It’s certainly not often that one gets to visit thought-provoking exhibitions while on summer vacation. But this year at Samos, the closest Greek island to the coast of Turkey, an exhibition by one of the most well-reputed film and video makers of our times took place. Harun Farocki, who lives and works in Berlin and can boast of more than 100 productions for television, cinema and museums, held a solo exhibition on the island. Curated by Antje Ehmann, works representative of his last ten years were introduced to a Greek audience, with special focus on his Serious Games Series project.
The four-part Serious Games Series (2009 – 2010) is one of the most revealing and straightforward works concerned with the use of simulation programs in the military. Based on recordings the artist made in US military bases and selected excerpts from computer simulations, the project presents a view of how games are being used for recruitment, training and post war therapy, how computer simulation is replacing the human eye and ultimately how the virtual facilitates and comforts the real – in this case how the unvarying inhumanity of military undertakings is concealed. Without excessive emotional charge or dramatization the works place the visitor in the position of an unnoticed observer, facilitating comprehension of this obscure gamified reality of war.
Farocki has worked extensively in this field, and while meeting him and Antje Ehmann in Greece, we discussed the motivations and challenges that underpin his work.
Serious Games II
So how was the overall idea born?
[Harun Farocki] It was after my collaborator Matthias Rajmann sent me a news clipping in which I read that the military in the US had introduced digital landscapes with which traumatized soldiers could rekindle their memories – their memories of the incidents that caused their trauma! Knowing that digital landscapes and scenarios are used to prepare soldiers for war, we found it interesting to show a simple opposition: that very similar images are used for both preparation and for helping to treat the consequences of war! But it took us a lot of energy before we could go to the bases in the US, all together a year.
You visited drills and exercises in military bases and also attended a workshop organized by the Institute for Creative Technologies, which specializes in virtual reality and computer simulations. It must have been quite difficult to actually get permission to shoot military-related action…
[HF] Not really. On the contrary, not at all. Getting access is easy. The US army wishes to publicize its centers. They want people to get to know about them. And I don’t think that this only goes for the US. Countries in Europe have also started similar centers and wish to communicate this.
Their main idea after all is to elude people. The simulation systems used in the army are actually very different from the commercial military games you find in the market. These games are not realistic enough. They can’t be used for exercises. In the army, the instructor can place new features while the game is running. He can create difficulties and challenges. He can manipulate and control the game, making all options much more realistic. Therefore, you learn from which distance you can really kill someone. It’s not like in a video game where with one gun you can easily kill 15 people.
Are you also interested in the positive aspects of video games?
[HF] Well, yes. I would not want to be judgmental. The problem is that there is a great contradiction between video games and real life. In real life we have no agency; we can’t control everything. In video games suddenly you are the master of the universe. They bring back a brutal vitality where your life is based on competition, vital competition.
On the other hand of course it is interesting that in video games you can also navigate in different ways, allowing you to look into details. It is not like in a film where you have to watch a main story and have to identify with the main hero.
Maybe I should to clarify that it is the computer-animated images that interest me, rather than games. These images are on the verge of becoming the standard, making images based on photography begin to look anachronistic. Because computer-generated ones are not just a copy of the world – they are a new creation of the world.
Serious Games II
You presented your most recent work, the “Parallele” project, in Berlin in June. Parallele is based on the assumption that moving computer images have replaced photography and film. In some ways this reminds me of Vilem Flusser’s writings on technical images. Would you agree with this? Have you been influenced by Flusser?
[HF] When Flusser’s first book was published in Germany, I made the first ZV conversation with him. I was deeply impressed by his approach. He said the introduction of the computer as the universal machine could be read as the return of idealism – as in Greek philosophy. I think he was right.
How do you feel about having your work presented in Greece? In particular in Samos, a historically charged island only 1.6 km from Turkey, following on from a big scale solo exhibition at MoMA, which took place last summer in New York.
[Antje Ehmann]: And politically [charged] also, as we understand. Samos is also a passage, a place where many migrants try to pass by boats nowadays. For this reason we decided to present for the first time a project which only existed in German. It is a work about the history of migration in the Federal Republic of Germany based on diagrams gleaned from newspapers, school textbooks and official publications. It is a conceptual critique of the ways in which migration is presented, pursuing the icons and symbols back to their origins and examining them with regard to content they themselves are unaware of.
This project in Samos was initiated by Chiona Xanthopoulou-Schwarz and it is something unprecedented. There has never been an art space like this in Samos. And I guess this is something really new for the people there. For this reason there are books, with books on Harun, but also on the moving image in the arts.
The exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York was of course something different. An audience at the MoMA has of course some expectations, but many people who go into a museum are also prepared to be surprised. All in all, the exhibition at Moma was received very positively. The American art critic Ken Johnson even wrote that Harun’s work is ”almost too interesting to be art“. I’m happy to quote this, and I’m curious what the feedback in Samos will be.
And what about the future? What are you currently working on?
[AE] Well, we are actually exploring labour issues. We wish to present how work has changed, how we are all attached to our laptops. It is a network project – it will be based on the contribution of many different people around the world. They will share with us what labour means to them.
And hopefully we might be coming back to Greece, for another project this time in Athens.
But more for the future, in the future…