Harun Farocki on the Desgin of Control

My UBUWEB rss subscription is the feed that keeps on giving. I scan it regularly, and indulge in watching a work by a filmmaker I haven’t heard of before irregularly. This time Harun Farocki’s video/documentary I Thought I was Seeing Convicts (2001) caught my attention. The film is about a maximum-security prison in Corcoran, California. And in many ways traces the relationship between technology, surveillance, and control in the most oppressive of settings. Interestingly enough, the film starts with a kind of filmed screencast of how technology is used to control shoppers, and it quickly transitions to how similar technology is used in prisons to control convicts.

Moreover, the film uses the images from the prison’s surveillance cameras to tell its story (talk about fly-on-the-wall film making), and frames a number of the gladiator like fights in the concrete yard that, according to this film, are often framed by the guards and even bet upon. The fights ultimately end with shooting, and on a number of occasions the shooting have proved fatal.

Here are some foucauldian quotes that are laid over the images that in many ways stand in for any formal kind of narration (or narrative for that matter): “Today violence and power are (mostly) exercised impersonally” -a sentiment that is beautifully illustrated by the figures in the surveillance cameras that seem more like characters in a game than humans in a cage. The other quote that is a bit horrifying as you watch this short documentary is the notion that “the field of vision and the fire coincide.” As the write-up on the video page notes, “This video emphasizes the social relationship between the one who fires and the one who films, between the one with force and the one who takes shots.”

After watching this documentary, I saw another title by Farocki that caught my eye after a recent trip to Ikea, Die Schöpfer der Einkaufswelten (The Creators of Shopping Worlds) (2001) (interestingly enough made the same year as I thought I was Seeing Convicts). This documentary traces the immense thought, money, planning, and research invested in the design of shopping malls. It tracks the theories of entrance ways, profitability, leasing, the consumer’s gaze and a host of other fascinating issues that illustrate the ways in which the built environment of capitalism is in many ways a planned object of controlling the consumer — not always successful by any means, but premised on a notion of patterns, behavior, and a strange notion of faith.

These two relatively short documentaries come as a highly recommended double-feature that interestingly frame the design of control, something that certainly translates into all kinds of realms, but most certainly the online world.

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