow Chemical suspends any reality effect through their dissimulation when confronted with the implications of the industry’s production of chemical weapons – it’s a continuation of his return of the gaze straight to camera by other means. Later, Farocki worked to establish “another structure, a double coding, where the people being filmed are playing themselves”.
There’s a kinetic energy of image and word flows in Farocki’s works largely generated by the editing process. In his 1995 film Interface the editing desk is the means by which he breaches the difference between manual and intellectual labour. Each operation, each click and whir, is ramped up: the sounds are sharp, present and not incidental, like the sounds of the keyboard commands in the building of scenes for computer systems and all the mechanical sounds of production and destruction that infiltrate his other works. Farocki has also spoken of editing as metaphor and as having the same function as musical composition.
The opening titles in War at a Distance (2003) are underscored by a heightened level of sound, like a drum beat for the end of the world. In fact, it’s the sound of the rolling mills in a steel factory used for producing armaments, the footage of which comes from the company’s own monitoring cameras. An off-screen narrator delivers Farocki’s words, “an image from rolling mills is information not an image … these may possess a beauty; it is not a beauty which has been intended and calculated; industry robots use the hand as a mould but quickly leave the mould behind. The role of this off-screen narrator has all the qualities of the acousmatic voice: its source cannot be located, it’s a voice in search of an origin“. Farocki’s approach is a kind of mimicry of modernity’s operating principles from within. In relation to the television coverage of the 1991 Gulf War, he incorporated industrial footage of a wave machine through the narration of an unexpected thesis on vision and surveillance. Moving from the machinic age to the electronic age, guided missiles containing built-in cameras produced the, then new, virtual war for television broadcast. Farocki’s view was, “better to quote something already existing and create a new documentary quality”.
In Respite, from 2007 (made with Antje Ehmann) he uses film rushes from 1944 of Westerbork camp. What had once been a Dutch refugee camp for Jews fleeing the Nazis became a transit camp run by the SS. Unedited and without sound it is the most well-known footage, or rushes, of the camps left by the SS documenting the methods of processing and deporting Jews (and others considered racially impure) to Auschwitz. These were filmed by Rudolf Breslauer, a camp inmate later to be murdered in Auschwitz, and Commander Gemmeker. Farocki repeats the film with no additional sound to narrate it, but in this loose gathering of rushes he inserts intertitles. Signalling a different approach in its relation to memory and time, duration takes on extraordinary significance in Farocki’s version. These rushes were not all found at the same time and have circulated as fragments, the most well-known instance being the incorporation by Alain Resnais of a segment in his 1955 Holocaust documentary, Night and Fog. Notably, the entire footage is included in Respite for the first time. The deception, promulgated by the SS, of filming people because they will die is seen in the context of a film in which the appearance overall is of productivity and industry in the camp and of inexplicable calm as they board the trains for Auschwitz. The prisoners who ran the camp were, unknowingly, in their last place of refuge before being transported to Auschwitz. The often-referenced image of a close-up of a girl’s face between the doors of the transport, just before they close, as the sole image of terror was recently discovered to be a Sinti. Until her identity was known, this image was used as a symbol for the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust. There are no further close-ups and, as Deleuze would argue, when it comes to film this means no more faces. Farocki works with these gaps and misalignments.
His last work, Parallel I–IV (made with Matthias Rajmann), was exhibited at the Berlin Documentary Forum in 2014. In this work, Farocki continues his engagement with computer-generated imagery and virtual reality. In this instance, reviewing thirty years of computer gaming, the focus is on building systems: when building a game, you build a system. Sequences are combined on several screens spread amongst the seating of the theatre space, the spectator moving between listening posts. Here, the seamless images of a finished game are not the subject. Farocki shows game builders, and the sounds of their keyboards: when a skateboarder runs out of ground there is a method to show him counter-intuitively falling out of the virtual world. There is an extraordinary riff on the regimes of visuality back to antiquity – in contrast to the compressed time of modernity – embodied in these gaming systems. As articulated in the off-screen narration by Cynthia Beatt, “… Computer images try to achieve the effect of cinema, to surpass it, leave it behind. The creation of computer images should be populated by images of their own design. Reality will soon cease to be the standard by which to judge the imperfect image. Instead the virtual image will become the standard by which to measure the imperfections of reality”.
- ^ Thomas Elsaesser in Antje Ehmann and Kodwo Eshun (eds), Harun Farocki. Against What? Against Whom?, London: Koenig Books, London.
- ^ Harun Farocki: Serious Games, curated by Henriette Huldisch, was on exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, 6 February 2014 – 18 January 2015.
- ^ Interview with Harun Farocki, ‘Harun Farocki: Talking Art’, 14 November 2009, Tate Modern.
- ^ From Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006, p. 68.
- ^ Quoted in 'A to Z of HF or: 26 Introductions to HF’ in Antje Ehmann and Kodwo Eshun (eds), Harun Farocki, Against What? Against Whom?, London: Koenig Books, 2009, p. 208.
Denise Robinson is an independent curator, writer and editor, based in London. She was director of the Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney (1985–91), Head of Artistic Programs at the Arnolfini, Bristol (1998), and curator of the Cyprus pavilion, for the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007.