Elsaesser, Thomas. “Simulation and the Labour of Invisibility: Harun Farocki’s Life Manuals.” Animation, vol. 12, issue 3 (2017): 214–229.

Simulation and the Labour of Invisibility: Harun Farocki’s Life Manuals

Thomas Elsaesser

Naïve realists

André Bazin (1999: 43), in his ‘Evolution of the language of cinema’ famously divided the world of cinema into ‘filmmakers who put their faith in the image, and filmmakers who put their faith in reality’. Often interpreted as anti-montage and anti-Eisenstein, this distinction – in the context of Bazin’s system – is not quite as categorically biased towards the long take/deep focus (or Renoir–Rossellini) aesthetics, as it sounded to us radical constructivists back in the 1970s, when Bazin was habitually dismissed as a ‘naïve realist’.1

Similarly, there is a kind of deceptive naivety about Harun Farocki’s Parallel I–IV that one should not hesitate to confront head on, in order to see what else it might tell us about the nature of today’s images and the ontological status of photographic realism in the digital age. In terms of Bazin’s distinction, Farocki, like his mentor Jean Luc Godard, makes montage his ‘beautiful care’ (Godard, 1965: 30–31), and thus belongs to the directors who put their faith in the image, but his other mentors – Jean Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet – might well be the epitome of the director who put his faith in reality, or at the very least, in the reality of the pro-filmic. However, where the two come together is that a ‘faith in the image’ may well follow rather than precede a ‘distrust in the image’ and that a ‘faith in reality’ may well be grounded in a profound realization that ‘what you see is not what there is’.

[Bild 1: Figure 1. ‘Parallel I’. © Harun Farocki GbR, 2012.]
[Bild 2: Figure 2. ‘Parallel I’. © Harun Farocki GbR, 2012.]

Let me therefore confront what seems so naïve about Parallel I–IV. At first sight, it appears to be a very potted history of computer graphics, taking us through the ‘evolution’ from stick figure representations of trees and bushes on a rigid grid of horizontals and verticals, to ever more photorealistic renderings of landscapes and people, of leaves and ripples of water, of motion and movement (see Figures 1 and 2). In other words, it seems a curiously linear and teleological ‘from–to’ narrative, as if it subscribed to the discredited film-historical teleology of greater and greater realism, which even Bazin (1967: 21–22) challenged, when he exclaimed, after reading Georges Sadoul, ‘the cinema has yet to be invented!’.

Although one soon realizes that Farocki’s reference to the elements of water, earth and air sets itself the task of ‘going back to basics’, I did find myself puzzled, especially in light of the hundreds of videos on YouTube, the show-reels of special effects companies like Industrial Light & Magic, Pixar studio, The Mill, or Rhythm & Hue.2 Most of them try to explain CGI graphics, taking us through the building up of photorealistic images through layers upon layers, detailing the differences between motion capture and performance capture, or making us marvel at the many millions of digital hairs that had to be programmed in order to have the all-digital tiger in Life of Pi look and move like a live Bengal tiger. Admittedly, Parallel I–IV is not a boosterish PR-exercise, and sets out to be an art-historical meditation on different styles of graphics. It could even be said to support Lev Manovich’s (1995) thesis that the photo-graphic is only one among several (historically contingent) possibilities of graphic rendering of the world, oscillating between abstraction (linguistic, mathematical, pictorial) and figuration (iconic, indexical, mimetic). Nonetheless, Parallel seems strangely old-fashioned, not only because much of the material Farocki used goes back to the early days of computer games and relies on the obsolete charms of jerky animation, but also because Parallel refrains from socially or politically contextualizing its games, in the way that Farocki’s earlier series, Serious Games had done so disturbingly as well as so poetically. There seems, finally, to be a certain disconnect between the long passages of avatars circling around each other, bumping into each other, or drawing guns on each other, and the philosophically sophisticated voice-over commentary. One phrase in particular struck me, as it did several other critics: ‘In films, there is the wind that blows and the wind that is produced by a wind machine. Computer images do not have two kinds of wind.’3 If we add to this the well-known anecdote that the earliest spectators of the Lumières’ films were more startled by the movement of the leaves on a tree, by curling smoke, drifting clouds or waves crashing onto the shore, than by the motion of people or horses, then we can already glimpse that one parallel that Parallel draws is that between early cinema and early computer animation, between the origins of the cinema and the supposed death of cinema. It is a point I shall return to.

Here is how Farocki himself describes the work, when Parallel I–IV was shown as an installation at the Greene Naftali gallery in New York, and then at the Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery in Paris:

Parallel I opens up a history of styles in computer graphics. The first games of the 1980s consisted of only horizontal and vertical lines. This abstraction was seen as a failing, and today representations are oriented towards photo-realism.

Parallel II and III [see Figure 3] seek out the boundaries of the game worlds and the nature of the objects. It emerges that many game worlds take the form of discs floating in the universe – reminiscent of pre-Hellenistic conceptions of the world. The worlds have an apron and a backdrop, like theatre stages, and the things in these games have no real existence. Each of their properties must be separately constructed and assigned to them.

