17 March 2009

Harun Farocki's documentary Images of the World and the Inscription of War is available in English on YouTube in 8 parts. (Click here for part 1). Two highlights:

The idea of obtaining measurement through photography came to [the inventor of the technique] after he was suspended between life and death. That means, it is dangerous to hold out physically on the spot... safer to take a picture.
Arduous and dangerous to hold out physically on the spot. Safer to take a picture and evaluate it later protected from the elements at one's desk.

[On the examination of aerial photographs of concentration camps in the 1960s and 1970s:]
The snow on the roofs of the neighboring barracks is already melting, which means that they are still inhabited. The evaluators verify, that means they establish the verity, of the existence of the camp down to the last detail, and they do this with relish for their role as specialists.
Although the film is about many things, it is basically about the Holocaust. In this regard and in others, it is the same color as W. G. Sebald's book The Rings of Saturn, which, although it never mentions the Holocaust directly, is basically "about" the Holocaust in the sense of "around".

In China, the placating of the elements has always been intimately connected with the ceremonial rites which surrounded the ruler on the dragon throne and which governed everything from affairs of state down to daily ablutions, rituals that also served to legitimize and immortalize the immense profane power that was focused in the person of the emperor. At any moment of the day or night, the members of the imperial household, which numbered more than six thousand and consisted exclusively of eunuchs and women, would be circling, on precisely defined orbits, the sole male inhabitant of the Forbidden City that lay concealed behind purple-coloured walls. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the ritualization of imperial power was at its most elaborate: at the same time, that power itself was by now almost completely hollowed out. While all court appointments, rigidly controlled as they were by an immutable hierarchy, continued to be made according to rules that had been perfected down to the last detail, the empire in its entirety was on the brink of collapse, owing to mounting pressure from enemies both within and without.
I read this book some months ago, but I didn't realize that it was about the Holocaust at all until I heard a radio interview with the author in which he explains it. Originally I was unimpressed, since I don't like puzzles that can't be figured out and I don't like art that can't stand alone. With time, though, I've come to the conclusion that the Holocaust serves in both these cases as a horizon against which concepts can be set. It's not necessary to understand the horizon in order to use it as a new way of linking concepts, a new way of thinking. The point, rather, is that historical events create interpretive possibilities, possible routes to the truth, that did not exist before. And the method is an innocent one because the truth always stands alone.

Brief clips of many of Harun Farocki's other excellent documentaries (most of them are not feature length) can be found on YouTube and here.

13 March 2009

An Interview

Q: What first drew you to the idea of bioluminescence?
A: When I was, like, 14 or 15 I think, maybe as late as 16, my dad told me about it. He had seen a blurb about it in one of his science magazines. Fish who eat a certain kind of glowing bacteria or something, and then they make the algae change color within their stomachs, glowing to camouflage the fish or frighten enemies. He showed me the article, which he had cut out of the magazine, and then later he wanted it back! I was devastated! (Laughs) I made him photocopy it for me, which he found odd.

Q: So you were immediately attracted to this image, then?
A: I fell in love with it. It was something... so unexpected and unbelievable that it could have been magic, a little bit of magic at a time when the world was such a disappointment for me. But yes, I loved it with that adolescent passion... you know, somehow emotionally sexual but still totally pure. I posted my photocopied blurb on a bulletin board for years.

Q: Were you trying to recreate that adolescent feeling in your exhibit?
A: No, nothing like that. I would rather find passion in new places, though it gets harder and harder. But no, I wanted to create the magic, real magic--to make people feel with a sense they didn't know they had, or see that... I don't know... the world can still be exciting despite everything being fed to us as a let-down.

Q: Did you do a lot of research beforehand, or did you just jump in so to speak?
A: Well, there was a lot of research. We were working in collaboration, the three of us in the show, and a lot of the science was uncovered by JC. But over the years you learn things as well... In 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne describes a bloom of bioluminescent algae, which is called a milk sea in the book. We wanted people to walk in and for there to be that sense of surprise.

About seven o’clock in the evening, the Nautilus, half-immersed, was sailing in a sea of milk. At first sight the ocean seemed lactified. Was it the effect of the lunar rays? No; for the moon, scarcely two days old, was still lying hidden under the horizon in the rays of the sun. The whole sky, though lit by the sidereal rays, seemed black by contrast with the whiteness of the waters.

Conseil could not believe his eyes, and questioned me as to the cause of this strange phenomenon. Happily I was able to answer him.

“It is called a milk sea,” I explained. “A large extent of white wavelets often to be seen on the coasts of Amboyna, and in these parts of the sea.”

“But, sir,” said Conseil, “can you tell me what causes such an effect? for I suppose the water is not really turned into milk.”

“No, my boy; and the whiteness which surprises you is caused only by the presence of myriads of infusoria, a sort of luminous little worm, gelatinous and without colour, of the thickness of a hair, and whose length is not more than seven-thousandths of an inch. These insects adhere to one another sometimes for several leagues.”

“Several leagues!” exclaimed Conseil.

“Yes, my boy; and you need not try to compute the number of these infusoria. You will not be able, for, if I am not mistaken, ships have floated on these milk seas for more than forty miles.”

Towards midnight the sea suddenly resumed its usual colour; but behind us, even to the limits of the horizon, the sky reflected the whitened waves, and for a long time seemed impregnated with the vague glimmerings of an aurora borealis.

Q: Were you happy with the way the show was received?
A: The reviews were mostly positive, so yeah, I was mostly happy. But I think a lot of people saw it as just another experimental thing or gimmicky or too contemporary. Not enough people let themselves go when they walked into the first room, not enough people saw the magic we were trying to portray. People don't want to see real magical things. When they do see it they're always looking for a guy behind the curtains, you know? All the pieces we put up were totally self-contained, you know, no electricity or lights anywhere or anything, but people just assumed there must've been something. We could set it up in the middle of a forest and it would be the same, but I don't know if even then people would see it as magical. (Laughs) They'd blame it on aliens or something.