Open City Documentary Festival

Open City Documentary Festival 2019 – Focus: Images Studying Images, A Critical Distance

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Patrick Holzapfel speaks to Kevin B. Lee, dissecting his series of video essays on Harun Farocki that are presented in our Images Studying Images event and relating them to Kevin’s time spent at the newly founded Harun Farocki Institute – asking what sort of images really make a difference.

I want to begin with what would maybe be the most obvious question to ask about your new works on Harun Farocki and also your residency at the Harun Farocki Institute: Do you feel a closeness in your work to Harun Farocki and if so, how does it show?

Well, I can’t help to feel some closeness to him because his work has really been a defining force in my life and work, especially over the last three years. It was through the Farocki residency that I was invited to come to Germany in 2017. I discovered a new context for my work. Prior to my residency the main work that I was known for was making online video essays. You might call it a work of promotion in some way as they were used by movie websites to attract audiences to films. It was about offering some insight to facilitate their viewing. So that was more of a journalistic or film criticism background. There was already some resonance with the work of Farocki, especially the work he has done for German television in the 1970s and 80s. Some film scholars in Germany saw what I was doing online and were making this association. People like Volker Pantenburg and Michael Baute, two very important thinkers on Farocki and the video essay, saw my work and connected it to Farocki. Ten years ago they started sending me videos of Farocki to watch. Farocki’s work allowed me to see new possibilities for the work I was doing. It’s about a way of not just appreciating cinema but seeing the world through a lens of audiovisual criticism. I was fortunate enough to keep pushing in that direction with my work. I don’t know if I would call it upholding a legacy in a way but certainly keeping Farocki’s work in mind. I really think his work is only beginning to be fully appreciated for what it implies about understanding all the different ways that the audiovisual influences our life today. Especially thinking about digital culture. It’s about maintaining a critical distance and awareness with all of this media activity. It’s more important than ever because media wants more from us than it ever has. It wants us to be participating, to be complicit, to be making videos all the time. It’s very easy to lose one’s mind in the midst of all this activity. Farocki’s work brings thoughtfulness, mindfulness and critical awareness back to the experience of media. 

When you worked with video essays on a weekly basis you had to deal with a lot of different approaches and you have to think about a lot of different things. With the residency you probably had more space to focus on one thing. I am interested in how that worked for you?

This process took many phases. I didn’t make these videos on Farocki until after the residency. It was a really kind invitation from the Goethe Institute who are a major funder of the Harun Farocki Institute. They are very interested in the video essay as a form to promote German film history. Originally those videos were just meant as internal reference documents. They weren’t primarily intended for public viewing. They were made for programmers at the Goethe Institute to get some tips for understanding Farocki’s films. I was interested to address a larger public than that. The actual residency period was actually the first time in ten years that I didn’t have to work. That was a tremendous disruption from this kind of normative freelancing situation. To be a freelancer or a film critic today you do anything. The film cultural sphere involves so much multi-tasking that I just sort of took for granted for the last ten years. I started thinking critically about what all this media activity is really amounting to. Both, in terms of economics and also the cultural politics about what it means to be busy all the time; making things in order to sustain yourself professionally. What does it mean to have all of this material that is being produced at a hyperbolic rate, more than anyone can keep up with? At the same time the company I had worked for many years producing video-essays had a total change of policy and they took down all the videos I had made for them. So there was this other shock that the works I have made suddenly didn’t exist anymore online. So most of the time of the residency I spent uploading all of the videos back to my Vimeo channel and at the same time writing about video essays on the blog of the residency. So I reflected on my own work and what it had amounted to. In this process there was a way of deciding to move on, to not keep doing what I had done. So in making those video essays after the residency I didn’t only reflect on Farocki but also on the kind of media practice I wish for myself. What sorts of questions do I want to be asking at this point? That’s a subtext to those video-essays on a personal basis. I hope when watching this video essays you not only learn about Farocki but about some other form of audiovisual experience in the 21st Century.

Thinking about Farocki’s Parallel II in which he seeks out the boundaries of game worlds,  the question occurred to me if you are ever getting tired of making images on images? I know you also implemented images of the world in your work but in general you are dealing with audiovisual material. Of course, that is a huge field in itself but do you ever experience it as a boundary?

That’s definitely a question that has persisted with me for most of my career. I was making camera-based work for the early part of my career. I was having some moderate success, nothing really outstanding. I was kind of dissatisfied with the kind of images I was making. This let me into the analysis just as a way of self-diagnosis by studying films I really admired. I wanted to instruct myself in what kind of images I could be making. As it happened, it ended up taking on a life of its own. Even when I made Transformers: The Premake, which I guess is a major example of my work, this was initially an attempt to get away from making video essays. I tried to do something on location. I filmed for six weeks the production of Transformers in Chicago and trying to make a documentary out of this but again it was really banal and conventional and I wasn’t happy with it. Then I noticed there were all those YouTube videos of people making the same footage that I was making. That raised a lot of questions. When we live in a world in which theoretically anyone can make images what does it mean for the production of images and the meaning of images? What sort of images really make a difference? So ironically my attempt to leave found images brought me back even more intensely to screen based footage. I found this failure in producing efficient, original images actually more illuminating in terms of revealing what it is that we want out of images and what it is that images can do. I guess I will never give up this way of approaching images, this awareness, this critical understanding. I had a lot of debates with other video essayists and one big difference between them and me is that many of them still believe in cinema as an end. That it is a beautiful art form that speaks for itself. I like to maintain this critical distance, this suspicion about this seductive power and what it does to us. One thing I learned from Farocki is that he also had this struggle with making a film in the traditional sense. He spent many years trying to make his first feature film, Zwischen zwei Kriegen (Between Two Wars) and he even made a film about the attempt to make the film called Erzählen (On Narration) . It’s a wonderful documentary and one of the smartest films on narrative storytelling. There is also the actual fiction film he made called Betrogen (Betrayal). I guess it’s not very well known for a reason. But I think he also had a lifelong tension with cinema as we have known it. 