Parallel IV [see Figure 4]explores the heroes of the games, the protagonists whom the respective players follow through 1940s L.A., a post-apocalyptic world, a Western setting or other genre worlds. The heroes have no parents or teachers; they must find the rules to follow of their own accord. They hardly have more than one facial expression and only very few character traits which they express in a number of different if almost interchangeable short sentences. They are homunculi, anthropomorphous beings, created by humans. Whoever plays with them has a share in the creator’s pride.4

And here is Anselm Franke (2012), giving Parallel I–IV some very helpful contexts:

Today, mimesis has become a matter of generative algorithms, and the resulting technologies are increasingly capable of calculating, predicting, and controlling complex processes – from manufacturing, to war, to emotional experiences in the animated worlds of mass entertainment. Underlying Farocki’s investigation into the frontiers of innovation in current image-technologies is the assumption that increasingly, we live in technologically produced image-worlds in which images have become what he calls ‘ideal-typical.’ In the new mimetic paradigm of digital ‘realism’, reality is no longer the measure of the always imperfect image; instead, the virtual image increasingly becomes the measure of an always-imperfect actuality.

Rather than expand on Franke’s comments, I want to take a somewhat different route, by first letting my impression of Parallel’s strange and enigmatic effects linger and even exacerbate them, by quoting what Farocki once said to me, in his typically offhand, self-deprecating manner, but I think only half in jest: ‘the great thing about working in the art world is that when you’ve made a film you’re not quite finished with, you can always cut it into segments and mount them in a gallery as a video installation’. I am not remotely suggesting that he thought of Parallel in this way, but it does seem in some respect a ‘work in progress’, part of an on-going investigation, possibly cut short by his untimely death in July 2014.5

[Bild 3: Figure 3. ‘Parallel III’. © Harun Farocki GbR, 2014.]
[Bild 4: Figure 4. ‘Parallel IV. © Harun Farocki GbR, 2014.]

In the spirit of such a work in progress, I shall offer a number of different contexts in which Parallel I–IV both makes sense as part of Farocki’s other major preoccupations, and how this work – whether on-going by default or incomplete by necessity – may shed light on our present situation, on the fate of cinema, and on Life Remade. These contexts are, broadly speaking: representation and reproduction; operational images; surveillance and the military; simulation and role play; and the labour of invisibility and the invisibility of labour.

Representation and reproduction, or Farocki’s materialism

Farocki is perhaps best known for exploring the relation between images, image machines and image production, on the one hand, and the corresponding social/ political reality on the other. In many ways a classic Marxist materialist, he realized that, at some point in the 20th century, images began to take on a life of their own, rather than being representations of some reality outside them, or distinct from them. But he also knew that images were circulating as commodities that absorb both social reality and human labour, in the Marxist sense of being ‘phantasmagorias’ and ‘commodity-fetishes’. It led him to a fairly sustained critique of ‘representation’ as our dominant image paradigm. In what turned out to be his last interview, Farocki ends by saying: ‘the era of reproduction seems to be over, and the era of construction of new world seems to be on the horizon – no, it’s already here’ (Saoulski, 2014).

I take his use of Benjamin’s term ‘reproduction’ to also encompass ‘representation’ more generally, just as ‘construction’ here stands for or includes ‘simulation’. What the further implications might be of such a radical shift in the representational mode I shall leave to the end of this section, but what Farocki seems to signal is the change of default values, so that the digital image is now the primary reference point for all kinds of images, including analogue images, in just the way that gramophone records have had to be relabelled ‘vinyl’, because they are henceforth seen from the implied perspective of the CD or the mp3 download. This is what Farocki suggests, when calling such simulations ‘ideal-type’ representations, and comparing them to the mathematical or algorithmic modelling of reality more generally, including the ‘formatting’ of human beings, by profiling their likes and preferences. In one sense, this would imply that computer models of the world ‘compete and defeat’ material and physical manifestations of the world, and that, more specifically, the pro-filmic is no longer the origin and ground of the image, but has become merely its discardable raw material. On the face of it, then, Farocki’s interest in simulation (or if you like, his ‘faith in the digital image’) would seem to be the very opposite of his materialism, but for the time being, we may want to entertain the possibility that here is a paradox – materialism versus simulation – which resolves itself by revealing itself as two sides of the same coin: on the one hand, a materialism without matter, now favoured by philosophy, and on the other, a simulation that is the disavowal of a materiality, and thus the condition of its own material existence.

Operational images

One way of approaching this paradox is to consider how Farocki has been quietly rewriting film history, by favouring, throughout his very long career as a filmmaker, a certain type of images, which he called ‘operational images’. These are images and filmic sequences drawn from very different sources and made for very different purposes: the sources might be scientific experiments, time and motion studies, appropriated from the huge archive of medical film, of surveillance images taken by the military, of instructional films, industrial films, and of images reconstituted from sensors and control devices. The original purposes might be training, tests, experimentation, monitoring, and the recording phenomena too fast or too slow for the human eye.6 Such film material tends to be called ‘found footage’ and is now sought after by filmmakers and artists working at the interface of cinema and installation art, or across the porous boundaries of documentaries and essay films. Farocki is cautious not to treat such images as ‘found’, and usually goes out of his way to indicate how and why these films were made, by whom and within what institutional dispositif.

