Harun Farocki: Dialectics of images

Ali Hussein Al-Adawy

The excerpts below are taken from Ali Hussein Al-Adawy’s introduction to a recently published Arabic translation of selected texts from Harun Farocki’s Rote Berta Geht Ohne Liebe Wandern (Red Berta Goes Wandering Without Love), published in conjunction with a retrospective of the filmmaker’s work in Cairo and Alexandria in May 2018. The book is currently available at Cimatheque in Cairo and Wekalet Behna in Alexandria.

In August 2015, on my first visit to Berlin as part of a program hosted by the Goethe-Institut’s Cultural Academy for Management and Culture Policy, I heard about Harun Farocki for the first time from my friend Haytham al-Wardany and Berlin-based artist Natascha Sadr Haghighian, who both greatly admired his oeuvre and the questions posed by his films.

Haytham told me about a shot in Inextinguishable Fire (1969) in which Farocki puts out a cigarette in his hand to bring viewers closer to the horror of being burnt by napalm, the chemical compound used to maim and kill innocent civilians in Vietnam.

I learnt that Farocki had died more than a year before — on July 30, 2014. I searched for his films on Vimeo and YouTube, and managed to watch the few that were available. I also read various articles about his work and life online, mostly in English.

I found out that he made over 100 films and 25 video installations, and produced a large body of writing. His active involvement in the 1968 student movement in Berlin had left him with a “hangover” that he lived with his whole life, without any bitterness or longing. In the 1960s he spent his time dancing in discos, drinking beer, playing football and smoking heavily, but also exercising and running in secret, so that his politically savvy friends wouldn’t hear of it. I became eager to conduct more research on Farocki and put together a special retrospective program of his films and works.

Here I present what I learned about Farocki through my own understanding of his work and life, and I try to provide a critical review of his project in general. I also link specific works them to contemporary Arab and Egyptian contexts and the history of Egypt’s film industry, in an attempt to ask a question that I find necessary and inspiring: How do Farocki’s cinematic, artistic and critical contributions survive in and interact with the world we currently inhabit?


Anti-cinema, anti-television

The 1960s and 1970s were revolutionary years in Germany, Europe and the world. They marked the height of the Arab-Israeli conflict with the 1967 War, as well as the Vietnam War, the May 1968 protests across Europe, the Maoist Cultural Revolution in China, Che Guevara’s death, the sexual revolution, the return of communes and cooperatives, hippies, the music of Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, Herbert Marcuse’s book One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, and of course long hair, thick sideburns, bell-bottoms and wide-collar shirts. Farocki decided to make films in 1966. He was among the first students to enrol in the Film and Television Academy in Berlin (DFFB) and, influenced by the progressive ideas of Karl Marx, he joined the student movement to work for revolutionary social change.

In November 1968 Farocki took part in the occupation of the dean’s office at DFFB, and was then expelled alongside several friends and colleagues. He and other students had started working collectively, using film stock and the school’s facilities to produce agitprop films with the intent of recruiting more people to their struggle. One of them, cinematographer Holger Meins, quit cinema to join the Red Army Faction; he would die following a hunger strike in prison in 1974.

Still from The Words of the Chairman

In 1967, Meins had shot Farocki’s three-minute film The Words of the Chairman, in which Farocki praises Mao Zedong against the backdrop of the Shah of Iran’s visit to Berlin. Using a subversive situationist technique, he suggests that pages from the Red Book be turned into missiles against global imperialism. In 1975, Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet dedicated their film Moses and Aaron to Meins, while Farocki argued in an article for Film Criticism that by publishing pictures of Meins’ dead body in prison “the government attempts to clear itself from the charge of killing him, at once trying to make us believe that he committed suicide, but also to threaten us: behold, carefully, the fate of those who dare to oppose the state.”

