Harun Farocki: Ernste Spiele/Serious Games

Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin

Harun Farocki’s video installation Ernste Spiele/Serious Games was fittingly coupled with two of his earlier works, Schnittstelle/Interface (1995) and Nicht Löschbares Feuer/Inextinguishable Fire (1969), at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. Initially scheduled for a five-month run, the show was extended into early 2015, following Farocki’s passing in the summer of 2014.

All of these works dealt with the juncture of image-production and warfare, with the media used and the style of warfare changing according to the era under scrutiny – from Vietnam, to the Gulf War, to the ‘Wars on Terror’. The newer works, Serious Games I–IV, were shown in a separate darkened room. The installation consisted of four looped projections onto suspended screens, with their accompanying audio playing from speakers above small, timber benches in front of each screen. All were discrete, stand-alone pieces and they focussed on US Army Marine training methods, particularly for the more recent asymmetric wars the United States has spearheaded in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is difficult to grasp at what level of reality we were supposed to approach these films, as they oscillated continuously between ‘the real’ and ‘the virtual’.

Computer generated imagery is central. These works are at first an investigation into how marines are trained for deployment using computer generated landscapes and situations, but also how computer generated situations are being employed by the US Army to bring the soldier back out of deployment, i.e. to help traumatised soldiers remember the site of their real-life war-trauma.

Serious Games I: Watson is down (2010) shows a row of young marines, dressed in fatigues, sitting behind computers in an office in California. On the left of the two-channel projection we are shown a series of humvees being directed through a generic, computer-generated desert landscape. These marines are in training for traversing expansive, unprotected combat zones, like ones they might encounter in Iraq or Afghanistan. They are fired upon and eventually, one is killed – Watson. His real life counterpart puffs out his cheeks, and slumps back from his computer and into his chair. There is something flatly habitual not only about the exercise but also about the response of the other marines, sitting behind their screens calmly registering Watson’s demise.

Harun Farocki: Ernste Spiele I: Watson ist hin (2010). Video still. © Harun Farocki 2010.
Harun Farocki: Ernste Spiele I: Watson ist hin (2010). Video still. © Harun Farocki 2010.

Serious Games II: Three Dead (2010) is a single-projection film. It opens with a computer-game-like sequence showing us a small town in the Middle East that is supposed to stand in for any Afghan or Iraqi town. Army helicopters swoop overhead and stiff marching columns of American soldiers make their way through the streets. There is an explosion and a group of local men are seen chasing from it. One is hurt, lying on his back, groaning in pain. We cut to what appears to be a real-life Afghan/Iraqi village, but it eventually becomes clear that this village is constructed with painted corrugated shipping containers, and we realise that this reality is another deferred version of reality: it is a training base that appears to have been modelled from a computer game. Here we see Afghan and Iraqi extras socialising with the training soldiers; there is a movie-set catering service, and people sit to eat on benches. Then there is an attack: the marines respond, secure the area and discern that the attack has resulted in three casualties. The film cuts back to the computer-generated world again, and the types of suspense generated by these different depictions of reality become conspicuous.

In Serious Games III: Immersion we are shown an instructor / programmer / world re-maker introducing a new imaging software package to an out-of-shot audience. He shows some of the new features of this package, like how the nocturnal darkness can be lightened up a little. On the right a series of returned soldiers wearing eye goggles sit and describe the circumstances of a traumatic attack that occurred while on duty. An image of the world they are describing is produced by their goggles, which we get to see as well on the left-hand channel of the split screen. One soldier describes how they were ambushed while travelling down a road, saying that there was an explosion and lots of smoke. Smoke plumes duly appear on the left hand screen, blacking out the sun. ‘It was surreal,’ he says. We cut then to another trauma patient, who, with some difficulty, recounts his memories, to the point of feeling ill. The therapist / instructor / programmer / world re-maker continues to ask him to return to the psychic ‘then’ of the situation, the one being presented before his eyes, not the physical present of the therapy session, which is where the ‘patient’ would prefer to be, it seems. The session ends, and we realise that what we have seen is a sales pitch for the imaging product. The trauma patient takes off his goggles and jokes with the ‘therapist’ about some of the glitches in the pitch.

Harun Farocki: Ernste Spiele II: Drei tot (2010). Video still. © Harun Farocki 2010.
Harun Farocki: Ernste Spiele II: Drei tot (2010). Video still. © Harun Farocki 2010.

Projected very close by is Serious Games IV: A Sun with No Shadow. This piece makes clear Farocki’s ability to speak about and analyse the meanings of moving images – his observations and reflections connect with the other works and draw them into a larger essayistic whole. Here, the same set of marines appear again sitting at their computers. We are shown computer-generated landscapes that are similar to the footage used to prepare soldiers for war, but the footage in Serious Games IV has been generated with cheaper software: the objects in this supposedly therapeutic world cast no shadows. ‘The light of traumatic experience is different,’ we are told. Farocki seems to be picking up on threads created in Interface, where he prises apart the relationship between memory and image, after-effect and registration, what is offered and what is understood, what is mechanised for human benefit, and what is merely mechanised. This leads us to one of the major queries raised by Farocki’s image-decoding: how and to what degree is an image sensitising, or desensitising? And within this, where does culpability reside?

Inextinguisable Fire is a committed attempt to disentangle what it means to be a responsible decoder of images and what it means to be an observer – triggered from an analysis of the mass media coverage of the Vietnam War. Farocki tries to relay what napalm burning on flesh is like. He stubs a cigarette out on his forearm, and says this burns at 400 degrees celsius. Then he tells us that napalm burns at 3000. Farocki’s critical gaze is turned just as much towards the production, dissemination and use of mass media images as towards those responsible for the production, dissemination and use of napalm. He shines a light on the moral blind spots occluded by the divisions of industry-driven labour: be it industrial image-making or industrial chemical production and machine manufacture.

Inextinguisable Fire started an interrogation that Serious Games continues, but in Serious Games the distance from the world from which the image was generated has increased considerably, to the point of making the real place associated with the image almost impossible to pin down, or even imagine.

Adrian Duncan is an artist and writer based in Berlin. He is co-editor of Paper Visual Art Journal. Harun Farocki: Ernste Spiele/Serious Games, curated by Henriette Huldisch, was on view February 6 2014 – 31 January 2015.