By excavating the industrial, scientific, bureaucratic and military uses of images often simulating depth of field, and action at a distance, while contrasting our habitual way of treating images as ‘views to be seen’ with images as sources of information to be scanned, classified and acted upon, in titles that range from Images of the World and Inscription of War (1989) to Eye/Machine (2001–2003) and from I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts (2000) to Deep Play (2008), Farocki has deconstructed and analysed, as well as historically contextualized images on the cusp of ‘seeing’ and ‘acting’ (see Paglen, 2014, and Christa Blümlinger, 2004). Whether stereometric photography in 19th-century architecture and land-surveying, surveillance footage from security prisons and supermarkets, time and motion studies in factories, as well as the Final of the 2008 Football World Cup in Berlin as tracked by sensors and vision machines, Farocki has shown time and again that images are not only something to be contemplated, to immerse oneself into, to be looked at either with admiration or disinterestedness, but now more often than not function as instructions for action (by machines), or as sets of data for processing and translating into actions (by machines) (see Antje Ehmann and Kodwo Eshun, 2010).

In short, the fact of having brought these operational images – a concept originally derived from the media theorist Vilem Flusser (see Christa Blümlinger, 2014) – into film history, as one of the overlooked genealogies of the cinema, must count among Farocki’s most consequential contributions to media archaeology, as well as an essential part of the prehistory of digital images. In Images of the World and Inscription of War, for instance, Farocki has followed the line of descent of operational images back to one Albrecht Meydenbauer, inventor of photogrammetrics (‘Messbild-Photographie’) as a means of not only recording historic buildings like churches or steeples, but to calculate scale and dimensions, in order to render them accurately in the forms of architectural plans and diagrams. In Images of the World, Farocki ties Meydenbauer’s invention to the shock and trauma of nearly having been killed when trying to scale such buildings in situ, so that operational images are images that carry with them the memory of places or the anticipation of situations that are too dangerous for human beings to be present in the flesh. We can see how a fairly direct line can be drawn from Meydenbauer’s photogrammetrics to tele-guided missiles, smart bombs and drones.

Farocki, in this respect, anticipated Lev Manovich’s (1998) distinction between images that we use in order to ‘lie’ with (simulation, as-if scenarios, make-believe, fiction) and images we use in order to ‘act’ with (take action at a distance, extract actionable data, initiate a process, record a test, conduct an experiment). Insofar as operational images are images that no longer function like a ‘window on the world’, they point the way to a new definition of what an image is. These changes we tend to associate with the digital turn, but operational images just remind us that moving as well as still images have many histories, not all of which pass through the cinema or belong to art history. Digital images may merely have made these parallel histories more palpably present, but operational images, as Farocki clearly saw, have always been part of the visual culture that surrounds us. For example, Farocki’s film about a Playboy centrefold shoot, An Image [Ein Bild], from 1983 – which incidentally, is sometimes shown alongside Parallel I–V – documents in sometimes excruciating detail, how much labour has to be invested in creating operational images, even those that say: ‘look, how beautiful I am.’ One can go even further and claim that operational images – images that function as instructions for action – are the new default value of all image making, against which more traditional images, i.e. images meant merely to be contemplated, to be watched disinterestedly or for their aesthetic qualities are being redefined as specialized instances of operational images – and I’m not even primarily talking about advertising, propaganda or pornography. After all, there has grown up a generation of users who, instead of wanting to look at images, are more and more expecting to be able to click on images on their Facebook feed or on Instagram.

Surveillance and the military

Farocki had his international breakthrough around 1990/91 with Images of the World and the Inscription of War. The film was a long time in the making and was actually completed before the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990, and before the First Gulf War of 1991. However, it exactly coincided with the English publication of Paul Virilio’s War and Cinema (1989). These three events coming together created a kind of perfect storm for the reception of Farocki’s film, which suddenly seemed to be inordinately timely and prescient. Making the rounds in the US at about the time most of us had our first acquaintance with ‘smart bombs’, it seemed like a running commentary on Virilio’s book, with the added bonus of already including, as it were, General Schwarzkopf whom during the first Gulf War, we saw on the evening news, with his pointer stick, showing us the little puffs of smoke that followed the ‘surgical strikes’ on Iraqi positions, highways, or bridges. This was our first introduction to Serious Games (see Figure 5). Not only did Schwarzkopf have a name right out of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, but his demos made him look like he had stepped out of Farocki’s film.

[Bild 5: Figure 5. ‘Serious Games 1, Watson is Down’. © Harun Farocki GbR, 2010.]

