Harun Farocki review by Maggie
In the minimal yet comfortably domestic spaces of Raven Row, scenes of war, suicide, remembrance and manual labour are playing quietly on loop. This is the work of Harun Farocki, who has made films to great acclaim for forty years. His name remains stubbornly unfamiliar in Britain - this exhibition is part of the effort to change that. Raven Row’s show opened last month concurrently with a programme of film screenings at the Tate Modern and the publication of a monograph on the filmmaker. Combined, this constitutes the biggest survey of Farocki’s work in Britain. And there is plenty to survey.
Farocki began making films in the volatile, rebellious atmosphere of 1960s Berlin. In 1969 he burnt his own arm with a cigarette in the controversial opening to Inextinguishable Fire, a film criticising the use of napalm in Vietnam. Since then, his distinctive ‘film-essays’ - which combine images, text and commentary to form discursive pieces - have never shied away from tricky political topics. Farocki’s films didn’t enter the gallery space until 1995. Commissioned by Lille’s Museum of Modern Art to make a two-screen installation about his own work, the relocation made sense for economic as well as artistic reasons (funding does not come easily to the filmmaker, however highly-esteemed). Raven Row’s exhibition celebrates the results of this new creative direction, showing nine relatively recent film installations, all designed for a gallery, and all but one using multiple screens.
Farocki’s political engagement persists undimmed. On entering Raven Row the first thing you hear is the Ride of the Valkyries (the music that opens Apocalypse Now) blaring ironically and ominously from the first room. War is on the cards but heroism has a hard time here: Eye / Machine III (the source of the music) investigates the technologies of remote warfare; Transmission looks at the memorial stone, our tribute to the war dead; in Immersion we are shown how virtual reality programmes are used to treat post-traumatic stress in soldiers, while a collection of cinematic male suicides plays just next door (Feasting or Flying). Other topics - including prison surveillance and a comparison of first, developing and third-world industries - are equally thorny.
The last two films on show, however, are about filmmaking and editing - the politics of the image. This filmmaker is acutely aware of the power, pervasiveness and limitations of the image in modern life. This show presents us with the whole gamut - the selective ‘truth’ of the documentary; cinematic and virtual substitutes for real life; surveillance images, functional and controlling; and technological images not even designed for human eyes. The extent to which images have infiltrated and structure our lives becomes very clear.
Farocki does not stop with an exposé of other people’s image-making - his very first gallery installation, (Interface, the work commissioned in Lille) was a public examination of his own. It is the last film we see at Raven Row, and it shows Farocki at the editing station, explaining how images function, what they can do, candidly revealing his own methods. Its self-examining spirit has coloured all the gallery installations Farocki has created since. Often abandoning his ‘film-essay’ commentary, Farocki makes the images in these works comment on themselves. Multiple screens allow for multiple connections. Images are juxtaposed and repeated; narratives unfold smoothly, or jump across each other, swapping screens. The all-important cut controls where we look, and comments on where images cannot or should not try to go: in Immersion, our virtual view of the battle scene blacks out as the soldier in treatment describes the grisly focus of his psychological trauma. Raven Row’s intelligent layout (the films are not grouped in the obvious chronological order) allows us to draw links between films as well. In a gallery setting where people are encouraged to engage critically with creative process itself, as well as the subject, Farocki’s unspoken editing and structuring methods have great eloquence.
However passionate Farocki’s views on his subjects, there is something slightly clinical about these installations, with their carefully selected footage, their tight construction. Farocki’s films rarely show emotion and when they do, it is the staged emotion of the cinema clip. Every installation at Raven Row is imbued with a slight sense of detachment. This is, I think, the point. The modern world is overloaded with information, technology, and images. They have become our primary means of navigating and controlling the world, but our reliance on them simultaneously puts us at a remove from it. In some cases, this is sinister - Eye / Machine III’s examination of remote warfare shows a disturbingly dehumanising attitude to life and death. In others, it is deeply isolating - I will not forget Comparison via a Third’s depiction of modern factory life: lonely, bored figures watching computers, in warehouses full of robots. Farocki understands that production, control and repetition structure life. His films follow suit: painstakingly produced; carefully controlled; and still playing relentlessly on loop for those who want to watch.
HARUN FAROCKI : INEXTINGUISHABLE FIRE (clip)