‘As We See’ – the work of the image

Some of the most widely circulated images and clips in the past year and a half have been taken using smart phones, leading a well-known activist to write on Facebook in late November that: “An effective use of a smart phone can sometimes replace the need for a Kalashnikov.”

His comment came around the same time that the Beirut art space in Agouza screened “As You See,” a 1986 essay film by German filmmaker Harun Farocki. In the film, the narrator cites the Kalashnikov itself as an iconic symbol of the less powerful fighting larger powers.

“As You See” was shown as part of a larger selection of Farocki’s films that address the importance of image making, and was accompanied by talks held within the framework of the ongoing contemporary art exhibition "PhotoCairo 5" under the title "As We See." With Farocki’s enduring interest in labor and how to effectively represent political and social realities cinematically, the discussions around the screenings inevitably reflected on current events in Egypt.

Forocki describes “As You See” as a film made up of “many details and creates a lot of image-image and word-image and word-word relationships among them.” An exploration both of the production of images, and the relationship between humanity and machines, the film looks at a number of “alternative technology” initiatives  — those driven by social benefits rather than profit — such as the hybrid bus/train designed for use in developing countries. Through these seemingly disparate relationships, he implores his viewers to think both about alternative modes of producing, and alternative ways of thinking of and perceiving images.

Filmmaker and scholar Ute Holl suggested at a talk she delivered at Beirut that Farocki's images do not simply depict — they operate, and the ways in which they do so is central to social life.

Historically in insurrectionary moments — such as those Egypt has been living the past two years — taking control of the press is often treated as a priority. Farocki’s 1992 “Videograms of a Revolution,” also screened as part of the PhotoCairo program, explores how in Romania in 1989 the TV station in Bucharest was occupied by protesters. And as such, the anti-regime forces secured a sort of monopoly over the production and dissemination of images. In Egypt, there is no monopoly; while state press continues to be important, there has been a diversification, whether in satellite television or social media.

The issues Farocki raises, however, go beyond surface-level questions about production, distribution, and dissemination. He turns his gaze — or his camera — to the contexts and complexities of these processes, as well as the conditions of perception. For Farocki, images do not simply describe or depict. They do more than bear witness or provide testimony. They perform labor. So, in a number of the films, Farocki re-enacts scenes, not as he necessarily imagines them to take place, nor does he want us to imagine they took place in this way.

They are very self-consciously re-enactments that seek not to be realistic but to point to certain aspects of social reality — this is the labor that they do. In “Inextinguishable Fire,” for instance, Farocki explores the production of napalm, through enacted stark scenes at the Dow Chemical factory, and the effects of the weapon, mostly through close-ups of the burned skin of an animal. There is no effort to dupe the audience, but rather to compel their engagement with not just the image itself, but its nature.

Farocki’s films are not easy-watching — they are hard work. Several feature a voiceover narrative, which is deliberately plodding and austere. Almost none of the films are easy to classify in terms of genre or subject material — they are part agitprop, part documentary, part essay-film. They are often insistent and repetitive, returning to the same images and clips, the narrator repeating the same phrases. And as they interweave seemingly disparate images and ideas in challenging and sometimes provocative ways, the viewer is required to work along with the images.

In terms of what work images do, take, for example, revolutionary film collective Mosireen, a member of which spoke during the screening program. Mosireen has filmed, collected footage and produced videos on each stage of the revolution, and recently started dealing with key issues that relate to the revolutionary demand of social justice. Even their archive is not about storing the past — making a repository of the present for future generations — but something that actively serves the present.

These are images they seek to deploy with particular ends in mind — whether to raise morale; as material for other revolutionaries to use; as a means of communication with those who have become despondent since the fall of Mubarak, or more generally the process of developing a critical consciousness through reflection and action.

Increasingly, the collective has realized that the footage itself does not express something intrinsic; they have to think about how to deploy it so that the images have a better chance of conveying the story they are meant to tell. It is in this spirit, perhaps, that some of their recent films about the constitution have ventured into satire.

But what if viewers close their eyes to the image, like we are told at the start of “Inextinguishable Fire”: “When we show you pictures of napalm victims, you’ll close your eyes, first to the pictures, then to the memory. Then you’ll close them to the facts, then to the entire context."

The comment touches on seeing, but also on image production. Made in 1969, the question raised in “Inextinguishable Fire” is as pertinent as ever — a reminder that for all the changes wrought by technology, such that the capacity to capture images and disseminate them has hugely widened, these changes have not displaced some of the most fundamental questions.

Farocki’s work, Holl suggests, is “cinema as a device to see what you might not otherwise be able to see.” This is where also Farocki arguably posits the importance of film that is not simply footage, but that is cinema. Crafted images. Choreographed perhaps. Sometimes re-enactment.

The voiceover of “Inextinguishable Fire” suggests that in the context of an intensified division of labor, people cannot see their contribution. People cannot see how they are implicated in what happens far away, or even nearby to people who are not like them. And so cinema emerges as a powerful tool to get people to see what they otherwise might not.

Farocki’s complex treatment of the moving image in his cinematic works warns of the danger of dismissing the importance of film in the ways we learn to understand the world. Equally, it warns of the danger of assuming that an image will do its desired work simply because of the intent of its creator.

Egypt’s revolution was described as the most filmed revolution in history. Farocki’s double-warning is an important one to hold onto as social and political struggle continues in Egypt, at the center of which images will continue to operate.

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