This interview was recorded at the Berlin Documentary Forum 2. Neja Tomšič and Harun Farocki discussed his tradition to video installations and the gallery context and its impact on his work, his views on the question of reality and fiction in documentary film and the development of his approach from the sixties to now.
Neja Tomšič: Gallery space is different from cinema in a sense that it allows you to show your works on more than one screen, whereas the cinema format is more linear, the viewer more passive. How did it happen that you started to show your work in gallery spaces?
Harun Farocki: I hadn’t planned this transition. It just happened that in 1995 an art space in Lille asked me to contribute something and gave me some production means. I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity to do things that can’t be done with television money, more experimental things… I was very happy that I gained new territories and new resources. Then I suddenly realised that I wouldn’t get television money anymore because in the late nineties and at the turn of the century somehow the climate changed in the whole of Europe. Also public television stations no longer did work which was not totally mainstream, which was not commentary and explaining everything. Journalistic formats prevailed everywhere. Cine-clubs and independent cinemas also became more mainstream. If I make a film today I can perhaps show it at festivals worldwide but there are not more than five cinemas in Germany which would show it. I’m therefore very happy that in our space there is not so many galleries, but more art spaces. For example, what we are experiencing here in Haus der Kulturen der Welt during Berlin Documentary Forum – we see people come from totally different formations, people interested in film but also literature discourse, music, feminism and so on. This new development has created spaces that are in many cases far more interesting than the old film clubs, which were very specialised.
Neja Tomšič: You show your works both in galleries and in cinemas. Do you think about the placement of your work in advance?
Harun Farocki: From the beginning, I experimented with screens, which is interesting. And I’m still in an experimental stage; I always try to find new reasons for two screens or multiple screens. In some cases I made works (like Deep Play, about soccer), where it really doesn’t matter so much if you watch it for three minutes or twenty-five minutes, because it is more about the principles that you have, the depiction of one event in twelve different formats, the different approaches – technically and aesthetically. And it is far more interesting to compare them like that than to watch the program. But I also make works that still have a strong linearity and which you have to see from the beginning to the end, otherwise you don’t really get it. I’ve always had a very repetitive structure, based on the belief that you can only create structure via repetition, of course – as music does it. That is something anti-linear, something circular in a way. My work fits the gallery context in this sense.
Neja Tomšič: You speak of hybrid forms of feature and documentary films in relation to control and contingency. Can you describe your work in this context?
Harun Farocki: I’m more on the side of contingency, but on the other hand, because I’m deeply formalist I am very pre-selective, so it always fits into pre-given shapes. But I try to be open for what the concrete material asks for. If I make a film and it turns out that the approach I have taken doesn’t work I can change it, but I can’t change it endlessly. There are only four or five grids to which it could and has to fit.
Images of the World was probably the most ambitious work I ever did. I don't know if I haven't been ambitious enough since, but I'm hesitant and I try to avoid these main works and to be more peripheral. To avoid huge manifestos and rather make a little contribution, that's my attitude nowadays.
Neja Tomšič: How would you comment on the recent increase of documentary forms in contemporary art contexts?
Harun Farocki: I think there’s a very simple reason for all the other art forms through art history, from impressionism let’s say: representation has become so difficult and the references to the real world are so multi-faceted that it’s very difficult to approach it. So how can you really try to cover the social with paintings or etchings?
That’s really difficult, because the entire self-criticism of art history interferes. Because film and especially documentary film is not yet in this elaborated state in which the poetics are really precise and you have a critical view on everything. Yesterday I wanted to quote something by Bresson, one who, comparably to visual arts, is really on the state of composition in detail. Something one would expect from somebody in visual arts, by the way, but generally that is not the case. That is a good approach to get to the real world and to relate to the social and the political. But it is just an approach; also for the artists themselves, they take this means and deal with the so-called reality: which can also lead to strange things, many things which would never have been possible. Films can suddenly be seen in galleries, so the history of cinema and film-criticism is repeated in a way in the art spaces nowadays. For example, to say it less ambitiously, things like bad television can also find their way to art spaces.
Neja Tomšič: There is a strong sense of a need to control reality, to capture it in all its multi-facet nature present in documentary film and art. As an author with a very long career, would you say that this drive towards capturing reality was always present to this extent?
Harun Farocki: When I started making films in the sixties, and I think till the end of the seventies, for the first decade, I was so busy with how the world should be that I really didn’t watch the world how it was. Yesterday, I showed a film showing people celebrating Christmas in ’68. And in those days I wouldn’t have found it interesting to cover daily life or just to register the phenomenon. Unluckily I was so busy with idealistic projections that I did not have this interest in the real. From then on I started to deal with it and luckily found all these strange things. Other phenomena – like industrialism – have fascinated me a lot. Already some time has passed now, I have been doing it for some decades and questions like what kind of world are we living in, which are the driving forces – the undercurrent or the obvious ones – remain unbelievably interesting. All these changes in life, in attitudes, fashions, it’s an ongoing process and it has not lost its momentum yet.
Neja Tomšič: What is your view on post-documentary culture theory, being that Images of the World is said to be one of the landmarks of the new wave of documentary film? The shift to the question of what is real and what is not, to subjective views?
Harun Farocki: The question of the border between reality and fiction, the objective and the subjective is not new. I know these debates also from the sixties and so on. I can’t align this question with Images of the World; I don’t know in which sense it is taken for a landmark. For me it was a kind of landmark because my aim was to be theoretical or to produce ideas with films and not producing them on paper and then translating them into film. But to create something with the means of film somehow seemed to succeed and this probably only had to do with the fact that I was a little bit ahead. And that a little bit later Virilio spoke about it – War and Cinema came out. And this idea of the politics of the view and ethics of the view were elaborated later: when I did it, the terms didn’t exist. All these things had been generated in the field. I was observing and communicating with people about them, but they were not yet fixed and therefore this film seemed to be something new and I’m very happy I made it. It was probably the most ambitious work I ever did. I don’t know if I haven’t been ambitious enough since, but I’m hesitant and I try to avoid these main works and to be more peripheral. To avoid huge manifestos and rather make a little contribution, that’s my attitude nowadays.