In 1969, Farocki co-wrote and produced the film Break the Power of the Manipulators by Helke Sander. The film documented the left’s campaign against right-wing German tabloid Bild, which had whipped up public opinion against Rudi Dutschke, one of the best-known leaders in the student movement, leading to a 1968 assassination attempt. (Dutschke would succumb to his injuries the following decade.) Farocki recounts that he lived in the same commune as Sander and they would spend long nights discussing issues like feminism (was it an individual issue or one that should be adopted by the left and other movements calling for change?) and the killing of pianists during China’s Cultural Revolution (was this a reactionary or progressive act?).

At the time, there was a belief among filmmakers leaning towards Marxism and progressive politics that traditional narrative cinema was a tool of domination and oppression, and that movie theaters in particular were destructive. The influence of critical theory, the Frankfurt School, and a mixture of Marxism and the Freudian school of psychoanalysis — which in combination produced “apparatus theory” — was very clear in their choices.

Apparatus theory proposes that when we sit in a dark room to watch a film that reflects reality through a contrived on-screen world without knowing how that world was built, we become captive to that world which gives us pleasure in exchange for money. Cinema, an industry controlled by the dominant classes, is thus granted absolute power over the viewer. This proposition is clear in Farocki’s films, particularly those that decode the fetshization of cultural commodities.

This is also when the ideas of playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht reached cinema, through the works of Farocki, Sander, the French duo Straub-Huillet, Jean-Luc Godard and others, under the guidance of Walter Benjamin’s writings, particularly ”What Is Epic Theater?” and ”The Author As Producer.” These filmmakers’ ambition was to destroy the idea of the “genius filmmaker” and “creative labor,” placing the artist or creator on a par with everyone else working on the production process, involving the audience more effectively by ending the division of labor between filmmakers, critics and viewers. An interest in essay films, cinema verité and documentaries was also on the rise, and Farocki came to rely on such forms almost exclusively after several unsuccessful collaborations with actors on feature films.

However, with the exception perhaps of the work of Straub-Huillet, these theoretical ambitions remained practically unrealized, even with Godard’s efforts in La Chinoise (1967) — about young revolutionaries in Paris — and the films he made later with the Dziga Vertov Group, attempting to break the authoritarian hierarchy of film. These ideas remained alive in their pedagogical models, though, such as using film as a foundation for teaching (complete with blackboard and chalk, teacher and student.) In an attempt to “make films educational and to make education political,” Farocki made two films with Hartmut Bitomsky in 1970 and 1971 presenting the foundational ideas in Marx’s Capital, as teacher in one and as student in the other.

“The problem is not to make political films, but to make films politically,” Godard said, and it can be argued that the way Farocki made his films — which he saw as working “against cinema and against television” and as a critique of ubiquitous images on big and small screens — was his own interpretation of Godard’s idea. In other words, Farocki’s films are “meta-cinematic.”

Another expression of “immanent critique”: The image vs. the visual

“The distinction I made between the image and the visual is pragmatic. I simply found it practical to use two different words. There is also the fact the word ‘visual’ comes up so often in the vocabulary of the press and on the lips of its ‘art directors.’ The visual is at once reading and seeing: it’s seeing what you’re supposed to read. You know how to read the press when you can quickly decipher a newspaper’s visual, even if it’s a newspaper without photos, like LE MONDE. Maybe we’re heading toward societies which are better and better at reading (deciphering, decoding through reflexes of reading) but less and less able to see. So I call ‘image’ what still holds against an experience of vision and of the ‘visual.’ The visual is the optical verification of a procedure of power (technological, political, advertising or military power). A process that calls for no other commentary than ‘reception perfect, AOK.’ Obviously, the visual has to do with the optic nerve, but that doesn’t make it an image.

For me, the sine qua non of the image is alterity. Every culture does something with that more-or-less empty slot, the slot where ‘there is some other’ (to paraphrase Lacan). No doubt we go to war in order to fill that slot, for a given moment, with only a single occupant: the enemy.”

