An independent film and video artist who came of age with Godard and fellow Germans Fassbinder and Herzog, Harun Farocki has created over 90 works during the past 40 years. Most are experimental documentaries, though in 1985 he released the Hollywood-style psychological thriller Betrogen (Betrayed). German television commissioned a portion of this prolific output, and Farocki has even directed episodes of that country’s equivalent to Sesame Street. Along with Chris Marker, he’s a pre-eminent practitioner of the essay film, which typically combines found and original footage—not in order to plot an argument, but to brush ideas and information against each other. In the 1990s, Farocki moved into installation work, and Greene Naftali is currently exhibiting his latest venture (also shown at last summer’s Documenta): a 12-channel video projection entitled Deep Play that features the 2006 World Cup soccer final between France and Italy.
Sports bars may show all the day’s games on a multitude of big screens, but how about the same sporting event viewed from a dozen different perspectives utilizing various technologies? Deep Play presents the entire championship match—lasting more than two hours—with an impressive array of imaging methods projected in a row stretching across three long gallery walls. For example, channels 2 and 9 use television cameras to track a single Italian and French player, while no. 11 translates the play-by-play into the kind of constantly updated text one sees when following a game online. The third projection consists of crowd-surveillance footage from inside and outside Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, where the final took place, and the seventh renders the match into a video-game version.
All of the imagery in Deep Play relies on other sources (mostly from television), except for Farocki’s own distant stationary shot—channel 6—of the stadium. As the hours elapse, cloud patterns pass and afternoon shifts into evening. The installation’s primary audio comes from channel 8, a projection of the globally televised version accompanied by the broadcast director’s voice commands to the sound and camera people. A number of screens also feature line and bar graphs charting player movement and speed, and channel 10 focuses solely on the French and Italian coaches, with specific plays from the game diagrammed over their images.
Perhaps more than the eventual winner (Italy), the match will be remembered for French soccer star Zinedine Zidane’s head butt of Italian defender Marco Materazzi, which resulted in Zidane being tossed from the match. In the months afterward, people debated what Materazzi could have possibly said to warrant a response from Zidane that got him ejected with the score tied and the championship in the balance. Since Zidane is of Algerian descent, many presumed Materazzi made an ethnic slur or called him a terrorist—lip readers hired by The Times of London claimed that this was the case. Turns out that Materazzi said he’d prefer Zidane’s sister when the French player tauntingly offered him his jersey.
Yet a viewer arriving at the start of the 12 channels’ synchronized loop would have to sit with Deep Play for nearly two hours to reach this dramatic moment. And that’s exactly the point. Despite his foray into the psychological-thriller genre, Farocki isn’t interested in standard narrative trajectories of tension and release (much less redemption). To the contrary, the aim in many of his films is to demystify the ways in which different types of media function. He repeatedly engages with the mechanics of image-making—from drawing and engraving to satellite feeds—and their effects on the way human beings see. Nevertheless, the beauty—if one can call
it such—of Zidane’s action lies in its inexplicability, which all the technology
at Farocki’s disposal can’t explain. Neither can it fully account for the desires, disappointments, sympathies, and animosities that viewers project onto what they watch, whether film, television, or ads, for that matter. A friend I bumped into
at the gallery had to force himself not to stay for the whole match, even though he already knew how it unfolded: Along with Zidane’s retaliatory act, the tie game concluded in a nail-biting shoot-out.
In his earlier film Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1988), Farocki’s attentions ranged from Renaissance perspective to architectural mapping to aerial photographs of World War II concentration camps. Each advancement in the science of sight paradoxically both expands and constrains knowledge by redirecting afresh how and what people perceive. Farocki’s video installation from 2000, I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts, collaged prison-surveillance-camera footage with other images of incarceration (including shopping!). Media theorists talk about the absorptive powers of the spectacle, but Farocki reveals that—like art itself—the polished version of what gets shown is frequently a fractured patchwork in which editing, modes of transmission, and the contexts of reception count as much as content. Technology may be heading toward omnipresence, but that doesn’t make it omniscient—yet. Nevertheless, technological change does help to shape—some might say control—new human subjects. In this sense, Farocki demonstrates that in a society of the spectacle, seeing is its own form of labor.