Harun Farocki: Parallel

9 September – 4 October 2014, Greene Naftali, New York

By Brienne Walsh

Parallel I-IV (still), 2012–14, two two-channel videos, two one-channel videos. Courtesy Greene Naftali, New York

There are two works in Parallel: Parallel I–IV (2012–4) is a four-part video installation projected on screens that hang like veils in the gallery. The work charts not only the development of computer graphics from the pixelated lines of the 1980s to the hyperrealistic video-games of today, but also the shift in image-making from what the late (he died six weeks before this show opened) Harun Farocki saw as representation (film) to construction (virtual reality). Ein Bild (An Image) (1983), on the other hand, is a documentary about a four-day photo-shoot of a single German Playboy centrefold. Both works capture different types of imagemaking: one programmed on computers using 1s and 0s, and the other captured on analogue film by photographers using models.

As a nongamer, I was initially fascinated by Parallel I–IV. Farocki is not interested in the societal implications of videogames, which often allow users to commit violent and illegal acts virtually, but rather in how the visuals behave structurally. Programs are constantly improved to create breathtaking details like sea spray coming off a wave and leaves rippling in a slight breeze. The landscapes have limits and boundaries entirely of their own making, which create rules completely divorced from the ones that dictate our own world. For example, characters walk through solid objects, bang against invisible barriers beyond which are vast black voids and encounter ‘twilight beings’, characters that cannot be tampered with or destroyed. Watching these images, I could hear the voice of Werner Herzog saying, “Life in these lands must be sheer hell”.

The hell in the games comes nothing close to the hell in the German Playboy studio, however, where a bunch of men and women sporting normcore dress scurry around making adjustments to a gorgeous blonde with crimped hair, full bush and a flawless body. They fluff and spray her nipples. They make her sit in unnatural positions for long periods of time. When her arm eventually gives out from exhaustion, the photographer says, “You should do some sport, pet.” This just after saying that she looks spastic. When the film wraps, the model’s legs have gone to sleep. “I can’t stand up,” she says. The photographer quips, “There are tears in my eyes.”

Thirty years after this film was made, women’s bodies continue to be degraded by the media. When divorced from any staid academic dialogue about the rhetoric of the image, Ein Bild adds nuance to a contemporary feminist concern with digital-image technology. With the invention of Photoshop, which carves the ‘perfect’ form in postproduction, are women now freed from the face-to-face humiliations of posing for a photographer who claims, on set, that he is not a “miracle worker”? Is the former actually more humane? That’s not the question posed by the work, but it’s a question worth asking. Through the confluence of a male artist exploring images of sex and violence intended for a male audience, what this exhibition really highlights is the need for more female voices in the artworld, and beyond. 

This article was first published in the December 2014 issue.