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Labour and its Memory

Harun Farocki in Conversation with Marco Scotini

(1) Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges (Harun Farocki, 1989). Photo: "Images of the World and the Inscription of War" © Harun Farocki 1988

Marco Scotini:1When the first version of Arbeiter verlassen die Fabrik [Workers leaving the factory] appeared, in the mid-nineties, Maurizio Lazzarato’s Lavoro immateriale [Immaterial labour] was also published.2 For you, that was the opportunity to celebrate 100 years of the medium of cinema; at the same time, the citation of Lumiere’s film was able to become, on that date and in pet1ect assonance with the failure of the conditions of the industrial society, the explicit end mark of the forms of production and subjectivity that had accompanied the Fordist period. The most important part of this association is precisely the relationship between the conditions of general production and the technologies of the production of images as such. In your opinion, does the fact that working conditions in the cinema are increasingly less represented have to do with the transformation of production forms and, therefore, with the condition of non-visibility of immaterial work? Perhaps, this has spread to such an impossible degree that it now encompasses the whole of life, and therefore, this marked invisibility. But who are the new workers? How should they be represented? How can we now determine the measurement of working time in relation to a time that can no longer be qualified as work-time? How can we photograph or film the subjects of this peculiar contemporary economy? 

Harun Farocki: The interesting aspect for me is that this very first film shows something which only exists for a brief moment, because when the workers have left the factory and go out, in a split second, they are no longer workers as well as a coherent group, they are just pedestrians. And, with some few exceptions, like in the genre of dance films – or dancing films – let’s say, in the American revue films, people are dressed uniformly (and Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis has this kind of attitude: you see workers and they are obviously marked as workers), but in the social reality today it’s hard to decide if somebody is a worker, somebody unemployed or some body else on their way to the sports ground; it’s not at all visible. That’s why this motive of leaving the factory is something that only exists for a moment. If you look back to iconography, of course there are examples of forerunners. The corral is something similar: when you want to count the animals, you have to put them to a narrow space and pass them through a gate. Consider also Odysseus, when fighting against the Cyclops: he was beneath the animals and the blind Cyclops was touching them because then he could control them when they were moving through this narrow space. It is a very old idea then that you have to compress a mass to get its image or to depict its essence, that’s the interesting aspect. In communist theory – the theory of Rosa Luxemburg for instance – there was always the idea that the place in front of the factory was this very important place: the latter is supposed to be exclusive (because the factory is not accessible by the public), then workers start to deal with economic issues and then move to the streets as social strata are joining them. 

Ironically, this is a revolution that never played herself out in this way: the end of Communism was marked by such events, let’s say the Lenin Shipyard in Danzig, where they were first striking against bad working conditions and then the entire public joined them and the Solidarność was founded, too. It is very astonishing that this space in front of the factory only in the early years of history – of film history – begins to play a certain role in fantasizing communist films’ plots, also in the fifties, but later this topic is totally lost, and there is this other strange moment in which the social identity of work gets lost and you become a coupled individual/consumer; this has played out very often. Also in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film (Accattone, 1961), Accattone comes to borrow money from his formal wife and then he meets Stella, and the social identity, the individual identity, begins when work ends. This also shows that work is not really a topic which can be depicted or “spectacularized”, it is always the end of work, and that’s all already in the first film: it is very fascinating that in the first film, which is L’arroseur arrose (Louis and Auguste Lumiere, 1895), the work could also be reversed, so that it already has such a strong meaning for a topic. 

If Workers leaving the factory allows us to observe this departure of the workers from the factory, how is it possible to see this departure from the mechanical forms of production within the domain of the image? How does an image work today?

When work loses its materiality, when it becomes computer work, which is somehow the general tendency of a computer machine of replacing all machines or swallowing them – not really replacing them, but swallowing them – then also visibility and the visibility of work are already quite disturbed by electrical and chemical revolution. Whereas in the first revolution, that just connected so much to the train and the steam machine, everything was mechanical, that was how cinematography and technique worked so well together. From then on, it is already troubled and you remember perhaps in the seventies, when computers still had these huge tape reels, they hold these films and the moving of these tape reels going back and forth, because that was the only thing that moved on the computer. Of course, we all know that all these visualisations take place in the field of computers; you have graphics which make the inexplicable explicable again, so we have a new generation of image graphics, moving graphics, interactive graphics, and so on, where work is somehow depicted only by the system itself and not by people observing it. 

