Party of Two

Harun Farocki: Immersion, 2009, two-channel video installation, 43 minutes. Courtesy Farocki Filmproduktion and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Salzburg/Paris.


Harun Farocki and RodneyGraham have many things in common. Both create photo-based art, both are astute cultural analysts, andboth are deeply interested in the technology of representation. But there is a fundamental difference between them. Farocki, a resident of Berlin who was born in 1944 in what is now the Czech Republic, works with actual situations and documentary material, some of it archival. Graham, who lives in Vancouver—he was born nearby in 1949—generally stages his imagery. One outcome of a two-person exhibition organized by guest curator Chantal Pontbriand for the Jeu de Paume in Paris—it was a kind of parallel-play dual survey that assembled roughly 80 works in all, going back to 1969 for Farocki and 1984 for Graham—was seeing that in the newest work presented by each artist, the distinction between real and fictive breaks down. 

Exhibited here for the first time, Farocki’s two-channel Immersion (2009, 43 minutes) begins with a salesman in a nondescript office, on one screen, touting the merits of an animation, shown on the other, that simulates combat conditions in Iraq. A reasonable first guess is that it’s a training game for soldiers: the salesman explains that the settings, the sounds, even the caliber of the ammunition in the animation can be customized. Soon one screen is occupied by a player wearing goggles and using a handset to control the imagery; taking the place of the salesman is a female therapist who encourages the player to narrate. He describes horrific combat experience. So, an adjustment of assumptions is called for: this must be a treatment session for a soldier who suffers from post-traumatic stress. The first participant is followed by a succession of others, women as well as men, some in camouflage and others in mufti. What they describe is generally overwhelming chaos and confusion: “It was so surreal”; “I didn’t know where to shoot, didn’t know where they were shooting from”; “He’s from his knees up, that’s all that’s there. I’m freaking out.” Some show scant emotion, but one participant, clearly overcome, begs the therapist to end the session. “Can we stop? I don’t want to do this anymore. Do people get worse doing this?” She presses him, calmly, and with what seems nearly sadistic insistence. “You’re doing great. This is exactly what we need to do. Start again at the beginning.” “At the beginning?” he asks, incredulous.

Filmed by Farocki in early 2009 at an Air Force base in Tacoma, Wash., Immersion is clearly meant to challenge the distinction between real and phantom pain, and to explore memories that compete, to disabling effect, with daily experience. Farocki lingers on each scene, not cutting and splicing as much as he usually does, and we get pretty thoroughly absorbed—enough to reflect ruefully on how the modern military’s success in technologizing, simulating and outsourcing its operations has done very little to mitigate human suffering. Farocki’s invitation to empathize is what kicks up the potent sense of betrayal which follows the realization that the ostensible PTSD sufferers are actually therapists pretending to be soldiers: close reading of the final credits reveals the sessions are “training workshops for psychologists.” (Farocki told me that even the Army press officer who gave permission for filming believed, when he viewed it, that at least one subject was a combat veteran.) Of course, outrage isn’t a response that much flatters the beholder; to feel hoodwinked by being brought to care so deeply for mere actors—to be angered, however briefly, by being shown simulated rather than real pain—brings us creepily close to a taste for witnessing real violence, including the kind that caused the damage the therapy is meant to fix.

The newest work by Graham in this exhibition was Dance!!!!! (2008), a very big diptych (nearly 10 by 12 feet overall) of color transparencies mounted in lightboxes; it shows two Wild West gunslingers menacing a top-hatted worthy played by the artist. One outlaw, seated atop a player piano—his partner is at the keyboard—points his gun at the victim’s feet, which are lifted, as are his arms, in a cheerless jig. The slightly silly, or hysterical, extra exclamation points in the title enforce the impression that the familiar cinematic scenario is a kind of inside joke, but no one’s laughing; the dancer is especially stone-faced. Though both his feet are off the floor, his expression and the crystal clarity of every detail of his body (which must be in furious motion) make him look like he’s standing still.

In a conversation at the museum, Pontbriand compared Dance!!!!! to the monumental works by David, Géricault et al. in the history painting gallery at the Louvre, and the scale, ambition and stereotypy of Graham’s work all support the comparison. Its preternatural clarity is also, in the historical sense, painterly: there is no loss of focus anywhere, and Graham has made every detail—spittoon, oil lamp, mounted deer’s head, potbellied stove—serve, as in academic painting, to establish period and genre. But this is not simply a historical pastiche: Graham told Pontbriand he sees Dance!!!!! as a reference to the abuses at Abu Ghraib, insofar as it shows two nameless men terrorizing a third for no apparent reason; the protagonists are poised on a slope that leads from humiliation to physical abuse and deadly assault.

