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Operational Images


Something new was happening in the world of images, something that the theoretical tools of visual studies and art history couldn’t account for: the machines were starting to see for themselves. Harun Farocki was one of the first to notice that image-making machines and algorithms were poised to inaugurate a new visual regime. Instead of simply representing things in the world, the machines and their images were starting to “do” things in the world. In fields from marketing to warfare, human eyes were becoming anachronistic. It was, as Farocki would famously call it, the advent of “operational images.”

The first time I saw Farocki’s Eye/Machine III at the Pacific Film Archive, I was confused. Moving and squiggly arrows on a video screen show how a robot “sees” and navigates a landscape. Animated dashes show the trajectory of a cruise missile. Green boxes float around the screen, showing how a computer vision system tracks and targets moving objects. I couldn’t quite understand why he thought these bits of visual military-industrial-complex detritus were worth paying much attention to. In retrospect, perhaps I was meant to be baffled by the images in Eye/Machine III because, in fact, they’re baffling to human eyes. Farocki’s was trying to learn how to see like a machine.

Throughout his career, Farocki’s method was to look into the dark and invisible places where images get made. Insisting on the material processes that construct images and the materiality of images themselves, Farocki entered the sound stages, editing rooms, post-production houses, and techno-military laboratories. In works like An Image and Deep Play Farocki turned his lens towards the creation of spectacles. In other works like I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts and Ausweg/A Way, he located image-making within apparatuses of surveillance and domination. Farocki’s work consistently showed how seeing itself is continually destroyed and reconfigured in the service of militarism and capitalism. He looked around, he watched, he documented, he demystified.

A lot has happened since Farocki’s turn toward “operational images” in the early 2000s. Images are at once becoming more powerful, and the means through which they’re produced have become ever darker.

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