Not long ago Sergio Bologna, a theorist of the workers’ movement, wrote these notes: “Look at the image of a miner, gueule noire, with a lamp on his forehead, of a worker on the production line, of any blue overall labourer and it will say something to you, it will immediately transmit to you a reference of time and place, arouse in you memories of social dynamics, of collective behaviour. The images of the working classes of Fordism speak for themselves; over time they have accumulated meaning and such a strength of communication as to be the vehicle of values, culture, and history. Look at the images of a man and a woman sitting at a computer. It’s a work position. Isn’t it? But it doesn’t have the same strength of communication. If anything, it might not be a work situation: it could be someone who is chatting, writing to a relative, playing patience, ordering their shopping. Work, today, has lost its representative nature, it has become opaque, or, rather, invisible. Whatever the case, even if you photograph it and stick a label on it, even if you explain it with recourse to words, it has lost its epic nature, it has lost history, and it has lost its significance.” And he added: “It’s a considerable challenge for the filmmaker, for the photographer.”

It may be more accustomed to come back to this notion that film begins when work ends. Then of course you have this huge gap that so many things, which drive our society, are not really addressed. Therefore, let’s say you come to a neighbourhood in all these post-industrial cities and you see all these high-rises, these offices, and you ask yourself: “What do people do in there?” You have no knowledge about it. Yet, there’s a factory, you know. Are they producing cars, or are they producing steel, or whatever? That’s why I became, since the eighties, interested in finding out, in knowing more about how our society functions, and therefore I also made quite many films about totally immaterial labour, and advertising companies, or shooting centrefold photos for playboy magazine: it’s not true that they are all the same press, it’s just a kind of material work. It is of course true that this tendency of the workers leaving or having left the factory, or the fact that we are a work-society, has now reached a standard of rationalization where workers are not really needed. Just think about companies like Volvo or ASAP, they have only 5.000 people working for them. That’s no more than a small thumb’s workforce nowadays, it’s no longer the national industry, it doesn’t mean so much. There are more people in the banking business than in car manufacturing.

Then it is a very obvious consequence that goals move to poor countries and also workers moved there; it has ended, so, for instance, in a museum you can see handwork nowadays, nearly every face of industrialisation. It depends on in which country you go, but also within one country, within one construction site in India, you can see different time periods at the same time.

In your research into cinema you have been the author who has most focused on this perfect parallel between work and the image. In a number of films you have shown how mechanical robots, taking the model of the production line, have ended up surpassing and replacing the workers themselves, just as sensory devices have done in relation to the work of the human eye in the production of images. How can we summarise this new visual regime that coincides with a progressive dehumanization of seeing? A view that is replaced by a mechanical eye, a computer-controlled image-processing application?

I try to use a term operational images. This goes back to Roland Barthes in Mythologies, where he says that a non-metaphoric language, an operational language, would be the one that a woodpecker uses: it’s speaking with a tree and not about a tree. This is of course an idealisation in some way, because we all are speaking about it too, and also tools have a kind of aesthetic, not only a function. But this idea is true: in origin, these images are not intended to be watched by spectators, consumers, and are not at all created for advertising or education or entertainment: they are just made because they are needed for the people running a program or controlling a program, not for the program itself, even if the program still needs images, of course. In this sense, those operational images are really something new, because if you think back to the first years of cinematography, in the early times of cinematography, film and photography had also a very important meaning in natural science and technique, and this meaning was totally lost. They started measuring the films, which became unneeded, especially the moving image was more in this field of education entertainment, but it was not part of production and research and this has changed status, it is different now: these kind of images have a different status and the idea for filmmakers is to read them differently as to show them. But the American Army already had the idea to take these images and to depict the first war against Iraq in 1992 mainly with these kinds of operational images, which are not really meant to be looked at by spectators, but they still have this representative function. And this was exploited in this way, so in that case that was also a strange avant-garde technique.

With regard to the regimes of visibility of historic forms of work, when carrying out research into the mining sites of the Belgian Limburg area, I discovered that, in some ways, the organisation of labour would also intrude in the ordinary life and domestic space. The inhabitants lived in garden cities where everything was disciplined and under control, but, at the same time, it appeared fallaciously attractive to the workers from abroad. The main task of the mine owner was to get the work from transient workers and to give them a family, an education, and a social standing. Thousands of workers had to be recruited, housed, and trained. So housing was one of the mechanisms of control of the mining community’s everyday life.