The other happy accident, if you pardon the expression, is that Images of the World and the Inscription of War spoke about Auschwitz, at a time – post-Cold War, post collapse of the Soviet Union – when the Holocaust was about to become the event in our understanding not only of WWII, but of the 20th century, and with it, inaugurated the crisis is history and memory: between Shoah (1985) and Schindler’s List (1993) the world’s attention had shifted from the post-Hiroshima nuclear threat and US atomic weapons on European soil (a major theme in Farocki’s film, along with renewable energy) to the preoccupation with the legacy the Holocaust, the complicity of most European countries in the destruction of the Jews, as well as the ambiguous role played by film and photography. Central to this reading of Farocki’s film are the pictures taken of Auschwitz by reconnaissance planes and the pictures snapped by a soldier at the selection ramp for his personal trophy album. Both types of images are ‘purloined’, in the sense of ‘stolen’ and in the sense Edgar Allen Poe used it in his ‘purloined letter’.7 Here the term ‘found images’ might not be an inaccurate complement to ‘purloined’, while the images find their retroactive significance in the contemporary paradigm of surveillance, insofar as they are proof of a particular forensic dynamic inherent in acts of surveillance.8 But surveillance images are both deadly and ignorant, they can be pleasurable or threatening – depending at which end one positions oneself. Farocki mentions that if the pilots of these US reconnaissance flights in 1944 were seeing Auschwitz (with their cameras) and not seeing ‘Auschwitz’ (with their mind’s eye), it points to the fact that surveillance can be a form of stupidity, giving a treacherous sense of being in control. The planes were looking for something else, they didn’t know yet what Auschwitz meant, while the man who took the pictures at the Auschwitz ramp was also looking for something else – an album of souvenirs – and only inadvertently documented the crime of the century. In each case, the images bear witness, but – as it were – without and even against the intention of those who witnessed. The irony is even more poignant, when one considers that these surveillance photographs of Auschwitz were only discovered because an officer in the late 1970s was so moved by the television series Holocaust that he remembered once seeing pictures of the camps in a filing cabinet in the Pentagon. It took a fictional television programme to bring to light this documentary evidence. As an aside, it also confirmed that the Allies’ war aims were not the rescue of Jews – as is now the official US version, if one visits the Washington Holocaust Museum – but rather to disable, dismantle and destroy Nazi Germany’s war machinery, in this case the Buna synthetic rubber factory, part of the Monowitz slave labour camp near Auschwitz.

It is these parapraxes, these slips of reference and relevance, these retroactive rewritings suddenly revealing unexpected connections, uncanny coincidences or surprising disconnects in our world, that make Images of the World such an indelibly impressive work: a classic that allows for successive reframings of so many key debates. Since then, Farocki has mined these lines of inquiry into war, photography and surveillance in many of his subsequent films and installations, notably I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts and Eye/Machine. In fact, one can already locate in these earlier works the predilection in Parallel for the first-person shooter’s point of view, given that the tight alignment of camera-eye and gun-sight features in the opening of I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts. By the end of this film, however, Farocki wistfully remarks that such an apparatus of control, based on visual surveillance had already become obsolete, in light of the new tagging, tracking and ‘deterritorializing’ electronic surveillance technologies.

It seems the deceptive naivety is beginning to pay off: we suddenly see how Farocki pulls the rug from under the ‘greater and greater realism’ argument, when he shows how with CGI, no matter how ‘realistic’, there is no depth to the ocean floor, no slope to a hill nor incline to a mountain range, and a forest or an urban street scene can just drop off the edge, disappear or float in space. The world of digital images can serve Farocki as a metaphor because it reminds us that the reality we see and experience every day may be nothing like the reality that actually affects our lives and determines our fate. We only need to think of high speed electronic trading, where billions of euros, pounds or dollars shift continents within nano-seconds, or the invisible footprints we leave whenever we go on-line with our laptops or smart-phones. Thus, while the ostensible parallels of Parallel I–IV are between analogue photographs and their digital clones, the more oblique parallels are pointedly political, in that they suggest the denser the details, the more deceptive the reality. Perception, sensation, visuality: so much camouflage (Farocki appropriately cites the famous Monty Python sketch),9 or as Friedrich Kittler (1999: 1–2) put it: ‘sense and the senses turn into eyewash’.

Several of Farocki’s films and installations, certainly since the early 1990s and the first Gulf War, are like extended probes into what could be called the new invisibility. It corresponds to what Farocki himself calls ‘controlling observation’, meaning a visuality, to which no human observer corresponds, and for which the body and the senses – touch, hearing, motion, affect – have become the protectively and defensively invoked stand-ins or prostheses. This new invisibility poses a special challenge to the filmmaker, because as Farocki (2004: 294) argues:

The prison visiting hour scene [so central to the prison film genre] will soon find itself without a correspondence in reality. The introduction of electronic cash will make [films that feature] bank robberies practically impossible too … With the increase in electronic control devices, everyday life will become just as hard to portray and to dramatize as everyday work already is.

I take Farocki’s point here to be not only that he wants to map out the limits of the visible in the very age of the vision machines, but that, as a result of these vision machines, invisibility itself has become a kind of commodity, especially within the commercially high-profit, but in those pre-Wikileaks, pre-Snowden days, still politically low-profile ‘synergies’ that were establishing themselves between computer software firms, security specialists and consumer service industries.

Invisibility, in other words, is something actively produced, rather than simply an absence, a lack or a deficiency. As if in response to this challenge, Farocki embarked on a series of videos and installations, especially Serious Games I–IV (2009–2010) and, of course, Parallel I–IV (2012–2014), both of which take up simulation as one of the crucial strategies of this new invisibility, combining an investigation into virtual reality and computer graphics with motifs from his earlier work, already mentioned, but also including Deep Play (2007) as well as from Leben BRD (1990) and The Creators of Shopping Worlds (2001).

