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HARUN FAROCKI

An Image
Germany, 1983, DVD, color, 25 min.

Still Life
Germany, 1997, DVD, color, 56 min.

A Screening as Part of The Devil, Prob
Thursday, February 6, 7pm at Yale Union

For some time now, Harun Farocki has been asking what kind of information can images provide. In 1983, he spent four days filming the construction of a Playboy centerfold photograph. About this dull ritual, Farocki wrote, “The magazine itself deals with culture, cars, a certain lifestyle. Maybe all those trappings are only there to cover up the naked woman. Maybe it’s like with a paper doll. The naked woman in the middle is a sun around which a system revolves: of culture, of business, of living! It’s impossible to either look or film directly into the sun. One can well imagine that the people creating such a picture, the gravity of which is supposed to hold all that, perform their task with as much care, seriousness, and responsibility as if they were splitting uranium. This film, Ein Bild, is part of a series I’ve been working on since 1979. The television station that commissioned it assumes in these cases that I’m making a film that is critical of its subject matter, and the owner or manager of the thing that’s being filmed assumes that my film is an advertisement for them. I try to do neither. Nor do I want to do something in between, but beyond both.”[1], [2]

The second film, Still Life, opens with a section on 17th century Dutch still life painting, and goes on to observe contemporary photographers as they shoot ads of immobile cheese, beer, and Cartier watches. The Dutch are sometimes credited with inventing capitalism. Their paintings of exuberant possessions—lobsters, wine, cheese—are right on time to remind us of our own pictures, dizzy with affluence. Made during the golden age of mercantile relations, the still life paintings, deemed the least valuable of pictorial genres, had added appeal as fantasy extensions of wealth. Consider that the objects depicted in the pictures were often more costly than the pictures themselves, indicating that these artists were, in the social scheme of things, little more than market suppliers, manufacturers of driven productions, the makers of seamless, resplendent advertisements.

At the end of Still Life, Farocki has conclusive remarks for our program, “In the end, objects bear witness to their producers who bear something of themselves in the act of production. But the producers do not appear with their objects. When you look at objects, the people who produce them remain unimaginable.”

Taken together, An Image and Still Life can be seen as clear and instructive, but Farocki does not stalk up and down the chalkboard. “I am interested in an exchange with my audience, tackling a subject in such a way that it becomes productive and generates a force field via which others can continue to work on it. It is about gaining new access to things: about establishing a mode in which one sees something differently through the images, but sees the images themselves differently. If this meta-view is successful a great deal has been achieved.” The German professor, Volker Patenburg, put it this way, “When speaking about art the notion of ‘education’ is not the most likely one to come to our minds. Ever since the invention of the romantic and idealistic idea of an autonomous realm of art, a prominent mode of critical thinking has tended to assign ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ to particular public spheres like school, university, or the media, while the museum and the gallery remain untouched by such supposedly functional concerns. […] Harun Farocki is interested in the instructive character of artworks, in the impulse to teach and transfer, to share not only an aesthetic experience but also a profound knowledge that the artist renders accessible in his work. I prefer to call this quality ‘instructive’ instead of ‘educational’ or ‘didactic.’ Not only does the word sound less disparaging; it also contains the word ‘structure,’ which was one of the most far-reaching terms in 20th-century thought. Learning about structures and then displaying how structures configure, mould, and shape narration, meaning, and ideology was one of the most influential developments in the humanities.”[3]

Harun Farocki was born in 1944 in the then German-annexed Czechoslovakia. After being expelled with HARTMUT BITOMSKY from the German Film and Television Academy in Berlin in 1969 because of political activism, Farocki supported himself by working for West German television and as a film critic, serving from 1974 to 1984 as the editor of the German film journal Filmkritik.

Filmkritik functioned as an island; HF’s films were not as successful as he would have liked and the Filmkritik cooperative offered a kind of kinship. Joining the cooperative meant becoming financially co-responsible for the journal. In the mid 1970′s, the Berlin based editorial board travelled to Munich where the majority of the cooperative were based; by 1978, editorial meetings were held in Berlin. Filmkritik published 12 issues a year; a demanding schedule which obliged the 12 to 15 editors to regularly contribute texts that were more often complex essays than reviews. Filmkritik’s high point came at the end of the 70s when the journal devoted an entire issue to Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) and another to the work of Peter Nestler. In both cases, the Berlin editorial team watched and discussed all the films together; a single author or a group would then write a text which was collectively discussed and rewritten; the process continued until the special issue was completed. […] In retrospect the journal had reached an impasse by the mid 80s; the 10-year boom in film production in Germany had failed to generate an equivalent excitement around film discourse; Filmkritik found few directors and writers willing to join them in their search for a new critical language. Their response was to demand more commitment from their contributors; they dismissed people such as Wenders who only wrote occasionally and became a sect whose standards intimidated the kind of authors they would have needed. To read Filmkritik today is to perceive the value of support structures and elective affinities. The debates and conversations obliged editors and contributors to articulate their arguments, clarify their likes, sharpen their dislikes and formulate their positions month by month. Surrounded by a network of allies, the imaginary was made concrete; particularly when your allies were the filmmakers and theorists you were writing about.”[4]

As his international reputation began to grow in the 1980s, Farocki turned to teaching. From 1993 to 1999, he was a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and from 2006 to 2011 a full professor at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. He’s made over a hundred works for television and film. He has had solo exhibitions at MoMA, Tate Modern, and been included in large scale group exhibitions like Documenta 12. We can never tell where his influence stops.

Harun Farocki. “Eine Rede über Zwei Filme/A Talk about Two Films,” in Zelluloid (Cologne), No. 27, Fall 1988.

How pleasing is it to learn that the German word for image, Bild, sounds like “build,” reminding us that the construction of images is inherently a form of assembly.

Volker Patenburg. “Harun Farocki’s Instructional Work,” in Harun Farocki: Against What? Against Whom? Eds. Antje Ehmann and Kodwo Eshun. London: Koenig Books, Raven Row, 2009.

4 In Harun Farocki: Against What? Against Whom? Eds. Antje Ehmann and Kodwo Eshun. Cologne: Walther Koenig, 2010.

 

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THE GESTURE

The question is: how does one hold an apple
Who likes apples

And how does one handle
Filth? The question is

How does one hold something
In the mind which he intends

To grasp and how does the salesman
Hold a bauble he intends

To sell? The question is
When will there not be a hundred

Poets who mistake that gesture
For a style.

The first part of George Oppen’s “Five Poems about Poetry,” from New Collected Poems, ed. Michael Davidson. New York: New Directions, 2002.