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Filming Bombs: On Farocki’s War at a Distance  

Sarinah Masukor


I wanted to see War At A Distance so much, I almost missed it. The exhibition of four of Harun Farocki’s video works at Gertrude Contemporary in October 2011 was advertised months in advance and, by the time I walked through the park and past the faded Funland Amusements sign, the days were long and hot. Farocki was a name I had seen in magazines and scholarly books, a name I carefully recorded – and misspelled – in my diary next to a photocopied picture of Kutlug Ataman’s Women Who Wear Wigs. Almost all my encounters with art begin like this, via an indistinct image of a show put on in a distant country accompanied by vague but enthusiastic text that somehow imparts a spark that ignites my imagination. Before October, Farocki was an artist whose work I had created, an imaginary artist whose installations and found footage films were a loop of a few static shots that had been printed and reprinted online and in magazines, spliced together and placed in an imaginary gallery, one which almost always had exposed beams and cool, polished, concrete floors.


A filmmaker, writer and installation artist, Harun Farocki made his first gallery film, Interface, in 1995. Screening work in a gallery suited him, because he discovered he could reach a far greater audience than he had in cinemas and on television. ‘When Interface was shown at the Centre Georges Pompidou for more than three months in a wooden box structure, with a bench for five people in front of two monitors, I worked out that it would reach a greater audience than in any film club or screening venue that relates more to cinema.’ (1) Being able to use more than one channel was also inspiring; in recent years, Farocki has predominantly made multi-channel gallery installations. War At A Distance brought together I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts (2000), Eye/Machine (2000), Serious Games 3: Immersion (2009) and Transmission (2007).


The dual channel Eye/Machine was installed best, projected across two walls with the divide in the corner of the room. In this piece, Farocki sometimes uses the two screens as though they were consecutive shots on a single channel, creating shot/reverse shot combinations that happen simultaneously. As he explains in ‘Cross Influence/Soft Montage’, one of the most striking moments in Eye/Machine occurs during a scene where factory machines clatter away on the left screen and a rocket bomb hurtles across the right. The voice-over explains that, as the machines are improved, the operators no longer need skills. Farocki writes, ‘the manual labourer on the left screen, the red rocket on the right. The worker turns his back to the rocket, the rocket flies away from the worker – a negative shot/reverse shot – yet a connection that holds its own.’ (2)





1. Harun Farocki, ‘Cross Influence/Soft Montage’, in Antje Ehmann and Kodwo Eshun (eds.), Harun Farocki: Against What? Against Whom? (Köln: König, 2008), p. 73.





2. Ibid., p. 70.


Farocki interview, ‘Material’, from CINE-FILS


Some images:
— A robot that can identify text wanders down institutional corridors, the walls made yellow and sickly through the low-grade camera that is the robot’s ‘eyes’. This robot can ‘read’ the nameplates beside each door. The seeing robot sends the data back to a computer where the words are highlighted with a fuzzy, pulsing outline like an animated Texta marking.
— A tiny camera projects the inside of the human body onto a screen so that surgery can be performed without cutting the body open. The surgeon’s hands guide a scalpel inside a dummy abdomen from outside the body, his eye trained on an image showing the scalpel inside the body.
— A seeing bomb picks targets out from a grey ground. The image resolution is so low that the large blocky pixels seem to move as the brightness changes. Every so often, the targets light up and become patches of bright, wobbling colour. These images are very beautiful, like paintings. The splodges of colour hum against the grey background.
— The words ‘not propaganda yet an ad for intelligent machines’.  

‘The image becomes enigma when, by our indiscreet reading, we make it emerge in order to display it by tearing it away from the secret of its measure’, the philosopher Maurice Blanchot wrote, (3) about how we read and how we think about what we read. Farocki’s images refuse to be read so indiscreetly. Through montage, Farocki gives the image back its plurality.










3. Maurice Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 324.

After seeing Respite (2007), James Benning describes Inextinguishable Fire (1969), that powerful film about napalm that begins with Farocki burning his hand with a cigarette. ‘“How can we show you napalm in action?” Farocki asks, “And how can we show you the injuries caused by napalm? If we show you pictures of napalm burns, you’ll close your eyes.” So, “We must stop looking away”’, Benning writes. (4) The folly of looking away is what Farocki’s project is all about. He co-opts images from newsreels, archives, surveillance videos, instructional tapes and computer programs, splicing them together to create previously unimagined junctures. There are shots in Farocki’s work that began life as propaganda, as advertisements meant to demonstrate the awesome power of faster, cleaner and ever more distant killing machines. But as Georges Didi-Huberman observes, ‘images, no matter how terrible the violence that instrumentalises them, are not entirely on the side of the enemy’. (5)