In Eye/Machine another thought that turns up again in Parallel is already formulated, namely that one of the many ironies of media warfare on the nightly news is our willingness to thrill to the birds’ eye view of a smart bomb’s capacity for destruction. Eye/Machine I & II chart the increasingly asymmetric relation between human hands, eyes and machines, as bodies seem to become the weakest link in a chain of automated interaction that promotes the eye at the expense of the hand, and promotes seeing as registering and controlling over seeing as recognizing and understanding: thereby putting an end also to the epistemological equation according to which ‘to see is to know’. These transformations of the body and the senses in relation to machines and weapons are often cast in Farocki as meditations about distance and proximity, of actions conducted in remote locations but whose consequences must be accounted for at home. As such, distance and proximity are often reflexively doubled by an interrogation about what can be said and what cannot be shown, at times even accompanied by a very personal, bodily self-reference – as in Nicht löschbares Feuer (1969), where the incommensurability of a certain reality of war and its filmic representation already anticipates the ethical impasse and bodily trauma of drone strikes and joy-stick warfare from Serious Games (2009). Parallel’s repeated first-person shooter perspective reminds us of the ‘subjective’ camera mounted on a missile, where the seemingly privileged point of view makes us forget that the camera will be killed along with the target, i.e. that the pleasure of sharing the perspective of a camera-bomb has a price: it is deadly not only for the target. Hollywood films like American Sniper, Good Kill or installation artist Omer Fast’s Five Thousand Feet Is Best try in their different ways to persuade us of the moral cost of such a privileged perspective, that such action at a distance may kill our capacity for love and empathy for our nearest and dearest, but Farocki sees it also in a wider context, which encompasses simulation not in some far-flung theatre of war, but also role play closer home.

Simulation, animation and role play

Although what I have just referred to as the new invisibility is ‘new’ only in the sense that Farocki’s installations may have helped to identify it more clearly, the further aspect I want to draw attention to is the way Farocki aligns his explorations of invisibility with different types of labour. Foremost among them is the military labour of invisibility, which may start with the varieties of camouflage – of soldiers’ uniforms, of enhanced interrogation centres or of stealth bombers – yet encompasses official disinformation campaigns, secrecy in the name of national security. It includes the invisibility of casualties in armed conflict, not just the collateral damage among civilians of smart bombs and drone strikes, not even the invisible body bags of dead returning soldiers, but also the invisibility of the psychic wounds that especially the long drawn-out wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have inflicted on thousands of young men and their families. Serious Games (see Figure 6) connects this labour of invisibility, which camouflages those traumata by twice removing them from their lived reality very persuasively with computer games and other simulation techniques, as they migrate between battlefields and blockbuster movies, suggesting that digital images may try to sell us ‘enhanced visibility’ but on delivery, we receive ever more densely textured invisibility. Behind it stands a possible parallel between an industrial workforce and a military establishment that increasingly outsources its labour to commercial contractors, raising the further question of what might be the consequences, when not only the workers are leaving the factory, to be replaced by robots, but also when soldiers are leaving the battlefield to be replaced by remote controlled drones.

The simulated therapy sessions of Serious Games, on the other hand, are a reminder of another site for the more traditional labour of invisibility: hospital personnel and nursing staff, houseworkers and child-carers, in short: the typically gendered labour of empathy and attentive listening, or in the case of self-help groups and wellness centres, the labour of those who minister to some of the narcissistic wounds that the West is afflicted with, or has inflicted on itself. Farocki’s Leben BRD is, besides several other things, a veritable compendium of the different situations of affective labour, as we have come to call it. The very fact, however, that it now has a name, indicates that such labour may have become less invisible, yet that it took at least two generations of concerted feminist effort to put it in the spotlight.

[Bild 6: Figure 6. ‘Serious Games III: Immersion’. © Harun Farocki GbR, 2009.]

In Leben BRD, games and simulations of real life scenarios become the training exercises in living, understood as attempts at anticipating contingencies and predicting outcomes under always already worse-case conditions. Farocki was at first inspired by the practice of insurance companies, who routinely have to play through life histories in order to calculate probable outcomes and assess financial risks. But he soon realized that converting lived experience into scripted situations, and scripted situations into live-action training exercises, was far more prevalent than he had imagined. He found himself filming in schools, offices, maternity clinics, in strip clubs, shelters for the homeless, management training centres, police stations, observing child therapists and army field exercises. To operational images correspond operating instructions for life. The reason, as the film’s voice over informs us, is that: ‘With ever more uncertainty in society, about the rules and regulations by which to live, there are more and more games, where life is trained as a sport.’ A few years later, with Deep Play, Farocki would graphically demonstrate how sports and the sports field have become workplaces, every bit as closely monitored as the assembly line has been, since the days of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth’s ‘time and motion studies’ in the 1910s and 1920s (see Wood and Wood, 2003). Leben BRD is a great – sad, funny and deeply ironic – inquiry into this obsession with try-outs (for) living, as well as the terrors and anxieties lurking just beneath the surface. A comment on a blog captures their uncanniness:

Leben BRD … includes training people to kill, provide obstetric care, how to separate those involved in domestic arguments etc. All this is interspersed with factory images of equipment being tested for longevity (for example a car door being opened and closed a thousand times by a machine). It all comes off as quite banal and sterile programming. I’ve heard how feeling is something that has been outsourced to professionals (i.e. psychiatrists), and here the psychiatrists are just as impersonal [as the machine], getting a patient to draw a time series graph of their phobia, incapable of providing what the patient needs, a shoulder to cry on, someone to hug and understand. As someone who has participated in role play courses [myself] I can say that I find them deeply uncomfortable, and more, I find others not finding them so even more uncomfortable.10

