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An Archeologist of the Present

We had gotten used to speaking to each other in English or French, whether in public or private. That’s not to say that Harun didn’t care what language he spoke in. He loved punch lines. He quoted gladly, exactly, and without any smugness. He would often ask me about the origin of some French word that had struck him in the course of his unceasing explorations. Austrian idioms, though, remained foreign to him, even in all those years he taught in Vienna. He never ceased to be repelled by the way his students at the Academy of Fine Arts butchered the German pronoun Ich into an Ieee. At least he eventually stopped pointing out the Austrianisms in my letters, though that may have been a result of the extraterritorial changes in my phraseology. The one thing that excited him even more than everyday dialogue was literature. I remember with what great urgency he told me at the 1989 Berlinale, in the streets of wintry Berlin, that Thomas Bernhard had just died—and, he added, my country’s greatest contemporary author.

Farocki’s oeuvre bespeaks a consistent interest in forms of migration. He parsed the official depiction of migration in his video In-Formation—which he called “a silent movie”—and found myths of cultural difference, sedimented in language regimentation and pictograms. He himself was a passionate Berliner, always attached to his respective neighborhoods, but also a frequent and distant traveler, a “rocketeer,” as he liked to say. His interest in migration was related to a foible for the rootless—as described by philosopher Vilém Flusser, with whom he was in dialogue. No surprise then that the only actor Farocki ever dedicated an entire film to, was Peter Lorre, the lost one (Der Verlorene), whose “double face” he read as a palimpsest of transatlantic movements. Perhaps it was this interest in migration (also in the sense of translation) that inspired him—like Pasolini—to study gestures, one of his central projects.

His installation Transmission (Übertragung, 2008) describes the human touch as a magical gesture of grasping and thus compiles, through scenes of hands touching monuments, a catalogue of rituals of cultural memory. To put it in Wittgenstein’s terms, Farocki tried to play out language games of every kind, in relation to the actions into which language is woven—in a complicated network of overlapping and crisscrossing similarities. He himself liked to speak in metaphors and analogies; his line of argument often took pictorial detours, forming chains and series much like his shot sequences.

Harun Farocki was interested, again and again, and in manifold ways, in the capacity of images to conjure up the presence of absent objects. His 16 mm documentary In Comparison (Zum Vergleich), for example, isn’t only about the various forms of brick production. Subtextually, the film hints at a sensory affinity between the manual production of bricks and the process of recording this film—of physically imprinting, splicing, constructing images with light and film stock, which, like the traditionally constructed house, seems to be a thing of the past. While the close-ups of pouring and molding offer a haptic view of bricks, the grainy material of the analog film refers to the tools of the filmmaker, who does his work on set, in the field. Bit by bit, the structure of the film indicates that an editor arranges shots in the same way a master-builder assembles houses from clay: both depend on a manually supported vision of montage. Farocki’s vivid depictions of gripping hands demonstrate that gestures are deeply intertwined with recognition. If you wanted to take the metaphorical reading of this comparative documentary about producing bricks even further, you might discover a Bazin- or Rosselini-esque dimension, which connects the film itself (and not only its subject) with the idea of the imprint and reproduction.

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