70-year-old Czech-born German filmmaker Harun Farocki is best known for his experimental shorts and video essays. Having picked up a penchant for pop culture while teaching at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1990s, he has delved into the worlds of CGI and video gaming, in search of the cores of many of the mythologies surrounding violence, weapons, and their relationships to contemporary society.
His best-known work in this genre is Serious Games, a film which explores the war simulation games used to train American soldiers through a combination of interviews and game footage. In his most recent four-piece installation at the Berlin Documentary Forum, Parallele I-IV, this same style of sleuthing has carried over. Through a combination of experimental styles, the tall, thin philosopher rewires gaming's narratives around the theme, “Does the world exist if I’m not watching it?”
In Farocki's eyes, gaming has its roots in the philosophy of perception. Just as 17th century philosophers René Descartes and John Locke once spoke about indirect realism, the same can be said of gaming avatars and the objects they come into contact with— everything is an extension of the characters' minds.
Starting out in the 1980s, we see video games from their pixelated beginnings up until the photo-realistic now. Guiding us through the games with each hero, Farocki takes us behind-the-scenes with animators and programmers of Grand Theft Auto, Minecraft and Assassin’s Creed. By revealing these games' algorithms, Farocki reads in between the lines of virtual reality, pointing out their virtual hidden corners and flaws, and takes us beyond the edges of their worlds.
Just like a rainbow is an illusion that can never be reached, in some game modes, it's possible to break through safety barriers and fall into space like an astronaut, the hero catapulting from its spaceship, falling off the edge of the world. The normally invisible borders are visible from the studios of game designers, portraying Farocki as Oz behind the digital curtain. He shows us the limitations of a seemingly endless digital realm; everything isn’t as fantastical as it seems to be.
In film, for example, there are two types of wind: the wind that blows IRL and the wind produced by wind machines. Computer images don’t have two types of wind, points out Farocki— because it’s all computerized. Whereas fantasy was once experienced in 15th Century paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, and then in fantasy films like Labyrinth in the 1980s, now it’s rooted in video games. Just as there are virtual reality vacations, gaming is the new great escape.
Explored here are ways in which characters die, the art of walking sideways, and un-scalable borders. There’s also the American construction of Middle Eastern destruction: as one pan shot zooms out of a warzone, what emerges is the art of leaving catastrophes behind without responsibility. Gaming becomes both an algorithmic satire and a form of therapy for these seemingly endless decades of modern warfare.
To Farocki, gaming is a theatre wherein winning doesn’t matter; if it’s a trip to think of a 70-year-old artist exploring their hidden corners of games, you should have been at his talk at Berlin’s Haus Der Kulturen Der Welt a few weeks ago, which was packed with a cult following of 20somethings.
At his talk, Farocki explained that it’s a wonderful feeling to work with gaming aesthetically, from re-editing sequences into the “parallels” that show his perceptions of them, comparing the process to film editing. Part of the goal, he said, was to make narrations and compositions which can be discussed alongside cinema. “Everything that has been put there has been coming out of emptiness or going back into emptiness," Farocki said, “Where does this world end?”
His work has been said to promote critical paranoia. Farocki ponders those pulling the puppet strings of reality. He also points out the difference down to the last detail: leaves. They just don’t sway like normal trees do; it’s like watching plastic sway in the wind.
These days, what do people watch more of, films or video games? Computer animation is an image genre that surpasses film, in certain ways, and is behind it in others, and in his work, Farocki draws these parallels from opening credits through game over.
Check out more of Harun Farocki’s work on his website.
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