Harun Farocki’s Semiotic Scalpel Show

03/23/2010 10:55 AM |


Harun Farocki’s spectral 1988 rumination, Bilder Der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges, is a mere 75 spare, startling minutes, but the revelations loosed therein are abyssal. Part essay film, part cinematic scalpel incision, Images of the World and the Inscription of War, which plays tonight at Light Industry, is a disquieting encapsulation of Farocki’s immense, ongoing inquest into the visible—a project among the most dauntless and comprehensive of any individual artist in the past 50 years.

Since 1966, the German filmmaker/media artist/theorist has cataloged a seemingly inexhaustible output of films, writing, and installation pieces, comprising a body of work as voluminous as it is singularly spellbound. His angle of approach may vary but Farocki’s aim always remains true: a ceaselessly searching immersion in the nebulous fabric of images and the tangled valences of their formation.

Tracing fine-spun visual threads inside “the history of ideas,” Images of the World poetically materializes the invisible genealogy of an aerial photograph taken by an Allied reconnaissance pilot in WWII. Incidental and unnoticed within the picture: the first visual evidence outside of Germany of the death camp at Auschwitz.

Farocki’s style of semiotic vivisection always bears evidence of its catalysis in Marxist (& Barthesian & Foulcauldian & Godardian) models of debunking, and Images of The World is ostensibly concerned with the brackish history of instrumentalized sight. The film connects the contradictory dots between dubious tactical deployments of visual data collection, spanning from the origins of projective geometry up through modern military technology. And yet, the aesthetic agility and promiscuous sophistication of Farocki’s filmmaking never allows his work to settle into dogma or belabored agitprop—Images of the World contains multitudes, not the least of which is the unshakeable imprint of an almost alien beauty.

The director points to Brecht and Warhol as paramount influences, and his films indeed hover somewhere between a monumental repurposing of representational regimes and a beguiled acceptance of their inescapability. Farocki has stated that the site of his work is inside the image, a claim highlighting the fact that no matter how much blindness or dissension his film lays bare in the pictured world, allusions to a presently waiting replacement are tentative at best. The director of 90-odd films, Farocki is careful to foreground a hushed awareness that his work is ineluctably, already an image.

Images of The World is motivated by a skepticism—tacitly utopian though it may be—too probing and ethereal to coalesce into straightforward polemic, too fascinated with the processes by which images beget images, and compound, contravene, and elide one other, to presume those processes can be dismantled outright.

A wry sequence shades the inscription of war on the texture of the visible world in a farcical metastasis by which protocols for identifying military targets from the air occasion counterstrategies of absurdly costuming the earth’s surface, which in turn necessitate a training pamphlet on how to identify the costumes. Despite such characteristic curiosity, Farocki is far from unserious, and Bilder is a clear-eyed elegy to lives lost because the images of the world denied them visibility.