I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts by Harun Farocki

I Thought I Was Seeing…

By Jaroslav Andel

This essay examines the video installation I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts by Harun Farocki in the context of the exhibition Evidentiary Realism and in a broader context of how the attitude to concepts such as evidence, data, and facts has been changing. The premise of the essay is that the development of modern media and, more recently, of digital technology has been transforming the perception of the above-mentioned and other related terms.

Over the past four decades, Harun Farocki analyzed the central role that modern media plays in the late capitalist system more consistently than any other artist. I will argue that there is a certain parallel between our shifting relationship to media (manifested, for instance, in the declining trust in the mass media and statistical evidence) and the trajectory of Farocki’s work. Farocki’s critical stance had been anticipating rather than reflecting this shift, while providing valuable insights about the impact of mechanized and digitized vision on the construction of social and political subjectivity and its moral implications.

Farocki explored the use of images in contemporary society, including manufacturing, business, education, advertising, retail, propaganda, pornography, entertainment, prison, and war. He paid special attention to the growing presence of mechanized vision and its infiltration into every nook and corner of everyday life. In this respect, I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts complements works on other topics, for instance, on retail architecture and military training. Farocki took interest in Michel Foucault’s ideas about modern institutions and his oeuvre can be regarded as an artistic parallel to the French philosopher’s writings. 1

In his influential book Discipline and Punish, Foucault brought attention to Jeremy Bentham’s prison project called the Panopticon and argued that it created a new regime of visibility which informed other modern institutions. 2 The idea of Panopticon is based on the belief that maximum visibility influences the behavior of those being watched and thus enables maximum surveillance and control. The possibility of being watched creates inhibition and conditions behavior. The Panopticon principle is ubiquitous in modern visual technologies, being constantly perfected through digitization. Hence the Panopticon has become the metaphor of today’s surveillance society.

The etymology of the word “panopticon” reveals a moral component behind it and historical connections which make it suitable for a symptomatic reading. 3 Derived from from the Greek “pan” [all] and “opticon” [observe], the word belongs to the same family of words which refer to vision (for instance, “evidence” from the Latin root words “vid” [see] and the Indo-European “weid”). The notion of light represents another important etymological reference. These terms gained a new prominence and specific connotation in the period of the Enlightenment, whose very name explicitly foregrounds this reference, indicating that the Panopticon is a poster child of the Enlightenment.

The Age of Enlightenment is also called the Age of Reason, which suggests that “light” in the word “Enlightenment” means the “light of reason.” This became a popular phrase by signaling a moral as well as an epistemic impetus, both morality and rationality. 4 It also implies a potential tension between them though. In addition, it entails the dualism of the light and the dark, and thus moral, ontological and epistemological dualisms which inform the development of modern philosophy and science, for instance, in the dichotomy of subject and object and the mind and body dualism. 5

The rationalization of vision in the invention of linear perspective in Italian Renaissance led to the invention of various mechanical and optical devices and instruments, including camera obscura, and paved the way to the rise of modern subjectivity and individuality. 6 Renaissance painters applied Euclidean geometry to construct pictorial space and standardized their construction by using a single vanishing point, effectively linking empirical observation with mathematics. This application of geometry represents an early step in the mathematization of nature, a long-term trend which brought about the rise of modern science and technology, including technologies of mechanized vision and most recently the computer and digitization. 7

Though these connections might seem too general with regards to Farocki’s work, they have direct implications for his core interests and concerns. For instance, born out from the moral and rationalist arguments of the Enlightenment, the Panopticon connects directly to their separation in mechanized vision manifested in I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts. In other words, there is a trajectory from the mathematization of nature in mechanized vision to Auschwitz and mass killings in the war, which is the point Farocki made in a few works. 8

It is no coincidence that the terms which became hallmarks of modern science and then everyday expressions of modern life, such as evidence, data, information, facts, and documents, emerged or gained their current meaning mostly at the very dawn of the Age of Reason, i.e. in the early 1600. 9 This is the time when linear perspective was already the codified mode of pictorial representation in the western world. The invention of new optical instruments such as the microscope and telescope then started to extend empirical observation on microscopic and macroscopic scales. It was the same period in which René Descartes made his fundamental distinction between subject and object as res cogitans and res extensa, thought and extension. 10

Also in the 17th century, mathematics applied to the study of population gave rise to statistics. Like the invention of linear perspective two centuries earlier, statistics as a new science of producing and analyzing data originated in standardization and the use of mathematical techniques. In the post-Westphalian era, it enabled the state to aggregate data on a large scale and create a picture of the nation as a whole. Statistics thus became a powerful instrument in the development of nation states and their centralizing power. 11

This short overview suggests that three clusters (first, concepts, ideas, codes; second, instruments, technologies and media; third, socio-political institutions and subjectivities) are connected in feedback loops in which all clusters are mutually interdependent. How does the recent evolution of these interdependencies and Harun Farocki’s video installation I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts fit in this nexus? The ethos of his work is grounded in the conviction that specific codes, technologies, and media aren’t value free but are situated and/or situate themselves in specific relationships in the existing socio-political order and that the role of the artist is to uncover these entanglements.

