AK on Video Essay: ‘Workers Leaving the Factory in Eleven Decades’ by Harun Farocki, 2006 (Seen at Raven Row gallery, London, 27th January 2010). Including quotes and references from ‘Translating the Essay into Film and Installation’, Nora M. Alter.
When entering the space, I am presented with a row of moving images; at first, my eye wonders back and fourth along the row, quickly trying to absorb as much information about the piece as is possible. But then, one of the screens holds my attention, and I am compelled to watch it until it loops. And then, I am aware of the piece as a video essay. The fact that there are 12 screens being presented, with a specially selected clip on each, tells me that there is a greater picture being formed than merely the sum of the clips.
Going back to the term of the essay, ‘to essay’ is to weigh, or to attempt. Through this installation piece, Farocki attempts to create a greater meaning by his selection and arrangement of video clips. The content of the clips varies; some are documentary, others from fiction films; one of the more recent clips is an extract from a corporate video commission. The essay does not have to present merely facts; whilst documentary does feature as an element of the piece, fictional and corporate elements are added in order to provide the information that the artist wishes to show.
For example, the 3rd screen – of workers leaving a factory, probably in Moscow, in 1912 (although not labelled as a definite source), is clearly a work of documentary; or more precisely, actuality; as is the Lumiere’s ‘Workers Leaving the Factory’, which was one of the earliest documentary/actuality films. The original film makers of these pieces were merely recording events as they occurred, in front of the camera. There was no additional attempt to construct meaning from them, other than to define the frame which is the edge of the film.
Frtiz Lang’s Metropolis (1926), on the other hand, is a fictional best-of-times, worst-of-times film about the divisions of society between working and ruling classes, but although this is fictional, it makes an important comment about factory labor of its era of production (1920s); a comment which, when placed in the context of the other clips, adds to the overall messages which emerge from the 12 screen installation.
A common theme to all of the screens is, quite obviously, workers leaving factories; however, one can get various messages from the different pieces as times change; factories may no longer be the mass-employers now that they once were, but they still exist, and people still work in them. Factories change over time, but there will always be factories, and factory workers. Whether the workers are the subject of the film clips, or whether this is the overall activity of a mass of people leaving factories, is something which can be debated; however, in the cases of Modern Times (Charles Chaplin, 1936) and Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, 2000), the actor stars of these films are the clear subjects of the selected clips. Perhaps this is a comment on the ‘incompatibility of factories and movie stars’, as stated in the exhibition programme guide?
The fact that video was the medium of choice, rather than, say, photographs, could perhaps be explained when reading the piece as a video essay. Benjamin says that “The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognised and never seen again… for every image of the past that is not recognised by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably” (Benjamin’s Thesis V). Therefore, the fact that we can see the actions of workers leaving factories taking place, as a piece of film over time, serves to immortalise the past and preserve it so that it can be shown over and over again (in this case, as a video loop). All of the decades covered by the piece are represented by the same medium, so they can be represented at the same time, in the same space, as part of the installation. The video essay therefore provides a much more successful way to show workers leaving the factory, than written documents of those eras, or even still images (specific frozen points in time), would do.
Watching the 11th screen in the piece ‘ Vehicle Barriers’ (commissioned by El Kostar, 1987), highlights a side of leaving the factory that is apparent in many of he other pieces, but is often overlooked; the factory gates. These offer a gateway into and out of the factory. This piece is the only one not to show a worker; instead it shows a car, which obviously contains a worker. In this piece, the gate/barrier is the object of discussion. After studying this, I suddenly notice the factory gates in many of the other screens. This makes me think, perhaps this installation is also a comment about the workers moving through the gates, as the gates serve to define the perimeter of the factory and thus the centres of production and labor that factories represent.
As a final note in this writing, I would like once again to refer to Schlegel’s dictum; the video screens are arranged on a row, just like a timeline. And in fact, this exactly what is being presented here. So, perhaps the piece’s success is, at least in part, due to the fact that it is about the act of workers leaving factories through the decades, and is in fact shown, as a timeline of video screens, each depicting workers leaving factories.