To MoMA audiences Harun Farocki is a new artist. Which is strange considering he has made over 100 avant-garde films over four decades. The re-discovery of artists already established in the world of experimental film is a current trend in the art world. As video and film replaces the pencil and brush for many emerging artists the institutions are sifting the archives for the true pioneers and reunite the two worlds. Farocki’s exhibition Images of War (At a Distance) on view until January 2, 2012 is a belated celebration and handshake into the art world club.
The show which includes the new work, Serious Games I-IV, as well as a good selection of Farocki’s earlier video installation works, does not look or feel like the work of a new comer. Which is not to say that they appear dated, as even the older works resonate with the endless discussion and evolution of visual technology.
The works are enticing to unknowing viewers as much as they are to the European film intellectuals that have previously been his audience. An eight year old boy sat in front of Watson is Down will be fixated, not by the essay film format that Farocki’s work typically takes, but by the fact that virtual simulation games are fascinating. They seek human approval. Like viewing animals in a zoo, these games mesmerize us because we recognize common behavior and by watching the film play out we authenticate this simulation.
Serious Games I – IV (2009-2010) is designated the exhibition highlight. A four-screen projection suspended in the center of the room, like paragraphs in a document exploring the visual technology of military operations, each screen makes a new point. Real life situations are shown alongside the virtual, examining the cerebral connections between violence, imagery, gaming and inevitably politics. Faroucki has called this ‘soft montage’ in which one image interprets, enlightens and questions the other.
The most interesting juxtaposition is between the first screen, I:Watson is Down, and the last, IV: A Sun with No Shadow. The vitality and commitment of the young soldiers, training for an attack in Watson is Down, echoes familiar video game playing, as their pixilated avatars encounter Taliban insurgents. A Sun with No Shadow shows the other side; an adrenaline rush from fear and stress of trauma. The virtual landscape in the PTSD software is almost identical, only poignantly this time there are no shadows for the avatars. “Do you need shadows to remember?” asks Farocki in the kicker of an article he wrote for French magazine Trafic. Such as poetic question alludes to a greater psychological understanding and visual hierarchy, but in reality the funding for PTSD games simply doesn’t stretch to the creation of shadows.
Conflict imagery has been a common concern of much of Farocki’s work and life; he was born in Germany in 1944 and came to filmmaking through an active involvement in the international student’s movement in the 1960s. He developed a montage technique, using clips of films alongside his own, to examine the language of moving images. Acknowledging the duality of film, as both a historical record and manipulated medium, Farocki’s work continues to question the role of media in society. He underwrites images, and their ability, especially in conflict situations, to be the communicator and the catalyst for action.
A second room in the exhibition contains an earlier work that exemplifies the exploration of images as catalysts. I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts, (2000) is a dual projection consisting of surveillance camera footage from American prisons. As the images roll, or stutter in this case, what becomes apparent is that prisoners, often from rival gangs, have been selected to enter the prison yard by the guards, anticipating a fight. The yard becomes a stage, the wardens the directors, creating a performance for the cameras. In one clip prisoner William Martinez, an inmate in a high security prison in Corcoran, California, is killed when a fight escalates and the prison guard shoots him. The camera captures the incident and the ensuing nine minutes of silence when his body lies on the floor while the yard is cleared. Screen text and a voiceover offer part explanation part interpretation, signaling towards brutality with simultaneous images of guards laughing.
Filmmaking for Farocki is political and it is easy to see with a piece such as Convicts how we as viewers are politically implicated. The struggles for power within the already restricted prison system could be a call to human rights activists. Yet ironically what connects the works in the show — which builds as you view it in its entirety — is the redundancy of the human subjects.
In Convicts, we see down the barrel of a water gun as it fires deterring jets at prisoners in another yard, the image reports from one camera lens and acts through another. The action becomes theatrical and virtual, the death of an inmate distanced from all consequences as the killing of a Taliban avatar is in Serious Games. The prisoners are pawns in the game, subjects that die, for no real reason and even the guards who instigate and control their demise, seem secondary to the cameras that retain power.
In Serious Games I-IV while revealing the uses of the virtual technology both to hurt and heal, the need for such image technology is a sign of mans impotence and inadequacy. Human control is removed from the action; they simply monitor screens rehearsing for something they naturally could not deal with or being pacified by the images that scarred them. The physical body fails over and over again.
It is understandable why Farocki should be welcomed into the history of video art as new media and image technology exponentially develops, we can be blinded to the politics behind technology. We absorb any advance as positive because it is part of history. But the works in this exhibition, in subject and presentation are also engaging and provocative. As moving images from a variety of sources become a common artists tool, Farocki’s work lays the foundation, like a manual for the dissection of images for the next generation.