Mass Distraction

By Chris Darke

images-of-the-world-and-the-inscription-of-war-harun-farocki.jpgImages of the World and the Inscription of War, 1989

Images under the lens: A Conversation with essay film-maker Harun Farocki

The Berlin-based filmmaker Harun Farocki is perhaps cinema’s foremost diagnostician of the image. Since the mid-60s he has produced over 60 works of different lengths and in numerous formats but it was the 1988 film essay Images of the World and the Inscription of War that established him internationally. A study of the ways in which technology, imagery and the machinery of conflict interlock, Images of the World was a sober, analytical bulletin about the state of the man-machine interface that returned obsessively to aerial reconnaissance footage of Nazi concentration camps. Since then, Farocki has returned to the subject of image-making and modern warfare in his installation works Eye/Machine (2001). Vertigo spoke to him in June, prior to a lecture he was delivering at The Imperial War Museum as part of a weekend of films and discussion on alternative images of conflict.

Chris Darke: Your recent work has revealed a particular interest in the new developments within military imaging technology…

Harun Farocki: I was interested in images that came from the first Gulf War, black and white images with crosshairs in the centre from ‘suicide cameras’, the image plunging towards a bridge or another military target and then vanishing. I visited archives in the US to find all these images that never show humans but I couldn’t get hold of them. I think they’re connected with early cinematography, when they called such images ‘phantom shots’, where you had a camera in a position where a camera ‘couldn’t be’; say, in the nose of a racing car or a plane.

CD: So what, or where, is the phantom?

HF: The phantom is the identity that doesn’t exist! It’s a ‘phantom’ because one assumes that the subject of the shot has something to do with subjectivity! The slogan ‘smart weapons’ was very present in those days and it was as though, through these images, we had access to the minds of these weapons. Of course, later on, we learned that there were hardly any ‘smart weapons’ in that campaign. When I was doing this research and was visiting military-related institutes, it became quite apparent that it had been the aim of the war industries to sell this system of image-processing bombs.

Before September 11th I was made to feel that this kind of research was very esoteric, like being interested in strange insects! Even the institutions were astonished that somebody wanted to make a film about these images. They complained endlessly that nobody cared about the military and they didn’t get any money anymore. If you analyse those images, of course they dehumanise the war, they put it into a very strange scale and there’s this unity of fighting a war and reporting on it. It was a very smart idea, almost avant-garde, to show war from this very strange point-of-view.

What is quite interesting is that, with this war, everyone has become a media expert. There was endless talk about the genre of images, the sort of thing that normally only experts deal with, but you realised that the political context was far more important than the media. In one case you are thinking in terms of traditional warfare: there is an aggressor; war always creates victims; this aggressor has to be stopped and thrown out of Kuwait. In the second case, when it has more to do with a police action, then it’s far more difficult and there’s far more sensitivity about victims.

CD: In Images of the World and the Inscription of War there is this repeated phrase: “Beside the real world there is a second world, a world of pure military fiction”. I was very strongly reminded of Colin Powell at the UN Security Council presenting degraded military surveillance images as proof and justification for military action.

HF: Yes, it reminded me so much of the Auschwitz sequences in Images of the World, the way they involved aerial reconnaissance images that you had to be a specialist to read. Who knows what they are telling you? Who knows what happened there? What is so interesting is that the personal witness of two people who had escaped from the camps was so important. It was the way that traditional history was always written. You need an eye-witness, a narrative, otherwise you’ll never believe in it. And it turns out that our imaginative minds are still very old-fashioned. We don’t understand modernist strategies such as those used by the Americans in the first Gulf War. You really want to see these terrible, dirty images of burning streets and wounded people in the same way that psychoanalysis knows that you need dirty thoughts for the imagination, just as for love you need dirty images. The audience is not prepared for this automatically recorded history that more or less happens already, where everything is recorded; so there has to be an old-fashioned drama made out of it.

images-of-the-world-and-the-inscription-of-war-harun-farocki-2.jpgImages of the World and the Inscription of War, 1989

The tension has become stronger and stronger over the last decade. On the one hand, politicians have become more and more like showmen. They tell stories and try to make imaginable what is not imaginable. Which leads to the kitsch that I talk about in Images of the World, making a drama out of Auschwitz where fate works individually. Although the scandal of Auschwitz is that there is no fate; there is only death.