Leben BRD documents how role-play, test-drives, sampling and rehearsals of emergency situations – in short, performative approaches to social and personal life – are increasingly defining the social sphere and our interaction with others. It is as if we are keeping life itself at a ‘safe’ distance, constantly asking for field manuals of how to live our lives, as well as how to conduct wars, fall in love, or stress-test our bodies. Yet Farocki also shows what these life-manuals are a substitute for: they are a placebo for a more active, productive and interpersonal engagement with the world, which for him has always been defined by ‘work’. But this, too, has a dual legacy, insofar as, for instance, in the Marxian tradition, the split persists between wage labour as slave labour, condemned as both evidence and expression of capitalist exploitation, and work considered as the means of self-fulfilment and self-realization, true to the motto: ‘to each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities’, of which ‘Arbeit macht frei’ and ‘Jedem das Seine’ became the cynically perverted echo.11 Quite a few of Farocki’s films are extended self-interrogations of this tension between the dignity of labour and the dehumanizing conditions often imposed on it: manual work, intellectual work, workers’ solidarity, trade unions and the organized working class, the work of hands or ‘Handwerk’ (craft and skill). Sometimes, manual labour and intellectual labour are the main theme, as in Farocki’s first full-length feature film Between the Wars, sometimes industrial work is featured in melancholy retrospect, as in Workers Leaving the Factory, sometimes work appears obliquely or through its anxious simulation, as in Leben BRD, and finally, his last project (with Antje Ehmann), Labour in a Single Shot provides a compendium of the sheer diversity of labour today, and of the men and women engaged in often physically exhausting and repetitive tasks – which precisely because of their routine and repetitiveness usually remain invisible, in cities as far flung as Bangalore and Berlin, Boston and Buenos Aires, Hangzhou and Hanoi, Lisbon and Lodz, Mexico City and Moscow, Rio de Janeiro and Tel Aviv.12

The new kinds of invisibility and the labour invested in them, in other words, require a re-think of strategies for making visible, and I see Labour in a Single Shot as a heroic attempt to do just that: against the horizon of this invisibility of labour and the labour of invisibility, Labour in a Single Shot is conceived as a way of reversing invisibility, as well as countering the dominant logic of outsourcing labour, while nonetheless only too aware that not only multinationals like Apple, Mercedes or IKEA practise outsourcing. Museum curators, short of fresh material, will also travel the globe in search of new talent, and film festivals are equally anxious to tap new creative potential in developing and emerging countries, by organizing talent campuses or offering seed- and development money that ties such potential talent to their institution or brand.13

Labour in a Single Shot counters outsourcing by re-sourcing, but not in the way that the workers’ films of the 1970s tried to do by handing cameras to striking workers, or the way that anthropologists gave camcorders to Amazon tribes in order for them to speak out against the iniquities of logging and the destruction of the Brazilian rain forests (see Ginsburg, 1995; Shohat and Stam, 1994; see also Tierney, 2001; Bloom, 1999). Labour in a Single Shot avoids both these traps of missionary empowerment, by reflexively doubling the task. Farocki (1975: 168) once said about the workers’ films made by fellow director Christian Ziewer: that the director had made himself the servant of his own assignment: ‘er hat sich selbst geschickt’ – he sent himself up. Farocki is careful not to send himself up, and so the assignment is multiply filtered and mediated, re-focused and made reflexive, by the master classes he gave in those cities and thereby empowering the eyes and hands, the skill-level and temperament of the aspiring film-makers, all indigenous to the cities visited.14

Mimesis once more

Where does this, then, leave me, with respect to my feeling that Parallel I–IV is more enigmatic than its matter of fact tone seems to suggest, and that it might be ‘work in progress’ rather than a stand-alone?

It has become part of the banalities of our post-human discourse to assert that the boundaries between game-play and dis-simulation, between role-play and reality are getting more porous and reversible. Parallel I–IV offers any number of these kinds of statements, opinions, descriptions – yet I think it would be a mistake to think that Farocki leaves it at that. With Farocki, one is well advised to complement the said with the unsaid, and sense the gaps between the elements that are being brought together by montage. For it is Farocki’s own labour of invisibility that enters into this montage, and becomes manifest through his invisible cuts: separating what is habitually thought to belong together, and joining what no-one else before thought of associating or connecting. And so, the long silences in Parallel between the voice-off commentary are not just there for us to append to what is being said, or apply to the images that follow, as if these images were mere illustrations of the words. Rather, the silences are themselves something like the counter-argument, or as Farocki liked to put it, they are the ‘counter-music’. In other words, Parallel I–IV – as the title already hints – might well be the negative foil to something, in much the way I have argued that the life manuals of Leben BRD have the disappearance of ‘work’ as a means of self-realization as their invisible imprint. How, then, to think the uncanniness of Leben BRD alongside the uncanny valley effects of Parallel I–IV?