I’m not specialized in this field, but, first of all, since the Industrial Revolution – this seclusion of work – began, the work (also in order to organize it in a better way) came out of public control. You can see that in traditional societies, which have all these traditional trades, there are also artisans and they work somehow excessively: you see them working on the street and the factory’s system made an end to it. I think that the mining town is still an exception, mining towns have always attracted public interest, and it had to accept it was of public interest: that’s the reason why visibility and representation of the buildings already alludes to this fact, that they are something national, original. Moreover, only 40 years ago, the wealth of nations was very often shown by these little pictograms of elevators for the production of coal, or sort of. This showed a rush of so many Americans: “Fewer! More!” or whatever, and that was something nearly similar to a church tower, it had a high symbolic meaning. Of course they were not technically accessible to everyone, but they had to allow people to come in. We see already in the case of Lumiere that people are wearing their Sunday clothes, of course they didn’t work in that way there; it was a very dirty and chemically poisonous work they were doing for them, for the Lumiere factory, then they dressed up as if they would come from church. Also in the workhouse while they worked, already there you see that it is a field which is somehow left out, which is difficult to access. And if you look at how difficult it could be to access factories in China today, or also in India, you really understand the context.

In your research, which matched film production with criticism, you obviously use every type of image that is produced in the various fields of communication and our social life. As a consequence, the idea of the archive as a great source to be used is central, but, at the same time, you have used the archive as the final moment of your projects, even managing to show collections of film sequences in the same way in which words are collected in a dictionary.

The reasons for my interest in archival images has more to do with the idea of Modernism that you shouldn’t write phrases on your own or coin expressions on your own, but rather quote pre-existing ones, adapt to preexisting discourses, which were fashionable in the fifties. It is more to inform the basis of an idea, and in this sense you are a very strange artisan: you come with your camera to a place, and you look for the best position, and then you see that a lot of tripods of all the others are already set, are already standing from where you thought certain machines like that could be filmed; when put together, often in a factory, people say “usually television film us from here, here, and here”, and they are right, those were the best positions. It is very hard to be original and therefore I became interested in using preexisting footage and to give a different accent, a deviant emphasis to them. This is what I think in general about the archive in literature, in science, everything was already pre-existing and not necessarily informed by me. My approach is to impose a certain style without using these adjectives, rare expressions or some sort of special lighting. Seeing the way Michel Foucault reintroduces the idea of working with the archive or the way Walter Benjamin collected fragments with his Passagen-Werk, I just think it can’t be compared to those ambitions, and therefore I don’t have theoretically so much to say about it. I have more to do with this strong impression that it’s better to re-read pre-existing images than to make new ones, which is not right every time, anyway.

There is also one of your films made in 2009, Zum Vergleich [In Comparison], in which it is possible to see how what is disappearing in the West continues to be present in countries such as Africa, India, etc. At the heart of this film there is the process of making bricks using clay, and we see different traditions of brick production: the places, methods, and the different duration of production times. At the end, a construction robot also appears, which, once again, allows us to compare the production process with that of the creation of images: vision machines that no longer have a human eye inside them.

Once I also had to deal with a building, because when you are building you produce something that is somehow designing. That’s not maybe designing, but at least it represents an idea about the public and the social existence of the public and therefore is more interesting than to deal with television sets or other household goods. Then I thought that the brick is something that is really comparable, because visually it still looks identical, but it’s not identical, even if at first sight it is comparable to the bricks we all know well, which are 8.000 years old in Peru, in Mexico, also in the Arab world.

This is somehow the way I think building is made out of these small elements, which you can combine and that’s a little bit like these elementary filming, or digits, or whatever could constitute an image – or also a text – and, on the other hand, you have these artisans with a long tradition, and everything which has to do with the earth has to do with femininity and mothers, and so on. Clay has a long tradition. Maybe this tradition could be considered as very simplistic if you were to view the public working in Africa and then get lost somehow only to see the industrialisation; then you start to see only the elegance of the machine in a futuristic sense. Luckily, it is a different thing to find out that there are very cheap means to do avant-garde films. I’ve showed it in a project shot in Africa and India, and the film ends with the images inside a Swiss factory (In Comparison), where the computer can place the bricks directly via a robot and by doing so it can create a graphic or an image, without human intervention: that’s something new, because until now it was not well conveyed that the computer and the construction machine created plans for design and plans for logistics, but they did not really work them out. Then the mechanical work came back and humans have to move things and so on: in this case you have a direct line and this also means a new quality. It’s not a total loss, but, in a way, a gain that you really find in a new aesthetics for the construction site. So, this was the field and it was also so interesting to find out that it’s far easier to research something like industrial production if you come to the question: “How is clay, how are bricks used in a certain country?” It’s so difficult to find it out.

