Nine Songs of Labour: Harun Farocki

By Pu Yingwei, Translated by Long Xingru, Image Courtesy of Pu Yingwei


Harun Farocki: Harun Farocki - Empathie

Friche La Belle De Mai/Marseille France

25 November 2017 - 18 March 2018


“Shall we live long enough to see a political revolution? We, the contemporaries of these Germans?”

 -Arnold Ruge, in his reply to Marx's first letter [March 1843]


The German filmmaker Harun Farocki travelled endlessly, until his passing away in 2014. Accompanied by his wife, the curator Antje Ehmann, Farocki toured globally, shooting and lecturing, teaching and giving workshops on the study of film, and in the process he seeded his thinking in every corner of the world. We believe that, even in the last moments of his life, Harun Farocki was working.


The German filmmaker Harun Farocki travelled endlessly, until his passing away in 2014. Accompanied by his wife, the curator Antje Ehmann, Farocki toured globally, shooting and lecturing, teaching and giving workshops on the study of film, and in the process he seeded his thinking in every corner of the world. We believe that, even in the last moments of his life, Harun Farocki was working.

[ Fate ]

The working class was captured when film first arrived, in Travailleurs quittant L'usine of 1895. Since then, the fates of labourers and film have been entwined. This entangled relationship can be found in Eisenstein's Strike; Jean-Luc Godard's reaction to the events of Paris in May 1968: how he and Chris Marker's Cinétracts stimulated workers; and the insurgents from the opening of Le fond de l'air est rouge: war, youth, subversion, liberation, freedom... the image of the working class has been receptively illustrated and edited throughout the history of moving-image, and the moving-image of history, and eventually became the visual legacy of the revolution. In 1995 what Farocki had in mind was how, after a century of turmoil, we might penetrate the bloodstained manfiesto of “labour” and revisit the first film in human history. He consciously recognised that this film transcended specific connotations: instead, it evolved into a symbol of “energy”. In Farocki's version of Travailleurs quittant L'usine, the buzzing crowds that featured in the original footage are transformed into radical formulas, bringing the intrinsic power of the workers into the foreground. The crowd, the people, are flowing towards their own fates. The only element of colour in this film features in flames spraying from a chimney – the artist's visit, after one hundred years, emancipates this particular image from history.

[ Time ]

In 1995, the same year of his homage to Travailleurs, Farocki reconstructed the notion of “working” on another level in his piece, Interface. The German title, Schnittstelle, refers to “where editing happens”. Namely, once the raging sentiment of the strike march had diminished, the artist returned to the editing room, and laboured rigorously on the footage, hands-on: “would these two images co-exist or contradict one another – and could any new relationship be established between the two?” In Interface, Farocki analysed and edited diverse footage, his own creations or others'. Then footage of the artist himself, analysing these images, is further recomposed and analysed in the next shot: in this way the images seem to have voyaged dialectically through time. Here, the meaning of “hands-on labour” emerges: a breakthrough with pure sentimental drive, while “words” are confronted and thoroughly investigated, and thus re-constructed.


[ Body ]

 In 2004, following Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera and Walter Ruttman's Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis, Harun Forecki decided to shoot his own version of a film featuring urban life. At a time in history when overloaded images have buried reality and exahausted the possibilities of “représentation”, an authentic way of “seeing” is in decline. Perhaps only symbolic approaches – alternatives or “the other” of realities – can inspire real responses and genuine feeling towards realities. In his film, Contre-Musique, Farocki juxtaposed CCTV footage of urban scenes, and the electrocardiograms of hospitalised patients, comparing the contemporary city to the human body. Specifically, a diseased human body under seamless surveillance, unable of moving and exposing their suffering to the audience. Hence, Contre-Musique makes the statement, forget the lyricised bustle and prosperity depicted in Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis – and return to the servitude and onerousness of real life.


[ Spectre ]

In 2006, Farocki revisited the original source of the language of film, and entitled his work Travailleurs quittant L'usine en onze décennies. This title seems to be a manifesto in itself, announcing that a film work exceeds the boundaries of artistic language, and also embodies history, events, and ethical standpoints: the birth of a new piece shall forever linger in the echoes of history. In this video installation, comprising twelve televisions, Farocki straightforwardly presented footage that he had chosen but never edited: begin with Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, and arrive via Fritz Lang's Metropolis at Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark. Among the overflow of these imaginaries, Farocki delicately leaves the audience with space for autonomous editing and free conversation – the artist perceiving a state of “Empathie”.


