The first major exhibition in Scotland of filmmaker Harun Farocki (1944-2014) revitalises the term ‘camera work’, using the medium to investigate labour in all its capacities—paid, unpaid, manual, white-collar, traditional, technological and beyond.
The exhibition, co-curated by Cooper Gallery and Antje Ehmann (Farocki’s collaborator and life partner), begins with an exit. Or rather, several. On the ground floor, Farocki’s 1995 film Workers Leaving the Factory sets the tone. Inspired by early 19th century films such as the Lumiere brothers’ Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory (1895), the collation of archival and film footage is amplified by disembodied narration. A voice carries across the foyer and determines: ‘Most narrative films begin after work is over.’ The voice instructs the viewer to watch as the workers become individual in the act of leaving the factory gates, establishing time as a central concern.
Transitioning to the first floor In Comparison (2009) plays in the gallery’s stairwell. The work is a 16mm film transferred to digital video and shows about an hour’s length of ‘brick time’—footage of all of the processes involved in brick production. Eventually the bricks become background and the hands of the workers take symbolic reverence.
Historically, hands have been a powerful symbol in the labour movement, representing the power and agency of workers. At every picket, every rally, depiction of the raised fist emblazoned on chest, sign or leaflet presents a symbol of solidarity and resistance. And the handshake represents the powers of collective bargaining. Many union logos feature hands, often clasped together or holding tools, to represent the work and collective value of union members.
But the hands of the workers in In Comparison are embodied, attached, attending and ordinary.
Farocki’s vision witnesses hands caught in motion. One section shows the movements of the construction worker as he directs actions around him, the camera isolating his rotating wrist. With this isolatation, the focus is orientated on the verb, the doing, the motion, the gestural events of labour.
The first floor gallery is dedicated to the global collaborative project between Antje Ehmann and Harun Farocki—Labour in a Single Shot. Setting up 15 locations around the world, from Moscow to Mexico City, the project’s intention is to capture these gestural events in single-shot precision. Inspired again by those early films, the supporting documentation written by Ehmann and Farocki highlights:
‘These early films […] declared that every detail of the moving world is worth considering and capturing. These were forced by the immobile camera to have a fixed point of view whereas the documentary films of today often tend to indecisive cascades of shots.’
Over the sixty videos displayed from this project, a shared iconography begins to emerge. The sonic experience is profound, the gallery becoming a sensorium of collective labourings with both organic and technological noise bursting forth from different, often blurring sources. A few piano notes hang in the air and I watch the hands stroke the keys.
Themes of pause, of waiting establish themselves amidst the sounds. Considering inclusions such as Nada el Shazly’s Wait Work (Alexandria, 2012) and Amy van Houten’s The Electrician (Johannesburg 2014) these works ask the viewer to consider the labour of waiting itself. The role of the spectator as witness to inaction, particularly in film, encourages manifold considerations of how labour impacts the experience of time.
It would be remiss not to address the ironies of attending such an exhibition which requires the spectator to have the adequate leisure time, that is, time outside working hours, to visit. There is a sense of unease in witnessing such collective efforts of labour, often physically intensive or repetitive, in the privileged space of a gallery environment. However, Cooper Gallery’s curated Exhibition Study Area mitigates these tensions by providing a wealth of supplementary materials that provoke and encourage critical responses from visitors. Texts range from manifestos, critical studies, and sources of inspirations (including Brecht, Adorno and Godard). A number of events, including film screenings and panel discussions, are also open to the public throughout the exhibition.
Cooper Gallery works with Farocki’s vision to critically question the technological, aesthetic and political conditions that make labour visible. Dundee’s own vibrant past in relation to labour campaigns and a strong working culture is strengthened by Farocki’s inclusion to the city’s exhibition history and its global perspective, linking the position of local workers to a larger, universal effort and community. Harun Farocki: Consider Labour raises important questions about the impact of automation, digitalisation and the gig economy on workers, and the need for policies that ensure fair and supportive labour conditions for workers around the world in the 21st century.
Cheryl McGregor is an arts writer and poet based in Dundee. Usually found lapping up free wine at exhibitions. Examples of her writing can be found at: linktr.ee/Cherylmcgregor
Harun Farocki was born in 1944 in Neutitschein in Czechoslovakia. His father was Indian, his mother German. Spending part of his childhood in India and Indonesia, he eventually settled with his family in Hamburg and Bad Godesberg. Farocki spent his adult life in Berlin. He died in 2014.
Farocki was one of the most important filmmakers and video artists working in Germany. His oeuvre comprises more than 120 feature films, essay films, documentaries and video-installations. In 2015, Farocki was featured in the 56th Venice Biennale curated by Okwui Enwezor, receiving Special Mention from the Jury.
Antje Ehmann is a curator and artist based in Berlin. She worked with the team of the Duisburg Film Week and the International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen between 1992 and 1998 and has since curated numerous group and solo exhibitions worldwide. She is also co-editor of many books including Weimar Republic 1918-1933 in the History of Documentary Film in Germany (2000-2005). Ehmann married Harun Farocki in 2001.
Harun Farocki: Consider Labour is co-curated by Antje Ehmann and Cooper Gallery. Cooper Gallery, Dundee. 3 Feb—1 Apr 2023