CD: You’ve worked a great deal with surveillance imagery, particularly in your recent installation I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts, about the American prison system. What do you make of the increasing convergence between TV entertainment and surveillance in the case of ‘reality TV’ shows? They appear in some ways to be a means by which regimes of surveillance are increasingly internalised.

HF: That’s true, on one hand. On the other, if you look at MTV, they can already show 15 genres of images. Film language has become very subtle. The public has become highly trained to read the distinctions between these genres of images, as in the last war. The problem is that the entertainment industry has had to invent a form of hyper-documentarism and to get away from the overexploitation of narrative formulas. But this comes out of my interest in ‘operational images’. Images from surveillance cameras are ‘operational’ in that they’re not meant to inform the public or instruct people. They are part of the process and mostly they are erased when they are not needed, when things go as expected.

Of course, ‘reality TV’ also internalises the presence of the camera. But then, people using mobile phones are available and traceable anywhere. So this is a cultural standard that has significant meaning because now you have new industries which consist totally in intensifying the space between humans through cellular phones, computer software, emails and so on; and this intensification of space is about accessing new territory without conquering new countries.

CD: Since the early 1990s you’ve worked increasingly with installation formats and in gallery spaces. What was your motivation in making this move?

HF: One factor is the audience that comes with these sorts of spaces, which you can find throughout the world. The crossover is very important. There are people from many backgrounds interested in architecture and music, theory and discourse. Of course, there’s also an economic aspect. Both private and public television has become so commercial that it’s become harder and harder to do things; even my more ‘popular’ projects I find very hard to finance nowadays from German or French television. The wonderful thing about these art spaces is that there’s not only one code. Usually there’s one code for television and film and if it’s not clear, then the spectator says, “I didn’t get what I asked for”. In the art space they say, “which code is working here? I must look for it”. This is good for essayistic work. You can start where you want and end where you want and this is very seductive, but it makes it very hard to get back to working in an ordinary way.

CD: One of the features of your recent installation work has been the use of two images simultaneously projected. While this is a format that can be used in film and TV, it’s not usually that comfortably accommodated. Why are you attracted to it?

HF: Perhaps you remember that Deleuze, before he wrote the ‘Cinema’ books, commented that Godard is always working with the ‘and’ and not the ‘or’. It’s a montage that works with the ‘and’. It doesn’t say, “I erase this image and show this one instead”. It’s more a position of saying, “this image and perhaps this one…” because they are both co-presences. But the danger of shot/counter-shot is present here because you are always tempted to work with anticipation and repetition. It gives you structure but it’s a very cheap way of doing it, like the style of cross-cutting that came from the New American Cinema of the 1970s.

The first film that really convinced me it was possible to work with several co-present images was Godard’s Numéro Deux in 1975. It created a way of watching images in a reflective mode, as if I’d invited you to come and watch images in my editing suite and I showed material rather than a finished film. When you’re editing video, there’s the advantage that you always have one image on the screen and you’re looking for the next one. It’s like speaking two languages. One is always in the process of clarifying a word by referring back to the other language.

CD: What are you working on currently?

HF: I’m still working on Eye/Machine3. The idea is to have a cycle of three double projections of the Eye/Machine works and to organise a tour of museums and art spaces. After that, I will be working on something about venture capital.

Cultural critic Chris Darke writes widely on cinema and the moving image for a number of publications internationally. His essay collection Light Readings is published by Wallflower Press. He is currently completing a monograph on Alphaville for I.B. Tauris and working on a novel, Zeroville, an extract-in-progress from which appeared in Vertigo Vol. 2, Issue 3.