[ Gesture ]

We find another kind of juxtaposition in Farocki's 2007 piece Comparison via un tiers, between the handcraft of brick-making in India, and mechanical production in Europe. Through an almost synchronised rhythm of editing, we sense the alienation of labour, and realise how, through repetitive labour, we have lost an awareness of human senses, and metamorphosed into a machine on the production chain. We can interpret all of this as Farocki's dialectical reflection, throughout his straightforward juxtaposition of films. The “edit-display” approach of dual-screen films implies Farocki's methodology of layering “time” and “history” on the same co-ordinates. The positioning of images alone, is political.


[ Organs ]

In 1963, Tomas Schmit, a pioneer of the Fluxus movement, conducted his famous performance poetry piece, ZYKLUS for water-pails (or bottles). Buckets are placed on the circumference of a circle, one filled with water. From inside the circle, the artist picks up the filled vessel, and pours it into the empty one next door; he then picks up the newly filled one and pours it into the next, and so on – until all of the water has been spilled or evaporated in the process. This kind of meaningless depletion became a poetic moment, in the anarchistic manifesto of the Fluxus group. Referring to this “meaningless depletion”, Farocki narrated a kind of “critical realism”. In his 2010 piece, Re- Verser, Variation de l'opus 1 de Tomas Schmit, he revisited Schmit's performance – the only difference being, a robotic arm replaces the performer.


[ Blood ]

In 1758, the painter Gaspar Miguel de Berrio painted his piece Description of Cerro Rico and the Imperial Municipality of Potosi, which depicted the grandeur of engineering work surrounding Mount Richter, in what is now Bolivia, under Spanish colonial reign. What the painting celebrates cannot whitewash the bloody and exploitative nature of colonial exploitation, as the saying reminds us: “The Spanish brought the Cross, and extracted silver ore.” In L'argent et la croix, Farocki's camera follows the marching soldiers and cities under construction as depicted in Berrio's work, but narrates a more realistic story: the image, painted to glorify, becomes testimony to a crime. It is precisely in the power of film language and narration to reconstruct what we perceive as “truth”. In his 1957 piece Letter from Siberia, Chris Marker layered together two identical films of Soviet workers, but, by altering the accompanying voiceover, completely changed the meaning of the images – either, from the Soviet perspective, a celebration of the working class; or, from the American standpoint, a confession of unendurable working conditions. While the saying, “the politics of movies are originated from Eisenstein (‘father of montage’)”, brings up a discussion of power and the ethics of “editing”, Farocki's choice was to approach reality through the act of editing.


[ Labour ]

In 2011, Farocki and Antje Ehmann conducted the workshop Le Travail en une seule prise in fifteen cities (including Hangzhou, China), in which participants were requested to document a process of labour between one and two minutes long, with the support of any documenting device. Travailleurs Quittant Leur Lieu de Travail was based on footage from the workshops, in which urban images from nine cities, including Moscow, Bangladesh, Buenos Aires and Hanoi, were represented. From the handcraft of textile grisettes to electronic component manufacture, or office clerks facing computer screens (conducting labour on invisible dimensions), Le Travail en une seule prise demonstrated the act of working in various dimensions. The intriguing aspect is, at a stage when Farocki had acquired a reputation and the resources to conduct his work on a global scale, he rather chose a “non-spectacle” approach: to practice what he preached, and endow everyone with the same power with which film had endowed him.


[ Action ]

So, love to work. Since Rousseau made the connection between “work” and “obligation”, the value generated by work has tended towards the arms of the bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, after decades, “work” has become the predestination of every contemporary individual. With the shifting of society, the labourer is again deprived of sovereign power over his own fate, and regressed to a state of institutional discipline: repetition, oppression, alienation and exploitation; depletion, tediousness, doomed fate and finality. If we are to revisit the concept of “love to work”, we ought to reinvent it in the context of history, and rebuild our autonomy, not just by serving as an “employee” but as a real labourer. This pathway, however, remains steep. In Laurent Cauwet's recent book, La domestication de l'art, he elaborated on how the ubiquitous existence of capitalism in the contemporary world has required everyone to become the “employer” of his own self: to invent the “self” (preinstall the uniqueness of oneself), invent new communities and construct identity affiliations (to divert people from or make the people forget the fundamental differences of class), and invent new desires for the society (hotbeds for exchange values or commodity fetishisations). In addition, landing on a new tactic for becoming an efficient producer, without acting in concert with others, becomes a crucial issue to tackle, as we return to the field of labour at this historical moment.


Comparaison via un tiers, video installation, 24'47", 2007


Travailleurs Quittant L’usine, video installation, 36', 1995


Interface, 2-monitor video installation, 24'29", 1995


Interface, 2-monitor video installation, 24'29", 1995


Contre-Musique, video installation, 25', 2004