— Serge Daney, “Before and After the Image”

This essay by French film critic Serge Daney regarding the distinction between the visual and the image, written after the Gulf War started in 1990, makes me think of Farocki’s visual project (films and video installations), alongside his writings, as an attempt to extract an “image” that portrays or poses a particular “alterity” in order to say something about a “visual” other, be it technical, propagandist, mainstream or commodified.

The visual is often static. Even if images move, as in film, they often follow one another in predictable sequences, presenting outdated, hegemenous aesthetics that — even if progressive at the time of their inception — become worn-out and stereotypical.

To bring my discussion to Egypt, this is true for some Egyptian film directors/critics, such as Sami al-Salamoni (1936-1991), who made several documentaries, including The Morning (1982), produced by the National Film Center, and The Moment (1991), produced by Egyptian Television. Both can be considered examples of the “visual.” Salamoni’s films convey representations of specific moments in the city — a core subject in cinema history, as established early on in Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). In The Morning, the camera captures Cairo as it stirs in the early hours: people waking up and heading to work against a sonic backdrop of morning coughs, running water and news on the radio. Such elements became central to the neo-realist films of the 1980s and 1990s, albeit with more creative handling, particularly in Mohamed Khan’s Missing Person (1984) and Khairy Beshara’s Hazelnut Peels (1995).

In my opinion, the best scene in The Moment is when we see crowds of people leaving their workplaces during Ramadan, speedily finishing last-minute errands before the maghreb prayers, then breaking the fast as the streets briefly empty at sundown before filling again at night. But while the portrayal of such moments in an artistic context was a revelation in the 1920s, their re-adaptation in Egyptian cinema during the 1980s and 1990s, largely filmed in the same manner, rendered them clichéd.

Still from Missing Person

The “visual” resembles a still image that is grotesque yet appears beautiful, one whose ugliness we do not realize until a critical artist pushes the rewind button to return the sequence of images on view to its “context,” and thus the “image” and its otherness become clear. The “visual” often presents itself as an image with two dimensions: length and width, a flat surface. The critical artist wants to transform it into a three-dimensional object, with thickness and depth. Godard — whom Daney considered a mentor — touches on this in a 1967 Cahiers du Cinéma interview:

“What I wanted was to get inside the image, because most movies are made outside the image. What is an image? It’s a reflection. What kind of thickness does a reflection on a pane of glass have? In most film, you’re kept on the outside, outside the image. I wanted to see the back of the image, what it looked like from behind, as if you were at the back of the screen, not in front of it, inside the image.”

The method of extracting and transforming the “visual” into an “image” in Farocki’s work is not merely an expression of immanent critique, but of the integrated system that he seems to have adopted not only as a mode of production but as an aesthetic and artistic model. The “visual” often appears in Farocki’s oeuvre in the form of representations of cultural commodities and culture industry products such as a painting reflecting the dominant aesthetics of modernity, European enlightenment and colonization; images of military technology; depictions of disciplinary institutions (like prisons and factories) or systems that control human behavior; or well-known scenes from cinema history.

The method is also apparent in the “separating and joining” and self-reflection of Farocki’s films, like Between Two Wars (1978) and Before Your Eyes, Vietnam (1982); in his essay films that pair poetic text with dialectical editing of still and moving images, such as As You See (1986), Images of the World and Inscription of War (1988) and Videograms of a Revolution (1992); his role-play films How to live in the Federal Republic of Germany (1990) and The Interview (1997); his archival studies such as Workers Leaving the Factory (1995) and The Expression of Hands (1997); his direct cinema films Taste of Life (1979), An Image (1983), Nothing Ventured (2004) and A New Product (2012); and some video installations such as Eye/Machine (1991), where images are displayed on two separate screens, one acting as a commentary on the other through a simple text, and The Silver and the Cross (2010), where images become crime scenes.

