Immersion, the recent work by the German filmmaker and artist Harun Farocki, shows therapists using game technology in the treatment of traumatized soldiers. Shown last summer at SMART Project Space, the film was previously presented in Leuven, together with two earlier works by Farocki. Here, it was clear that Farocki had previously used war as a game with analogue, electronic and digital media, blurring the distinctions between virtual and actual reality.
One of the first films that Harun Farocki produced after the doors of the Berlin Film Academy closed behind him was Nicht löschbares Feuer (Inextinguishable Fire) (1969). That film, and therefore his entire oeuvre, in fact, began with an exposé on the consequences of napalm – the inextinguishable flame to which the title refers. The words of the dry exposé are reinforced by a demonstrative gesture. To give the viewer an idea of what burning napalm is like, Farocki puts out a burning cigarette on his arm. The commentary informs us that napalm burns at a temperature of 6000°, while a cigarette reaches 400°. It is a statement whose intensity is no less impressive than Luis Buñuel’s debut work from 1928, in which a razor is drawn through an eyeball at the start of the film Un chien Andalou, also at the start of his own oeuvre.
With that painfully confrontational image, the raw reality that can leave no viewer untouched, Farocki demonstrates that life is no game. Yet many behave as though it were, as Farocki shows in the rest of that film and the numerous films, videos and installations that have followed. The actors in Nicht löschbares Feuer behave as if they were models in the works contemporaries such as Robert Bresson or Fassbinder. Like pawns in a chess game, friends and people of the same generation play interchangeable roles of secretary, director, soldier or television viewers in surrogate decors, which we effortlessly accept as representing reality. They do this in a way that has to make clear that the only reality that counts in that particular moment is the reality of the film.
We can refer to this as role-play and acknowledge it as one of the most important themes in Farocki’s films. In Leben – BRD (How to Live in the FRG) (1990), he observes training sessions for midwives, automobile drivers and other social role models. In Die Bewerbung (The Interview) (1997), unemployed German workers train for job applications. In Deep Play (2007), the installation that he completed for the recent Documenta, on 12 screens, Farocki analyzes the movements of soccer players, commentators, cameras, spectators and others involved in the final of the 2006 world soccer championship. Together, all these works demonstrate the machinations that prepare people for a comprehendible reality: comprehendible and virtual.
In May of this year, three of Farocki’s installations were presented at STUK in Leuven, including not only Nicht löschbares Feuer, but also Auge/Maschine (Eye/Machine) (2000). Again, we see this extreme, comprehendible virtual reality. The work is about the programmable eye of a machine. Here, looking means recognizing likenesses: a door, a door handle, a person, a plinth, a house, a vehicle…. These are the visual beacons of a mechanical existence. Auge/Maschine shows reality as a virtual reality that thus far consists only of purely recognizable elements: an abstracted mirror of reality.
Most of the images on the several screens of Auge/Maschine date from the period of the first Gulf War, in 1991, and (the beginning of) the end of the television age. The civil visual technologies in this work lead to a military strategy, as they would do in a video game. This war knows no bodies, no victims, no losses and no blood. What we see are the victories, executed by what one could still easily refer to as ‘intelligent machines’. We have a front row seat from which to experience this war: the pilot’s cockpit, the tip of a bomb. This television experience is sheer comfort. It makes us forget the real war. This is the real war – that which Baudrillard could claim had never taken place. The experience of viewers at home is the same as that of the real players in the war game, of the pilot in front of his video screen.
The exhibition at STUK also included Farocki’s most recent work, Immersion (2009), coproduced by STUK and Jeu de Paume in Paris. This installation once again puts the viewer squarely in the midst of current affairs, now the war in Iraq. Eighteen years after the first Gulf War, computer-generated game technology is not only employed on the battlefield, but also used for recruiting, training and therapy for battle-scarred soldiers. It is the beginning, the middle and the end of the violence of war. Never has war been so transparent, so tangible, so efficient or so virtual.
