Autumn 2017 in Berlin has seen a profusion of shows featuring the work of the video artist and filmmaker, Harun Farocki. Exhibitions at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, Savy Contemporary, and Silent Green Kulturquartier have all either centred on the work of Farocki himself, or shown his works in dialogue with other contemporary artists. The Kino Arsenal is presently continuing to screen Farocki’s complete cinematic works as well. Into this Farockapalooza comes the exhibition, Harun Farocki und die Musik, at Galerie Barbara Weiss. One may wonder what another show could add to a season of art in which literally all the cinematic works of Farocki are being shown elsewhere and three other shows, particularly the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein show, offer more than generous samplings of the various eras and stylistic approaches that Farocki’s practice encompasses. Well, credit is certainly due to the curatorial team at Barbara Weiss for taking a slightly skewed angle on the question: “A great formal diversity is encountered in Farocki’s more than 100 works,” they write in the exhibition’s press materials, “but music appears to be unimportant”. Any exhibition that announces its unimportance as a feature rather than a bug is treading a potentially dangerous faultline, more or less daring audiences to stay away. Also, it could certainly be argued that while music may not be Farocki’s central concern over his wide body of work, one would not have to spend a long time searching to find works where music plays a central role—again the N.B.K. exhibition features one such work prominently.
The question, then, is whether Farocki und die Musik manages to overcome such obstacles and quibbles to make the unimportant and incidental register as significant. I’d say, somewhat grudgingly, that the answer would be a yes. There are certainly works that reinforce the idea of music as an afterthought in Farocki’s oeuvre, “Music-Video” (2000), for example, a silent video featuring signs in Berlin from streets named after composers, is at best a kind of bagatelle. A Berliner watches as the signs for Tschaikowskystrasse and Bachstrasse causally replace each other on the screen and thinks, “I wonder if they remembered Glinkastrassse,” but little that is more pressing comes to mind. The radical juxtaposition of images of Vietnam-era warcrimes and Bing Crosby’s saccharine holiday staple “(I’m Dreaming of a) White Christmas” may have seemed searingly critical at the time, but now, in the wake of its own influence, the juxtaposition reads rather simplistic Oddly, time has contrived to write a further irony into this 1968 work: Crosby’s “White Christmas” was later, in April of 1975, played on American Armed Forces Radio in South Vietnam to give the cue for consular staff to evacuate as that inglorious war reached its ignominious end for the invaders. Farocki may lay claim to the impressive feat of bending reality to his aesthetic, but the work, on its own terms, feels almost as frozen into a different, equally inaccessible, layer of the cultural ice core as Crosby’s song does today.
Vastly more deft and enduring is 1972’s “Remember Tomorrow is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life”. Again, engaging American Armed Forces Radio’s role in the cultural life of West Berlin in the time of the Cold War, the work explores the nostalgia industry cultivated by oldies radio. Transmuted from the American context, the songs of Little Richard, Buddy Holly and other icons of early rock’n’roll, were, of course, external to the cultural life of the nation in which the songs were broadcast, but they were also distant reminders of an America that had long vanished for the soldiers who may, or may not, have been listening. The first day of the rest of your life has the same soundtrack as the last day of the past. This isn’t necessarily a negative in and of itself, but the film is a powerful reminder of why history won’t simply do us the service of going away: memories are what we’re made of. Also notable is the 1980 work “Single. A Record is Being Produced”, a gruelling audio-engineering procedural in which a (perhaps chemically enhanced) record producer attempts to coax, bludgeon, and wring the best performance possible from a fairly mundane, if competent, sounding band. The relentless work, the sheer sisyphean plod of pummeling out the same notes over and over again to a seemingly whimsical studio-god, and the fanatical pursuit of something as ineffable as rock greatness is both grindingly boring and fascinating, not least as the song and the band playing it were so unfamiliar to me; all this work and painstaking attention to produce a record that will more likely than not disappear in a year and, if one is lucky, resurface on an oldies station in 20 years’ time. Music may not have been Farocki’s primary subject matter, but if it is ephemeral, or ancillary, this exhibition demonstrates that, when his work is at its strongest, music is anything but unimportant to Farocki.
Harun Farocki: Farocki und die Musik
Galarie Barbara Weiss
16 September – 21 December 2017
Image courtesy of Galerie Barbara Weiss.