Videograms of a Revolution

[Videograms of a Revolution] demonstrates how TV stops recording reality and starts creating it instead. Videograms asks: Why did insurgents not storm the presidential palace, but the TV station? At the very moment the social revolution of 1917 ended irrevocably, a new and equally ambivalent technological revolution took place. People ask for bread: they end up with camcorders. TV studios host revolts. Reality is created by representation—Farocki, Flusser, and others were among the first to report this sea change as it happened. As things become visible, they also become real. Protesters jump through TV screens and spill out onto streets. This is because the surface of the screen is broken: content can no longer be contained when protest, rare animals, breakfast cereals, prime time, and TV test patterns escape the flatness of 2D representation. In 1989, protesters storm TV stations. In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee invents the World Wide Web. Twenty-five years later, oligarchs start to ask: If people don’t have bread, why don’t they eat their browsers instead?

— Hito Steyerl

In 1992, Farocki, in collaboration with Andrei Ujica, made a film about the 1989 Romanian Revolution, with a narrative constructed by editing together sections from more than 125 hours of footage filmed by amateurs and television channels. We see Nicolae Ceauşescu addressing the people from the balcony of the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party on state television, when suddenly a disgruntled look appears on his face and the camera moves towards the sky and cuts out. This official image becomes a square on the lower-left corner of the screen, while the bigger image shows the crowd in front of Ceauşescu as they begin to chant. It is the moment when a revolution is filmed on air — a pure “image,” a holistic cinema.

In extracting an “image” from the flat, fixed “visual” instrumentalized by a media still loyal to Ceauşescu in order to illustrate an alternate narrative of that moment, Videograms of a Revolution calls to mind the day when Egyptian state TV broadcast images of an empty 6th of October Bridge antranquil Nile during the early days of the 2011 revolution, before videos uploaded to social media platforms by protesters and witnesses showed what was actually happening in and around Tahrir Square.

As was his habit, a habit borrowed from Godard, Farocki wrote text to accompany his works, putting into words the context of their production and discussing the questions they posed. In Substandard, the text he wrote for Videograms — which does not live up to the ambition of the film itself — Farocki says that after the occupation of Romania’s state TV building, a day after Ceauşescu’s televized address, the revolutionary front was split: one side represented by those now in charge of TV, the other by leaders on the balcony of the Central Committee.

He adds that the amateur videographers whose footage he used in the film were very ready to lend him their work because they considered its presence in the film a sort of promotion that could help them land jobs in the new “television of the revolution.” Thus the film becomes an attempt by these Romanian revolutionaries to move to the next level, professionally speaking. But Farocki was critical of the use of amateur video cameras to film the trial of Ceauşescu, and also within Videograms, because to him it contained a measure of deceit. Such shaky images, he said, do not transmit reality but feel like footage taken on a tourist trip. Trials in particular, to his mind, require professional cameras — two, at least — in order to document the various perspectives involved.

Personally, after watching highly publicized trials such as Saddam Hussein’s or those involving Hosni Mubarak and his peers — all filmed using professional cameras — I believe the quality of the image cannot be treated as a measure of truth. The flawlessness of the image in these trials did not stop them from seeming like cheap soap operas. Images where quality, sharpness and color is impeccable — like those presented in many films and TV series, be they box-office hits or festival favourites — convey an artificial, performed reality that seeks to hide information and facts. For example, the exaggerated care with which depressed, defeated members of the middle class approach selfies, using sticks to ensure the stability of the image, produce collective or individual frames intended to portray a sense of false happiness. But shaky amateur images record moments pulsating with life, truth and an alternity that seeks a certain other, as Farocki himself elaborates in his text about documentary film.

Poor quality pixelated images were often lauded during and in the aftermath of the Arab revolutions. In 2012, Lebanese artist, actor and theater director Rabih Mroué wrote and performed The Pixelated Revolution (in reference to Syria), celebrating the low-res image, the “lumpenproletariat in the class society of appearances” as described by writer and filmmaker Hito Steyerl (who recently worked with Mroué) in her 2009 essay ”In Defense of the Poor Image.” Mroué doesn’t just celebrate the role these images play in contesting the government narrative of events in “the battle of representation,” as Steyerl points out — for him they are the revolution itself.