In your video-essay Farocki Presented you also show how Farocki deconstructs his own image making. Is that something you would also be interested one day? To critically look at the way you produce your images?

I actually did this in 2012 using a Farocki video called Schnittstelle (Interface). I was invited to contribute to one of the first critical online publications on video essays by Catherine Grant. Everyone had to reflect on video essay making and I was looking for a way to do a self-analysis and discovered it in Farocki’s Schnittstelle. It was like a hall of mirrors. This work that he did in 1995 was actually his self-analysis. I was using his self-analysis technique to do my self-analysis technique. Farocki Presented is specifically dealing not only with his filmmaking technique but with his appearance. How he uses his own presence as a sort of device to shape modes of discourse within his films. I have almost never appeared in my own videos. I might appear as a voice-over. He is certainly done a much more interesting and diverse range of applying his own presence in videos. It’s interesting to watch with regards to what is happening these days on YouTube. Video essays involve more and more self presentation, it is a hybrid of blogging and practical found footage techniques. Now you have people like Lindsay Ellis or Hbomberguy who are the next wave of video essayists. It’s not just analysis, it’s also very performative. It would be very interesting to see, if he was alive today, what Farocki would make of these developments. What kind of YouTube video would Farocki make? 

Yes, a tempting thought…

Well, if you look at his early work, for example…with his leather jacket he looked like a do-it-yourself-secret agent. Or when he is leading this didactic seminar, he is wearing this Hawaiian shirt and Bruce-Lee-sunglasses. He really looks a lot like some rockstar from the late 60s. He is playing with attractive appearances. 

You also work as a teacher. In how far do you regard your work, also in line with Farocki, as a pedagogical venture?

Actually, I don’t know so much about his pedagogical practice. I know he was teaching for some decades but I don’t know so much about his methodology other than the films themselves having a pedagogical method within them. I have been teaching at Merz Akademie in Stuttgart for two years now but next semester we will do our first class on video essays. I will teach together with Christoph Dreher who was a close colleague of Farocki and a friend and neighbour for many years in Berlin. He was the one who invited me to Merz Akademie for this cross-media/publishing program that we had for the last two years now. Video essays occupy this interesting middle point between film and video and cross-media. Part of me is wondering what we could do with video essays beyond film criticism. We will be looking at contemporary video essayists and how they have pushed the form towards more overtly political topics like Lindsay Ellis talking about gender and commercialism in Hollywood Cinema or Natalie Wynn talking a lot about the alt-right and sexual politics. I find it very exciting, it raises many new questions and I would love for my students to be more politically aware. So, there are these kind of things we want to uphold. I want to uphold the legacy of cinema and the legacy of Harun Farocki but it really becomes interesting to ask what exactly about them you want to uphold when you are facing the kind of world we live in. What sort of media expression do we want to enable in ourselves.? You can do anything but that doesn’t mean that you should. 

Being based in Europe, in Germany now I wonder if you find there to be a difference in terms of critical discourse and/or the practice of the video essay to the USA?

Just in terms of sheer output the US is where the majority of this work is being produced and where the most notable examples are. When I arrived in Germany two or three newspapers made stories. They were intrigued by the Farocki residency but also by this phenomena of video essays. They were trying to make sense of it because it’s really not that common or prolific in Europe and especially in Germany. There are a lot of apprehensions concerning legal rights, copyright protection and that sort fo thing. A lot of institutions just assume that it’s not okay to do this. YouTubers face the problem of uploading content and then having it taken down because copyright laws are much stricter here. It’s really a pity that just because of the legal rights or the perception of what is legally permissible, there is less output. The other thing is that in the US, many people just don’t care. They do things anyway. Mark Zuckerberg just didn’t care, the YouTube and Google founders just didn’t care what was legal and what was right. It’s a very different attitude. Europe seems to me more orientated towards academic discourse. Thinking about who the most prolific video essayists are in the European context they largely seem to be academics, whereas in the US academics are more on the margins. I have always been interested how these different modes of discourse can learn from each other. How academics can learn from popular YouTube discourse and vice versa. On top of that I would also mention the experimental cinema field. It’s something I got a lot more acquainted with since coming to Europe, going to film festivals and seeing things that can be understood as a form of video essays but they may not be presented as that. It doesn’t matter what the label is, I still see the DNA inside. The connections between academia, popular discourse and experimental art context is something I want to keep in mind for myself.

Patrick Holfapzel works as a writer, filmmaker and curator. In 2016 he received the Siegfried-Kracauer-scholarship. He is editor-in-chief of the German language website “Jugend ohne Film“ and also works for the Viennale.

Images Studying Images: Kevin B Lee on Harun Farocki screens on Saturday 7th September at the ICA.