Filming for Immersion took place at Fort Louis, near Seattle, during a demonstration for therapists treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) sufferers. The event was organized by the designers of the technology now being used in Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET). The therapy consists of subjecting traumatized soldiers to the conditions of war once again, in a virtual reality. It is a kind of going back to the beginning – not only literally to the beginning of the military experience, starting with the recruiting game, but also back to the beginnings of a technology that was initially developed by the military, was subsequently taken over by game designers and is now being sold back to the same military apparatus from which it originated. What we step into is an economic game, at the stage where the therapists seek a niche for themselves in a growing market.
At the same time, Immersion is also a return to the role-play with which, for Farocki, it had all begun – the role play that has never been absent from his work. Whereas the viewer at first believes that the players on the screens are real soldiers in a PTSD situation, towards the end of the video it becomes clear that this is about professional therapists who are playing out the situation in an extremely convincing way. This was also the case in Leben – BRD and all of Farocki’s other films about such service industries, which are responsible for training intended to uphold the stability of the system. Ultimately, by way of the symbolic management of an individual’s personal experience, it is about the management of the country in which one is operating. ‘Winning on the ground is no longer necessary,’ according to Farocki. ‘These computer images create a parallel world in order to conquer the situation. It is part of the therapeutic approach.’
Since making Immersion, Harun Farocki has called game technology the most appropriate medium for waging war today. This is because, he claims, propaganda no longer seeks a narrative story the way it used to, based on heroic images. This technology has taken over the roles of film (for World War II), television (for Vietnam), video (for the first Gulf War) and the Internet (for the second Gulf War). It is along this path that propaganda is now engaged (for recruiting), that movements are analyzed (in training) and carried out (on the battlefield), and it is along this path that traumas are treated (on the home front). The same technology allows use in different situations and on different terrains. To the virtual Iraq that the game designers constructed for these PTSD situations, mountains have since been added for a virtual Afghanistan, in the same way that a virtual Vietnam already existed for the veterans of that war and a virtual World Trade Center for the survivors of 9/11. By treating these terrains as an element in a videogame, the issue of why countries such as Afghanistan or Iraq are even present in the theatre of war is no longer a subject for discussion.
This work not only shows an immersive situation, it is one. As viewers, we effortlessly let ourselves be carried away by the assumption that the person on the screen is in a real situation. Only much later does it become apparent that this is about a therapist who is playing an actor who is playing a soldier. In this way, Farocki makes his viewers aware of the artificial construction through which people have to pass before they arrive at a real experience. It is a Brechtian dimension that leads back to his earliest work.
Alienate = demonstrate = edit: the Brechtian device used by Farocki can be summarized this way. It is an estrangement that briefly puts viewers on the sidelines in order to subsequently make them even more involved. Like Brecht, with his own montage of quotations, Farocki wants to open up the subject of representation. He means to reveal the construction that is put in place of reality, his critique of the illusion of reality and his critique of the identification. In Immersion, this is all the more underscored by the work being presented on two screens that are set up apart from one another. It is a technique that Farocki has employed since the mid-1990s, which he calls ‘soft montage’, editing that viewers themselves carry out during the projections, by moving back and forth between the respective screens. In the case of Immersion, it is soft editing that leads to a soft game experience.
This Brechtian aspect addresses the core of Farocki’s work, which puts the emphasis on the virtual, on what has been and what is yet to come. We see a smooth space, without obstacles, a virtual continuum as the only reality, a reality without challenge, with the only victory that of the self. This way, Farocki wants to (make us) think about the real truths, the events on the battlefield, the sidelining that is always a part of the game – the napalm on the skin of the Vietnamese and the cigarette on the arm of the filmmaker. Time and time again, Farocki reminds us that we must never forget how the virtual and the actual are parts of the same reality. That makes what looks so comprehendible on these screens so impossibly complex in reality.
Quotations and references to statements by Farocki are from an interview by the author for h-art #51, May 2009.