From Rabih Mroué’s The Pixelated Revolution

This is surely an exaggeration, since any product, image or work of art that presents itself as experimental or progressive or imaginative, in the context of an extremely capitalist economy, can turn into a dominant commodity at high speed. These ubiquitous low-res images are, after all, only a result of the expansion of the market for communication technologies over the past two decades, including mobile devices, tablets and cameras of different sizes. It is a market that has managed to penetrate the most persistent authoritarian regimes, introducing different types of gadgets to suit different social classes until we all became multiple copies of one image without an original: a person holding a mobile phone.

We have completely surpassed Walter Benjamin’s theory. We have moved from the aspiration of “the author as producer” to the reality of “the viewer as author and producer,” ending the division of labor between the viewer and the artist, as the viewer becomes infinitely more involved in the process: a participant and an artist who produces images that could even be exhibited in artistic contexts as works of art, or as parts of artworks that are discussed by experts, specialists, artists, writers, journalists, theoreticians and curators.

Egyptian artist Jasmina Metwaly’s exhibition We Are Not Worried in the Least, which took place in early 2018 as part of the Berlin International Film Festival’s Forum Expanded program, included seven hours of footage filmed by a security guard at the Starch and Glucose Factory (which was at the center of Out on the Street, the 2015 film Metwaly made with Philip Rizk) called Essam Ali Allam, documenting the factory’s illegal demolition as it was privatized. Because Allam is camera shy, he chose to accompany the scenes of destruction with a voice over he narrates, with the intention of presenting the material to court as evidence.

In the footage, he recalls his time at the factory in a weak classical Arabic, as though urging his tongue to mimic the language used in courtrooms by lawyers and judges. He tries to perfect this manner of speaking, but he can’t. Sound and image complete each other in a way that creates a powerful meaning: the low quality images accurately represent the deteriorating factory, while Allam’s voiceover stands in for the power of the state by reproducing its dominant language.

Yet countless commodified low-resolution images produce and reproduce dominant cultural representations in the entertainment industry, in films, on TV and in pornography. And many types of image pose fresh imaginaries. The question is how we can pose different meanings within a certain production context.

In 2011, Egyptian artist Maha Maamoun produced Night Visitor: The Night of Counting the Years, a compilation of low-res YouTube videos portraying protesters storming State Security Agency buildings in Cairo and Damanhour. For me what’s most intriguing about the work is its title. “Night visitor” is the term used to describe security forces arresting people from their homes at dawn (this brings to mind Mamdouh Shokry’s 1975 film The Dawn Visitor). “The night of counting the years” evokes Shadi Abdel Salam’s The Mummy (1969), as though the revolutionaries are breaking into the heart of the police state to “restore” the treasures handed over by the protagonist to the state representative at the end of Abdel Salam’s film.

Still from Maha Maamoun’s Night Visitor

Role play

In 2007 I graduated from University of Alexandria’s Faculty of Science with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and biochemistry. I entered the market looking for a job as a chemist in a medical laboratory or a petrochemical company. One day, as I sat with a friend at a coffee shop on Ramses Street in Cairo, a man sitting nearby overheard our conversation about job-hunting, and weighed in with his thoughts: “Go find a cyber cafe and send your CVs everywhere… it’s all about CVs.”  We had in fact emailed CVs to several companies, but had never heard from any of them.

Later, my brother suggested I take a job with a friend of his who had just opened a pharmaceutical company in Ismailia and needed medical representatives. The friend, a salafi — as made clear by his nonexistent mustache and thick beard — set about readying us for the promotional process, and he was an ardent believer in the modern workshop system adopted by US and European companies to ensure high sales.

