IMAGES OF THE WORLD:
by Jesse Cumming
At the Harun Farocki Institut
Film exhibition and spectatorship are reimagined inside the gallery space; found-footage works are produced without an artist ever picking up a camera; distinctions based on medium-specificity are constantly troubled and blurred; fine art, advertising, and technical videos are subsumed under the heterogeneous designation of “moving images”—critical examination of the above developments, recurring topics in any discussion of contemporary media, rarely exist independent of Harun Farocki, whose legacy as an artist and a lucid critic of visual culture—before such a term entered common parlance—seems to deepen with each year.
Given the diverse disciplines he inhabited over an extensive and prolific career—crisscrossing film, art, television, criticism, activism, and education within and outside of academia—it’s no surprise that Farocki’s unexpected passing in 2014 reverberated widely, across personal and professional colleagues. “We were very eager to prevent this network from disintegrating after the loss of Harun,” says Tom Holert. Along with scholars Volker Pantenburg and Doreen Mende, Holert serves on the executive board of the newly formed Harun Farocki Insitut in Berlin, established to sustain this network and to foster artistic and scholarly work immediately related to Farocki’s oeuvre as well as critical work undertaken in the same spirit.
The Institut, which hosted an opening reception during this year’s Berlin Film Festival, is supported by the efforts of larger general board, whose membership includes Farocki’s widow Antje Ehmann, his daughters Anna and Lara Faroqhi, filmmaker and collaborator Christian Petzold, and Stefanie Schulte Strathaus of Berlin’s Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art. Just as the team comprises various collaborators and enthusiasts from several disciplines, the Institut’s guiding principles and structure have emerged out of diverse research interests. Holert explains that he and others had long been interested in developing a center dedicated to issues of contemporary visual culture, in large part informed by “What Ought to be Done,” an unpublished tract written and circulated by Farocki in 1976, in which he outlines plans for “an institution that is at first just an office for initiating and coordinating some documentary work.”
The fascinating text calls for an institution that would serve as “ultimately a (the) national image library,” offering early evidence of Farocki’s lifelong concerns with the relationship between text and image as well as the ways in which images circulate and produce meaning. In the draft he notes, “Images must be made, with which today’s strange world can be discovered and the present become history. We need to produce building blocks.” While directly calling to mind In Comparison, Farocki’s 2009 study of brick-burning and brick-laying around the world, the passage also recalls a passage from Before Your Eyes: Vietnam (1982), one of the filmmaker’s rare forays into fiction. At one point in that film the photographer protagonist declares, “One image, incidentally, is too few; you need to take two images of everything.” The idea of discrete images or entities that must be multiplied and placed in proximity leads to the concepts of montage that grew ever-essential in Farocki’s later work, especially works produced largely or entirely out of found footage (e.g. Videograms of a Revolution, made with Andrei Ujică in 1992) or installation works that utilized dual channels in order to place such building blocks in simultaneous rather than sequential exchange (Interface (1995); I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts (2000)). While concerned with shots as building blocks of cinema, Farocki’s work returns again and again to the cut, to that which is unseen and exists in between. It is here that the filmmaker’s work stops and that of the audience begins—a similar ethos seems in place with the Harun Farocki Institut, encouraging scholars and researchers to build upon Farocki’s work in order to better understand our present condition.
There is a certain irony, of course, in the idea of forming an institution promoted by a figure known for his practices of institutional critique. Similarly, with its repeated reference to “documentary” and “journalism,” the text suggests the supremacy of the image as the most reliable form of knowledge production and exchange, an assumption that would be destabilized in his later career. The tension between cinematic images with machine vision, and digital technologies that no longer privilege the human eye, is one of the driving forces in works like War at a Distance (2003) and Counter-Music (2004). These films attempt to understand images that are no longer produced for human perception, instead requiring a translation and mediation that produces an ambiguous gap, not unlike the space created by a film cut.
There is a paradox at play in images that are increasingly automated while at the same time less specific, the latter a term Farocki once used in reference to locations, writing that “an airport contains a shopping centre, a shopping centre has a school, a school offers recreational facilities, and so on.” One wonders what he would have made of the Harun Farocki Institut’s home inside silent green Kulturquartier, a former crematorium adapted into a multi-purpose arts space located in Berlin’s Mitte neighborhood. Alongside a main lecture and screening hall, seminar rooms, and studios that will be used by the annual Harun Farocki Residency, silent green’s lower levels (formerly the morgue) offer an ideal exhibition space, uniquely suited for the presentation of moving images.
