New York

Harun Farocki, Serious Games I: Watson Is Down, 2010, still from a two-channel color video installation, 8 minutes.

Harun Farocki, Serious Games I: Watson Is Down, 2010, still from a two-channel color video installation, 8 minutes.

Harun Farocki

Harun Farocki, Serious Games I: Watson Is Down, 2010, still from a two-channel color video installation, 8 minutes.

“Harun Farocki: Images of War (at a Distance),” Farocki’s first museum survey in the United States, features thirty-six films, videos, and installations recently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art. Organized by chief curator of media and performance Sabine Breitwieser, the exhibition offers an illuminating view of the artist’s development over the decades, beginning with his emergence in post-1968 West Germany and moving through his subsequent engagements, over some forty years, with filmmaking, writing, editing, and curating. Consistently in his work, Farocki deploys strategies to foreground the discursive constructedness of film and video, applying critical pressure to traditional structures of narrative cinema, questioning ideologies of cinematic authorship, and contesting documentary’s claims to objectivity. Paired with footage procured from institutions in the military-industrial-corporate complexes, these maneuvers allow Farocki to examine the politics of representation within late-capitalist scopic regimes—the interpenetrations of mass media, technology, the body, vision, commerce, gaming, surveillance, discipline and punishment, and militarism and war.

The first room of the MoMA survey includes vitrines displaying a selection of film journals that the artist has contributed to or edited, in addition to a sequence of single-channel monitors presenting 16-mm films and videos, from Inextinguishable Fire, 1969, to Images of the World and the Inscription of War, 1988, to War at a Distance, 2003. These provide context for the room’s main attraction: the multiscreen video installation Serious Games I–IV, 2009–10. Composed of four looped parts—each projected onto a separate screen—the work centers on footage taken from (or relating to) computer-generated combat simulations used by the US military, which the artist apparently obtained directly from the military itself (suggesting that transparency can be a PR strategy). Rather than subject us to heavy-handed ideological critique, Farocki allows the appropriated visual materials to speak compellingly for themselves; brief descriptive texts interspersed among the footage provide the only explication. The work’s first part, Serious Games I: Watson is Down, 2010, features soldiers at their computer terminals conversing in military jargon, and clips of the simulated battlefield, wherein armored vehicles endeavor to maneuver around IEDs; one of the textual descriptors is the instructor places explosive devices. In Serious Games II: Three Dead, 2010, a mock town (akin to a TV set) at a military base in the US serves as the site of a training exercise and achieves an uncanny real-world virtuality. Here, war as simulacrum and war as “reality” approach a kind of representational and psychological-perceptual conflation. Serious Games III: Immersion, 2009, includes footage of a workshop on using virtual reality to administer therapy to sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder, while Serious Games IV: A Sun With No Shadow, 2010, incorporates footage from those very simulations. Farocki allows the military to indict itself; yet by reminding us of the deep economic and techno-cultural interpenetrations of military culture and entertainment (specifically, video games) in America, he subtly implicates us (and perhaps even himself) as enablers.

Housed in the adjoining room are the earlier installations I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts, 2000, and Eye/Machine I–III, 2001–2003. Utilizing prison-surveillance footage of a guard shooting an inmate (and, separately, of a prisoner interacting with a woman during visiting hours), the former work explores the ways in which surveillance technology has become the primary instrument of control within institutions of discipline and punishment—and reminds us, too, that these “rationalizing” scopic regimes have also penetrated deeply into our quotidian social space. The latter piece reflects on connections between the first Gulf War and the mass media, demonstrating that technologies of vision (such as guidance systems for missiles) have become surrogates for human sight in both military and civilian contexts.

Farocki’s work archives, indexes, reassembles, and deconstructs the representational systems of late capitalism in order to engender critical knowledge. Avoiding pious didacticism, Farocki suggests that we are all caught up in these cultural contradictions. Yet as we quasi-distracted cultural tourists are ported, under surveillance, through the institutional environs of MoMA, one wonders whether it is truly possible to imagine a cultural experience that is not mediated by the very mechanisms of control that Farocki critiques.

Joshua Decter