In a darkened, hermetic wing of the Hamburger Bahnhof, images are being instrumentalized: software put to use by the U.S. Army to train ground troops in Afghanistan is recycled to de-traumatize those very same soldiers returning as veterans. Presenting this unlikely process in his 2009-2010 series Serious Games, German video artist Harun Farocki reveals a reality incapable of reconciling with itself.
Serious Games takes the form of four video cycles comprising three two-channel and one single-channel installation. Viewers negotiate a space mapped out by seven projections onto Perspex sheets, thin, angled surfaces suspended invisibly in darkness. From flat speakers horizontally suspended from the ceiling, the soundtrack from one cycle bleeds into the visuals of the next, the interrelated realities of simulation and digital film reflecting and fusing into one another. The curatorial setup of this particular iteration of Serious Games seems bent toward raising Baudrillardian doubts about the nature of reality in an age where illusory spectacle dictates form. But Farocki works within an entirely different conception of reality: the tradition of agitprop, the use of representation to convince the viewer of an underlying and clear truth.
Harun Farocki, Serious Games I: Watson is down, 2010, Video still; © Harun Farocki 2010.
Farocki guides us through an interactive complex played out both in real-time/space and in the suspended time/space of digital media. The sequence’s first video, Watson is down, presents a group of soldiers-in-training navigating a simulated Afghan landscape controlled by a supervisor who places attacks in the digital space in real-time; in Three Dead, a generic-looking Afghan village under U.S. protection is attacked, in what turns out to be a fictional enactment; and Immersion moves to the crux of the matter: a series of soldiers wearing 3D glasses are guided to relate traumatic war incidents. Digital imaging software projects their experiences back at them in a simulation guided not by a military instructor but by a psychologist. Here, too, is performance and illusion. The final video, obliquely entitled A Sun Without Shadow, functions as an epilogue of sorts. It recycles footage from the previous three sequences, cut with added detail about how imaging software is controlled. Farocki's subtitled commentary provides a sort of informative polemic on the mechanism of the game.
Farocki ends this final sequence with the pointed observation that the training software in Watson is Down and the de-traumatization software in Immersion differ in one important aspect: the latter has no shadows, because it is cheaper. We arrive at the classic Platonic argument: to be without shadow means to be without sun. Everything is half-shadow, illuminated only by the flickering, even light of the game screen. Without sun, we lack the God-like perspective to distinguish between truth and illusion: a power seemingly restored by the makers and watchers of agitprop.
Serious Games does not question the reality of a war shaped by interactions in both “real” and “digital” spaces, but rather, plays with our proximity to it, moving through various layers of re-presentations and reenactments. Three Dead is bracketed by an ironic schlock sequence: helicopters descend on a desert village, this time presented with digital imaging, festooned with Coca-Cola and Pepsi banners and accompanied with dramatic military music. Similarly, it turns out that the entire set-up of Immersion has been manufactured for a promo vid by a company applying for a U.S. Army tender to provide debriefing for traumatized soldiers. Farocki gives us a privileged view: in the gallery space, peering through these well-cut layered videos, it is clear to us that the soldiers, but also the military hierarchy – in this case, instructors and would-be military psychologists – are being made complicit through a form of willing interactivity.
So what is interactivity, exactly? In 1973, the Brazilian director Augusto Boal published a series of experiments in people's theatre with the intention “to change the people – 'spectators,' passive beings in the theatrical phenomenon – into subjects, into actors, transformers of the dramatic action.” In eliminating the boundary between spectator and actor, in achieving total interactivity, he sought to close the gap between dramatic and political action, so that the participant “tries out solutions, discusses plans for change – in short, trains himself for real action.”
Harun Farocki, Serious Games III: Immersion, 2009, Video still; © Harun Farocki 2009
Interactivity in the world presented by Serious Games takes on a mutant contemporary reworking of this principle, with all members of the hierarchy willfully submitting themselves to the controlled narrative of the game. But the game is “asymmetrical,” the word Farocki also uses in the series’ final sentence to describe the imaging software itself. Players are organized within an opaque hierarchy of knowledge. This more closely resembles interactivity as conceived by Brian Massumi, who argues that here “...you are viscerally exposed, like a prodded sea cucumber that spits its guts...[by] a power that reaches down into the soft tissue of your life, where it is just stirring, and interactively draws it out for it to become...what suits the system.” When “Watson” dies in the simulacral landscape, his real-life counterpart simply raises his hands at his computer screen in a gesture of total resignation. When, at the end of Immersion, the “psychologists” and “soldiers” debrief after a session of enacted emotional exposure, Watson's resignation can be found in their eyes as they speak enthusiastically of their software’s efficacy.
Perhaps it seems a far cry to suggest that the “game” extends outside its simulated parameters and into the space of the hierarchies of knowledge around it. Because if interactivity is preempted by a form of oppression, and if everyone – soldiers, instructors, software designers, psychologists – is interacting, then this implies that not only the disempowered but also the powerful are oppressed. What a tricky conundrum. We already know the “enemy” is a cardboard figure as thin as a handful of pixels, a mirage of weapons of mass destruction that never existed. But if everybody involved in the production of this mirage is more or less stuck in Massumi's “prodded sea cucumber” position, then we have a problem. We cannot fairly seek out a scapegoat. Instead, everybody involved must change, and the links surely extend far beyond those represented in Farocki's frame.
If the American army's training systems introduce some strange modernized apparatus of interactivity that pushes subjects into a brave new realm of complete engagement and active complicity, then Farocki is taking us back to a form of didacticism that demands from the viewer not interaction, but critical observation. Addressing an earlier work, Farocki once said: “I work neither against them nor for them, I just try to communicate something of what's going on there.” But in this darkened cave in the Hamburger Bahnhof, the projected images do more than provide information: they demand judgment.
What happens between a viewer and a work of art occurs, however, only in the narrow space between screen and human. No controlled narrative can dominate this space, where entire worlds might pass one another, or even meet.
 Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed (London, Pluto Press, 2008), pp. 97-8
(Image on top: Harun Farocki, Serious Games II: Three Dead, 2010, Video still; © Harun Farocki 2010)