To achieve this goal, Farocki is using a CCTV footage from a high-security prison in Corcoran, California accessed through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by a civil rights organization. He then mixes it with another found footage in double projection. Farocki thus reframes the original footage in several ways: first, by showing and editing footage from different cameras which wasn’t intended for public viewing; second, by mixing it with another found footage; third, by inserting his comments, and finally by using a rather enigmatic title I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts. The title comes from Rossellini’s film Europe ’51 in which the character played by Ingrid Bergman notices workers and says: “I thought I was seeing convicts.”12 The title is thus Farocki’s acknowledgement of Foucault’s ideas as well as of the tradition of two important topics, factory and prison, in film history. 13

Farocki’s insistence on the belief that images are implicated in the way power operates in contemporary society is most developed in his concept of operational image, i.e. images produced by machines not to be seen but to do something. 14 He developed this concept in the early 2000s and introduced it in the video installations Eye/Machine I (2000), Eye/Machine II (2001), Eye/Machine III (2002) and Ausweg/Way (2005). The idea is also present in I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts, as the last couple of sentences in Farocki’s description of this work indicate: “The pictures are silent, the trail of gun smoke drifts across the picture. The camera and the gun are right next to each other. The field of vision and the gun viewfinder fall together…” 15

Together with other uses of digitization and algorithms, operational images as the upshot of mechanized vision are now producing data of a different order and magnitude, and thus changing our attitude to evidence, data, facts, information. The glut of data and information does often create more confusion and disruption than clarity, and sometimes generates distrust and disbelief when it opens new opportunities for manipulation and disinformation. There seem to be an emerging notion that is seeping into the public consciousness, notably that data are not innocent, that they are also operational, i.e. produced by specific subjects and specific protocols for specific purposes, often not transparent or not known at all. Data are not indifferent entities but actors which may interfere in social and physical reality by shaping new political subjectivities.

The mathematization of nature in its current phase triggers the crisis of modern institutions, including political institutions associated with liberal democracy. The ideal of mathesis universalis advanced by Descartes in the 17th century materializes now in the way algorithms direct our lives, challenging the status quo and forcing us to rethink our institutions and safeguard the fundamental principles of freedom and social justice, public knowledge and public argument. In this respect, Harun Farocki is a role model for artists and citizens alike.

  1. In this context, the following passage from Farocki’s text Written Trailers is revealing: “I once travelled to a prison construction site in Oregon with an architect who was employed by an office with several thousand architects. He told me about a certain Bentham and his ideas about the Panopticon which were being applied to this building. He had never heard about Foucault or about all the subsequent discourses in which Bentham’s idea had been read symptomatically and not as a practical proposal.” Harun Farocki, Written Trailers, in: Antje Ehmann, Kodwo Eshun (ed.), Harun Farocki. Against What? Against Whom?, Koenig Books, London / Cologne 2009, pp. 220-242.
  2. Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Vintage Books, New York, 1995, pp. 195–210.
  3. See the Note 1.
  4. William B. Ashworth, Light of Reason, Light of Nature. Catholic and Protestant Metaphors of Scientific Knowledge, Science in Context, Volume 3, Issue 1, April 1989, pp. 89-107, DOI (Published online: 26 September 2008).
  5. For an instructive account of this topic, see Bruno Latour, ‘Do You Believe in Reality?News from the Trenches of the Science Wars, in: Bruno Latour, Pandora’s Hope. Essays on the Reality of Science Studies, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1999, pp. 1-23.
  6. See William Mills Ivins; Jean Pelerin, On the rationalization of sight, with an examination of three Renaissance texts on perspective, Da Capo Press, New York, 1973.
  7. For a discussion of the early stage of this development, see Geoffrey Gorham (ed.), The Language of Nature: Reassessing the Mathematization of Natural Philosophy in the Seventeenth Century, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2016.
  8. “My starting point now was the impending mass destruction through nuclear weapons. Hardly anyone responded to this attempt to relate Auschwitz to the current armaments situation. I worked on both versions (Bilderkrieg/Images-War, 1987; Images of the World and the Inscription of War, 1988) for about two years, mostly at the editing table.” In: Harun Farocki, Written Trailers, Also, see Dietrich Leder’s note on Bilderkrieg Images-War, (1987).
  9. See the following excerpts from the Online Etymology Dictionary entries Evidence (v.): Meaning “ground for belief” is from late 14c.; that of “obviousness” is from 1660s and sticks closely to the sense of evident. Legal senses are from c. 1500, when it began to oust witness. Also “one who furnishes testimony, witness” (1590s); hence turn (State’s) evidence. Data (n.): 1640s, classical plural of datum, from Latin datum “(thing) given,” neuter past participle of dare “to give”. Fact (n.): Main modern sense of “thing known to be true” is from 1630s, from notion of “something that has actually occurred,” “to support by documentary evidence” is from 1711. Document (v.): 1640s, “to teach;” meaning “to support by documentary evidence” is from 1711.
  10. Descartes, R. (1641) Meditations on First Philosophy, in The Philosophical Writings of René Descartes, trans. by J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff and D. Murdoch, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1984, vol. 2, pp. 1-62.
  11. William Davies, How statistics lost their power – and why we should fear what comes next. The Guardian, January 19, 2017.
  12. “I had to deliver an outline and called it Ich glaubte Gefangene zu sehen, because I had just read the English edition of Deleuze’s Unterhandlungen (Negotiations) where he quotes Ingrid Bergmann from Europa 51, saying: “I thought I was seeing convicts. ”Harun Farocki, Written Trailers. In the context of the Evidentiary Realism exhibition, it is worth noting that Roberto Rossellini was a key figure of Italian neorealism, a national film movement after World War II.
  13. “Because I spent half the year in the US I wanted to make films there too. A curator of a museum in New York asked me to produce something. I proposed an examination of the depiction of prisons in film and video, a study like Workers Leaving the Factory.” In: Harun Farocki, Written Trailers, Farocki refers to the film Prison Images he made in 2000.
  14. “Beginning with my first works on this topic (Eye/Machine, 2001), I have called such images, which are not made to entertain or to inform, ‘operative images.’ Images that are not simply meant to reproduce something but are instead part of the operation.” Harun Farocki, War Always Finds a Way, Gagarin, 21 (2010), pp. 60-72.
  15. Installation view and credits I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts (official page of the artist).