New York

Harun Farocki

Harun Farocki has made nearly eighty films for both the big and small screen since he was a graduate student at the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin in the mid-’60s. Having emerged during the international student protest movement, he has dedicated his career to unmasking the hidden abuses and blatant hypocrisies of the powers that be. Farocki’s typical format is the film essay: text and narration combined with images lifted from newsreel and industrial footage, a hybrid of political sloganeering and documentary.

Only recently has Farocki begun to present his films in a gallery and museum context; this solo show was his first in New York. The main attraction, a double-screen video projection titled Eye Machine, 2001, offered a fast-paced montage on the theme of surveillance in the era of “smart” technology. Robots blindly perform industrial tasks; flaws in production are tracked by computer in a steel foundry; airport layouts are analyzed onscreen to monitor flow and security; a missile with a mounted “suicide camera” gives a kamikaze view of a bridge’s destruction, filling the screen with fuzz on impact. It’s terrifying to see what machines are capable of these days, though nothing here comes as any great surprise; much of the material was actually quite familiar, including the shots of bombs hitting their targets during the Gulf War. The effect stems from the sheer variety of subject matter as well as Farocki’s tight editing, which jars the spectator with unexpected juxtapositions.

I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts, 2000, shared the Big Brother theme, focusing on the brutal conditions in the US penal system. Grainy footage captures brawling inmates at the California State Prison. Corcoran, being shot at by guards who hover out of sight above the exercise yard. As if to lighten the load, Farocki intersperses these grim scenes with images generated by computers that track supermarket shoppers, who appear as blips sliding along the aisles like spaceships in an antiquated Atari game. For this piece Farocki adapted the two-screen format to a single TV monitor, presenting the images in two picture boxes that overlap at one comer. As in Eye Machine, the relatively low-tech production values don’t yield stunning graphics; at times the piece takes on the bland look of a vocational training video. Indeed, these two films lack some of the subtlety and poetic visual quality of some of Farocki’s earlier works, like Images of the World and the Inscription of War, 1988.

Unlike other filmmakers who have made the transition to the exhibition space—Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s elaborate thirty-one-video installation Cave of Memory at Documenta X comes to mind—Farocki maintains a strikingly modest mode of presentation. He prioritizes the forceful delivery of information rather, than the demonstration of his technological prowess. Despite this emphasis on the work’s message, some visitors could be heard to grouse that the commercial context of the gallery turns the films into commodities and thus blunts their critical effectiveness. Yet this complaint relies on an idealized, limited notion of the sites that can support political discussion. Farocki’s films demand analysis on both aesthetic and theoretical grounds, whether he screens them at a theater, a college campus, a union hall, or a gallery. Though not as compelling as some of his previous output, these works have the power to unsettle and educate the patient viewer, no matter where they’re encountered.

Gregory Williams