Harun Farocki (1944–2014)

Harun Farocki, 2007.


We want to create an institution, that would initially just be an office for the instruction and coordination of some documentary film works.

Ultimately a (the) national library of images.

Producing materials to investigate the present, which will be the future past.

This institution should collect, or more precisely safeguard existing things and produce, more precisely initiate things that do not exist.

It should operate non-commercially, collecting resources and labour power from the public research sector.”

These lines open a text Harun Farocki wrote in 1976, in which he argues for creating a publicly accessible library of documentary images. The text has been made available to me as a scan of a hectographed document stapled together in the upper left-hand corner. From one page to another, one sees the paper creasing around the staple, looking vulnerable and ephemeral.

Now this piece of paper has come to be the closest thing we have to a manual for the foundation of a Harun Farocki Institute, which would not only take care of the afterlife of his many films and video installations but also safeguard this other text like it. In the aftermath of Harun’s unexpected and tragic passing in July this past year, such effort will be necessary. This endeavor would also include a much-needed systematic and complete edition of his prolific writing, always wonderful, at times mordant and sharp.

Even an operational text such as the one above is full of brilliant shorthand observations about the image and its relation to history:

“What we call documentation shows the world as if it were already known and after a few years already we are not anymore able to reconstruct how this world looked like. But the images that have to be produced are ones that aim to explore the world as strange and alien; which turn the present into history. We have to produce building blocks. First we have to develop methods to create these building blocks and then we have to assemble them and take them apart again.”

This passage anticipates Harun’s life project: to create fundamental visual elements that could potentially grow into sustainable structures. But, true to its operational nature, Harun’s text goes beyond pure reflection to become a survey. It morphs into an organizational device:

“We ask you, if you would like to do this work or could do it or if you know anyone, who would like to do it.”

Harun’s family and a circle of friends and collaborators have begun the vast and demanding task of creating the Harun Farocki Institute to continue Harun’s project of instigating images that render a presumably known world into something that needs to be explored as strange and alien territory.

Harun’s text closes: “It will be difficult to create a work place. We have to know how much time and energy everyone can put to work. Please tell us how you would be available within the next one and a half years. Please answer until Sept. 30th 1976 to Filmkritik editorial office, 8 Munich 2, Kreittmayerstr. 3 (9).”

Hito Steyerl is a filmmaker, writer, and artist who teaches at the Berlin University of the Arts.

See also the February print issue of Artforum for more on Harun Farocki.