The closest collaborator who has also taken up residence in silent green is Arsenal, which has made the space home to their archive of over 10,000 films, as well as all newly acquired Farocki materials that were bestowed with his passing, including original film prints, collateral material and outtakes from productions, ephemera, and other material still being sorted through. The on-site archive will serve to inform one of three modes of activities Holert sees for the Institut: providing a space in which artists, scholars, and curators can utilize and engage with the Arsenal holdings and materials in an immediate way.
Perhaps most notable, however, is the Institut’s insistence on the use of Farocki and his methods as a starting point for contemporary research and broader explorations into the relationships between images, art, and society. Holert notes, “There is also this ambition not to stay within the limits of these kinds of foundations that are formed around artists or filmmakers.” The hope instead is that researchers or partners will engage with the overarching topics, commitments, and issues that populate Farocki’s work. Some research already underway includes a celebration of the work of Peter Weiss, the subject of a 1980 Farocki film, as well as events related to Anna Seghers’s 1944 novel Transit, the source material for Farocki and Christian Petzold’s final film collaboration currently in production.
Finally, there is an explicit emphasis on education, as the Institute hopes to expand the understanding of Farocki’s pedagogical practice, which includes courses on theory, politics, and art, as well as children’s educational programs produced for state television in the 1970s. The importance of mentorship in particular is an essential element, a means to approach and understand capital-H History, narratives of aesthetics, and one’s personal development, as suggested by the filmmaker’s transparent appreciation of his influences, especially as he worked increasingly with found materials.
A translation of “What Ought to be Done,” alongside the letter also included to potential collaborators, contemporary material, and a commentary by filmmaker Peter Nestler, will be among the first ambitious publishing initiatives the Institut hopes to undertake. The critical editions will serve to increase public appreciation of Farocki’s prolific writing practice, which remains underrecognized even in the German-speaking context. In many ways, however, the goal of circulating Farocki’s work beyond film and video isn’t simply to promote unseen work from his career, but to inform new audience and critical appreciation of the moving-image works, emphasizing the ways in which writing, teaching, and filmmaking were deeply imbricated, rather than discrete, activities. “I have both my typewriter and my editing table in one room,” Farocki once said, “Literally, I write a line, then go to the editing table and try to comment on it with my images.”
One volume of the texts will be composed of Farocki’s collected writing for Filmkritik, the magazine he edited from 1974 until its demise in 1984, which he famously referred to as a “terrible magazine if you want to know what movies to see, but the best literary magazine in Germany.” More immediate are plans to publish an unfinished autobiography, which covers several decades of the artist’s life and work. “These are not simply diary notes,” stresses Holert. “It’s almost 200 pages of rather elaborate and refined writing which he meant to publish at some point.” Further publication projects include collected correspondences and informal texts by Farocki throughout his career, several of which have only ever existed as limited-run photocopies. Holert hints at diverse texts Farocki developed and wrote for classes, cinema programs, and institutions. The relation between writing and filmmaking has been a fundamental concern throughout Farocki’s career. Says Holert, “He was very precise and this was not just some writing he did on the side but was key to his way of organizing his practice.”
The Institut is plotting for a fall 2017 release of the first and second volumes of these collected writings, aimed to coincide with a multi-venue Farocki survey across Berlin. Alongside a gallery retrospective at Neuer Berliner Kunstverein and a full film retrospective of more than ninety works, including many unseen and thought-lost films, the Institut intends to host a multi-day survey responding to Farocki and his work as well as carrying his ideas into the future. Lastly, Savvy Contemporary gallery, another silent green resident, plans to mount a show investigating the complex non-German identity of Farocki himself. Given the ambition and breadth of activities, developed to carry the artist’s curiosity and acumen forward, the Harun Farocki Institut seems to offer a gentle corrective to the title of Jill Godmilow’s 1998 remake of Inextinguishable Fire (1967)—it’s less about What Farocki Taught than what he still has to teach us.
JESSE CUMMING is a researcher, writer, and film programmer based in Toronto. He is an M.A. candidate in York and Ryerson University's joint Communication and Culture program.