To approach an answer to this, I must return once more to Bazin’s distinction between filmmakers who put their faith in the image and those who put their faith in reality. After what I have argued so far, one conclusion would be that the distinction no longer simply applies to filmmakers, but to entire societies, where – mediated across the different kinds of invisibility – those who put their faith in role play and life manuals, who use their bodies for exercises on treadmills and think of self-optimization as self-enlightenment, or of self-exploitation as creativity, along with those who perfect ever more photo-realistic worlds with CG animation – do so not only to treat the world like an onion, consisting of nothing but layers, with an empty core, but precisely in order to keep at bay and invisible those who have no other choice than to put their faith in reality, which is to say, who experience the harsh materiality and deadly consequences of a world that now lives by the simulated image. Their faith must be that reality will one day change, and it is to such hopes that Farocki’s films try to speak as well, for instance, In Comparison (about brick-making in different parts of the world), or his installation The Silver and the Cross (about a painting of the Bolivian city of Potosi and its fabled silver mines, that paid for the first Western globalization led by Spain). These are examples of the reverse-side materiality of the images’ apparent immateriality, which suggests that Parallel might also have an implied, but at first sight invisible reverse-side.

In an interview with me many years ago, Farocki conceded that he was, as a filmmaker and image producer, part of those whose task it was to ‘make the world superfluous’, meaning that a world that puts its faith in the image, can become careless about the fate of that world ‘in reality’. Clearly, these remarks about cinema making the world superfluous resonate with the dematerialization of labour and the labour of invisibility so prevalent in his later work. In this sense, Parallel I–IV as we have it, might be the first stage, the thesis if you like, of a much more extended dialectic, where Serious Games, even though made earlier, would be something like the antithesis, insofar as Serious Games shows us the psychic and moral consequences of making the world superfluous, which would also explain why Parallel refrains from pointing out the material consequences of computer animation.15

What then could be the possible synthesis, if Parallel is the thesis (i.e. showing how the world of computer simulation appears to us as making anything possible, without resistance and material impediment, but which at every city intersection or sea shore can dip into nothingness) and if Serious Games is the antithesis (showing us the consequences of this nothingness, just around the corner and at the edge of our field of vision: a world without shadows, a world that has sold its soul to the devil, if we remember those Expressionist films about lost shadows). One synthesis (or merely another consequence) of the downward spiral of simulation of a simulation of a simulation would take us in an upward spiral towards some forever receding Platonic heaven of ideal types, of perfectibility, of anticipatory, pre-emptive action and pre-mediation of reality and its risks, trying to control contingency by ever more data-rich simulations of ‘reality’. Another synthesis (or merely another counter-music) would be to re-assess what we have lost when we lose our shadow, which is to say, when we move from ‘reality’ to the ‘cinema’ and from cinema to ‘post-cinema’, i.e. digital simulation, or – using a different vocabulary – when the imaginary image of reality gives way to the simulated image of reality, or with yet another vocabulary, when the reality effect as a subject effect (i.e. the imaginary construction of a subject position) gives way to the reality effect as an avatar effect (i.e. the simulated construction of an interactive position).

Towards the end of Parallel I, Farocki invokes one of the most famous among artists who believed in the image, namely the Greek painter Zeuxis. This is what the voice over says: ‘According to legend, Zeuxis could make drawings of fruits so realistic that birds flocked by to peck at them’, followed by a long pause, and a change of subject. What the film does not show – except insofar as the left side of the screen is a blank without image – is how the story goes on, at least as related by Pliny, the historian (Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia; see the entry on Parrhasius by Chisholm in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1911). When Zeuxis bragged to fellow painter Parrhasius, the latter invited Zeuxis to his studio, keen to demonstrate to his rival a similar feat. Zeuxis, in front of the work, demanded that Parrhasius draw back the curtain, which hung across the canvas, in order to be able to judge for himself the skills of his colleague. But the curtain was the painting. Acknowledging that Parrhasius was the better of the two, Zeuxis said, ‘I took in the birds, but you took me in.’16

Translated into our contemporary situation: whereas the life-like, natural-looking grapes give us a version of photo-realism, which is, as it were, strictly for the birds, and by simulating something ‘out there’, produces merely a fake, the curtain veiling Parrhasius’ ‘painting’ achieves an effect in the beholder’s mind, and thus produces a ‘truth’: not about the world, but about this mind, about the imagination, our desire and/or our capacity for (self-) deception, pulling the ground from under us or putting us into the loop of (compulsive) repetition. In other words, Zeuxis and Parrhasius are two kinds of ‘realists’, whose strategies are, however, different and almost diametrically opposed, in the sense that the second is the meta-commentary on the first. It is not that Parrhasius is merely a ‘baroque’ trompe l’oeil realist against the ‘classically’ representational Zeuxis. What matters is the interaction or interchange between the two, where Zeuxis’ ‘demand to see’ mistakes Parrhasius’ curtain as interposing itself between him and whatever he hopes to see represented. Zeuxis’ category mistake is Parrhasius’ painting, or put differently, whereas Zeuxis paints grapes, Parrhasius paints (the) desire (for grapes).

This doubling of mimesis by its own impossible desire for possession (and often fatal entanglement in the paradoxes of representation, covering, precisely, the abyss of nothingness or the fear that, ultimately, there is nothing ‘there’) points to what we might have lost in this new world without shadows, and thus to what is, as it were, inevitably and necessarily ‘missing’ in both Serious Games and Parallel: the cinema as we once knew it, the cinema as it is now emblematically embodied in the director who for Bazin was the epitome of the filmmaker who put his faith in the image, namely Alfred Hitchcock. Of him we can say – as of Parrhasius: whereas the Zeuxis among directors filmed Marilyn Monroe or Julia Roberts as if they were real, Hitchcock filmed the veil: the desire for Melanie, for Marnie and for Madeleine.