“Peace be upon you, doctors,” he would say in the beginning of each workshop, before continuing: “Okay, first off, we’re not really doctors, we’re salespeople…” Then he spoke about all sorts of things a salesperson needs to do: what to wear, how to talk to doctors, what to say about each drug being sold, and so on. Then came the most important part: role play — a one-on-one participatory learning exercise I hadn’t experienced before. One trainee would play the client, and another would act as salesperson. That way the trainer could make sure that we deal with various personalities and attitudes, and any questions that might come our way.

Eventually I found myself in a doctor’s office trying to sell him a drug. I presented its specifications in less than three minutes because I wanted to be efficient. After I was done he said: “Recite Surat at-Tawkir [Quran, The Cessation].” “Excuse me?” I uttered incredulously. He repeated: “Do you know Surat at-Takwir? I just asked you to recite it!” I walked out, and a few days later quit the job.

The 1980s in Europe and the US marked the beginnings of neoliberal “post-Fordist” economies: “societies of control” in which the hegemony of large corporations’ advertising and marketing departments over the media led to media representations’ domination over our work and lives. The result was countless images promoted as exemplary ideals of every human act, images we became required to emulate to both get promoted or even accepted in the labor market, and to be recognized as “good citizens” or socially fit individuals. This is where HR departments’ workshops came in: they train and retrain through role-playing exercises aimed at training how to simulate and perfect the best way in which to approach customers.

Still from The Interview

Games based on role-playing are integral to the following works by Farocki: Indoctrination (1987), How to Live in West GermanyRetraining (1994), The Interview (1997), Prison Images (2000) and Serious Games III: Immersion (2009).

In How to Live in West Germany, Farocki presents portrayals of life in West Germany through scenes that simulate the “ideal” way of doing basic things, from cradle to grave: how to give birth, how to breastfeed a child, how to tuck them in bed, wash them, and teach them to cross the street. For strippers, there’s a how-to-undress manual; for policemen, how to capture a criminal. He then weaves these scenes with others depicting quality control practices in various industries, from dropping a washing machine from a certain height to make sure it’s “heavy-duty” to subjecting a chair to a specific amount of weight to make sure it’s ready for use. Farocki’s ingenious approach prompts us to view role-play exercises from the same vantage point: they test people on whether they are ready to be consumed by the labor market.

As a result of the rise of machines and, decades later, computers and more advanced technologies taking reign, human workers came to simulate machines: armed with model formulas in order to be prepared for facing all sorts of questions and attitudes, all sorts of possibilities.

Reflecting on the film, Farocki wrote: “Finally, I had found Brecht!” referring to Brecht’s theory of educational theater and “the alienation effect” — which Brecht himself arguably failed to realize in his own plays, as audiences often found them patronizing — whichwas, paradoxically, taking place in role-playing exercises within purely capitalistic contexts. Finally, Brecht — goodbye, Brecht.

Still from How to Live in West Germany

Fiction or documentary?

After 1985 Farocki stopped making fiction, making pictures — he preferred to find pictures and capture them instead. I think this decision was partly driven by his failure to direct actors in fiction films, but also by other factors.

In 1981, French thinker and sociologist Jean Baudrillard published Simulacra and Simulation (translated into Arabic in 2008). It presents Baudrillard’s idea of ​​media images and the scenic world impacting our perceptions and behaviors down to tiny detail. Now we are not only faced by TV channels and social networks broadcasting films, series, news, talk shows, competitions, cooking programs and football games, but also attempts to project an image of January 25 as a “youth revolution” or “a laughing revolution,” and Arab revolutions as an “Arab Spring”; human development manuals for “achieving eternal happiness,” all the way from Dale Carnegie to Ibrahim al-Feqi and Amr Khaled; conservative novels á la Paulo Coelho; tutorials that promise to teach you “how to speak English in half an hour,” and slimming diets and exercise programs to achieve a body image formed according to pictures of athletes and celebrities.

