The centerpiece of Harun Farocki’s Images of War (at a Distance), on view at the Museum of Modern Art through January 2, 2012, is a four-screen installation entitled “Serious Games I-IV” (2009-10) that documents the use of video game technology in the imaging and imagining of war. The flattened landscapes and point-of-view perspectives of game space are used to prepare soldiers for war by making it unreal, and later help them recover from the effects of war by turning the reality they experienced into a virtual one.
At the entrance of the exhibit we see a divided image: on one side, a group of soldiers, each with his own laptop, play a game in which they, as tank operators, avoid explosive devices along a desert terrain; on the other, we see the interactive video game landscape as they see it on their computers. On the flipside of that screen, actors simulate combat in what looks like a Baghdad street but is in fact a desert compound in California, complete with Arab extras and surprise attacks from armed insurgents. Across the room, in another split-screen image, we watch people strapping on virtual reality headgear to talk through their war trauma, voice-activating the physical details of a violent memory in a virtualized environment controlled by the psychoanalyst. The fourth screen, yet another split-screen, summarizes the virtual images in the preceding pieces, noting differences in the designs of the pre- and post-war simulations. The software used for training, for example, features shadows positioned to simulate the angle of the sun; the post-war software, slightly cheaper than the training software, features no shadows.
The four parts of “Serious Games” create a multi-eyed view of the techniques of war-simulation. While each simulation mediates the war experience in distinct ways, Farocki’s installation hints at a coherent and predetermined mystification of combat, a process of distanciation that begins on a computer and in the familiar adolescent ritual of role-playing, continues through the wartime experience itself, and reaches what one might call a culmination in the negotiation of memory and healing once the combatant returns home. Each of the subjects we see onscreen is made to experience these virtualizations of war in the present tense as analogues to the sensory immediacy of war, re-imaginings that preempt or replace the actual experience.
Since the 1960s, when he was expelled from the German Film and Television Academy for his engagement with the student movement, Farocki has made over 80 films. But since the mid-’90s, his work has focused more on installation and short video than on feature films, making this solo exhibition, the artist and filmmaker’s first in a major United States museum, long overdue. Farocki’s installation work often relies upon the free movement of the viewer within the gallery, an experience that is distinct from the linear, shot-after-shot experience of watching movies in more traditional settings, like in a theater or on television. Farocki has stated that “visitors at art spaces have a less rigidly-defined conception of the relationship between picture and sound. They are more willing to search for the meaning of the work within themselves.”
MoMA’s version of “Serious Games,” installed in a black box thoroughfare between their large rotunda space and other, larger galleries, shapes the experience of Farocki’s work in ways that seem baffling, even confused, and almost certainly unintended. In particular, sound poses a big problem to the gallery visitor: the third piece—subtitled “Immersion,” which runs for over twice as long as the eight-minute pieces on the other screens—creates a sound bleed with the other three, as the voices of two sets of analysts and analysands narrate a succession of remembered trauma, and a video game designer listlessly describes the functionality of the software’s design. The soundtracks of the other parts of the installation intrude intermittently—like the bombastic theme song from one of the pre-war simulation games—while still others are all but drowned out entirely.
The best of Farocki’s work is always clear, never confused, always striving to allow the spectator a balanced and articulated appraisal of the image. If the overall purpose of Farocki’s work has been a practice of what Nicole Brenez calls “visual study,” a kind of cinematic auto-critique, then the installation of “Serious Games” makes for a strangely distracted form of analysis. On the one hand, MoMA’s installation of the piece suggests a rigidly linear trajectory, a I-II-III-IV progression that carries the gallery visitor through the space to each floating screen in succession, almost like a film. But on the other hand, the video pieces—each individually clear in their purpose and content—merge and compete with one another, losing focus and definition.