In Serious Games 3: Immersion, a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder relives, via a virtual reality game, the events in Iraq that led to his breakdown. The man we are seeing is not really a soldier. He is an actor playing a soldier during a training conference for army therapists; but he plays the soldier so powerfully that it is difficult to tell what is happening. On one screen, the virtual reality image plays while, on the other, the soldier describes the events, all the while holding a machine gun and wearing virtual reality goggles. His story goes like this. On his first deployment, he and his partner Jones are sent out to take down propaganda posters from the streets. Against protocol, they split up: ‘It’ll be faster’, Jones says; when a car bomb goes off, Jones is killed. There is dust everywhere. The soldier does not know what is going on. All he can see are Jones’ legs, blown helter-skelter across the street. He pushes the goggles off his head and looks away from the game. The therapist who has been leading the session talks him back inside. He puts the goggles back on, and the virtual reality image swings back onto the screen.


4. Benning in Harun Farocki, p. 37.



5. Georges Didi-Huberman, ‘How To Open Your Eyes’, in Harun Farocki, p. 46.




He kept looking and I kept looking and it was as if these virtual images were even more horrible than real images of war – because they claimed to stand in for the hot fleshy experience of pain, when they could not.  

At the end of the session, we hear clapping and the therapist addresses an audience about the software. The actor takes off the goggles and smiles. The brusque cut from emotion to matter-of-fact computing software-speak jars, and violently so, the first time I see the film – because I think the man really is a soldier and not an actor. Later, I discover that a lot of people have a hard time believing the man is an actor. I begin to wonder if virtual reality is so real that, after you have played games such as this, you are changed.

Some very young boys, 8 and 10, tell me about a video game set in Afghanistan. ‘You shoot ‘em’, one of them tells me. ‘Who?’, I ask. ‘Who do you shoot?’ ‘Iraqis’, he says. ‘You know, the enemy’. I forget to point out that Iraq and Afghanistan are two different countries and two different wars.


There is another kind of virtual reality present in Transmission, the longest and only single channel work in the show. In Transmission, people visit sacred places hoping for luck, transcendence and a communion with the past. People pass through these spaces, mimicking the action of the person in front of them and, in turn, transmitting the gesture to the person following. The gestures vary only slightly from person to person, as if they were all role-playing the part of a pilgrim visiting a sacred site. In The Transmission Of Affect, Teresa Brennan writes, ‘the transmission of affect means that we are not self-contained in terms of our energies’. (6) A group of women wildly press their ears to a large marble stone where, it is said, Jesus was nailed to the cross. Legend has it that hammer blows can be heard resounding deep within the rock and, even though this is impossible, I am sure many have heard them.






6. Teresa Brennan, The Transmission Of Affect (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), p. 6.


Another role-playing session. A prison guard plays a frustrated inmate and is tackled to the ground by another guard. The atmosphere is charged with energy and camaraderie. They are all large people with big arms and legs bursting out of their uniforms, but they look achingly human. They are the supermarket cashiers, but for a banal happening of chance. Toward the end of this work, I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts, I’m reminded of W.H. Auden: ‘Evil is unspectacular and always human’.


I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts was shown on two small television sets placed against the wall, as if at a surveillance desk. On one screen, we see an application devised to work out how to arrange supermarket shelves, so that customers take the longest route to get from the entrance to the checkout. Little dots represent customers walking through a hypothetical store. On the other screen, we see surveillance footage showing prisoners moving around a prison. Each prisoner is a little dot. The guard watching the footage on a computer clicks on a dot and it brings up the prisoner’s file. The guards watch the computers, not the prisoners. The tracking devices let the guards know where every prisoner is, all the time. In another sequence, a camera overlooking a prison courtyard is fitted with a nozzle. When the inmates begin fighting, the camera itself sprays chemicals over the men.


At the end of the film we are shown the footage on which the whole work hangs: a surveillance video showing an inmate at Corcoran prison in California being shot and killed by guards positioned high above the prison yard. The man, William Martinez, was one of five men killed by guards at the prison over a period of ten years. In that time, guards shot at inmates 2000 times. In this prison, or maybe another one, we hear a guard describe how they place bets on fights and put rival prisoners out in the yard at the same time. The yard at Corcoran is narrow and triangular. A few men, looking small and indistinct on the grainy footage, enter and wander listlessly about. The fight breaks out and, on the soundtrack, a male voice slowly explains each movement. The footage shudders into slow motion. One of the men swings the other over his head. The man being thrown lands, the shot is fired, and the other man falls to the ground, dead.



What happens to us when we look away and let the machines do our seeing? What transmission can there be between man and machine? Farocki’s images are questions, not answers – but this is their strength. By wiping away the rigid ‘indiscreet readings’ these images were intended to serve, and bestowing the clarity of possibility on them, Farocki hands us the images of the world we keep looking away from. I do not yet know quite how, but this, my first true encounter with Farocki, has been a special one.


from Issue 2: Devils


© Sarinah Masukor and LOLA 2012
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.