BOSTON — Two factory doors swing open and a rabble emerges. French workers literally stream out into the world in a seemingly choreographed departure after a long day at work. An enormous dog giddily patrols the scene, filmed in a single shot, and nips at people riding by on bicycles, acting as if all these people were leaving work just to play with him. Horse-drawn wagons roll through the crowd. The women, many of who are wearing aprons and elaborate hats are dashing in all directions. One clutches a child as she passes through the frame. The men move with equal vigor, strung-out on the hand-cranked jumpiness of early film technology. This seminal cinematic achievement was by the Lumière brothers, who were among the earliest pioneers of filmmaking. The film, all 46 seconds of it, was called “Sortie des Usines Lumière a Lyon” (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory). Remarkably, this occurred in 1895 in Lyon, France and remains today not only one of the earliest films made but also one of the most important.
In 1995, Harun Farocki revisited the idea of workers leaving the factory, using the Lumière brothers’s film as a starting point in a longer, certainly more political work. Gone is the almost palpable joy visible in the Lumières’s work, replaced instead by a droning voice-over that prattles on about worker’s oppression and the evils of mass production. The film predates the suicide prevention nets hung from the walls of Chinese factories and expertly collects footage from people exiting factories all over the world. In Farocki’s view, the workers are victims without agency in their fates. They pour out of factories, exhausted, only to endure a brief listless reprieve before returning to work again tomorrow. The poignancy in the Lumières’s early films, however primitive, is that they captured a moment in time, however brutal. The workers emerging from their factory were bursting with life, hurrying off in every direction. They are distinct, individual, and excited to be finished with work for the day. Certainly, this all is a matter of conjecture yet the austerity of Farocki’s intentions surrender up the individual to larger, more complex political arguments. Indeed, these endless processions summon up the modern production line, spitting out the human refuse used in the making of an endless array of products.
Farocki, who died earlier this year, was a German filmmaker who worked across a wide spectrum (television and documentaries, film essays) and in recent years had been formatting his work to be shown in museums and galleries. Primarily know as a documentary filmmaker, Farocki was at root an expert at moving larger humanistic theories across the screen in starkly political terms. While not an identical comparison by any means, the work of Michael Moore comes to mind, specifically, as a propagandist. And where Moore was concerned with the disintegration of a city and the loss of jobs (Roger and Me), which was directly related to the fate of Flint, Michigan, Farocki is interested in the disintegration of the soul. Like Marx, however, he views the worker’s fate from above, whereas, in Moore’s case, he casts himself directly into the fray. Both are cult filmmakers, with Moore’s more populist fare gaining greater traction with audiences while Farocki patrolled the more nuanced realm of art and film and remained lesser known.
Once described, as “probably Germany’s best known important filmmaker, after laboring for years as Germany’s best known unknown filmmaker” Farocki defies simple description. A long career, with over 120 works and a late detour into the art world circuit situate him as both a noted documentarian and as a film/video artist. In one of his last projects, curated with Antje Ehmann (his wife), Farocki again turned his attention back to the Lumière brothers in a project called Labor in a Single Shot — making its American debut at the Boston Center for the Arts in partnership with the Goethe Institut. Resonating again is the recurring theme of work.
Utilizing workshops in 15 cities worldwide, Ehmann and Farocki set filmmakers loose with the task of creating 1 to 2 minutes films that capture people working, with the only restraint being that the films are uncut (a single shot). Additionally, in a modern recasting of the Lumière brothers’s work, in each city filmmakers captured workers leaving factories. This layering not only in terminology but in production as well can be read as a jibe at modern industrial practices. The size of the project, too, and the geographic dispersal of “resources” is all part of it. One can assume globalization is part of this critique, as well.
At the Mills Gallery in Boston, there are 90 videos from 15 cities, and another 15 videos of workers leaving their workplaces, along with the original Lumière brothers film. What Farocki and Ehmann have created is an enormous repository of singular moments in time, all centered on working. Indeed, the array of tasks being performed is astonishing. Taken together, the work is exhausting, exhilarating, demeaning, dangerous, and always fascinating. The short duration of each film offers only a glimpse into what seems like a far broader and complex task and the relationship the worker has to it. Aleksei Taruts films two young men practicing knife fighting in Moscow. One man repeatedly attacks the other and is quickly disarmed and attacked. Is this actually a job, one wonders? Yet real skill is on display by both men, and given the general unhealthiness and violence of Russian life, the possibilities can’t be dismissed.
Paul Foley, in a piece filmed in Boston called “Hand Out,” takes in the action in an operating room as a hand is being operated on. This is an amazing vignette of technical skill and medical sang-froid. A doctor and nurse, with a hand between them calmly work amid the dull bleating of machines and monitors. The nurse (a woman) expertly passes the doctor instruments as he performs the surgery. Clearly, she knows every step of the procedure and it seems is one step ahead of him as he works.
There are countless other examples here that I could cite, but better to go to the project’s website and bookmark it. What Farocki and Ehmann have created is an archive that is a spectacularly diverse document of just what it is we do when we go to work. In Harun Farocki’s case, it is a fitting end to a long career where an artist used reoccurring themes in his work, all centered around social justice, to advance the idea that film-making was more than just a form of entertainment.
Labor in a Single Shot continues at Mills Gallery, Boston Center for the Arts (539 Tremont Street, Boston) through November 30.