These false images produced by the media eventually become the truth. Our lives are determined by whatever is “in the news,” or what Google says about the weather. Reality ends, and these representations become simulacra we must simulate in order to fit in the world we inhabit — in order to continue reproducing copies of images without originals, which the media then reproduce again in an endless cycle. In his immensely popular TV series The Legend (2016), did Mohamed Ramadan reproduce an existing image of an arms-dealing neighborhood gangster, or was this image reproduced from his performance? Perhaps both.

Baudrillard’s ideas would witness more manifestations with the end of the Cold War and the cementing of US global hegemony in the 1990s, followed by the 2000s and the domination of capitalism in its neoliberal form over the world. Mark Fisher’s 2009 book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? dissects the flattening reductiveness capitalist realism shares with socialist realism, the aesthetic model of Soviet literature and cinema during and after Stalinism.

One of the most flagrant manifestations of capitalist realism is reality TV, a phenomenon tackled by many films, most notably Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998). Egypt and other Arab countries were introduced to reality TV through shows like Star Academy, which ran from 2003 to 2011, when some vestiges of actual meaning and truth were restored to us with the outbreak of the Arab revolutions.

Star Academy, Season 1

In Star Academy, contestants aspiring to become famous singers were selected to live and practice together for 15 weeks, competing for the winning title. Because there were cameras everywhere (except bathrooms), broadcasting the contestants’ daily lives 24/7, they had to appear friendly all the time, despite the stress. Viewers voted for their favorite by phone or SMS, in a perfectly social darwinist selection process (perfectly commercial too, as more votes meant more money for show and channel), until only one contestant remained, the winner.

Fisher posits that a cornerstone of capitalist realism is the propagation of the idea that there is no alternative to capitalism: you can say and do whatever you want; you can critique capitalism all you like, but you must do it from within its framework and scope.

This is how Brecht’s revolutionary educational methods came to be appropriated by capitalist institutions’ training workshops, and how Augusto Boal’s theater of the oppressed (whereby the audience is called on to actively change their reality by interchangeably role-playing oppressor and oppressed in decontextualized cases) came to be utilized by international organizations such as the European Union and the United Nations, who fund experimental works of art (some employing the same techniques as the theater of oppressed) and developmental art projects realized by NGOs with leftist backgrounds aiming to spread certain values without going through the longer process a grassroots approach would entail. I assume such projects succeed; perhaps people do know and learn. Yet things stay the same, because the process of learning essentially takes place in a capitalist society of control, in a quest for work or prestige.

Still from A New Product

Moreover, the structure of such exercises contributes to consolidating existing class and labor divisions: artists remain artists, spectators remain spectators, trainers remain trainers and trainees remain trainees, even if we’re sitting in a circular non-hierarchical setting in an attempt to wipe out signs of authority. Wherever the camera goes, someone will be performing what the person holding the camera wants to see — because the camera is a tool of power, whether we like it or not — or simulating models they’ve been told are ideal. There is no difference between art, cinema and the media: foregoing “acting” for the sake of “truth” requires a long, grueling process that may or may not succeed. Or cinema can make do with critiquing the concept of “originality,” documenting mere representations and connecting them via the magic of editing to create films.

This is largely what Farocki does in his documentaries, which he views as “a magical imitation of reality,” and in his work as a cultural historian of labor since the 1980s. He either captures images and couples them with commentary in his essay films, or creates films that work as visual concepts on their own, offering different interpretations of other mediums. In Nothing Ventured, he portrays the gripping negotiations taking place between start-up entrepreneurs and investors. In New Product (2012) he documents the discussions of a team within a consultancy company that proposes designs for contemporary post-fordist workplace interiors with the intention of creating inspiring space and freedom — adding a gym, for instance, so that employees won’t feel the true weight of their workload.

First published February 23, 2019 on Mada
Translated by: Ali Atef

July 6th, 2022 — Rosa Mercedes / 06