The best is to look on your own, because I spent so much time asking experts and at the end all were wrong. It is also very strange that this is still a very informal field, not really covered by statistics and public knowledge.

This mechanisation of vision developed by the most sophisticated technologies brings with it a proliferation of types of image that progressively lose their classic characteristics. If it is true that the human eye behind the production of images has been abandoned, it is equally true that the eye of the spectator also becomes superfluous, no longer essential. Many contemporary images are not made to be seen. What is their new role then?

Until now, the images which are used for surveillance have always dealt with public spaces and now we see it in the military that every single action is covered already automatically, so it’s something strange that these images are not really meant to be images only in the case of trouble, when looking at them they are a kind of by-product, also waste. Usually, we take a videotape and erase it and only in the case of a special crime you try to recover it and look at it again. This disrespect for images of course interests us, like finding something on the second-hand market or finding something in the junk, which could be used in a different way; this is always attractive for filmmakers to misread the control images. In general, controlled images are also operational images, management can replace them and probably will soon, because the guards are not well paid (also in the case of the military), they fall asleep, they don’t really watch the details. So a program comes in and reads images already, but it’s still not possible to read images, not only in a technical sense – even in the technical sense it’s difficult – and to translate them into language and into action. There is something strange about the meaning of images: one would love to get rid of them and, on the other hand, one fetishises them. This is an interesting period, I think: perhaps that’s related to the fact that cinema and the television industry are in a terrible state, I would say, worldwide. But the production of films and in the case of television also individual broadcastings, as American series, they are producing more interesting work than ever before in their history. If you just spend your time going to film festivals, you find interesting films from the most remote places in the world without any tradition or hardly any film history and not only expected from the same sources or big authors, and yet, on the other hand, it is a totally dysfunctional industry from which comes such an income.

Therefore, procedures are of prime importance: as Jean-Luc Godard said, it’s not about making political films, but about making them politically. How do you see this relationship between cinema and political engagement with regard to the new visual regimes?

I think Jacques Ranciere has recently expressed quite well that one shouldn’t try to reconcile the artistic and the political, there should always be this tension. In the years after 1968, many of the politically engaged people said the decorum, the tradition, should go – actually it just needs efficiency. This is visible in both Godard and the Dziga Vertov Group, even if they addressed it differently. It was impressive that they did not make useful stuff, which mainly means leftist television. They also had a different approach to it, and this interested me too: approaching political production in a very strange manner that also focused on the pre· industrial society very much. I think this tension has to find a form, which is not ideal for both, and that is why this conflict and the discrepancy of these two fields still carries on as Ranciere has said so well.

(2) Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges (Harun Farocki, 1989). Photo: "Images of the World and the Inscription of War" © Harun Farocki 1988

  • 1. This interview was recorded in August 2010 in Farocki’s Berlin home, and was made on the occasion of the commissioned proposal for the curatorial project of Manifesta 9 in the mining area of Limburg. As the project’s advisor, I had chosen to collaborate with the sociologist Maurizio Lazzarato and Farocki himself. To our proposal of ‘working on work’ and on the history of the workers movement, transforming the exhibition format into a production site, was preferred an exhibition on the natural history of the material: coal.
  • 2. The book Lavoro immateriale. Forme di vita e produzione di soggettività (Ombre carte, 1997) collects interventions originally appeared on the magazine Futur autérieur between 1991 and 1996. In English translation, the essay “lmmaterial Labor” has been published in Radical Thought in Italy. A Potential Politics, P. Virno and M. Hardt (eds.) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996).

This text was originally published in Politics of Memory, ed. Marco Scotini & Elisabetta Galasso (Berlin: Archive Books, 2015).

With thanks to Marco Scotini, Chiara Figone, Archive Books, Antje Ehmann and Volker Pantenburg.

© Harun Farocki GbR


Milestones: Bilder der Welt takes place on Thursday 22 April 2021 at 19:30 on Sabzian. You can find more information on the event here.