To make the experience more exhausting, the gallery in which “Serious Games” is installed also functions as a compendious ad hoc Farocki library, lined with viewing stations in which the museum visitor can view any of the 36 works recently acquired by MoMA, including 28 videos and five split-screen video installations. It is only in the adjacent galleries showing “I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts” (2000) and the “Eye/Machine” (2001-03) series that one can experience the clarity of Farocki’s images and analysis without being overwhelmed, without losing the argument.
By a strange coincidence, the first of these is a work that specifically addresses the way that institutions monitor and control the movement of bodies through space. Relying primarily on surveillance video and computer mapping systems, “I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts” compares the methods of embedded control in the factory, the supermarket, and the prison. Shoppers, workers, and prisoners all appear, via data-collection software, as bumps on a grid, the subtleties of their movement stored for later analysis. In the prison, this data-gathering takes on a more menacing form: surveillance cameras that monitor movement are aligned with the eyes of the guards, who can fire upon inmates fighting or engaging in gang activities. A large portion of the film focuses on the notorious shooting of an inmate in the California State Prison, Corcoran, told through the eye of the surveillance camera. Here, camera, eye, and weapon become one, as the camera is mounted atop a teargas spraygun. Presented as a neatly bifurcated two-channel work, the film articulates a set of clear analogous relationships between image and text, shopper and prisoner, reality and virtuality.
Using real training videos, propaganda, and news footage, “Eye/Machine I-III” (2003) looks at the machines that make war easier to manage through efficiency and a displacement of responsibility. The first of the three split screens focuses on the developments in surveillance and military imaging that came out of strategizing for the Gulf War, for instance bombs with “eyes” to both document and enact war at the same time. “Eye/Machine II” uses computer-simulated images of intelligent machines independently destroying landscapes, to show advancements in warfare from afar. The third split screen shows the path of cruise missiles that are programmed with an image of a real landscape, and also collect more image material during flight, expanding the documentation with each launching. An animated recreation of the missile’s path is shown repeatedly, suggesting how the weapon and software maker’s single-minded obsession with precision distracts them from the final results of their work. The three pieces establish the presence of a “proxy eye,” used to watch and react, in war as well as in civil society, and suggest a genealogical link between technological advances and the practice of war later taken up by “Serious Games.”
In these works, Farocki’s consistent use of split screens—one image paired with, aligned with, or commenting upon another—continues a technique that the filmmaker himself has called soft montage: “a general relatedness, rather than a strict opposition or equation.” In Speaking About Godard, a book of conversations between Farocki and Kaja Silverman about the French filmmaker, he notes that Jean-Luc Godard’s work often allows the spectator to compare two images side-by-side, in much the same way that a video-editing console does: rather than “predetermine how the two images are to be connected…we must build up the associations ourselves in an ongoing way.” Writing about a famous scene in his early Vietnam War feature Inextinguishable Fire, in which Farocki compares a 400-degree cigarette burn on his own arm with a 3,000-degree burn of napalm, Georges Didi-Huberman explains:
To compare—this is precisely what Harun Farocki had in mind with this self-inflicted burn. It seems to me that this gesture was not so much a “metaphor,” as Thomas Elsaesser puts it, than a choreography of dialectical comparison…The burning mark was not an ultimate point or its weakened metaphor, but a relative point, a point of comparison.
Or as Farocki himself puts it in 1995’s Interface, “a point of relation to the actual world,” rather than the further virtualization inherent in the metaphor. Contrasting with the conventional rigor of classical editing strategies, such as shot/reverse shot, this form of soft montage enables a kind of editing without coercion, organizing the images not into metaphorical, allegorical, or even dialectical structures, but into a logic of comparison. In these split-screen films and installations, the final view resembles the pre-edited stage, a rough cut which the spectator is helping to assemble into final form.
In his work in both the cinema and the gallery, we are often made to confront images, as it were, face-to-face, and often the simplest way to do this is through this logic of comparison. MoMA’s show offers an unusual opportunity to see selections from Farocki’s crucial body of work in comparison—that is, in terms of the very organizational logic that he himself establishes within his work—while failing to ultimately create a suitable space for consideration.