Two works that allude to the war in Iraq, then, both dealing in false impressions, staged scenarios, command performances and simulated effects (even the player piano fits the parallel), and, most critically, both representing an atmosphere of violence so general it hardly seems to have an agent. Indeed, comparisons between the lawless Western frontier of the 19th-century U.S. and collapsed states around the world that are breeding grounds for terrorism are commonplace. Immersion and Dance!!!!! each have connections to other contemporary art, Farocki’s work to Omer Fast’s four-channel video The Casting, 2007, [see A.i.A., June/July 2008], which also concerns a re-enactment, by an actor taking the role of a soldier, of a traumatic experience in Iraq, and Graham’s to Jeff Wall’s epic, lightbox-mounted color photographs of staged historical tableaux. Pontbriand sees a link between the combat-simulating animation in Immersion and Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008), an animated “documentary” film in wide release that revisits the Israeli filmmaker’s traumatic, and repressed, experiences in the 1982 war in Lebanon. But the comparison between Farocki’s work and Graham’s is particularly fruitful, not least because of their manifest differences.The two artists didn’t know each other personally before this exhibition, and while Farocki was thoroughly familiar with Graham’s work, the reverse wasn’t true. It would be misleading to overstate their points of connection, and the exhibition was more like an interview between two artists than an exposition of shared interests. Pontbriand, longtime editor of Parachute magazine, did establish four headings under which the two bodies of work might be considered: Archive, Machine, Nonverbal and Montage; in the catalogue, a chapter is devoted to each, and the usual suspects (Barthes, whose S/Z is both a philosophical lodestone and a template for the exhibition’s title, “HFlRG”; Benjamin; Derrida; etc.) are rounded up in support. But the expression of these concepts in the organization of the exhibition was, mercifully, “very free,” as Pontbriand put it. The overall intention was “to show the polyphony, polysemy of each work, and let the viewer figure out how each work relates to each trope.” To this end, a series of conjunctions of both artists’ works alternated with rooms devoted to one or the other. Labels for each piece had, in addition to the usual information, shorthand identifications of its theme: A for Archive, Ma for Machine, and so on. An exhibition brochure described following these conceptual trail-markers as “a kind of ‘treasure hunt.’”

For those not tempted by the pleasures of the chase, other rewards were on offer. The first comprehensive survey of Farocki’s work, “HFlRG” included nearly all his major projects (there were timed screenings of his longer films in the auditorium as well as continuous projections of the shorter ones in the galleries). But it was a work by Graham that stood in the museum’s entryway: Camera Obscura Mobile (1995-96), a horse-drawn carriage (here minus the horse) whose interior—visible through a door slightly ajar—functions as the proto-photographic device of its title. Designed to be drawn through a park, it brought an inverted view of the Tuileries through a window, providing a prefatory note for the several grand, upside-down photographs of trees—Graham’s signature image—on view inside. In the first gallery, Farocki’s Comparison via a Third (2007), a two-channel video comparing brick manufacturing in the developing and industrialized worlds, was shown opposite three Graham photographs (1991-93), of majestic, upside-down cedars. The juxtaposition suggests a kind of rough, perplexing symmetry between people as cogs in the most primitive kind of industry, and trees as engines, pumping water, making chlorophyll, filtering carbon dioxide, providing (when right-side up) shelter. 

The series of long narrow galleries on the second floor (the Jeu de Paume was built for indoor tennis under Napoléon III) were book-ended by two particularly acclaimed works: Farocki’s Deep Play (2007), a 12-screen video documentation of a historic soccer match [see A.i.A., May 2008], and Graham’s Rheinmetall/Victoria 8 (2003), a silent film, shown on a noisy 45-year-old projector, of a vintage German typewriter being slowly shrouded with what looks like snow. One way to interpret the arrangement of the two works, both presented as big projections alone in their respective rooms, was as a match played between a professional sports event, fed by the corporate world and digested by hydra-headed and thoroughly commercialized news media, and a moribund monument to independent journalism’s lonely triumphs.

More difficult to reconcile were two videos that shared a gallery on the same floor: Graham’s Halcion Sleep (1994), which follows the artist as he lies in deep, medication-induced slumber on the backseat of a car, and Farocki’s I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts (2000), assembled from surveillance tapes made in supermarkets and prisons. Farocki’s grim, principled examination of photographic surveillance and its assault on privacy is hard to accommodate, without cynicism, to Graham’s arch and fully voluntary prostration, in celebrity-silk pajamas, before a Warholesque camera that seems more sycophant than spy.

Farocki’s presence in his work has diminished over the years; the outrage—and, perhaps, the bravado—that led him to stub out a cigarette on his own arm in Inextinguishable Fire (1969), which is about Vietnam and the effects of napalm, is thoroughly sublimated in Immersion. On the other hand, Graham’s appearances in his own work have increased. In The Gifted Amateur, Nov. 10th, 1962 (2007), another recent photographic work that has the scale and sweep of history painting, he plays a would-be Color Field painter with abounding taste, will and money (witness his perfect early ’60s ranch-style home) but no evident motivation—except, maybe, the exposure of modern art’s falsehood. Nonetheless, it is Farocki who is easier to bring into focus. The range of his concerns, while broad, is consistent: sustaining a commitment to film, he keeps his sights trained on the more sinister operations of the political, corporate and military worlds. The branches into which Graham’s career has grown, including video, photography, books, music, sculptural objects, assemblages and installations, and the diversity of issues he addresses, progressively confound any attempt to summarize his interests and the work they shape.

This distinction is, of course, in part an artifact of the exhibition. In addition to a rather formal conversation, “HFlRG” evoked an old-fashioned, side-by-side slide lecture—and the compare-and-contrast art history exams to which they led. Now that 35mm slides have been conclusively replaced by PowerPoint presentations, which permit imagery to proliferate in the kind of one-idea-leads-to-another profusion also in curatorial vogue, the old viewing method looks downright antique. “HFlRG” argues well for its merits. 

“HFlRG,” curated by Chantal Pontbriand, was at the Jeu de Paume, Paris, Apr. 7-June 7, 2009. It was accompanied by a catalogue with essays by Pontbriand, Catherine Perret, Catherine Malabou, Peter Szendy and Christa Blümlinger.

As well as the survey of Farocki’s work now at Museum Ludwig, Cologne and the solo show at Raven Row, London (which is accompanied by a book edited by Antje Ehmann and Kodwo Eshun), there will be screenings of Farocki’s films at Tate Modern, London, on weekends Nov.13-Dec. 6.  

The retrospective of Rodney Graham’s work that opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona
[Jan. 28-May 18, 2010] travels to the Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Basel [June 12-Sept. 26, 2010] and
the Hamburger Kunsthalle [Oct. 14, 2010-Jan 23, 2011]. He will have a solo show at 303 Gallery, New York, May 8-July, 2010.