Volume 1 Issue 1
Fall 2003/Winter 2004

"To See or Not to See" by Cathy Lebowitz


This article is about an independent film maker in Germany, who uses "found" footage from surveillance cameras and cameras in missiles to put together films that show the rise of power through the use of technology. In the films, he uses "smart" technology footage to show examples of machines adapted for civilian use. The final product shows the recent (after 9/11) dilemma of privacy versus security.


Relying almost exclusively on found footage, German independent filmmaker Harun Farocki explores today's pervasive use of surveillance devices and "smart" technology in both war and peace. Farocki researches and collects archival material as well as amateur videos.

Full Text

Relying almost exclusively on found footage, German independent filmmaker Harun Farocki explores today's pervasive use of surveillance devices and "smart" technology in both war and peace.

Over the past 30 years, Berlin-based Harun Farocki has been an influential voice in the field of independent film, both through his writing and in the 70-plus sociopolitical films he has made. He has published books and
articles, was an editor at the German journal Filmkritik and has taught in California and throughout Germany. His films range from feature-length documentaries to shorter collage like pieces such as his newest DVD, the
23-minute Eye/Machine (2002). While his work is more familiar to European audiences, Eye/Machine has already been shown at three U.S. venues: in a solo exhibition at Greene Naftali Gallery in New York and in two group shows, "Anxious Omniscience: Surveillance and Contemporary Cultural Practice" at the Princeton University Art Museum and "Open_Source_Art_Hack" at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. The solo exhibition at Greene Naftali also presented I Thught I Was Seeing Convicts (2000), which examines surveillance methods used in prisons [see A.i.A., Mar. '01]; it underscores the way power accrues to those who possess technology. In February 2001, New York's Museum of Modern Art had a substantial retrospective of his work.

In all his films, Farocki combines existing footage taken from a wide variety of sources. He researches and collects archival material-surveillance tapes, newsreels, records of training exercises-as well as amateur videos. According to Farocki, "You don't have to search for new images, ones never seen before, but you do have to utilize the existing ones in such a way that they become new." His films attempt to subtly disclose the structures behind institutional power and the ideologies embedded in visual communication. Farocki has been strongly influenced by such theorists as Benjamin, Barthes and Marx. Spoken or written text usually plays an essential role in constructing alternative meanings for the found imagery. Sometimes he uses a traditional narrative voice-over; on occasion he refrains from commentary entirely and depends on the selection and arrangement of the various segments of found footage.

Four of Farocki's older works are available in the U.S. on videocassette. Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1988) is a 75-minute film that focuses on aerial reconnaissance footage taken by American bombers in 1944 of the IG Farben industrial plant in Poland. Notes found on the pictures led the CIA to realize decades later that situated next to the factories was Auschwitz, a fact that the Allied Forces' evaluators had
not noticed. Farocki superimposes a voice-over exploring these images. Videograms of a Revolution (1992) utilizes TV newsreels and amateur video footage taken during the Romanian uprising that ended Nicolae Ceausescu's dictatorship in December 1989. Highlighting the tricky task of filling the empty seat of authority after a revolt, many scenes show a group of revolutionaries convincing the TV station to let them use the airwaves to speak publicly in hope of restoring order.

Eye/Machine, an exploration of "smart" technology, is arranged like a video poem compared to many of his previous works that have an essay format. The moving images and text screens resonate throughout the piece rather than unfolding in a linear way. At Greene Naftali, the two-channel video was projected on the wall as two separate images, but it is usually shown on a single monitor, where the two channels overlap. Farocki often uses the dual images to present two views of the same technology. One screen shows a machine itself, while the other presents footage produced by the machine's camera.

Farocki opens Eye/Machine with grainy footage taken from the viewfinder of a laser-guided missile; we see a small white spot from the laser beam directing the crosshairs as they lock onto the target; then we see the release and detonation of the bomb. From the aircraft's perspective, the explosion appears as a small cloud far below. The technology distances us from the destruction. Short text screens refer to the U.S. military operation against Iraq in 1991, but this sequence, which is played repeatedly during the video like a refrain, could represent any recent high-tech military action-for example, that in Kosovo or Afghanistan.

Farocki also includes images from a camera mounted on a missile's warhead as it descends; in the video it is referred to, in passing, as a "suicide camera." We see close-ups of a warhead being manufactured by a machine. Various technicians explain, in German with English subtitles, different parts of a tactical mission system that calculates optimal routes. We are shown a demonstration of a program on a computer monitor as it responds to the clicks of a mouse and analyzes the probability of success for a given flight path. A simulator is seen producing moving images of enemy territory from geographical data.

Interspersed among the war images are examples of intelligent machines adapted for civilian use. A robotic device moves down a hallway, locating and reading nameplates on doorways. A driverless vehicle identifies visual cues on the road, such as curbs, other cars and traffic signs. A miniature surgical camera performs a test operation on a dummy. In contrast to these state-of-the-art devices, another segment shows the furnaces and conveyors of a factory processing molten metal. Farocki connects this earlier industrial period to his main topic with separate text screens: "industrial production abolishes manual labor / and also visual work / the machines perform the tasks blindly." These words are echoed by the video's title and by subsequent text screens, which state that new technology does not operate blindly. Having shown a bounty of images, Farocki asks us to form a mental picture of our own: "imagine a war of autonomous machines." The proposition could evoke either a cyborgian dystopia or a scenario where weapons destroy each other in a war truly without human casualties.

While Farocki has been pursuing the topics of war and surveillance in his films for many years, these issues have taken center stage in the U.S. since the attack on the World Trade Center. The enemy is no longer a nation, and the ubiquitous presence of camera surveillance continues to cause debate about privacy versus security. Current events may account for Eye/Machine's warm reception in the New York area, and Farocki's intellectual explorations of the details of war-making are particularly relevant and compelling now.


Lebowitz, Cathy. "To See or Not to See." Art in America. 90.9. September 2002. New York: 124-25. (Accessed from ProQuest 11/3/03).

Back to Technology in the Arts