These are conclusions that Farocki did not draw, and maybe would not have drawn. So let me therefore conclude with a hypothesis of my own. Whereas analogue filmmaking, centred on production, sought to ‘capture’ reality, in order to ‘harness’ it into a representation, digital filmmaking, conceived from the perspective of post-production, proceeds by way of ‘extracting’ reality, in order to ‘harvest’ it into a data-set. Instead of disclosure and revelation (the ontology of film from Jean Epstein to André Bazin, from Siegfried Kracauer to Stanley Cavell), or the veiling of the world the better for the mind and the senses to experience its own pleasures and terrors (as in Hitchcock or Fritz Lang), a cinema of post-production treats the world as data to be processed or mined, as raw materials and resources to be exploited. In other words, the move from production to postproduction as the centre of gravity in digital filmmaking is not primarily defined by a different relation to ‘reality’ (as claimed in the argument around the loss of indexicality in the digital image). Rather, a mode of production, for which postproduction becomes the default value changes more than mere procedure: it changes the cinema’s inner logic (and thus its ontology). The emphasis on postproduction, made possible by the digital is fundamentally no longer based on perception: its visuality is of the order of the vegetal: comparable to the growing, harvesting, extraction and manipulation of genetic or molecular material in the processes of bio-genetics or micro-engineering. No wonder, therefore, that Farocki’s Parallel starts by going back to leaves and trees, to blades of grass and the lapping of waves: it’s where it all began, for how was it again: ‘In films, there is the wind that blows and the wind that is produced by a wind machine. Computer images do not have two kinds of wind’ – that is because the real storm is blowing – pace Walter Benjamin17 – from the edges and from the underside, that is, the ‘paradise’ of pixels we now call progress. On the other hand, post-production as the new default value, may also signal the end of this very exploitative relation to the world and its resources, as practised by industrial capitalism. This, too, would be a breath of fresh air: perhaps the winds of progress, after all.

Funding This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the commercial, public or not-for-profit sectors and there is no conflict of interest.



Most notoriously, Bazin was the straw man in McCabe (1974). McCabe (2011: 66) would later admit to treating him as ‘a theoretically naïve empiricist, kind of idiot of the family’.

2,;; menagerie-rhythm-hues;






For a contextual retrospective, published to commemorate Farocki, see the special issue of e-flux 59 (November 2014), devoted to Farocki,


As the artist Trevor Paglen (2014) notes:

Something new was happening in the world of images, something that the theoretical tools of visual studies and art history couldn’t account for: the machines were starting to see for themselves. Harun Farocki was one of the first to notice that image-making machines and algorithms were poised to inaugurate a new visual regime. Instead of simply representing things in the world, the machines and their images were starting to ‘do’ things in the world. In fields from marketing to warfare, human eyes were becoming anachronistic. It was, as Farocki would famously call it, the advent of ‘operational images’.


The debate between Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida and their respective followers and critics regarding the meaning of Poe’s short story can be found in Muller and Richardson (1988).


The parallel between purloined and surveillance is also drawn by Hull (1990).


Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969–1974), 2nd series, episode 11 (‘How not to be seen’, 1979).


See Cinema of the World. Available at:


These were the slogans on the gates of, respectively, the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps (see




The Indian artist Bose Krishnamachari, for instance, thinks of himself as a talent scout for the West:

When I travel within my country, my aim is always to spot a new talent, to see what he or she is doing and to understand why he or she is doing so. Some critics say that I am a ‘talent scout’. Yes, I am a talent scout, I am a military drill-master and a scheming commander because what I am looking for is a result … Thanks to the free global exchange of ideas, goods, commodities, culture, politics, concerns, ideologies, war and so on, art too has become visible across borders. It is not just that Indian contemporary art is moving all over the world, world art is also coming to India. And it is not because the world has suddenly fallen in love with Indian art and culture that there is this global attention. No, it is because of economics and global political participation … In addition, art has an investment value; with investment in art, people across borders trust each other on an economic level too. So we have a challenging scenario where global players come to India and look at our art, buy our art and exhibit our art elsewhere.’ (www.

See also Flores (2008) and Demos (2013). With respect to film festivals, ‘development funds’ and ‘talent campuses’ were pioneered at Rotterdam and Berlin. By now, almost every major festival has such a talent campus. One aim is to bind such emergent talent to the festival that first sponsored her or him.


For a more detailed analysis of the ‘Labor in a Single Shot’ project, see Moeller (2014) and Hoof (2015).


In the absence of further evidence that Farocki planned such a trilogy, which would have remained unfinished due to his untimely death, this hypothesis must remain speculative. But there can be little doubt that Farocki was a deeply dialectical thinker, in the sense of believing in change through the conflict of opposing forces that across their apparent antagonism and separateness reveal complementary conditions of possibility, and thus a unity. My own posited syntheses are, in deference to the incompleteness of this thought experiment, more dialogical than dialectical.




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