Last month, German filmmaker and artist Harun Farocki died at the age of 70. Farocki made films that were unabashedly political yet remarkably reserved. His passion played out in process — compiling and juxtaposing found footage of all different kinds to craft films that question our relationships to both politics and images, as well the relationship between the two. I’m far from a Farocki expert, but the work of his I’ve seen gives me the sense that it rewards patience: the films are not immediately gripping, but as you watch them unfold you find yourself engrossed in the careful construction of an inquiry.
Most of Farocki’s films are not available in full online, but there are snippets that give you a sense of what his work was about. One of the most compelling of these is a 10-minute excerpt from “Videograms of a Revolution,” which he made in 1992 with Andrei Ujică. The film culls over 100 hours of pre-existing footage from TV cameras and handheld ones to trace a visual arc of the 1989 overthrow of Romanian Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu. It’s fascinating as a historical document, an artistic one, and a futuristic one, as it seems to presage the rise of citizen journalism through platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and Vine.
Here’s Ronald Jones writing about the film in Frieze magazine in 2007:
Once in the hands of activists, video cameras became the conduit between where news was made and the world beyond. At first the handheld camera spread news rather than made it, but Farocki, and not a few others, saw the camcorder as the political means for ushering in the era where spreading the news would become the news. And time has proved the artist right …
And here’s Hito Steyerl on it in e-flux after Farocki’s passing:
It demonstrates how TV stops recording reality and starts creating it instead. Videograms asks: Why did insurgents not storm the presidential palace, but the TV station? At the very moment the social revolution of 1917 ended irrevocably, a new and equally ambivalent technological revolution took place. People ask for bread: they end up with camcorders. TV studios host revolts. Reality is created by representation(6) — Farocki, Flusser, and others were among the first to report this sea change as it happened. As things become visible, they also become real. Protesters jump through TV screens and spill out onto streets. This is because the surface of the screen is broken: content can no longer be contained when protest, rare animals, breakfast cereals, prime time, and TV test patterns escape the flatness of 2D representation.(7) In 1989, protesters storm TV stations. In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee invents the World Wide Web. Twenty-five years later, oligarchs start to ask: If people don’t have bread, why don’t they eat their browsers instead?
Below is that 10-minute excerpt from Videograms of a Revolution, followed by another, much shorter clip:
And if you want to watch a Farocki film in full, his early work “Inextinguishable Fire” (1969), about the Vietnam War and the development of napalm, can be found on YouTube. As Ben Davis wrote recently in artnet News, its opening sequence “already captures what is great about all of Farocki’s work: the wary interrogation of art, combined with the sense of urgency of reality; intellectual intensity combined with a quietly concussive emotional payoff.”