What Do Images Do
Looking Through Harun Farocki
Seeing is a recurring subject within the work of Harun Farocki (1944 – 2014), as witnessed by the titles of many of his films and installations, such as: Before your Eyes – Vietnam (1982), An Image (1983), As You See (1986), Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1988), Videograms of a Revolution (1992), Still Life (1997), I Thought I was Seeing Convicts (2000), Gefängisbilder – Prison Images (2000), and Eye/Machine I – III (2000 – 2003).
In particular, his multiple-channel installations show an operation that, through the practice of juxtaposition, makes possible a diverse relationship between images. This process, which Farocki termed “soft montage,” which does not distinguish between existing (found footage) or new materials, focuses on creating a suggestive—and not expository—experience for the viewer. In other words, it focuses on creating an impression instead of following a conventional plot. Referring to the impact of images presented dialectically, he explicitly evokes the multiple projections that had become increasingly popular during the mid-Sixties. Among these we find the work of artists such as Jean-Luc Godard, in particular his Numéro Deux (1975), as well as Andy Warhol, whose silk-screens contained duplicated and juxtaposed images, and who, in 1966, presented Chelsea Girls, a 210-minute film in which the projection screen is divided into two parts for all of its twelve long takes.
This reflection on the act of placing images side by side goes hand in hand with Farocki’s strong interest in the social and political aspects of the image. This led him to speak of “operational images,” playing off of the concept of “operative language” presented by Roland Barthes in Mythologies (1957). Operational images are the product of a new generation of intelligent machines, capable of fulfilling tasks in a completely automatic and independent way. According to Farocki, when a system of vision is operated through the use of a machine, we are necessarily faced with a machine vision. The definition of operational images is not given by the fact that they represent a process; the images are themselves part of the process, one that directly involves aspects of the political and social sphere, such as in the case of weapons or surveillance cameras.
Those “operational pictures without operators” are the protagonists of Counter-Music (2004), a two-channel installation in which Farocki almost exclusively uses existing material recorded by surveillance cameras placed inside railway stations, subways, etc. Portraying Lille, a city where the introduction of a number of video surveillance systems has led to a radical rationalization of infrastructures, Farocki explicitly links Dziga Vertov and Walter Ruttmann by using fragments taken respectively from Man with a Movie Camera (1929) and Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927).
The Vertov reference translates into an equally strong contrast: while we are faced with two simultaneous images that show a cameraman on the back of a car, a caption reads: “For Vertov the day begins with the production of images. For us it is their reproduction.” With these words, Farocki thus establishes a parallel between the condition of the worker and the artist: both, in fact, are removed from any direct relationship with production. Distancing himself from the Soviet director, Farocki does not focus on the expressive and technical possibilities of the medium, but explores the logical, political, and cultural dimensions within which these means are deployed.
Eye/Machine I - III, a series of double-projection installations, is also directed towards the analysis of these operational images. In the first work of the series, Farocki uses war footage (mainly taken from the Gulf War) and recording technologies born in the military field to address the genesis of a new way of considering images (“a new policy on images”) by government agencies. The second projection questions the difference between man and machine, while also suggesting a relationship between computer-generated images for military purposes and those that we usually see in science fiction movies. Counterposing images taken by military surveillance systems, flight simulators, and images recorded by robots together with material taken from educational films and commercials, Eye/Machine III invites us to reflect on what it means to see like a machine. Here, the matter of human subjectivity, the alienation of living in a contemporary world where images are created and function without any necessary human interaction, goes together with the proposal, a provocative one, of a “cinematography for devices,” that is, a cinema whose images, despite Farocki’s recontextualization, were not meant for human eyes.
With its almost documentary approach, Eye/Machine seems to be somewhat congruent with the Vertovian kino-glaz project and the idea that cinema was not in and of itself illusory, but instead could be an instrument for visual literacy of the (Soviet) masses. All these modern video surveillance systems recall that part of the Cine-Eye project that involved the spread of so-called kinoki, a network of film operator-correspondents that came to create a real capillary system of eyes. In general, Farocki’s attention to a machine vision can only remember the words with which Vertov defined his “mechanical anthropomorphism” and attributed to the camera the actual ability to see, an attribute usually of living beings: “We cannot improve the making of our eyes, but we can endlessly perfect the camera…I am kino-eye, I am mechanical eye. I, a machine, show you the world as only I can see it.”1
If the contact points between Vertov and Farocki can be summarized in a reflection on the relationship between automated forms of production, new types of work, and images that record the technologies involved in these production processes, it is then necessary to underline that between the two authors there is a huge difference: if in the Man with a Movie Camera, the evolution of the machine vision had an absolutely positive value and was the result of a specific social organization, for Farocki there is instead the inherent risk that this can lead each individual to become a passive element, like the control center technicians.
If the images investigated and used by Farocki go beyond mere representation and begin to actually do something (e.g. advanced vision systems) once they become part of his installations, they only invite us to reflect on the concept of representation itself. We are constantly led to question how they are produced, their “final” presence on the screen, and also their position in relation to the other images. But, in order to give the right value to the criticism inherent in Farocki’s work, the same thinking must also be applied to the artist who generated it. In fact, the relationship that a director has with the institutions that produce these kinds of images (from the advertising industry to government and military organizations) is also called into question, thus encouraging us to read his cinema as a kind of metacinema.
In this contemporary world, there is no longer any space that exists “outside the images” and in turn there is no external point from which to talk about that space. That’s all the reality we get.