In July 2014, experimental filmmaker Harun Farocki died at the age of 70, leaving behind a legacy of work that looked at the many ways that images are used in communication. Earlier in the same year, Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof held a solo exhibition of the artist, entitled “Serious Games,” featuring his films Interface (1995), Inextinguishable Fire (1969) and the “Serious Games I–IV” series (2009–10).
The show was held on the occasion of the museum’s acquisition of the three works and highlighted Farocki’s exploration of sociopolitical issues and the technologies that underpin them. In the museum’s temporary exhibition hall, visitors ducked behind a heavy curtain to enter a dark room, where projections on transparent screens suspended from the ceiling provided a contemplative environment in which to consider Farocki’s work.
Interface, the first film in the exhibition, demonstrates Farocki’s intimate relationship with images. In the split-screen film, the artist is sitting at a desk in front of two television monitors and among piles of video cassettes. These clunky items heavily date the footage, but also emphasize its materiality. Another shot looks at Farocki’s unique way of handling and editing film, which involved a tactile, cut-and-paste technique that had much to do with the pre-digital technologies that were available during his first forays into cinema. Images can espouse ulterior motives and meanings—and enhance or draw attention to what lies beyond the frame—as is shown in one scene where Farocki is holding up his hands to one of the television screens, like a photographer framing a composition. While this happens on one side of the split screen, a close-up of the “framed” monitor is shown on the other. In depicting these images side by side, Farocki challenges media that abide by conventional narrative structures, while also highlighting subliminal processes that are often at play in films. Viewers are invited to draw their own connections between the two images and find new meanings within the work.
Further exploring Farocki’s penchant for juxtaposition is his two-channel video installation Serious Games I: Watson is Down (2010), which looks at how video games are being used to both train and rehabilitate soldiers in the United States. In one segment, four US marines are seated at a desk at a military base, virtually traversing barren desert landscapes, shooting at armed opponents and avoiding land mines. Though the landscapes are based on the topologies of actual combat territory, there is something uncanny about their smooth and seamless digital renderings, and one cannot help but feel that the GIs will be ill-equipped for the reality of the frontline. This sense of detachment is enhanced by the two-channel format of the work, in which the trainees are shown on one screen, while the virtual landscape that they travel through is projected on the other.
In another excerpt from Serious Games I: Watson is Down, a man wearing high-tech eyewear is undergoing another simulated journey, describing his encounters aloud in the past tense. It is subsequently revealed that this is a rehabilitation program for victims of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which operates under the principle that recalling painful events can lead to their redress. Yet the man is not, in fact, an actual victim of PTSD, but a hired actor in a promotional video for the program’s developer. In both segments of Serious Games I: Watson is Down, Farocki points out that reality and simulation are increasingly intertwined—that not only can digital media mimic reality, but also create it.
The exhibition concluded with Inextinguishable Fire, in which Farocki, again, ruminates on the power of images. The work was created at the height of the Vietnam War (1955–75), a brutal conflict in which chemical warfare was used even on civilians. In the film, Farocki asks, “How can we show you napalm in action?” before pushing a burning cigarette into his own arm and revealing that, while a cigarette burns at 752 degrees Fahrenheit, napalm can burn at temperatures up to 5,432 degrees.
Diverse in subject, era and format, the three films by the late artist consider the notion that while images (be they from photography, video or digital media) may simulate the forms and textures of reality, their emotive qualities will always rely on what is beyond the frame.